Friday, October 31, 2008

Last Saturday was either an interesting odyssey or a fool's errand. Take your pick.
A coworker invited us out for a day of late season rainbow trout fishing. The temps were expected to be in the 20's at best, though you never know. We were headed down to the Kenai River on the (correctly name) Kenai peninsula. It's about a 2 hour drive from Anchorage. You drive south and then up through the Turnagain pass before you find yourself descending into the world famous Kenai fishing grounds. Being on the other side of the mountains means the weather could easily be completely different from Anchorage. It was supposed to be clear so we loaded up the truck and picked up the boat at J's folks' house. Due to a few weeks of freezing and thawing there was now about 100+ lbs of ice in the bottom of the drift boat. We chipped at it a bit but only had a little luck.

After deciding on letting the road bumps buckle the ice a bit for an easier chipping at the river, we set off late in the morning down the Turnagain arm. J had been out 2 weekends earlier and had taken the mountain pass around 6am, finding black ice that sent the his truck and trailer sliding across the road sideways in the Alaskan pre dawn. The road was empty and they recovered well, but it was a heart stopper for the fishermen that day. J wanted a few hours of daylight to beat down on the pass so we had a running chance at some safe travels.

As we zipped down the arm past Indian, AK and then Girdwood, AK we soon were driving into some flurries. They appeared to be just trickling over the Chugach mountains to the east. We turned south and headed for the Turnagain pass. The light snow swirled across the road and did not appear to accumulate as we barreled through it at 60 mph. The sun made all the difference and after safely navigating the pass we ended up at Skilak Lake with a temperature of almost 30. Not bad.

There were definite fractures through the plate of ice lining the bottom of the boat so we began chipping in earnest. We had better results than before but it was still slow going. We decided to chip out the net and the anchor rope and simply leave the rest.

After about 30 minutes of chipping and loading we stood together, swallowed the sandwiches along with a few handfuls of chips, and set off for the river. Skilak Lake is very large and a beautiful glacier fed blue green color. The lake was fairly calm. We needed to cross it and sneak into the river itself where we would get on those rainbows. Off we went with J at the tiller. I've been in some nasty waves with a fully loaded canoe so I know fairly well what the tolerance is for a canoe. For a drift boat -- I have no idea. I trust my captain. He completes this lake to river crossing at least 4 -5 times every month. We were soon in 3 foot rolling waves and they were starting to splash into the boat. J cut it hard to the starboard and we broke a few big ones. He quickly announced that he didn't feel comfortable, especially with 100 lbs of ice weighing down the center of the boat. No arguments were had from any of us. There were not many fisherman out that day so the chances of getting help if something terrible happened were not imminent. Also, once you're floating in the glacier fed, even if you have a life jacket, you only have 10- 15 minutes before hypothermia will take over. You're done. So we trusted J and headed back in, having experienced Skilak Lake for 10 minutes.

You can't really blame anything or anyone for that kind of outcome. It stinks, but it's the chance you take fishing in extreme wilderness under cold temperatures. If we had any tinge of stupidity bobbing around in our minds, that was soon shuttled out in favor of laughter. The group that put in their drift boat moments before us was also unloading their aborted trip at shore. They were loaded up for an overnight camping trip on the river. After being in the water 5 minutes they were now rapidly unloading their boat. We asked if they saw us and the waves and decided to bag it. "No, we forgot to the put the plug in the boat. Do you have a spare?" No, and we held our smirks. These are the types of people that die in the Alaskan wilderness every year to mere shrugs from Alaskans and horror from out of staters. We are the ones that don't fall in the lake and don't make the papers.

After a chuckle or two and a recognition of the building whitecaps on the lake, we happily packed it in and drove away. We tried to fish from the shore a few miles up the road at Dot's fishing camp, but 'ol Dot wouldn't let us walk across his property to wet a line, even if we paid him the $5 to park. Thanks, jerk. We cruised back north dejected, but comfortable in our decision to respect Alaska. I'm local now and I can fish this lake in May. The fish will happily wait.

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