Woo hoo!

 

 Herman’s raspy exclamation cut through the drizzle and announced the hook up of another Lake Creek salmon. Bev and I were finally in Alaska on the wilderness float trip that we had spent so many hours and days dreaming of and prepping for.

Lake Chelatna, the source of Lake Creek, is just forty-five minutes northwest of Anchorage by float plane, so there are, of course, much more remote places to fish in Alaska. But when the river blows out and the clouds roll in for days on end, and there are serious discussions about the options for extraction, none of which involve land travel, Lake Creek is the real-deal wilderness experience.

Like most adventures do these days I suppose, ours started several years before at the computer. Somehow in the torrent of results for a search of “fly fishing Alaska” the website of Wilderness Place Lodge and the affiliated Lake Creek River Guides caught my attention. Like a trout mouthing a drifting speck to determine its edibility I bookmarked these sites as well as several others that looked appealing. Over the course of several months I scoured every detail of these websites and eventually made contact with Scott Slater whom we would quickly come to know as Scotty. Scotty answered my many questions with a level of detail that can’t be bluffed and Bev and I decided that Scotty and his partner Shawna should be the ones to guide us in the wilderness. That turned out to be a very good decision.

 

Scotty and Shawna specialize in guiding small groups of fly fishers, but a group of two does not make financial sense. They worked to find some former clients with whom they thought we would be compatible.  So it was that the evening before the scheduled start of our float, we met up with Herman and Bob, two friends from California who had done this float trip a few years earlier. We couldn’t have asked for better companions. Herman’s outgoing enthusiasm and optimism and Bob’s quiet, good-natured humor were welcomed traits on what would be a somewhat challenging trip.

The first challenge we faced was getting to the put-in point. Our float plane was scheduled to take off from Lake Hood at 8:00 AM, however, as often happens in Alaska, Mother Nature said “nay nay.” The De Havilland Beaver was packed with all our gear by eight but visibility where we were headed was too low for safety so we had to hang around the float plane docks waiting for a window in the cloud cover. We were able to spend some time at the Alaska Aviation Museum next door. It's a really interesting and informative museum, but I couldn’t help noticing that a remarkable number of exhibits depicted the wreckage of planes much like the one moored outside with all of our gear aboard. Food for thought. Our long awaited window finally opened at 3:30 in the afternoon and we scrambled to wedge ourselves into the tiny interior of the Beaver. Bev volunteered me for the copilots seat, so I was happy as a kid in a candy store as we taxied out on Lake Hood and took to the sky. A quick stop at the lodge on the Yentna River to drop off supplies, and then we were back in the air flying over the 60 miles of Lake Creek that we would soon be rafting down. The clouds were starting to close in again as we landed on Lake Chelatna, so we quickly offloaded our gear and the pilot wasted no time heading back to Anchorage.

At long last we got to meet Shawna and Scotty. They had the rafts loaded and ready to go so Shawna gave us a brief safety orientation while Scotty got our rods set up with bead and indicator rigs. We donned our floatation vests, piled into the rafts, and started down river. The river was running high and a little off color, but we soon started catching rainbow trout and grayling from the raft. We floated about eight miles that first evening and camped at a slough near the mouth of Sunflower Creek, which is the first major tributary to Lake Creek.  Scotty and Shawna had told us that we would be camping fairly high on the river for several days since the water was high and more rain was in the forecast.  By staying above the tributaries we would have the best chance at fishable water.

Tent camping in the rain is an acquired taste (one that I have yet to acquire) but, the guides are pros and they managed to make camp as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. Our meals were unbelievably delicious – Shawna is an artist with a camp stove and a Dutch oven. The only real discomfort came when we turned in for the night and I stretched out in the sleeping bag. I could feel every pebble and root through the thin sleeping pad that had been provided. I whispered to Bev, “These sleeping pads suck!” She agreed, but there was nothing to do but try to get some shut-eye. After what seemed like a long period of squirming and rolling to tenderize different parts of my anatomy, I finally did get to sleep. The early morning light revealed what we had missed as we set up in the dark. The sleeping pads were inflatable and we had just spent our first night on thin sheets of plastic rather than the rather comfortable mini air mattresses that they turned out to be.  Of course we felt pretty silly, but Scotty made us feel better by telling of a client who had done a float trip with them a few years ago and then another more recently. It was on the last day of the second trip that the poor fellow finally figured out that the sleeping pads inflate. That’s a pretty stoic camper in my opinion.

