As we rounded a big bend in the river, we heard a shrill bird call none of us could identify. Steve Peskoe had just lost a big dollie at the raft and this bird's weird call had eliminated any lengthy rumination by him over what could have been. We looked up to see what bird had made this sound when a big mature bald eagle repeated the previously unknown chirp and then launched himself from a weathered branch at the top of a dead cottonwood tree. As the eagle worked to gain speed, an osprey entered from stage right and easily overtook the eagle. With talons forward, the osprey sought to deliver a territorial reminder just as the eagle rolled over to defend itself with its huge yellow legs and sharp claws. This scene repeated itself over and over as the osprey repeatedly overtook and out maneuvered the eagle until it was eventually driven out of its territory. This awesome display of power vs. speed reminded me of a bomber vs. a fighter jet and that for every advantage gained aerodynamically something else is sacrificed. We watched until the eagle was out of sight. At that point, the osprey veered back to protect its turf against the next invader. We started fishing again. I'm sure that was on the mind of the osprey too.
This was an important trip for me. On a personal level, no doubt the most important river trip I have ever done. Not only was I going to spend some time with my good friend of 30 years, Chuck Ash, owner of Brightwater Alaska, (and in my mind, the best guide ever to dip an oar in the state's magnificent waters), but I was also bringing six of my best clients and friends who over the past 15 years had been virtually all over the world with me from the Seychelles to Argentina and from the Bahamas to Kamchatka. Not only were we going into one of the most prolific angling areas known to Alaskan river runners, but we were also floating a very pristine little river that sees very little pressure each summer. Any of these reasons would have been enough to make this trip very important to me. I was going with good friends on a great river, but the real reason this trip was so important to me was that the third raft was to be rowed by my 21-year-old son Ben.
Ben and I had spent the spring practicing his oarsmanship on Wyoming's Snake and Montana's Madison Rivers. He had proved to be a quick study. Even though I had every confidence in him, I knew that there's no substitute for the real thing. As such, I was a bit nervous for him and to make matters worse, I knew this was going to be a tight, busy river. It would be especially busy up high where the low water volume would create tight chutes and little room to maneuver. I thought if Ben could just get through the first day, the increasing river volume and his improving rafting skills would make up for any lack of experience he had on Alaskan rivers. I needn't have worried...
Chuck, Ben and I flew into the river's headwaters on the 18th of July. We schlepped rafts and gear from a small lake we had put down on 150 yards to the river we shall call henceforth, "The Zipperlip". On the banks of the Zipperlip's headwaters, we assembled rafts. As we worked, large grayling plucked light olive baetis off the river's surface. We did take a few breaks from pumping rafts and sorting gear to throw large Adams above the dimpled rises. After a few fat 18" grayling, it was back to work. We were done by dusk and we sat around drinking Heinekens and enjoying our first evening in the bush.
The next morning, Dr.'s Steve Peskoe and Craig Johnston, Dean Kalmbach, Ken Brush, Alan Longfellow and Jim Dean joined us. I hadn't seen some of these fellows in years and we enjoyed a great reunion before adjourning to finish the rafts, stow the gear and load up coolers and bear proof boxes onto the rafts. Soon we were floating. On this first day while floating this shallow and tight upper section, it was mostly big grayling and a few 'bows. To give you and idea of how great the fishing was on Day One, we were required by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to do a fish census each day. On this first evening, as we watched a huge male grizzly graze on a hill above camp, we tallied over 400 fish caught and released that day... and that was a conservative estimate. We used mostly glow bugs or beads, dead drifted behind the long lines of chum salmon that were spawning on many of the runs.
And so it went for day after day. We floated from beautiful campsite to beautiful campsite. We fished riffled chutes with big 'bows at the top and swirling slicks with grayling rising to sporadic, but consistent hatches. We laughed, fished and kept busy from dawn to dusk. We fell into a peaceful, but certainly not idle, routine. Up at 7:00 AM, make coffee, prepare breakfast... sometimes it was pancakes or eggs, but if we were really eager to get on the river, it was oatmeal with walnuts and dried fruit. After breakfast, we broke camp, loaded rafts and shoved off. Launching the boats with morning chores behind us was a great moment each and every day. Lunch was taken on gravel bars and at least two lunches involved watching bears as we chomped on sandwiches.
After lunch, it was back in the boats to wind our way further downriver. We saw no other people on our 8-day trip and very little evidence of humans. We saw no footprints, no trash and no fire rings until the last 2 days. It was as if we had found that spot we all dream about... a pristine Alaskan river stuffed full of fish that no one else knows about.
Hunger, fatigue and a need to set a camp drove us off the water usually between 6:30 and 7:30 PM. Then it was unload boats, erect tents and rain tarps, build the kitchen, get out of waders, eat, do dishes, bear-proof the camp and slide into sleeping bags to hibernate until morning.
This was a routine that cleanses the soul and strengthens the body. Eat as much as you want, you will not gain weight on an Alaskan river trip, as there is too much to do each day. If you aren't fishing, you're setting camp or unloading rafts or doing dishes. And by the way, thanks fellas for all your hard work and willingness to do camp chores. You made it easy for Chuck, Ben and I.
