Float trips provide the opportunity to explore remote fisheries across the state, which often means solitude, wide expanses of untouched land, and willing biters of multiple species. It sharpens the skills of navigation, camping, wilderness safety and fishing and the end result is one highly-enjoyable experience. Hands down, my best trips across Alaska have been multi-day float trips. Don’t get me wrong, I love the lodge life; fly-outs to blue ribbon streams, four-star meals, 12-year old scotch and fine cigars sits just right with me. But when I want the authentic Alaskan experience, sleeping on the ground, fishing from dawn to dusk, setting a new camp each day, the only sounds the buzzing of biting insects and the occasional splashing from fish or bear, I head for parts removed with a raft, dry bags and a few fishing buddies.
Alaska is full of amazing remote rivers, crammed full of multiple species of resident and transient fish, devoid of most angling competition and offering what to me is the very definition of peace and quiet. An angler can spend several lifetimes floating wilderness Alaska and see but a fragment of the floatable water in the state. There are the mighty rivers of the northern portion of the state—the Ivishak, Kobuk, Colville and Noatak, as well as those that vein ANWR, and then the famous tundra streams of the west, rivers that include the Aniak, Kisaralik, Kanektok, Eek, Alagnak, Goodnews, Togiak and American. And let’s not forget Southcentral gems like Lake and Alexander creeks and the Talachulitna, Karluk and Gulkana rivers.
So, with all this water, how does one determine which river to float?
For me, there are several important questions to answer, from which a list can be pared down to a manageable number of choices.
For instance, how many days will you have for the trip? What dates can you go? What species of fish do you want to target? What level of proficiency do you have behind the oars and in wilderness camping? Do you need a guide? What’s the budget? Answer these questions and you are on the way to choosing another adventure in the making.
Length of float
Most floats can range from as little as two days to as long as two weeks. Start by setting the length of time that you can spend for the trip, and that will immediately set distinct parameters of what floats are possible.
Timeframe of trip
Next, determine specifically when you can go. By setting the length and dates of the trip, you are again narrowing the focus so that its easier to choose the place to go based on historical data on run timings and water levels.
Species to target
In most Alaskan rivers there are multiple species present. Choose the few top species in your target list. If this list includes fish that are not as widely distributed, i.e. Arctic Sheefish, then your float options become quickly reduced. In this case, the Kobuk, Aniak and Yukon would all be choices. If the list included Dolly Varden as your top choice, then the list is nearly endless. For many anglers, the list includes multiple species of Pacific salmon, as well as rainbow trout, and putting boundaries on the target species helps to narrow the scope of floats.
The farther one wants to head into the bush, the more expensive the trip. And if you want to do it in style, eat filets and baked potato with fine cab savs, mix margaritas over ice on each evening’s gravel bar and snore atop a cushy air mattress, then it will probably take another trip from your air taxi, and your budget is going up. In our experience, some of the best floats in the state are serviced by air taxi services in King Salmon, Dillingham and Bethel. These will require commercial flights, typically on Ravn Alaska (formerly ERA Alaska) and PenAir, but the extra cost is well worth the ability to get to floats like the Arolik, American, Kisaralik, Togiak, Goodnews, Chilikadrotna, and Kanektok Rivers, just to name a few. If budgets are constrained, options closer to Anchorage rank highly. Try Lake or Alexander Creeks, the Talachulitna or Deshka Rivers.
Level of experience
Most rivers in Alaska range from Class I – IV, and most stretches of Class III and IV water are brief. But do your homework. And just as importantly, make sure water conditions are reasonable before you go to the river. A nonchalant float can turn downright dangerous after heavy rains, and always take the time to scout rapids. And if you are on a river and conditions become dangerous, sit it out on a gravel bar until the river comes back down.
Conversely, a relaxing week meant to be navigating predictable Class II water and catching incredible amounts of salmon, trout, char and grayling can turn into days of dragging overloaded rafts when water conditions are low. Be prepared for possible plan B’s from your air taxi service and take the time to research the backup river. Check in a few days before your trip with your air taxi to make sure conditions are as you expect.
