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In past issues of The Angling Report I have written about do-it-yourself float trips in Alaska. While the stories piqued the interest of many readers, most of the responses were of the same ilk. Simply put, most subscribers don’t own the rafting equipment necessary for such an undertaking, and furthermore, don’t feel they are up to the challenge of bushwhacking their way down a remote Alaskan river without the services of a guide.
Enter Freshwater Adventures (*), an air taxi based in Dillingham, Alaska. They offer about as close as you can come to a turn-key float trip operation. Still you may be asking yourself, why not just hook up with a outfit that offers guided float trips? First of all, you can dramatically cut your costs by doing it on your own (how about as little as $1,100 per person for a five-day float?) Secondly, some of the rivers that Freshwater Adventures outfits on don’t have any guided float trips run on them because the various land use managers have not granted permits for guided trips.
The Arolik is a good example of a river that average anglers can float by themselves – with, of course, the help of a firm like Freshwater Adventures. The Arolik is a moderate-sized river that begins at Arolik Lake in the Ahklun Mountains of southwest Alaska and flows for roughly 65 miles before spilling into Kuskokwim Bay on the Bering Sea. The fishing here is nothing short of superb. It’s easily as good or better than the other more well-known rivers throughout southwest Alaska such as the Togiak and the Kanektok.
The rainbow trout fishing season opens on June 8. The fishing is great then and continues to be so throughout the season. Besides rainbow, you’ll also run into fresh king salmon. In many places you can sight fish to them. You’ll also run into ocean-fresh, chrome bright sockeye and chum salmon in large numbers. Dolly varden and Arctic grayling will also be abundant, and you can catch lake trout if you take the time to cast a streamer or two into Arolik Lake before you float. You can typically catch three to four-pounders by just casting from shore.
The best way to start planning a trip down this river is to order the 30 or so pages of information Freshwater Adventures sends out to prospective clients. The brochure includes general information on various rivers and a fare sheet for both types of aircraft the firm uses to ferry passengers – namely, a Goose and a Widgeon. It also spells out how much it costs to rent various kinds of rafts, ranging from a 14-footer with rowing frame ($70 per day) to an 18-foot cataraft ($90 per day). All rafts include essentials such as oars (with a spare), repair kits, cargo nets and even an ice chest. For a bit extra you can even get either a propane or Coleman fuel cooking stove.
To help you get a handle on the total cost of various trips, they price out some basic scenarios. A five-day trip for two people using Widgeon aircraft and a 16-foot cataraft, for example, roughs out at a little over $1,300 per person. A five-person trip using the Goose aircraft and two 16-foot catarafts winds up being just over $1,100 per person.
The brochure makes it clear that all you have to do is show up in Dillingham with a tent, sleeping bag, some kitchen and eating utensils, groceries (you can buy all this in Anchorage before you fly to Dillingham and Freshwater Adventures will help you figure out how) and you’re ready to go. The firm will have alerted you to some incidental extra necessities (such as a topo map of the river) and will have told you how to find them.
The adventure starts with the fly-out from Dillingham. On arrival at the Arolik, the big question will be how light the recent rains have been. If they have been very light, the first couple of miles downstream from the lake can be so shallow that you need to walk alongside the raft to get through shallow riffles. Once through that, though, the river provides an easy float without any whitewater to speak of and the camping is relatively easy on the river’s many sand and gravel bars. The topo map Freshwater Adventures will have told you to buy will be invaluable in plotting your downstream progress. The only place that requires a bit of special attention is during the last quarter of the float. Here the river forks, and you’ll definitely want to take the north fork as opposed to the south fork, because the pick-up will be scheduled for the mouth of the north fork. In fact, Freshwater Adventures will not land their Grumman Goose or Widgeon amphibious aircraft there. Your pick-up will be by boat from the village of Quinhagak. Here the Goose or the Widgeon will land on the airstrip for your flight back to Dillingham. Freshwater Adventures will arrange for the skiff pick-up from the village.
As for Freshwater Adventures, it is a family owned operation, and the two main pilots are a father and son team. Phil Bingman has been flying commercially in Alaska since 1965 and has accumulated over 20,000 hours. Lester Bingman, Phil’s son, began flying commercially at age 18 and has logged over 10,000 hours of air time. Needless to say, they know their aircraft and the terrain of southwest Alaska quite well, and I wholeheartedly recommend them.
I also recommend the floatfishing experience. It will save you a ton of money and get you into waters you will never be able to fish with a guide. It will also give you a lasting feeling of accomplishment and connectedness with the wilderness. – Tony Route.