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Alaska waterways

Salmon River  (Kobuk)

From: Pat Pourchot
Subject: Field Report -Salmon River Inspection, August 13-21, 1975

During the third week in August 1975, an official field inspection was made of the Salmon River, a tributary of the Kobuk. The Salmon River is currently proposed in legislation for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System as a "wild river area". The entire river is located within the proposed Kobuk Valley National Monument. The purpose of the trip was to obtain additional resource information and photographs on the Salmon River itself and to provide additional information to the National Park Service on the resources of the proposed Kobuk Valley National Monument area.

Participating in the field inspection were the following personnel:

John Kauffman - NPS, Anchorage
Stell Newman - NPS, Anchorage
Bob Fedeler - ADF&G, Fairbanks
John McPhee - New Yorker Magazine, Princeton, New Jersey
Jack Hession - Sierra Club, Anchorage Pat Pourchot - BOR, Anchorage

The Salmon River was descended by boat from near its headwaters to its confluence on the Kobuk, and then the Kobuk was floated to the village of Kiana. One 17-foot aluminum canoe, one two-man folding kayak (Klepper), and two one-man Kleppers were utilized in floating the Salmon and Kobuk Rivers.

NOTE: These reports may not contain important information about: 1) safety, 2) land management and ownership, 3) fishing and other regulations and 4) possible errors > READ MORE

In July of 1973, another BOR field inspection of the Salmon River was made. That party put-in about 6 miles below where we did. During that inspection the river rose nearly 6 feet after a 2-day deluge and the party was virtually flushed down the muddy, flooding river.

August 13

All but Bob left Anchorage at 9:15AM via Wien Airlines, and after stopping in Fairbanks where Bob got on, arrived in Kotzebue at ll: 15AM. We switched to Wien's bush flight and arrived in Kiana at 12:45PM. We were unable to get most our gear on the twin otter into Kiana and had to leave it in Kotzebue until the plane could return and make a second trip back later that afternoon.

We briefly talked to Dave Dapkus (BOR) and Scott Grundy (ADF&G) in Kiana before they caught the plane back to Kotzebue. They had just completed an inspection of the Squirrel River. The other two members of their party had taken the helicopter, which was waiting to ferry us in to the Salmon, back up the Squirrel to pick up a mastodon tusk they had found and take it in to Kotzebue.

When the chopper returned we started loading up about 3:00PM. The NPS canoe. stored in Kiana, some gear, and I went in on the first load, arriving about 4:00PM. The second load came in about 6:00PM and the third load about 8:00PM. From Kiana our put-in location was approximately 30 minutes flying time, one-way. The weather was clear and warm.

Our put-in camp was located about 6 miles below the Anaktok-Sheep Creek confluence on a large gravel bar. The river was extremely small at this location for floating purposes but in flying in it looked like we would have had to put-in 10-15 miles further down-stream for reasonably good floating and thereby would not have been able to inspect the tundra-headwater country.

The river was 10-12 yds wide with a maximum depth of 1 1/2 feet deep averaging less than one foot. Short shallow pools were broken by extremely shallow, gravelly to stony riffles that dropped one to 2 feet over several yards and had only 2-4 inches of water over the rocks. Current in the pools was 2 mph. Streambed was mostly baseball to football-sized rocks with occasional schist bedrock outcroppings on sides and bottom of the stream. Up and down river evidence of much higher water levels this year, expansive gravel bars, water-carried debris high above the river.

Moose, bear, wolf, and fox tracks around camp, but not very fresh and not very many.

Small white spruce stands grow along the river at camp with some trees 8-10" in diameter. Balsam poplar and tall willows are also found. Looking up valley from camp, the tree line is only a few miles above camp - very few trees immediately away from the riverbank. On the hillsides mostly tundra with small individual alder bushes on lower slopes.

Elevation on camp was about 450 feet the hills and mountains sloping down to the river valley (about 1/2 mile across) up to 2000 feet or more above the valley.

Fishing was slow, several small grayling caught. Saw one small dead grayling in a dried up slough behind camp; untouched by animals or birds.

Found some old cut stumps in the spruce grove across the river from camp.

August 14

Partly cloudy all day, warm breeze out of the south, 7:30AM air temperature 50F, water temperature 48F, 12:00PM air-70F, 9:45PM air-52F, water-53F.

After putting together the Kleppers in the morning; we spent the afternoon hiking in the surrounding area. I left at 12:15PM and arrived at the top of the first mountain, elevation 1900 feet, due west of camp at 1:30PM, arrived at the top of the next mountain west, elevation 2300 feet, at 2:45PM and at the top of the mountain labeled on the map as elevation 2580 at 4:00PM. I then followed the ridge around the north side of a tributary drainage, descended and crossed the creek near its Salmon River confluence and walked down the Salmon about 1/2 mile to camp. Arrived at camp at 6:00PM, roundtrip distance about 10 miles.

