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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Around and Around Round Lake

Those of you who do not fish or hunt might have trouble understanding why we take photos of catching fish, or of caught fish.  We agree that this is problematic.  We don't publish photos of dead people or scat, so why should we publish photos of caught fish?

We can't answer this.  We know that for perhaps 25 years, we've only fished to catch and release -- never to keep and kill and eat.  However, on this trip, we decided that, with fishing so rewarding in British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska, and because we're in a position to cook what we catch, we should try to catch more fish to eat.  We studied instructions on how to clean fish as soon as we catch them.  We thought a lot about the fact that we are the ones who are killing those little souls.

Nevertheless, fresh-caught trout is so tasty, and really not any different than eating store-bought fish.  So we decided we would start catching to cook and eat the trout.  If we could catch salmon to cook and eat, we would do that too, but not yet.

So today was another nice day.  There are, perhaps, 30 lakes in our area, with about half of them stocked with rainbow trout.  We fished Tex Smith Lake the other day.  Today, we decided that Round Lake was the best of the lakes that were not too far from our campground.  Tiny it was:

We needed to drive several miles in off the Glenn Highway, and then about a quarter mile further on a dirt road, where we found the pullout and informal boat ramp for Round Lake:

Two other vehicles were parked at the lake, but they were families who were fishing on the nearby Old Road Lake from the shoreline, so we would have Round Lake all to ourselves.  We wasted no time getting our kayaks into the water:

It's always exciting when we get the kayaks into a lake.  We never quite know what we'll find as we paddle around:

In this case, we found an almost perfectly round, less than 1,000 feet across, but it packed a whallop, with all those 374 rainbow trout that were stocked this May, just before the King Salmon run started in this area.  All the locals -- and everyone else in this region of Alaska, have been so obsessed with dipnetting for salmon on the Copper River, that they have completely ignored the trout.  This left all those little fishies for us to hunt on our own!

Round Lake is unique in how the winds play across its surface.  In most lakes, the wind comes from a single direction for a while -- say, the entire morning.  Once we see the direction of the wind, we will usually either paddle upwind to the furthest reach of a lake, and then "ride" the wind down the lake, or we will seek the downwind shoreline of the lake to fish, thinking that the food has been blown down there, and so the trout will be down there, too.

Here at Round Lake, those rules didn't really apply.  The wind kept changing direction.  Indeed, over the course of an hour, the winds blew from every single compass point.  This made it hard to "play the wind," as it were.  However, by the end of the morning, we had figured out, by watching the rises of the trout to flies on the surface, that the far (east) end of the lake had lots of trout feeding, and the near (west) end, also had many trout feeding.

Within an hour or so, Kathy scored first, catching a pretty, fat, 12-inch rainbow trout.  Here she is looking nose-to-nose at the little fighter:

It took a while, but eventually, Kathy persuaded him into her net:

By the time she had him in the net, he was exhausted, and lay quiet where before he had fought mercilessly.  Several other trout before him had jumped and twisted and shook the hook, but he could not:

Kathy paused to admire him before putting him in the creel, to be cleaned later:

Kathy caught her prize on the west end of the lake, near our pullout, so she pretty much hung out there the rest of the morning.  David, on the other hand, focused on the far (east) end, but to no real avail, even though he saw lots of rises.

By lunchtime, Kathy had caught two beautiful 12-inch trout, ready for cleaning:

We ate our lunch, cleaned Kathy's trout, and then paddled back out to try the lake again, having figured out where the fish were biting.

David is not stupid.  He had seen that Kathy caught her fish on the near end of the lake, so after lunch he decided to try that area, too.  Within another hour after lunch, David had caught three rainbow -- a beautiful 14-15 incher, a 10-inch trout, and a little perhaps 8-incher:

Kathy had been feeling pretty self-confident after having caught two trout to Dave's none before lunch, so she had been fishing fat and happy.  But, once she saw that David had three, the fires of competition were stoked in her heart and she tried mightily -- then succeeded -- in catching one more rainbow.  Our final tally was SIX rainbow trout, to be cooked for tonight's dinner and some saved for fish stew or other great meals.

We're back at camp.  The heavens opened up and are pouring on us, but we're dry and warm inside and getting ready to enjoy our trout dinner.  Alaska is a pretty fine place!

Invasion of the Salmon Snatchers!

Hi Blog!

As you know, we are camped in Glennallen, Alaska. We are in the heart of the Copper River Valley. Along the Copper River and its tributaries, salmon is king. When the salmon return to spawn, so do the fishermen. The locals refer to this as the Invasion of the Salmon Snatchers. Alaska residents are allowed to dipnet a whole year's supply of salmon!

We thought it might be fun to view this spectacle firsthand. On Friday, June 21, 2019, we drove down from Glennallen to Chitina. Along the way, we stopped to take in the view of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains.

