Posted tagged ‘Alaska’

Chapter 3: Lake Creek Years

November 18, 2010

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Making a plan

God has allowed me to be a teacher, so I knew that when I returned to Alaska again I would want to share the experience with students. In the fall of 2001, I started hatching a plan to conduct an Alaska Science Adventure Camp. My first idea was to rent a van and trailer and camp at numerous spots on the mainland. This would be great fun, as there are many incredible places to visit from the road. I may still do a trip like this someday, stopping at places like Denali National Park, the Russian River Falls, and the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. 

 
 

Sockeye salmon ascend the Russian River Falls, Alaska. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann

 

What I really wanted to do though was conduct a camp in the wilderness of Alaska, in a place where bears outnumbered people. My family and I had canoed and camped along the Brazos River between Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney, and we always enjoyed the seclusion and natural setting provided by those trips. Those trips got me thinking about doing the same thing in Alaska, rafting down a salmon-filled river and learning about the incredibly productive ecosystems known as salmon streams. Almost devoid of life in winter, in summer salmon streams can sometimes become literally choked with salmon. The salmon build nests, called “redds”, lay their eggs, and then die. It seems strange that they die, but their Creator did this for a reason. If all of those adult salmon had to eat while they were in the stream, they would quickly eat up the food supply and starve. Instead, salmon eat their fill while at sea, then stop eating once they enter freshwater. More aggressive species like pink, silver and king salmon will strike a lure or bait, but less aggressive species like chum and sockeye are more difficult to catch. Spawning salmon strike out of habit, not because they want a meal.

I started researching about rafting trips, looking for a good first time opportunity. Joe Schuster’s Sportsmen’s Guide and Air Service website caught my attention. Based out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, Joe guided fishing and hunting trips, but also provided rafts and camping gear for groups wanting a more do-it-yourself approach. This is exactly what I wanted, and I contacted Joe and began making arrangements. He suggested we do the Talachulitna River trip in late July. At this time, there was the best chance of having all 5 species of Pacific salmon in the river, along with good numbers of resident rainbow trout and grayling. Being the closest to Anchorage, the “Tal” was also the least expensive float trip. I was quickly learning that getting into remote Alaskan wilderness was also an expensive proposition, but it was a cost that was worth every penny to me.

Joe Schuster and his DeHavilland "Beaver", dropping off campers and supplies at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

 

Wise counsel

As plans for my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp materialized, my wife and others began to ask questions, mainly about my experience regarding wilderness camping. Prior to Alaska, my longest camping trip had been two nights, and I had never camped in bear country. Proverbs 12:15 describes the wisdom in seeking counsel and the foolishness of not doing so. I have chosen not to seek counsel on more than one occasion and ended up “playing the fool”, but I knew this float trip, where more than just my own life would be at stake, was one where I should seek as much advice as possible.

Enter Jim Kronjaeger (pronounced krone-yay-ger). Jim was a Boy Scout leader, and led many camping expeditions, including snow camping in New Mexico and float trips down the Colorado River in Central Texas. An Eagle Scout himself, Jim’s two sons, Timothy and Micah, followed in their father’s footsteps. With his extensive knowledge of camping on rivers, as well as wilderness camping with large groups of boys, I knew his advice would be invaluable on this trip. Not only did Jim help with preparing the trip, his camping experience really shined during the trip, when we came across any number of problems.

Jim Kronjaeger with a nice silver salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

 

One of Jim’s many great ideas was to conduct a one night “practice” by floating down the Colorado River. The trip gave the boys who signed up a chance to meet each other, and to test our skills at camping. It also helped us make proper preparations for food and first aid. In addition, it reminded us all that when you are on a float trip, you are going to get wet, and you need to prepare accordingly.

Jim also had some experience camping in bear country. Newly married, Jim took his bride on a camping excursion through the Rockies, and even camped near a site where a grizzly had attacked and killed a woman the night before. Much to their relief, the grizzly did not visit them, too. Jim understood some basics of camping with bears, the most basic of which was to store all food away from the tents. Unfortunately, with neither grizzly or black bears on Texas’ Colorado River, we did not gain any experience with them on our practice trip, and we would wait for Alaska to experience them firsthand.

