Alaska Trip Report 8/04

Trip Report for Alaska Trip

August 8-20, 2004

From left to Right: Julian, Dave, Steve, Matt

Overview

After months of planning and two shake-down/ training trips, we left Virginia via various commercial flights, and met in Anchorage on the evening of August 8, 2004. We spent the night in a hotel there, then caught an early flight to Dillingham, AK. Upon arrival in Dillingham, we were met by a representative of the air charter service we used, Bay Air.

They helped us load our bags and took us to their facility. We spent an hour or so sorting out our gear. We had each had shipped a substantial amount of equipment ahead via the U.S. Postal Service. We unboxed everything, and packed for the river.

Tom, from Bay Air, then flew us two at a time from Dillingham, up to Tikchik Lake, which is inside the Wood-Tikchik State Park. He tied a canoe to the outside of the plane for each trip. These were Coleman Ram-X 15’ plastic canoes, which we rented from Bay Air.

We paddled across part of the lake and into the mouth of the Nuyakuk River. We paddled the full length of the Nuyakuk down to where it joins the Nushagak River. We then paddled the Nushagak past the village of Koliganek and Tom picked us up on the Nushagak River a few miles above the village of New Stuyahok. We spent one night in Dillingham, then flew back home via Anchorage on August 19. Bill, of Bill’s Delivery Service, did a nice job shipping meat and antlers out for us. He also helped us mail home our gear, and provided excellent hospitality, at a modest price in his new bunkhouse.

We paddled about 80 miles total over the course of about 10 days on the river. My detailed and unedited journal of the trip follows. The photos were mostly taken by Julian, but the ones he is in were obviously taken by other group members.

--Matt Fender

Matt Glassing for Game.

Matt's Travel Log

8/9/04 2:45PM

Steve and I are on a small island in Tikchik lake. Tom, from Bay Air, dropped us off at about 2:00, then went back to get Julian and Dave. The scenery is gorgeous around the lake. We saw a moose and a black bear on the flight in. We flew for about 30 minutes at 500 feet. There was a caribou watching us from a high ridge over on the bank when we landed. It watched us for a long time. It would have been a long shot (I guess about 400 yards) but I could have shot it. We aren’t allowed to shoot caribou the same day we fly due to regulations. There were many caribou tracks and a few droppings at our camp site. Despite Dramamine, Steve felt quite air sick on the plane ride out.

N 59˚55’42.9” W 158˚17’39.8”

8/9/04 11:00PM

Dave and Julian arrived right on time at 4:00. We had mac and cheese with ham for dinner. We fished a bit with no luck, but we expect to do better once we are off the lake and on the river. Julian saw some caribou towards the east end of the island. I moved up to high ground and glassed them. I counted 13 animals. Five more walked almost into our camp site after swimming the lake. I still didn’t shoot; I’m waiting for 3:00AM. In the morning, if we can get a sat phone signal to call for meat extraction, I’m going to hunt in earnest. BTW, it’s 11:00PM, and it’s still light out!

Bay Air's DeHavilland Beaver, after being unloaded at our drop off point.

8/10/04 11:30PM

Eventful day. Got up this morning to caribou hunt. Julian and I went out and traversed much of the island. On our way back to camp, we got within 10 yards of a caribou cow and calf. I dropped to kneeling, looped up my sling, and had the cow dead-to-rights. I decided not to shoot. I figure the main reason I want the animal is for the trophy, so I will hold out for a bull.

A caribou cow and calf at about 25 feet.

Steve and I walked the circumference of the island with Julian and Dave supporting us in a canoe. We saw numerous caribou (or at least the same ones several times) but no bulls. About 4:00PM we loaded our gear into the boats and left the island. Guided by a map coordinate punched into my GPS, we headed across Tikchik Lake for the mouth of the Nuyakuk River. The boats were very heavily loaded and sitting low in the water. They were quite unstable, and we had to contend with a good amount of wind. We finally made the mouth of the river about 6:00PM. We decided to press on down the river a bit. We encountered the planned rapids, which were supposed to be a class 1. This was a lie. They were a solid class 3 with big haystacks. Both boats were swamped and capsized. We all made it safely, but things got a bit dicey. We were assisted by a fishing lodge owner, who as his establishment on the northern bank of the river, just east of the rapids. He used his motor boat to retrieve loose gear for us, and he helped Julian and Dave right their boat. Steve and I performed a self-rescue. The bad thing was that Steve lost his rifle, which wasn’t tied in. We camped on the south bank of the river, just across from the lodge. Julian caught a 7lb salmon on his spinning rod. We think it was a silver. Steve and Dave both caught nice rainbow trout, also on Julian’s rig. We got some strikes on the fly rods using orange glow bugs, but we didn’t land anything. We had the salmon and one of the trout for dinner. Cleaning and filleting was hard due to massive number of no-see-ums. Much of our gear is wet, but spirits are still high.

