Alaska's Innoko River - Summer 2018
In the spring of 2017 while talking about future college plans with my son, he asked about taking a “senior trip” after graduation. What he asked for was a road trip to Alaska to do some world-class fishing. How could I say no to such a request?
The planning started that day.
I spent lots of time researching different parks, lakes, and rivers in various areas in Alaska. The most intriguing one that I could find was the Innoko River….. many stories of huge pike that have never seen a lure. I found two outfitters that specialize in fishing this area, but quickly learned that a four person guided trip was financially way beyond my means. I contacted both outfitters multiple times trying to see if they could help with just an equipment rental and drop-off somewhere on the river, but neither was interested in anything other than their current packages. As the fishing season is extremely short and access to this river is extremely difficult, I understand both companies not wanting to do anything other than their specialties.
“Plan B” was a self-guided BWCA style of trip. The 1st challenge was learning that none of the Alaskan pilots were willing to fly float planes with canoes strapped to the floats. The 2nd challenge was that there were very few companies that were willing to fly a party of four to the Innoko due to the distance and size of plane needed to carry 1200 lbs of people & gear.
After lots of striking-out with cold-calls & emails to outfitters and pilots, I spoke with the Director of the Innoko National Preserve and he was extremely helpful and gave me the name of a pilot that specializes in moose hunting the Innoko. After a few calls and emails, Joe at Sportsman’s Air agreed to drop-us off and pick us up two weeks later from the Innoko.
The next task was to purchase a couple of packable canoes. I figured “no problem”, a few clicks around Ebay and Craigslist and I should be good to go. I focused on buying a pair of Ally canoes as these do not require any inflation… they consist of a bunch of aluminum poles with a foam rubber floor and skin made out of a reinforced material much like an inflatable raft. As it turns out, Ally canoes are made in Norway and not sold in the USA; finding a used one anywhere was a challenge. After a few months of watching Ebay, Craigslist, and calling Alaskan & Canadian outfitters about used canoes, I finally struck gold and found/purchased a canoe from a 2nd hand sporting goods store in California. I was extremely lucky in that the canoe was brand new and had been sitting in storage for several years before the owner who had received it as a gift decided to sell the canoe.
I didn’t find a second canoe until this January, and the canoe actually found me. I put up a post here on BWCA.COM begging for help in getting a used Ally, and one of our members contacted me and sold me his 2002 Canoe for a great price. While the canoe had plenty of miles on it, it was an Ally and it floated, so it met my requirements.
While we have done plenty of camping in black bear country, camping in Alaska with a high population of grizzly bears was new so I read-up, prepared, and stocked up. While I read many bear books, the ones that I enjoyed the most and provided what I deemed to be the most credible advice were:
1. Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, by Stephen Herrero
2. Three different books by Gary Shelton
a. BEAR ENCOUNTER SURVIVAL GUIDE (1994)
b. BEAR ATTACKS – THE DEADLY TRUTH (1998)
c. BEAR ATTACKS II – MYTH & REALITY (2001)
Based upon what I learned from these books and other sources, each of us would be carrying a can of bear spray. In addition to a Taurus Casull 454 raging bull, that I already owned, I purchased a Smith & Wesson 329PD 44 Magnum, a pair of Kenai chest holsters, and a Remington 870 marine magnum 12ga shotgun. While the boys and I have plenty of pistol shooting experience, none of us had spent any appreciable time with a shotgun. Since a good friend of ours is an avid hunter as well as an NRA certified instructor, we spent a day with him learning how to operate and safely handle the shotgun. We then spent a day receiving a customized training class from Greenport Tactical (retired police/military trainers) where we received hands-on shooting experience under various high stress scenarios.
Besides the firearms and training, I also purchased a 40’ X 40’ electric bear fence that was large enough to keep the tent and canoes inside of a perimeter. Finally we bought a new blue barrel and focused on packing only foods that were well sealed and with not a lot of odors.
The last part of the equation was actually figuring out how to get to Alaska. I’ve got a 1998 Ford van that has been our trusty BWCA transportation for many years, but the idea of trying to sleep four people in here for a week long drive to Alaska sounded challenging. When I started thinking about crossing the Canadian Rockies with 20 year old brake lines, I chickened-out and figured a new tow vehicle was in order and started shopping for a Ford Expedition…. Plenty of space and plenty of horsepower to tow a small camper. My plan was to pick up a used small camper to make our way to and from Anchorage. I looked into renting an RV, but at $2K or more per week for renting, purchasing a used camper and selling it after the trip was the only way to go.