Our destination was the famous Copper River. The Copper River rises out of the Copper Glacier, which lies on the northeast side of Mount Wrangell. Here is our first view of the mighty Copper River.

As we made our way further down the Edgerton Highway, we stopped at Liberty Falls State Recreation Site to take in the view of the waterfalls. We would have liked to hike around the falls, but a mother Grizzly and her two cubs had taken possession of the trail. We spent our time enjoying the falls from the parking area.

We had visited this area back in 2016. One of the most impressive parts of the drive was through a narrow stream valley with three small, but spectacular lakes. Here is the view of the beaver lodge on Three Mile Lake.

Just around the corner from Three Mile Like, is Two Mile Lake.

The smallest and most unique with its emerald green color is One Mile Lake. The three lakes get their name from their distance to Chitina.

Upon arriving in Chitina, we decided to drive straight across to the bridge over the Copper River. On the far side of the bridge, the famous McCarthy Road begins its 60 mile journey to Kennecott and McCarthy. We found a place to park in the Ahtna Corporation Campground. Here Kathy walks like an Egyptian on her way to the pay station.

The Copper River and its tributaries are mostly glacial fed. They bring with them lots of debris. Much of the debris is deposited in the flat river bottom, creating braided channels. The channels freeze solid in the winter. As spring snow melt comes down from the mountains, it is blocked by ice in the old channels and is rerouted to create new channels, sometimes moving the mouth of the river. As the river moves, anything parked on its banks gets swept away. We saw a number of trailers and fish wheels littered along the banks.

In order to take in the spectacle, we decided to walk across the Copper River Bridge. From here, we could get a birds-eye view of all the activity.

Dozens of fishermen drove their trucks and trailers out onto a gravel bar in the middle of the river.

We watched as two more fisherman came and attempted to make their way out to the launch area. For some of these fisherman, this is their first time here. This guy didn't bother to follow the tracks of the other fisherman and decided to try and drive through the soft wet sand. Lucky for him, his buddy was right behind, saw what happened, chose the correct path through the gravel and came back around to pull him out of the wet sand.

Over the years, we've seen numerous ways to fish, from fly fishing for trout to jigging for cod, but this is our first encounter with dipnetting. Available to Alaska residents only, dipnetting is a process by which the fisherman wades into a river (or boat) with a large net and scoops out an entire year's supply of fish. Alaska's dipnetters are a unique breed, with a willingness to put up with cold water, bad weather, wind-driven waves, crowded beaches, strong currents, steep banks, and many other inconveniences for a chance to stock the freezer with one of the planet's most delicious, nutritious whole foods - salmon. Dipnetting is, for many, the highlight of the year, with a chance to camp on the beach with the family, relax around a beach fire, let the kids run, and catch enough fish to last the whole year. This is like "Burning Man" for fishermen.

We were surprised to see that many of the fishermen brought ATVs -- not boats. The braided channels and fast currents make boating difficult. Many fishermen just hop on their ATVs and splash through the braided channels to get to a deep section where they can dipnet. We thought the braided channels made a perfect backdrop for a shadow selfie!

We decided to picnic back in Chitina and leave the craziness behind. After lunch we took a drive up O'Brien Creek to get one last look at the Copper River. Those little dots along the shore are more dipnet fisherman.

We left the Copper River with the feeling that we witnessed something truly Alaskan. On our way back, we hoped to stop for a short hike. One of the tributaries of the Copper River is the Tonsina River. The Tonsina River flows east from Tonsina Lake to the Copper River at Mile 19 of the Edgerton Highway.  The river is a glacial fed system with class III – IV whitewater. The BLM maintains an easement trail from the Edgerton Highway to a bluff high above the Tonsina River.

Here we are at the trailhead.

The trail is just over a mile long and almost perfectly straight. We hiked over a lush carpet of green moss. At times, the trail was a little spongy, but we managed to keep our feet dry for the most part. Surprisingly, the mosquitoes were at a manageable level.

We emerged from the green canopy to spectacular views of the river valley. After the chaos of the Copper River, it was amazing to have this entire valley to ourselves.

To see what we saw, click this link for an amazing video view of the Tonsina River Valley.

On the way back to camp, we stopped at the Kenny Lake Farmers Market and stocked up on sweet treats, sourdough bread and homemade lemonade. As we were leaving town, Dave noticed this momma moose and her two calves.

Not sure what our next adventure will be, but you'll be the first to know when it happens. Until then, watch out for those salmon snatchers!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Fishing Tex Smith Lake Near Glenallen, Alaska

Here we are in Glenallen, Alaska -- so near to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and yet so far because we can't get into it except by bush plane.  What are we to do?

Yesterday, we found a few hikes in the area.  Today we decided to do some trout fishing.  We had hoped to book a guide for a float salmon fishing trip down the Gulkana River, but, alas, all the local guides were booked.  We waited to long to decide to book a trip.

So we were on our own.  With the scent of fish in our noses, we decided to see where we could fish for trout on nearby lakes.  A great deal of research (plus a well-placed question to our campground hosts) pointed us to Tex Smith Lake, some 22 miles west of Glenallen, where we are camped.

While we weren't very worried about grizzly bears as we prepared to go fishing, there is no telling.  We had seen this lovely fellow on the Tok Cutoff as we drove down to Glenallen from Tok, Alaska, the other day:

Glenallen is a bigger community than we expected.  We actually have great cell and internet service, as Kathy demonstrates with this photo of the cell tower next to our campground:

Our campground, as with everything in Glenallen, is nestled in among the black spruce, perched atop the permafrost in the early morning sunlight:

So our destination is also in the spruce forest, under the shadow of the Wrangell and St. Elias Mountains to the east.  We headed west on the Glenn Highway for about 22 miles to find our fishing spot:

Here it was -- Tex Smith Lake:

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game reports that Tex Smith Lake is routinely stocked with rainbow trout -- most recently in May 2019 -- just about a month ago.  Historically, it had been stocked with grayling and salmon, but that was many years ago.  Local fishermen report that, while the local rivers (the Gulkana, the Stikine, the Klultina, the Copper and others) are still full of salmon during the run, which is happening now, much of the Kenai Peninsula and rivers in other parts of Alaska have been fished out, and even several years of restricting fishermen to catch-and-release have not sufficied to bring the salmon back.  Unfortunately, we need a guide on the local rivers, which are not for the faint of heart.  So we elected to do some lake fishing for rainbow trout, which are liberally stocked in selected lakes throughout Alaska.

We picked Tex Smith Lake because our campground host reported that it is the favorite of local who want to actually catch rainbow trout.  We thought, "That's our style!" and did our research.  It's a small lake, but it has a pretty setting, of which we got a glimpse as we left the kayaks at the bottom of the informal boat ramp:

Today was a warm, sunny day, and the lake presented us with its prettiest face:

Below, Kathy finished her final preparations for launching into the lake to hunt the wild fishies:

The far bank is posted as private property, and we saw private development on one end of the lake.  So this is not exactly Alaska wilderness, but, nevertheless, the fishing is supposed to be good:

We had been on the water a half hour or so, when the local bald eagle circled in to keep an eye on us, hoping that we would catch her next meal for her.  Alas, she was to be disappointed, because we fully intended to protect our catch (if any) from her laser dive:

After 2.5 hours of nothing -- experimenting with lots of different flies, wet and dry -- seeing some rises but not being sure what the trout were rising for, Kathy snagged her first trout, a 14 inch beauty, along the shoreline.  No sooner did she bring it to net, then David also caught a 14-incher, just a smidge shorter than Kathy's.  By this time it was 1:00 pm, and we were hungry for lunch.  We paddled back to the boat ramp, ate our sandwiches, and cleaned our two trout.  Finished with those items, we packed up and headed back to Glenallen and our campground.  As we headed east on the Glenn Highway, we were treated to a dramatic view of the Wrangell-St. Elias:

By 3:00 pm, we were home and had finished preparing our fish for dinner.  Alas, a crockpot was already bubbling for tonight, so our fish will wait to be cooked for dinner tomorrow night.  But they look fat and tasty, so we await them with eager tastebuds:

Stay hungry, my friends!

Mud Volcanoes, Gulkana River and Sourdough Creek

Hi Blog!

We made it across the border into Alaska! Our first couple days were spent in Tok, Alaska with logistics like washing the motorhome and Jeep, grocery shopping, laundry, Napa Auto Parts for new turn signal bulbs, and trip planning. After taking care of our chores, we drove down the Tok Cutoff to Glennallen, Alaska. While in Glennallen we hope to explore Wrangle-St. Elias National Park and the Copper River Valley.

Our first day in Glennallen was spent going to all the Visitor Centers - Copper River, Wrangle-St. Elias and the BLM Field Office. We had lunch at the Copper River Lodge where we dined on Copper River salmon sandwiches while chatting with our daughter, Katie. After getting back to camp, we spent the rest of the day poring over all the opportunities for adventure. As with most of our stays, there is more here to do than we have time. The weather here in the Copper River Valley is very changeable. We decided a couple of short hikes would be a good way to start. The folks at the BLM Office recommended we hike to the Tolsona Mud Volcanoes. This sounded too cool to pass up, so we put it first on the list.

On Wednesday, June 19, 2019, we packed our lunch and headed down the Glenn Highway. While the Tolsona Mud Volcanoes are part of Wrangle-St. Elias National Park, there is no access except through the Tolsona Wilderness Campground, a private camping resort. The folks there allow visitors to park their cars for $5.00. Here is the view of the office as we arrived.

The trailhead is a short walk through the campground. We crossed a small stream that runs through the park. There are a number of campsites right along the stream.

We knew we were in for mosquitoes before we even started the hike. We came prepared. We had long sleeve shirts, bug dope and head nets. It wasn't as bad as we feared. However, the trail was very spongy.

Most of the trail was marked with either CDs, tin can lids or ribbons nailed or tied to trees along our route. However, the trail braided and criss-crossed multiple times. We had to keep an eye on the original track to make sure we didn't follow some moose trail off into the woods. A few missteps and we found ourselves standing in ankle deep water. As we approached the mud volcanoes, the marshy, spongy, soggy, gooey, damp, braided trail gave way to a well defined, smooth track surrounded by willow and alder.

After being surrounded by spruce forest, it was quite a surprise to come out to a barren clearing filled with bubbling mud wells.

We were curious to know if they were warm or not, so we carefully approached and tested the water. It felt like cool spring water. A number of logs were placed into the springs -- most likely to mark their location, especially in winter when the area is covered in snow.

The mud "volcanoes" are created by methane gas, which comes from coal beds, bubbling up to the surface. On their journey upwards, the bubbles pass through fine silt, some of which is carried up with the bubble all the way to the surface. When the bubbles pop at the top, the tiny load of silt particles are deposited. The mud flats have been created by the deposition of specks of silt carried up by millions of bubbles over time - an oozing monument to the power of persistence. To see this process in action, click the link to this close-up view of one of the bubbling mud volcanoes.

The campground owners said it was possible to see wildlife on the hike. There are a number of moose in the area as well as a lynx, but so far no bear reports. While we didn't see any wildlife during our hike, the area around the mud volcanoes was filled with prints. Here is the best lynx print we found:

There were also lots and lots of moose prints.

Here is the smallest of the mud volcanoes. Isn't it cute!

We have learned over the years to never go anywhere without knowing how to get back, so Kathy marked our return route:

We made good time on our way back. Having done it once, we knew to look for side trails and work around when we came to muddy sections of the trail. We checked back in with the campground owner and thanked her for the great hike.

Our next adventure took us to the Sourdough Creek Campground, run by the BLM. The campground maintains a one mile interpretive trail along Sourdough Creek. The trailhead marker warns of a rough and narrow trail. However, it was easy-peasy compared to the Mud Volcano Trail.

The trail starts at the far end of the campground where Sourdough Creek enters into the Gulkana River. Caribou moss carpets the forest. It looks and feels like a sponge.  While it is called "moss," it is actually a form of lichen, and is high in carbohydrates and Vitamin C, which is why the caribou like it so much.

Unlike the murky glacial fed rivers in the area, Sourdough Creek has a clear brown appearance from all the dissolved tannins in the soil.

The running water of the creek helps to keep the permafrost at bay so the trees next to the creek have more room to spread their roots and grow tall. A blanket of ferns has taken up residence under the tall trees.

Along the trail are several mosquito feeding stations, otherwise known as interpretive signs.  We're convinced that the BLM erects those signs so that visitors will stand still reading them, long enough for the mosquitoes to get a full meal.

You may think Kathy is napping in this photo, but she is actually hiding from those little blood suckers!

The trail was well maintained with a number of boardwalks through the damp areas.

We soon reached the far end of the trail. Rather than retrace our steps (and feed more mosquitoes), we decided to walk down to the boat ramp and back through the campground to our Jeep. The boat ramp was pretty busy. Sourdough is a popular jumping-off point for river raft trips and guided fishing trips along the Gulkana River.

The Gulkana River begins in the Alaska Range near Summit Lake and flows south into the Copper River. The three forks comprise the largest clearwater river system in the Copper River Basin, draining approximately 2,140 square miles in south central Alaska before it meets the Copper River, which in turn empties into Prince William Sound. Part of the Gulkana River was designated a National Wild and Scenic River.

Just above the campground, the Trans Alaska Pipeline crosses the Gulkana River, on its own bridge which is visible in the distance in the photo below, where Kathy sits and contemplates how a Wild and Scenic River can have a pipeline across it and still be considered wild and scenic.

On our way to Sourdough, we saw this rental Class C on the side of the road with its front end wrapped around a tree. The skid marks on the road told us something bad had happened. We stopped to check on them and they reported no injuries. The tow truck had already been called. There were just waiting. On our way back from our hike, they were still waiting. We again offered assistance, but they assured us they had everything they needed. We don't know whether their RV suffered a blowout, or whether they had to swerve at high speed to avoid colliding with a moose, or whether some other equally bad thing caused their accident.  However, it was just a reminder to be careful out there.

If the weather improves tomorrow, we hope to get our kayaks out and do a little fishing. Stay tuned.