Wild Fish & Whitewater
By Les Gara
Some Alaska rivers are known for their fishing, for their whitewater, or just for their scenery and remoteness. There are few, like one whitewater stream that flows south from the shadows of the Alaska Range's highest peaks, that offer all these things. Since 1991 I've floated southcentral Alaska's Lake Creek a half-dozen times, most recently with my good friend Stewart.
In addition to the stunning scenery, long stretches of class III and IV whitewater, and strong populations of wild fish, I'd be less than candid if I didn't mention how much I've come to enjoy Lake Creek's familiarity. It's why, I think, many people choose to return to some places. I like to know where a rushing whitewater stream offers too much adventure, like one hidden rapid I sometimes avoid. I also try to learn from my journal, which tells me, accurately or not, what sections of water have the best rainbow, king, silver, and grayling fishing.
Lake Creek has another compelling draw. Though it is a wilderness river, it can be reached at a relatively modest cost. Its headwaters are only a half-hour floatplane hop from Willow, and it doesn't involve the $1,000 or more for a trip to western Alaska or the Brooks Range.
Stewart and I have traveled and fished Alaska's backcountry together for over a decade. But Stewart had never been able to join me, my wife Kelly, or other friends on prior Lake Creek travels. For one, his eight and five-year-old boys, Max and Jared, aren't old enough to safely float a river that might require an accidental whitewater swim. This trip let him float a river he'd always wanted to fish and gave him the chance to see Lake Creek's rapids firsthand to decide whether and when he should bring his sons.
We took off on a sunny July day. As our Susitna Air Beaver took off from Kashwitna Lake, the frosty white faces of 20,300-foot Mt. McKinley and 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker grew taller before our eyes. By the time we landed on Chelatna Lake we were within 35 miles of these towering mountains.
Lake Creek's clear waters are the exception in an area dominated by glaciers and their thick gray meltwater. But for a small stand of sharply-peaked mountains that protect Chelatna Lake from the paths of the Yentna and Kahiltna Glaciers, Lake Creek wouldn't exist.
We set out from Willow early so we'd have time to fish Lake Creek's upper section, which is lined with brush and wetlands. On past trips I've floated by this part of the riveróusually with others who don't like to fish and who've never offered to wait in wetlands and brush with mosquitoes and biting white socks.
Stewart is one of the few friends I have who'll fish as much as me. We stopped at an unremarkable piece of flat water that wouldn't have caught our attention except that I remembered floating past the sight of large surface-feeding fish on a prior trip.
This time there was no visible feeding. For 20 minutes our Muddler Minnows and salmon egg, nymph, and dry fly patterns produced nothing. Stewart began to wonder whether I'd imagined the feeding fish I claimed to remember from three years ago. I switched to one last fly, a large green Marabou Muddler, for little reason other than that it was twice as big as anything we'd failed with so far. Then I waded to a section of flat water that dropped into a wide, deep pool.
On the second cast with the new fly I hooked a larger fish that slowly tugged out line for 10 seconds before it spit my hook. Stewart's skepticism was replaced by interest. He started humming a bad song, which is what he does when he's caught a fish, or thinks he's going to.
The steady tug was unlike the shaking run of a hooked rainbow, and too heavy and steady for most grayling. I wanted to catch another fish in part just to find out what I had lost. A dozen or so casts later and I had another, even heavier fish on. It fought much like the last one. The fish took out little line, but when it did there was no stopping it.
After a two or three minute standoff the fish let me reel in enough line that I could see the outline of its red and green body. It was a heavy rainbow trout. This fish spent its energy not running away but just stubbornly holding its place.
I eventually landed the 24-inch, six-pound fish. We paused a few seconds to admire the deep olive and red colors of this large rainbow, and I then slid the hook from its mouth to let it go.
We set out to find the other big fish we figured must be in this part of the river. Another half-hour of fishing resulted in one nice but hardly trophy-sized fifteen-inch rainbow for Stewart, and a few small grayling for me. It took that long for our minds to adjust to the likelihood that we wouldn't keep catching successively bigger fish. Grounded in that reality, we hopped in our raft and started our whitewater ride.
Lake Creek's steady whitewater starts early on. For an hour Stewart and I traded rowing duties, as I've done with Kelly and my friend Scott when they've come on prior trips. The fast class III whitewater is nearly constant for long stretches. Dodging the stream's boulders alone, without any relief, can make one's arms heavy and increase the chances of an unintended encounter with a boulder. Along the way the person relieved of rowing duties caught a steady succession of 14 to 18-inch grayling and trout.
A few hours into the float we came across the first large concentration of king salmon. Dozens of kings waited in line to make it up a small, clear feeder stream. Stewart and I spent a couple of minutes deciding whether to pass on our last good chance to catch these 20, 30, 40-pound and heavier fish. Our first floating day was the last day of king season. In the end we decided we'd rather catch smaller feeding trout and grayling. We passed the river's largest fish, and headed downstream another hour to find a stretch of water we could camp on and find rainbows and grayling as well.
Five days later it would turn out that the biggest trout Stewart and I saw was that first one. There are some large rainbows on Lake Creek. But the great draw for fishermen to the stream is that it offers good fishing for five species of salmon, the odd trophy trout, and the more common trophy graylingóall in a wild, beautiful setting.
Stewart caught the biggest grayling of the trip, a fat gray, teal, and pink floppy-finned 21-inch fish. He caught this grayling, and dozens of others, on a size 14 Elk Hair Caddis dry fly. We also caught salmon without ever trying. Periodically a king or silver would chase a Muddler or other small fly meant for trout and grayling.
