Alaska Sag River Float Trip Journal

Alaskan Float Trip Journal
By: Kevin Estela, Owner/Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education

 

Sag River Floatdragging

Kevin Estela and Mark Knapp on the Sag River

In the summer of 2016, I traveled to Alaska to meet up with my friend Mark Knapp of Mark Knapp Custom Knives for a float trip down the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River. We intended to explore, hunt, fish and camp along 100 or so miles of river and practice the skills we both have spent many years learning in the field. Mark had a couple knives he wanted to put through a real field test and he wanted to see this area he previously guided around back in 1999. We didn’t know what to expect on this trip and it would certainly test us over the course of 3 weeks. What follows is a collection of my daily thoughts while on this epic adventure. It is a trip I’d recommend for anyone seeking out a real adventure in a place not everyone is willing to travel to.

Planning Day #1: July 27
After spending 2 weeks touring the lower part of Alaska (Anchorage, Seward, Denali), I spent a couple days resting and recovering in a hotel in Fairbanks. Today, I checked out and headed over to Mark’s shop, The Cutting Edge. We sat, drank coffee and went over trip particulars. Mark printed out copies of the maps we would use and pieced together our trip. Also present this day and providing input was Mark’s wife Angel and their good friend Mike. We occupied our day with setting up the tent and fixing the stuck zipper as well as inflating our raft and making sure the parts were all present. With one missing Oar-Right lock, we were forced to travel around for a replacement. We found the part we needed at a local dive shop and proceeded back to the shop to pack the raft as we would on the river.

Mountain House Meals

Mountain House freeze-dried meals would make up most of our diet but even with 1800-2400 calories guaranteed, we would need more

Planning Day #2: July 28
Fairbanks has some excellent sporting good stores like Frontier Outfitters and Sportsman’s Warehouse. Every store should be like these. They have a wide selection of clothing and equipment to choose from and the associates know the gear they’re selling as well as how and where to use it. Mark and I purchased remaining supplies and I added a 3-day fishing license to my pile. My original 2-week license wasn’t starting until 3 days into my trip and there was no point in missing a good day on the water. I selected a handful of lures to carry (mostly ultralight spinners) and made sure to pack them along with the rest of the gear into Mark’s truck.

Smart phone de Lorme

This is what a smartphone tracking us synced up with the deLorme InReach looks like

    Late that night, Mark created a new knife based on the handle of his patented 1911 Combat Survivor Bowie. This knife, an Ulu pattern, uses the same modified magazine as his bowie but the handle has a cut out to pin an ax handle into it. It took until 10 at night but the knife was finally finished and ready for the trip.

Day 1: July 29
We intended to leave at 8am but our departure was delayed as we had to finalize various details of our trip including flight confirmation, who would pick up the truck and shuttle it, and how we would communicate with the “connected world”. Mark had purchased a deLorme In-Reach text communicator and needed to sync it with his cell phone and computer.
We stopped for breakfast at the Hilltop Truck Stop and didn’t forget to order some slices of their famous pies for the road. Next stop was the Yukon River and then the Coldfoot station where gas was $4.75 per gallon. Expect to pay more as you head north and the laws of supply and demand become obvious. That night, we camped at Galbraith Lake.

fireweed in Alaska

A patch of fireweed and the first sunset in the Arctic Circle during this trip

Day 2: July 30
I woke up at 7am and took a walk to the lake. Within minutes, I caught my first fish, a 34” lake trout on a Mepps Aglia #1 Roostertail spinner. I showed Mark and we took our time eating our Mountain House breakfast and having coffee.

As we made our way north, we stopped to put flagger’s tape up for Angel and Mike to find.  We drove all the way to Happy Valley and stopped at possible take outs along the way including Gustafson Gulch and Pump Station 3. We spent remaining time this day fishing as we headed back down to Galbraith Lake. I caught my first grayling in a creek with a Mepps Comet #0. We camped at Galbraith Lake for a second night.