Change of plans-Chelatna Lake

Our group arrived in Anchorage on Aug. 30th, and soon we were headed northwest in Joe’s float plane to the Talachulitna River, or so we thought. It turned out that the Tal was too low to float, and Joe made the decision to take us to Lake Creek instead. Lake Creek, which was a river by my standards, was formed by the outflow of glacier-fed Chelatna Lake. The lake was near the base of Mt. Mckinley, which at 20,000 feet is the tallest mountain in North America. Lake Creek also had as good or better fishing than the Tal, so how could we complain about this change in plans? The only drawback was that I had studied topographic maps of the Tal until I knew every twist and turn of it, and now I was heading to a river I knew almost nothing about. Fortunately, our outfitter was on top of things, and provided detailed topographic maps complete with campsite suggestions.

The change in plans to Lake Creek turned out to be one of the best surprises ever, and solidified my trust in Joe as a competent outfitter. When someone changes your plans for you, then drops you off in the middle of nowhere and flies away, you better be sure they know what they’re doing. From the look of the camping gear and rafts that Joe provided, together with his skill at piloting the DeHavilland Beaver float plane, it was easy to see he knew what he was doing. I enjoyed Lake Creek so much that I floated it 5 times in 4 years, taking from two to 12 others along each time.

Chelatna Lake is an emerald jewel of a lake. Its waters are a milky, emerald green, typical of many glacier-fed lakes. The lake itself was actually formed by a glacier, and its dam is a terminal moraine of the former glacier. As the glacier receded over the years, Chelatna Lake was formed. The shoreline of the lake forms the characteristic U-shape of a valley carved by glaciers. We set up camp at the outflow, the headwaters of Lake Creek. One thing we learned about Chelatna Lake was that it had a healthy northern pike population, and a slough about 2 miles away from the outflow held the highest concentrations of this aggressive gamefish. We caught many pike from the lake, some as long as our legs. We also learned that they made a tasty meal.

Chelatna Lake from the air. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Sam Finney weighs a nice Northern Pike at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

 

On more than one occasion, we swam in Chelatna Lake. Although we never measured a water temperature over 62° F (17° C), many days were warm enough for a refreshing dip. One thing that is different in Alaska compared to where most people live is that there is an over-abundance of daylight. In early August at Chelatna Lake, the sun was up for 17 hours! On calm and sunny days, 17 hours of sun is a lot of sun, and even if the water is a little cool, a brief swim feels unbelievably good and is a welcome relief.

Lake Creek

Although Chelatna Lake is beautiful and very relaxing, we had not come to Alaska just to relax, and after a day or two, the campers were eager to begin our float trip. We never saw any bears at Chelatna Lake either, but were hoping that would change soon. Our outfitter told us that earlier in the year, a grizzly had walked through a riverside camp, and was sniffing around a tent. The camper inside never fired, but he pressed the muzzle of his gun into the bear’s snout, with only the tent between them. The bear left without harming the tent or the campers in the party. While we hoped to see a grizzly bear, none of us wanted that close of an encounter!

Lake Creek begins as a slow and lazy river, and rowing is required in order to move at a decent clip. In a few miles though, the speed, and the noise of the river begins to pick up. Numerous Class II and III rapids appear, but the pools beneath the rapids are great fishing spots. Literally every pool contains some king salmon. In years with good sockeye salmon runs, pools may have hundreds of sockeyes resting up before continuing their journey to Chelatna Lake.

Sockeye Salmon make their way up Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

In Lake Creek, king salmon are the first to arrive in late May, followed by sockeye salmon in mid-July. Pink salmon (in even-numbered years) are usually right behind the sockeye, followed by silvers and chum salmon. My trips on Lake Creek have always occurred the last week of July and first week of August, when silver and chum salmon are also just entering the river. On one trip taken during the second week of August, we caught silver salmon most of the length of the river, but usually they were concentrated in the lower half of the river.

King salmon are fun and often hard-fighting, and the 30+ pounders found in Lake Creek are incredibly difficult to bring in. We were always on Lake Creek after the king salmon season was closed (July 13), so we could catch but not keep the kings. We tried to leave them alone as much as possible, because many had begun digging their redds and were spawning. The king salmon were the dominant salmon in Lake Creek. While the sockeyes were usually more abundant, they were just passing through, headed to Chelatna lake to spawn in tributaries feeding into it.

