By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
Wild places are supposed to kick one’s butt. Go into an untamed wilderness, have just a bit of bad luck and hang on — you will likely end up rolled around and stomped on, cold, sick, miserable and otherwise in awe of the nature world that, sans human influence, has no sympathy. It’s what keeps the few wild places we have left still wild.
Before a bout with a physical malady that took the wind out of my sails for a time, I had spoke of going to Western Alaska for a fishing trip, the first time I would invade that part of Alaska. My fishing partner and I had taken an offer of a float trip down an unnamed river that would lead us to the world-famous Goodnews River.
We were to break new ground in a couple of ways. One, going where virtually no one had gone before, and, two, doing it in the equivalent of rubber ducks for transportation. The tiny rafts we would use were the size of a small bathtub, and while very tough, they were essentially like trying to paddle an inflated inner tube. But the float was believed to be a calm little river (I envisioned the Swanson River), and therefore just a matter of floating and fishing and enjoying the experience.
My fishing partner will tell you that I foreshadow difficulties, because she knows I don’t take to doing things in the out of doors the easy way. She thinks if things are going too well I create a circumstance that makes them harder, just because. She may be right. The outdoors, to me, has never been one of strolling down man-made trails or fishing from aluminum platforms or going through a park where the animals bear no resemblance to real wild animals. If it does not have a level of discomfort and difficulty, there is no point.
So there we were, flown into a long mountain lake at 7 p.m., raindrops dappling the surface of the gin-clear water, with our dry bags set to strap onto the fore and aft sections of our Alpaca rafts. We spent the first night at an inlet stream where we were dropped, and where we experienced fishing that one usually only reads about in magazines. Everything we cast with our 6-weight fly rods was grabbed by a fish. There were sockeye salmon cruising the shoreline in their spawning endeavors, and they were accompanied by lake trout and Arctic char that were evidently starving by the way they took our flies. Thoughts of keeping a small lake trout or char for a meal didn’t work out, as there was evidently nothing that small in the lake.
Finally, at about 1 a.m., we headed for the tent. The rain had stopped and all looked well. At 2:30 a.m. the rain returned, along with 40- to 50-mph winds. Hearing something that didn’t sound right, I opened the tent door to the vestibule where our waders and gear bags were stored to find the vestibule had torn loose from its moorings and everything that was underneath it was wet.
Nothing to be done, the rain stopped at about 6 a.m., and we were able to get a driftwood fire started and partially dry some of our gear. With 55 river miles ahead and five days to travel it, we reluctantly packed our gear and began our first attempt at paddling our tiny rafts. They are not made for paddling in still water, as the three hours it took to cross the lake amply illustrated. Entering the outlet stream it seemed like what we had envisioned — a nice, calm, steady flow of water. Then we rounded a corner, and my first thought went from calm to profanity.
If when canoeing or rafting you encounter water that looks like it is running downhill, it pretty much is. We were sucked into the fast current, later determined to be an 18-foot-per-mile gradient. By comparison, the Kenai River from Naptown Rapids to the Soldotna bridge is 6 feet per mile.
That’s where we found out that steering the little bathtubs was nearly impossible. To avoid obstacles one had to paddle hard, and even then they were difficult to avoid. Being in the lead I watched helpless as my partner was sucked into a small sweeper that quickly pulled her raft down and filled it with water.
It was fortunate for us that while fast, the river lacked a large volume and was wide in many areas. Oftentimes we were out of the rafts, dragging them to the next stretch of deeper water. About a mile into the river I found myself sitting in a boat completely full of water and we were in a fast stretch with no way to get out.
I had a bag strapped to the front and one to the back and I had my camera in a dry bag between my legs to enable picture-taking going downstream. It was fully submerged, and by the time I was able to get to the shore I found my camera and the lenses completely full of water — completely destroyed. By some miracle I was able to retrieve the pictures that I had taken previously from the memory card. So much for photographing the remainder of the trip.
The reason for the raft filling with water was a 4-inch rip in the floor, no doubt from a sharp rock. As it turns out, Aquaseal is as good as they say it is. With rain pouring down I was still able to repair the raft with a piece of Cordura cut from my first-aid kit. Continuing on, we had heavy rain and repeated submerging of the rafts that left us exhausted, wet and cold by 9 p.m., when we called it a day. It was then, after cooking up some indecent freeze-dried food, that we discovered neither one of us could keep food down. We had started the trip not feeling too well, and it seems the conditions lent a hand in putting us both down.
And therein lies the lessons from truly wild places. There is no timeout, no calling for help, no respite from the misery. You just gut it out and make the most of it. The second day on the river was more of the same and it was with great relief that we hit the Goodnews River at 6 p.m. Setting up camp in the rain, we managed to get somewhat warm with the cook stove and ventured out in the downpour to fish. The river was no different than the lake — each cast would bring another fish to hand. There were aggressive char, chum salmon, rainbows and silvers. Like the stories go, you could catch fish until you were sick of it.
The next day was more of the same — rain and a headwind made getting downriver on the much slower current of the Goodnews a challenge. Another day of hard work and wet, cold conditions left us lacking much desire to fish.
We finally made it to the village of Goodnews Bay, where we spent the night with an old-timer who has some cabins for folks like us. Evidently word travels fast, because as we wandered around the village we were all of a sudden celebrated in this remote and unassuming place. We had done the river, a feat that was seemingly envied by all, but not to be duplicated.
Reflecting on the trip while we spent the next night in Bethel, we were glad we went, glad for the experience and extremely glad to find there are still places that remain wild. It seems the beautiful place we shared with nature momentarily will, due to the difficulties it presents, perhaps forever remain wild.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.