Searching for and buying the Expedition and the camper was a challenge in and of itself. The highlights:
• Found a 2010 Expedition on Craigslist in Pittsburg. Took the day off of work and drove out there with my wife to take it for a test drive. After a 45 minute test drive, I tell the buyer, “I’ll take it, drive us to a title bureau and we will get this done”. Five minutes later and a couple of miles from the title bureau the engine starts revving high and the vehicle stops moving. A quick look under the car shows transmission fluid all over the ground and all over the engine. This is the 1st test drive where I ever had to help push a vehicle into the repair shop! I opted not to buy this one. Blowing the transmission on the 1st day of drive to Alaska would have really put a damper on the trip!
• Ended up picking up a nice used Expedition from a family in Southern Ohio. Swapped lots of good band stories and Boy Scout stories as both of our kids were heavily involved in these activities. The Expedition was rock-solid and even had a new brake controller installed for towing – perfect!
• Found great little 13’ camper for sale a couple of hours away from me, but the price was quite a bit higher than I had budgeted. Made a couple of offers over the course of about 3 months. After the last offer, the seller told me that he had just sold the trailer….. but his folks had an identical one and would sell me theirs for my offer price. As it turned out, the couple that I bought the trailer from bought it brand new the year prior and had never used it due to some unfortunate health issues. We ended up with a new trailer for a used price. Both the son and his folks were extremely friendly. I even ended up with a couple of leads for a new pike fishing spot up in Ontario that we may try out one year.
• As the plan was to do this trip as inexpensively as possible, we did not stay at any RV camps along the way. Instead we spent our evenings at truck stops, Walmarts, and road-side pull-offs along the Alcan Highway. Prior to leaving, I removed the air conditioner, microwave, refrigerator, and heater from the camper. This worked great as it gave us more room for storage and lightened the load a bit. Where he AC unit was installed, I put in a 12V fan. While this may have been terrible for a trip to Texas, it was perfect for travelling to Alaska as the nights were cool and we had no need for the air conditioner. I had a 12V marine battery to run the lights, fan, and TV inside of the trailer. This worked great and we even watched a movie on the way up. For future reference, I would not recommend watching “BACKCOUNTRY” before you enter the Alaskan wilderness for 12 days. It’s a story about a couple that gets attacked by a bear in the wilderness…. it’s quite graphic!
With the gear all set, the details started to fall into place:
• Me, my son, and his best friend Leave June 23rd from Ohio with the camper and all of the gear
• Drive 650~700 miles each day. Find a place to sleep at a rest stop or park. Repeat until we hit Anchorage.
• Meet my brother in Anchorage on Thursday June 28th (flying in from Dayton, Ohio)
• Fly into the Innoko River Saturday morning Saturday June 30th
• Fish/Camp our way downriver about 30 miles.
• Get picked up from the Innoko Wednesday July 11th.
• Drop my brother back at the airport July 12th, then start driving back to Ohio
• Home July 19th or 20th.
The last challenge to our trip was my brother. He’s a super-avid fisherman such as myself, but he was extremely worried about camping in ultra-remote Alaska in the heart of Grizzly country. When I first talked to him about whether or not he was interested in the summer of 2017, the answer was “totally in, sounds awesome, can’t wait….. just need to confirm a couple of details before I officially say I’m in”. Summer turns into fall with no commitment, fall turns into winter. I draw a line in the sand and say, “I need a yes or no by January 1st or you are out and we are inviting another of my son’s friends to be our 4th”. On January 1st I agree to shorten the trip from 14 days to 12, and Steve gives me the official “I’m in”. When May rolls around and he still has not purchased a ticked I start getting worried. I figure worst case is that I’ll solo one canoe and the boys will tandem the 2nd canoe….. we can still make this work.
The week before we start driving for Alaska, my brother calls and says that he has purchased the ticket….. but bought a refundable one just in case he backs out at the last minute. We were ultra-pleased on Thursday June 28th when we couldn’t reach Steve by phone as this meant he had boarded the airplane!
That’s the one year long lead-in to the trip. Below is what actually happened.
Friday, June 22, 2018 - Leave Ohio, make it to Michigan’s upper peninsula, south shore of Lake Superior
We left Canton Ohio at 5:30 AM and made our 1st stop in Maumee, Ohio at 8:00 AM to visit some old scouting family friends. While Cameron left our Boy Scout Troop 4~5 years earlier when the family relocated to Maumee, the boys remained good friends and both earned their Eagle Scout awards in YR2017. Cameron’s Mom had an awesome breakfast waiting for us when we arrived. It was great to see the boys all together again before each starts off this fall on their new path…. Chris is headed to trade school to become a carpenter, Joey is headed to Kent State to study accounting, and Cameron is headed to the US Naval Academy.
After crossing into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we make our traditional BWCA stop along the North Shore of Lake Michigan at “Hog Island Country Store” for some pasties & smoked whitefish for dinner. We park and sleep for the evening at a boat launch ramp along the south shore of Lake Superior.