Among angling cognoscenti, the Kanektok in Alaska’s southwest enjoys a stellar reputation. The river flows roughly 100 miles from its source at Pegati Lake through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge, coursing westward between the Kilbuck and Akhlun Mountains, through open expanses of tundra, before meeting the Bering Sea near the Alaska Native village of Quinhagak. Fish here include Dolly Varden, Arctic char, grayling, all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America, and, perhaps most famously, “leopard” rainbow trout, so nicknamed for their brilliantly colored fine, round spots.
There are several reputable lodges that offer anglers access to the Kanektok’s piscine riches. But it’s also possible - with a lot of planning and a bit of hard work - to float the river on your own. A true wilderness adventure of self-reliance, untrammeled scenery and unlimited fishing.
And occasional rain.
Some biting bugs.
And the occasional grizzly bear.
It’s all part of the adventure.
“We have customers with lots of rowing experience but little fishing knowledge, and those with little rowing experience who’ve been fishing for years,” said Aaron Osantoski, co-owner of Papa Bear Adventures, which outfits DIY float trips on the Kanektok and other rivers in southwest Alaska from its base in the town of Bethel. “For first-timers, I make it clear that this isn’t for the faint of heart, and that they should do their research. It’s my job to make sure that everyone is set up for success. Our motto is, ‘Leave the worrying to us.’ I spend lots of time in the offseason making sure that everyone feels comfortable before embarking on their adventure. We send customers our fishing primer, key coordinates to input into their GPS, and cover river etiquette.”
All floaters must carry a satellite phone or GPS system for emergencies. Some people will take a gun as bear protection, but many do not; a study showed that “98% of persons carrying [bear pepper spray] were uninjured after a close encounter with bears.”
Our foursome - Geoff Roach, Peter Gyerko, Ken Matsumoto and me - began planning for our eight-day August trip in March, when we secured the last slot Papa Bear had to fly rafters to Pegati Lake. (Osantoski said that 2021 was his busiest summer on record, thanks to pent-up pandemic demand.) In addition to booking our flights in and out from the river, we reserved two rafts, coolers and camp chairs. (Papa Bear rents any camping equipment you might need.) Next, we began gathering gear to mail to Bethel before our trip, because checked bags couldn’t accommodate all of our fishing and camping equipment.
A few weeks before our departure, we went food shopping. We had a detailed menu that had been revised and streamlined over several trips, down to the last half-cup of oatmeal. (There are strict weight limits for the floatplane.) Although some people carry perishables, we relied on a raft-stable larder of pasta, beans, rice, dried fruits and grains that could be easily prepared with water. Garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and hot sauces added a bit of zest, and they constituted the skillet foundation for the fresh fish my cohort hoped to enjoy. A few fifths of spirits, some canned beer, cured sausages and cheeses, and a jar of pesto were our indulgences.
When we reached Bethel, Papa Bear’s crew was waiting to haul our baggage to the lodge. Once there, we repacked said baggage (along with the gear we’d sent earlier) in dry bags and changed into our waders. Osantoski ran through some basic safety tips: Camp on gravel bars, so any passing bears can see you from a distance; take coolers out of the raft, and pull the raft on shore and tie it off; toss any fish remains in the river; bury your poop; and know where your companion’s raft is as you’re floating. Then he handed us two cans of bear spray (effective when a bear is within 30 feet) and said to get ready, because we’d fly out soon: Geoff and Pete with Papa Bear co-owner Justin Essian, Ken and me with pilot Andy Wilson.
Midway through the 45-minute flight to Pegati, Wilson brought the de Havilland Beaver (the workhorse floatplane of Alaska) into a low bank turn over the Eek Valley. “Wanna see some bears?” he asked. “Look out to your right.” Roughly 2,000 feet below, a cinnamon-shaded grizzly sow the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and several cubs were foraging for berries. Before we reached Pegati, we passed over another solo grizzly and a handful of moose. After touching down, Wilson motored to shore, where Geoff and Pete were pumping up their raft. After unloading our gear, he motored to the far side of the lake, accelerated and lifted off.
Just like that, we were on our own, with no connection to the outside world beyond our Garmin GPS. Wilson’s departure aroused a sense of both great exhilaration (A true wilderness adventure has begun!) and minor dread (Which way were those grizzlies going?). But there wasn’t much time to dwell on these mixed emotions, because there was work to be done: pumping up our raft, setting up our sleeping and cooking tents, and repacking our bags (again) to distribute weight more equally between the rafts. With our Roll-a-Cots tucked tightly into the tent, we drifted off to sleep with many miles - and hopefully many fish - ahead.
