Alaska's Budget Cabin Vacations

by Christopher Batin

Like thousands of others, Walt Panchyshyn nursed dreams of traveling to Alaska, not only for its spectacular scenery, but to sample its world-class fishing.

"I wanted to experience an Alaska salmon fishing trip," he said, "but didn't want to pay $4,000 a week for a lodge, to see campers packed like sardines, or anglers stand shoulder-to-shoulder like they do on my hometown stream."

Walt soon discovered a way he could both fish and sightsee Alaska on a budget. Pressure from his sons, Tony and Mike, and wife, Marlis eventually prompted Walt to make reservations for the journey north. There, for $25 a day, the Panchyshyns rented a wilderness cabin in one of Alaska's national forests, and enjoyed some of the best silver salmon fishing of their lives, as well as hiking, wildlife viewing and beachcombing. Best of all, they were able to hike through miles of wilderness without seeing anyone.

Flip your own flapjacks and you save big bucks.

PHOTO: LOUIS BIGNAMI

Each year, Walt and many hundreds like him prove that world-class Alaska adventuring doesn't need to cost $4,000 a week. In many instances, you can explore world-class salmon and trout waters and wilderness areas for less than $500. In Walt's case, he spent less than $300 per person, excluding airfare.

First, let's set the stage. Anglers pay $4,000 a week to a lodge for service. You are paying the lodge for the five-course dinners, to turn back your sheets at night, fly you into wilderness areas, point out the different bird or animal species, or unhook your fish for you.

But, if you're capable of identifying your own wildlife with the help of a guidebook, catching and cleaning your own fish, cooking your own meals, and hiking along miles of established trails in a wilderness environment away from the crowds, then you're a prime candidate for a do-it-yourself Alaska adventure.

At the heart of this Alaska adventuring is the cornerstone that makes it all possible: the U.S. Forest Service recreation cabins. At the current rate of $25 per day, outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy over 200 cabins nestled away in isolated saltwater bays, or on remote streams filled with migrating salmon. Some are located in remote mountain passes in designated wilderness areas, where cutthroat and rainbows abound, and the only company you'll see are mountain goats, brown and black bear, deer and moose. Chances are you'll have the stream or lake all to yourself.

Don't expect run-down shacks crawling with rodents, but rather modern, well-maintained cabins with furnishings that include an oil or wood-burning stove, table, benches, boat, oars, outhouse and firewood supply. Several cabins offer ramps and boardwalks for easy access by the handicapped.

The only difficulty posed by the cabin system is choosing which one is right for you and your family, and the activities you want to enjoy. Take sportfishing, for instance. Alaska's National Forests are this country's best kept sportfishing vacation secret. The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest offers more than 120,000 acres of fish-bearing lakes and 23,000 miles of streams. Over 5.5 million acres is wilderness. The 5.9 million-acre Chugach National Forest contains about 70,000 acres of lakes and 8,000 miles of streams.

According to figures provided by the U.S. Forest Service, Washington, Oregon, northern California, Idaho and Michigan have a total of 15,000 miles of streams in national forests that support populations of anadromous salmon and trout. National Forests in Alaska, however, support over 30,000 miles of streams, yet receive only 16,000 hours of angling effort annually. Yet national forests in Alaska annually produce over 153 million pounds of commercially caught anadromous fish. The closest runner-up was Washington and Oregon, with 7.5 million pounds.

What that means is an abundance of sportfishing opportunities available to anglers, whether they be veterans or newcomers to the sport. When fish are packed from bank to bank, it's easy for anyone from Grandma to a six-year-old toddler to have a hookup. Everyone has a great time, at an affordable price.

Aside from fishing, the cabins offer outstanding photographic opportunities. For instance, Anan Creek cabin has a large protected shelter nearby that was built for photographing and viewing brown and black bears fishing for salmon. And 400 yards downstream, anglers are catching salmon for themselves. The site is fit for a president, as evidenced by former President Reagan's visit to Anan Creek several years ago.

Other cabins offer the opportunity to photograph bird rookeries and marine mammal concentrations. If you want to commune with Nature, use a boat to set a few crab traps. Crabbing in the remote lagoons will keep you and your family dining on Nature's finest Dungeness crab long into the night. Drop a line over for a small halibut or salmon, and you'll enjoy a fresh-from-the-water meal that would cost at least $50 in any restaurant.

According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, visiting the National Forests and fishing were the main reasons indicated by non-residents for visiting southeast Alaska. In that survey, 87 percent of all respondents expressed medium to high satisfaction with the U.S. Forest Service cabins. Two characteristics listed as important in choosing a USFS cabin were "solitude and scenery."

The U.S. Forest Service is promoting the nationally recognized "Rise to the Future" program, which encourages people across the country to fish their national forests. The USFS administers the recreation cabin program under the Granger-Thye Act. Rental fees are used to establish new cabins and maintain existing ones.

The majority of cabins are accessible only by floatplane or boat travel. This cost can vary from $50 to $300, but as in Walt Panchyshyn's case, can be split among several individuals for the best cost break.

The cabins are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis, and reservations are taken up to 180 days in advance.

One of my favorite cabins is Kegan Creek, located on Prince of Wales Island, about a 15-minute bush plane flight from Ketchikan.