The hiking was good, especially on ridge tops where rock and alpine tundra allowed steady 3 mph pace. Last 1-2 miles along the creek and Salmon were very brushy, buggy and hummocky. There were exceptional views into and across several nearby drainages from ridge and mountaintops.

Jack, John M., and Bob hiked up the Salmon to Sheep Creek and came back along high country east of the river - roundtrip about 14 miles. They reported that the river above Sheep Creek-Anaktok Creek confluence was very small and rocky with very little water. However, below the confluence were several relatively deep pools below bedrock outcrops. They saw a grizzly on a mountain slope feeding on berries in their direct path; luckily before it saw them they made a wide detour. Also saw a sparrow hawk.

Many shed caribou antlers found around on higher slopes. Saw parka squirrels and 2 ptarmigan on my hike. Also along the lower tributary there were several 8" grayling "trapped" one per pool between riffles with too little water for the fish to pass through.

Stell caught 3 small grayling and one large sea-run arctic char just down from camp. The char was in spawning colors, hooked jaw, male, 27" long, about 5-6 lbs., and delicious!

Many white rocks stand out on the nearby hills and mountains, which prove to be quartz -found both in rock outcrops and as individual rocks lying about on the ridges and slopes.

August 15

Great day today, clear all morning, partly cloudy in the afternoon and clear again in the evening. 7:30AM air- 46F, water-47F, 2:30PM air-72F, water-51F, 8:00PM air-62F, water-51F. Very few bugs.

We left our put-in camp at 9:45AM and arrived at the new camp at 6:00PM. Traveled about 11 miles.

First 4-5 miles as much walking as riding. Lined and bumped down many shallow riffles. After lunch stop pools were longer but still frequently getting out to line down riffles -could run only a few.

At camp #2 the river was 10-12 yds wide, 1-2 feet deep in most pools, 6-8" in the riffles, some holes 6-8 feet deep near bedrock outcrops. Current 1-2 mph in pools, 3-5 mph in riffles.

Put much wear and tear on the Kleppers. Some patching and new tape all along both keels on the double Klepper and one single Klepper required.

The fishing was good, some big char caught in pools, the largest was 31" long, 8-10 lbs. Also 15-16" grayling, just below our lunch stop. At the first large tributary from the west below Anaktok Creek saw 2 dead chum salmon and 6-7 live ones.

Saw 2 owls (looked liked Great Horned), raven, Wilson's warbler, and gray jay. At the new camp we watched a black bear feeding near the river on the slope just upstream. Rresber wolf, bear, and moose tracks seen today than around the put-in camp.

Scenery interesting around new camp, rounded mountains rise directly from the river. A small isolated knoll covered by rock and lichen rose right behind camp providing views up and down the river valley.

Much more spruce forest near the new camp, also some poplar groves, few willows and alders except on the gravel bars. Tree line on slopes still fairly low, 200-300 feet above the river.

August 16

Cloudy in the morning, all afternoon and night. 9:00AM air-56F, water-47F, 1:30PM air- 58F, water-48F, 7:00PM air-52F, water-48F.

Left camp #2 at ll:45AM, arrived at new camp 6: 00PM. Traveled approximately 12 miles. Slow going again with frequent getting out for shallow riffles, more bumping. Some deep pools 10-12 feet deep. River somewhat better after Nikok River.

Jack had to return early to Anchorage and took one of the single Kleppers in the morning alone back to Kiana. He arrived in Kiana August 18 after getting a lift by some natives down the Kobuk in a motorboat.

John M. and John K. overturned the two-man Klepper on a sweeper-nothing important lost or wet, just pride.

Caught a couple of large char at the Nikok confluence-none further downstream. Lots of chum salmon in the river. Saw 2 grizzlies along the river.

Some beautiful rock bluffs along the river. Hills and mountains more distant than on previous day.

The two-man Klepper, Newly christened "Snake-eyes" because of its desirability, grace of movement, and rugged character. It required considerable attention in the evening patching and repairing its bottom. Although the design of this new boat provided easy assembly, the rigid, relatively sharp edges of the two inner frame boards running along the bottom proved to be very poorly suited for the
shallow, rocky conditions.

August 17

Rain in early morning, clearing by noon, beautiful in the afternoon. 7:45AM air-46F, water-45 F, 12:15PM air-62F, water-48F, 4:15PM air-68F, water-49F.

Left camp #3 at 10:15AM, arrived at new camp 4:00 PM at Kitlik River confluence, traveled a distance of about 13 miles.

