A Journey to Wood-Tikchik
By Dave Atcheson
As the floatplane ascends and banks, wings waving in farewell, I try to ignore the slight pang of uneasiness that wells up. It’s the realization of being truly alone, left to your own devices, in a wilderness worthy of Jack London, a completely uninhabited land that literally spans thousands of miles.
A veteran of numerous adventures in the Alaska backcountry, many before affordable satellite phones and SPOT devices, I am nevertheless at this moment—as my partner Cindy Detrow and I assemble our raft—suddenly very aware of the distance that separates us from the comfort and safety of civilization. It is in places like this, wild and pristine, that one becomes cognizant of just how reliant upon society we have all become. Most of us lead day-to-day lives where even in rural areas we have information at our fingertips, where most desires or needs are no more than a call away, police or pizza dispatched in a matter of moments; but not here.
I remind myself that we must be hyper-vigilant and make wise, well-thought-out decisions. From the past I know, as days progress and things begin to settle into a bit of a routine, a tentative comfort will settle in. Already my initial unease is being displaced by an overriding sense of fascination and amazement. It’s difficult not to be completely taken by such vastness and the rare opportunity I have been granted to experience its raw and untouched allure; and fishing that even by Alaskan standards is expected to be beyond belief.
Alaska’s Best-Kept Secret
Ask even an old-time Alaskan about the park, or tell them you’re headed to Wood-Tikchik, and you’re liable to get an odd look. Despite its size—1.6 million acres, the largest state park in the country—Wood-Tikchik flies under the radar of most citizens, even old-timers.
Named for its two separate systems of long, interconnected clearwater lakes, the park was first established in 1978 with a mandate to maintain its natural resources and a stated goal in its management plan to preserve habitat and manage for subsistence. “That may be part of the reason for many not knowing about the park,” says Ranger Bill Berkhahn, who along with one other ranger has the enviable job of living in and overseeing this national treasure. “While for many of our parks recreation is the top priority,” he explains, “here it is subsistence and habitat along with recreation.”
Another reason for it not being well known, he says, is simply its remoteness. “And the view a lot of people have that all of bush Alaska is barren wasteland. In the case of Wood–Tikchik that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
In fact, most visitors, even those of us without a geology background, are struck by the divergent and sometimes stunning topography. Framed by steep alpine valleys, the western edge of these lakes are dominated by high cliffs and twisted spires that give one the feeling of being on a secluded ocean fjord. The eastern edges, on the other hand, slowly recede into long gravel beaches that look out on distant moss- and lichen-covered tundra, or at lower elevations, a deep expanse of lush, spruce forest.
These glacier-carved lakes, varying in length up to 45 miles long, and the rivers connecting them, are a key component in the salmon spawning cycle. They are home to all five of Alaska’s varieties of Pacific salmon, which in turn support abundant populations of rainbow trout, grayling, lake trout, char and northern pike. With such variety it can be overwhelming, enough to make any fisherman as anxious as I was to get started.
The first leg of our trip begins on July 4th on Nishlik Lake, alpine country, a lacework of snow draped between the surrounding hills, a few scattered remnants still clinging to the lakeshore, nothing but a handful of spotty willow patches to block the brisk northwestern wind that rattles our tent. The wind is a constant impediment to casting, but one we are thankful for, as we know it is keeping the swarming black flies and mosquitoes this country is famous for at bay.
The plan is to take our time on the 60-mile descent down the Tikchik River, from the nearly treeless, expansive and almost ethereal highland tundra, through a couple of deep canyons and into intermittent hardwood forests, and finally the thick birch and spruce that characterizes the lower lakes.
The uplands around Nishlik afford ample walking, literally as far as the eye can see, and thus access to most of the lake’s nearly 14 miles of shoreline, provided the fisherman-turned-trekker is in decent shape. Despite always having had an affinity for the forest and preferring nothing more than traipsing beneath the canopy of old growth fir, I nevertheless find myself drawn to this landscape, stark and otherworldly, but full of life. A legion of nesting birds have arrived and call to one another in a cacophonous celebration of this normally late spring. In the distance a lone caribou high-steps around tussocks, the bleached and often decaying bones of its ancestors occasionally dotting the surrounding grasslands, a reminder of their harsh existence and a testament to their enduring legacy.
The lake itself is made up of long shelves and stretches of shallow water, but drops precipitously in places. These are the spots we are looking for, hoping the lake trout we’ve heard about are cruising this accessible deep water in search of an easy spring meal. We work our way to a spot with the wind at our backs and begin with a weighted leech and sinking line. Waiting for the fly to sink and with a slow strip of the line I sense a reluctant bump or two before the final tentative bite. Nearly mistaking it for bottom my hook-set is also tentative at best, yet there’s no doubt as my leader tightens and that familiar spark suddenly ignites my line—this is a laker and a big one at that.
