Saturday, August 13, 2011

Visiting A Dream (Part 1 of My Alaska Trip)

I have wrestled with the best way to blog about this Alaska trip and I have decided that instead of making this story into a fast food meal you would choke down all in one blog entry, I will instead serve you a multiple course meal to relay my journey via several blog posts.  This first post will cover the initial day of my journey and I will follow up shortly with other posts about the remaining days.  I have pictures that will be specific to the time being discussed, but I have also included a video that summarizes the entire trip.  I have had several people comment that this is the trip of a lifetime and while that is true, I hope that this is not my only trip to Alaska as I have barely begun to explore this great state.

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

Link to Part 4

Day Zero (Flying Out At 7:00 PM)
The time had finally arrived!  After months of planning and researching, I was actually going to get on a plane and go to Alaska!  As I boarded and settled into my seat, a concern manifested in my mind.  What if all my expectations and assumptions about Alaska were about to be shattered?  I have dreamt about this place since I was a boy as I read Jack London novels and other stories from the North.  Could this place live up to the fantasy that I have created in my mind?  Well this trip would definitely test any preconceived notions I had.  I was in store for five days of camping along Alaska's highway system as I fish for sockeye salmon.  I had arrived just in time for my flight from the DFW airport and just barely made it to the gate in time after spending more time than I had planned with TSA as I checked my revolver (turns out there is only one place in the terminal to check fire arms and it was several gates away so I had to hoof it over there).  The first leg of the journey took me to Portland where I had a nice dinner while waiting for the second flight.  By this time it is nearly midnight and there are very unique characters in the airport so people watching is very interesting.  We finally board our plane, but there are multiple warning lights that came on during the pre-flight check and after about an hour they decided that another plane would be called into service instead.  This delayed the overall process by over two hours.  So instead of arriving in Anchorage at 1:30 AM, I now touch down closer to 4:00 AM.  I wander out to the baggage claim to collect my duffel bag and cooler and look for a taxi.

Attempting to sleep on the plane unsuccessfully
Waiting in Portland for my next flight

My Cooler, Duffle, and Back-pack (dang it was heavy)

The first taxi driver first in line gets out of his car and begins to help me with my bags, when I ask him "can you take me to Wasilla?"   He stops loading my bag and begins to walk toward the next driver, this doesn't look good.  The next driver agrees to go to the distant town (about 50 minutes North of Anchorage) so I pile into the car.  I hand him the address so he can punch it into his GPS, but he just looks at me like I am purple and says "I don't need that, you just tell me where to go".  Great no GPS!  So we head out of town and luckily my iPhone works in this area so I can get the directions and act as the taxi driver's personal direction service.  We head North up Highway 1and we are approaching a fork in the highway where if you go West it takes you to Wasilla and if you go East, you go to Palmer. I told the driver to get on Highway 3 and he proceeds to argue with me that Highway 1 goes to Wasilla.  It is at this point that I ask him how long he has been in Alaska followed with "Dude, you need an iPhone".  He didn't think that was funny.  After convincing him to take the appropriate road we travel into Wasilla and begin to navigate north through a mostly residential area winding back and forth guided only by google maps via my iPhone.  The driver begins to complain that he will never find his way back and that we are lost.  I assure him that if he just drives another 500 yards and then turns right, we will arrive at a house with a big white cargo van parked in the front yard.  We round the corner and there is the Van.   He grumbles a little and then I break out my iPad to show him a map of the area so he can find his way home.

I have never been so glad to see a van

By this time it is about 5:30 AM and there is some twilight, but no one is stirring at the van rental place.  I had called them a few weeks before and told them that I would be coming in the middle of the night.  This is a small "Mom & Pop" RV/Camper Van/Camper Truck rental place as  well as a bed and breakfast.  They said no problem, they would pull the van into the front yard with the camping equipment all set up (including the air mattress and sleeping bag) and that I could crash in the van until 8:00 AM when I would then sign the paperwork for the rental.  I collapsed in the sleeping bag, set my alarm for 7:50 AM and fell asleep in seconds.