Got out of boats occasionally today to line through shallow riffles and bumped on rocks some but not nearly as bad as previous days. River becoming more mature, higher banks, slower current, longer, deeper pools; not so much drop in riffles - we were able to get through many riffle chutes when we couldn't further upstream.

No char caught or seen. Lots of grayling, five 16-18" grayling quickly caught for supper at the Kitlik confluence, saw a school of whitefish and lots of chum salmon. Quite a few dead chums on the bottom but many very fresh looking ones in the river.

Saw a grizzly in the middle of a riffle playing with a salmon like a cat with a bird -he flipped it around and around, pouncing on it and flinging it into the air. He then playfully ran upriver, down the bank towards us, stopping up short when he finally saw us. He walked a short ways further towards us, to within about 50 yards, and then ran into the bush.

We passed some beautiful rock cliffs along the river about 50-60 feet high-looked like schist (with quartz) that was striated and tilted perpendicular to the river. Also passed some sandstone or conglomerate bluff - faces along the river.

Water still exceptionally clear, can see down 15 feet in pools. River did not rise measurably after last night's rain. The river in front of the new camp is 15 yds wide, 2-3 feet deep in smooth water, 5-8 feet deep in pools, 6"-1' in riffles. Current 2-3 mph in smooth water or runs, 4-5 mph in riffles, 0-1 mph in pools. Kitlik is the biggest tributary so far, 7-8 yds wide, 3-4 mph current, 1' deep at confluence.

First noticeable evidence of beaver a few miles above new camp - at poplar stump along river.

At Kitlik the largest poplar were 42-48" in circumference, breast height. The largest white spruce were 50-56, one was 65". Not as many spruce stands along the river as upstream -mostly poplar and willow.

August 18

Beautiful clear day all day, 7:00 a.m., air 56 water 44. 2:00 p.m. air 72 water 49, 3:15 p.m., air 70 water (Salmon) 49, water (Kobuk) 57, 8: 30 p.m., air 63 water (Kobuk) 58.

Left camp #4 10:00 a.m., arrived Kobuk confluence 3:15 p.m., arrived camp #5 5:30 p.m. Traveled approximately 12 miles to Kobuk confluence and then five miles down Kobuk to new camp.

After Kitlik River confluence only got out of boats twice to line through swallow riffles, bumped on rocks once or twice. Still shallow riffles separated by long deep, slow pools 114 -1/2 mile long. Riffles right down to mouth -last riffle 2 feet maximum depth, average 1 foot, 20 yards wide, 6 MPH. We bumped in final 2 feet of river going into
Kobuk River.

Last 10 miles of Salmon very slow, 2 MPH in most places. Banks much higher, no rock or bluffs today. Permafrost -looking banks in places. Water clear all the way down to last tributary coming in from west. Reddish, murky colored water coming in tinged the Salmon somewhat downstream, reducing visibility slightly in deep pools to 6-8 feet. Rather than sediment, material appeared to be organic, like an algae or vegetative decay matter from adjacent boggy lowlands.

Kobuk 150-200 yards wide, estimated 6-8 feet deep, one riffle 1 mile below Salmon 2-3 feet deep, average current 2 MPH. Clear low water, much exposed gravel on both banks.

On Salmon saw large flock of glaucous gulls and several ravens 5 miles above mouth. Several broods or lesser Canada geese along river, also mergansers. Saw sparrow hawk.

Excellent chum fishing in Kobuk at Salmon confluence -we caught three fresh chums, one about seven pounds, 26 1/2 inches long was kept for supper. Saw several schools of whitefish in lower Salmon.

Scenery along lower Salmon not spectacular but coming out into Kobuk was sweeping vistas up and down open river valley to low surrounding mountains.

Little biting flies, dubbed "semi-see-ums", were very bad at new camp. They "leaked" into tent and made for long, miserable night.

Two boats with Native families came up Kobuk during the day, one boat returned in evening.

Some litter was found at Salmon confluence, including shotgun shells and 30.06 shells, which were also found at new camp. Two airplanes flew over today -the first on the trip. Tent camp on Kobuk just down from Salmon confluence.

August 19

Rain off and on during the night, partial clearing in morning, partly cloudy in afternoon, rain in early evening, then clearing. 9:00 a.m., air 60,
3:30 p.m., air 69 water 58, 8:30 p.m., air 59.

Left camp #5 10:15 a.m., arrived new camp on island in front of Trinity Creek confluence at 5:30 p.m. Traveled approximately 21 miles. Lots of steady, hard paddling, especially in two-man Klepper (snake-eyes).

Kobuk 200 yards wide, current 2 MPH, great distances can be seen up and down river; 2 miles of river commonly seen up or down river, with low mountains in background.

Caught one grayling at Kallarichuk River confluence, fishing very slow.
Several small grayling caught in small channel near new camp.

