Passage to Alaska

a

Photo © Michael Morgan

By Chuck Petrie

The package includes waterfowl and upland bird hunting, world-class fishing, first-class accommodations, and idyllic scenery that you will never forget

Outfitter Ted Gerken banks his DeHaviland Beaver floatplane to starboard, beginning a shallow turn on our initial approach for landing. Sitting in the copilot's seat, I look out the window at the broad expanse of Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest freshwater lake, 500 feet below us. Eighty-five miles long and 25 miles wide, the center of this 1,000-square-mile inland sea (more than 1,000 feet deep in places) lies roughly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and 100 miles northeast of Dillingham. Forty miles to the east of the tiny village of Iliamna, located on the lake's north shore, and beyond the Aleutian Range's rugged, snow-corniced Chigmit Mountains, the salt water of Kamishak Bay laps against the mainland's rocky, volcanic coast. The surrounding country is untamed, overwhelming, intimidating, and drop-dead gorgeous.

Iliamna radio, this is Beaver nine three zero Tango Golf, I hear Ted's voice crackle through my headset as we approach the Newhalen River. We're headed back to Iliamna and nearby Roadhouse Bay after a morning duck hunt.
Nine three zero Tango Golf, the air controller at the small airport repeats Ted's aircraft's identification, acknowledging his message.

Nine three zero Tango Golf, Ted responds. I'm southwest 20 miles, five hundred feet, inbound for the Frying Pan. I have your traffic and numbers.

Outfitter Ted Gerken banks his DeHaviland Beaver floatplane to starboard, beginning a shallow turn on our initial approach for landing. Sitting in the copilot's seat, I look out the window at the broad expanse of Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest freshwater lake, 500 feet below us. Eighty-five miles long and 25 miles wide, the center of this 1,000-square-mile inland sea (more than 1,000 feet deep in places) lies roughly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and 100 miles northeast of Dillingham. Forty miles to the east of the tiny village of Iliamna, located on the lake's north shore, and beyond the Aleutian Range's rugged, snow-corniced Chigmit Mountains, the salt water of Kamishak Bay laps against the mainland's rocky, volcanic coast. The surrounding country is untamed, overwhelming, intimidating, and drop-dead gorgeous.Iliamna radio, this is Beaver nine three zero Tango Golf, I hear Ted's voice crackle through my headset as we approach the Newhalen River. We're headed back to Iliamna and nearby Roadhouse Bay after a morning duck hunt. Nine three zero Tango Golf, the air controller at the small airport repeats Ted's aircraft's identification, acknowledging his message.Nine three zero Tango Golf, Ted responds. I'm southwest 20 miles, five hundred feet, inbound for the Frying Pan. I have your traffic and numbers.

Not that air traffic here is stacked up, but bush pilots are constantly flying in and out of Iliamna's airspace, which also accommodates turboprop commercial flights and air taxi services from Anchorage as well as other small airports located in Homer, Kodiak, King Salmon and elsewhere. So, it's good to know who's in the aerial neighborhood.

Roger, zero Tango Golf. You have an outbound Cessna two-o-five at four hundred and climbing.

We see the other floatplane approaching us ahead, off our left wing, probably headed for Lower Talarik Creek or another of the handful of world-class fly-fishing rivers that empty into Lake Iliamna, as well as the lake's outlet, the Kvichak (pronounced kwee-jack) River.

Ten minutes later we drop down to 200 feet and soar over Iliaska Lodge, built on a small peninsula that juts into the lake. Ted throttles back the plane's nine-cylinder rotary engine, banks hard left, and cranks the Beaver's flaps into landing position. We're on final approach. A few more adjustments of air/gas mixture, propeller pitch, and throttle and we're gliding on Roadhouse Bay, motoring toward the seaplane dock—Ted's private parking space—at Iliaska Lodge.

For me, this was day three of a six-day odyssey to the Lake Iliamna area. Ted Gerken and his wife, Mary, owners of Iliaska Lodge, are among only a few Alaskan outfitters to offer September "cast and blast" packages, allowing guests to divide their time between duck hunting, ptarmigan hunting, and fly fishing for trout, salmon, arctic char, and grayling. Among those fish species, the Iliamna drainage is most famous for its legendary rainbow trout, which can exceed 30 inches in length and 20 pounds. But, more on that later.

Today had been my first duck hunt. Ted, his springer spaniel Scamp, lodge guide Gerry Yeager, and I had taken off shortly after daybreak and flown to Ted's "duck pond," one of the countless smaller lakes that dot the tundra plain north and west of Lake Iliamna. Following a 15-minute flight from Roadhouse Bay, Ted put the Beaver down on a 300-acre lake separated from Iliamna by a neck of land only a few yards wide. When we stepped out onto the plane's floats, we could hear Iliamna's waves crashing on shore a quarter of a mile away. The big lake was still venting energy from a blow the day before, even though this day's winds were calm, and so was the duck pond. On shore, hidden in a fringe of alder bush, we found Ted's johnboat and motor, as well as three-dozen hand-carved cork duck decoys, ready to go.

