Wednesday, May 15, 2013

First Float...14 miles of Alaskan Wilderness

After a successful Halibut Charter the boys and I were getting very eager to float the Situk for Steelhead.  After all that was the entire reason we hopped on a series of planes and traveled across the continent.  Sunday afternoon’s brief adventure up to 9-Mile Bridge gave us a small taste and the lay of the land for launching the boat.  We got an initial glimpse of the river and were able to better put things into perspective for our upcoming float.  From what I had previously read online the river was supposed to be a non-technical flow.  There were no white-water sections, Rapids, gorges, or major elevation changes. 
For the most part all of my research indicated it was a low gradient gravel laiden flow we were in for a leisurely float through the Tongas National Forest.  After diner Monday evening an impromptu conversation broke out back at the Lodge with one of the Guides.  He had indicated that he was going to ride up to the launch with us in the morning to drop the drift boat in and then shuttle our van back to the take out at the end of Lost River road.  Naturally we had a few questions about what lay ahead of us for Tuesday morning. 
Tommy indicated there would be no major surprises aside from one particular bend in the river that would naturally draw you to the outside when in fact the passage was extremely tight and narrow on the inside.  He cautioned that if you get too far committed to the outside you would find yourself in a bit of a predicament.  We noted his warning and filed it in the memory bank for the next day.  We asked how long the float would take us and were informed that it all depended upon how long we fish and how many stops we made along the course of the river. 
Tommy then laughed and informed us that sometimes if clients are not back by darkness they drive a truck down to the pullout and leave the headlights on so they don’t drift past and into the estuary.  He then proceeded to inform us that the river is very low and we would most likely be slowed down excessively due to gravel bars and other unfamiliar obstacles. 
He cautioned us to expect a long day due to our unfamiliarity with the river.  Red and I both own Hyde Drift Boats.  We both know how to run these boats to a degree so we noted his warnings and figured it would be fairly uneventful.  We finished our drinks and made our way back to our cabin to settle in for the evening and prepare for the next day. 

Morning came quickly and we arrived at the main lodge for breakfast at 6:30 am.  There was a fresh blanket of snow that had fallen overnight and the guides were starting to deploy for the morning.  While we hastily ate our breakfast Tommy hooked up our drift boat to the van.  Our chariot for the day consisted of an older beat up 16’ Alumaweld drift boat.  It sat two comfortably across the bow and one on the oars.  It looked like it had seen better days but for the most part would fit the bill fine for our needs. 
We noted a spare oar and landing net in the bottom of the boat along with the 3” of snow from the night prior.  Soon we were racing down Forest Service road 10 towards 9-Mile Bridge and the launch.
The turn-around and parking lot at the launch site was rife with snow,ice, ruts and potholes but the ramp was clear so we dropped the boat in with little to no issue.  We loaded up our gear, beverage cooler and pack lunches and bid farewell to our lodge friends.  Soon we were floating down the river in pursuit of Situk River Steelhead.  In no time we were back out of the boat fishing our first piece of fishy water when Red proclaimed he had hooked up.  It was our first Dolly Varden of the trip. 
These fish are an anadromous salmonid and are found in the Situk along with Steelhead and some Rainbow trout.  In the fall these fish take on a Brook Trout/Arctic Char like appearance with brilliant colored bodies, spots, and fins.  In the spring they are bright chrome with less pronounced spotting and resemble shaker steelhead.   For the next hour or so we floated down river stopping at every piece of water that looked appealing trying to convince a willing Steelhead to hand.  Finally we found ourselves at a section of river that dumped quickly into a long narrow deep water run with some overhanging brush at the back end. 
Within seconds Scott had hooked up in the fast water on a bead and banked his first Steelhead ever.  It was a smaller winter Buck that put an ear to ear grin on his face.  After the photo session I set up below Scott and drifted the overhanging brush lower in the run.  Once under the brush my float dropped.  I set up but was certain it was a snag.  After a brief pause the rod came alive and much to my surprise a steelhead was on the other end.  The action was on and we found our first pod of the day.  Soon my first fish of the morning made the bank and was released after a few pics.  Not wanting to overstay our welcome we made a few more drifts and carried on our way. 
Until now much of the river had been featureless with little to no obstacles other than the occasional uneventful bend.  This was about to change as we entered into a tighter bend in the river with fallen trees and stumps.  Soon Red hooked up under some wood and we all had fish to our credit.  The further down river we floated the more wood and obstacles came before us.  What was appearing to be a non-technical river was becoming more and more technical as we found ourselves navigating through narrow cutouts in fallen and piled up Sitka Spruce log jams. 
Each spring after the forest road opens up and the boats can be launched the local guides float the river with chainsaws and open up passage ways in the new tree fall.  The river is forever changing and any major high-water events can rearrange the timber so many of the seasoned guides have a saw in the boat at all times.  We were getting well into the morning and hadn’t really covered many river miles.  The gravel bars were slowing us down and the unfamiliarity of the river and the safe passage  routes through the log jams had us on the oars more than expected. 
Red and I spelled each other off rowing but were beginning to feel the pains of our efforts.  We decided it was time for Scotty to get a crash course in boat rowing.  We came up on a long wide straightaway section.  Scott took the oars and we gave him some minor instruction.  He was doing fine and appeared to have things under control.  That’s when we let our guard down and once distracted by fishing learned the hazards of overhanging limbs.  We found ourselves on a crash course for a 3-4” 10' overhanging branch. 
Scott tried to redirect the boat away from the hazard but it was too late. I had no choice other than try and lift the branch over our heads as we floated underneath.  It was a giant “Fail” that almost resulted in a couple of busted rods and potential human injury.  Scott lost his confidence and was demoted back to Norland Drift boat operator Status…”Useless”  We laughed about it and shook it off  but not without some verbal jabbing. 
We continued on down the river but now had to start seriously rowing forward to make up time.  We were only a quarter of the way into the float and were starting to get concerned with our timing.  By now thoughts of blowing past the pullout in the dark were entering our heads. 
The river bends and log jams seemed to increase as we made our way further down and we found ourselves being increasingly more selective at where we stopped to fish. 