John Boriack hefts a big Lake Creek King Salmon. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Silvers are my favorite salmon species to catch. They often strike aggressively at lures and flies, but other times it takes more finesse to get them to strike. The Lake Creek silvers also usually had changed color the least upon entering freshwater. By early August, the kings had metamorphosed from bright silver with olive backs to a rich and deep red coloration. All Pacific salmon go through a metamorphosis upon entering freshwater, changing color, growing larger teeth (and hooked snouts on the males) and thicker skin. Their muscle tissue changes as well, and they are not as good to eat after undergoing this metamorphosis. Lake Creek silvers however, lived up to their names, and were more often than not shiny and silvery! Their flesh was a brilliant orange color, and when cooked properly tasted fantastic. If we floated Lake Creek later in the year, then the silvers would have been red, too.

A pair of Lake Creek Silver Salmon

Sockeyes were our favorite salmon to eat, but also the most difficult to catch. They just don’t display the same aggressive strike response as some of the other kinds of salmon. Although I have seen relatively fresh-from-the-sea sockeyes on Lake Creek strike a fly, this seemed the exception rather than the norm, and snagging them in the mouth was really the best way to catch them. When hooked, they put up an exceptional fight, usually jumping multiple times before being brought ashore. And their meat is fantastic. It is a bright orange-red color, and when cooked in a little oil and butter along with some garlic, dill, and salt, they are exceptional eating. Some of us also enjoyed eating them raw, although not all the campers were interested!

Pink salmon were our least-favorite to catch and eat. The smallest of the Pacific salmon, they are also the weakest-fighting fish, and their flesh was a pinkish-tan coloration and usually a bit tough. However, we did eat them on several occasions when we were unable to catch any sockeyes or silvers. Male pink salmon are called “humpies” because of the large hump they develop upon entering freshwater. Pinks only run in even-numbered years, but we would inevitably see a few in the river in odd-numbered years as well. Pinks have the shortest life cycle (2 years) of the Pacific salmon, and immediately head out to sea in the spring after hatching, returning as adults the following summer.

Lake Creek Pink Salmon. Pink Salmon are mainly in Alaskan rivers in even-numbered years. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

Chum salmon were the least common species on Lake Creek, and the last to run up the river. I was always intrigued by the timing of the salmon runs. While there is some variability in individual runs, you can usually predict within a week, two at the most, when a salmon run will occur. One of my goals with the Alaska Science/Adventure Camps was to purposely not bring enough food with us, forcing us to live off the land. By observing the timing of the salmon runs, I knew that the two best-eating salmon, silvers and sockeyes, would be in the river the last week of July. However, the salmon runs can be quite variable in quantity, and in 2002 and 2003, there was an abundance of sockeyes, while in 2004 and 2005 sockeye numbers were very low and we had difficulty catching them. Chum salmon were never in abundance, and we only caught a handful and never cooked one.

Rob Sadowski (left) and Paul Grass holding Lake Creek Chum Salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

If you are a fisherman, you are probably wondering what we caught our salmon with. The majority of sockeyes were caught with streamers of any color, with a half-ounce weight attached 18 inches above the fly. With spinning reels spooled with 15 lb monofilament and 6 to 7 foot rods, we employed the “Russian River Flip” method of fishing. The method involves holding a length of line in your left hand, and “flipping” the streamer upstream, letting it drift through a school of sockeye, and repeating. Polarized glasses are very helpful, so that you can see when the fly enters a sockeye’s mouth. At the slightest resistance, the hook is set. Fishing for sockeyes usually results in a number of hookups in other spots on the fishes’ bodies besides the mouth, but even though the majority of fish are snagged anyways, legal capture requires they be snagged in the mouth.

We used a variety of bead-head streamers for catching kings, silvers, and pinks. These were attached to a 7 or 8-weight fly rod spooled with sink-tip line. One of my favorite methods for catching silvers was to spot some resting close to shore in relatively fast-moving water, and, approaching stealthily, present a bright bead-head streamer such as a Cabelas #8 Crystal Bugger. It took patience and concentration on my part as silvers in this position usually did not move much to attack the fly, but you would see a slight turn to the side. Even with polarized glasses and clear water, the swirling current still made it difficult to follow the fly, and many times I set the hook on nothing but water. However, I was rewarded on more than one occasion with a great battle and a tasty silver.

