Alaska: The Land Of ‘Almost’


The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 


Stop, Lew; I think I saw something!”

“What was it?” he asked as I pointed toward the big lake we had just passed.

“Not sure, but I think it was a moose standing on the backside next to the shoreline,” I replied.

Lew maneuvered the boat like a pro and eased us into the opening of the narrow slough. The wall of willows blocking our view slowly receded, bringing us to a stop. With zero wind, an onslaught of mosquitoes, vengeful and unforgiving in their quest for blood, swarmed.

We both brought up our binoculars  and, as it turned out, I had seen something after all: a bull, standing seemingly unconcerned on the far side of the lake. He was small, but size didn’t matter in our quest to find an antlered bull to fill the freezer. However, getting close enough for Lew to make the shot would be the tough part, especially with no cover. 

Then the bull did something totally unexpected: he jumped into the water and started swimming towards us! Lew and I couldn’t believe it, and in no time the bull was next to the boat! 

Now, I’ve been in on many moose kills in water situations; it’s no fun and the work can be more than it’s worth. Dragging them to dry land is quite an undertaking, and before you’re done you’re totally soaked and standing in waist-deep water.

This bull seemed to be on a mission as he swam close to the boat and cared very little that we were there. We debated on what to do. After close inspection, we could see his face and eyes were covered by black flies and mosquitoes. We guessed the cool water provided some relief, overpowering his fear of us. We finally made the decision against harvesting it, knowing that there might be another bull upriver and in a better location. So we grabbed our cameras and snapped several hundred photos while he swam away. It was quite
the experience.

Moments like this happen a lot in Alaska. Frankly, everything is “almost” in the Arctic. “We almost got there,” or “That bear was almost in range,” or “That moose was almost in the
right place.”

Indeed, it seems that a lot of things in the hunting and fishing world make us say “Almost!” especially this time of year when the water is high and conditions aren’t quite ideal.

WE HAD A COOL, wet summer here in the Last Frontier’s far north. It rained consistently, or so it seemed, which brought on the bugs and an increasingly “high” amount of vegetation. Most places weren’t accessible, some were underwater and some simply were gone – washed away forever. It seemed like if you stopped somewhere, you better have had a head net, DEET or at least a Thermacell. 

Lew Pagel and I had planned our early-season trip long ago, knowing that Aug. 1 would find us up the Kobuk River enjoying a leisurely week of fishing, and bear and moose hunting. We knew where we wanted to go based on the extraordinary trip we’d taken a couple of years earlier. It had been a magnificent experience that saw us catch sheefish and some of the biggest chum salmon you can imagine. We also saw bears; though we took a transporter to get there and couldn’t hunt that time, we could this time in a boat.

With the long day, sunshine and clear skies, it was a glorious ride upriver on the Kobuk. Finding the moose early and then seeing flock after flock of waterfowl gave us the feeling that it was going to be another epic adventure. It reminded both of us of old times – days spent on the Kobuk searching for whatever the river brought us. The river, however, was high, full from bank to bank and hiding all of those pesky sandbars and rocks. Debris filled the waterway as well, with whole trees uprooted from their dark clay homes passing by. The obstacles gave Lew quite the workout in the boat.

Upon arriving at our old fishing spot, we could see that it was quite different than two years before. The sandbar where we had camped and planned to again was gone. The narrow stream where we had caught fish after fish was a raging, swirling whirlpool that stretched far and wide and
looked impossible. 

Dejected, we decided to go ahead and find a place to camp for the night, but there wasn’t much except for a narrow strip of sandbar on the north side of the river. We had barely set up the tent when the water started to rise rapidly. We quickly disassembled camp, packed the boat and left.

What a disappointment, but being without shelter was more disconcerting. We had passed a cabin several miles back, and even though it was 2 a.m. with rain threatening, it was our only choice. We found it and spent the night along with a couple thousand mosquitoes that found their way in. 

THE NEXT DAY WE headed back the way we had come, knowing that our fishing trip was a bust but hoping that we might find another moose or maybe even see a bear. We saw the latter, and in great numbers. It had been some time since I had shot a bear with my bow, as tough a task to do as there is. Getting within range without him knowing or spooking is a very tricky undertaking, and in my opinion one of the toughest Alaska hunts to pull off. 

The first three bears saw us long before we noticed them. Each ducked into the high willow at the last moment without allowing us the chance to land and make a stalk. It was a bit disheartening, but exciting to say the least. 

