John E. Hoover
writer, broadcaster, photographer


    Alaska Diary, 1997

    Originally published in the Tulsa World, July 8, 1997

    Monday, June 9

    We departed Tulsa under overcast skies. Flying economy, we made stops in Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle and Anchorage. We arrived in Fairbanks 15 hours after leaving Oklahoma. Off the plane for less than one hour, we spotted four moose -- including a young bull -- foraging in Badger Slough near my brother's home in North Pole. It was after midnight, prime feeding time for moose.

    Tuesday, June 10

    Old home day: I familiarized myself with my old hometown of North Pole, showing Holly and Danielle around. We scouted several prospective freshwater fishing spots.

    Wednesday, June 11

    Made the relatively short (56 mile) drive to Chena Hot Springs, a resort built on a natural underground hot springs. The springs supply the resort's numerous pools, spas and Jacuzzis with naturally heated waters of various temperatures. Along Chena Hot Springs Road, we spotted three moose and four beaver.

    Thursday, June 12

    Boarded the Midnight Sun Express, a sightseeing car on the Alaska Railroad, for a four-hour trip into Denali National Park and Preserve, which is smaller than its cross-state partner, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, but still larger than Massachusetts. Wildlife along the tracks was scarce. Once at Denali, in the heart of the Alaska Range, the contrast of the serene mountains above with the raging Nenana River below cast over me a humbling feeling of insignificance. The elusive McKinley was hidden from view.

    Friday, June 13

    Took a five-mile hike into the park and around Horseshoe Lake, hoping to catch a closeup of a moose or, hopefully, a not-so-closeup of a bear. But warm weather and sunny skies kept most of the larger animals in the shade of the dense brush, so we returned to Fairbanks that night having seen only ground squirrels, beaver and birds.

    Saturday, June 14

    Scouted more prospective fishing spots, including Chena Lake and Piledriver Slough. While driving gravel roads after midnight, we saw several wildcats (possibly bobcats, although they were too far away to be sure), red fox and fields of more than 200 Canada geese. This is one of the more popular summer stops for migratory birds, and during the fall hunting season, harvests are plentiful.

    Sunday, June 15

    Began my first official Father's Day by purchasing a 3-day, non-resident fishing license (for $15) and some bait. We started at Chena Lakes, a state recreation area in North Pole. Rainbow trout from a small floating pier were very active, with numerous schools hitting on shrimp on nearly every cast. But they were small and we lost almost a half-pound of shrimp for only six fish. We had hoped for Arctic grayling and small silver salmon as well, but failed.

    Later we fished two man-made ponds near the Fort Wainwright Army installation, using shrimp, corn and liver to get rainbows, grayling, Arctic char, northern pike and burbot. The ponds had a reputation for being stocked well, but with little action. The reputation was dead on.

    Efforts at Piledriver Slough and Moose Creek near Eilson Air Force Base also turned up nothing.

    Monday, June 16

    Frustrated from our shortcomings and exhausted from a lack of sleep, we turned today into a day of rest. We toured Golden Valley electric plant, where my half-brother, John DeCristo, is an engineer. Golden Valley, which powers many central Alaskan communities, is a subsidiary of Tulsa-based Mapco Oil, which has a refinery nearby in North Pole.

    Tuesday, June 17

    At 11:30 p.m., with the sky still brightly lit, we headed south to Birch Lake in search of more rainbow, some land-locked silver salmon and possibly bigger lake trout. During the 45-mile drive on the Richardson Highway, we came across a cow moose grazing on willow bushes. We got as close as 15 feet, by far the nearest I'd been to a live moose. She didn't seem to mind as four of us walked alongside her down the highway.

    At Birch Lake, the temperature dropped quickly as the sun began to disappear in the north-northwest. That's when the fishing heated up. Using flies and single salmon eggs, we landed 17 small rainbow in less than an hour, fishing from the bank less than 20 yards off the highway. When the sun began its slow climb from the north-northeast sky, the fish stopped. As steam rose from the warm water, we watched the lunkers a hundred yards out on the lake jumping at flies. If only we had a boat.

    When we arrived back in North Pole, the time-temperature sign read 2:46 a.m. and 30 degrees.

    Wednesday, June 18

    A quick trip (85 miles) to Quartz Lake, where we had planned to rent a boat and go after the bigger, deep-water lake trout we'd seen the night before, was scrubbed when my two brothers answered my pleas for a trip to Valdez. Knowing the salmon run wouldn't be in full swing for at least another week, we conceded that the trip alone would do everyone some good, despite the odds against catching anything substantial.

    Normally the trip would take six to seven hours. But we stopped for every mountain vista, photographed every lakeside sunset (or sunrise) and turned around for every animal, including the biggest porcupine I'd ever seen. With a stopover at historic Rika's Roadhouse near Delta Junction, and coffee in Paxson and Glennallen, the drive took eight hours. We arrived in Valdez at almost 3 a.m. Thompson Pass was treacherous.

    Thursday, June 19

    I couldn't wait to get started. Despite a steady rain and 40-degree temperatures, my brother Jim and I were at the Valdez city dock before 7 a.m. Fishing was slow because the tide was out. Using herring as bait, we landed three 12-to-15-inch cod before calling it quits.

    After breakfast and a trip to the local museum, the weather cleared up, so we tried the shore at Otter Park, a small spit across Valdez Arm from the pipeline terminal. There we hoped to catch Dolly Varden trout or perhaps some early arrivals in the pink salmon run. All we got was a show: sea lions diving for flounder beyond our casts. When the sea lions emerged, they were swarmed by hungry sea gulls hoping for scraps. The sea lion would roar and swat at the birds with his pan-shaped quarry, then dine while floating on its back.

    We returned to the ferry docks later that night and pulled in a small catch of herring and a few more cod. We were unable to land a flounder, which were plentiful off the same docks when I was a child. Our frustration was complete at dinner that night: $28.75 per pound for king crab, which was likely caught less than 10 miles away.

    Friday, June 20

    With our final day in Alaska already here, and with the fishing having been painfully slow, and with full knowledge of a bountiful salmon run being only days away (one of the commercial fisherman had told me he had brought in a load of pinks just seven miles out into Prince William Sound), I had become transformed into a poor man's Captain Ahab, obsessively pursuing the white whale. Only I didn't require a whale. At this point, anything would do.

    As darkness fell, three of us retreated to the Valdez small boat harbor, dropping lines between boats and under moorings, like desperate alley cats in search of a meal. We cut up the cod we caught earlier to attract whatever would come and used the herring as bait. It was after midnight before the poles began bending. My two partners -- my wife and oldest brother -- caught and released their fill of cod and retreated to the hotel. But I stayed, under dimly lit skies, until almost 5 a.m., swearing I would fish either until they stopped biting or until I ran out of bait. The bait came first. When I returned to the hotel at 5:15, I had caught and released 31 cod and one small Irish Lord, a species of rockfish. A small victory.

    In the end, I had landed 46 fish (ranging from 6 to 18 inches); our total as a foursome: 91. That spanned four days, more than 800 miles and almost 20 hours with a line in the water.

    The drive to North Pole took only seven hours this time, stopping at the usual checkpoints, plus pauses at breathtaking Keystone Canyon (where one can see three fantastic waterfalls at the same time), the touchable Worthington Glacier, and once more to photograph a small herd of moose. Once back, we had less than four hours to clean up, pack, eat dinner and catch our red-eye flight back to Tulsa.

    Saturday, June 21

    Made stops in Anchorage, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Salt Lake City before arriving in Tulsa at 11:40 p.m., 21 hours in all. Next time, it's either non-stop or driving.


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