We caught most of our salmon on spinning tackle, and #4 Blue Fox spinners in chartreuse and pink were very effective on kings, silvers and pinks. However, our favorite lure was a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin rigged on a 1/16 or ¼ ounce lead jighead. I knew that salmon were attracted to brightly-colored lures and flies, and one day while fishing for speckled trout in Texas, the thought dawned on me to try the Saltwater Assassins in Alaska. The 5-inch, soft plastic body is threaded onto the lead jig head, and is a very effective lure for catching speckled trout and redfish. On our 2003 Alaska Camp, the Saltwater Assassins worked wonderfully. King and silver salmon struck at them aggressively. We were all excited to have “discovered” a new lure for catching salmon, one that did not exist in any tackle store in Alaska, but that outfished many of the more conventional salmon lures. The chartreuse Assassins also worked exceptionally well on Chelatna Lake pike.

This Lake Creek king salmon couldn't resist a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin, a lure normally used for Gulf Coast speckled trout and redfish.

About half-way down Lake Creek is a place referred to as “the canyons”. Here, the river cuts through a terminal moraine, and the walls of the canyon are composed of dirt and rock. Although small for a canyon, with walls maybe 150 feet high at the most, it is still a spectacular place. More importantly, the canyons held a series of deep pools that are sometimes filled with large schools of silver salmon. On our first trip in 2002, I was standing up in the raft as we entered a large pool, and noticed a dark streak in the water that stretched for 25 yards. As we got closer, I realized it was a tightly packed school of silvers! We pulled the raft over and began casting Blue Fox #4s, and we all hooked up immediately with 6-10 lb., hard-fighting silvers. It was a blast catching them in the clear water, watching them dart and cartwheel both below and above the water. The action fizzled after about 15 minutes, which we learned was a typical pattern. Anytime we would stop to fish a pool, the action was good for a few minutes, and then the fish would get used to our lures and ignore us.

A nice haul of silver salmon from the "canyons" of Lake Creek

Not only did we catch salmon, eat salmon, photograph and video them, we also dissected them. Since my camps were science-oriented, we brought along all sorts of field guides and science equipment to help us explore this fascinating ecosystem. For studying fishes, a 1980 copy of The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska by Robert Morrow proved invaluable. In our first year, none of us had much experience with salmon, and we especially had difficulty distinguishing between female silvers and sockeyes. Morrow’s book made identification easy, as he described not only color and shape, but also quantized accounts of the number of scales along the lateral line, number of pyloric cecae, egg size, and number of dorsal fin rays, to name a few. With Morrow’s help, fish identification was easier.

Dissecting salmon in our outdoor classroom, a gravel bar on Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, Jim Kronjaeger.

All of the students on my first trip had taken high school biology with me. I own a teaching business, and homeschooled students meet me at various locations around Houston for weekly math and science classes. Science class involved a hands-on-lab activity each week, and now I had my students deeply engaged in dissecting salmon on a gravel bar in the wilderness of Alaska, quite a different setting than a stale classroom. We would literally pick the salmon to pieces, going over every detail.

A fish’s gill rakers always tell an interesting story. Fish gills are composed of three parts, the gill arch, gill rakers, and gill lamellae. The rakers and lamellae branch from the arch in opposite directions, with the rakers pointing anteriorly (towards the head), and the lamellae pointing posteriorly (towards the tail). Lamellae to a fish are like lungs to a human, and are the place where they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide and other waste products like ammonia. Gill rakers are arranged like teeth on a comb, and their length and spacing reveal clues about their feeding habits. Silver salmon had shorter gill rakers that were spaced up to 1 cm apart. Sockeye salmon, however, had longer, thinner gill rakers that were closely spaced. Sockeye salmon are planktivores, meaning their main diet consisted of plankton. They ate some of the same foods as the chuchkis of the Pribilof Islands, and perhaps fed together on occasion. The long, closely spaced rakers act like a sieve, trapping plankton and preventing their escape past the gill cover.

Silver salmon, unlike sockeyes, are piscivores (fish eaters), and their gill rakers identified them as such. You may be wondering why a fish even has gill rakers, and why it cannot just keep its opercula, or gill covers, shut when its mouth is open. The reason is that when a salmon feeds, its mouth opens and its buccal cavity -the area between its jaws and gills-expands. This expansion creates a suction, drawing the prey inside their mouth. The fish cannot just swallow all the water it sucked in, so it opens its opercula to let the water exit. The gill rakers prevent prey from exiting through this opening.

