AK: Float

Photo by Alison Eskelin,  DNR.
Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

At 1.6 million acres, the Wood Tikchik State Park is the largest of its kind in the United States. With no road or trails, the park remains a quiet preserve for the fish and wildlife it was created to protect.

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The Tikchik River winds a gentle 60 miles through the pristine northern most regions of the park. Once every couple of years, the park’s rangers float the river to get a better look and feel for things in that unique wilderness area.

Photo by Alison Eskelin,  DNR.
Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

Large and lonely at the north end of the Wood Tikchik State Park sits Nishlik Lake, a fine place to begin a float of the Tikchik River. Four of us camped two nights there, catching lake trout from the shore, and finding big, old grayling in a smaller unnamed lake a short hike away. For Chief Ranger Bill Berkahn, this is as good as the job gets.

“We don’t get up here very often, by airplane a few times a year to do some work, but a lot of it is maintaining that familiarity with the park,” he said. “A lot of it is staying in touch with what’s going on out here, and you can’t do that sitting in front of a computer, waiting for the phone to ring.”

Part of staying in touch with the park, believe it or not, is what the ranger staff calls test fishing, and about a mile or so into our float of the Tikchik River the fishing gets really good.

“Well we are on the Tikchik River,” Berkahn said, laughing as a fish hits his line. “Crystal Clear water and a pool with numerous, numerous 17-inch graylings, I don’t think it gets any better than this.”

Photo by Alison Eskelin,  DNR.
Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

Big, beautiful grayling, some bright silver with shimmering turquoise, others a cool burnt umber, are astoundingly abundant in the Tikchik. We find them in every pool, around every bend of the river.

“Beautiful, big dorsal, 18 inches; There he goes,” Berkahn said, as the fish splashes back in to the water.

Just a few miles from Nishlik Lake, the first few crimson red sockeye streak by.

Alison Eskelin, the park’s only other ranger, points to them out as we pass by. We count sockeye by the dozen, then by the hundreds, and soon we’re drifting over thousands. Eskelin’s surprised to see so many, this far up river.

Photo by Alison Eskelin,  DNR.
Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

“The most breathtaking thing is floating down river and seeing these pockets of crimson red salmon, all schooled up together, waiting to spawn and take their place in the ecosystem,” she said. “For the health of the river, for the health of the population, for the subsistence that all the people use those fish for, and having them that far up into the system, how many miles have they traveled to get up there?”

You need a map to put perspective on the incredible journey these salmon have undertaken. Up the Nushagak, left on the Nuyakuk, past the falls, across the lake, and on up the Tikchik to their final destinations.

We continue our test fishing, casting behind the sockeye, and reeling in one grayling after the next.

Passing through an unnamed canyon, we stop to watch a nesting pair of peregrine falcons are agitated by our presence

Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

“These are the only two I know of in the park,” Berkahn said, when I asked him if that was a common occurrence. “They were here the last time we came through, a couple of years ago.”

Each evening on the Tikchik, it’s easy to find a suitable gravel bar for camp, usually pre-stacked with driftwood. The further down river we travel, the thicker the mosquitoes seem to be, but the fire helps.

Matt Wedeking is a ranger from Chugach State Park, who was impressed by his first trip to Wood Tikchik.

“Unspoiled Alaskan wilderness and it should stay that way,” Wedeking said. “Alaska State Parks should do what they can to keep that the way that it is.”

Photo by Alison Eskelin,  DNR.
Photo by Alison Eskelin, DNR.

“The opportunity this park provides is something that has to be kept and conserved for others; and so I can take my kids out here.”

The scenery on the Tikchik float is striking, from sprawling high alpine tundra hemmed in by endless mountains, to the lower pine forests woven with creeks and streams. Ranger Bill Berkahn says he never tires of the visual experience.

“Part of why this park was set aside is because of its outstanding scenic resources,” Berkahn said. “Those are the words that are used in the management plan and I haven’t been let down.”

“Every turn on the river opened up a new vista, a new view, a new mountain, a new ridge, you can’t get tired of it.”

A week passes on the Tikchik and we don’t encounter a soul, not a boat, or plane. The pace is easy, the fish and wildlife are abundant. This is Alaska at its best and it’s a little hard to leave it behind.

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