We’d planned The Trek for months, poring over maps, reading up and double-checking gear. Our friend Walter (not his real name) convinced us to join him on a foot-powered fishing adventure exploring lakes and rivers in Southwest Alaska using our pack rafts, bikes, and backpacks. We were simultaneously intimidated, apprehensive and excited about a series of remote treks way off the beaten path Walter was suggesting. In the end, we decided that we were all in, eager to take on the challenges this trip portended.
To prepare, we practiced loading our bikes for excursions lasting up to two weeks at a time – tent, sleeping bags, stove, fuel, food, clothing, fishing tackle, maps, etc. We then repacked everything in our backpacks in the event we’d need to carry our gear and supplies. In early May, we shipped our bikes as well as totes filled with food and gear to Nondalton, where we would begin the journey. The plan was to mail food ahead to other villages we’d be passing through. Walter had the maps and had planned the routes (or so we thought – insert obvious foreshadowing music here).
As the plane that carried us neared Nondalton, the weather whipped up a brew of freezing rain followed by wind-driven snow – May in Alaska. Warm layers of clothing? Check.
We had a few days before the fishing season officially opened on Lake Iliamna, so we took the time to nail down the details of our trip and to sort out food and gear in chronological order according to our itinerary. This entailed reigning in some of Walter initial plans – which would have taken us to far flung locales – and to focus instead on the Lake Iliamna region. Our packs were quite heavy, but our spirits were light. We even had a couple of free days in which to get a taste of the fishing in lower Lake Clark and the nearby Tazimina River – a renowned destination for rainbow trout and trophy-sized grayling.
Then, on a day of brilliant sunshine and temperatures climbing into the 70s, we decided to do a shakedown run. Jack and I hadn’t used our pack rafts before, let alone floated a river with bikes affixed to the rafts. Walter mapped out a “short” circuit of “a few miles” which he felt would be perfect to test both the bikes and the rafts and to get in some quality fishing on the side. The plan was to launch our rafts on Six Mile Lake at Nondalton, raft down the Newhalen River to a point where a dirt and gravel road met the river, ride our bikes to an ATV trail which led to the Tazimina River, float the Tazimina back to Six Mile Lake and paddle across back to Nondalton. “Should take us just a few hours,” Walter guessed.
We put our full confidence in our friend and guide, trusting that he had accurately assessed the trial run.
Maybe we started too late in the day. Maybe Walter didn’t really know where he was going. Maybe it was lucky that the day worked out the way it did… sparing us an inevitable tragedy later in the summer. What was offered as a “short” run of “a few miles” that we would be able to cover in “a few hours” turned into a 19 mile slog – a series of missteps, poor communication and bad guesses we have named “The Ordeal.”
To be continued…