Monday, December 26, 2016
On July 31st last fall a Survival Writer and friend of mine Kevin Estela and I embarked on a three week float/survival trip of the Sag River on the north slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska's arctic. We were field testing my 1911 Combat Survivor Bowie, something new from me, my survivor ulu/ tomahawk and a bunch of other gear Kevin was bringing with him.
The Brooks Range Aviation Beaver that was taking us to our drop off point Upper Sag lake near the headwaters of Sag River.
Our adventure begins as we wave goodby to our pilot and the DeHavilland Beaver.
Although the sheep season wasn't open, the plan was to walk up toward the head of the river and look at some sheep, if we found some nice ones, we would wait for the season to open and maybe take one. We checked our rifles, Kevin's were fine, mine however could not hold a 9 inch group at 100 yards. I've guided and hunted for myself with this rifle for over thirty years and noticed the groups getting larger that last few times I used it. I suspect that too much pitting in the bore from salt spray on the many trips to Kodiak had washed out the barrel.
We decided to share Kevin's rifle and headed up the river with light packs and two days worth of food.
This is how we cached our gear when we left for spike camp. We saw five rams while up river but didn't think we should spend more time waiting for the season to open. We headed back down to our cache.
This is how our gear looked when we returned from up river, I'm sure we pushed the bear off of the cache when we returned.
You can measure the tracked and know how big the bear was, this one was a 6 1/2 foot bear. Not big, but it sure made a mess. It didn't eat our breakfast sausage...
...but he did eat the seat on our raft. He left the tubes alone, but poked a hole in the floor that would need patching.
We had planned to spend one more night at this location and see what kind of fish we could catch in Upper Sag Lake, but we knew the bear was close and the he might want to come back and give us more trouble, so we had a quick meal of sausage quesadillas...
...we patched up the boat seat (it took almost a whole roll of duct tape) fixed the hole in the floor and headed down river.
Our first stop, a point on the river adjacent to this lake. These high mountain lakes sometimes hold surprises, but the only way to find out is hike up and fish them.
Some of our fishing gear, leaving nothing to chance, Kevin actually had two spinning rods and I had three fly rods. We brought the lightest ones up to the high mountain lakes.
Our first lake only had grayling, but they were pretty good sized and we knew they had probably never seen a lure or a fly.
The first fly I tried was a size 28 mosquito, here it is along side one of the real ones I slapped off of my hat. This fly wasn't very productive.
I switched to a minnow pattern and Kevin used a spinner on conventional gear and before you know it, we had dinner.
It's pretty hard to beat fresh fish grilled right on the river. Now this is living.
Part of our mission on this trip was to field test my latest project, the 1911 Survivor Ulu/Tomahawk.
It holds a survival clip just like my Combat Survivor Bowie. Without wood in the handle it works like an ulu, and with a wooden handle it's an axe.
With the wooden handle in, it has a heck of a bite, it made short work of drift wood for the fire.
The Survival Hawk comes with a diamond hone in the handle with all the other gear, but the river was full of these flat rocks that were just perfect for keeping a keen edge.
Next, I built a snare with a figure 4 trigger using the Survival Hawk
I used a counter balance for the spring pole and put the loop at a ground squirrel hole. We left it overnight.
We didn't need to kill this guy just to prove a point, so we let him go.
Mountain House was one of our sponsors on this trip and I probably don't need to tell you it tastes a lot better than a ground squirrel.
Ah, a porcupine. The mountain men used to say "Never kill a porcupine unless you need to, cuz some day you might need to kill one for eatin"
To spark up a fire, we used the magnesium/ferric rod from the survival kit that tucks into both the Combat Survivor Bowie and the Survivor Hawk. I gathered up some dry birch paper and Eskimo cotton for tinder, and shaved some magnesium onto a platform of birch bark.
Dry tinder, birch bark for a platform and some bark peeled paper thin with some Eskimo cotton and the stage is set for a heart warming (not to mention supper warming) fire.
Then I put sparks to it using the ferric rod.
Did I mention the supper?
I decided I should tie a fly that would imitate some of the aquatic bugs we had seen in the river. I used hooks from the survival kit in the Survivor Bowie and a willow stick for a fly vise.
We hunted the gravel bar for feathers of the right color; black ones for a nymph and some white and some barred, reddish brown ones for a streamer.
I robbed a piece of copper wire from a solar charger cable (from my In-Reach) for the rib of the nymph. I'm using gray down for dubbing in the body.
The nymph is done, next the streamer.
I cut a strip of foil wrapper from a Power Bar to use as the tinsel on the streamer body. With the two new flies tied, it was time for more fishing.
The next lake had both grayling and lake trout. These fish up here are extremely colorful.
The blueberries were so plentiful we were always stopping to pick a handful.
We caught lots of fish, but kept only three each night for supper.
Lake trout tacos for dinner. We were catching lots of grayling and lake trout, but the fish we really wanted to catch had been eluding us, Arctic Char. Since fisheries biologists discovered that Arctic Char and Dolly Varden are actually two different species, Arctic Char became one of the most difficult to catch. They were only known to exist in a handful of northern Alaska lakes. Dolly Varden are primarily river fish while Arctic Char mainly stick to lakes. Before starting our float, Kevin and I spent a few days fishing some of the known Arctic Char lakes near the Dalton Highway, but we were unable to catch any of the elusive fish.
Then, in a lake that was not known to hold fish, far from the river or the highway Kevin caught this, an honest to goodness Arctic Char.
Then I caught this one... on my gravel bar nymph!
We were fishing a chain of lakes that were all connected together by a little stream no more than two and a half feet wide. It eventually trickled it's way to the Sag River, but these were lake bound fish.
The biggest one caught that day, about five pounds.
We caught both Lake Trout and Char in that un-named chain of lakes, twenty to twenty-five in all. I caught both lake trout and char on both of the flies I tied from feathers on the gravel bar. These three would be dinner.
We fished the inlets and the outlets of the lakes mostly, but fish were caught all around the lakes.
We'd hiked almost three miles across the spongy tundra and climbed over a thousand feet to these lakes. Just before it was time to head back, I switched to a spoon fly I had tied at home before the trip, it proved to be the deadliest of them all. Fish just kept hitting it.
On the way home.
Lake trout and char steaks.
Can't wait to eat'em.
These fish seemed to really specialize on prey species, some ate nothing but nymphs, some ate only scuds, this one only had snails in his stomach.
This is the flesh color of two different char caught in the same lake. Fish biologists tell me it's because the two fish specialized in two different prey species.
I like cooking fish almost as much as I like catching them and eating them.
We were not fortunate enough to get a lot of ptarmigan, but this one was a pleasant supplement to our mostly fish diet.
Trout and wild chicken.
In the land of the midnight sun, it's possible to see (and photograph) a simultaneous sunset and sunrise. Unfortunately this adventure, like all of them, had to come to an end. Already planning the next one and can't wait to get started.