Never Let Your Guard Down
A group of friends are stranded near Lake Iliamna when the weather makes a turn for the worse.
by Kurt Mackenzie
If I were allowed to catch only one type of salmon, let it be silvers every day. Of course, that level of infatuation can lead to letting your guard down ... and it almost got me bit. Never take Alaska for granted, for she can be a foul tempered mistress indeed. My friends, Chet and Paul, had recently acquired a cabin in the area of Lake Iliamna. I got a call from Chet that the silvers were in thick, and he invited me to come spend the weekend at their new cabin. A phone call later and another friend, Mike, was joining me—our weekend plans were set. We left the Mat-Su Valley under clear skies and a light breeze. All of the mountains were visible including Augustine, an island volcano that rises out of Cook Inlet like a lone sentinel. As we headed to Lake Clark Pass we flew over rivers crowded with returning salmon. We talked with several other aircraft while heading south. One or two pilots mentioned the weather was beginning to deteriorate further south despite a favorable forecast. However, it was thought to be isolated farther south than our destination and would not interfere with our plan. Besides, I could see the 85 miles or so around Augustine, and that was 50 miles east of Chet’s cabin. What could go wrong?
Flying toward Lake Iliamna Once we entered the pass, a distinct ceiling of cloud cover was getting lower the farther south we went. At the north end, we had about 3,000 feet of clearance and at the south, closer to 1,500 feet. We stopped at Port Alsworth to drop some items for another friend and stretch our legs a little. We noticed the breeze had increased significantly from the south to about 20 mph. Once airborne again, we took up a south-southeast heading following the shoreline. I called up Iliamna Flight Services on the radio and they confirmed what we were watching—a low pressure system moving in fairly rapidly with rain and wind. It was expected to be short lived and to move through quickly. Well, if you don’t like the weather in Alaska, wait 15 minutes, right? Our flight path skirted Iliamna airspace and we took the windward side of Roadhouse Mountain to avoid a turbulent beating on the lee side of the hill. Visibility was beginning to diminish with the increasing rain. Staying within gliding distance of the shore, we found our way to Chet’s airstrip. It’s about 700 feet long, with a 10 degree uphill grade to the north, punctuated with large smooth rocks trying to emerge from the ground. I recognized Chet’s plane, lined up for a downhill approach into the wind and committed to an uneventful landing just as the skies opened up with some serious rainfall. We tied the plane down and quickly retreated to an adjacent cabin owned by other friends, Gary and his wife, Jean, for some coffee, introductions and the inevitable stories. By this time, it was about 3 p.m. and we anticipated another seven or so hours of daylight. Gary regaled us with stories of the original owner and the history behind the cabins off this strip. There are very few privately owned strips in the Iliamna area. Its origins and the man behind it in the 1970s made for some very entertaining stories including some about nefarious guides. Gary had a friend visiting him from the East Coast, who moved from Alaska a few years back. The friend vocalized what we all knew to be true—Alaska is an incurable virus that once in your soul will never completely release its grip on the infected. Every couple of years, he comes to visit and returns home with the fish he caught and canned. This way he manages to prevent a viral outbreak. After a couple of hours, the skies lightened and the rain abated somewhat. Our destination for fishing was just over the hills to the east of us on the coast. We decided to load up and head out for a few hours of fishing, anticipating a short flight—perhaps ten minutes. After takeoff, we stayed in close proximity to each other. The weather to the south was considerably worse and appeared to be moving in our direction, so we abandoned our effort and returned to the cabins. We pulled the planes into the trees to secure them against the 20-30 knot winds for the night. By the time we were done and unpacked, Gary had a remarkable dinner waiting for us. The next morning we started at a casual pace, enjoying our coffee and breakfast. The weather had eased considerably during the night, and was now some patchy fog and moderate ceilings. Periodically in the distance, we’d hear the deep rumble of a Beaver’s round engine ferrying people and gear to and from the fishing area. About noon we felt pretty confident of the weather trending in our favor. We loaded our fishing gear aboard the two planes and the five of us took off. The air was smooth and stable. It took just about ten minutes to cover the 25 miles. We had to pick our way around a few low scudding clouds, but it was an uneventful flight. We landed and suited up, excited to finally get our lines wet. We fished for a couple of hours and were not disappointed in the least with the returns, paying little attention to anything around us save the occasional bear. The breeze