By Bill Nichol
Our two-boat hunting party had just lost sight of the landing at the town of Nenana when outfitter Bill O’Halloran tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a trellised steel bridge half a mile up the Tanana River. “See that bridge?” he asked with a grin. “There isn’t another one downstream of here for 800 miles.” I sat there a moment and let this news sink in. That was like saying there wasn’t a bridge across the Mississippi River between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico.
Yet, this should not have been a surprise. Rivers, not roads, have always been the highways of Alaska’s rugged interior. Before floatplanes buzzed overhead or rough trails were blazed through the wilderness, Alaska Natives, pioneers, and seasonal sportsmen relied on systems of meandering rivers to traverse this vast, wild terrain.
On the last day of August, I traveled these waterways with O’Halloran and his guides and guests en route to Minto Flats, a sprawling wetland complex in the heart of Alaska. On the following day, Alaska would be the first of the 50 states to open its regular 2006-2007 duck and goose seasons, and anticipation was high as our two boats headed downriver toward our host’s campsite.
The Tanana’s glacier-fed, silt-laden waters ran the color of creamy coffee alongside our 28-foot johnboat. As O’Halloran smoothly piloted around the river’s sweeping bends, we passed many two-story wooden fish wheels traditionally used by Alaska Natives to harvest salmon. We also spotted several bald eagles perched on dead limbs—the birds’ white heads contrasting with the dark green of wispy spruce trees lining the bank.
During our 53-mile passage on the Tanana and Tolovana rivers, spruce and birch forest gave way to more marshy terrain characterized by low-lying willow and reed thickets. Rounding another bend, we caught sight of a seven-tent encampment pitched under a lush canopy of diamond willows. Upon arrival, hunters unrolled sleeping bags, assembled shotguns, and made other preparations while guides cooked a hearty dinner and built a roaring campfire.
Early the next morning, guide Tim Bouchard, my tent mate Roger Nash, and I motored four miles upriver to one of Minto Flats’ countless shallow lakes. An east wind riffled the lake’s clear water as we slid our boat into a dense stand of reeds and set a spread of Canada floaters and a mix of mallard, pintail, wigeon, and teal decoys. We were assembling our blind when a skein of trumpeter swans winged effortlessly overhead. Their brassy notes and huge bodies made us pause from our task to admire their graceful flight.
Only a few minutes later, Bouchard marked a formation of dark birds advancing with the wind toward our spread. Their whistling calls identified them as wigeon as they deftly shot past the blind. Jostling for position, the little birds made a wide downwind turn and then hastily descended upon the decoys. The lead duck was hovering only a few feet above the water when Nash and I rose to shoot. Our volley produced several splashes in the blocks, and Bouchard’s chocolate Lab, Reed, was soon chugging through the water.