Trip Report: An Epic Alaskan DIY Adventure

Written by: Ian Provo, Steelhead & Spines

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Neil Provo cradles the biggest fish of his life and the culmination of years of planning.

photo by Ian Provo

[Editor's Note: Back in February, we told you about the "Steelhead & Spines" project by brothers Ian and Neil Provo, who embarked on a combined steelheading/skiing trip from their home in Park City, Utah, to the capital of "spine riding," Haines, Alaska. Here's Ian's trip report.]

My brother Neil and I had talked about going to Alaska for many years, but the idea to combine fishing and skiing in one trip was kind of new to us. For two diehard ski and fish bums, it seemed like the trip of a lifetime, and the perfect way to see Alaska for the first time. You can only talk about doing something for so long before the urge to bring it to reality becomes too much. We reached that point, and for the first time in our lives we could make this trip happen.

By doing everything on our own, it was obvious we were in for a big learning experience and perhaps more failure than success. Without guides, or planned itineraries, the rawness of the adventure was left completely intact. For us, it was important to experience these new mountains and rivers from the ground up, and it didn’t matter if someone had done it before or done something greater, because this was going to be our adventure.

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Spending 18 days on a glacier is a powerful way to explore the Alaskan wilderness.

photos by Ian and Neil Provo

For 18 days, we lived on a glacier, 50 miles by plane from the nearest anything, with a couple of our buddies from Utah who were also looking for their first Alaskan experiences. We got plenty of those. From the moment our pilot, Drake, set his plane down till the day he arrived to bring us home, the feeling of being totally isolated and alone for the first time in my life never left my thoughts for a moment. We slowly worked our way into the greatest mountains any of us had ever seen, battling the weather and snow, avalanches, and our own minds. Coming off the glacier, our crew smelling like a massive pile, we knew we had done some things wrong, but we did a lot of things right, and that was certainly something to be proud of.

After the mentally and physically exhausting glacier expedition, it was a great relief to finally set our sights on the water. But knowing absolutely nothing about steelhead fishing or where we would go, the anxiety and uncertainty quickly returned. It was very clear to us that if there was going to be any “Steelhead & Spines” concept, well than one of us had better land a fish on this trip, and it should probably be a good one. We decided to fish a river not far from our base camp in Haines, in Southeast Alaska. But like most good adventures up here, this one had to start out with a bush plane. Once again, we found ourselves flying with Drake through the nastiest mountains our eyes have ever seen; it was hard to believe we were going fishing.

When we landed in the small fishing village of Yakutat, there were still a two-meter snowpack at sea level. Some of the locals told us not to be afraid of the brown bears who were waking up, but rather to watch out for the moose in the river that will run your ass down. For three days, we drifted our raft down through the thick cover, camping wherever we could find a dry spot to pitch our tent. We picked the brains of some hardcore steelheaders, and with that knowledge we were able to develop our own technique.

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Southeast Alaska’s steelhead forests feel ancient and full of mystery.

photos by Ian and Neil Provo

On the first day, we had a bite, and on the second day Neil stuck our first steelhead after thousands of casts. It was, at that point, the biggest fish of his life. It was coming together for us, and we were learning about the style. On the third day, gear soaked from 36 hours of nonstop rain, our morale was low, but we continued to put a fly in every hole. Once again, Neil was on the rod when it got bent for the second time of the trip. After only five casts through a beautifully undercut and sticky sweeper, the fish we were dreaming about was on.

After this fish was released, we had never felt more accomplished. Coming to Alaska, we had only two goals, ride the line and catch the fish of our lives. It didn’t matter if only one of us achieved each goal, because we were working as a team and none of the goals would have been reached without the help of each other. The Steelhead & Spines mission was complete, and we began the long drive home knowing that we had the most Alaskan experience we could have ever hoped for. After finally being exposed to this great land, it will be impossible for us to ignore the desire to return.

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