Following a breakfast of oatmeal (augmented with dried fruit, sugar and powdered milk) and French press coffee, we settled into the routine that would hold for much of the trip: break camp, load rafts, float and fish for 10 to 12 hours, make camp, prepare dinner, clean dishes, retire. We needed to cover roughly 13 miles a day to make our pickup in Quinhagak a week hence; the Garmin would allow us to chart our progress, and daylight that held until 11 p.m. would accommodate our full itinerary. The trout fishing is best along the midsection of the river, so we opted to cover more miles early on, so we could slow down later. While one angler operated the oars, the other fished ... or took in the scenery.
The Kanektok is not the glacier-laden, snowcapped-peaks-rising-abruptly-from-the-Pacific of cruise ship Alaska. But the short, rugged mountains the river courses past in its first 50 miles are majestic in their own right. As the topography levels to tundra en route to the sea, there is always the chance of spotting moose, caribou, wolves or bear on the hillsides above the river. Below the surface, there’s an endless parade of swimming, spawning and dying sockeye and Chinook salmon.
For us, the fishing provided plenty of distraction.
In the Lower 48, a 20-inch rainbow trout is considered a trophy. On the Kanektok, a 20-inch rainbow is the average. Even better, we were able to coax the almost psychedelically colored fish from their resting spots among root wads and downed branches with flies imitating small mice, particularly a pattern called the Pip Squeak. For a fly angler, it’s hard to express the excitement of a large trout taking a large dry fly. Some would sip the mouse like a tiny mayfly; others would leap completely out of the water, grabbing the fly on the way down. All rainbows were carefully released. Some of the coho (or silver) salmon we encountered lower in the river made it to the skillet, about as fresh a plate of salmon as one could hope for.
The pleasures of our wilderness trip were not always easily won. Carrying 50-pound dry bags up and down from the river and driving large tent stakes into gravel bars takes its toll on an almost-60-year-old body after a week, not to mention the constant bending a river trip demands. (Never have I so appreciated tables and counters!) The attentions of no-see-ums and mosquitoes could occasionally drive one to the fringes of distraction, though the bugs were not as bad as on some Alaska excursions. Such small hardships were outweighed by the simplicity of one’s river existence. You settle into a rhythm on such a trip, marking time by chores, meals, a nightcap and fishing. On the Kanektok, one needs little to achieve a level of contentment.
And then there was our breakfast visitor.
On our fourth morning, as I was attempting to cook pancakes, Geoff began yelling: A grizzly was making its way up the gravel bar toward our camp. Recalling that it was important to make noise and appear big, we banded together and yelled while banging pots and pans. The bear was undeterred. It was not the size of the mama bear we had seen on the flight in, but even at 500 or 600 pounds, the animal was capable of mayhem. When it reached a distance of 60 feet, Geoff and Pete removed the safeties on our bear sprays. Pete then had the presence of mind to shake our tall tent, which may have appeared as a bigger bear ... or a Sasquatch. The bear wheeled around and ran about 150 feet back. Though he approached our camp again, he kept at a slightly safer distance, eventually disappearing into the bush.
“It sounds like a younger male bear who had recently been kicked out by his mom,” ventured Keith Oster, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, after I described our encounter. “When a mother griz and two or three almost full-grown cubs are together, they are imposing and pretty fearless. He may still have had the mentality that he’s untouchable.” Oster felt as if the bear’s behavior - curious and persistent - suggested that he may have considered some aspect of our party as meal-worthy. “You guys did everything right,” he added.
We thought twice about serving pancakes the remainder of the trip.
IF YOU GO:
- Papa Bear Adventures
Comprehensive outfitting services for anglers and hunters wishing to float the Kanektok River (and a handful of others in the area) on their own. Includes bush plane flights, raft and camping equipment rentals, and ample advice. The average cost for Papa Bear to fly anglers in and out of the Kanektok is between $1,505 and $1,547 per person, depending on fuel surcharges and with no rental costs included. Our trip, which included rental for two rafts, two coolers and four chairs for eight days, cost about $2,200 per person, plus a 14-day nonresident sport fishing license fee of $75.
- Alaska West
Operates a lodge on the lower river, giving anglers guided fishing (from motor-operated boats), hot meals and a warm, dry place to lay their heads. Seven nights/six days of guided fishing at tent camp from $6,945 per person. Tips and airfare not included.
- Dave Duncan & Sons
Operates two lodges on the lower half of the river, giving anglers guided fishing (from motor-operated boats), plus all meals and comfortable tent lodging. Also provides floats of entire river. Guided float trips for seven nights/six days of fishing $5,700 per person. Tips and airfare to Bethel not included. Eight nights/seven days guided fishing at one of Duncan’s tent camps from $5,800 per person. Tips and airfare to Bethel not included.