Switzerland of the North: Lake Clark & Lake Clark National Park

“The movie today will be Lake Clark Pass,” Glen Alsworth or Glen Jr. announce as you board your Lake Cark Air flight at Anchorage’s Merrill Field heading for Lake Clark National Park. It’s a great trip. Along the way everyone sits absolutely enchanted by the views of Mt. Redoubt and Iliamna, the Park’s two volcanoes, both over 10,000 feet tall. And then, suddenly, there it is, right out in front of Lake Clark Air’s Piper Navajo, the entrance to the splendid and notorious Lake Clark Pass.

Miles and miles of bluish glaciers, glacial rivers, ice fields, waterfalls, jagged mountain peaks, and sheer rock walls absolutely dwarf the plane. Too magnificent for mere words, they all seem almost touchable as you navigate through this narrow, twisty, and extraordinarily scenic corridor toward the majesty of Lake Clark and its surrounding National Park. It’s not called the “Switzerland of Alaska” for nothing!

Even though I’ve flown through it many times, I still find my heart pounding and my nerves somewhat on edge every time we approach the entrance to this intimidating legend of small plane air transport in Alaska. Some years the weather is simply too bad for planes to traverse the Pass, and we fly over it instead. I am always terribly disappointed when that happens.

Port Alsworth

The tiny settlement of Port Alsworth, (population about 120) tucked into Hardenberg Bay, right on the shores of the lake, is our destination. Tanalian Point, just below the end of the runway, was utilized for generations by Native Alaska people practicing their subsistence lifestyle and was a bustling hub for trappers, prospectors, and travelers during the first 50 years of the 20th century. Settled by Babe Alsworth, a legendary bush pilot in Alaska who founded Lake Clark Air and The Farm lodge, the budding community took his name and got its first post office in 1950. It seems to consist mostly of two airstrips, one of which is owned by the National Park Service, lots of summer homes, a number of local Alaska Native families, a few other fishing lodges, and the Park Headquarters. The airplane fuel dock is the busiest place in town.

The Farm Lodge is the headquarters for our trip. The fishing commences just as soon as we get assigned to our cabins, dump the bags, don the waders, rig the rods, grab the sack lunches that are waiting for us, and take off for the river nearby. The mouth of the clear water Tanalian River is about a mile hike from the lodge, and the grayling are waiting for us there. Our first afternoon is always spent connecting with them, one after the other with nymphs or dry flies. Like grayling everywhere, they hit #12 elk-hair caddis with abandon. Occasionally, if our timing is good, we can also entice them with various smolt patterns farther out in the lake. By the time we head back to the lodge for one of their absolutely scrumptious dinners, everyone is ready for more adventure.

Lake Fishing Possibilities-grayling, lake trout, and pike

The lake is an absolute paradise just waiting to be explored, and we always spend a day having the lodge’s boat take us to some of the small tributaries that always hold grayling. Depending on the water levels and temperature, we often also encounter lake trout patrolling the creek mouths looking for salmon smolt or a tasty grayling for their taking.

One very special place on Lake Clark is a shallow, weedy back bay that holds a treasure-trove of pike anxious to attack our large black, brown, yellow or white bunny streamers. One trip, three of the gals had three pike on the line over and over again all afternoon. The “triples” were keeping me and Jeff, our boat driver, busy with pictures, releases, and leader repair.

Although many people rig their pike flies with wire leaders, I prefer to attach a two-foot “bite tippet” of 40lb test monofilament to a twelve or fifteen pound leader. It seems to me that pike are less wary of that set up than they are of the wire leaders. The monofilament tippet gives the fly a more natural action when stripped through the water. I tell the group that it is important to check their tippet after every fish to see if the pike teeth have frayed it, and, if so, we either cut off the frayed portion, or replace the entire bite tippet.

On one trip, Leigh had initially not been setting her hook hard enough, and several of her fish had quickly done a long-distance-release. “I’m getting practice feeling them take the fly,” she reported as she worked away. “I’m afraid to lose a lot of flies while I’m practicing,” she wailed, and I told her not to worry. We had plenty of flies.

Suddenly, she was calling for help, as her 8-wt bent nearly double with the weight of a huge pike. “He’s going to break my rod,” she yelled. And, he almost did, because she was palming her reel so hard that he couldn’t run. “Ease up on the palming to let him play,” I told her. Luckily, she was able to do it just in time.

Once he could run, the fish took advantage of it and headed for the middle of the bay like a runaway freight train. Then the real work began. Pump and reel, pump and reel, and pump and reel finally brought him in. He was every bit the monster that we guessed he was. Nearly forty-inches in length, he had a massive head and teeth to match. Definitely, the catch of the day.

More Grayling

Another of our destinations on the trip is typically the breathtaking Tanalian Falls. About a two and one-half mile hike from Port Alsworth provides sweeping views of the lake and it surrounding mountains. The roar of the falls becomes noticeable when we are about three-fourths of the way along. Shortly afterwards, the trail turns suddenly into the trees, and ends on a fairly steep, narrow incline down to the river. Using our wading sticks as hiking sticks always makes the trip a lot easier. A hike to the overlook for the falls lets everyone can get a look at the maelstrom from that viewpoint. It’s pretty awesome.