Day 1 (The Journey to the Kenai Peninsula)
The alarm from my phone jolted me from a deep, but brief slumber.  I collected as much composure as I could after traveling all night and made my way up the driveway to the house.  As I walked up to the door I saw Sabine (the owner and operator of the rental business) and she was enjoying a cup of coffee as she looked over some documents.  As soon as she saw me she welcomed me in, offered me some coffee, and began to ask about my flights and my taxi ride to Wasilla.  Apparently I wasn't the only crazy person to have arrived in the middle of the night as Sabine told me they have done this for other people renting RVs and Campers.  Next her husband Joe came in and introduced himself.  We all discussed the my plans to fish in the Russian River and they proceeded to provide me with advice as to where I should concentrate my efforts and even threw in some additional gear (a fishing net to land fish) to aid in my journey.  After completing the paperwork for the rental agreement, I was on my way!

First order of business was to procure the necessary supplies such as fishing tackle, food, and water.  At about 9:00 AM, I stopped into the Sportsman's Warehouse and after visiting with the helpful staff, I left with an adequate amount of salmon flies, spinners, and weights to get me started.  I next went to Fred Meyer for groceries.  This is the Alaska version of Walmart although they have Walmart also.  I had brought backpacker dehydrated food, but I still needed a few more things like a case of bottled water, charcoal, seasoning for grilling salmon, and a couple cans of beans, lunch meat, bread as well as ice.

Now I was finally on my way.  I drove South from Wasilla into Anchorage and then South on Highway 1 out of Anchorage headed for the Kenai Peninsula!  Immediately  after you leave anchorage, the road boarders a body of water called Turnagain Arm that is part of the Cook Inlet in the Pacific Ocean.  Turnagain Arm was named by Captain Cook as he was searching for a "NorthWest Passage", but upon exploring this area they found that it only lead to a river and he had to "turn again" around.  This area is extremely beautiful with large tide swings called "bore tides" that have huge amounts of water flowing in and out each day.  At one point I was looking out into the bay and I actually think I saw a whale surface!  I don't have proof, but they are known to be in the area and I am sticking with my story.

You can see the tide currents ripping past this rock outcropping

After negotiating the road around Turnagain Arm, I now continued South through the mountains of the Chugach Forest.  I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road as I traveled through these beautiful mountains.  Soon I was driving along an amazing turquoise body of water called Kenai Lake which also means I am nearing my destination!  Next I enter the tiny town of Cooper Landing and then find myself at the Cooper Creek Campground (my destination for my first night of camping).

With my camp now secure, I can focus on fishing.  I try fishing directly across from the campground, but the river is deep, swift, and not friendly to wade fishing.  I decide to drive down the road to the Russian River Campground where I can park and walk down to the confluence (area where two rivers meet) where I have read the best Sockeye Salmon fishing in the world is.

Day 1 Afternoon (Hey Look Out For That Bear!)
Upon entering the campground, I can tell that this area is very popular and very well run.  There is a "guard shack" type building at the entrance where some young fellas provide the parking and camping permits to those people utilizing the area.  For $11 I had the right to park in the area for 12 hours and fish.  I made my way to the "Grayling" parking lot as this is the area closest to the confluence.  I gathered my gear and started toward the stairs leading down from the parking lot to the river.  As you may have read in my prior post, I brought a 44 Magnum revolver with me for bear protection and the van rental came with a can of bear spray so I think I am prepared.  I am no more than 10 steps down the stairs when a fisherman coming up the stairs yells, "Hey there is a bear on your right"!  I think "sure there is" and I look to my right to see a black bear no more than 8 or 10 feet from me.  I slowly back up the stairs trying not to make any sudden moves.  The other fisherman move up the stairs and the bear snarls a bit.  The fisherman begin to yell and holler so the bear leaves the area.  Whew!  What a way to start my trip!

