FAIRBANKS — For good fishing, good scenery and some interesting but manageable whitewater
all in one weekend trip, it’s tough to beat the Delta Wild and Scenic River.
I’d been meaning to do this 29-mile float between the Denali Highway and Richardson Highway south of Fairbanks for more than a year, and despite less-than ideal weather, the trip easily lived up to expectations.
We did the float in three full days during the second weekend of July. It was plenty of time to get down the river but I would not have minded having an extra day to spend wandering and fishing for lake trout in Tangle Lakes at the beginning of the trip.
We went with Anthony Mustered through his tour business Alaska Dream Adventures. I’ve been playing “Epic Frisbee” (Ultimate Frisbee in kayaks) with Mustered all summer and heard him describe this trip as a “catching” trip more than a “fishing” trip because of the plentiful lake trout in Tangle Lakes and arctic grayling in the Delta River. Mustered has been doing the trip with his dad, Gregg, most of his life. Gregg came along on this trip and reminded us, “If you don’t get enough to eat on this trip it’s no one’s fault but your own” after each successful cast.
Lots of fish
Three friends from California also joined our party of two kayaks and two canoes. We put in Friday afternoon and saw some of the only bright sunlight of the trip. Rain accompanied us for much of our trip but it only poured a handful of times. Day one was a lazy fishing day as we moved across a series of lakes and channels above treeline, sometimes trolling, sometimes stopping to cast around a likely fishing hole. Everyone in our party caught a lake trout except me, but I didn’t mind because I still got to eat the ones other anglers caught. They made a delicious dinner battered in instant mashed potato mix — a Mustered family tradition.
Day two took us to a marked portage around a series of waterfalls where the river makes a sharp right hand turn and descends. The two quarter-mile portages separated by a small pond are fairly steep, although there is a well-maintained trail. A side trail leads to a nice view of the part of the river you are missing. There’s a pit toilet at the take-out with literature that reminds paddlers to carry out other waste they may leave behind because the river sees too many visitors to accommodate burying waste.
It was raining pretty hard when we finished the portage and Mustered did a good job hyping up the rapids just beyond the portage by telling us about a Boy Scout troop that wrapped three canoes around the first three rocks on this part of the river. Our group fared better through about a mile of rapids, although I’m glad we climbed a rock near the beginning of the rapids to get an advance look at our first 100 yards.
Some years these rapids are a good place to scavenge gear left behind by previous parties, Mustered said. We grabbed a large, orange tube of sun screen. Below the falls we switched out our large lake trout lures for smaller grayling lures and had all the fish we needed for dinner again. We camped on an island below tree line next to an especially productive grayling hole. We did not see any terrestrial animals during the trip, but we did see several bald eagles, including a young eagle in a nest. A river otter was seen but that was it for wildlife.
Scenery and sun
The fishing was probably the highlight of the trip for most people in our party, but I most enjoyed the last day of paddling. The water was lazy but still moving when we started paddling the last day, and the sun came out long enough for me to take a nap in my canoe. Then, at the point where Eureka River brings its silty, colder water into the stream, the water became faster and more turbulent.
My favorite scenery of the trip was the next few miles where the river cuts through canyons and then branches out over a valley. The scene was made more beautiful by continued bright sun and about a 15-minute dump of hail. Before we knew it, a party of ATVers — the first other people we’d seen since the portage — whizzed by along the river.
As the Richardson Highway and trans-Alaska oil pipeline came into view and we spotted the sign for our take out, thoughts naturally turned to what the next river trip should be. The Gullkana River, which also begins in the same area but involves more rapids, is on my list, but I’d also like to do the Fortymile River and the Yukon River.
It would be fun to repeat the trip on the Delta, too, but if I did it again I’d probably make time to get a better view of the surroundings by hiking up Sugar Loaf Mountain, the round-topped mountain that is the main landmark for the first half of the trip as you paddle across Tangle Lakes.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.