Weathering Alaska

Bill HiltsAbout the only guarantee you can get when it comes to weather is that it will happen – good or bad. Our recent trek to Alaska took us from Fairbanks to Valdez – a six-hour drive through some absolutely spectacular country. Of particular note was our travel through Thompson’s Pass, looking more like the terrain of Switzerland. At least that’s what fellow writer Doug Stamm of Wisconsin pointed out.

“Many people actually refer to this part of the state as Little Switzerland,” said Mark Young, our fishing guide turned tour guide as we made the trip down from his home town of North Pole. No, Kris Kringle isn’t the only person who lives there. As luck would have it, a heavy rain and low cloud cover limited our viewing efforts and picture-taking abilities. We knew we would be traveling back through this same pass – there’s only one road from Fairbanks to Valdez … without a single traffic light – and hoped for better conditions.

We arrived in Valdez on the eve of what was supposed to be a halibut, lingcod and silver salmon trip. It was something we looked forward to, a preconference foray for a weekend adventure prior to the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference at the Chena Hot Springs Resort in early September.

Most people remember Valdez for two reasons – the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 and the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 – 25 years apart and both occurring on Good Friday. There is another important reason to remember Valdez – as a diehard fishing town. Unfortunately, our fishing efforts were extremely limited due to some unexpected weather conditions.

As luck would have it, a serious storm system blew in from the Bering Sea that would cause Prince William Sound to be off limits for any consistent halibut and lingcod action. Our final destination would have been where the Sound and the Gulf of Alaska meet, about a 70-mile trip one way. The original plan was to spend the night in the boat and fish a couple of days. The end result was still a combination of both, but sleeping in the boat in the dock slip and fishing in the arm that extends out to the Sound, protected from the wind – but not the rain.

It rained for three days with only a little reprieve that allowed for a few photos of fish and wildlife. The scenery was spectacular. The fish and wildlife were awesome, including sea otters, killer whales, sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, caribou and Dal'sl sheep. We had more rain for the weekend than we had back home the entire month of July!

We did catch plenty of fish, too, but mostly of the rockfish variety like yellow-eye, quillback and copper rockfish. Stamm did have a nice lingcod next to the boat, but it didn’t appear to be the legal 35-inch limit. It was off his hook before we had a chance to net the tasty fish.

We had been excited about the prospects of the trip after looking at Young’s website (www.alaskamarineguides.com). Young is a very knowledgeable captain and we wished the circumstances were different. If you do make it to Valdez, don’t just plan on a day. Not because of the weather, but because to really experience Alaska, go for one of their overnight trips. The 70-mile run one way will show off some awesome mountains, cool wildlife and other scenery that words can’t begin to describe in this unique part of the world – and that’s before you even get to the fishing.

On our return trip back to Fairbanks, Thompson’s Pass was non-existent from a viewing standpoint. Low clouds and a mist created limited visibility once again. In fact, we were through the pass before we realized it. Weather can do that to you. Looks like a return trip is in order – and I will have a better rain suit with me!

Categories: New York – Bill Hilts Jr

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