The bear was under that pine tree in the top of the picture

I finally make it down to the mouth of the Russian River and begin to fish.  The river is breathtakingly beautiful.  It is crystal clear except for the really deep water that is a beautiful turquoise color like the glacier ice it originates from.  I take up a spot upstream of the last fisherman in a line and begin to cast.  I don't see anyone catching anything and I don't see any salmon swimming by me.  This is starting to look discouraging.  I decided to cross the river and investigate an area called the "Sanctuary" a little further down river.

As I cross the river, I trip and fall in the ice cold water.  All I can think is "GET UP, GET UP"!  I get to my feet and am immediately glad I chose chest waders instead of hip boots.  My chest waders had limited the water to only my arms.  If I had worn hip boots, I would have been completely soaked.  I only had to take off my sweatshirt and wring the water out of the sleeves.  Just call me grace!

Once I make it down river to the sanctuary area, I can see that this is where the action is at.  You can actually see the spawned out "red" sockeye salmon swimming up the river and I see fisherman hooking into salmon from time to time.  I make my way down to the bank and find an opening in the line of fisherman.  I being to cast, but nothing is happening for me.  The two older gentlemen upstream of me appear to be hooking into fish every five minutes and I seem to be doing everything wrong.  I finally ask one of them "what am I doing wrong"?  He just looks at me like I am crazy and continues to fish.  I ask again thinking maybe he didn't hear me.  Again he looks at me like I am purple and then says "Sweden"!  Oh, so he doesn't speak English.  Great, I picked a European to ask for fishing advice.  Well I finally found someone that did speak English to give me some pointers.  They said I should put more weight on my line to get down through the current to the fish, cast ahead of the red spawned out salmon, because the good "chromer" salmon would be near them, and trim some of the deer hair from my salmon fly to help it sink faster.

After utilizing these tips, I had a couple near successful hook-ups with fish hooked but lost them in the fight until I finally hit pay dirt!  You throw your lure upstream at about the 2:00 position and let it drift to the 10:00 o'clock  position.  Along the way, the fly and weights should be tapping the bottom of the stream so you feel this tap, tap, tap as it floats along.  Then a different kind of tap is felt and I set the hook.  Fish On!  I have my fist sockeye on the line!  I am amazed at the power of these fish.  I utilize the techniques I saw the other fisherman used by backing up as I fought the fish to get him to the bank.  I finally get him landed and I pounce on him to secure it to the stringer.  I am elated to find that the fish is legally hooked in the mouth as he should be.  Many salmon are foul hooked and must be released if caught this way.  In Alaska you have to kill your salmon when you catch it, so I grabbed a rock and whacked it in the head.  Many Alaskans carry small clubs for this, but the visitors such as myself have to make due with river rocks.  I sit and admire the fish for a moment.  It is a medium sized hen or female and is a beautiful chrome silver color.  This is great.  I continue to fish for a little while longer and actually pick-up two Dolly Varden.  These are a kind of Artic Char and look similar to trout.  I kept the larger of the two for dinner later that night.
My First Alaska Sockeye Salmon

The smaller of the two Dolly Varden I caught

Exhausted, I made my way back to my campground to cook my Dolly Varden and to get some rest.  I was tired, but elated at a successful first day.  I couldn't wait to do it all again tomorrow!

(To Be Continued In My Next Blog Post)

Dolly Varden Cooked Over A Campfire


  1. Very cool post! Alaska has always been a dream of mine as well, I look forward to reading the rest of your trip!

  2. Great video, Getting the Van named Fred for all your transportation needs was a great idea. I was very impressed with the do it yourself trip. Where was the Black Hawk in action footage?

  3. Thanks Savage, it took a lot of reading a research to pull off the DYI apect of the trip, but I really enjoyed the whole process. Good question on the 44 Mag. I tried to not be to conspicuous with my revolver so I wore it on a holster under my chest waders. I did see several others that had Super Blackhawks in holsters on their chests outside their waders and I even asked one guy about his holster. It was a much better design that my cross draw for this situation. As expected, the Super Blackhawk saw no action this trip, but was very comforting to have along.

  4. How fun! I loved the video, too!

  5. Great post and the video was highly entertaining.