Galbraith Lake

View of Galbraith Lake looking South

Day 3: July 31
At 6am, both Mark and I woke up with the intention of fishing. We hiked to the lake and within minutes, Mark and I were on the fish. I caught 3 and Mark caught 6. Mark used his fly rod and I used my 7′ ultralight spinning rod from St. Croix and a PT15 Energy spinning reel from Quantum. He may have caught more but he admits I caught the biggest.

Lake Trout Knapp

Mark Knapp with a nice Lake Trout caught and released at Galbraith Lake

Ultralight lake trout

Kevin Estela with a 30″ lake trout caught on St. Croix and Quantum Ultralight gear

Skies cleared for our drive south. We continued to catch grayling in the small creeks and watched even more nip at our offerings but ultimately reject them. Since Mark’s wife sent us a message about a shuttle service we could take back down the Dalton Highway, we removed all the flagger’s tape we had put up. We eventually found our way to Prospect Landing (1070’ elevation) and camped there for the night. We unpacked the truck and packed our bags for the bush plane flight the next day.

AK Air strip

Prospect Landing Air Strip

Day 4: August 1
We woke up and did our normal routine of WuWu (Wake Up/Wash Up) and began the waiting game for the bush plane. In Alaska, there is so much of everything including time to wait for others. We knew the flight would arrive sometime in the morning and we just kept our ears open for the sounds of a propeller.
I changed into my Kryptek hunting clothes I would wear for the next 14 days. Shortly thereafter, the De Havilland Beaver showed up and our Pilot, Garrett, picked us up for a quick flight to Bettles, AK where Brooks Range Aviation is. At the airstrip, we filled out paperwork and our gear was weighed before we head over to the float plane. We loaded up and flew an hour to the Upper Sag Lake. Upon landing on the lake, we unpacked our gear and inflated our raft to make the portage across the lake to the outlet easier. After inflating the raft, we took the time to verify the zero of our rifles. You never known when a rifle optic could be shifted in transit. My Schmidt Bender Zenith held true. I grouped 2” low at 100 yards. Mark had trouble with his rifle and it wouldn’t hold a good group. It could have been damaged in transit or it could have been because it is 30 years old.  He used my Remington 700 instead and he was 1” right with it. We planned on using my rifle for any big game we encountered.I also took the time to verify the zero on my Tactical Solutions XRing .22 Rifle. Using CCI Mini Mag ammo, I was spot on at 25 yards. After, we moved all the gear (503 pounds total) about 200 yds from the lake and we traveled down the creek to the main branch of the Sag. We set up camp (According to my Kestrel, the altitude where we camped was 2450’) and “popped the corks” on the raft before calling it a night.

Brooks Range Aviation

View from a bush plane flying over the Brooks Range

Rifle Sight in

Mark sighting in his rifle. After 30 years of service, it wouldn’t group well and we planned on using mine depending on who was actively hunting.

Sag River Camping

View from the first camp along the Sag River looking downriver

Day 5: August 2

     Yesterday was filled with a lot of movement and today is the total opposite. We were rained in and at some point, the rain turned to snow. We hunkered down until about 3pm when there was a brief break in the weather. We continued to sleep and read doing what we could to pass the time in the tent. We looked through gear and absolutely felt a chill in the air. At 4:45pm, the sun finally came out. Mark told me on Arctic trips, it isn’t unreasonable to lose ½ your time to weather and conditions. There was more sleeping and since I slept during the day, I woke up midnight, 4am and 630am that night/next morning. This day reinforced the need for a good book on trips like this.

Kevin Estela reading Last of the Breed

The author reading “Last of the Breed” in his tent during bad weather. See kiddos? Even teachers read over the summer.

Day 6: August 3
Woke up at 630am to foggy skies. Mark and I ate our Mountain House breakfasts and found the Breakfast Skillet to be the most caloric at around 800 per package. By 930am, we had our bags packed and we headed up river 5.1 miles to spike camp. I carried my 300 Win Mag, .22 Rifle and 10mm pistol along with an ultralight fishing rod.  Along the way, we spooked plenty of ptarmigan but that season wouldn’t open until August 10th so we didn’t harvest any. We both packed 2 meals per day, a breakfast and a dinner to save weight. We experienced wet conditions along the way and it rained on us the whole time. Once we set up our camp, we used our sleeping bags to dry out our clothes.  My Kifaru Center-Zip 0 degree sleeping bag couldn’t have been more comfortable on a day like today. Mark noted we should have taped our barrels before leaving camp with electrical tape. We slept early that night.