had backed to the south a little but was benign. Slowly, the light wind pushed the low scudding clouds we had avoided earlier into the little bay our creek flowed into. While we blissfully fished, we became trapped. The weather had closed in on us. Ordinarily, this would not be a big deal. My wife knew where I was, my coworkers know I won’t push weather conditions and if there’s an issue, I sit and wait. They know I have all the gear I need to spend a couple of comfortable days stranded if required. They did not know ... this time all of my camping gear was sitting in Chet’s cabin. After all, we were only ten minutes away, why would we need our camping gear, right? We waited on the beach to see if the clouds would clear out. Once the evening light faded too much to chance the mountain crossing we resigned ourselves to spending the night. We took stock of what we had. My ditch bag was still in the plane. Chet had left his at his cabin along with our camping gear. This was a stupid mistake and we both knew better than to assume the weather would cooperate. We and our wives have had many such experiences with weather closing in, forcing us to wait, sometimes for several days. For us to leave our survival gear behind so casually was not our normal way by any stretch of the imagination. As the evening progressed, the wind increased, as did the rain. Eventually, it even surpassed what we experienced the night before. We secured the airplanes as best we could and opened a nearby shed recently built by a local guide. The small shed was built with plywood ferried in by a Supercub. The plywood, while 8 feet long, had been cut in half lengthwise to fit into the airplane. Consequently, there were many uncaulked seams that allowed an amazing amount of rain to be pushed into and through the little building. Ominously, the shed had four large ropes securing it to the ground. Inside, we found a couple cotton cots, two large blue tarps in fair condition and a small propane burner. Home sweet home, as it were. Food was the next issue. When we left that afternoon, Gary had promised us another first-class meal of marinated pork chops and asparagus. (Fortunately, Gary, also a pilot, correctly guessed we would sit and wait out the bad weather, which we were able to confirm with him via satellite phone.) I dug into my ditch bag and found a couple of freeze dried meals, a Jetboil, one fork and one spoon. A far cry from what Gary had waiting for us back at the cabin, but we were happy to have it. We stood in a circle and while one guy held the flashlight we passed the meals and utensils around. We stood in the shed, enduring the waves of water that blew over us through the cracks with each gust of wind. After “dinner” we tried to secure a semi-dry place to try to sleep and keep each other warm. The temperature wasn’t too bad, in the low forties, but the wet made the cold penetrating. I was the only one without chest waders and as such was a little more exposed. I was also concerned about the increasing wind and opted to try to sleep in the plane. No one slept. The guys in the shed would doze off and when one person shifted it would cause a crinkling noise from the tarp. It must have been like having your head inside a potato chip bag all night. We all emerged just before first light. The wind had died down, the rain had all but stopped, but the clouds remained low. We were all anticipating boiled fish for lunch, but silently hoped the clouds would relax. We fished with one eye on the clouds, the other on the bears and waited. I’m sure the bears were having a good laugh at our expense.
Fishing for silvers near Lake Iliamna About noon we began to see what we thought was a figment of our imagination. While mostly to the east, we began to see the faint outline of Augustine. The ceiling began to lift ever so slightly so Chet and I jumped into my plane and flew up to have a look. We found that by travelling to the south, we could get out from the clouds that had pinned us down and thought we could pick our way safely to the west and home. We returned, loaded up our wet companions and made a hasty getaway before circumstances could change again. Following rivers, our return took about 25 minutes. After we landed Gary met us with a thermos of hot coffee. What a welcome! After a hearty lunch, Mike and I loaded our unused camping gear and headed home. We stopped briefly in Iliamna for fuel and a final weather check of the mountain passes. The upside of this trip was that the need for contingency planning was driven home (hopefully for good). And the result of our outing was nothing more than a little discomfort. Besides, we were able to take home a two-day’s limit of silvers. There’s always a plus side.
Kurt MacKenzie and his family reside in the Mat-Su Valley, having immigrated from places less entertaining some time ago. They can be found outdoors, frequently in the company of the “Entitlement” dog—fishing, hunting and living each day as if it were their last.
"Never Let Your Guard Down - Fishing For Silvers Near Lake Iliamna" originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Last Frontier Magazine. If you enjoyed this article, check out "King Fishing on the Deshka River."