N 59˚55’42.4” W 158˚10’47.4”

Here is a shot of the alleged class 1 rapids.

8/11/04 11:42PM

We got a late start today. I think we spent too much time drying out our gear from yesterday. We didn’t get on the river until 2:30PM. Once we did, we were cautious and somewhat apprehensive. We covered about five miles before we reached the falls on the river. This was a big, class 5-6 raid, which we knew ahead of time we would have to portage. Once we heard it, we hugged the right bank and began looking for the portage trail that was supposed to be there. Finally, Steve and I got out and scouted. We were cautious, as we had seen bear tracks. We followed some game trails until we crossed the portage trail. It was a good, wide, well-worn trail about ¼ mile long. We really hustled, and we got the boats and gear over in about 45 minutes. When we got a look at the rapids, from down stream, we were glad we didn’t try to run them. I don’t think it could be done in a canoe. Huge standing waves and really fast chutes with some ugly looking hydraulics. A bit down river, we encountered another unexpected rapid. Steve and Julian put on waders and scouted it. They determined that the banks were too high to line it, and the woods were so thick, that portaging would be difficult. It looked much easier on the left. We were on the right bank, so we towed the boats upriver a bit, then paddled hard for the opposite bank. We ran the rapids on the left with good success. There were some small, organized standing waves, and some small ledges, but it was doable. Steve reported that on the right there were some really fast looking chutes. As we proceeded downriver, looking for a camp site, we ran several minor rapids, but without the need to scout. This did a lot to build our confidence. We stuck with the previous day’s paddling arrangement of me with Steve, and Julian and Dave together. This seemed to work well. We finally found an OK place to camp at about 10:30PM. Fortunately, it was still light out, but we were tired, and we knew dark would come soon. We made camp and ate Mountain House dinners, then crashed. We plan to stay here tomorrow to fish and hunt caribou. We saw several caribou near our camp as we were settling down for dinner. I was too tired to shoot one. The weather has been beautiful so far. I miss Rebecca a lot, but the days have been long and hard. I’m sure she wouldn’t be having a good time, but she would no doubt perform like a trooper.

N 59˚54’49.3” W 157˚59’41.0”

Julian, Steve, and Dave after portaging the falls.

8/12/04 10:40PM

We took today off from paddling to relax and fish. Our camp site is on a low rise where a creek joins the Nuyakuk. We landed two salmon: one silver and one red (sockeye). We grilled and ate the red; it was delicious . No salmon yet on fly tackle. Dave got a nice rainbow trout on his fly rod using a dry fly. I caught about 20 grayling using #12 Elk Hair Caddis. We saw many red salmon in the water near us, but they couldn’t be coaxed into biting any flies. I ran flash flies and egg-sucking leeches right under their noses to no avail. The weather was cooler today and mostly overcast. A nice breeze kept the bugs away, and the rain held off. I’m going to rise early tomorrow in hope of shooting a caribou. Location is the same as yesterday. I’m having fun but missing Rebecca.

Steve with a big sockeye salmon in the landing net.

Dave with a beautiful rainbow trout he caught on his fly rod.

8/13/04 11:54PM

I rose early this morning (about 7:45AM) to hunt caribou. I saw seven animals, and one nice cow was an easy shot, but I passed it up to wait for a bull. The other guys got up about 10:30, and we broke camp. After a breakfast of Tang and Pop Tarts, Dave and I drank coffee. Then, all four of us loaded the boats and hit the river. The river was flat with a nice current. We had nothing to worry about other than a few minor riffles. Our goal was to make 16 miles today. We did well. By the time we found a suitable camp site, we had paddled 20 miles. We got on the river at 12:30 and made camp at 7:30. We had a delay of about an hour towards the end. I spotted a bull caribou with a huge rack across and down the river from where Steve and I were in the lead boat. I looped up and shot. He jumped, and the consensus was that I hit him, but he was walking away. Several follow-up shots missed. Range was probably 400 yards, and estimating the hold-over from the 100 yard zero on my rifle was difficult. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have taken the shot. We waited a measured 20 minutes, then closed on the location where the animal was last seen. After an extensive search, we found no blood nor any sign that my shot connected. We did find ample fresh bear tracks, so we decided to move on. We made camp on a small island with a nice, big, gravel bar on its upstream side. I cooked pancakes for dinner to much aplomb. We fished a bit after dinner, and Dave caught a few small grayling. I’m having a great time, but whenever I’m alone, I miss Rebecca (and Duke too).