After a short boat ride, we set out blocks—mallards and bluebills—in separate groups along the pond's shore, then settled into the natural hide provided by low-growing tundra brush and listened to a guttural chorus of sandhill cranes somewhere in the distance. Before we had the opportunity to uncase our guns, we looked back toward Iliamna and saw a sight that would warm any duck hunter's heart: a flock of about 40 bluebills darting over the narrow isthmus separating the pond from the lake.

"Divers," someone shouted, as if the rest of us hadn't guessed that by now. And, at the rate the birds were closing the gap, we knew we'd never get our shotguns out and loaded by the time the flock approached the dekes.

How right we were. The ducks came head on, never hesitating before the entire flock skidded down into the bluebill set. They didn't stay long. As soon as Ted handed me a cased shotgun, the bills took off and headed for safer water.

I opened the canvas case and extracted my loaner shotgun for the week—an original 12-gauge Parker. Ted was shooting his favorite 16-gauge, also an original Parker. (Among other attributes, the man has unimpeachable tastes in shotguns, bush planes—he owns not one but three DeHaviland Beavers—and in vintage, collectible cane fly rods, more than a dozen of which adorn the walls of Iliaska Lodge's living room and dining room.)

After feeding a fresh cartridge into each of the shotgun's chambers, I slowly and reverently closed the side-by-side, feeling the still-crisp action of the venerable fowling piece's locking levers falling in place. Nice piece of ordinance, but an unfamiliar gun nonetheless. I eyed the double triggers suspiciously, trying to remember which one fired the modified barrel, which one the full-choked tube, and hoped that I wasn't about to embarrass myself with a display of clumsy shooting.

Mark left, Ted whispered from his spot in the bushes to my right. Two drake greater scaup zoomed in low, headed for the hole we'd left between the mallard and bluebill decoys. I shouldered the Parker and swung at the tail-end bird, starting from behind its body, passed his head, and ripped off a round. A miss. I fumbled for the other trigger, maintained my swing, and dropped the duck with my second barrel. Ted had centered his pattern on the lead bird with his first shot.

I broke the Parker open and reloaded as Scamp hit the water, en route to his first duck retrieve. The two-year-old liver-and-white spaniel swam out to the first bird, brought it back to Ted, and then proceeded to make the second retrieve as if he'd been picking up ducks all of his life.

Over the next few hours, we enjoyed sporadic action from divers, bagging more than a half dozen before we decided to hold off, even though plenty of bluebills continued to decoy, and wait for some of the wigeon we'd seen flying over the pond. September ducks here include mallards, pintails, wigeon, ‘bills, and green-winged teal, among others. Two days earlier, not far from Ted's duck pond, on Lower Talarik Creek, we'd witnessed huge flocks of mallards and wigeon circling another small lake much like this one.

That sun-drenched day on the Talarik had been my first fly-out from the lodge. It was planned as a fishing morning, to be followed up with an afternoon upland hunt for some of the plentiful willow ptarmigan that inhabit the tundra. By noon, however, after four large rainbows had broken my tippet, stealing my egg-sucking leech fly patterns, I was a man possessed. I opted to stay with the fishing while Ted and two other lodge guests fanned out across the spongy, ankle-deep tundra vegetation behind me—a palette of brilliant red, yellow, green, and orange plant life: delicate, tufted reindeer moss and other, multihued lichens; crimson blueberry and bearberry; bog rosemary; Labrador tea, and dwarf willow. As the shooters traversed this lush tundra plain, Scamp and Basil, another springer brought to the lodge by guest Derek Tomlinson, coursed before them in search of birds.

After the third covey rise, I was starting to think I'd made the wrong decision. In the distance, I could see brown-and-white ptarmigan flush ahead of the dogs, and then heard the hunters' shots. One or two birds fell each time.

Too late to change my fly rod for a shotgun, I tied another piece of eight-pound tippet on my leader and reached for my fly box. I was examining my choices of fur-and-feather-wrapped hooks when Gerry Yeager—also my guide on that day—produced a size 14 Transistor—a diminutive pink and white nymph designed to simulate a salmon egg—and tied it on my line. Try that, he'd said, adding an admonition that if I hooked the big rainbow we'd seen in that stretch of the river a couple of times earlier in the morning, I'd need all the luck and skill I could muster to land it.

Five casts later, Walter inhaled the tiny morsel. I set the hook and held on as the fish raced downstream, twice leaping a good three feet out of the water. The trout looked like a two-and-a-half-foot-long silver football. Ninety feet of fly line trailing it toward the mouth of the creek, the fish took me well into my backing and leaped high above the surface again. Gerry was jumping, too, on the riverbank, more excited than I was. You got him! You hooked him!

He shouted.

No kidding. But could I land him? The big trout was all that the 7-weight rod and 8-pound tippet could handle, and I was already envisioning the miniscule hook wearing a hole in the fish's mouth.

