Alaskan Exploration

Grab a fresh coffee and settle in folks, we’ve got some catching up to do. Since Arriving here in Alaska I’ve kept myself incredibly busy, almost too much if I’m honest. The work I landed for the season, bar tending at 49th State Brewing, is going to keep it that way all summer. It’s a monstrously busy place, and quite fun to work at. If you’re ever in Anchorage go there and have a meal and a few beers, it’s rather awesome! In addition, I’ve gone positively bonkers exploring around and getting a good feel for the greater area I’m in, mostly in preparation for the upcoming salmon runs. I’ve fished a lot in my life, but the style of fishing up here is relatively new to me, so in addition to learning the geography and waterways up here I’ve had to educate myself on an entirely new (to me) set of techniques, and I’m loving every bit of it. Where to begin…DSC01648.jpg

Right there actually. In an effort to fish as much as possible I’ve done some exploring around Anchorage, which has led to discovering Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage as well as a few other areas near by. There are three main salmon runs in Alaska, Kings in June, Sockeye in July, and Coho in August (basically). King salmon are the most protected and regulated, so the fishing options for them is very limited at the moment. This led me to a pair of trips south of Anchorage to the famous Kenai River. Both trips were very “early” as far as the king salmon run is considered, and were mostly scouting missions with some fishing time mixed in. This was all part of the plan though, and now that I’ve been on that body of water a few times I’ll feel much more confident when the fish start to show up, which could be any day now! Watson has been able to tag along too, tromping through the woods with his jingly bell on his caller scaring away all the moose and bears.

We didn’t catch anything, but that’s fine. I did get to witness a uniquely Alaskan activity though, dip netting for a fish called “Hooligan”, more commonly known as smelt in the rest of the country. Dip netting is basically just pulling a net through the water, scooping out the hooligan, and dumping them in a bucket. It’s really quite amazing to see, and at times the salmon runs will get so thick with fish that you can dip net them as well. I would have bought a net and joined in, but it’s only open to Alaska residents, so alas I could only spectate.DSC01587.jpg

I can also say I’ve never spent as much time reading regulations, in my entire life, as I have up here. Alaska is an incredibly huge state, with incredible resources for the outdoorsman to enjoy, and as such there is an incredibly huge collection of regulations as well. The state is essentially divided up into four zones, and each zone has an individual set of regulations, the books for each are easily twice the size of the single books that cover an entire state in most areas. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also issues “emergency orders” which you can subscribe to via email. These orders tell you when the state has closed a body of water, opened one, or updated the regulations in some way. It’s all very intimidating to absorb, but now that I’ve spent some time with them I can say it’s really not that hard, it’s just a lot of info. The State of Alaska does an incredibly good job in the way all the information is organized and presented, so hats off to them! I also stopped into the ADF&G office in Anchorage when buying my license to get a crash course, and they were awesome to talk with. Oh, this only pertains to fishing regulations. The hunting regulations book is also quite enormous, and the hunting zones across the state don’t relate at all to the fishing zones, so I’ll be revisiting this exercise in a couple months.DSC01675.jpg

We did find some fish to catch though. One of my personal missions this summer is to become a better fly fisherman. You could catch all the salmon you want in Alaska on standard spinning tackle, but it’s an incredible place to catch fish on the fly as well, and it’s a technique I strive to be better at. In our travels I found a nice little backwater pond that was fed by river run-off from one of the large local rivers, and it had loads of small rainbow trout in it that were fantastically dumb. I spent two mornings there on separate trips, re-learning my fly cast and smoothing out my form. I caught about a dozen fish each morning, and even had a moose wander into the camping area to see what all the hubbub was about.

I’ve only got one day off this week, and I’m going to spend another full day down on the Kenai. During our last time down there I got to watch one of the guide boats pull in a fish as well as saw a few swirl on the surface. With warmer weather this week I’m optimistic the numbers will be a little up and we’ll stand better odds of hooking into one. I could have gone out yesterday, but I used my Sunday off to complete the cargo area re-do on the van. I’ll have a post up about that in a few days (spoiler alert, I’m super happy with it). For now though, I’ll leave you with knowing that Alaska is huge, awesome, incredible, and we’ve barely dipped our toes in it. This summer is going to be a good one.

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Sleepy Time Upgrades

Van Project numero uno is in the books. Of my two planned interior changes for the van, a new bed and cargo area re-do, the new bed took priority. My cot and pad sleeping system had worked well enough to date, but who doesn’t want a little more comfort at night? I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do, so with a free day I ran to the store, stocked up on supplies, and set to work!20180506_152922.jpg

The plan for the bed was pretty simple. A frame constructed of metal pipe, a plywood bunk and a thick piece of foam over that. A company called SteelTek makes some great connectors, adapters, and pre-cut pipe for just these sorts of projects, so I decided to go with what they offer to keep the build simple. I chose 3/4 inch pipe, as it would be plenty strong for my intended purpose (the other offering was 1 1/4 inch). Also, going with this pipe over a wood frame saves a lot of interior space. A wooden frame of equal strength would require pieces of timber far larger than the 3/4 pipe, which keeps as much under bed storage as possible. This is especially important as the cargo are re-do will result in me storing my clothes in bins under my bed, which will make access to them easier as well. I left the store with four corner pieces, and two ninety degree “pass through” pieces for the center legs and cross support. I also had two pieces of pipe that were six feet long, and some extra pipe to cut down into legs. The six foot pipe would gain a few inches of length from the corner brackets bringing the overall length to eighty inches, which is perfect for my space.

This also was a great time to clear everything out of the van and give it the good deep cleaning it had been needing for a while. I like to keep my van pretty clean, but being a vagabond in Tucson didn’t leave me with the space and time to really do much more than maintenance style cleaning. So once that was done, I set to cutting the pipe down for the legs. In case you’re ever wondering what it’s like to cut 3/4″ galvanized steel pipe with a hacksaw, it sucks. A lot. Alas, it was the only cost and time effective means available to me, so with a chilly beer by my side I got to it. After that I attached the legs to the frame, put some heavy duct tape on the ends to keep it from tearing into the floor, and slid it in for a test fit.

Perfect! Well, perfect enough. It basically takes up all the space it needs to and still leaves enough room to move around inside. After a quick measurement to get the true dimensions of the frame I ran to Home Depot to but the plywood for the base. I could have taken the entire sheet back to my friends house and used his table saw, but Home Depot has a panel saw and employees who can do that nonsense for you! After a return trip to the driveway campsite I placed the wood base over the foam I had bought and cut that down to size with a utility knife. Just like that, it’s done! The foam base it 4″ thick, and just barely keeps me off the wood when I’m sleeping. After a bit I might re-do the foam and go with a firmer piece, but for now it’s working just fine. It’s also much more comfortable to sleep on, and with my measurements I got it set to the perfect height to serve as a bench for my side counter as well. Watson approves.bed6.jpg

 

Birdvan Landed

After 4,137 miles and nearly as many cups of coffee, we’ve made it to my friends driveway in Anchorage. Everything you’ve ever heard about the incredible natural beauty that there is to see along this drive is not only true, but can not be fully understood with even the greatest of words and pictures. In truth I could have filled blog posts with accounts of each and every inch of highway, but alas we had a lot of miles to cover in a finite amount of time, so I we pushed through faster than I would have liked. We’ll take more time in the fall however on our return voyage. If you like driving and road trips, you owe it yourself to drive from Redding CA to Anchorage at least once in your lifetime.

When we really got rolling was in Fresno. I piled through Arizona and southern Cali as fast as I could, and we had a nice break from the road fishing with my friend Robert in Medara CA, just outside of Fresno. He was a great host for Watson and I, we caught some nice bass and had fun as he showed us around his home stomping grounds. He even graced with an awesome piece of artwork he did, inspired by a photograph of Watson from last season.

From there we drove through Northern CA, Oregon, and most of Washington State. The mountains and high plains we saw along the way were gorgeous, and I could see how a person could happily settle down anywhere along that drive for good. The weather was very rainy, which normally would make driving more of a chore, but I loved it. Having not seen a rain drop in months I actually enjoyed it.

The end of that drive was in Ocean City on the Pacific coast in Washington. It added about 2 hours to our drive, but I wanted to camp on the ocean and take Watson for a run along the beach, so we did it anyways. It was a very Pacific Northwest kind of morning, gray and drizzly, but it was delightful in it’s own way. Once I had coffee made we spent about an hour just walking. Watson kept trying to eat the clam (or oyster?) shells along the beach, but no matter how many thousands he bit down on he kept spitting them out in disgust.

After we made our way across the border, the real adventure began. The drive up through the southern portion of British Columbia brings you through winding mountain roads that skirt the edges of rivers, cliffs, and mountain towns chiseled in wherever there was space to make a building. With the rains and mountain runoff there were small springs and waterfalls all along the cliff faces that were flowing the entire time. Even a the passageway to Hell can be found in this wonderment of a place!