Saw cow moose out in river up from new camp. Saw varying hare near camp.
Moose, wolf tracks on Camp Island.

Great sweeping gravel bars along river virtually no rocks bigger than tennis ball. Some rock outcrops along Kobuk just below Kallarichuk River confluence.

Water clarity good in Kobuk about four feet visibility. Surprisingly shallow "riffle" spots in river. Channel markers in front of new camp because large boat or barge ran aground earlier in year, according to 1ocal Natives.

Eight small motorboats came up river with Native families today. Five came back down in evening. Clarence Jackson, his wife and uncle from Noorvik stopped and talked briefly in evening. They had been up from Noorvik that day making annual trip up river to great grandmother's grave. Said fishing was bad this year, said people go up Salmon in winter to hunt.

Saw a tent camp, a couple of frames or fish racks, and one very nice house on bluff next to river (owned by store owner in Kiana). Bugs bad at new camp - both mosquitoes and little biting flies.

August 20

Very windy and low overcast most of the day, fog in the morning, a little ran in evening then thunderstorm. 9:00 a.m. air 54" water 57, 12:30 p.m., air 55, 3:00 p.m., air 56 9:30 p.m., air 55.

Left camp #6 11:00 a.m., arrived new camp three miles upriver from Kiana at 5:30 p.m., traveled about 16 miles. Fifteen to twenty knot winds blowing upriver made very hard, steady paddling all day. White caps on river -water occasionally breaking over bow of canoe. Old snake eyes came into its own today -low profile and use of rudder made it easier to handle in wind and waves better than canoe. Single Klepper handled well but required somewhat more effort than double Klepper, less effort than canoe.

At the lunch stop a lively argument developed as to the distance covered so far and the distance remaining to be paddled to the proposed new campsite. Tiring of the endless theoretical discussion, John Kauffmann ended all debate with "If we've gone 6 miles we have 6 miles to go; if we've gone 8 we have 8 to go."

August 21

Mostly sunny. 6:45 a.m., air 49. Left camp 8:30 a.m., arrived in Kiana 9:00 a.m., good steady paddling covered 3 miles.

In Kiana we folded up boats and got a truck to haul our gear up to airstrip. Once again we had to leave most of our gear sitting on the runway because of lack of space on the otter. They promised to return that day and pick it up in time to meet flight out of Kotzebue. As it turned out, the gear did not show up by the time our flight left Kotzebue, but miraculously was waiting for us in Anchorage at the baggage claim -it had been put on a later, non-stop flight.

In Kiana we talked with Guy Blackenship who helps run one of the two stores in Kaina and the owner, Ruth. They said there is some motorboat use up Salmon to " foothills" for hunting during higher water levels, but still have to drag up over riffles. They said very little, if any, winter hunting or trapping in headwater area. They had personally landed a floatplane up the Salmon on a wide meander loop last year about 15-20 miles above the mouth and floated down by canoe for fun.

They also reported that in the 1950's there had been a geologist camp up above Sheep Creek and that on two occasions they had floated out down Salmon by raft. They also reported that a party of four "government" people went down the Salmon last year and used motors from the confluence back to Kiana. They supposedly had gotten into some kind of trouble and had been helped out by some Menlo Park USGS people working in the area.

We arrived back in Anchorage about 9:30 p.m.


We traveled about 48 miles in four relatively easy days on the Salmon and an additional 45 miles in 2 1/2 days on the Kobuk. Steady, hard paddling on the Kobuk.

The Salmon is a beautiful, clear stream traversing a variety of vegetative zones
and passing through highly scenic low mountains in its upper half. From a boating standpoint, the trip was only fair, however, because of the low water levels and necessity of lining through riffles frequently to occasionally.

Frequent bumping and scraping on rocks was extremely rough on the folding kayaks. However, higher water levels, as evidenced by the extensive gravel bars (and reports of previous trip) are common and stream, character and boating experiences could be altered dramatically. Access into the headwaters is difficult and limited to helicopter or super cub on a few gravel bars during lower water levels.

The opportunity to see bears during the large chum salmon run is excellent, and fishing for char, and grayling was good to exceptional.

Hiking in the upper, tundra areas is excellent with miles of ridge tops, low rounded hills, and mountains, and gravel-bar bordered streams available for relatively easy walking. Views across the even-topped mountains are impressive.

Vistas up and down the Kobuk are also impressive but after several days the vastness of the river can become tedious for recreational travel. During the entire trip down the Salmon, the only signs of man were a few old cut stumps at the put-in camp. Not even planes were observed during the inspection. The Salmon River area is truly a pristine wilderness environment.

Pat Pourchot

Complete river log

PDF icon Salmon River (Kobuk) [989 kb]

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