Chillin' on the Chulitna

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

FAIRBANKS - We - me, my wife, Kristan, and our 9-year-old son, Logan - just returned from a three-day, two-night raft trip down the Chulitna River in the Alaska Range and I've got to tell you, I'm not thrilled about writing a story about it.

It was that good.

Sometimes you come across a special place that you don't want other people to know about; the Chulitna River is one of those places.

Where do I begin?

Do I start with Kristan hooking and landing a king salmon - she hooked and fought another for several minutes before it spit out the hook - at the mouth of the Middle Fork Chulitna River on Friday, just a few hours into the trip? Or should I brag about how Logan hooked his first king at the same hole and, with the help of mom, battled it for 10 minutes before it ripped the lure off and disappeared?

Then again, I could begin with the spectacular scenery. From snow-capped peaks glistening in the sun atop lush, green mountainsides to a glimpse of North America's tallest peak, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley; to the pristine freshwater section of upper river that features water green as grass rushing over boulders protruding from the narrow stream bed; to the gray, apocalyptic-looking, braided sections of debris-filled lower Chulitna.

Let's not forget the rafting - fun but not frightening Class III whitewater - actually it's gray - on the lower Chulitna. Tame enough for Logan to hang over the front of the raft with me holding his legs - just to make sure - but wild enough to soak him with water that was a lot colder than he thought, especially when the wind picked up.

The weather, less for a two-hour storm on Saturday night, was glorious. Two days of 75- to 80-degree sun that left us with sunburned faces.

Even the violent thunder and lightning storm we encountered on Saturday night in the middle of the Alaska Range - the worst I've ever seen - was cool to watch, mainly because we weren't on the river when it hit and managed to live through it without getting too wet or cold - or struck by lightning.

I guess I should go back to the beginning. It was December when Tim Kalke, co-owner of Mat-Su Expeditions and River Guides in Talkeetna, contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in taking a complimentary trip down the Chulitna River in exchange for a story.

Of course, I had to weigh my journalistic integrity. Do I accept his offer and risk crossing an ethical line, or do I politely decline on the grounds that it would violate a journalistic code by accepting a free trip?

Needless to say, I took the bait like one of the king salmon he said we would be fishing for.

It was easy to justify, though.

For starters, there was a local angle to it. Kalke had been stationed at Fort Wainwright during a six-year stint in the U.S. Army, which included an 18-month tour in Iraq as part of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, before he got out of the Army and started up his business in Talkeetna. His tie to the military is one of the reasons Kalke decided to take a group of eight wounded Iraq war veterans on a complimentary four-day trip down the Talkeetna River canyon next week as part of the Wounded Warrior Project.

Another reason to accept Kalke's offer is that the Chulitna River, which parallels the Parks Highway between Denali Park and Talkeetna, is right in our backyard. It was my duty to let readers in Fairbanks know what it was like.

Besides, if you're an outdoors writer, you have to get outdoors to write about it.

After an early morning drive from Fairbanks that started at 4:30 a.m., we met Kalke and Brian Robison, at the McKinley View Lodge at 9 a.m. Friday morning.

We dropped off our car at the take-out a few miles farther down the road and piled into Kalke's Suburban for the drive back up the road to the put in on the East Fork Chulitna River at Mile 185, where a few other kayakers and rafters were assembling for a trip down the river.

Kalke and Robison, both 29, are college buddies who met at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo. Robison, a rafting guide in high school, got Kalke into rafting and they spent as much time oaring rafts on the Gunnison River as they did in the classroom. It was in college that they first talked about starting up a whitewater rafting business.

But Kalke, an ROTC student, was called to active duty and ended up stationed in Fairbanks at Fort Wainwright. His deployment to Iraq extended his four-year commitment to the military to six years and any plans for a rafting business were put on hold.

However, it wasn't until 2005, when Robison visited Kalke in Fairbanks that they rekindled the idea.

"We just packed up (Kalke's) Suburban and drove around for a month rafting different rivers," recalled Robison, who immediately fell in love with Alaska.

After rafting down the Talkeetna River, they realized there really wasn't anybody offering trips that combined whitewater rafting and salmon fishing, so they decided to fill that niche by starting up Mat-Su Expeditions and River Guides, which was born in 2006, shortly after Kalke's military commitment was fulfilled. This marks their second summer in operation.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of guided trips. I'd rather do things myself, whether it's catch a fish, set up a tent or cook over a fire, than have somebody else do it for me.

But this trip was different. Kalke and Robison didn't act like guides as much as they did long-time friends. They weren't bossy or arrogant. They didn't make you feel like an idiot if you didn't know how to do something. In three days there was never an uneasy moment.

"There they are," said Kalke said, standing at the mouth of Middle Fork of the Chulitna River where it flows into the East Fork, pointing across the rocky stream. "Do you see them over there?"

His polarized sunglasses were obviously better than mine; I didn't see a thing.

Kalke patiently pointed again and this time I was able to make out what looked to be a red torpedo in the water. Then there was another. And another.

They were king salmon, resting before heading up the Middle Fork to spawn, just what we were looking for.

Breaking out the one king rod I had brought, I donned a pair of chest waders and set about casting for a king, tossing the lure upstream and letting it float downstream in front of the fish. After 10 minutes of casting with no luck, I turned the rod over to Kristan.

On just her second cast, the tip of the rod suddenly bent down.

"I've got one," Kristan yelled, as she tightened her grip on the rod and struggled to keep the tip of the rod up.

What proceeded was an epic 10-minute battle in which the fish repeatedly stripped line from the rod as it tried to escape. Both Kalke and Robison stood nearby serving as coaches. At one point, the fish swam through Kalke's legs, forcing him to dance out of the way.

It was Kristan's first king in 10 years - she was five months pregnant with Logan the last time she caught a king on a similar raft trip down the Gulkana River - which you could tell by the gleam in her eye and smile on her face as she battled the fish.

After releasing the fish - "Does this mean we're not keeping it?" a disappointed Kristan asked as it swam away - Kristan handed the rod to Logan. I had just put the camera away when I heard Logan scream, "I've got one." I turned around to see him struggling to hold onto the rod as the fish tore line off the reel. Kristan dashed to the rescue, grabbing and lifting the rod. The two of them fought the fish for a good five minutes, with Logan trying to reel as Kristan held the rod. They nearly had the fish landed when it exploded out of the water, flapped its tail and disappeared, taking our lure with it. Logan was so excited he didn't seem to mind losing the fish.

"I can't wait to get home and tell all my friends what I did this summer," he exclaimed in the heat of the battle.

I didn't catch a king - I hooked one briefly but forgot to set the hook - but watching the smiles on the faces of Kristan and Logan fighting one more than made up for it.

More than anything, though, the trip reminded me and Kristan - and hopefully Logan, though he doesn't realize it yet - how lucky we are to live in Alaska, a point that Kristan made as we reflected on the trip as we drove home.

"The whole time I was thinking, 'I'm just so thankful to live where we do,"' Kristan said.

As for me, I'm just happy I got my story.

Now, if only I didn't have to write about it.

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