That brought us to Cache Creek, BC. We stayed the night there, and then continued north. This next leg of the dive brought us through big sprawling timber country with a mountainous backdrop. We also started driving past some incredible waterfowl habitat. We had seen some migrating birds on the first part of our journey, but once we hit this region we started to see some incredible number. There were lot’s of mallards, geese, swans and various other ducks, and we would see them along the entire rest of the journey even up into the Yukon and Alaska.

We pushed through and camped in a turnout deep in the heart of the forest country up there, which reminded me a lot of my home areas in Northern MN. Along the way we even saw a couple of ruffed grouse making their way out onto the forest access roads to pick gravel. I considered letting Watson out the harass them a little, but we had also seen two wolves along the trip so far in this area, and since it was right at dusk I felt he could just stay in the van.

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From there Canada turned on the wildlife road hazards. The next morning after leaving one of the many small towns along the way, we had a near collision with two moose that felt running in front of my van, and not any other possible direction, was a grand idea. We also saw many caribou, three black bear, a couple more grouse, and even some woods bison! I had no idea there were any bison in British Columbia, even chuckling a bit when I saw a highway sign warning “Bison on Roadway – Drive with Care”. Never-the-less there sure was some bison, and quite a few of them.

At the end of this zoological tour we stopped in a town called Watson Lake, which marked our entry into the Yukon Territory. We stopped for gas and a photo-op, and Watson got to look famous for a moment and play with mascot for the local gas station named Jake. We also took a moment to check out their “Sign Post Forest”, which was neat.

We continued into more amazing vistas, some more caribou sightings, a mountain goat that wanted to be a road goat, and our next stop was in Destruction Bay. In my opinion, that’s about the coolest name you could have for a place. The road in was a little intimidating, as it gave that feel like you were about to drive right into the mountain. After navigating some tricky bits of road along there I let Watson out at one of the side roads/boat landing area to stretch his legs.

We filled up on gas and before you knew it, there it was, Alaska!

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It felt as though we had made it, and re-entering the US and seeing signs that gave distances in mile and not kilometers certainly reinforced that feeling. The first one was saw told us that the town of Tok, AK, was only 90 miles ahead. As we were pulling into Tok another sign informed us that Anchorage was 321 miles away, so maybe we weren’t there quite yet…it was all good though, I refueled the van and myself, and we powered on. The drive from Tok to Anchorage was just as incredible as the rest of the trip had been, and we even saw some Alaskan moose on the way in. I also saw a couple more ruffed grouse and a small group of sharp-tailed grouse as well, which of course got my bird hunting senses all tingly!

The lower parts of the last bit of that road leading into Palmer and Anchorage had some very good looking grouse cover as well, and I look forward to exploring it in the coming months when I’m not fishing. We saw a couple more moose along the highway right in Anchorage, and another pair hanging out in some people’s yard like a deer looking for a bird feeder. Before I knew it was following GPS navigation with road names and house numbers and there it was, my friends driveway, and that was it, we made it!

It was an incredibly long drive, but it was even more incredible in nature. I’ll do it again on our way back south this fall, and I hope to leave myself enough time to slow down and explore it a little more on the way back. Right now I’m looking forward to the next four months and every bit I can get out of Alaska. Our first couple of days here I’ll be exploring around Anchorage (specifically Cabelas and coffee houses), and getting our work-life set up for the summer.

Vanniversary North!

Today, as I post this, Watson and I are already pounding down miles on our expedition north to Alaska. It’s a fitting day, as we leave Tucson and southern Arizona behind us (thankfully) and head north to a destination I’ve always wanted to visit, we will also be marking one full year of living in The Birdvan. When we first started this life I was still working in Minnesota, and in hindsight didn’t quite know as much as I thought I did.  We’ve survived though, my van design worked (mostly) as intended, and in all I’ve loved just about every minute of it. As you’ve probably read in some previous posts Watson and I already have plans to remain in vanliving mode at least through next February, and I’m sure this go around will be even better. The planned changes to be done over this summer will greatly improve it’s function, as both a hunting vehicle and living quarters.

For now though, we’ve got a lot of miles to cover. It’ll be through some gorgeous country up the West Coast of the US, and then through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory of Canada, all landscapes I’ve never really seen. I was in San Francisco once for about a week, and Seattle for about 5 days, but that’s about it. We won’t get to to explore into the wilds all that much, but it will still be fun. We’ve got one pit stop to make near Fresno California to meet up with a new found friend, Robert, who is a like minded bird hunter I’ve connected with over the digital world. Depending on the circumstances we’ll either be bass fishing or trading stories over beer (or both).

So stay tuned, as the first part of our next season of adventure is about to begin!20180415_102338

Rough Sketch

I’ve had a lot of free time to think about our schedule for next season, and I think I’ve finally have a feel for what we’ll be doing. Watson and I haven’t done anything fun since our last update, as temperatures down here have gotten warm enough to awaken both the snakes and my heat intolerance. So we’ve just been bumbs around Tucson, pining over the future that we get to start in 16 days, but who’s counting…

The decision to spend the summer working in Alaska was partly strategic in considering where to start our second season in the Birdvan. Why? The ruffed grouse and ptarmigan seasons up there open August 10th. AUGUST 10th! That’s a full 4 weeks sooner than any other upland hunting adventure we could plan in the lower 48. Combine this with the ability to partner a more efficient travel plan, the desire to experience some hunts we had to pass on this season, and admittedly more confidence in my ability to be successful in new and foreign hunting areas, and the ruff (get it?!) sketch for our hunting calendar of 2018 looks like this:

Alaska Grouse and Ptarmigan: August 10th through September 9th

Idaho Grouse and Chukar: September 15th-18th

Minnesota Grouse and Waterfowl: September 22nd through November 9th

Kansas Pheasant, Quail, Waterfowl: November 12th through December 3rd

Arkansas/Louisiana Waterfowl and Woodcock: December 7th through January (weather and migration dependant)

New Mexico / Arizona Mid-January through February 10th

This will be the first time since I started hunting that I will miss the ruffed grouse opener in Minnesota, but it’s a sacrifice that must be made in order to experience the upland hunting world of Idaho, albeit briefly. Also I will have been grouse hunting for a month already by then, so it doesn’t make me too sad. Our season in Minnesota will essentially be the same as last year, soaking up the best of the grouse and waterfowl season in our home turf. From there we’ll arrive in Kansas earlier than last year, getting in just after their opening weekend. Then another new spin, as we’ll turn back east towards the waterfowling highways of Arkansas and Louisiana. I desperately wanted to hunt in the flooded timber of Arkansas last year, so come hell or high water (the puns are rampant, too much heat I apologize) it’ll happen this time. Louisiana will be a wild card, if the duck migration leaves Arkansas I can chase them down there, and there will also be the end of the woodcock migration to hunt to keep our upland game sharp. After that we’ll cut across Texas and return to Arizona (possibly New Mexico), to catch the last remnants of their duck season and chase Mearns quail across the beautiful country we discovered here.

So that’s the plan for now, everything subject to change based on weather, migrations, or just my own personal whims. I also had to pass on a spring snow goose hunt this season due to lack of time and funds, and I hope to make that happen this time around as a bit of a season two encore. Just 16 more days in this over-cooked sand box…

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Gearing up (or down).

With our departure for Alaska growing closer, my mind has been less in the here and now (Arizona) and more in the future, looking towards our Summer and the following Fall. As such, I’ve began to look ahead at what I will need to change about the van and my gear to make our next go-around better. The list isn’t overly exhausting to look at, but when you live in 66.5 square feet every decision takes up more space than it used to. For this post I’ll stick to hunting gear. I have some changes I want to make to the van, but that’s an entire other subject. If you’re reading this and you aren’t a hunter, ignore the specifics of the gear items and think of this as a journey through taking everything and only what you need, and creative solutions to do that. So here’s what needs to be redone/replaced before September 1st:

New Waders (my set gave up the ghost just after our time in Kansas).

Boots (traditional hunting and waterproof knee-high types).

Base Layers (Only had 1, could use different weights for different weather conditions).

Duck and Goose Calls (Mine work just fine, but I long for a fancy duck call).

Gloves, specifically waterproof duck hunting gloves.

Camouflage solution for the new canoe (there’s a plan for this already, stay tuned…).

Insulated Duck Hunting Coat (not a necessity, as my current layering system works well).

Duck and Goose decoy assortment.

Everything mentioned above won’t create really any issues. Each item is either replacing a failed piece (thus commanding no new storage space), or is physically small an un-intrusive. The only exception being the last one listed, as duck and goose decoys take up a lot of space. This is a problem/solution that dates all the way back to the van selection and initial build design. Simply put, the decoys go on the roof, specifically in the large plastic storage pod.

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Duck decoys take up a lot of space, and that large pod holds 38 of them! Now, that’s a lot of plastic ducks for van living. However, it’s not as many as it seems in the duck hunting world. Many duck hunters employ more than that every outing, with many more in reserve to mix up their spreads as they see fit. I don’t have that luxury, so through careful and clever purchasing I crammed the following spread into that box:

14 Mallards

6 Blue Bills

4 Canvas backs

2 Pintails

2 Redheads

2 Wood ducks

2 Widgeon

2 Green-wing Teal

2 Coots (yea that’s right, coots!).

This let’s me employ a very versatile spread, and I was able to shove 2 Canada Goose decoys in the wooden storage box as well. I want to make the spread better though, and the biggest issue is being able to buy what I want in small enough quantities. Most duck decoys are sold in sets of 6, although companies are starting to offer more mixed-variety packs. A few retailers sell individual decoys, but it’s not very cost efficient on the consumer end. In the end I discovered I could have used less (or none) of the Blue-Bill decoys, a couple more wood ducks, maybe another pair of teal, and definitely some Ring-Necks and more geese.

The geese will be an issue, but I have a plan for replacing and expanding the size of the wooden storage box which might accommodate them. I will probably reduce the mallards by two, as having a dozen of them is enough. I don’t want to do away with my Blue-Bill decoys, but in practice they barely got used, making them dead weight. We encountered a lot of Ring necked ducks this season that were oddly decoy shy, so having some of those to lay out would be greatly useful. I’d like to be able to set down four to six wood ducks, but again with that space problem…Oh yea and geese…So far I’m thinking next season’s cast will go something like this:

12 Mallards

4 Wood ducks

6 Ring Necks

2 Reheads

2 Pintails

4 Canvasbacks

2 Green Winged Teal

2 Blue Winged Teal

2-8 Coots

2-6 Geese

2-6 Blue Bills

At the very least this will be as many as before, with potentially as many as 54 ducks, not to mention those huge geese. I think I have room for a little over 40, so Iplan to change a few at a time and see how the space fills up. Once I get more firm plans for the storage box rebuild I’ll know what the goose scenario will have to look like. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re a non-hunter and you’ve made it this far take note: a 20 cubic foot storage pod on your roof can hold 40 ducks, how much of your gear could it hold?! Also, the wooden storage box has my solar panel mounted to the lid, thus getting a ton of storage out of that roof space without sacrificing it to just a solar panel. Let’s not forget that I have a 14.5 foot canoe shoved on the roof as well.  All these decisions are still two months away though, as we need to get to Alaska first, and then we’ll have the space to do some work.

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4,059 Miles

That’s how far I will drive from Tucson AZ to my friends driveway in Anchorage AK. I could shave off about 200 miles if I drove through Los Angeles, but I have no desire to exist in that city for even a moment. Instead I’ll be driving up to Las Vegas, across to the west coast, then all the way up to the end of the world. So far I’ve tentatively accepted one job already, although I’m holding out hope that a couple of other prospects pan out instead. Either way, I have work now so the stage is set. April 27th will be our last day in Arizona and it can’t come soon enough!

It’s not all bad though, Watson and I spent another weekend exploring the limited fishing opportunities in the area. The destination this week was Pena Blanca lake down by Nogales AZ, only a few miles from the Mexican border. This lake was about 60 acres, a flooded man made reservoir just the same as the other waters we have been in. It’s also at a very high altitude, which meant cold water temperatures and some very active rainbow trout. I had hoped I could spend a couple of days working on my fly-casting technique, but alas it was very windy and my elementary skills resulted in poor results. Once I conceded to traditional spinning gear though we were in business. The flavor of the day was a small Ultra-light Rapala with a rainbow trout pattern. The trout enjoyed it, as a did a couple of small bass.

 

 

This lake also had the same incredible scenery as the others we’ve visited. Mountains, fantastic rock formations, and some more resident waterfowl to entertain Watson. We even saw some cinnamon teal again, and this time I got ’em on camera! They wouldn’t let us get in too close, so the photo isn’t the best, but still fun to see such a rare duck.

 

 

The next morning started with a large bass taking my beautiful little Rapala for a swim around a stick. This sucks, but it happens in fishing, so I searched through my box of tricks for something similar. A rainbow trout colored #0 mepps garnished no interest (oddly), two small rainbow trout swimbaits had their tails obliterated before they could be productive, I had forgotten my utlra-light trout spoons in the van…things weren’t looking quite as good for a short while. Then at last I found a #1 size Mepps minnow in a rainbow trout pattern that I had forgotten I owned, and on the first cast the game was back on. Half an hour later we had our lunch for that day and two more for the freezer.

 

Even though I didn’t get any better with a fly rod this week, I’m not going to complain about catching fish. In searching out this lake I found another small puddle that I might check out as well in the following weekends, or I might return to one of these other three. I’m going to need a lot of gas to cover 4,059 miles, so I’m trying to spend our final weeks down here as frugally as possible. Still though, I love fishing and Watson needs his water time. I also refuse to go to Alaska with such a poor ability to cast a fly rod.