I have alluded to the rainy weather that we experienced on our trip. I should say that it rained or drizzled at least 80 percent of the time. I had done enough research to know that this was not unheard of for that time of year, so Bev and I had purchased really expensive GoreTex rain jackets specifically for the trip. Bev pointed out that her rain jacket cost more than her wedding dress. By the mid point of the trip we were reverentially calling our rain jackets “the best purchase of our lives.”  It is said that the native peoples of Alaska have many words for snow. I have many adjectives for rain most of which I can’t put down here. We experienced everything from a light mist to a steady downpour and everything in between – often in a few minutes time. The rain would slack off and we would put our hoods down only to have to put them back up two minutes later. This led to to a malady particular to Alaska known as Hood Rub where one’s ears become raw from the friction of donning and doffing one’s hood in an excessive manner. I just made that last part up, but, it could happen. We do have some photos of the sun peaking through the clouds. In fact we have at least one photo of every time the sun made an appearance since it was such a novelty.

Despite the rain and tough fishing conditions we did catch fish. In fact we caught good numbers of trout and grayling and enough Pink, Chum, Sockeye, and Silver Salmon to keep things interesting. Scotty is the best fish spotter I have ever been around. His incredible eyesight combined with an intimate knowledge of the water we were fishing gave us all opportunities to cast to Silvers in the last few days of the trip. We also had a lot of fun, and that is not a guaranteed thing when Mother Nature pees in your Cheerios. Shawna and Scotty worked their tails off to keep us comfortable, well fed, and entertained, and Bob and Herman kept the mood light throughout the trip.

During our second night the rain intensified and Lake Creek (which is really a river) came up about two feet. Sunflower Creek escaped its banks and the water crept to within 20 feet or so of our tent. Fortunately, that was as high as it got, but it effectively ended our ability to fish Sunflower and made down river travel dangerous and pointless. We ended up spending five days (of a scheduled 7 day trip) at our first campsite. Already it was becoming apparent that the trip was likely to be extended. Fresh caught salmon and grayling began showing up for dinner as Scotty and Shawna started to conserve the food in the coolers. Not exactly a hardship, eating catch of the day expertly prepared, riverside.

Shawna had daily satellite phone conversations with the lodge owners and was able to get a read on the weather forecast and river conditions down stream. Using that information as well as observed conditions, she and Scotty were able to make informed decisions about when it would be safe to float down to the next campsite. Lake Creek is a technical river to float at normal flow and when it is running high it has some truly spectacular rapids. Shawna is the more experienced rower and she has a true gift for reading a river. We were constantly impressed with her ability to position the raft exactly where it needed to be, not only entering a rapid, but also exiting – kind of like a good pool player not only makes the shot, but also puts the cue ball in a good position to make the next shot. Scotty is no slouch at the oars, but he sometimes has to do with muscle what Shawna does with strategic positioning. Bev and I both really enjoyed running the river. Bev said it was like the best water flume ride ever.

Our last campsite was a short walk from a small slough and a slightly longer and brushier hike to a larger slough. After camp was set up, Scotty hiked over to the farther slough and came running back to tell us that there were Silvers stacked up in there. Bob and Herman and I were soon doing our best to keep up as Scotty led us through waist high water holes and alder tangles along bear paths to the slough. Herman hooked up almost immediately, his trademark woo hoo! signaling fish on! Soon I was hooked to a leaping crescent of Silver Salmon. This was Alaska salmon fishing as it is supposed to be! Bob struggled a bit that evening, but Herman and I did pretty well. I think Scotty was, if possible, happier than Herman and I. No one could possibly work harder to get clients into fish than Scotty does, and I’m sure it is harder on him than anybody when the fishing is slow due to poor conditions. That night back at the campfire there were a lot of smiling faces as we ate a delicious steak dinner.

On our last day on the river we didn’t fish from the rafts. We had to run the most challenging rapid on the river and, with the water still very high, Scotty and Shawna needed to concentrate on the rowing. We did pull into a slough in the early afternoon that was loaded with Coho and Bob had a better day. He landed several nice Silvers before graciously asking Bev if she would like a shot. Bev had declared that she was done fishing for the trip a few days earlier, but seeing Bob catch those fish got her motivated. I’ll always treasure the picture of Bev smiling big as Scotty holds up a beautiful Silver Salmon that she just landed. I will also always be grateful to Bob who gave up the hot spot so that she could catch that fish. I caught a six-inch trout out of that slough – my last fish of the trip. I’m actually grateful for the little guy since he kept me from getting skunked on the last day.

We floated down to the lodge late that afternoon and were able to take the best shower of our life. After ten days in waders, hot water and soap are amazing! We used the phone at the lodge to make new airline connections out of Anchorage and soon the Beaver was taxying up to the lodge to fly us back to civilization (it had begun raining again.) Bev got her fill of Alaska, but I am hoping to return in a couple of years. I’d like to fish normal flows. I got a little taste of how good it could be and I think I have some unfinished business with Lake Creek.

Color photo of a brown trout with a fly in its mouth. Pulled to the surface by the flyfisher it is half in and half out of the water.

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© Allan Sutley 2015