For the two days we spend camped at Nishlik Lake it’s a matter of searching out drop-offs and finding action at many. The fish are occasionally slow on the take and I figure the water is still cold. Nevertheless, every third or fourth fish chases the fly with abandon, occasionally coming within sight before turning away, at other times striking hard.
The fishing is good and I can’t remember when I last caught lake trout, some exceeding 7- or 8 pounds, on the fly. We’ve also settled into the campsite. After a couple of days it feels like home. Still, the unknown beckons and the urge to head downriver is strong. The rain is moving in, the wind picking up, but we are in the open here and figure it can’t be any worse downstream, at least we hope not. So, with the weather worsening we decide to load up, say goodbye to Nishlik Lake and embark on the rest of our adventure.
Preparedness Pays Off
Ranger Berkhahn always advises potential visitors to do their homework. “Begin,” he says, “by checking out our website, call us, know what you are getting into. Next, be prepared with the best gear, I can’t express this enough—tent, raingear, don’t skimp. The big thing out here is the weather.”
That is advice that holds for all of Alaska. Despite the best attitude, weather is directly proportional to fun and sometimes safety. Sunny and dry, and the fun factor is exceedingly high, but if it gets too wet and cold it can quickly turn, like my last float trip, into survival mode. On that trip the rain was relentless for nearly a week, the river we were on quickly rising to flood stage; and here, after a couple days on the Tikchik, I’m hoping that this isn’t going to be a repeat of that ill-fated journey.
The wind blows a stinging torrent of rain into our faces, and despite high water and a particularly fast current we barely move without major effort on the oars. By late on the second afternoon, after a less than perfect evening camped on a muddy gravel bar, and damp from sweat as much rain, I begin to feel chilled and figure we better make camp before things take a turn and we find ourselves in a survival situation.
It’s so wet and miserable, we’ve even bypassed what was certainly some good fishing, including a tributary aptly named Grayling Creek. Fortunately we come across a near perfect campsite on a high bend just below our first canyon. A warm meal and only slightly damp sleeping bag take the chill off, though the continuous wind and rain throughout the night leave me a little concerned. The next day is a long one. Cindy and I have decided to wait it out.
Amidst the ongoing symphony of raindrops, varying in tempo but beating out a continuous rhythm on a tent festooned with wet socks and shirts, we bide our time. We trade the only two books we’ve brought, play word games until we can no longer take it and don raingear and head out for a short walk before returning once again to our dank nylon hovel.
Then, on the fifth day of our trip we awake to a changed world. We take the opportunity to spread all our soggy clothing out on the tundra to dry, and after a leisurely breakfast we walk the bright, open canyon-lands, a vast panorama that in the previous days was shrouded in a perpetual mist and low-lying fog. It is amazing how quickly attitude is renewed in the face of this nearly forgotten bounty—the simple, beneficent warmth of the sun.
When finally underway it’s now at a relaxed pace, stopping on any likely gravel bar looking for feeding grayling. This unique salmonid, known for its large kite-like dorsal fin, has a propensity for feeding on the surface and in Alaska offers a welcome change of pace from our usual arsenal of heavily-weighted flies.
The first couple of miles yield nothing, and I fear we have left the grayling behind. That’s when I spot a handful of gulls on a gravel bar. And why would they be gathered except for one reason: fish. Sure enough as we approach I see the gentle dimple of a grayling rising, and then another, and finally their outlines in the clear water.
For several hours we and cast to rising fish. Unlike the typical 13- to 15-inch grayling we usually encounter at home on the Kenai Peninsula, these are consistently large, the majority breaking the 20-inch threshold and as wide around as any trout, putting quite a bend in our 3-weight rods.
Our luck, in the form of good weather and grayling, continues throughout the first leg of our journey, all the way to the river’s terminus at Tikchik Lake. With fair weather and fine fishing, it’s difficult to say goodbye to the river, yet it’s hardly the end of the adventure or the good fishing.
Plans Are Made to be Changed
One of the more useful traits Alaskans tend to develop is a sense of flexibility. Here, in a place so dependent on air travel, weather can wreak havoc on schedules and we must learn to be patient and gracefully accept change. And that goes for any type of fishing as well. Salmon runs, for instance, can fluctuate greatly or be late for any number of reasons. Water on a chosen river might also be unexpectedly high, throwing any type of fishing off. That’s why when coming to Alaska it is important, especially for the do-it-yourselfer, to have an open mind and a Plan B. If the salmon you planned on targeting are slow to arrive, be willing to hit another stream or change your target species to trout, char or grayling.