While something like fish gill rakers may not sound all that exciting, they really are amazing, and are yet another testimony of God’s creative powers. The timing of salmon runs, the ability of the fish to swim thousands of miles to return to the place of it birth, gill rakers designed in specific ways for each species, all of these are testimonies to the purpose and plan God puts into everything. Scripture teaches that God knows so much about His creation, that he even knows how many hairs we have on our heads.(Matthew 10:30). While God created us in His image, giving us some of His creative powers, it is impossible to comprehend the absolute thoroughness of His understanding. He cares for His creation in ways we can only partly comprehend. Unfortunately, many people have given up hope in understanding His creation, and concoct weak explanations for the interactions they see. Some people actually believe that fishes like salmon, through a long series of genetic mutations, turned into human beings. This idea,known as evolutionism, flies in the face of every method we have of interpreting reality, including science, reason, and Scripture. Evolutionism is anti-science, because all scientific research on genetic mutations proves that mutations are either lethal, or they cause slight modifications such as changes in color and shape. Evolutionism theory is also against reason, because to truly believe it, one has to think that fish were unhappy with their aquatic habitats and wanted to get on land somehow, so they changed their genes over millions of years to accomplish this feat. That seems very unreasonable to me. And of course, evolution theory is against the ultimate foundation for truth and reality, God’s word. God tells us in Genesis and other places that He made the universe, the seas, and all life forms, and it even says He made living things “each according to its kind”. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, made it clear on page 62 of The Descent of Man, that his chief end in writing his seminal work on evolution, On the Origin of Species, was “to show that species had not been separately created”.

A salmon's gill rakers give clues about it's diet. This is a set of silver salmon gill rakers. A sockeyes would be a bit longer and much more narrowly spaced. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Fortunately, more and more people are realizing the fallacy of evolutionism, and are accepting the mounds of scientific evidence revealing there are limits to genetic change. Since no one was there to see the formation of the universe, there will always be two opinions about it. Some will speculate about origins, and others, like myself and millions of other Christians, will simply trust God’s word when it says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Salmon dissection was probably the most intensive scientific investigation performed on those first Alaska Science trips. We observed every part of their bodies, including their heart, brains, and even the beautifully spherical, crystal-like lenses in their eyes. We made the most of those salmon as well, and when dissection time was over, we would fillet them and cook them for dinner. This is one of the rare times in science class when it is okay to eat your experiment!

It doesn't get much fresher, or better than this! Pan-frying some Lake Creek silver salmon.

Lake Creek-Trout

The fish that provided the most entertainment for us though were Lake Creek’s rainbow trout, Salmo gairdneri. I had fished for rainbows in the lower 48 states, but nothing came even close to the fishing experienced on Lake Creek. Most of the fish caught during our trips were rainbow trout. On the 2005 trip, we performed a detailed survey of rainbow trout size, measuring every trout we caught. The twelve of us caught a total of 506 rainbows, with an average size of 12.5 inches. The majority of the fish were in the 10-13 inch range, but we did manage to catch 27 fish that were 20 inches or more, a nice rainbow in anyone’s book.

A beautiful Lake Creek Rainbow Trout. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann

 

The wild Lake Creek rainbows are absolutely gorgeous and much more colorful than the hatchery-raised rainbows I was used to catching in the Lower 48. I had never seen rainbows with such brilliant, and thick, pink stripes. Even their gill covers were pink, and on some, their pelvic and pectoral fins as well. The males’ colors were typically brighter than the females, but there were also variations within the sexes.

Since Lake Creek rainbows are regulated as a catch-and-release only fishery, we were unable to perform any dissections or stomach content surveys. The stomach content surveys would have been interesting, just to see whether the salmon-egg “flies” we used to catch rainbows were also their preferred food source. We had tremendous success using egg patterns that matched the size of the king salmon’s eggs. Smaller egg patterns did not work near as well, if at all.

Nevertheless, our trout measurement survey taught us a lot about the size distribution of rainbows in the river. Trout in the upper half of the 54-mile-long river averaged 13.7 inches, over two inches longer than trout in the lower river. Upper river trout were probably able to migrate into Chelatna Lake during the winter, where its warmer waters provided a longer growing season. Trout in the lower river either wintered in pools, or migrated down to the lower river and its confluence with the Skwentna River, a cold and turbid glacial-fed river with little aquatic life.