Red managed to remember Tommy's warning about the one dangerous spot on the river and we navigated it without issue.  We finally reached the forest service cabins and one of the lodge guides with his clients.  He informed us we had at least another 7-8 miles of river to manipulate and also indicated that the last couple of miles were frog water with a heavy rowing requirement to make the launch.  We had totally underestimated the undertaking and learned later it best to make a decision early on to fish the upper or lower river only for a day’s outing. 
It was a shame because the lower river seemed to hold more sexy lies and pods of fish.  We stopped and fished a few of them with great success but blew by so much sexy water it made my stomach sick.  It was getting late in the day and we were increasingly concerned about making the take out.  The mornings mild snowfall had quickly changed to rain mid-day and we were drenched.  The snow in the boat had long since melted and the added rain saw an increase in weight.  
We had an estimated 4 miles or so of river left.  I was on the oars rocking through some tight quarters on an inside bend of a log jam pile up.  We were just about to clear the narrows when the boat hit an underwater obstruction hard and came to an abrupt stop.  Red lost his balance and went over the bow into the river. 
He would have completely cleared the boat if the water would have been much deeper but managed to stop himself when his hand and rod made contact with the bottom.  At the same time his Ribs smashed against the rail of the boat. 
Scotty was quick on his feet and pull Red back and out of the cold river.  It had all happened so fast and could have been very serious if the water had been another foot or so deeper.  We laughed it off and carried along down river but Red was certainly feeling the effects of the days rowing and the incident.  He jammed his shoulder catching his balance on the bottom and banged his ribs at the same time.  It was certainly a lesson as to how quickly things can go south when you are out there in the remote wilderness. 
We made the rest of the float without incident.  The last couple of miles were indeed “Frog water” and I rowed the balance while Red nursed his aching bones.  As we navigated the last mile the smell of salt and roar of the ocean became apparent and warmed our spirits.  There was no greater feeling of relief than when we finally beached the boat at the pullout.  It was now 8pm and we had been on the river for 11 hours. 
We were cold, tired and drenched.  We managed to hook up with a dozen Steelhead and witnessed some amazing country.  Mere words would not describe the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness and the Tongass National Forest.  As promised our van and trailer were nicely parked up in the lot so we wasted no time pulling the boat and making our way back to the cabin.  

On the long ride back we laughed about the days events over a beverage and decided that Wednesday would be a peaceful walk and wade session up at the Bridge. 

And still the rains fell…


Steeliemax said...

This old man still nurseing his shoulder and a nasty cold from all the rain but wouldnt have missed it for anything. A must for anyones bucket list. Yea I have seen Norland work a hyde and I am pretty sure he gave Scotty lessions.

Gil said...

That is a great read.... continue on pls.

Trotsky said...

You guys are soft,,atta boy Scotty!!!!

Trotsky said... was the beer??

JB said...

Ugh. Not beads!!!!

What a trip! Looks like a fantastic time!