The Alagnak River is a wonderful float trip because of the abundant wildlife, excellent water quality, good hiking and wide open scenery. This river is known as one of the best fishing streams in all of Alaska. It has 5 species of salmon as well as lake trout, char, rainbow The setting sun across the boreal forest casts a long reflection on the Alagnak River. trout, pike and grayling. The many pools and confluences make it perfect for the fly fisher. Also known as the Branch River, this designated Wild and Scenic River flows starts at Kukaklek Lake in the northernmost part of Katmai National Park and flows 75 miles to the Kvichak River (pronounced kwee-jack).
Kukaklek Lake is an excellent place for observing bears due to its long views and diverse habitat. From our camps on the lake shore we have seen bears fishing in the creeks, grazing on plants and berries on the tundra, and pulling fish from the waves as they walk the beaches. We have seen sows nursing their cubs and boars attack and eat smaller bears. Some times the bears at Kukaklek Lake, after tiring of salmon flesh, will swim out to the islands and feed on gull eggs and chicks. The clouds of swarming gulls overhead note the exact location of the bears.
The terrain around Kukaklek Lake is rolling tree-less tundra hills and benches with numerous small lakes, creeks and marshes and sweeping views of the Aleutian Range to the east and south and the large expanse of open tundra extending to Illiamna Lake to the north. This area offers many great hiking opportunities due to the dry tundra, lack of thick brush and endless connecting ridges and game trails. The river flows southwest from the lake and for a few miles is slow with many side sloughs and grassy shallows. The pike fishing here is good but can be excellent in the spring during the out migration of the salmon smolt. The lake trout will also be abundant and extremely aggressive this time of year.
The river soon narrows into a well defined gorge and for the next 20 miles is characterized by class 2 swift water with frequent rapids. For the first 5 miles the river flows through open tundra benches with long views of the river valley and continued excellent hiking. The current is swift with some whitewater riffles. The river then leaves the tundra behind as it enters a spruce forest. The current increases forming small rapids and boulder gardens. At about mile 15 the river enters a narrow gorge with a class 2 – 3 rapid. This rapid can be very challenging at high water levels and would be very difficult to portage. At mile 18, the Nonvianuk River joins the Alagnak from the east.
From the Nonvianuk confluence, the river broadens and the current diminishes to class 1. For the next 17 miles, the river braids considerably forming many grassy, willow covered islands. Groups of boats need to stick together in this section as it very easy to be separated for a day or more. Sweepers are another hazard here in the small channels.
Old native fish camps and hunting and trapping cabins will be seen at many places along the river and some are quite interesting and worth the time to visit. Although the river flows through broken spruce forest and is heavily vegetated along its banks, hikers can quickly get up to the surrounding tundra benches for good views and nice walks on game trails or to explore small lakes. At about mile 35 the river widens and forms a single channel as it winds its way to the Kvichak. Three fishing lodges are located on a short stretch of river here. Their jet boats fish the sloughs and pools on the river and occasionally they travel up river to a spike camp below the Nonvianuk confluence. King and silver salmon fishing is excellent in this lower river as is evident by the native fish camps and salmon drying racks.
A few miles before the river joins the Kvichak river, lovely grassy marshes appear along the river banks. These are tidal marshes indicating that the river is now influenced by the ocean and will rise and fall suddenly with the tides from Bristol Bay 13 miles away. Use caution when camping along the river here or your camp may float away in the night as happened to me on my first trip on the Alagnak. I recommend starting the trip by flying into Nanuktuk Creek on Kukaklek Lake and setting a camp here for 2 days of hiking and fishing. On the third day we paddle along the lake shore to the mouth and begin our float down the Alagnak. If hiking and exploring are the objectives we can fly out from the river at an old native cabin above the lodges or for more fishing we can continue down to a point near the Kvichak River.