Besides egg patterns, we also caught numerous trout on Cabelas size 10 bead-head Prince Nymphs, and Mepps Aglia #1 spinners. Cabelas orange size 6 yarn eggs caught numerous rainbows. The best producer of all was the D’s King Salmon Super Eggs. All they are is a plastic bead of the approximate size and color of a King Salmon egg. We would slip these on the line, and then tie on a #8 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. The bead is “pegged” about 1 or 2 inches above the hook by inserting a toothpick into the top of bead and breaking it off. The purpose of pegging the bead was to create friction by sandwiching the fishing line between the toothpick and the bead. The bead worked best on fly rods, but could also be fished with spinning tackle by attaching a few split shots. In fly-fishing, the goal is to cast the line, so the weight of the fly is not that important. With conventional tackle, the goal is to cast the bait or lure, so its weight becomes important, hence the added splitshot.

One of our favorite places to camp and fish was Yenlo Creek, on the lower half of the river. This location was usually loaded with king salmon that were waiting patiently for high water and a chance to spawn in the creek. And any place there was a concentration of kings, there were also lots of rainbows. One evening, while cleaning pots and pans in the river, I noticed swirls in the water immediately downstream. I quickly realized the swirls were being made by rainbow trout gorging on the scraps I was putting into the stream. I had brought a diving mask along with me, and we had some salmon roe (eggs) left over, so one of the campers got upstream of me and I leaned over a rock and put my face in the water. The camper released some eggs, and I watched in amazement as several trout rushed up, inches from my face, to inhale the eggs. We all took turns with the mask, and had a great time watching the feeding frenzy. It was quite apparent that the trout were “trained” to feed on dinner scraps, and had dined on the scraps of other groups as well.

Lake Creek Grayling

Lake Creek also has a good population of the arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus. With a body shaped like a trout, it is easily distinguished from salmonids by its beautiful sail-like dorsal fin and small mouth. Not as colorful as rainbows, Lake Creek grayling are dark gray on top with crème-colored bellies and scattered small dark spots on their sides. The dorsal fins usually have small orange and yellow spots, and the pelvic fins usually have some yellow stripes. From a distance, grayling are, well, gray and dull, and you have to look at them close to better appreciate their beauty. Not as hard of a fighter as the rainbow, we could usually tell we had a grayling on before we saw it by the way they fought to stay near the bottom. While Morrow’s Freshwater Fishes of Alaska text described grayling as “primarily a surface and mid-depth feeder”, we usually caught them at the bottom, where they dined on abundant aquatic insects, including the larva of caddis flies, and mayfly and stonefly nymphs. While we did catch many grayling on egg patterns, nymphs seemed to be their preferred food, and the #10 bead-head Prince Nymphs worked well.

A Lake Creek Grayling. Note the large, sail-like dorsal fin. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann.

If you have never looked at the rocks on the bottom of a trout stream, when you do you will be surprised at the abundance of life, especially in the summer months. Rocks near the shore will be covered with a variety of insect nymphs and larvae, primarily stonefly and mayfly nymphs, and cocoon-forming caddisfly larvae. I enjoy fly-fishing, but not as much as some, and have often been surprised at the detail some will go to “match the hatch” by creating fly patterns that mimic the flies that are hatching that day. However, just like I am amazed at the importance of salmon to bears, others are fascinated by the connection existing between insects and fishes like trout and grayling. If you want to develop your skills as a stream ecologist, there is probably no better way than to avidly pursue fly fishing, as this sport forces you to understand the connections between predator and prey, organism and environment.

