Wednesday, June 27, 2012

West Side Story

Sorry, this is a delayed post for a little adventure two weeks ago. Also fair warning, there's some dead animal in this post so if that's not your thing this post is not for you.

A few weeks ago I talked with Josh down in Kenai, and he invited me to come down and fly over to the west side of Cook Inlet for some bear hunting and king fishing. Friday couldn't come soon enough.
I headed down to Soldotna, making a stop off in camp to say hello and grill up some steaks. I met Josh at the Soldotna airport around 7:30 and we were airborne not long after.
Josh flys his Super Cub to the west side pretty much every chance he gets, and often hangs out at a cabin there. It doesn't take too long to understand why.
I havn't been to the west side since Spring 2010 when Justin and I went over very near to where Josh and Iwere this weekend and did some crust skiing on the Kustatan River and the big swamps that cover the area.
Although there is oil and gas infrastructure along the coast of the west side, the area is largely unihabitated and visited only by those with wings to get there.

The final bend of the Kenai River as it flows into Cook Inlet. On the right bank is downtown Kenai.

Iliamna appears to have some steam coming from it's top, though they're just clouds.

Mt. Spurr.

Redoubt, shrouded in lenticulars.
 The flight over the inlet is short, and with good weather it was smooth and scenic. Josh set us down on a narrow sand strip surrounded by trees near to the cabin he hangs out at. The second he killed the prop big horseflies began dive bombing the engine compartment and windshield of the plane. The grumble of the plane's engine was quickly replaced by the din of buzzing mosquitoes. Big swamps and lots of rain means lot of bugs. We unloaded our gear and Josh pulled out some big contructed wood boxes to fit over his plane's over-sized tundra tires. Bears have been known to chew on and flatten plane tires, as well as shred plane fabric and puncture fuel cans.
It doesn't take long to remember that very little stands in the way of stranding here, and between the bugs and the bears, one gets the impression quickly that there's not much on the west side that doesn't want to chew on you or your stuff.
We hung out at the cabin for a while, which site on a ridge in the middle of 1.000s of acres of swamp overlooking a shallow lake.
After a bit we hopped into the mud boat, a small jon boat with a mud motor for navagating the shallow reedy waters of the lake.

We headed a ways away from the cabin througha  series of narrow channels before reaching a beaver lodge a short distance from a ridge. The lodge was a perfect blind and rest to mount the rifle.


Sitting behind the lodge, we watched 3 hawks diving into the reeds, presumably after fish.

Mud boat.

Perfect stand.
 As the sun sarted to burn the top of the mountains behind us, we heard a rusting in the vegetation on the ridge, and shortly after a good sized black bear stuck his head into the opening. He stepped out into plain view opening a perfect broadside. I squeezed the trigger.
Stupidly, I had not been fully braced for the kick back of the 30.06, and was a bit disoriented.
The bear charged in a straightline in the direction he had been facing full-speed. Josh, who had a .357 for backup, as sometime the bears are known to instead run at the shooter, stood up and fired 2 rounds, though none made contact as the bear disapeared into some high grass 25 yards from where he had been when I pulled the trigger.
The bear had made no movement to indicate that it had been hit, and had apparently just run at full speed, frietened by the gunfire. Josh and I were convinced I'd missed, and as I thought about it, I determined that I did not have a good grip pon the stock, causing the gun to lift slightly when fired, likley causing the bullet to go over the bear's back.
We decided to give it 5 minutes just in case, and then go to the scene and look for any blood.
While we talked, the beavers living in the lodge were grunting up a storm and were not too pleased with our activities.

When we got to where the bear had been standing, we found nothing, no fur, no blood. We decided to take a walk toward where the bear had disapeared. We made it to about where he had disapeared when Josh froze, raised his gun and started rapidly calling "Hey bear!"
Just 25 yards down the game trail, the bear was balled up and dead.

Photo courtesy of J.O.
The bullet had passed straight through both lungs and heart. but missed his mass of shoulder muscle, so when hit, he showed no sign of impact. The bear had run as far as he could with no lungs and no heart. In some ways, its scary to think he could go that far at that pace, and is clear evidence that a direct shot won't neccesarily stop an attack.

Josh gets to it with the knife.
Slow sunset dressing out the bear.

We didn't make it back to the cabin until late. /This was taken around 2:30 after eating some of the bear and calling it a night.
 The next morning we flew a short ways to the MacArthur River to fish for kings. A few others were taking advantage of the nice day and several planes were on the white sand strip along the popular fishing spot. We didn't see any kings rolling, lots of reds though, and could not entice any bites.

Flying low along the river.


White sand beaches in Alaska.

Back at the cabin, we went for a walk about, and only a 1/2 mile away found the remains of a calf. Hard to say what the cause was for sure..


The cabin. Note that the stair fold up onto the deck and all the windows are set high. Without these measures bears will break in.

On the way home, Josh stayed low along the beach. I loved this shot of the lonely skiff. It's a long boat ride in that boat across the Inlet.

Trading Bay Production Facility.


One of the many Inlet platforms.

From left, the Tesoro Refinery, the LNG plant with a filling tanker, and the closed fertilizer plant in Nikiski.

K-Beach Road.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ambiguous Home

I worked in Valdez for the previous two weeks following the end of the Memorial Day Road Trip (see the previous post), and last Thursday, it was time to hit the road.

The Coast Guard Cutter Mustang was docked outside my hotel room at the Valdez Harbor. Not a bad view huh?

Valdez is a cool town, I've been spending about two days a week there since late April. It's sort of like Kenai/Soldotna, except, without Kenai or Soldotna just down the road, and instead, huge mountains and tons of snow. Llike a lot of small towns, everyone knows everyone, and everyone is generally pretty friendly and easy to get along with. A lot like what I'm used to...
This particular two-week trip was nice since I had my bikes with so I could go ride after work. Let's just say, Valdez is no biker heaven. Not a big surprise there, a place that averages 20 feet of snow a winter gets a lot of liquid precipitation too. Roads are few (as in one) and trails are still deep under the snow. That being said, the sights are out of this world.

Durring my second week word came in that the big surge of Copper River reds headed to their natal streams had prompted Fish and Game to liberalize the dipnet fishery in Chitina and boost limits from 15 per head of household to 25, with the first opener scheduled for Thursday, the day I planned to leave Valdez.
Talk of "walking on water" was common, so I decided it would be worth my while to make the mere 60-mile round trip spur back to Chitina on my 300-mile trip home to try my luck.
A colleague in Valdez offered to let me borrow a net he had stashed at his cabin in Chitina and make use of an old back to haul my catch.
The generosity was much appreciated as net for the Copper won't work too well on the Kenai, and vice versa.

The dipnet fishery on the Copper (quick definition of dipnetting, it involves dipping a net of regulated size into a body of water to scoop out fish - courtesy of Capt. Obvious) is fairly undeveloped, especially when compared to the Russian River in Cooper Landing or developed sections of the Kenai.
Essentially, dipnetters drive to Chitina at the end of the Edgerton Highway, 30 miles from its spur off the Richardson Highway. The road splits left or right, a left heading onward to McCarthy, or right, which goes two miles to O'Brien Creek. There are some unmarked parking areas along this stretch, and then the road dumps down a steep hill to the beach where O'Brien flows into the silty Copper. A pedestrian/ATV bridge leads over O'Brien and heads high above the Copper as it churns through Woods Canyon. What is now basically a wooded ATV trail, was once the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, the means of transport for the lucrative Kennecott Mines (see the last post).
Along the trail are steep goat paths that lead down into the canyon to fishing spots. There are few markations to tell what's publicly accessible, and often it's impossible with the thick vegetation to know sometimes what one will find at the end of the goat trails.