N 59˚53’10.6” W 157˚39’42.4”

8/14/04 10:37PM

About 1:00AM this morning Julian woke me up by loudly speaking my name. He asked me to grab my light and come out of my tent. We observed three immature bears on the riverbank opposite our camp. Our immediate concern of course was that their mother was nearby. We were separated by about 75 yards of fast-moving water. We watched as they moved down the narrow gravel beach and off into the woods. We went back to sleep. Later, we took the day off from paddling to rest, relax, and fish. We haven’t seen any caribou at this location. The weather was cloudy and quite warm. Some of the group washed clothes, and we all took the opportunity to bath. Steve, Dave, and Julian all took baths in the river. I filled my solar shower bag and let the sun heat it up. When I went to use it, the water was in the mid-90’s. I hung up the bag, stripped down and was having a nice shower when suddenly a motor boat with three native folks in it comes tearing up the river. We haven’t seen another human being for four days, and these guys happen to motor by when I am showering. The fishing wasn’t very good here compared to our last camp site. We fished a long time without much to show for it. Dave caught a nice rainbow trout on Julian’s spinning rod, which he released. He also snagged a silver salmon, which was also released. Late in the day, I caught a silver on my fly rod. I was using a Flash Fly on a sinking tip line. The fish put up quite a fight and was a lot of fun. I finally beached it, and as it as dinner time, we filleted and cooked it. It was delicious. It weighed about six pounds. We are all ready to move on, and we plan to make about 20 miles tomorrow if we can get an early start. Same location as my last entry. Missing Rebecca more and more.

Matt with a 6 lb Silver Salmon caught on his fly rod.

8/15/04 10:27PM

Today we awoke to a thick, wet fog. We packed our wet tents, and after a breakfast of grits, Tang, and coffee, we got on the river about 11:00AM. We paddled the rest of the Nuyakuk, and then through an extensive, marshy delta where it joins the Nushagak. We made 20 river miles before we stopped. Near the end of our day’s travel, w conversed briefly with a local guy fishing on the bank. He asked us where we were headed and when. He then gave us a bit of advice about an impending rapid. We stopped and examined the rapid with binoculars. We decided to run it, and both boats made it safely through, although both took on some water. We passed many motor boats in the delta and on the Nushagak. Most of them didn’t even slow down when they saw us, and each time we had to pull hard for the bank to avoid being swamped by their wakes. Shortly after running the rapid, which I would call a class 2, we were overtaken by the same guy we saw fishing. This time he was in the orange skiff belonging to Choggiung, Ltd., the native corporation which manages the land on the Nushagak below Koliganek. It seems this guy works for them, and he is charged with enforcing and selling land use permits. That explained his curiosity about our travel plans. We explained that we already had permits, having purchased them before leaving Dillingham. He offered some advice and answered some questions about our prospects down river. We are camped on a wide, gravel beach about 5 miles above the village of Koliganek. The bugs here are the worst we have seen. We have employed head nets, deet, and a campfire to combat them. Between it all, the evening was pretty good. We had chicken jambalaya for dinner. I fished a bit, but with no immediate success. In the morning, we plan to break camp early and make for Koliganek. We plan a brief stop there. Afterwards, we will paddle another 11 miles downriver to where the Mulchatna river joins the Nushagak. We are hoping to camp there for several days of good fishing and hopefully a caribou. Spirits are high, but we are tired from all the paddling. I miss Rebecca.

N 59˚45’10.0” W 157˚23’19.3”

8/16/04 10:14PM

We got up early this morning, and we were on the river by 9:00. We quickly made the five miles to the village of Koliganek, where we stopped. Steve and I were walking from our boat to the town store, when we met the Village Public Safety Officer. He is an unarmed constable charged with keeping the peace. He kept eyeing my .44 nervously., but when I advised him of my LE status, he relaxed. He asked us how long we would be in town, and we told him just a few minutes. We bought some cokes and borrowed the pay phone at the store, as the only pay phone was out of order. We got back on the river and headed for the intersection with the Mulchatna. We got there but couldn’t locate a good camping spot. We made a couple more miles on the river and passed up several likely spots due to obvious fresh bear sign. We finally camped on the downstream side of a large island.

The bugs are the worst yet. We made at least 20 miles today, and it is less than 30 miles to our extraction point at Ekwok, with four days left to go. We are looking for a good place to hole up and fish. The weather has been quite hot and sunny for the last three days. It makes the idea of camping on and fishing from a gravel bar seem less than appealing. We have been diligently applying sun block, but we would welcome some cloud cover. I got to speak very briefly to Rebecca today, and while I am glad to know she is well, I think it made me miss her worse.

