Monday, August 21, 2006

Fishing the Kisaralik, Part 1


Dad and Uncle Bob arrived in Bethel last Wednesday, right on schedule. The long spell of rainy, cloudy weather had started to clear two days earlier, and Wednesday was a beautiful, clear and sunny day. My hopes were high that we were headed for some great summer camping weather.

Thursday morning was spent on the final details of sorting gear and packing food for the trip. High clouds had moved back in and we had light rain off and on, but not enough to dampen our high spirits. Henry’s boat was packed and ready to launch, and mine was moored at one of the docks at the small boat harbor. By early afternoon we were ready to take off.

Henry and Dutch took the lead in Henry’s boat and the brothers and I followed in my boat, along with the Big Dog, Bear, and the Little Dog, Pepper. Known fondly as “the chuck wagon” for its large load-carrying capacity, my boat is a big boxy aluminum craft built by my Dad before I moved to Alaska. It is 22 feet long and 7 feet wide, a flat bottomed johnboat that is ideal for river work. It has a very shallow draft, even heavily loaded, and is pushed by a big 115 horse Honda four-stroke.

Our goal was the middle stretch of the Kisaralik River, a clear and fast-moving tributary of the Kuskokwim River. The Kisaralik is popular among sport fishermen in August for its large population of silver salmon and rainbow trout. It is also well-known as a fun river to float down in a rubber raft. Numerous outfitters can be hired to fly you in a float plane up to the large lake it flows out of, drop you off with a raft and all the gear, and pick you up at the mouth of the river any number of days later. Floaters in rafts of all sizes are commonly encountered on the Kisaralik.

It took us about three hours to reach the area we were headed for. All the rain our region has had in the last month meant that the water level in all the rivers was high, which is nice for the boating part—less risk of running aground—but not great for the fishing part; the water is muddier and fish are not biting as well. We did not have a specific campsite in mind. I had never been up this river before, and Henry had not been here in years. We were looking as we went for a nice gravel bar, or a spot on the bank with easy river access, a clearing in the trees, and a few dead standing trees to provide dry firewood. Henry never travels on the river without a chain saw.

We were far enough upriver that the mud banks were starting to show some gravel when we passed a bend in the river with a nice large gravel bar on the inside of the curve. Despite the swift current, the river was still pretty muddy, so Henry wanted to explore a little further, hoping to find clearer water for our campsite which would be closer to good fishing.

I was driving about 50 yards behind Henry, watching the banks and chatting with Dad and Uncle Bob. I looked back at the boat in front of us to see that Henry had suddenly run aground; his boat was stopped dead still and the current was swinging his bow around as he maneuvered to get unstuck from the sand bar. All we could see of Dutch was his feet sticking up in the air over the boat’s middle transom. We stopped and watched as Henry worked his boat back into deeper water. Dutch didn’t move, and my heart started to sink. What had happened to him? Why didn’t he move? We hadn’t seen the moment of impact; had he hit his head? Broken his leg? Henry was wrestling with the boat and couldn’t go forward to help him. Dread crowded into my mind as we watched helplessly from the second boat.

The moments seemed endless as Henry got his boat free. Finally, we saw Dutch move, and I could breathe again. Slowly he stood up, favoring one leg, a pained expression on his face, but at least moving as if no bones were broken. They passed us heading downriver and we turned and followed. Henry pulled up on the gravel bar we had seen earlier, and I pulled in beside him.

Sand bars in these rivers are sudden occurrences; the water can go from six feet to six inches deep in the space of a few feet. When Henry hit the sand bar, Dutch had been standing next to the transom facing the stern. The boat lurched to a stop and he went down backwards with nothing to break his fall. His hip hit the bottom of the boat hard, but fortunately he did not hit his head. Coming down from his 6’4” height meant that his upper body made quite an impact, and his hip hurt so badly he thought it might be broken, so was afraid to move at first. Those were some long moments for me.

He limped a little getting off the boat, but was able to walk around and shake it off. Joints ok, bones ok, head ok. Lucky it wasn’t worse. The magnificent bruise that developed on his upper thigh over the next 48 hours was truly impressive, but the hematoma that developed underneath it has remained reasonably small, about three inches in diameter. He has been on a daily aspirin for the last two years.

The gravel bar was fine for our needs, aside from the river not being as clear as we’d have liked. Misty rain was continuing to fall, so we quickly set up two of the three tents and tarped over an area in the trees for the kitchen set up. I fired up the Coleman stove and heated up the moose stew I had prepared earlier for an easy first-night supper. A loaf of homemade bread with butter and a bottle of wine completed an excellent repast for five damp and hungry travelers.

The rain became more constant and there was no dead standing in the vicinity, so we did not have a campfire that night. We were all pretty beat, so we turned in as the light was dying around 11 pm. Henry was in his wall tent, and Dutch and I shared the six-person Alaskan Guide Tent from Cabela’s with Dad and Uncle Bob. The wall tent that Dutch and I planned to sleep in required saplings to be cut for support poles, and that would have to wait until the morrow.

The designation of a tent as “six person” is somewhat optimistic. Four people and a little gear easily fill it up. No room for dogs. By the time we were zipped into our sleeping bags, the rain was coming down steadily. As the night deepened, the rain intensified. Within an hour it was drumming hard on the tents. Occasional lightening brightened the world outside, a rare occasion in Alaska which has few thunderstorms. The rain was so intense and unremitting that I feared for tent failure. Wind was lashing us, and the rain was absolutely pouring down. Hours crawled slowly by without any change in the deluge, and sleep was elusive for all of us.

There are two things guaranteed to turn Pepper into a quivering neurotic mess: thunder and firecrackers. When Dad unzipped the tent door to look out at the storm, she came barreling in to find me, a soggy, muddy, shaking bundle of dog. She immediately curled up in a tight ball next to me (after a good shake, of course) and I did not have the heart to send her back out. At least she had not scratched a hole in the tent wall first. Once inside, she settled down and did not move again the whole night.

By first light, around 6 am, we ventured out into a wet world and were pleased to see that the tents were fine and the tarp over the kitchen area had survived without incident. The Big Dog was curled into a dry corner where he had happily spent the night unmolested by the elements. The rain had stopped, and the clouds were high and thinning rapidly. Fresh coffee, a hearty breakfast, and we were ready to catch some fish.


…to be continued…

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4 Comments:

Blogger Intelinurse2B said...

sounds like fun, when does the rain change to snow up there?

by the way, I heard about the area surrounding the famous brown bear viewing areas are being opened up for hunting. I was deeply saddened by this. How do the locals feel about it?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006 8:11:00 AM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

I have a dog like that LOL... she hates bangs.. thunderstorms, guns, firecrackers... dosn't matter.. she'll tear a door down to get inside and on someones lap.. and she is a black lab... *rolls eyes*.. a small one but still not a lap dog *grin* she dosn't know that though LOL... sounds like a good time.. makes me want to go camping:)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Maggie Rosethorn said...

Argh! You mean I have to wait to read more? Great story so far. Reminds me of some camping trips I was on as a kid...oh joy, more blogging material!!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006 2:33:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

IN2B, wolfbaby and Maggie--thanks for reading and commenting! The rain will change to snow sometime next month. I'm not aware of the opening of hunting in the brown bear viewing area; that would probably be around Kodiak or Homer, I would guess. The presense of brown bear in this area is something of a secret, not many people know about it.

Pepper is so frantic about thunder and firecrackers, I had to sedate her during the 4th of July when she was young. She is better now, but still quite anxious.

Saturday, August 26, 2006 11:22:00 PM  

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