In my studies of the Susitna River I got to talking to my sweetheart, Jeff, about how remote it is in its’ northeasternly reaches from Devil’s Canyon to its’ headwaters in the mountains of the Alaska Range. Except for the hardiest of adventurers not many people have ever been on it in a boat here. It goes 150 miles into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley after Devil’s Canyon but it is useless as a mode of transportation. It is not considered accessible by boat because of how rocky and rapid it is as it passes through canyons into a very remote part of Alaska. No roads access this section of the river except for one spot at mile 79.5 on the Denali Highway. Jeff said he has crossed the bridge here travelling the Denali highway many times. When I started talking to Jeff about how few people have ever seen the river past this point he told me that he has been to it once in a boat on a hunting expedition. Since so few people have ever been to the Susitna in this remote section, I never would have guessed that he had actually done it himself, but Jeff is always full of surprises and good stories.
Jeff explained that he reached the Susitna through a series of connecting lakes starting at Lake Louise on the eastern border of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Lake Louise is on the road system 170 miles from Anchorage. As Jeff tells it, you can drive there, put a boat in and go across 7.4 miles to where it goes into Lake Susitna then travel 10.2 miles across Lake Susitna to where it goes into Tyone Lake. Tyone Lake is then 5.5 miles across to where it flows into the Tyone River. The Tyone River is then 30 miles long and flows directly into the Susitna River. In this roundabout way Jeff was actually able to get to the Susitna River by boat from Lake Louise. But it wasn’t easy.
This adventure occurred sometime in the early 1980’s. Jeff and his friend Rick Beam were lucky enough to draw permits for caribou in the area. Each fall, the Nelchina caribou herd, with roughly 40,000 caribou, migrates through the area as they make their way from their summer home in the mountains to their winter range close to the Canadian border. Lake Louise is a popular destination for hunters, fisherman, and people just getting away from the city. Many people have cabins here. Rick Beam had grown up in this area. His father, Raymond Beam had a cabin there when Rick was a teenager so they spent a lot of time in the area when he was growing up. However, by this time his father had sold their cabin and moved to Florida. Rick still knew people in the area from his years growing up there and Jeff, in his job of being a mailman, had met some of the same people that Rick knew in the area.
They drove to Lake Louise after work one day on a 3 day weekend and put Jeff’s boat in the water. It was a 1979 16-foot flat-bottom SeaNymph river boat that had an 80 hp Mercury with a jet unit. They left Jeff’s truck in the public boat launch parking lot. They had a mutual friend, Orrin Ivey, who famously had a cabin on an island in the middle of Lake Tyone near the entrance to where the Tyone Lake goes into the Tyone River. He had that cabin there for many years. A guy on Jeff’s mail route had introduced him to Orrin and Rick knew him from his years growing up around Lake Louise. Jeff and Rick had planned on staying with Orrin for the weekend while they were out hunting. A bottle of R & R would get you in the door. From Lake Louise to the far side of Lake Tyone where Orrin’s cabin sat was almost 25 miles. The boat ride that evening to Orrins’ cabin was pretty uneventful. No sign of caribou. Orrin was an older man, very friendly, and always seemed to enjoy the company of the young men when they visited. They drank and played cards and then got some sleep for their adventure the next day.
After awakening the next morning they left Orrin’s cabin on Tyone Lake and Jeff and Rick headed down the Tyone River in search of caribou. The Tyone River from Tyone Lake to the Susitna River is rocky, narrow and shallow in spots, and only when the water level is high enough is it even possible to travel the whole length of it. They were there in the fall though, and the water level looked high enough to make it. Rick had said they could make it all the way down the Tyone River to the Susitna and then up to the Maclaren River, another tributary of the Susitna River, to look around for caribou and so they set it in their mind to go that far. Rick made it sound to Jeff like no big deal it wasn’t very far and would be no problem to get there in their search for caribou.
Their first destination was an old Air Force camp, 10 to 15 miles downstream on the Tyone River. All that remained was a cabin which had been built in the 1950’s or so and had been abandoned long ago. Because of its’ condition they didn’t plan on staying overnight here but it was still a good viewing spot. They could get on the roof and look out over the area for caribou. They got there in the morning and stayed till about noon and then seeing nothing they got back in the boat and continued on downstream on the Tyone River towards the Susitna River. After a couple hours of running Jeff and Rick came around a corner and there was a boulder as big as a truck dead center in the river, which required you to pick your way right or left of it. However, they were on step and hit the boulder so hard that it launched the boat with them in it, out of the water and onto the shore. They got out and realized that the hit had damaged the boat badly, creasing the metal and putting a hole in it. At this point they were in a very remote place, many miles from help so they were on their own. Lucky for them though Jeff had a patch kit with him and so they lifted the boat up with their legs and used a rock to hammer the dent back out and close the crease and then used Marine Tech Part A/Part B epoxy to patch the hole.
After patching the boat they got back on the Tyone River and continued downstream another 15 miles, to the confluence of the Tyone and the Susitna Rivers where Rick knew of a cabin. No one lived there any longer but it was still standing since all the years when Rick was a kid here. He had known the owner who built it. It was in reasonable shape, good roof, good wood stove, a couple of chairs, a table and a bunkbed. It was an old trapper style cabin. They cut some wood for a fire and hunkered down for a night on the banks of the Susitna. This was Jeff’s experience reaching the Susitna. Although they had originally planned to go upriver on the Susitna from here, by this time they decided they had already gone over 50 miles one way since leaving Lake Louise and Jeff knew he didn’t have enough gas to continue on so they cancelled their plans to continue on up to the Maclaren River. It was a wise choice as Jeff didn’t realize it at the time but my research shows the Maclaren was another 30 miles upriver from the Tyone in a pretty inhospitable section of the Susitna and he certainly wouldn’t have wanted to run out of gas and get stranded in this remote section of the wilderness. So that morning they turned around and headed upstream on the Tyone River back to Orrin Ivey’s cabin. When they came upon the big boulder that had launched them out of the water on the way downstream, this time they had no trouble getting around it. Jeff had been worried about getting around that boulder again but as it turns out it is much easier to navigate the boat around such obstacles when you are going upstream and they had no problems.
Just as they got around the big boulder, out of nowhere, they came around a bend in the river and there were hundreds of caribou crossing in front of them on the Tyone River, swimming from one side to the other. Jeff had never seen so many caribou and has never seen so many since. As I mentioned before, the Nelchina caribou herd is known to have about 40,000 caribou! They pulled over to shore and put a stalk on a couple of the bigger bulls and got lucky enough to get one each. They gutted them out and put them in the boat and continued on to Orrin Ivey’s cabin. Orrin had a screened meat shed that you could pull the nose of the boat right into and lift the caribou up so that it hung above the water where they could finish skinning, cleaning, and quartering them. It was pretty cool. They left the caribou hanging there and after spending another night at Orrin’s, the next day they put the meat in game bags, loaded it back up on the boat, and left Orrin’s on the way back to their truck in the parking lot at Lake Louise. The trip had taken a toll on their gas supply and after leaving Orrin’s cabin on Tyone Lake they still had 20 miles to go to get back to their truck so on the way they had to stop at the cabin of a friend of Ricks, Bill Hernandez, and Bill sold them 5 gallons of gas to get them back to their truck.
All in all, for Jeff and Rick, it was a successful hunt full of fun and adventure and memories to last a lifetime. Jeff’s experience also gave me a clear picture about how hard it is to get to the Big Susitna as it makes its’ way into its’ headwaters in the Alaska Range. His story included first-hand experience and proved that it is possible but not advisable unless you’re very daring and adventurous.