Lake Creek sees a large number of 18 to 25-inch smaller jack kings. These fish arrive in freshwater a year or two early and sometimes seem to forget they're not supposed to feed. On one prior trip my friend Scott and I caught four or five jacks on dry caddis patterns. There aren't too many places in Alaska where you can catch a king on a dry fly, even if the king is only 18 inches long.
Fishing for trout and grayling was most productive when we fished behind salmon. By mid July, trout and grayling have begun looking for salmon eggs. In those stretches Stewart and I landed dozens of nice, heavy 15 to 23-inch rainbows.
For the first three days we were blessed with sun. We traveled slowly and floated only a few hours a day while we stopped at almost all the stretches that looked like they'd hold fish. We caught rainbows and grayling along most of these spots.
Like only an Alaskan can, Stewart wryly groused about the first days' sweltering 75-degree heat. Slow, deliberate travel kept us above Lake Creek's largest rapids until the fourth day. That's when the heavy rains started.
Lake Creek's first, smaller class IV rapid always puts me on edge. Absent experience there's no simple way to know this rapid is coming. It's not mentioned in any of the major Alaska river-running books. Those books predate floods that took water from a right river channel to create the left channel rapid.
Two of the things that make this rapid difficult have nothing to do with the whitewater itself. The first is that this rapid comes after a very long stretch of heavy class III rapids that tire a rower or paddler's arms. Knowing this rapid was coming, Stewart and I shared rowing duties all day to keep our arms fresh.
The more troublesome aspect of this rapid is that it is hidden. From upstream, boaters can't tell the river splits into two channels. The first thing a boater notices when the channels appear is that the right channel has too little water to raft easily. By that point the river begins to work hard to drag a boater left into what suddenly shows itself as a steep, foaming rapid. That's when the person on their virgin voyage must decide, potentially too late in the game, what route to take through the boulders and crashing whitewater.
I don't like rafting class IV rapids I haven't had the chance to walk along first. We'd already violated one river-running rule by traveling alone, without a second raft for safety. That made us more cautious about rafting an un-scouted class IV rapid.
I've run this rapid in the past, and have taken notes on the best route. If you avoid the rushing water and huge boulders that start out on the right, and the others that come later on the left, the rapid doesn't require too many technical moves. But there's something unsettling about plotting a course through rapids from notes in a book, on a river that's proven it can change year to year.
After a full day of rafting we were tired, and in no mood to embark upon adventure for adventure's sake. We took the cautious route, a shallow channel to the right that offers its own challenges. Stewart had to jump out of the raft a few times into rib-high moving water to get us unstuck. After a long day in the rain we set up our tarp and camp on the island created by these two river channels.
Over a beer and curry chicken wraps we talked about the remaining rapid, and about what we'd do if the rain swelled the river before we reached the next class IV rapid. I've cancelled trips on Lake Creek in the past when this stream's river readings have been too high. Neither of us relished the idea of rafting rapids at floodstage.
Before bed I marked the river level with rocks. If the creek came up six inches, or a foot, we knew we might have to line our boat through the river's major class IV canyon rapid that awaited us. A steady rain fell all evening. We expected the worst when I left the tent to look at my measuring rocks. To our relief the river had risen only a modest 2 inches. We later learned that we'd been the recipients of some very good fortune. Thirty-six hours of rain had flooded many of the area's other rivers, but we'd somehow been spared.
Stewart and I arrived at the second class IV rapid shortly into our next day's float. As the river grew louder, and notably larger boulders began to appear, I recognized the rapid from a few hundred feet upstream. Stewart pulled the raft to shore so we could boulder hop along the banks of this small stretch of canyon to plan our route.
Stewart easily set the raft up to shoot the first technical raft-width boulder gap, and crossed to the opposite bank to avoid the impassable boulders just downstream of that chute. He guided the raft through the rapid's furniture sized boulders without any trouble.
A few hours past this rapid Lake Creek slows significantly and becomes a gentle glide for its bottom ten miles. There the fireweed-terraced canyon walls are replaced by fern and tree-lined grassy banks. On this part of river, the adventure of whitewater is replaced by that of camping with black and grizzly bears. In six trips I've seen a small handful of bears in the river's upper section. Starting at the section around Yenlo Creek, roughly 15 miles from Lake Creek's confluence with the Yentna, fresh bear tracks begin to decorate nearly every gravel bar.
We've never - knock on wood - been bothered by Lake Creek's bears. Nonetheless, Stewart and I spent our last two evenings on alert because of reports of bears that have feasted in messy camps and lost their fear of humans to the point that they'll sometimes walk through tents looking for food. The best we could do was keep our food stashed away from camp, as we normally do. We also hoped for a deep sleep. If bears were going to walk by camp, we'd just as soon not lay awake listening to them.
The next morning we woke to an intact tent, untouched gear, and sun. We rose early so we'd have a full day to fish the slow gliding waters of the lower river before our evening pickup on the Yentna. There are very few things that will convince me to spend time on gravel bars with fresh bear tracks. Fishing is one of them.
I like wading and fishing the fast rocky runs of the upper river, but equally enjoy the more serene waters of the lower river. The fish seem to like both, and Stewart and I spent the better part of a sunny, hot day catching a few dozen hefty grayling and rainbows.
A good day of fishing would have been a nice enough way to end the trip. But the sunny skies brought an added bonus. We ended the trip as we came in, looking out a plane window at the frosty face of the mighty Alaska Range's two tallest mountains.
Les Gara is a frequent contributor to Fish Alaska magazine. His next feature, on floating and fishing the Chilikadrotna River, will be published in the December 2004 issue.