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Over the past 20 years I have taken several trips to Alaska, staying at tent camps or fly-out lodges. Like many of you, I have considered an unguided float trip because of the reasonable cost compared to staying at a lodge. In August 2007, four friends and I finally took a float trip. I thought that readers of The Angling Report might find our experiences enlightening.
It is probably important to note that my friends and I are all over 60. We have a lot more experience than brains, and we still think we can do the things we did when we were 30. You might want to consider your age and abilities realistically before you plan a trip like ours.
We arranged our trip through Chad Hewitt at Rainbow River Lodge. They offer float trips on several rivers in the Katmai National Park region. Our first decision was to select the river to float. Each river has different types of fishing and is assigned a degree of difficulty based on portages, rapids, the potential for logjams, etc. We chose the Alagnak River, which is rated Class 2 – a relatively easy float. Other rivers are as difficult as Class 4 and 5. Our next decision was whether to hire a guide or not; we decided to go without a guide.
Bluntly, this was a poor decision for a number of reasons, the major one being that we underestimated the amount of time required to unpack the raft each day, set up camp, cook, clean dishes, break down camp and re-pack the raft. We probably spent four to five hours per day doing these chores – time taken away from the fishing. In addition, it was a lot of plain hard work.
The Alagnak float can be divided into three sections, starting at Non- vianuk Lake where the trip begins. The first nine miles are on the Nonvianuk River before it joins the Alagnak. Chad advised us to float to the confluence of the Nonvianuk and Alagnak Rivers on the first day because the best fishing is found down- river from that point. After the trip, we decided that we would have enjoyed a little more time on the Nonvianuk because it was smaller and clearer. We could see the sockeyes, and the rainbows were always just below the sockeyes. It was also easier to navigate the raft on this smaller river, and we didn’t see another person, whereas there were a number of other fishermen on the Alagnak.
After the Nonvianuk joins the Alagnak, the river breaks into the world-famous “braids” section with numerous small channels. The fishing there is almost like fishing small rivers or creeks. This section was great for rainbows from 12 to 24 inches. It was easy to hike up and down these channels, which greatly increased the amount of water we could cover. Since the boats from the lodges on the river tend to stay on the larger channels, the smaller channels didn’t have much fishing pressure. We had our best fishing in this section by concentrating on the smaller channels rather than the main river.
Below the braids section, the river is very large and deep with only a few small channels. In retrospect, we didn’t spend enough time in the braids section. The fishing in the lower river wasn’t very good – at least for us.
We expected a leisurely float, but the Alagnak is a big river with relatively fast-moving water. This made navigating the rafts a lot more difficult than we had anticipated. Our rafts, with three people and gear aboard, probably weighed over 900 pounds, and in heavy current it was difficult to navigate them. In fact, we found it impossible to row the rafts upstream or even hold them stationary in the river. Consequently, we missed a lot of great fishing opportunities because we couldn’t get the raft to shore in time. Fishing from the raft was also problematic. We hooked a lot of fish, but it was difficult to land them. We were very envious of the people in motor boats that drifted a good section and then motored upstream to drift it again.
We learned a lot about equipment on this trip – perhaps more than we wanted to. The equipment provided by Rainbow River Lodge was excellent. The rafts, tents and other gear were all first-class with the exception of the coffee pot which was too small. Since all five of us are big coffee drinkers, there was more than one threat made towards anyone who drank more than his share. It is funny how caffeine addicts get mean when they don’t get their fix.
The rafts came equipped with an extra oar, which we found is a good idea because it is very easy to hook the tip of an oar on a rock in the river and rip it out of the oar lock and your hands. You know the expression about someone having only one oar in the water? Well, believe me, having only one oar on a big raft in a big river is one of the most helpless feelings in the world. Our extra oar was packed under several hundred pounds of gear, and in the middle of the river there wasn’t any place to move the gear. Luckily, the people in the other raft saw our predicament and rescued our other oar and us. The moral is to have an extra oar and keep it where it can be accessed easily.
We had a number of other experiences that might be of interest to anyone considering an unguided float trip. For example, we were responsible for our own food on this trip and Chad recommended that we mail our food to Iliamna because it would be a lot cheaper than purchasing it in Alaska. This is a good idea, but because of some very bad advice from the post office on how long it would take for our packages to reach Alaska, only one of three packages was waiting for us. Let’s just say that buying food for five people in Illiamna, Alaska, is indeed damned expensive. Furthermore, the selection was limited to say the least. I don’t care if I ever eat another noodle. At least the guy who runs the store had a big, silly grin when we left. Also, because we thought that there was salt and pepper in the one package that was at Iliamna, we ended up eating very bland food without salt for a week. I would have paid a thousand dollars for a little salt by the fourth day.
We took a GPS unit but didn’t make good use of it until we had traveled too far downriver. Chad told us that the float trip was about 45 miles. We forgot to ask whether that was 45 miles as the crow flies or on the river. We ended up going almost one-half of the total distance in the first couple of days, bypassing some of the best fishing. We had both a GPS unit and a good map – we just didn’t make good use of them.
We also took walky-talky units, which proved to be very useful. It is very easy for rafts to get separated in the braids section of the river, and radios made it easy to locate each other. We also took a satellite phone – highly recommended.
Another very useful piece of equipment was the camp-size water filter. Filtering water with a hand-held unit would have taken too much time. Also, an extra filter is highly recommended because the only water available was from the river, and it had a lot of organic matter in it – i.e., decaying fish, which clogs a filter unit very quickly.
Good rain gear is a must. It rained for the first three days of our trip, which isn’t unusual for the Bristol Bay region. Also, don’t take a questionable pair of waders. I tried to repair an old pair of waders and regretted it for the entire trip. A head net is also a must because the mosquitoes at times were very bad.
But what about the fishing? We caught a lot of rainbows, a few grayling and a couple of silvers. We were disappointed with the silver fishing based on discussions with Chad. However, the Alagnak is certainly not a prime river for silvers.
And what about bears? We saw only nine bears on the entire trip, but bear sign was everywhere. The banks of the Alagnak are covered with willows and small trees, and I’m sure we floated by lots of bears only a few feet from the river. Hiking alone up and down the channels in the braids section was a little nerve racking, especially when I stumbled on fresh tracks of a sow with small cubs. We had hoped to see a lot of other wildlife, but the only other animal we saw was a lone wolf that watched us float by with little interest. However, bald eagles were common along the entire route.
At this point, you’re probably wondering whether I would recommend the trip. The answer is yes with an asterisk. I would not recommend a float trip without a guide for a group of old farts. It was too much work, and we spent too much time away from the fishing on one of the great rivers in the world. Also, a knowledgeable guide would have helped us concentrate our fishing on the prime water.
The cost of our trip in 2007 was $1,500 per person from Illiamna, plus the cost of food. I understand that cost has now gone up to $1,700. The Rainbow River Lodge web site does an excellent job of describing the rivers that they can help you float and the equipment that they supply. If you have questions after reading this article, you can contact me at [email protected].