Spike Camp

Kevin Estela loaded down in the Brooks Range of Northern Alaska not far from spike camp

Day 7: August 4
It was 42 degrees today and sunny. Despite a night in the sleeping bags, our clothes were still damp from the previous day. We hoped the sun and wind would dry them out today. We loaded up our packs and walked up some of the valleys for 7 hours and 17 minutes. We covered 6.88 miles glassing for Caribou and spotting sheep on the mountains just for fun. Mark used a pair of Swarovski binos and I had my Maven’s. Sheep season doesn’t start until the 10th but we just wanted to see what was around. About a mile or two away, we watched 5 sheep traverse a mountainside.
I determined today, light hiking boots suck.  Luckily my Buffalo Wool Company socks stay pretty warm even when wet. After jumping creeks and dodging puddles of water, I only plan on hiking with my waders from now on. Both Mark and I could feel the effects of eating only 2 meals a day for the past few days. With very little sign of caribou movement in this area, we decided to head back to the raft tomorrow.

Buffalo Wool Company Socks

Buffalo Wool Company socks drying in the tent. One set was used exclusively to sleep in each night.

 

Sag River Scenery

Looking up river to the location of Spike Camp along the Sag River

Day 8: August 5
Another nice day for walking. Today was 43 degrees at 6:30am. We headed back to base camp and took our time fishing the Sag along the way. We spooked even more ptarmigan today. We should have walked faster. While we were away, a bear had rummaged through all of our gear. Mark estimated, by the tracks found, it was approximately 6’ and 250-350 pounds. All of the gear was inspected and by inspected, I mean torn into by the bear. A Nalgene bottle filled with cooking oil was pierced open and most of the contents were consumed. The boat seat was ripped apart and the bear punctured a hole in the bottom. Good thing we deflated it. If the bear had ripped a tube, it would have been beyond our repair. I was annoyed because two of my Watershed Dry Bags were ripped into and our action packer had a distinct set of teeth marks in it. We rearranged our gear and repaired what we could. I used my Kifaru compression sacks to limit the size of the gear going into the dry bags to fit more. After making a quick lunch, we loaded the boat and headed down river. We weren’t going to chance having that bear return. We floated about 3.5 miles and set up camp. By 8pm we had dinner and turned in shortly after that.

 

Day 9: August 6
We woke up to 52 degree windy weather. We slept well but we woke up repeatedly to check on the boat. This generally meant opening the zipper of the tent with handgun ready to throw a round over the head of a bear. We feared it would be visited by a bear again and if so, it could be destroyed to a point where our trip would be over prematurely. One good claw slash is all it would take. That meant we would have to call for an airlift out. We didn’t want to do that. We moved further downriver to put distance between us and that original bear from base camp. We found a beautiful spot with water flowing all around. Not too far from our tent “platform” on high ground, were fresh 7” grizzly tracks in the riverbank. Mark concluded it was not the same bear from the previous day and our presence would scare it off. This bear though had a cub with it. We’d be vigilant for obvious reasons.  Mark built a fire using his 1911 knife and the magnesium/ferro rod contained in the handle.

Mark Knapp 1911 knife in action

Mark Knapp creating sparks on Eskimo Cotton to get a fire going on the Sag River Float Trip

Mark Knapp Survival Ulu

Mark created a prototype Survival Ulu that uses the same handle as his 1911 bowie. It performed as an axe with amazing cutting ability on this trip.

 

At night, I loaded up some gear and sat across the river looking for caribou movement. I brought a fishing pole with me and caught a 14” grayling. I cleaned it on the spot with my Victorinox Ranger Swiss Army Knife. We would have it for part of our breakfast the following morning. That night, we moved our food far from our tent and raft. We put rocks on the action packer and cooler to create a poor man’s perimeter alarm and checked our travel data from the day on Mark’s GPS. We moved a total of 8.1 miles.