What seemed like a half hour but was only about four or five minutes later, Gerry slipped his landing net under the 14-pounder—the largest rainbow I'd ever caught and, up to the moment, the largest landed by an Iliaska Lodge guest for the year. (The record would hold for the remainder of the season.) Once more, luck and superstition had prevailed over skill and technology. The hook had fallen out of the trout's mouth the instant that Gerry scooped it into the net.

Our wait at the duck pond trailed toward noon. We continued to pass up shots at decoying bluebills. That was fine with all of us. We weren't there for a numbers shoot. After lunch, I leaned back against a dwarf willow and simply scanned the horizon, the tundra ablaze in color on this side of the big lake, rugged mountains visible on the other, all beneath a dazzling, empty, cerulean blue sky. The scene recalled a passage from Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, where he says: "The differing landscapes of the earth are hard to know individually. . . . The complex feelings of affinity and self-assurance one feels with one's native place rarely develop again in another landscape." True, this was not my native land, but, all the same, I was feeling plenty of affinity for this idyllic site. And Lopez elucidates why we still go a-roamin' to new vistas outside our native places: "It is a convention of Western thought to believe all cultures are compelled to explore, that human beings seek new land because their economies drive them onward. Lost in this valid but nevertheless impersonal observation is the notion of a simpler longing, of a human desire for a less complicated life, for fresh intimacy and renewal. These, too, draw us to new landscapes." Go, Barry.

By two o'clock, that dazzling, empty, cerulean blue sky hadn't produced a duck in more than an hour. We picked up the blocks and motored back to the Beaver for the return flight to the lodge. We'd return to the duck pond and try the ducks another day when the weather was more cooperative.

At 7:30 the next morning, I'm in the back seat of another lodge floatplane, flying through low passes in the Chigmit Mountains toward Cook Inlet. Packed in the aircraft with me are three other lodge guests; Tim Johnson, our fishing guide for the day; and Craig Young, another of the lodge's pilots. We're only 800 feet above the ground, but as we fly over the coast the land suddenly drops away, nearly 1,300 feet, along a sheer, nearly vertical cliff to the ocean. Ten miles in front of us, Augustine Volcano juts four thousand feet out of Cook Inlet, looking like some fictional villain's fortress in a James Bond movie. The aerial view is spectacular.

Craig lays the Beaver on its right wing and descends toward Kamishak Bay and the mouth of the Kamishak River. As we approach our landing area, where a moored jet boat awaits us, we can see the heads of fur seals bobbing in the tidal river's water.

Later, we're in the boat, racing upstream through a thick ground fog. Suddenly, on a wide gravel riverbank 50 feet off our starboard side, I see the ghostly image of a grizzly bear standing nonchalantly, watching us pass by. I'm no judge of bear weight, but this bruin looked bigger than a PT Cruiser. Minutes later, another griz swims across the river in front of the boat. We're in Katmai National Park, not far from McNeil River State Game Sanctuary—where nature photographers take those celebrated photos of scores of coastal brown bears catching leaping salmon at McNeil River Falls—so it's no wonder we're seeing the big critters, and will continue to see more of them throughout the day.

Another couple of miles upstream, Tim cuts the power and beaches the boat on another wide gravel bar. Time to go fishing. I set up my fly rod, tie on an orange-and-silver Karluk flash fly, test the reel's drag, and wade knee deep into the river.

I quarter my second cast, as I did my first, downstream and begin stripping in line. After a half dozen strips, the line stops, and I instinctively set the hook. A ten-pound silver (coho) salmon has taken the fly and is dogging its way downstream on a 30-yard run. The fish porpoises three times, slashing at the surface, then runs again. It's a slow, determined battle, but I finally beach the fresh-run salmon and return it to the Kamishak.

Every second, third, or fourth cast thereafter nets another ten- to 12-pounder. As I fight fish after fish, I look about me at my angling partners. At least one or two is always wrangling a coho. Besides our own little fishing party, a couple of bears are fishing the shallow water a hundred yards downstream from us. Another is sitting on the opposite bank, watching the river for an easy meal, and yet another griz is crossing the river 50 yards upstream. Perched in a spruce tree on the riverbank behind me, an adult bald eagle silently surveys the whole river-bear-people fishing scene. Only in Alaska.

By early afternoon, Tim has a small fire going on the gravel bar and is preparing a hot shore lunch, which will include one fresh salmon that we haven't returned to the river.

Taking a post-lunch break, sitting on the gravel bar and leaning against a driftwood log, contentedly watching a brown bear that had usurped my fishing spot, I can't help but wonder . . . does it get any better than this? The next moment, like a feathered omen, a knot of two dozen green-winged teal arrows upstream, five feet above the surface of the river, and flies out of sight around a bend in the Kamishak. Well, of course, I answer myself—tomorrow's itinerary includes another date with Ted's Parker, and a return trip to the duck pond.