by Kurt Iverson
It ain’t much but it doesn’t take much.
A small single room with a stout roof and four solid walls; a plank table and bench seats; a couple plywood bunks, and – to make this the Holy of Holies – a hot oil stove. It might not be more than that, but step through the doorway and it becomes your refuge. It’s your camp, a temporary home, a pocket of shelter in a wilderness of forests, steep mountains, icy fjords, salmon streams, and tidal flats.
This can be tough country, and maybe you had trouble getting here. Maybe you paddled hard into the wind all day and are soaked through by cold rain. Or maybe you stagger to the cabin under a knee-buckling pack load of game meat after climbing through the forest to the top of the treeline to take a huge buck deer. Or maybe you arrive at dusk because you have to: you ran the outboard motor hard to get home after an epic steelhead trip, but the weather moved in, bringing a sharp gale that blows against the outgoing tide, building a dangerous chop of steep waves lined up like pickets, the foam blowing off the top of each one, each wave threatening to swamp your boat if you fail to nose into it just right. With relief, you remember the cabin, and you wisely detour to find it. This decision means you’ll arrive home at least a day late. Your loved ones will be distraught. But you also know you’ll eventually get home safely, and you’ll wait out this storm in relative comfort. You could stay in the cabin for weeks if you had to.
The shelter is a public use cabin (PUC) in Alaska. The cabins are scattered throughout the state, and are owned and managed under the auspices of several government agencies. Most are found on federal land in National Forests and in parks and designated recreation lands belonging to the State of Alaska. The greatest concentration of cabins is in Southeast Alaska, the bailiwick of Alaska Fly Fishing Goods; here, in the region from Ketchikan to Haines and Skagway, there are some 160 cabins available for rent through the Forest Service or State Division of Parks and Recreation.
Weaving through the various online sites of each government agency is the best way to find and reserve a cabin. The online information invariably provides a description of the cabin and its location, and will show the dates that are available for reservations. A good clearinghouse to review the public use cabins held by the respective agencies can be found here:
Typically, cabins can be reserved up to six months in advance (seven months for Alaska residents in State cabins), and can be done by either telephone or online. A handful of the most popular cabins - which are often located in excellent hunting or fishing sites - are available only through a lottery system, where users submit applications well in advance and are randomly selected for the opportunity to reserve the cabin during prime periods.
Prices for cabins range from about $35 to $70 per night; rates vary depending on the popularity of the cabin and whether the reservation is made during the high or low season. Reservation cancellations are accepted, and usually come as either a direct refund or as a future credit.
The maximum length of stay for a party of cabin users ranges from three to seven nights, and most cabins come with restrictions on the number of people who can stay at the cabin at any one time. Some cabins are open to the public during daytime hours, and are noted as such in their online descriptions. It’s important to pay attention to this detail if privacy for you and your party is important.
The location of public use cabins varies widely. Although most are located at remote sites, some are road-accessible and many can be reached by trail systems from roadside trailheads. Other cabins are extremely remote, and can be reached only by airplane or by a long journey overland or by water.
The cabin sites offer various amenities. A good number of cabins are situated on bodies of water – lakes, rivers, or near the ocean. And a couple of the most popular cabins are even placed near hot springs - typically, the hot springs themselves are open to the public, but the nearby cabin can be reserved by private parties. Most of the cabins that are located on lakes come with one or two boats.
All the cabins have some form of heating; the most common is an oil stove, where the users provide their own fuel. Some cabins have wood stoves, while a handful of others are heated by propane, which is provided by a large tank on-site. Again, the type of stove and your responsibility for providing fuel is spelled out in each cabin description. Follow the instructions carefully, and be sure you have plenty of exactly the required type of fuel. Forest rangers have horror stories of people who dump white gasoline lantern or cooking fuel in the oil stove fuel tank, or try to burn wood, magazines, and even diapers in an oil stove burn pot.
So, considering all of the above, what does this mean to us fly-fishermen? If you’re like us, public use cabins tend to be an important part of our overall backcountry experiences. We don’t like to think of ourselves as softies, and our tent-camping gear still gets plenty of use, but how can you beat the security and warmth of a rustic cabin, especially in the rainforest where we live? Regardless of the season, or whatever the weather might dish out, you’ll be dry and warm at the end of the day – and re-charged to go out again the next. Bears won’t trash your camp; you’ll eat dinner at a table, read by lamplight, and sip your cocktail on the deck. At that moment, will you want to be anywhere else?
The best of the “fishing cabins” tend to be those associated with lakes that are connected by an outlet stream to the ocean. This is especially true if the stream has a direct connection to the sea and is not blocked by a barrier waterfall. That’s not to say that some of the landlocked lakes can’t provide quality angling – the cutthroat trout fishing in some of the lakes in our region can be supurb. And the stream fishing above or below barrier falls can also be rewarding – again, depending upon the system.
If fishing is high on your agenda, and your cabin is on a lake, a boat is usually available at the cabin. Most of the boats will be 16-foot flat-bottomed aluminum jon boats. Oars are usually provided, but here’s an important caveat: too often, the oars, oar locks, or oar sockets on the cabin boats are damaged. The best strategy to deal with this is to get first-hand information from someone who recently inspected the boat – a fellow fisherman, or a local facilities ranger, for example. Absent that information, you’re probably better off assuming the worst, and should prepare with appropriate gear. If possible, bringing an outboard motor is almost always a good idea. A hand-operated bilge pump is often helpful, too; boats can leak, and rain can come frequently. If you have a pump, bring it. And thirty feet of anchor line with a mesh bag that can be filled with rocks makes a decent anchor. You’ll appreciate it when you find that hotspot where the trout are gathered near an inlet stream.
One of the things we enjoy most about public use cabins is how well they fit in with family trips. The comfort of the place helps keeps everyone in a good mood, and we smile at how quickly the children adapt to “our” cabin and make themselves at home. And if we use the cabin as a base to explore the woods and water and to teach our kids to fish, to row, and to run an outboard – mixed in with plenty of slingshot target shoots, snack times, rock skipping, berry picking, minnow trapping, sword-making, and raucous card games - then we all enjoy ourselves immensely in the experience, and can’t wait to come back.
Feel free to give us a call if you want more advice on staying at a public use cabin. We’re happy to help with all aspects, from the type of fishing, and the appropriate type of gear and flies, to general advice about logistics or trip-planning.
Hello! Any suggestions on finding a float plane to/from the cabins? Hoping to stay for a few nights on my honeymoon (not planning to rent a car to get close enough to hike). Any info is appreciated!
Sorry for the late reply. We can definitely make a few recommendations. If you are fly out of Juneau, check out Ward Air 907-789-9150. If you’re not coming to Juneau, shoot an email to Mike and let him know where you will be looking to fly out from. He’s got a good grasp on the various float operators in the state.