Alaska regulations allow keeping 5 grayling per day on Lake Creek, so we did keep a few for dissection and for eating. Dissections confirmed that their preferred food was aquatic insects, although we did find a few king salmon eggs mixed in. One thing we learned was grayling are big eaters, as the stomachs of fishes we studied were always full. We enjoyed their mild white flesh, but we almost felt silly keeping them when one sockeye salmon would feed 4-6 hungry teenage boys, while one 12-15 inch grayling was a mere snack. We mostly appreciated the grayling for their willingness to strike our flies and their strange but beautiful dorsal fins, which were yet another reminder that God creates with a purpose in mind. Seeing that grayling inhabit fast-flowing streams, it almost seemed like God made a mistake, as their clumsy-looking dorsal fin might pose a real problem for navigation in fast current. Trout and other salmonids have a small, triangular dorsal fin, which acts like the feathers on an arrow, adding stability to their movements. However, grayling have many uses for this fin. Like salmonids, they use it for stability and propulsion. Males also use theirs as a way to display aggression to other males, raising it in a way similar to the “betas”, or fighting fish, found at most pet stores. Males also use it during spawning, draping it over the female to hold her in position over prime spawning locations. Grayling don’t dig redds like salmonids do, but rather lay strings of sticky eggs on top of the gravel. This difference in spawning strategies alone is enough to convince me of the plan God had when he made grayling, and in His goodness He knew that we would also appreciate their uniqueness and beauty.

First Grizzly at camp

On my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp, we were all eager to see a grizzly bear. However, most of our bear entertainment was provided by black bears. At Yenlo Creek, a mother black bear was raising her three cubs. Quite shy, she kept at least a hundred yards away from us. Yenlo Creek was a great fishing spot, which meant that it was also a good spot for bears. At all camp sites, food was stored away from our tents, and no one was allowed to bring food into their tents. It is easy however, to relax the rules when you don’t see many bears, but now that we had, our sense of proper bear etiquette was increased. One of the most important rules in bear country is to never spook a bear, especially a mother with cubs. Also, supposedly bears have never attacked a group of 5 or more people, which is also Rule #5 in the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual’s “10 Golden Rules of Bear Viewing” by Dr. Stephen Stringham. Keeping these rules in mind, any ventures from camp were done loudly and in groups. This was especially important when fishing along the river, as the rush of whitewater was quite loud and could easily drown out the sounds of a person walking along the stream. Not only that, bears focused on eating salmon are attracted to splashes in the water, and will investigate any splash, whether from a fish, a thrown rock, or a person walking. It is important to make sounds other than splashing when walking along a stream. Some people wear “bear bells”, but the river can easily drown out their sound. The best thing to do is to just yell “hey bear!” every 15-20 seconds while walking.

Mother Black Bear and cubs, Yenlo Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

We never saw any grizzlies at Yenlo Creek, or any other part of Lake Creek, until the very end of the trip. The last night of the trip was usually spent on a sand bar a few miles from the end of Lake Creek near a lake called Bulchitna Slough. We usually saw black bears at this campsite, and signs of grizzly bears were evident. The unmistakable tracks, along with large piles of scat, revealed their presence. The grizzlies seemed very wary of people however, and were more nocturnal than bears I would later see in Katmai National Park. During that first trip in 2002, one evening after dinner, we decided to fish some braids in the river upstream from camp. After hiking about a mile and catching a variety of fishes, we found a nice pool that held chum salmon. Two of the campers, Rob Sadowski and Paul Grass, caught chums, and we snapped a picture and released them. Also known as dog salmon because of their enlarged canines, we were careful when removing the hooks from their toothy jaws. It was almost dark by now, so we started walking back and suddenly, on the opposite shore, a grizzly bear appeared! Not more than 50 yards away, he looked at us and then headed into the water and searched for fish. Some of the campers wanted to return, but my instinct was to stay and watch. I had my video camera, but it was too dark to film the bear, and some of the campers were getting extremely nervous, so we turned and headed back to camp.

That night, we woke to the sound of cracking branches in the alder trees directly behind our camp. By the sound it was making, we were sure it was a grizzly passing through. We were all excited about the grizzly bears around our camp, and the boys had some memories that would last forever. We never saw any other grizzlies until a 2007 trip that Rob Sadowski guided, when they saw 7 on Lake Creek, most of them on the lower few miles and near the mouth of Lake Creek at the Skwentna River.

That first grizzly encounter on Lake Creek taught me something. Although some of my students were scared silly, in reality the grizzly showed no signs of aggression towards us. Perhaps it was our large group that intimidated him, or was it? Was the fear some of the campers displayed justified, or were grizzlies more predictable than most people thought? My years as a scientist had taught me that the latter was probably more likely to be true, and if I took some time to learn more about grizzlies, I could greatly reduce my chances of being attacked when venturing into their domain.

End Ch. 3

Here’s a YouTube video I made about syllogisms, using Lake Creek rainbow trout as an example: