The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Surviving a spring assault on Alaska's Taku River

Kent Sullivan: Adventurous angler

Editor’s note: As many of you know, longtime friend Kent Sullivan is the most adventurous angler I know. He's also a calculated risk-taker and there's no riskier proposition that he undertakes than running southeast Alaska's Taku River in his jet sled, during spring, searching for steelhead. He recently did just that and came back with yet another crazy story to share. Thanks to Sullivan and his friend, Nick Segal, for allowing us to share it with you here. Enjoy.

THIS PAST WEEKEND (April 28/29), a buddy, Nick Segal, and I headed up the Taku River in southeast Alaska, outside of Juneau. As with most trips up the Taku, this one was a mix of the good and the bad. While it would have been nice had everything been good, that would not have been realistic and it would have made each of the good things slightly less appreciated. It seems like it is often a mix of the good and bad that makes us enjoy the good all the more and makes some fishing trips so memorable. This trip certainly helped emphasize that.

To begin the trip, we were not sure that the ice had even broke on the river. The last report we had was from Ward Air which had flown the river on Friday afternoon. They reported that the river was broke up high, but that approximately 10 miles of ice remained on the lower river between the Taku Lodge and the tidewater. My buddy and I decided to take the risk and head out in my jet-sled. Here’s a chronologically organized good/bad detail of the trip:

1. Good: Found a neophyte to the river, who was good enough to agree to go up there with me. Wahoo! I was not having to risk doing a solo trip in the spring. My chances of surviving were now better!

Bad: Not sure whether or not we were going to make it up the river or not. By all accounts, it is was still frozen as of the day before. Talking to the pilot at Ward Air who had flown the river on Friday afternoon, he indicated that the river might break within two high tides (~16 hours). We left town without any further word, on Saturday at 11 a.m.

2. Good: Made it through the sketchy section of the river we thought might have ice. It had broke during the night. Awesome! Were told by the caretaker at Taku River Lodge that we were the first boat up the river this spring. Perfect timing.

Bad: The river was ultra-low and difficult to run. There were pieces of the river’s bottom I have never seen before. For the most part, the riverbanks are covered with 4-6 feet of shelf ice and snow. There is only one

channel to run the boat in (as opposed to the usual many) and that channel is extremely challenging.

3. Good: Since the River is ultra-low, we figured it would make for great clear water and awesome fishing at our ultimate destination.

Bad: We were constantly worried about whether or not the river would be deep enough to allow passage to where we wanted to be and whether or not there would be any trees across the river that would block our passage.

4. Good: Great wildlife viewing including many moose and goats.

Bad: The honey hole we had planned on fishing had substantially changed. It was now 200 feet away from where it had been the year before and was now a shallow, fast riffle as opposed to a long, 4-6 deep and wide run.

5. Good: Came upon a moose carcass very close to the river, which had two wolves on it (one black and one white). We were able to get up-close and personal to the wolves (<100 yards) and even had them standing and looking at us a good part of the time. Very, very cool!

Bad: Not only had the honey hole changed, but in addition to that, it was uncharacteristically muddy and unfishable.

6. Good: During the entire trip, the weather was warm and we had no rain or wind. By Taku standards, it was incredible weather!

Bad: The reason for the river being muddy above the honey hole was a large landslide. Below the landslide, the river was blown out. Above the landslide, it was fishable.

7. Good: Nick was enthralled with the river experience. It is so awesome taking somebody up the river who has never been there before. To many, it is a life-changing experience. By Nick’s reaction, he may well fit into that crowd. It is incredibly gratifying to have been partly responsible for having brought that about.

Bad: Another series of honey holes exist about six miles above the landslide. However, just above the landslide there is a large log across the only navigable part of the river. It was approximately 3 feet in diameter and needed to be cut on both ends. One end was in approximately 4 feet of extremely swift water and the other end was in approximately 8 feet of fast water. In the end, I estimated that, being 70 miles from town by boat, it was far too dangerous to risk making the cut, and that even if we made it through the log, the river was likely too low to get to the next series of honey holes and/or get out of there without destroying the boat.

8. Good: Made quick time coming back down the river from the log blockage.

Bad: Ended up planting the boat on a tree/stump sticking up in the middle of the river at 20 m.p.h. and wound up at about a 45 degree angle, due to a malfunctioning shifting unit and lack of reverse. The crash nearly READ THE REST