Choosing an air taxi
There are plenty of good ones out there that offer in-depth and unparalleled knowledge of the backcountry and have their finger on the pulse of the fisheries. It’s not a bad idea to research air taxis and make some contact to hear what options they advocate. When talking to your air taxi, ask how long they have been flying, if they’ve had major crashes, and for recommendations from clients who took the trip that you want to take. Feel free to check in with us and drop me an email at email@example.com if you want a recommendation. Also, Medallion Foundation exists to reduce aviation accidents by promoting higher safety standards, as well as education, training, auditing and advocacy. They may be able to suggest questions to ask and provide a list of carriers that have been through their programs.
Gear Planning for the Trip
Weight and space are primary concerns when planning gear for your float. Start with the essentials—tent, sleeping bag and mat, waders andwet-weather gear, clothes, food, toiletries, bug repellent, fishing gear and tackle, water purifier and stove, water bottle, fuel bottles, camera, first aid kit. Stuff it all in dry bags and weigh the items for a tally. You’ll want to keep the weight to about 100 pounds per person, so that the items will fit on the boat and plane.
Also, talk to your air taxi about the options and the associated costs. A plane with a larger payload will cost more but may be worth it for the ability to bring more gear. Many air services will also rent camping gear and sell you white gas to use in cooking. This is essential as it is not possible to bring white gas on the airlines, and you should not rely on finding wood for fire.
I typically use freeze-dried food like Mountain House meals as my main sustenance and compliment those with fresh fish. Oatmeal, coffee, peanut butter and jelly, bread and granola bars round out my food supply, so as to keep weight and cooking time to a minimum. Prepare in advance a sweet-and-spicy spice rub and a lemon/garlic rub, bring a roll of aluminum foil, and you can enjoy the freshest fish possible. Leave the skin on and coat the flesh side with rub, place skin-side down on foil and form into a tight pocket.
During our Arolik trip, we got into a routine where the foil and rub were brought out, a fire was started and burned down to cooking coals, and then the fish was caught, filleted and cooking in just a few minutes. Depending on the heat of the coals and size of the fish, fillets cooked in 10- to 15 minutes. The combination of the freshness of the fish and being in the wilderness usually results in lip-smacking good eats.
Setting the Trip Itinerary
After numerous float trips, the lesson is pretty clear: Set a basic itinerary of how much water needs to be covered each day, but be flexible should you find great angling. Don’t float away from the type of fishing you want to do in order to keep a rigid schedule. After all, shedding the artifice of time and schedules is part of what makes this type of adventure rejuvenating.
However, be warned that flogging unproductive water for too long can limit your time to fish terrific water later in the float. Should you choose to float that river again, you’ll surely improve on time management in order to maximize the experience you’re seeking.
If you are heading out on your own for the first time on a wilderness float trip in Alaska, be certain that you are ready for the event. Do your homework on safe practices for camping in bear country. For example, I prefer to eat dinner well in advance of the nightly camp spot to eliminate any food odors from where I’m sleeping.
Make sure that you are capable of rowing a boat and navigating moving water. Wear your life jacket when floating and when aggressively wading. Understand that help is not around the corner, and can take hours and even days to reach you. Make sure you have a satellite phone.
In the end, pay extra caution to your environment and always keep track of the other members of your group, as it becomes easy to get distracted while catching so many fish. Many rivers have braided sections where you can easily get separated from other boats in the party. Set a plan in advance as to what to do should you stray from the pack.
It’s also good practice to use a guide if you are unable to do all these things proficiently, as they will take a lot of the stress of navigation, planning and fish-catching out of the equation. If you’ve gained some experience from participating in other floats, this could be the year where you venture out on your own. I’d recommend starting on a shorter, four- to seven-day float with limited rapids for first timers and from there work your way to a two-week jaunt into less chartered territory.
At the End of the Float
There are just some things about a float trip that keep you coming back. You’ve got ample time to unwind from normal life. There’s a campfire at the end of most days and the constant and comforting sound of moving water.
There’s also a sense of the unknown around every corner. Time stands still. Food simply tastes better. And there are often more fish than any angler needs, and since we’re talking remote rivers, they are pretty eager to eat a well-presented lure or fly.
All that’s left is for you to grab a friend, father, son or daughter and start making plans. No matter which Alaska river you choose, you can rest in the assurance that it will be a trip worth talking about for the rest of your lives.
Marcus Weiner is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine.