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posted by John : September 10-12, 2010

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On the fly

Whenever we hear from our relatives on the frontier (that's Alaska, of course) there are two constant themes:

1. The weather here is terrible.

2. You wouldn't believe the day we had fishing yesterday. You should have been here.

Last year the weather wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. There was some rain, but some sun, too. This year, though, ho-ly-cow. Blue skies and warm temperatures. Can you believe it? Nobody in Juneau could. Everybody we talked with was agog at the weather. So there goes theme #1. I wonder if it's not the same as in Seattle when we tell everyone it rains all day every day except the week they happen to be here. No, don't move here. Weather's terrible. Yup.

I'm still not too convinced there's a lot of fish in Alaska, though. At least last year Uncle Tony and my father caught lots of fish and I was just not skilled. This year... well... stay tuned. (And I realize it's confusing when he's usually Grandpa Jack, but without the kids around it's weird to call him that. Kind of like me calling Amy, "Mommy," without the kids present. Best we just leave that alone.)

But back to the story: It's the familiar pattern. Fly in late Friday night. Up early to fish Saturday. A moderate hike Saturday afternoon and back by dinner. Up early Sunday for more fishing and then a mild adventure Sunday before dinner and a late flight home.

Amy and the kids left for Chelan after school Friday so we manly men had lots of time to kill at the airport. I've almost got Dad sold on an iPhone or maybe an iPad or even an iWhateverComesNext. It's just a matter of time. The flight was dark and boring. I longed to sleep, but had no luck. Others were blissfully unaware of the passage of time. We were met at the airport and I crashed at my cousin Mary's house with a 5am meet-up at Uncle Tony's place the next morning. Even with the time change I'd get six hours of sleep. Luxurious!

All my alarms went off on schedule and I arrived a few seconds early for breakfast. Punctuality: I haz it. (Sometimes.) Aunt Mary Ann spoiled us with more food than in sensible that early in the morning and we were soon off to the super secret creek that holds lots of fish. It's a bit of a drive, but with good weather the drive isn't bad. If only the espresso stand had been open.

Turns out the super secret spot wasn't so super secret and the parking lot was already pretty full. Still, we saw few people. Tony had a bunch of spots picked out for us, but none were producing. At least I didn't feel as lame as last year when everyone was catching but me. We wound up doing well on Dolly Vardons (more like a trout than a salmon), but we were skunked when fishing for meat. (Yes, we might have done ok if we'd used spinners or dynamite, but those seem none-too-sporting. We preferred to flail about and hook the trees with flies.)

So BAH! for fishing. I made Tony stop a couple of times on the way home so I could take pictures. There's no shortage of views whether it was at Echo Cove or just along the road. No whales, but islands and sea and mountains. I asked for the name of the mountain and got an, I don't know. Why not? I asked. It was a nice peak, surely it had a name. Sure, Tony said, but there are so many why bother knowing them all?

We made our way back to town and found Mary and Alain (my seven year old... er... cousin by some degree) chilling at home. He got out his rocks to show Uncle Mustache (uh... my father) and the conversation soon devolved into a desire to crack open the geodes. Needless to say, this was heading for disaster, but safety goggles, a hammer, and shelter from shrapnel kept most of us safe. The same can't be said for Mary's socks that wound up getting destroyed in the shattering goodness. We went one for four (or thereabouts) and wound up with a bunch of tiny little crystal fragments. But nobody bled so that was good.

Dad, Mary Ann, and Alain headed into town for shopping while Mary and I headed off to hike... also from downtown. Yeah, I know. Would you drive into Seattle to go for a hike? No. How about Bellevue? No. Issaquah? Not a real hike. Oh, well, downtown was lovely in a my-cruise-ship-just-docked-and-I-have-a-couple-of-hours-to-experience-southeast-Alaska kind of way. We found free parking (w00t!) and walked to the tram.

Downtown? Cruise ships? Trams? What kind of lame hike is this going to be?

The tram took us up 1,800 feet, about half the total climb to the diminutive 3,666 foot summit of Gastineau Peak. A) How's that for an ominous elevation? B) That's it? 4,000 is just barely out of the trees at home.

At the top of the tram there's a restaurant, gift shop, eagle cage, etc. All the stuff you'd expect in Alaska. The trail headed up the hill at a moderate slope. Well maintained, brush all around, minimal views. Hmph.

And then... pow. Wait: POW! Actually: POW!!!!!

The views opened up. The wispy clouds contrasted with the blue sky and the green hills. The tourists faded away behind us and the sign announced we were on a wilderness trail with minimal maintenance. We could see down to the Gastineau Channel, south along the Inside Passage, North to Santa's Workshop, and east into Canada.

And the views got better from there.

We arrived at a saddle between Gold Ridge and Gastineau Peak. I think this was Mary's initial destination, but we were feeling good and had made excellent time. The trail ran the ridge separating the basin below Gastineau Peak and the Channel, hopping over rocks and distracting me with crazy views. Mary apologized for the crowds. We'd seen perhaps 10 people since leaving the tourists. I explained that at home if there were views like this within an hour's drive of anywhere there would be a permit system in place and people would be lined up.

On the summit we had nearly 360 degree views. The next peak over was just slightly out of reach for us. A group of three (including one from Russia proving Sarah Palin was right) reported it was about 40 minutes down and back up so we chose to hang out where we were. I couldn't stop taking pictures. My need for names came out again. Mary was on to me, though, and had answers for everything. Suspiciously, so, in fact. I caught her when every waterfall I asked about was called "Bridal Veil Falls." Hmph.

We'd seen a pair of coyotes lounging in the sun on the way up and from the summit we could see a goat on the cliffs below Gold Ridge. We found berries and took pictures and then I took more pictures. Wow. Just, wow. As much as I wanted to hang out or continue around the basin (apparently you can do a loop and come out a creek far below) we reluctantly returned the way we'd come.

The stunning experience was made surreal when we started encountering the tourists fresh from the boat, huffing and puffing to the first viewpoint. We road the tram back to sea level, wandered back to the car, and were showered in time for dinner. I paid for my lodging and food with tech support help late into the night. Still, I managed to get five hours of sleep, about normal for a weekday.

Morning. Coffee stands still closed. Truly, this is roughing it.

The parking lot at Uncle Tony's secret spot was less crowded, but not empty. We hiked hard downstream and found his favorite spot empty. The water seemed colder, but the sun was up and the few clouds we'd seen the previous day were completely absent. As usual, our illustrious guide hooked into a Silver pretty quickly. To show us how it's done, of course. At least there'd be something to take home.

But wait. Why is my line taut? Snagged again, huh? They should dredge these rivers to make sure fishing noobs like me don't lose all their flies on the bottom. Hmm... must have dislodged the branch when I yanked on it because it's moving. But branches don't jump out of the water and certainly don't look all that much like salmon. Could it be? Hu-rray! I'm not completely inept! I think Tony was most relieved that I wasn't going to be four days with no salmon (two from last year, plus the day before). It wasn't the biggest, but it was mine.

Not one to be left out, Dad caught the next one. He had to land it all by himself while Tony and I took pictures. We're so helpful. Eagles landed downstream and fought over some spawned out fish. No bears, though I did find some fresh scat while pushing through brush to the next hole. We found a spot just below the Stretch of Salmon Salvation where the Dolly Vardon were thick and willing to hit anything that moved. Tony lounged on the shore eating lunch (at 9:30am) while Dad and I pretended we were trout fishing in Montana.

No more salmon to be had downstream, we walked the trail back toward the car stopping at a few likely pools. None panned out in spite of some death defying (or at least risking getting wet) log walking and exploration. I managed to put most of my flies in the trees, which elicited the usual, "I think they're closer to the water," or "You really think they're holding in the trees?" My family is so much fun.

With a solid 30 pounds of fish in my pack we called it good and retreated to the car. Along the way Tony told us that next year we'd need to come up on a non-weekend when the locals would be working. He'd take us to some really secret spots and we'd knock 'em dead. Basically, it was "You should have been here yesterday," but looking to the future.

On the way back we were introduced to some fine, fine coffee from a Juneau-original coffee shop. Tony had been trying to replicate a drink without really knowing its name, but when he started describing his friend and how he ordered it the barrista picked it up right away. It really is a small town.

Of course, Mary and I headed out again. This time it was for a short walk to Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Lake. We'd seen bears there last year, but the water was up so high the trail to the falls was flooded. This year we were able to walk right to it along with a million others pushing strollers and walking their dogs. We dodged the worst of it by swinging wide through some muck getting me close enough to stand on an iceberg. I'm so daring! Of course, I hardly compare to Mary and her husband, Tim, who went kite-boarding among the icebergs just a few weeks later.

Mary and I crammed in one last little walk to Point Louisa that had great views of the water, a distinctly Alaskan view of a fishing boat against a mountains backdrop, and some distinctly non-Alaskan paddle boarders barely above the cold water. I suppose with weather as nice as it was everybody goes out to play no matter what.

The trip wrapped up feeling too short. The kids had been disappointed to hear I was going to visit Alain without them. They had such a good time when he and Mary visited us that it was declared totally unfair that I'd go alone. It certainly seems like it might be a good trip for us to all head up north in a couple of years. We just need to guarantee the same weather.

And, of course, there are stats: Between the fishing and hiking and the touring I managed to rack up 11.8 miles and about 2,000 feet of gain.

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