Sometimes, as on this trip, plans depend on your friends as well. Our friend, retired bush pilot and state senator Rick Halford, has offered to fly us in and out of the upper region in his Cessna 185. Not wanting to impose any further, we will head back to the nearest town, Dillingham. After eight days we will enjoy our first showers and something other than a freeze-dried meal before heading back out with a commercial flight service to explore the lower lakes. I must commend Cindy, who’s lived in bush Alaska and is a seasoned camper. I have not heard the least complaint the whole trip, even during those three days of rain; in fact she has never had anything less than a stellar disposition. Yet I cannot fail to mistake the falling expression, her look of despair, as I talk to Rick on the satellite phone. After picking us up he will be able to drop us off again at Lake Beverly, at the mouth of the Agulukpak River, but logistically it is now or never. A free flight and continuation of the trip, but the comforts of civilization, a shower and fresh food will have to wait.
Still, after being completely on our own and not seeing another person for more than a week, arriving at Lake Beverly is, relatively speaking, almost a return to civilization. It is the location of a remote ranger station, at the time staffed with three volunteers, and it is the only established campground within the entire park, though a very rustic campground indeed.
Upon landing we are greeted by other fishermen, most notably Rick Edmonds, from Washington State, who makes a yearly pilgrimage to Wood-Tikchik and who has in the past kayaked the entire park. Rick, who will be leaving the next day, offers us his leftover wine, cheese and salad greens, which along with the fresh scones and smoked fish Rick Halford brought, and the cheesecake we enjoy with park volunteers Gene Sheppard, and Les and Brian Bovee, make for a very welcome arrival. And that doesn’t even take into account the fishing.
The first of the sockeye salmon have arrived, but Les informs us these are just passing through. It will be a few weeks before fish are actually spawning in the Agulukpak, dropping eggs that tend to consolidate the park’s rainbows, which gather to gorge on these tastiest of trout morsels. Rick, who has been fishing the river for a few days, points out that the system’s large char, however, are congregating at the river mouth and are falling victim to a variety of jumbo leech, baitfish and especially smolt patterns. Though we’ve just missed the peak of the smolt migration, it is obvious these char, ranging in the 24- to 28-inch range, are still on the hunt for juvenile salmon, and knowing that smolt move predominately at night, I force myself to stay awake and fish at dusk, which in July is well after midnight. But it pays off big time. Every second or third cast a fat and extremely spirited char—fish that very likely have never been hooked before—rips at my fly and proceeds to go on a series of runs that can only be described as electrifying, putting a serious strain on both my 6-weight and my forearm, and with each succeeding dash reminding me once again of the incredible good fortune I have to wet a line in such a unique and unspoiled land. This is indeed a fisherman’s paradise.
Trip Planning and the Boat Dilemma
While Wood-Tikchik State Park may be Alaska’s best-kept secret it is not entirely unknown to fishermen. Seven high-end lodges operate within park boundaries and for those with the means this is an excellent way to experience the tremendous fishing opportunities available here. The park, however, is a true wilderness and heading out on one’s own should only be undertaken by those with experience in navigating and camping in the backcountry. Trip leaders should have knowledge of how to use a map, compass and GPS. They should be comfortable camping in bear country, and they should know how to operate whatever watercraft they decide to go with.
This brings up the “boat dilemma,” especially on the lower lakes. Ideally one should have a large vessel in order to comfortably navigate such expansive bodies of water. However, because they are connected by such shallow, short, fast-moving streams, most locals and guides opt for flat-bottom boats equipped with outboard jets, which easily allows navigation between lakes. Power boats are available to rent in the village of Aleknagik, on Aleknagik Lake, 24 miles north of Dillingham.
Most visitors, however, choose to access the park by floatplane, via one of the air services out of Dillingham, varying in cost depending on the type aircraft and number in your party. These companies offer boat rentals, everything from canoes to rafts, to rubber boats with outboards, and range in price from $30 a day for a canoe to $120 a day for the motor-equipped boat. They also rent camping gear, which comes in handy with camp stoves and raft repair kits, which can be very difficult to ship to Dillingham due to the volatility of fuel and chemicals.
Regular commercial airline service is available daily between Anchorage and Dillingham and normally runs about $400 round trip.
But whatever choice you make logistically, the right choice is always to start by deciding to visit Wood-Tikchik State Park.
Dave Atcheson writes frequently for Fish Alaska magazine.