Matt Dickerson: Fire, ice and water in Lake Clark National Park


A SMALL CAMPFIRE burns on the gravel shore of Lake Kontrashibuna, where our columnist and his party enjoyed great fishing for lake trout and arctic char, but also spectacular views. Photo by Matthew Dickerson

MATT DICKERSON DISPLAYS one of the many fish he and his party caught during a successful five-day expedition on the banks of Lake Kontrashibuna in Alaska last week. Photo by Mark Dickerson

It was late morning. The fog drifting along the lake surface had mostly burned away, though a few patches still clung to the steep slopes. Replacing the fog was an eerie yellowish haze. The haze filled the bowl formed by the lines of rugged wilderness mountains that enclosed us on three sides. It took me some time — and a few deep breaths through my nostrils, picking up its particular smell — to realize that it was smoke from one (or more) of the numerous wildfires burning across parts of Alaska, the closest of which was only about 40 miles away.

I’d been awake since before dawn, and had watched the sun spiral up through the gap in the more distant glacier-filled mountains at the far eastern end of the Lake Kontrashibuna. The haze had made for a gorgeous sunrise, more yellow than red. Yet despite the beauty, it was still a sober reminder of the impacts of the unusually hot and dry summer in Alaska, and more broadly of climate change around the world.

Eventually, my attention turned to the waters of Kontrashibuna, colored a beautiful turquoise from the glacial flour that fills Ospook Creek, its main tributary. Ospook flows off melting glaciers laden with silt, and enters the lake an opaque gray like liquid concrete. Much of the silt settles out quickly upon reaching the quieter waters of the deep, 14-mile long body, giving the lake its unique coloring as well as its icy temperature.

Or, rather, it ought to have been icy. But the hot summer and lack of rain had its impact even beyond the fires. The snow pack had disappeared much earlier than usual, and so the volume of cold water entering the lake in late summer was way down. The lake was both lower than expected — and dropped a couple more inches just over the span of our four-night canoe trip — and warmer, at a balmy 54 degrees.

Isolated from ocean-running salmon by a 30-foot high Tanalian Falls just downstream of the lake’s outlet, Kontrashibuna has two species of game fish: lake trout and Arctic char, both members of the char genus Salvelinus. New Englanders know lake trout (S. namaycush) as a particularly cold water species, preferring water even colder than their brook trout cousins (S. fontinalis). Not long after ice out on Vermont lakes, lake trout will drop down into the deeper cold depths. But Arctic char (S.alpinus), the northernmost freshwater species in the world, thrive in even colder water than lake trout. The only place I have ever caught Arctic char in my life has been in Kontrashibuna. Their presence was one of the reasons I was on the lake. A chance to spend five days and four nights wilderness canoeing and camping with my son Mark, his wife Ellie, and my friend Rich Warren from Starksboro (who was also interested in pursuing Alaska trout and salmon with a fly rod) was the other reason.

Because of the steep mountain slopes dropping down right to the water and thickly wooded shorelines, Kontrashibuna doesn’t offer a lot of natural camping spots. It sits in the wilderness of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, which manages only two official campsites, both on the western corner near the outlet. The few really nice natural campsites — a half dozen or so along the entire length of the lake — are on the gravel bars of alluvial fans from small inlet streams. These also turn out to be the best locations for fishing, as these streams flow in rich with food from thick hatches of insects as well as some much colder water.

On our first day, we hiked to the lake just over three miles from Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth, where we had stayed the previous weekend and enjoyed amazing bear-viewing and fishing expeditions down to Katmai National Park and Preserve. We also arranged with the lodge to drop off a pair of canoes and the rest of our gear, including eight bear barrels full of food we had brought for our camping trip. Our first afternoon, we paddled over nine miles with a gentle tail wind — the longest day of the trip — to reach a prime camping location at the mouth of Fan Creek.

Which brings me back to the start of this story and my attention turning from the yellow haze to the turquoise waters of Lake Kontrashibuna, and especially to the mouth of Fan Creek. The current of food-rich icy Fan Creek water plunging down waterfalls off the mountainside was like a magnet, drawing the lake trout — and even a few Arctic char — out of the depths of Kontrashibuna. Casting flies off the gravel shoreline just a few steps from my tent, Rich and I were both able to entice quite a few of those lake trout, with bright yellow bellies, hints of red, and white worm-like mottling on sides of green. I also managed to land two Arctic char, with sides of bright silver and pale green, and lips that looked painted with yellow lipstick.

First thing in the morning, after breakfast, late afternoon, last thing in the evening — any time we took a break from fishing and came back we could count on catching another two or three fish. The same was true of every other stream mouth we stopped by in our canoes or camped at. Though none of the lake trout we landed exceeded 20inches, all of them were hard fighters, fat and well-fed (despite a short summer growing seasons).

We never saw or heard any bears while we camped, but we did see beaver and bald eagles, numerous ducks and kingfishers, several grouse or ptarmigan, and a lot of waterfalls. We also picked wild cranberries and red currants as well as a few blueberries and raspberries to supplement our backpacking meals.

The haze from the fires came and went, depending on the direction of the wind. But the mountains stayed put, and offered stunning views in every direction and at every time of day, especially dawn and dusk. The sound of flowing water lulled us to sleep each night, woke us each morning, and reminded us where we were when we woke in the middle of the night. For the sake of an Alaskan landscape in desperate need of water, I hoped for rain but enjoyed five days of continuous sunshine, and tried to plan for my return trip to Kontrashibuna, the Farm Lodge, and Lake Clark National Park.

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