Campfire coffee pot

Water boiling over a willow wood fire. Boiling water made cleaning frying pans easy.

 

Day 10: August 7
At 630am, we woke up to 57 degree weather. We were pleasantly surprised our food cache was intact. We sat in the tent and learned we would have 2-3 days worth of bad weather ahead. During some down time, I repaired a torn foot box on the inside of my sleeping bag using the fish hook from the 1911 knife and a single thread unwound from the braided Kevlar cord I carried. Luckily, this day was good weather for us. After a quick breakfast, I sat and waited across the river again for caribou. There were no sightings. Once back to the tent, Mark and I ate crescent rolls we fried up in the remaining oil and bacon fat. After that meal, I walked the perimeter of the island with my .22 looking for squirrel. Spotted dens but none running around. That night, we created traps and Mark set up a counterweight lever snare to catch one of the squirrels. I fished the same hole as last night and caught another good grayling caught on a gold Panther Martin spinner. Pound for pound, my ultralight rod is proving to be the best game getter. By the way, grayling is light, flaky and so incredibly delicious. It tastes great.

Ultralight spinning reel

The author’s #1 protein provider. St. Croix Premier Spinning Rod, Quantum PS15 Energy Reel, 4# flourocarbon line and asst. spinners.

 

Day 11: August 8
Woke up early and walked the perimeter of our camp. I looked up into the hills and noticed a large animal walking around. It was a grizzly bear and her cub and after poking in and out of some willows, it flushed a moose. That cow wasn’t going to stick around and it ran far and fast from the two bears. I wanted to take a good photo of the encounter but at about 600 yards away, I could barely make it out with my 7x power Vortex rifle scope let alone my cell phone camera zoomed in. When Mark woke, we gathered our gear and fished upstream  from our camp. I caught a 15” grayling and we returned to the camp to cook up the remainder of the bacon we had leftover and the fish I just caught. The rain set in and I decided to read the remainder of the book I brought. We checked on the counterweight snare Mark set up and found it paid off with an arctic ground squirrel caught by the rear legs. With plenty to eat back in camp, we decided to let it go. There was no sense in killing something if we didn’t need to. Mark told me a story about the saying, “never kill a porcupine.” Apparently the expression stems from the idea that a porcupine is easy to harvest and it should be left for someone who is hard-pressed for food and needs an easy meal. Made sense to me and leaving that ground squirrel for another person didn’t bother me one bit.

Sag River Swimming/Fishing Hole

This type of deep blue-green hole is common along the Sag River. Beautiful scenery is everywhere.

Day 12: August 9
The rain from last night continued through the morning today. Mark and I finished the rest of the bacon leftover from yesterday. We added it to the Mountain House scrambled eggs. As it rained, I worked on articles for RECOIL, RECOIL/OFFGRID and American Survival Guide. When the weather improved around 10:30am, Mark and I set off on various tasks. I collected wood and built a fire to burn any trash we had. This meant using my RMJ Tactical Pathfinder axe to break the largest pieces of willow from the sandy river banks. The Pathfinder is incredibly durable and one worthy of placement on any expedition packing list.   Mark used a piece of willow as a “vice” and tied an original fly from the materials he could find. These included feathers he picked up from around the camp and even the threads from his socks and foil from an energy bar wrapper. I took photos for a few magazine articles. We ate supper early and consolidated bags for our float downriver. We plan on waking early, inflating our boat and floating downriver to the next stop.