Weather-wise, we experienced a little bit of everything on this trip: from a sun so hot we stripped to T-shirts to driving rain that meant every layer we owned was on or close by and ready to be added. Being in the Alaska bush is always a trade-off. Bad weather means fewer bugs, nice weather means more bugs. This is the reality of wilderness in Alaska. But Mother Nature smiled on us on the Zipperlip, as we never had to break or build a camp in the rain.
Our fishing was prolific and spectacular at times. I remember one lunch in particular where we caught 18 rainbows up to 22 inches from one 40-yard run plus numerous dollies up to 20" and grayling too many to count. Each and every day brought great angling opportunities and it would be impossible to tally how many fish we caught. It had to be in the thousands! Whatever it was, it was drop-dead good!
But I think the most memorable part of this trip for me was watching Ben enjoy himself as much as he did. He obviously loved puzzling out each bend and then safely maneuvering his boat out of harm's way. I loved watching him banter with my friends as he effortlessly rowed his boat. Ben was always quick to help anyone who needed a hand and jumped into the tedium of camp chores with an enthusiasm that would make any dad proud. I am proud of the young man Ben has become and it's not that I don't see it in our day-to-day lives; it's just that it was so clear out here in the bush exactly what Ben's strengths are. His patience, sense of humor, cheerful attitude, stoicism and an unrelenting kindness towards others was apparent. In addition, for a dad, there is perhaps no greater gift than to see your son have a passion for what you deeply love. And for me, it is the wild places on this big blue ball. I know Ben loves this too. This has been my gift to him and his obvious enjoyment is now his gift to me.
Just as we had rounded a bend, we saw a bear disappear from the gravel bar into the brushy alders that lined the river's bank. Seconds later, a small caribou ripped out of the thicket most certainly spooked by the grizzly. Already nervous, the small female caribou spotted us and was now caught between a rock and a hard place. She chose to start swimming across the river in spite of the steep cut bank on the other side. As she reached mid-river, she saw her dilemma and turned back. She trotted out of the river and bolted back into the brush only to reappear, perhaps remembering the bear. She then raced down the gravel bar for a thousand yards before once again attempting to cross the river. This time she found a low bank and soon disappeared into a copse of cottonwood and spruce. Just below where she had crossed, we stopped to fish a seductive looking back channel.
As Al and Dean hit the top of the channel, I tied off the raft and walked down a narrow gravel bar that separated the run from the main river. I walked towards the confluence at the downriver end. I stopped to fish across from a lone spruce tree that leaned out over the channel and below which began a long line of spawning chum salmon. I picked up three dollies, a few small 'bows and a grayling in quick succession before I heard a chuffing noise behind me on the main channel's far bank. I turned and saw a medium-sized bear looking my way. Suddenly, he charged a few feet into the water. I loudly yelled "Hey Bear!" He quickly pulled up, turned and walked nonchalantly into an alder thicket only to reappear on the shore again a few feet further downstream. He was not a big bear... perhaps a 350 - 400 lb. 4 year old. But he had me by at least 200 lbs. and is any bear really a small bear to me? As Chuck said, the best way to judge a bear's size is by his head. If the head looks big, the bear is small. If the head looks small, the bear is big. The head on this bear looked small enough to me and became even smaller as he swam from the shore he occupied towards the shore I occupied. As the bear dog paddled into the pool formed by the confluence of the channel and the main river below me, I pulled out my camera. Just as quickly, I shoved the camera back it my pocket as the bear swam out of the pool and stepped onto the round river rocks of the same gravel bar that I was standing somewhat nervously on.
I yelled. Probably sounding a little less confident this time. My yell had no discernable effect on the bear. I yelled again... same result. It came quite naturally for me to start backing up towards the raft. I did so slowly yelling at the bear over and over. The bear kept coming. As I got closer to the raft, Al started yelling too and the bear broke into a run. I threw my rod at Al who made a nice mid-air pluck and dashed for my shotgun, which was in its case on the raft. I fumbled with the nylon case then jacked a shell into the shotgun's chamber not bothering to pull the gun out of the fleece protective sleeve. Being in a bit of a hurry, I was just preparing to blow the end out of the sleeve as Dean joined our little party. Now Dean is a tall, big man who was attired in a light brown rain jacket and tan waders. When he yelled, the bear either didn't want to mess with three humans or thought Dean was another bear. Either way, it had the desired effect. As I looked up from my shotgun, I saw the bear plunge into the channel and effortlessly pull himself up a steep bank to disappear to the tune of my thumping heart. Just then Ben pulled up behind us with his gun drawn. Everyone on his boat had seen the whole thing and they were only slightly less nervous than Al, Dean and me. We chittered and chattered about the whole incident until our adrenaline levels reached a manageable level, then we loaded up and moved on needing no further reminder that it was we who were visitors here.
All too soon, we were deflating rafts and disassembling rods. The trip that we had so long looked forward to was suddenly over. As we sat on coolers finishing the last of our wine, we relived many of the moments on the trip and all agreed what a wonderful experience this had been with a great group of people. We are already planning our next Alaskan river trip and have begun to discuss what river we should do. I can't wait. Thanks to all of you for such a good time!
Written by Scott Heywood