Once down to the water we usually can see rising grayling all along the edge of the seething and frothy current that is boiling down out of the rocky plunge pool below a thirty- foot lava cliff. The mist feels like a soft rain, and we have to almost holler to hear each other. If we’re lucky the big stone flies are hatching and the fish are after large, black nymphs and the adult flies that are well imitated by size 8 stimulators. Like stones everywhere, they are maddeningly unpredictable.

“How come the fish have stopped biting?” Ella asked one afternoon as the fish had absolutely turned off. I told her that I thought that it was because the large stoneflies that had been flying around our heads just a half-an-hour earlier had suddenly disappeared. “The hatch is over right now,” I said, “So it might be smart to switch to nymphs for a while.” They shortened their leaders and tied on small, bead-head prince or hare’s ear nymphs accompanied by a tiny split-shot about a foot above the fly and went right back to work.

The fishing here can be challenging because of the rocky bottom of the river at that point and the possibility of losing your footing while playing a fish. It’s usually wise to back up into very shallow water to release fish, and we help each other with releases when necessary. If the water is high, as it was this year, the fishable area can be very narrow and slippery. I often hold on to a person’s wading belt as they cast.

Often we stop by to visit the Park Service headquarters building on our way back to the lodge. Everyone loves to see the reproduction of the sailing boats that commercially fished for salmon in the early days of Bristol Bay, and we all have to have a turn trying on the bear-gloves that everyone wants to buy, but which are not for sale. A relief map of the area is another one of the highlights of the tiny building. I could stay entranced with that for hours, but, of course, I don’t want to miss dinner. The food at the lodge is just too incredible!

Fly Out Possibilities-sockeye

Women fishing in AlaskaThe fly-out fishing possibilities in the Park are almost endless. On the fly-out day that our trip includes, the group nearly always votes to have it be a day to go sockeye fishing. This gives us the opportunity to fly out over Lake Iliamna and the village of Egegik, Alaska¸ to the world-famous Kvichak River that hosts one of Alaska’s most prolific run of sockeye (red) salmon.

“Is this the way you do it?” asked Carolyn as she flipped her fly upstream into the slower current right beside the river bank right in a spot I’d shown her, made a quick upstream mend, and began to follow the line with her rod tip. She had hardly gotten the words out of her mouth before her line came tight and a glistening sockeye with a hot pink fish candy fly in its jaw leapt out of the water and splashed back down right in front of her. “Yep,” I said, “That’s the way you do it.”

“I didn’t even feel him take the fly,” she reported while managing his repeated runs. “Sockeye seldom grab,” I told her. “Be sure to keep your eye on your line to help get some indication that a fish has the fly in its mouth. If your line hesitates or stops, set the hook, immediately.”

She kept that fish to take home, and Jeff promised her that the lodge would fillet, vacuum seal, and freeze it for her to do just that. She headed right back to the water and joined the others in getting a limit of fish in one of the lodge’s favorite spots on the river.

When the salmon run is strong, everyone limits-out, usually before noon. So, after eating our lunch on the beach right beside the plane, we take off and head for one of the other lakes in the area. It’s a great chance to do some flight-seeing in this magnificent region. Kontrashibuna or Kijik Lakes are two of our favorites for the afternoon’s fishing.

Kijik Lake is a National Historic Landmark and an Archeological District, one of only three areas in Alaska with both designations. Kijik is also a documented cultural landscape. Its waters support runs of sockeye salmon, traditionally harvested by Alaska Native people in the region, and wonderful Arctic grayling fishing. Two small tributaries to the lake, just a couple hundred feet apart, always make for fun fishing right off the bank.

It was here that my photographer friend, Mike DeYoung, and I did some great photographing for new my book, “Fly Fishing for Alaska’s Arctic Grayling: Sailfish of the North.” We couldn’t miss. The reflection of the mountains, the water displaying several shades of green, and the orange, yellow, and gray rocks and gravel on the bottom of the nearly invisible, cellophane-clear river made for some awesome images.

The entire area is one fantastic photo opportunity after the other. Turquoise lake

is a particularly scenic lake nearby on everyone’s must-see list, but one where the weather had other ideas for Mike and I. Many visitors come to the park just to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin at Twin Lakes, immortalized in both print (“One Man’s Wilderness”) and film, “Alone in the Wilderness.” Hikers come from all over the world to see Telequana Lake and to tackle the famous Telequana Trail, an historic Dena’ina Athabascan route from Telequana Lake to Kijik Village on Lake Clark. The Park Service’s web site says,” Continuously inhabited since early prehistoric times, the Lake Clark region nevertheless remains sparsely populated by humans.” It is just that characteristic that seems to draw us there.

We always schedule a very late afternoon flight back to Anchorage from this trip so that we can keep our flies in the water just as long as humanly possible. There’s so much to explore in Lake Clark, and never enough time to do it. It is, what one writer called, “the most under-appreciated of all the National Parks in Alaska.” WelI, I certainly can say that I appreciate it, and that I’m always ready to go back.

(Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Fish Alaska magazine