Sag River float trip

The raft the author and Mark Knapp took down the Sag River at the base of a mountain in the fog

 

Day 13: August 10
August 10th was the day we expected “all hell would break loose”. Today, wolf, ptarmigan and sheep season opened. We woke up at 6am and the weather that was predicted the night before didn’t materialize. Instead, the visibility was approximately ¼ mile and became clearer. We packed the boat and headed down river. We were not looking forward to a very wide stretch in the river that could have been bone dry and would have required us to drag our raft and do an extensive portage. We noticed a lot of wildlife today on the river. As we approached an artesian spring that came from a high point in the surrounding land, we noticed a large grizzly not far from us. We watched hawks defending their territory and a river otter poked it’s head up to look at us before swimming down river. After tanking up our canteens at the spring, we continued downriver where we met up with two state troopers (Dan and Dan) who Mark knew were in the area. Dan and Dan floated through Atigun gorge on Alpacka pack kayaks and were drying their gear. They had 70 pound packs and were in the area for sheep. We talked about our respective journeys so far and then Mark and I continued on our way. Not far from where we saw Dan and Dan, we had to portage around a very large rapid (the largest we would see on this trip) that had the potential to swamp us and flip the boat. We had to completely unpack the boat and portage it over very sharp rocks. As we walked our gear downriver, we noticed the bubbles from the rapid emerging a hundred feet down from the main rapid. Had we run the rapid and tipped, we too could have been pulled underwater for just as long. After seeing the rapid from the downriver side of it, we both agreed there was no way we wanted to run it. Our thoughts quickly shifted to Dan and Dan upriver and Mark sent a message to Angel to reach out to the police station to let them know about the rapid just downriver from their location. We found a good camping spot downriver at the base of a grassy hill. I wasn’t tired yet so I hiked to the two ponds west of our location but couldn’t catch anything in the wind and drizzling rain. Despite the anticipation for today, we didn’t see anything hunt and legally harvest.

Sag River Rapid

The rapid Kevin and Mark portaged around as seen from approximately 100 yds away/above. The vertical drop was 10′ with a strong hydraulic.

Willow and Blueberries

Dwarf Willow and Wild Blueberries in the Arctic Tundra

 

Day 14: August 11

     Woke up to lifting fog. At 9:40am, we walked to the ponds west of us. From a ridge line, we noticed fish rising and proceeded down to that point. It took a while but we eventually unlocked the grayling code. Mepps Aglia worked for me and gold streamers for Mark. All told, we caught (and landed) 6 fish. There were others but they were lost since I didn’t have an effective stringer handy and I was chest wading. I used a paracord lanyard to string up the fish caught and threaded it through the fish gills and out the mouth. We returned to the boat and cooked our fish. We had a combination of grilled and fried fish with the last of the fish fry. I mixed some fish into my Mountain House Pasta Primavera and ate really well. After a brief afternoon rest, we organized and packed our gear for an early morning departure. Mark tied a fly and I cleaned some grit and surface rust off my firearms.

Mountain Reflection

A mountain reflection in a remote pond off the Sag River

 

Sag River Camp

Sag River camping. Mountains dwarf everything here!

 

Day 15: August 12
At 12:30am, Mark woke me to take a photo of the distant sun. This was the first time on this trip we experienced what can be considered a quasi sunset. In fact, it was more like a simultaneous sunset and sunrise as the sun moved sideways along the horizon and never fully disappeared. It turned the sky brilliant purple, blue and pink. When we eventually woke that morning, we floated to our site at the foothills of another lake. After lunch, we hiked to the lake 2 miles away. Along the way, we spotted the first caribou of our trip, a cow. I legally couldn’t take it as non-residents must only harvest a bull with my tag. Mark and I headed in the direction of it and we hoped it would rejoin a larger group of caribou that would include a male. Once Mark and I found the lake we sought out, we fished the inlet. The water was clear and deep and in minutes Mark caught a nice grayling. I moved along the perimeter of the lake and caught a fish I thought was a char before I landed it but it ended up being a lake trout. I caught another lake trout near the outflow to the creek we would follow back to our boat. We grilled our 3 fish for dinner as a storm approached and I took a couple Tylenol to deal with some knee pain caused by walking on the tundra. We counted the Mountain House Meals we had left and determined we had exactly enough to get us to our take-out date.

fish stringer surprise

This is what happens when your camera’s timer is set on multiple photos and you react to the one you didn’t expect coming

Fish stringer in Alaska

Kevin Estela with the stringer of fish he and Mark Knapp caught in ponds to the west of their camp

 

Grayling Sag RIver Fillets

Mark Knapp grilling up grayling fillets along the Sag River

AK Sunset/Sunrise

Sunrise or sunset? About as dark as it gets this time of year.

