Featured | Voices from the river

First look at Denali

Denali shrouded in storm clouds
Denali.
Chris Hunt photo.

With a view like this, a fishless day isn’t too bad after all

Just a glance over the side of the canoe revealed the life swimming in this crystal-clear spring creek situated just off the Alaska Highway about a 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Big Arctic grayling—and some of the biggest whitefish I’d ever seen—cruised in the blue-green depths, taunting three would-be anglers.

But it just wasn’t to be this day—the reel seat on my 4-weight had somehow worked itself free during transit, and I was left with my tenkara rod, which, while perfectly functional most days, didn’t seem to have the distance I needed to separate me from the educated grayling on this heavily fished stretch of the Delta Clearwater River. My two counterparts, John Nichols and his son, Ted, were fishing with spinning gear and suffering the same results. In fact, when we later met another group of anglers who did the same float we did, we learned we’d all gotten skunked.

I’d come all the way to Alaska and saw more grayling than I’d ever seen in one place. And I didn’t catch a single one from this river.

And I didn’t mind a bit. 

Around every bend of the spring creek, something new waited to greet me. Golden birch trees and skinny black spruce guarded the river. Some of the most impressive—and some of the most humble—backwoods cabins rested in the timber along the water, giving the setting a summer-camp-like atmosphere, despite the full onset of autumn in the north country. Now and then, through the clouds and the chill of early September, I could see Denali.

I’d been to southeast Alaska a number of times—fly fishing the rainforest might be my favorite thing ever. But, when I first visited the Delta Clearwater, I’d never been to Alaska’s interior. So that morning, as we readied the car for a day on the water, I got my first look at the storied peak, the tallest in North America at well over 20,000 feet.

The Delta Clearwater River. Chris Hunt photo.

Then, throughout the day, as clouds parted, we’d catch glimpses of the mountain which, more often than not, is shrouded in snow clouds no matter the time of year. The view across the flat water of the river—imagine transporting the upper Henry’s Fork to the base of Denali and you kind of get an idea of how impressive it really is—never disappointed. Casting line to tight-lipped fish while gazing at the imposing mountain well off in the distance makes a guy feel pretty damned insignificant. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

When the icy, transparent Clearwater met up with the muddy, glacial Tanana a few miles downstream, the fishing ended entirely, but the raw scenery in this austere place just kept spitting out the hits. The Tanana never runs clear—it’s all glacial meltwater and it runs the color of an iced latte into the mighty Yukon a few hundred miles downstream.

We floated the Tanana for an hour or so until we hit the outlet of a small clearwater lake. We then paddled madly against the current for another hour or so until we got to the lake itself. A manic dash across the wind-blown lake and short portage later put us at the takeout.

The whole time, Denali stood like a sentinel above our little day-long adventure. Off in the distance, sometimes whole, other times only partially revealed, the mountain … persisted.

With that for wallpaper, I’d be perfectly happy with more fishless days in Alaska.

Shouded in clouds. Chris Hunt photo.