After a long bumpy flight through the Brooks Range on in a 1958 DeHavilland Beaver named Jean. Ian, Owen, and I found ourselves standing on the bank of a river embedded in the tundra, with a thick blanket of fog looming overhead. As quickly as the plane dropped us off and unloaded our gear, it disappeared back into the fog leaving us alone in the cool autumn air. Just below freezing, an early September snow melted on our pile of fishing equipment, camera gear, and food for the next week. We wasted no time setting up our raft and loading it down and as we began floating, the feelings of freedom and solitude set in. Nothing but the sound of swirling water as Ian maneuvered the raft around boulders and away from the steep banks. The massive river carved rock formations and weather-worn cliffs plunge into the frigid waters that guided us gently down the river. We are visitors of this barren landscape and we traveled all this way to find another nonresident, we are here for the anadromous Dolly Varden.
The first day, we covered 7 miles and managed to catch a few resident Char that winter over in the lake at the headwaters of the river. We were happy to be out of cell phone service, in a place where the only other tracks were those of Caribou, Grizzly bears, and Muskox traveling along the banks of the river. Throughout our trip, Owen and I did a lot of walking which kept us warm and made the raft light enough to slide through the shallow braided sections of the river. As we trudged along, Ian pushed the raft downstream we only stopping to fish small schools of Dollies that were making their way upstream to their spawning grounds. We found a suitable spot to set up camp on the first night and I built a fire out of dry brush and small pieces of driftwood. We found comfort in both the fire and at the bottom of our whiskey glasses. Ian checked the maps to track our progress and we soon discovered that although we had traveled 7 miles, we had not met our objective for the first day. While calculating the actual river miles we still had over 70 miles to travel during our initially estimated 50-mile float. With the river drastically changing every spring, the maps were fairly inaccurate and for every two miles we floated or walked, we only seemed to get one mile closer to our destination. We had some ground to cover as we all had to get back to our day jobs the following week.
As we floated downstream, the banks continued to steepen and we fished the deep pools created by turbulent water carving out pockets against the cliffs. We could see a few fish milling around in the crystalline water, resting before another push through the long, shallow riffle riddled sections of the river where predators waited for them along the banks. The following three days seemed to repeat themselves, we found fish here and there, catching and releasing most but keeping a few to cook on hot rocks placed near our fire. Our favorite was the hot sauce and Flavor Blasted Gold Fish Cracker covered Dolly Varden fillets left to collect a smoky charred crust near the open flame. The evenings were pleasant, we sat around the fire, drank tea and whiskey while using our tents as windbreaks. Most days were foggy and cold but every time the sun burned through the fog, we took advantage of its warmth to dry out condensation soaked gear and sometimes walk around barefoot to dry our feet.
On the fourth day, the river grew with the incoming glacial streams. The fishing continued to improve and we began to find what we came all this way for. As the mountain valley came to an end, the rock walls began to disburse. The river became deep and fast as it flowed out into the tundra. Flat, windy, and in every sense of the word, harsh. Arctic Grayling sat in slow-moving channels, creating ripples as they plucked small insects off the surface. We cast to the rising fish and a few were opportunistic enough to take our large streamers. The distance between the schools of Dollies making their way upstream seemed to get farther and farther apart but the schools we did locate had more and much bigger fish. Over the next few miles, multiple fish were landed over 30” but the biggest that was brought to hand was a perfect 34’’ pumpkin orange-bellied Char. We did not want to leave but with our limited time, we were forced from our “honey hole”. We had planned to be out the next evening which was still 30 miles away. As we floated on, we occasionally cast streamers to the bank and picked up a few traveling fish.
The temperature dropped on the final evening and as the fog settled in around our tents it began to freeze. We woke up to frozen boots, rain flies, and waders and as we packed up our camp, we had to take breaks to shove our frozen fingertips into our armpits. Finally, we pushed off to concur the final 25 miles of river. With the river changing every spring, the take out changes location almost every season. We began to look for the boat launch but with every passing bend in the river, we became convinced that we had missed something. We had to pull off and gather our thoughts, something was not right. I spotted some caribou hunters on the river bank and hopped out of the boat to talk to them. They informed me that we had missed the take out by over four miles but offered to give us a ride to our truck. Ian followed the hunters back to their camp and hitched a ride back to his truck while Owen and I hauled seven days’ worth of gear over a mile to a gravel bar where Ian could pick us up. While carelessly tossing dry bags and raft pieces into the bed of the truck, we heard a faint hissing sound, I said “what is that?” just as Owen began coughing, the smell of pepper spray filled our nostrils. During our hustled attempt to pack up, the safety had been knocked off of a can of bear deterrent and the peppery concoction discharged directly into Owen’s Waders.
Nostrils full of bear spray, we still had a 12-hour drive south ahead of us. As we left the Arctic, we talked about how strange it felt to Float North toward the Arctic Ocean and if we had not stopped to ask the hunters for directions, how much more trouble we would have been in. We often find ourselves driven by the hunt for anadromous fish whether it is Steelhead, Salmon, or Dollies. Although there are easier and cheaper ways to catch anadromous fish, I am not sure any of us would have changed a single thing about this trip. Oftentimes, we usually find ourselves soaked and chilled to the bone but there is nothing like a little bit of misery to solidify the memory. We stand in the rivers, doing our best to stay warm and to catch a fish which seems like a simple concept. The landing of a fish is often the end product of a long, drawn-out process, which we like to call “the adventure”.