Day 16: August 13
Slept well after a long hike yesterday. After breakfast, I took another couple Tylenol to deal with some lingering knee pain and the inflammation was still bothering me from the day before. Again, we decided to hike west to the lakes beyond the one we fished yesterday. The bugs (mosquitoes and flies) were horrible today. I used my NxN Merino Scarf to wrap around my head to cover my ears, neck and face. Every time I wiped my brow, I had a half-dozen or more flies on my hand. The bugs were unrelenting. For 3 miles, we hiked in these conditions. We eventually found the lake we wanted to fish and I was able to catch a lake trout and Mark caught an arctic char on the fly he tied earlier in our trip. This was a proud moment for him as it was a fish he wanted to catch, in a body of water with an unknown fish population and on a fly he tied himself. Once we knew there were char in this lake, we continued to fish it and I remarked “now I need to catch a char”. As if I called in a request, I hooked a small char and landed it. We moved to the lake immediately adjacent to the one we were fishing at and fished it as well. I caught a beautiful arctic char there (21 ¾”) along with 3 more char (that had to be thrown back) as I worked my way around the lake. Mark caught 2 more lake trout. We hiked back to our boat and I made a fire while Mark cleaned the fish. This time, he cut the fish into a combination of fillets and steaks. We ate like kings that night and had plenty of fish leftover for breakfast the next day. All said, we hiked 7.55 miles according to Mark’s GPS.

Arctic Char Fishing

Kevin Estela with a 21 3/4″ arctic char caught within the Arctic Circle 3 miles west of the Sag River

Arctic River Fish

A successful day in the mountains. From top to bottom: Mark’s arctic char caught on a fly he tied, Kevin’s lake trout and Kevin’s arctic char.

 

Hook and cook arctic char

Arctic char steaks ready for the grill. Rember: You can’t grill it, until you kill it.

 

 

Day 17: August 14
At 12:30 in the morning, Mark tapped the foot box of my sleeping bag to wake me. When I realized he was trying to get my attention, I noticed a familiar sound coming from outside the tent. Mark whispered, “there is a ptarmigan outside”. My fatigue was replaced with excitement as the prospect of having a new protein after two weeks woke me up better than a full-pot of coffee. I reached over to my Tactical Solutions X-Ring take down rifle and quietly chambered a round. I slowly unzipped the screen door of the tent and then the rain fly to prevent them from making too much noise that might spook the birds. As I cautiously peered out of the tent, I spotted the birds at the edge of the river silhouetted against the water. The bird on the left offered me a better shot as the bird on the right only exposed its head. Because of the tent fly getting in the way, I shouldered the rifle (left-handed),aimed at the better of the two targets, and smoothly squeezed the trigger. I knew I hit the bird and looked for a second sight picture. Unfortunately the scope I had was zoomed into 7x power instead of 2x and before I could get back on target, the other spooked and flew over the water. We ate the ptarmigan that morning with the rest of our fish from the day before. I butterflied the breast meat as well as the legs. With only ½ a day of travel until we reached the 5-mile corridor, we took the opportunity to stop and hunt every stand of willows along the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any and had to put the rifles away and it’s a good thing we did. We encountered class III whitewater and had to bail the boat several times. We fished an inlet that appeared to be a lake and Mark caught a single grayling. We set up camp about 5 miles south of Pump Station 3. I cooked the grayling on a hot rock. We planned to get far past it the next day.

TacSol .22 ammo ptarmigan

A willow ptarmigan shot from the author’s tent

Mtn House Fish

Mountain House Pasta Primavera mixed with fresh arctic char

 

Mark Knapp floating the Sag

Mark Knapp in the 13′ NRS taken down the Sag River

 

 

Sag River Camping

Sag River Camp just below Pump Station 3

 

Day 18: August 15
Woke to an absolutely miserable kind of day. The skies were gray, the hanging fog was thick and there was a persistent mist in the air. The weather was the kind that makes travel difficult. The weather is just part of the price we had to pay for incredible fishing in the high country. On a positive note, I changed my thermal underwear to a set of clean Coldpruf Merino wool top and bottoms for the first time in 14 days. You live in a different state of clean/dirty when you are out in Alaska for this long. We paddled downriver in the rain. We encountered serious whitewater along this stretch. The rapids included some very long chains of rolling waves, some big hydraulics that were unmistakable as dangerous and some very tall standing waves. On more than one occasion, we just narrowly made it by the side of a rapid to safety. Wearing waders and a rain jacket, my clothes were soaked on the exterior only. With the wind blowing against me, I had a hard time staying warm and developed a deep body chill and shiver. This required pulling off the river and boiling water to put into my Heavy Cover titanium canteen. I tucked this between my legs against my femorals and when the water simply became warm, I drank the contents. Despite the cold conditions I encountered, I was witness to some incredible nature along this trip. We spotted a herd of muskox, a juvenile caribou that crossed the river in front of us as well as a red fox that snuck up on me as we walked to the road to determine our relative location. We pushed on from our lunch location and around 8pm we made it into Happy Valley Camp/landing strip. We traveled 38.8 miles in one day along the Sag. As we put our gear into our makeshift camp, a muskox ran right by us and then down the runway.  Before we turned in for the night, the resident state trooper came by to check on us and confirm we had valid licenses. He was a good guy and after his business was covered, he talked to us about fishing, hunting and Alaska in general.

 

Heavy Cover Ti Canteen

The author used hot water inside his Heavy Cover canteen to keep his lower extremities warmed. A metal canteen is a great piece of gear to always carry.

Day 19: August 16
My fishing license expired this morning at 12am.  I woke up around 6am and walked over to the Happy Valley Camp. What an excellent operation.  I spoke with Bree as well as her boyfriend Dustin while I drank I coffee. We had some great laughs about Alaska, the camp and the fishing and oil industries in general. I ate one of the last Mountain House breakfasts (a dinner menu option since we ran out of breakfast dishes), cleaned and dried my gear. Around noon, I realized I misplaced my phone. I retraced all of my steps. I looked where I cleaned my tackle boxes by the river, where I used the woods as a bathroom, where I walked around the camp checking out the other operations. My cell phone case was slate gray and all the rocks at Happy Valley are some shade of gray too. When I say I searched for hours, it is an understatement. Mark helped look and anyone who was waiting for a ride who learned of my lost phone checked their immediate area too. I was more anxious to get the photos back from the phone than the phone itself. I had photos of Mark catching the squirrel, of scenery, of me fishing with a rifle strapped to my back, of fish poking their head out of the water with lure in lip and so much more. It bothered me but, in retrospect, we could have lost so much more along the way. We could have had a shortened trip because of the bear. We could have flipped our raft. Hiking up and down the mountains, we could have had an injury sideline us. A phone can always be replaced and photos can be taken again when I return. Speaking to the other people at Happy Valley, it seemed as if we were not the only ones having hard hunts. One outfitter said there were more folks coming back empty-handed than with a caribou. I talked to some of the other folks around the camp and there was even more bad luck shared this day. One couple from Washington had a broken part in their camper cause another part to break and the replacement was days away. Another group of hunters could not fly out for days because of the weather. Again, in the grand scheme of things, we fared well overall. Mark and I took today to deflate and pack the raft and ge our gear ready for our trip back tomorrow.I won’t get my phone back until Saturday at the earliest. After 3 weeks, without, what is another couple days?

 

Happy Valley Camp Office

Happy Valley Camp Office. Very friendly and welcoming folks here!

 

Happy Valley Bicycle

A nice couple from WA had a thing for taking photos of bicycles where there traveled. This one is for both of you!

 

Day 20: August 17
Back to Fairbanks today. I woke up early after spending a lot of time wondering where I could have possibly dropped my phone. I looked for it again in a different light and couldn’t find it. Instead of continuing my search, I broke out my camera and took photos of some of the surrounding area. I watched three female caribou run across the river and Our ride from the Dalton Highway Tours van would arrive sometime between 8:30am and 11:30am. I continued to wonder where my phone could have been dropped and decided I would just have to hold out that someone might have picked it up, found the business card behind the cover and would mail it back to me. While the thought of losing photos bothered me, I used my full-size camera to take most of the main shots I needed and my cell to supplement them along the way. The Dalton Highway Tour van picked us up and we had a good ride back. Angel had sent some snacks for us on the van from Fairbanks to consume on the way home and after almost 3 weeks, some flavors were experienced as if they were forgotten about. We picked up a group of 5 female hikers from Seattle and our entire van stopped at the Coldfoot rest area for the first real meal in weeks. I can’t begin to express how a good fat burger and a side of tater tots tastes after this long. After picking up Mark’s truck at the airstrip, we proceeded down the Dalton Highway. We made a mandatory pit stop at the Hilltop Truck Stop for their pie and continued on our way. By 10:30 we were back at his shop.

Caribou Crossing

3 female caribou crossed the river not far from Happy Valley Camp on the final day

Watershed bags in Alaska

The author’s bags ready for the long ride home

 

Cleaning and Repacking Day 1: August 18
Today was Day 1 of the post-trip wrap up. I showered for the first time in 3 weeks and it made me feel as fresh as a daisy in a school play. I went through the clothes I left behind and put on a fresh set while my hunting/fishing clothes washed. After stopping by Beaver Sports for some repair materials, I patched up my dry bags. I went back to Frontier Outfitters and Sportsman’s Warehouse to replace some lost lures. Without my phone, I purchased some books at Barnes and Noble to occupy my time in the airport. Two Old Women and Shadows on the Koyokuk were ultimately picked up at a smaller book store when I couldn’t find them at the larger. I also began the process of packing my bags for the flight home. I weighed each component carefully and made sure each bag was under 50 pounds again. With my two carry on bags (GoRuck GR1 and Watershed Yukon), Pelican Case and EMS over sized duffel, all my gear came out to 156 pounds total. Even though I purchased some lures and a few odds and ends around town, I was able to keep everything under the weight limit for my checked bags.

Cleaning and Repacking Day 2: August 19
Today was bittersweet. My flight was scheduled for 550pm and I had some time to kill. I spent today doing final prep for my flight and trip home. Something interesting in Fairbanks. The City Dump is actually a very popular place for people to go. There are bins where people can put lightly used gear and others will pick it up to give it new life. There are those who wait there just to see what is being dropped off. To save an extra few pounds, I retired a set of Merrell hiking boots there. I knew someone could get some good use out of them. Before I left for the airport, Mark and I determined what our total cost was for the trip and without going into specifics, I’ll say it is was much less than the cost of a guided hunt/fishing/photography trip would be if we hired a guide. I said my farewell to Angel and Mark drove me to the airport. We gave each other a bro hug and I was on my way to security. Since Fairbanks is a small airport, it was an exceptionally pleasant experience going through security. I bought some last minute gifts for my nieces in the Twigs gift shop and boarded my plane.

August 20 Home
After a long night in the airport with an American Airlines flight delayed from 12:40 to 8am and another flight in Philadelphia that required me to run from the shuttle bus to the gate, I finally made it home by 9pm on Saturday. I made it home and collapsed in my reclining chair. Even though it was good to get home, part of me longs for the next Alaskan trip. The reputation of the remote wilderness is well-deserved and until I get back the thoughts of it will occupy my mind.

Author’s Note:
My sincerest thanks go out to all those who co-sponsored this trip in one way or another. Without your assistance, this trip would have been very difficult to pull off. Your gear kept me safe and I owe so much to you.  A very special thanks go out to Mark and Angel Knapp who welcomed me into their home for the days before and immediately after this trip. You guys are truly fantastic people I value the friendship of. I hope I earned my “Honorary Sourdough” status! Thank you so very much for making this trip unforgettable!

-Kev

***POST NOTE***
Thanks to the good folks at Happy Valley Camp, my cell phone was returned after a patron found it. Look for my follow up article called, “The Lost Photos.”

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