I found a nice little spot far down the trail.
 I was given plentiful advice from friends in Valdez on where to go and how to stay safe. The Copper makes the Kenai look like a lazy stream, with its chocolate milk-colored waters and steep-walled sides in the canyon. Many of the fishing spots are actually just ledges, and the key tactic is to find an area where the canyon walls create a back eddy for the reds to hang out in. Smart dipnetters will rope up and wear a life vest. Not many people swim this river and live to tell about it...

Looking across the river.

I knew when I arrived in Chitina fishing was not walk on water. No one was too glum (after all, it was just the first day of the four-day opener) but most coolers looked clean.
I fished from shore for a while but most folks who were shore-based had called a quits by noon.
I was beginning to think I should do the same, but I saw folks in boats still able to catch a few fish here and there and that kept me motivated.
After a while, a guy came by the area who was in a boat alone. I had just watched a few dipnetters in a boat that looked like they knew what they were doing scoop three fish in a single pass a little out past the rock I was standing on. I told the lone dipnetter about this, and that he should try a little farther out.
"Wanna jump in?" He offered back.
Maybe I should have hesitated and given some thought to jumping into a stranger's boat several miles from anywhere, but that thought never occurred to me!

Had it not been for Jeff and his boat, these guys would have been in someone else's cooler or somewhere upriver.
Jeff, from Fairbanks, said he'd been fishing the Copper for years and was shocked how slow it was. Apparently the big slug of fish was still somewhere downriver.
Regardless, we gave it our best for the next 3.5 hours and were able to get a total of three fish each. By dipnet standards, that's god damned slow.

On the flip side, the sun was out and the views were awesome.

Eventually we went back to shore and Jeff said he was going to take his fish back to his camp to ice them and take a nap. He offered to pick me back up in a bit if I was still around. We were both pretty beat.
I later deeply regretted not giving him some money for gas. I'm pretty sure that thought never occurred to him as he pulled out, and it sure didn't to me. I was a lot more concerned with destroying a sandwich, but when I realized it later I felt pretty bad. I have doubts Jeff will ever find this blog, but if he does, he should send me a line!

After a bit of recovery I started thinking about what to do next. The fishing was slow, no one was really catching anything from shore; if I headed back to the car and got on the road to Anchorage I could be home around midnight and still have the whole weekend to play. Leaving right then meant this would be a cool experience and an awesome start to a weekend. Sticking around was betting that the fish would show. It was guaranteed regardless, more people would show and the laid back atmosphere would probably get a little eroded.

Riding back to the car I took a few pics. This is a good perspective of the size of the river and the height of the canyon, look at the boat and people standing on the rock.

Here's the same scene, zoomed in. Charter boats that leave from O'Brien creek will take netters to fishing spots on the other side of the river where there are no trails or access points. This is a classic spot.

Here's another good perspective shot with a classic spot below. Note that the dipnetters down there are all roped up.

On the ride back I talked with other dipnetters and learned I was one of the few who had any fish at all. The writing was on the wall for me.

To get back to the fishing spots, most people use ATVs or bikes if they don't have a boat. I lashed the handle of the net to the frame of my bike and carried the net head on a backpack. It worked really well.

A view of the mouth of O'Brien Creek. There's lots of parking and camping on the beach.
Talk with folks back in Anchorage revealed that mountain biking was awesome in town and likely good down on the Peninsula. Had I not just been in the Chitina area two weeks ago I might have stuck around just because, but I'd been away from home for a while and my bike beckoned. I was Anchorage bound, and then Peninsula bound.

I headed and gutted my fish on the river and cleaned them at home.

On Saturday, Mike C and I headed down the the Peninsula to ride Lower Russian Lakes Trail to the Upper Lake and back.
The only patch of snow we saw, near the trail's junction above the Lower Lake. The 6 to 7-foot deep gulch was filled with avi debris and then tunneled out by melt to create a snow bridge none of us had too much confidence in!
 We ended up meeting up with an Anchorage crew, and though we mostly split up, we still grouped back up at some of the key stopping points along this section of trail.

The two Mikes.

Upper Lake.

So, is it next weekend yet?