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Alaska: The Last Frontier

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Alaska: The Last Frontier

The sunset at Memorial Beach is as good as anywhere.

JEFF LUND/The Bulletin


POSTED August 20, 2009 2:50 a.m.

Alaska is an expensive bucket-lister shared by climbers, skiers, kayakers, curious families and fishermen alike. Rivers like the Copper, Kenai, Nushagak and Kasilof wrestle the majority of attention from anglers leaving some of the great, peaceful trickles to kids who return as adults. The beauty about rivers on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska, other than the obvious beauty itself, is that no boats or even waders are required. Elaborate rigs, gear or chartered flights are completely unnecessary. There isn’t a river on the island that isn’t able to be casted across, despite Prince of Wales being the third largest island in the United States.

Southeast Alaska, especially Prince of Wales gets most of its notoriety from the ocean fishing. King, coho, and halibut fishing is tremendous and accessible during June and July, but the river fishing that starts in July when the silvers start up the Neck Lake drainage and Thorne River is fantastic. Even before the salmon run, the Karta River is rich in rainbow trout and provides an alternative to salmon, or supplements the experience.

The Klawock river’s late summer run of silvers brings fly-fishermen to the 49th state as late as mid-August and even into September. At the peak, the riverbed is awash in salmon from shore to shore. Sounds nice and easy for the locals. For those who want Alaska to be 1/52th of their year, the options are as good as the fishing.

Do it yourself? Or scheduled satisfaction?

 Jeannie and Jim McFarland made their move to the wilds of the 49th state, bought a house, had it put on a 70 by 70-foot floating foundation, and towed it into a cove on the east side of Prince of Wales Island a couple dozen miles away.

It started as a bed and breakfast, serving customers hungry for uniqueness assisted by self-sufficiency. The only name that seemed appropriate for this business was the McFarland’s Floatel (www.geocities.com/mcfarlandsfloatel/index.html). It stuck. Twenty years later, guests have accommodations not affected by the tide. There are thematic cabins clad in bear, otter, wolf and eagle artifacts. The eagle cabin doesn’t actually have any eagle artifacts, because the McFarlands do adhere to laws regarding the national symbol.

Still, this is not a typical Alaskan lodge experience.

The Floatel doesn’t want it to be, and doesn’t cater to just one type of traveler. Skiffs can be rented at the dock and used for unguided trips into the waterways for salmon, halibut and other rock fish. Taking the guide out of the equation dramatically reduces cost which many do-it-yourselfers like. Jeannie leads clinics on pine needle basket weaving for those lacking sea-legs, or those simply more interested in other aspects of Alaskan life.

There’s beach-combing, eagle watching, berry-picking and even high speed, wireless Internet. No agenda or itinerary. Guests come and go as they please, and can vary their activities to their liking. Each cabin is fully equipped down to the silverware for cooking the day’s catch.

On the other end of the spectrum would be a Fireweed Lodge-type (www.fireweedlodge.com) experience. Not to say the basketball court, conference room, pool table, horseshoe pit, and poker tables don’t provide relaxing post-fishing activities, but there is more structure.

Fishing is early, depending on the tide, but a solid breakfast is included, so is the sack lunch, dinner and fish processing. The evenings are spent watching eagles from the dining room through ceiling-to-floor windows and dining on gourmet cuisine that offers fresh seafood, but isn’t bound to it.

Not all lodges are similarly equipped, and not all do-it-yourself experiences, and these two are simply examples of what is offered by the plethora of parks, inns, lodges and resorts on the island. The Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce ( http://www.princeofwalescoc.org ) provides plenty of options and websites.

Getting there

Attacking Alaska is done by air, sea and...sea. Southeast Alaska is made up of 1700 islands with only two of the communities accessible by road. Skagway and Haines are the lucky two, but are situated at the northern most section of the Alexander Archipelago.

Prince of Wales is the first major island in the chain, but is only accessible via Ketchikan. There is no need to log on to Expedia if your choice is to fly. There is only one airline that flies to Ketchikan, driving up the expense a bit being there is no competition. If you happen to have a Lear jet, then you won’t have to worry about Ketchikan at all. You can fly all the way to the one land airport at Klawock, park your plane at the airport with no hangar where we used to Rollerblade in middle school, and leave when you want.

If you have the time, driving up will provide plenty of stories to tell friends back home, and fishing along the way can be tremendous.

Fishing in Canada like anywhere else is best done in season. The salmon season is starting to heat up in the rivers, but the Skeena is so large, it can be difficult and intimidating for bank-anglers. It’s better done in boats. Conservation stamps for different areas of the river, barbless single hooks only and other regulations make for a lot of reading, but getting the license itself isn’t. You can go online, check what you need, pay and print it yourself.

The river is beautiful, and is squeezed between glacial carved rock which resembles Yosemite, but is miles longer providing a nice backdrop for lure tossing. If you want to get into serious fish without the regulations, a day charter out of Prince Rupert would be the way to go.

From Prince Rupert, legendary Alaskan salmon fishing is 8-hours north by way of the  Alaska Marine Highway.

The AMH fleet features boats with plenty of space for dozens of RV’s, trucks or whatever you are running, and the price is very reasonable. This summer the AMH was offering a driving rides free special out of Rupert, which knocked $116 off the tab.

Once in Ketchikan, there are two ways to Prince of Wales Island. If you have driven, there is one way, because an RV would be considered too large for a 6-seat float plane.

Plane tickets to the island run about $150. If you want the slow-paced Alaskan way then the $80 round trip ferry saves money as well. It departs once a day from Ketchikan. The Inter-Island Ferry takes about three hours and crosses major whale migratory highways. Humpback and killer whales are seen so often that many no longer get up from their seats, or look up from their reindeer sausage breakfasts in the galley.

The ferry docks in Hollis. Most lodges, if not all will pick you up as Hollis is a town of a couple hundred and there isn’t really an island-wide taxi service.

You don’t even have to fish
In 5th grade, Jon Rowan took my class to the El Capitan caves, one of the largest limestone cave systems in North America with 13,000 feet of passageways. Jon is one of the most respected Tlingit Elders and carvers on the island, if not all of Southeast Alaska. His carving shop in Klawock, a five-minute walk from the Fireweed Lodge, is not a commercialized tourist trap, and the caves he took us to are now free to visitors thanks to the Forest Service. A naturalist takes groups up to seven into the caves, crawling required.

Outside of the rich Tlingit and Haida cultures, there are plenty of other attractions. There are miles of trails for hiking, river systems to kayak and mountains to climb.

If the sound of tranquility is a bit to loud, then the Naukati Mug Boggs (www.naukatimudbogg.com/) might be more your style. Once a summer, the Speed Channel comes to the town of maybe a couple hundred to feature mud racing Alaska style. The boggs are every couple of weeks and frequently draw crowds larger than the population of Naukati itself.

At the northern most point on the island is Memorial Beach, where I have twice been woken up in the middle of the might by the sound of humpback whales blowing air from their blowholes. It sounds like a hungry Grizzly bear, and even though there are no grizzlies on the island, at 2 a.m., this is a fact that is easily forgotten.

For those interested in souvenirs, Craig, the island’s largest town has by far the largest commercial base and plenty of lodges and charters itself. Craig is seven miles from Klawock, the second largest community.

It would be trite to say that Prince of Wales Island has something for everyone, because even places that don’t claim as such - but despite 23 years of trying, there is plenty left on my list.
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