The red star (just right of center) marks Newhalen, Alaska – our new home at the mouth of the Newhalen River on the shores of Lake Iliamna. Temporarily up in the air this past spring with the closing of the school in Chignik Lake, we’ve landed in the heart of some of the best trout and salmon fishing in Alaska – and hence in the world.
On June 21st, we said our good-by-for-nows to friends in Chignik Lake, boarded a small bush plane, and bid farewell to the tiny village in the Alaska wilderness that had been our home for the past three years. Our summer has been something of a whirlwind since.
A parting view of our wonderful village on Chignik Lake. The red dot (near center) marks our home there. The good news is that in late July, a family with children moved to The Lake, so the school is restored to the minimum enrollment necessary to open this fall.
From The Lake, we flew straight to Newhalen and began familiarizing ourselves with our new community. The house we were to move into was still occupied, so we quickly tucked ourselves into a nearby apartment, boarded another plane, and flew across Cook Inlet (the large body of water on the right side of the above map) to Homer where our truck, camper, C-Dory fishing boat and canoe have been in storage. The scramble was on.
It’s hard to believe this photo of Gillie was taken over 10 years ago in Cordova, Alaska. She’ll be happy to be exploring Lake Iliamna and other nearby waters near our new home.
Six days later, we’d made the drive to Anchorage to take care of errands, appointments and catching up with friends, drove back to Homer (450 miles round trip), delivered the truck, canoe and boat to a transportation company to be barged across Cook Inlet, driven on a haul road to Lake Iliamna, then barged across the lake to our home, returned the camper to storage in Homer, then flew back to Newhalen. Two weeks later, our house-to-be opened up and we began moving in. Since then, we’ve been engaged in daily projects large and small, turning this house into our home.
Meanwhile, we’ve been sandwiching in regular runs in preparation for the half-marathon we’ve signed up for in October, tying flies, catching salmon and putting away 100 pounds of beautiful Newhalen River Sockeye in our freezer, squeezing in a little guitar practice, picking blueberries (gotta have berry security for the coming months) and managing to still have time for our traditional evening games of Scrabble or chess. We’ve barely touched photography and writing during this time.
A thick mattress of soft lichen makes sitting or kneeling to pick blueberries quite comfortable. There is also an abundance of lingonberry (low bush cranberry) along with crowberries and, here and there, cloudberries.
We have begun to get the lay of the land. For about three weeks in mid-July, a nearly steady stream of tens of thousands of salmon ascended the Newhalen River. The fish get temporarily bottlenecked at The Rapids – a spectacular piece of unnavigable white water that forces the salmon close to the banks were anglers (such as ourselves) attempt to get a fly into their mouths. Where there are salmon there are bears, and although we haven’t seen any yet, there are signs of their presence. We have seen a couple of foxes, a set of moose tracks, and a number of interesting birds in including ospreys, merlins and loons. The landscape is a mix of tundra with berry patches everywhere (and I mean everywhere) and taiga forest predominated by black spruce and some white spruce. The horizon is shaped by mountains.
With very limited roads, Hondas (ATVs/quads) are a great way to get out and explore. There are extensive trail systems lacing the area.
With only a few miles of road and no practical way in or out of the village except by plane, this is till the Alaska bush. But coming from truly remote Arctic villages such as Shishmaref and Point Hope as well as Chignik Lake nearly 300 miles down the Alaska Peninsula, Newhalen and its sister village five miles up the road, Iliamna, are like no bush village we’ve lived in. Some of the roads here are paved! This is a hub for commercial fishermen, sport anglers and eco-tourists, and as such, the area has a decidedly cosmopolitan feel about it. Fairly large planes fly in and out, there is a modern, fully-staffed health clinic, a small grocer and a slightly larger, exceptionally well-stocked general store that carries everything from food to hardware to clothing with even a little fishing tackle in the mix. And get this: we can now get same-day delivery from Costco. It almost feels like cheating. “Cush Bush,” we’ve heard it called. Or “Bush Lite.”
Iconic Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is just 90 miles – a short bush flight – from Newhalen. (Photo Credit: https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/view.htm?id=76833AAD-1DD8-B71B-0B3BA028DA419061)–
At the same time, there are only about 300 residents between the two villages. During our three to five mile morning runs along the main road, we’ve never seen more than a handful vehicles. And the people here are super friendly. New friends at the airport call us when we have freight, and folks at the post office are happy to do the same when we’re expecting something important. Whether we’re on our bicycles, running, or driving our pickup, virtually everyone waves as they drive by. And it’s quiet. Not Chignik Lake quiet, but aside from an occasional plane, once we’re beyond the edge of town all we can usually hear is birds chattering and the distant roar of the Newhalen River. Inside our home, we hear almost nothing from outside. There are no police officers, virtually no litter, and most people don’t bother locking their doors.
Coho Salmon will be arriving in the river soon. A few miles beyond the village the Tazimina River is renowned for trophy-sized grayling and rainbow trout over 20 inches. Fly fishermen catch rainbows that large and larger at the mouth of the Newhalen, a 15 minute walk from our home. We’re a short bush plane ride from Katmai National Park, famous for the Brooks Falls where massive brown bears gather to intercept migrating salmon. As part of the Bristol Bay watershed, rivers that fill with salmon, not to mention trout and char of huge proportions, lie in just about every direction.
When I was a young boy, sometimes my grandfather Donachy would let me have his old issues of Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. I’d pore over those magazines, reading them cover to cover and then reading my favorite articles again and again. That’s where I first learned of Lake Iliamna, this massive body of water fed by streams and rivers filled with fish, its shores patrolled by wolves, bears and moose, a few isolated Indian villages dotting the landscape, bush planes the only way in… It was the stuff to make a young boy dream.
Well. Here we are.
Fireweed flowers are near their finish, but here and there harebell is in full bloom. We’ve finally got our cameras out and are beginning to really dig in and explore this exciting part of Alaska, so stay tuned!