We saw two more bears – small in size compared to the first – and even a sow and three cubs made their way across the river in front of us. To say there aren’t plenty of bears in Game Management Unit 23 is a mistake. With the current change allowing two bears per year in this unit, it is quite reasonable. Maybe that is why we didn’t see as many moose?

The last bear was a shooter and he was in a good spot. The high bank lining the river was ideal for an ambush, and with him cruising the shoreline and not paying much attention to us, it would allow for an easy approach. 

Lew eased the boat towards a point where we could rendezvous; it was easily within rifle range, but I had my bow. The bear finally noticed us and hesitated like they all do. I made my way to the front of the boat and prepared to exit when the big bear did what all big smart bruins do, head into the willow to never be seen again. 

I looked at Lew: “Almost!”

WITH THINGS LOOKING DOWN, we headed home to lick our wounds, regroup and go to plan B. The long ride across the always-treacherous Kobuk Lake was uneventful, and Lew had us home safe and sound in no time. The next day we would go in a different direction.

The Noatak River lies to the north and courses hundreds of miles while encircling a vast region including the Noatak National Preserve. In my opinion, this was once a hunting mecca, but with changes in time, weather and migration patterns it has declined in recent years. Oh, there’s still moose and muskox, but the once-vast caribou herds don’t make their appearance there as they once did. But the fishing is still some of the best around.

Our goal was to make it to Pike Lake. Realize that most states, especially Alaska, have numerous lakes named after northerns. Many people will agree and even laugh at the idea. But the lake we were trying to get to was indeed one of the best. The key to our success would be if we could get there. The lake itself sits inland, several miles from the main channel. It’s deep and the fishing can be some of the best in the world, but getting there is a daunting task, and if you don’t have someone experienced in boatcraft, it’s almost impossible. 

If it’s a dry year and the water is down, it is impossible with a prop motor. Even most jet-motored boats have trouble, but with the high water and the continuous rain we had been getting, we thought we might be able to make the voyage in.

We cut into the slough like a racecar and made our way towards the lake. We knew the further we ventured in, the narrower and shallower it would get. The water was dense with mud and debris, but as it started to clear and turn black we knew we were getting closer. 

The lake itself isn’t on map or a GPS, so knowing the right channel and turns to make is critical. At one point, we turned left when we should have gone right, and it wasn’t until many miles later that we realized our mistake. We finally got on track, and with each mile the channel narrowed
quite considerably. 

The water turned from black to a clear burnt-orange color that told us we were close. The last 300 yards was the tricky part, when it was maybe a foot deep. When Lew’s prop caught the gravel I turned to him: “Almost.” 

But Lew was determined. Raising his motor, we ventured ever so slowly through the current – and made it!

THE LAKE IS HUGE! It covers several square miles, with a few areas that can be close to 100 feet deep. When I ventured north this past spring to hunt sheep and bears, I crossed its frozen mass several times on a snowmachine, not knowing if I would ever get to the other side – it’s that big!

The lake’s big pike are legendary, so we obviously wanted to catch a few. Lew circled the lake and guided us into the better parts for fishing. With the rain at bay it was turning into a great day as we casted here and there, trying to hook into one of those
incredible fighters. 

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of pike, never have been. Their long sharp teeth can play havoc on your hands; there have been several times when I actually thought I was going to bleed to death. But they are so much fun to catch, and if you haven’t eaten pike, you should, as long as you can get past the bones. 

We took time to eat an MRE, and then continued to fish the small pools, hoping to hook into something big. My new Fish Eagle rod and Cabela’s Prodigy reel impressed me greatly, and I was glad I purchased them before the trip. We were using Johnson Silver Minnows, silver and gold spoons that pike find irresistible. 

As the wind pushed us near the shore we located the fish. Hard hits beneath the black water bent our rods almost in half, letting us know that we had hit pay dirt. I caught a small one, Lew caught a monster and then me again. It was back and forth throughout the afternoon and evening. 

As the rain started to come down and the evening dusk turned to night, we decided that it was time to head home. Getting back through the channel would be easier but required a bit of maneuvering here and there, but we made it. 

ADVENTURE CAN BE FOUND in the Arctic and most of Alaska, no matter the month or season. You just have to get out there, get tough and persevere. When one door closes, go and search for another.

As we’ve discovered so often, almost can turn into something very special. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.