Around midnight this past Wednesday I scratched an item off of my bucket list.
For the prior eight days I was accompanied by my wife and mother on a self-guided trip to Alaska. I had never been there before, nor had my mother. My wife had visited once before, but via an Alaskan cruise with a fairly rigid agenda.
I have spoken with many anglers through the years and I believe it is fair to say a majority of those who have never been to Alaska have a desire to go. The reason I chose to write this article is to share how fairly simple it was to make this dream become a reality.
I have tried to summarize here for you the steps we took to make this trip come together.
First on the list is planning ahead. The most popular time to visit Alaska is in June through late August when the weather in the lower 48 states is hottest, when Alaska’s weather is most enjoyable and when many of the fisheries, like that for the chinook (king) salmon peak.
We began planning our agenda and making reservations around New Year’s Day. We chose to go at a slightly off-peak time of year (beginning our travels the day after Labor Day) when most Americans have completed their summer travels and are back to work and school.
Although options become a bit more limited during off-peak times, we have found that prices drop and crowds thin out, both of which are of more importance to me and my family than being able to walk into every restaurant or gift shop at will (as they begin to close as the summer season winds down).
Of course, the one thing I looked most forward to was the fishing we planned to do on this trip, although there were other items that ranked right up there with the fishing.
I did some research on the Internet to figure out when the peak times were for the various spawning migrations of salmon (chinook, sockeye, silver, chum and pink) and overlaid this with our desire to travel in the off-peak season.
We found that the several salmon species available on the Kenai River in early September would offer us a solid multispecies opportunity with nontechnical fishing for my wife and mother.
Once our dates were roughed out, we contacted local fishing guides to verify whether what we had researched was accurate or not, and then booked two half-day trips with a well-rated guide service (Fishology) on the Kenai River, which offered a bit of a different approach for various species during our two morning excursions, one on the “middle river,” and one on the “lower river.”
Next, we identified flights through Alaska Airlines, which thanks to the impact of COVID-19, are quite affordable and flexible right now. Alaska Airlines requires face masks and keeps the middle seats of their 737 aircraft vacant to help with social distancing.
Next came lodging both in Anchorage where we arrived and departed from, as well as near Soldotna and Seward, the two main towns where most of our adventures launched from. We then added on a rental car through Budget.
With the skeleton of our trip roughed out around the fishing, we structured the rest of the trip around other events of mutual interest. These included a combination marine mammal (whales, orcas, sea lions, seals, etc.) and glacier cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours, a visit to a working muskox farm, a hike to the Exit Glacier, and a visit to the Seavey’s Ididaride dogsledding kennels, as well as some impromptu stops along the way just to take in the spectacular scenery.
The fish were plentiful and the fishing was easy on the Kenai River. On our first morning of fishing we used fly rods equipped with floats and colored beads which imitated salmon eggs and which were held near bottom using lead split shot.
We roll-cast quartering upstream as our guide, Aaron Dolphin-Chavie, held us steadily into the fast current using the outboard motor of his wide, comfortable, all-aluminum river boat. When the salmon or trout grabbed the beads, the floats disappeared beneath the surface. A quick hookset more often than not resulted in a hookup.
On our first day, we fished between Skilak Lake and Bings Landing and landed pink salmon, sockeye salmon, rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden (a member of the char family).
All of the salmon species die once they spawn, so the river is littered with dead and dying fish which serve as a source of food to mammals, birds and other fish, and which keep the river fertile enough to support the following year’s crop of incoming salmon. Gulls and bald eagles could be seen continuously feasting on these salmon carcasses.
On our second day, we fished between The Pillars Landing and the saltwater of Cook Inlet for migrating silver (coho) salmon. We rose early, launched into a freezing fog, anchored close to the river bank and let out one lure per angler. Our guide chose Luhr Jensen Kwikfish plugs (and other makes and models like them) to let out exactly 50 feet downstream.
The current caused the lures to wiggle in place, temping the silver salmon as they arrived in waves, fresh out of the ocean. Although we did not catch as many fish with this method, the fish were of greater size and, because they were just out of the salt water, they fought harder than the fish which had been in freshwater for a longer period of time.
Dolphin-Chavie was a patient teacher for my mother and wife, neither of which had ever used fly gear previously. He also was a knowledgeable naturalist who enthusiastically explained about the unique ecosystem of the Kenai River during our two mornings together.
WHALE AND GLACIER CRUISE
We opted for a six-hour cruise which began at 11 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. We left the harbor in Seward and made multiple stops to look at interesting islands, marine landscapes and collections of marine mammals and birds, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for “blows” of whales on the horizon.
The two highlights of the trip came in close succession. As we hovered within a quarter-mile of the Aialik Glacier, massive chunks of ice could be seen falling from the face of the glacier into the bay below.
Just a few seconds later, a thunderous crack could be heard with each calving event.
As the entire boat’s population stared in awe at the glacier activity, our captain received a call from a sister ship that a pod of transient orcas (killer whales) had been spotted in nearby Coleman Bay.
Although humpback whales are the species typically seen on such cruises, most of those depart Alaskan waters by early September headed for warmer waters. We cruised at around 22 knots to get quickly to the vicinity where the orcas had been seen.
We arrived just in time to see a pod of three females surface multiple times as they hunted for fish and harbor seals in the clear, deep fjords of this bay. We got to within 150-200 yards of these black-and-white members of the dolphin family.
THE SLED DOGS
Just outside Seward, at the end of a gravel road located within a forest of fir and birch trees, we visited Seavey’s Ididaride kennels (a play on words from the Iditarod dogsled race the Alaskan huskies in the kennels compete in each spring).
Our friendly host, Hal, introduced us to his dogs and his sport, followed by a ride through the forest pulled by a team of 12 dogs hitched to our 900-pound, wheeled cart to which the weight of seven adults was added.
The pure power of these dogs, and the enthusiasm they have for the work they do, was amazing.
After the ride through the woods, we got to pet a litter of six pups just 13 days old.
The adult dogs will soon begin training for the grueling 938-mile race which the best teams will complete in just over eight days.
THE MUSK OX FARM
Located near Palmer, Alaska, the Musk Ox Farm is home to a domesticated herd of musk ox valued for their underfur, called qiviut.
After overhunting eliminated the musk ox from Alaska, both wild and domestic herds were reestablished in Alaska with animals from Greenland.
The hour-long tour detailed the history of this stout, long-haired animal which resembles a yak. The Musk Ox Farm uses progressive techniques to raise these animals to ages of 20-plus years, carefully harvesting just ounces of the ultra-expensive qiviut fibers from the animals each spring.
... AND MORE
Along the way, we stopped along the roadside at places that appealed to us, allowing us to see migrating salmon in just about every roadside stream we encountered, feeding beluga whales near Beluga Point just outside Anchorage, several grazing moose in boggy terrain, wild Dahl sheep on steep mountainsides, various totem poles, a dark sand beach in the City of Kenai and spectacular yellow autumn foliage everywhere we drove.
Photos and videos simply do not do the immensity and natural beauty of Alaska justice.
With a bit of planning and budgeting, Alaska is certainly within your reach, and will exceed your expectations.