Anglers can catch four of the five species of Pacific salmon from Kegan Creek. Fishing is often a fish a cast, especially where the creek enters saltwater. There's also rainbow and cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char in the upper stream and lake, along with steelhead trout in April. The excellent silver salmon fishing yields fish in the 8 to 12-pound category, just the right size for an evening barbecue. You'll be enjoying the same fishing that others at lodges on the northern part of the island are paying over $4000 a week to enjoy. Your price? Once you arrive, $25 per day.

The Kegan cabins are popular because they are easily reached from Ketchikan. If you crave isolation, other cabins to the north have equally good fishing for several species of salmon, and receive little, if any, pressure. At many cabins, you'll not see another plane, angler or person during your entire stay. And many of these same cabins are excellent base camps for hiking into alpine areas where you can skinny dip in glacial pools, absorb the sunlight in a huge boulder-filled amphitheater, or listen to the harmonic melody of a snow-melt stream that tastes as great as it sounds.

On a recent visit last August to the Pybus Bay cabin on Admiralty Island, my wife Adela and I were astonished by the number of silver, pink and chum salmon in the creek near our cabin. The salmon would enter the stream on an incoming tide, not in twos or threes, but in waves of 50 or more. We spent three days fishing the stream, and didn't see another angler. In the evenings, we would explore the intertidal areas and photograph deer, eagles and brown bears. Under the thick canopy of spruce, wild berries were everywhere, and made tasty complements to salads, pancakes and oatmeal. In the tidal pools, we found an abundance of marine life that included starfish, barnacles, jellyfish and crabs. We exposed 22 rolls of film photographing herons, otters, eagles, blacktail deer, jays and ancient rainforests teaming with life. We had found paradise, and wanted to stay an entire month.

The Tongass National Forest not only offers excellent salmon fishing, but a chance to experience glaciers, wildlife, and the last great stands of wilderness forests in the United States. It's a resource that deserves to be utilized, appreciated, and respected. And at $25 per night, how can you possibly go wrong with a deal like that?

Planning Your Trip

WHEN TO GO: Because of the immense size and fisheries diversity of the Tongass, listing individual anadromous runs for specific watersheds is beyond the scope of this article. Such information can be obtained from the sources mentioned below. Generally speaking, best fishing and vacationing in Alaska takes place from May through September. Many cabins are available year-round, while others are seasonal (April through October).

Pack quality raingear and a range of lightweight and cool-weather clothing. Temperatures can occasionally dip into the 40s, but most areas average temperatures in the 60s to the 80s. Annual rainfall in downtown Juneau averages 90 inches, and increases to almost 154 inches in Ketchikan.

In the Tongass, standard salmon fishing gear works best. I prefer two or four-piece fishing rods because they're easier to carry through the brush and along growth-infested riverbanks than one-piece rods. Another plus is that if one rod breaks, you can continue fishing with the spare, an important consideration when the nearest tackle store is 100 air miles away. Go with medium-heavy action rods for kings and silvers, and lighter rods for reds, pinks and chums. An 8-weight fly rod will handle all but the largest king salmon. Take plenty of extra line from 8 to 20-pound test. And don't forget the ultralight tackle for rainbow, cutthroat and char.

Bring your own sleeping bag, air or foam mattress, cooking and eating utensils, flashlight, water container, toiletries, mosquito repellent, first-aid kit, portable camp stove, extra food (in case of delay in pick-up) and personal flotation devices. Be prepared to hike a short distance to reach the best salmon fishing, trailheads and wildlife viewing areas. Many of the trails are marshy, and ankle-fit hip boots offer the best protection and support. Neoprene waders are best for streams and rivers located near the cabin. Standard hiking boots and backpacks are great for alpine hiking and exploring.

HOW TO GET THERE: From Seattle or Anchorage, take Alaska Airlines to the various cities of southeast Alaska. Your choice of cabin will dictate whether you fly to Juneau, Ketchikan, Yakutat, Sitka, or Petersburg. From the base city, charter a boat or plane. Many cabins will be 50 minutes or less by air from the base city.

WHERE TO STAY: Permits for recreation cabins in the national forests of Alaska are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis. Permits may be obtained in person or by mail only. The $25 a day fee is for maintaining cabins. Reservations may be made up to 180 days in advance.

For detailed information on each cabin and the fishing nearby, obtain a copy of Fishing Alaska on Dollars a Day: A Comprehensive Guide to Fishing and Outdoor Recreation in Alaska's National Forests. According to Alaska Angler Publications Sonja Bach, this 368-page guidebook, produced in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, provides specific details on all 200 Forest Service cabins and the best hiking, wildlife viewing, beachcombing and wilderness opportunities available at each cabin, 150 photos and topographical maps for easy reference, as well as important fishing information that include best lures and flies for each river and specific fish runs.

For air transportation to one of Gateway cities to the cabins, write Alaska Airlines, POB 68900, Seattle, WA 98168-0900; (800) 426-0333

Christopher Batin is author of Fishing Alaska on Dollars a Day and an award-winning outdoor editor who has covered Alaska sportfishing and the outdoors for over 22 years. He is also the author of 20 Great Alaska Fishing Adventures, How to catch Trophy Halibut, How to catch Alaska's Trophy Sportfish and the Alaska Angler Fishing Annual. Batin is always eager to help readers with their Alaska fishing plans. Write him at P.O. Box 82222, Dept FF, Fairbanks, Alaska 99708. Compuserve 71760.1254.

Excerpted from Fishing Alaska on Dollars a Day, by Chris and Adela Batin. Copyright, 1996, Chris Batin.