Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Denali: First Look

First look at Denali
Just a glance over the side of the canoe revealed the life swimming in this crystal-clear spring creek situated just off the Alaska Highway about a 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Big Arctic grayling--and some off the biggest whitefish I'd ever seen--cruised in the blue-green depths, taunting three would-be anglers.

But it wasn't to be this day--the reel seat on my 4-weight had somehow worked itself free during transit, and I was left with my tenkara rod, which, while perfectly functional most days, didn't seem to have the distance I needed to separate me from the educated grayling on this heavily fished stretch of the Delta Clearwater River. My two counterparts, John Nichols and his son, Ted, were fishing with spinning gear and sporting the same results. In fact, when we later met another group of anglers who did the same float we did, we learned we'd all gotten skunked.

The Delta Clearwater River
I'd come all the way to Alaska and saw more grayling than I'd ever seen in one place. And I didn't catch a single one from this river.

And I didn't mind a bit. Around every bend of the spring creek, something new waited to greet me. Golden birch trees and skinny black spruce guarded the river. Some of the most impressive--and some of the most humble--backwoods cabins rested in the timber along the water, giving the setting a summer-camp-like atmosphere, despite the full onset of autumn in the north country. Now and then, through the clouds and the chill of early September, I could see Denali.

I'd been to southeast Alaska a number of times--fly fishing the rainforest might be my favorite little corner of the craft. But I'd never been to Alaska's "interior," so that morning, as we readied the car for a day on the water, I got my first look at the storied peak, the tallest in North America at well over 20,000 feet.

Then, throughout the day, as clouds parted, we'd catch glimpses of the mountain which, more often than not, is shrouded in snow clouds no matter the time of year. The view across the flat water of the river--imagine transporting the upper Henry's Fork to the base of Denali and you kind of get an idea of how impressive it really is--never disappointed. Casting line to tight-lipped fish while gazing at the imposing mountain well off in the distance makes a guy feel pretty damned insignificant. It's an experience I'll never forget.

When the icy, transparent Clearwater met up with the muddy, glacial Tanana a few miles downstream, the fishing ended entirely, but the raw scenery in this austere place just kept spitting out the hits. The Tanana never runs clear--it's all glacial meltwater and it runs the color of an iced latte into the mighty Yukon a few hundred miles downstream.

Shrouded in clouds.
We floated the Tanana for an hour or so until we hit the outlet of a small clearwater lake. We then paddled madly against the current for another hour or so until we got to the lake itself. A manic dash across the wind-blown lake and short portage later put us at the takeout.

The whole time, Denali stood like a sentinel above our little day-long adventure. Off in the distance, sometimes whole, other times only partially revealed, the mountain ... persisted.

With that for wallpaper, I'd be perfectly happy with more fishless days.


  1. I had a house for some years in Talkeetna, next to the gas station. The Talkeetna river has some good fishing, as do the rivers and streams down the highway towards Palmer. Try the Little Susitna, Willow Creek, and some others. Good rainbows too, though you'll probably have to try flesh patterns or beads. Enjoy!

  2. Next time I'm up there, that's where I'm headed... I ventured up the Dalton Highway on this trip... wanted to see the Arctic. Next time, south of Fairbanks (or north of Anchorage) for Dollies, rainbows and grayling. Such an amazing state. Can't wait to get back to it...

  3. The picture titled "First look at Denali" is surreal.

    I hope to get there in a couple of years.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. I hope you do, Ed... thanks for stopping by.

  5. Ain't it, though? Tough to come home after that trip!

  6. One place I would love to get to someday...even if a skunk greeted me at the gates.


  7. You really must... Absolutely amazing.

  8. Breath-taking photos Mike. First look at Denali; beautiful! I love the new look of the blog too.

  9. I must apologize for my post a couple of minutes ago. I was thinking about a guy at work I owe a report to, and typed Mike instead of Chris. Realized it 1 second too late. Maybe it's time to turn in for the night.

    1. No worries... Good luck with that report...