N 59˚34’35.3” W 157˚02’57.9”

8/17/04 11:55PM

Today was another scorcher. We all slept in until it was too hot to stay in our tents anymore. Julian and Steve made red beans and rice for breakfast. We decided to pack up and search for a better camp site. We got on the river about 11:30 and drifted along without really paddling hard. With four days left and very few miles still to make, we didn’t need to push hard. We stopped about 2:30 on a gravel bank with a big collection of drift wood. The fishing seemed good, and Julian quickly caught several large silver salmon on his spinning outfit. No luck on the fly rods. The sun was really hot at that point, and with no available shelter, we were rather uncomfortable. I got a but overheated and dehydrated. We cut some poles from the driftwood and headed for the opposite bank, which we thought would make a better camp site. Dave and Julian paddled across with two large silver salmon trailing behind on a stringer. It was funny to see, or maybe I was just delirious from the heat. When we reached our destination, we used the poles we had cut earlier to erect a 10x12 tarp I had been carrying. The tarp provided a modicum of shade, which was a welcome relief from the sun. I drank lots of water, and I was soon feeling better. As the sun began to get low in the sky, it finally cooled down a bit. We had beans for dinner together with lots of grilled salmon, which was quite tasty. We enjoyed a pleasant evening together, sitting around our campfire. At this point we are all feeling ready to go home. We have been having a great time, but the weather has been oppressive the last few days, and we all miss home and family. I miss Rebecca a lot, and I find myself thinking of her often. I will be glad to see Duke as well and no doubt receive his characteristically enthusiastic welcome.

N 59˚30’08.8” W 157˚08’49.8”

Here's Julian with his spinning rod and a big silver salmon.

Dave with two nice silver salmon on a stringer.

8/18/04 6:17PM

We are out of the woods safely. We were awakened this morning around 9:00AM by the sound of shots from upriver. My immediate thought was that there must be caribou in the area. We got up, and I started making pancakes for everyone. After I had fed everyone a few each, I took a break to eat myself, and Julian took over cooking. I happened to glance around, and I noticed a silhouette upriver with the sun behind it. “Is that a caribou?” I asked. Steve and Dave agreed it was. I walked over and picked up my rifle. The range was about 600 yards—too far. I glassed the animal through my scope, and I saw it was a small bull with a nice rack. At Dave’s suggestion, I moved over into the tall grass where the gravel bar ended, and I began to close the distance as quickly as I dared. I wanted to get in range before he decided to move, but I also didn’t want to spook him. The wind was in my face as I approached him—working to my advantage. After I had closed what I figured to be about 200 yards of the initial 600, I noticed the animal put his head up and take a few steps. I froze, and he put his head back down. At this point I was afraid he would bolt, so I decided to set up my shot. I looped up in my sling and got into a tight kneeling position. I guessed the range was about 350 yards. I held my reticule in the air over his right shoulder and squeezed. I missed. The animal looked around briefly then put his head back down. He seemed nonplussed. I had already cycled my bolt. Steve later told me that he was watching through my 8 power binoculars, and he saw my shot hit low .At the time, I was pretty sure that my problem was with the amount of hold-over. I don’t have access to a range over 300 yards at home. I held a bit higher off his shoulder, controlled my breathing and squeezed. The caribou dropped like a sack of potatoes. I waited a few minutes, then Dave and I approached him, after seeing no signs of movement. The animal was DRT. My shot went through the lower part of his neck. The 180 grain Barnes X bullet performed well. It expanded and went all the way through. With Dave’s help, I field dressed the caribou, and Julian fired up the sat phone to call Bay Air. I shot the caribou at about 10:30AM. Julian kept us supplied with fresh water, and Steve kept the game bags ready. Dave and I cu the cape off and removed the head. We skinned the carcass and quartered it. We cut the rib cage in half and got it all in game bags. Julian and I paced off the distance from where I had shot, and we determined that the distance was 418 yards! Steve made the suggestion, and we quickly reached a consensus, that we had had enough of the blistering sun. It would also save me the cost of paying for an air taxi flight just to extract the meat. We quickly struck camp, and when Tom, from Bay Air arrived, we had bags, meat, and passengers ready to go. Steve and I went on the first flight with the meat and the bulk of the gear. Julian and Dave followed 2 hours later. We are spending the night at a place called Bill’s Bunk House, and we are about to head out for a celebratory dinner.

Julian Call for Extraction using the Satelite Phone

Matt with the caribou

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