Home » 2006 Alaska RV Road Trip

Russian River, AK

Wednesday, July 26, 2006 - 10:00am by Lolo
59 miles and 1.5 hours from our last stop - 2 night stay


Playing Russian River CubsPlaying Russian River CubsBy pure coincidence, I had made our reservations at the Russian River Campground at what should have been the height of the salmon fishing frenzy when fishermen line up elbow to elbow in what is known as combat fishing. I'm not sure if that means combat with each other for a fishing spot or combat with the salmon. In either case, it's a crazy scene--grown men doing battle with poor unsuspecting fish just trying to do their biological duty.

Fishermen are not the only ones that have discovered the great fishing at the Russian River. Bears, and lots of them, also frequent the river to catch their share of salmon. In fact, the interaction between fishermen and bears is becoming a significant issue here as well as in all the populated fishing rivers in Alaska. There are lots of rules in place to try to keep these interactions from being disastrous. The main one is to not let the bears come to view man as a source of food. This means not leaving backpacks with granola bars and such lying around, not leaving fish remains on cleaning tables to attract bears to those parts of the river, and not letting a bear take away a salmon that has been recently caught and cleaned. This is easier said then done. I think if a bear wanted my fish, I would not hesitate for a moment in giving it to him.

More Playing Russian River CubsMore Playing Russian River CubsAlthough the frequency of bear sightings was a bit frightening, it also was quite exciting. We couldn't wait to get out and see our first bear. It didn't take very long. The evening we arrived at the Russian River, we set off on a hike from the campground to the Russian River Falls, a great place to view salmon jumping when they are running. The chances of seeing bear here were very good. Well, we hadn't gotten very far from the parking lot before we had our first bear encounter. As we were wandering along a path through the woods towards the river, Hans, always the alert hunter, saw a pair of black ears above the bushes by the river bank. We stopped dead in our tracks and just waited. Soon we saw what owned the ears--a pretty small, very cute black bear, right in the path of where we wanted to hike. Rather than being encouraged by its smallness, we were more concerned that his mother might be in the area as well. I knew enough about bears to not want to get anywhere between a mother and its cub. The other bit of knowledge that we had about bears is that they usually don't like being around people, especially large groups of them. Since there were 8 of us, we decided to wait the bear out. Unfortunately, this bear did not know this theory and decided to wait us out instead. After about 10 minutes of this standoff, we gave up and retreated. Ironically, we were annoyed that this bear was keeping us from our hike to see bears.

Combat fishing at the ConfluenceCombat fishing at the ConfluenceWe tried another more traveled path and managed to reach the falls without any further incident. Unfortunately, although the falls were lovely, there were no jumping salmon and therefore no bears grabbing them in midair, which was the scene that I had been hoping for.

On our return down from the Falls, we had what was becoming our all too familiar Alaska argument - whether the boys could run without risking a bear encounter. The boys are both avid cross country runners that really need to put in the miles over the summer. While the temperatures of Alaska (50 to 55) were very conducive to running, the bear situation wasn't. As usual, Andrew and Herb thought it was fine to run on the trails, but Tommy and I felt it was stupid to take the risk. This time I really put my foot down. After all, we had already come across one bear on our hike and as dusk approached, it would only get worse. We compromised and agreed to allow them to run around the roads of the campground when we got back. The campground was huge and there were plenty of people around, so I wasn't worried.

Grizzly Bear with seagull and fishermanGrizzly Bear with seagull and fishermanThe next morning, we set off once again for the river, but this time with fishing rods and camera gear. Rather than wander through the woods again on what probably was a bear trail, we found the more traveled fisherman's path that runs along the river. After briefly stopping at a pretty spot along the river to fish, we decided to move on to the Confluence where the Kenai River meets the Russian. This is the most popular fishing spot and the site of combat fishing during the salmon run. On our way there, a park ranger warned us of bear activity ahead. My reaction to this was somewhat mixed. I really did come here with the hopes of seeing bears, yet I had, what I consider to be, a healthy and quite rational fear of them.

We had probably only been at the Confluence for about 15 minutes, before two 3-year-old grizzly cubs, affectionately named Gimpy and Limpy, wandered down to the river to play and fish. These two are sort of celebrities around here, and everyone, except us, seemed to know them and their story. A park ranger filled us in. Last year, a fisherman got spooked and shot and killed a mama grizzly and one of her cubs and wounded another. The man that shot them was arrested for unnecessarily killing the bears and served a brief prison sentence. Meanwhile, the two surviving cubs had to get through the following winter without a mother--not necessarily an easy thing to do. As a result, they always stuck together, which is somewhat unusual for cubs their age, and they never really learned to fear humans (something their mother had not yet gotten around to teaching them). So, practically on a daily basis, they came down to the river to mingle with the fishermen and play, creating a potentially dangerous situation.

Tommy fishing the Russian RiverTommy fishing the Russian RiverHerb and Andrew set up their tripods and for the next ½ hour or so, we watched and photographed the cubs wrestling and playing in the river. We were only about 30 yards away (probably a little too close for comfort), but there were dozens of other fishermen around and the cubs seemed only interested in each other. We got some great shots of the bears, open mouthed with teeth clenched. I felt like I was on the Discovery Channel. This would have gone on a lot longer if it wasn't for some stupid guy and his son who approached the cubs a bit too closely. The kid kept squealing and darting around, making us all worry that the bears were going to play with him next. Fortunately for them, the bears just left and went off into the woods.

Playful GrizzlyPlayful GrizzlyWe didn't catch any fish that day, but we were quite satisfied with our Russian River bear experience. In fact, the next day before leaving, we went down to the Confluence again to see if we could see a repeat show. Sure enough, Gimpy and Limpy returned to the river. However, after only about 10 minutes of play, they became more interested in their spectators than each other. We were situated on a little spit of land that jutted out into the river. One of the cubs decided to join us there. We quickly picked up as many of our belongings as we could and slowly backed into the river, hoping it wouldn't get too deep before we reached a tiny island about 15 yards out. Fortunately, the water only went up to our waists or we would have lost some pretty expensive camera equipment. There were about a dozen fishermen on the island, so we felt pretty safe that the bear wouldn't follow us there. Tommy had left his shoes behind and Herb had left a mostly empty beer can. The bear sniffed the can for awhile before walking over it and crushing it with his foot. Tommy was hoping the bear would maul his shoes so that he would have an interesting story to tell back home. I couldn't believe that the bear actually did try to approach the island, despite the fact that there were about 20 people on it. This bear just wasn't playing by the normal rules of beardom. He really could have used a few more years with his mama to learn that you don't approach that large a group of humans. I'm afraid that someday this bear is going to spook someone enough to shoot him, like what happened to his mother. Everyone started making loud noises and clapping their hands, and finally the bear lumbered off into the woods. That was a little too close for my liking.

Seagull feastingSeagull feastingAfter we got back home to New Jersey, I looked up Russian River bears on the Internet and found out quite a bit more about their story. I also found an article in the Anchorage News about how the very next night after we left the Russian River, a bear tore down a guy's tent with him in it. Fortunately, the bear just ran off then and the man was not hurt. The strange thing was that the man did not have any food in his tent. The rangers think that the bear might have just been curious to see what was inside the tent, the same way they are curious about looking inside backpacks. After that incident, the Russian River Campground closed down tent camping for awhile and only allowed RVs. They also closed the Fisherman's Path along the river after dusk each night because that's the time that bears are often active.

Despite the lack of salmon, the Russian River had been a real trip highlight--more wildlife than we had seen in Denali and the most sunshine we had had in a week. I would love to come back here when the salmon are running. It must be pretty wild.


Grizzly Bear scaring off fishermenGrizzly Bear scaring off fishermenThe Russian River is an extremely popular fishing destination. During the peak of the salmon run, elbow to elbow combat fishing is the norm. On some days, more than 1,000 fishermen line the banks of the Confluence, where the Russian River meets the Kenai. The red salmon usually peak in mid-June and then again in late July. Fishing for Rainbow Trout and Dolly Varden is good all summer, but usually peak in late July and August when there are large numbers of salmon eggs. The Russian River is a "fly fishing only" area, which means that you can use spinning rods but only with unweighted single-hook artificial flies.

The Russian River Campground, at Mile 53 of the Sterling Highway, is very popular with anglers during the salmon runs. For the same reason, it is also very popular with bears, so caution must be taken with food storage. This huge 83-site campground run by the U.S. Forest Service has paved roads and large sites. A fisherman's path provides access to the river. Reservations are recommended during the salmon runs (www.reserveusa.com). Stays are limited to 3 nights.

The very popular Russian Lakes hiking trail starts from the campground. Parking for the Lower Russian Lake Trail is at Mile 2.6 on the campground road. This 3-mile hike climbs 500 feet to the Lower Russian Lake, a popular place to fish during the summer. However, the lake is closed to salmon because it is a spawning area. Before reaching the lake, there is a spur trail to the Russian River Falls viewing platform, a great place to view jumping salmon when they are running.

The much longer 12-mile hike to the Upper Russian Lake takes you deeper into the Alaskan backcountry and prime bear habitat. Although this lake is also closed to salmon, the trout fishing can be phenomenal. Trailhead parking for this hike is at Mile 1 on the campground road.

Russian River location map

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