There's a place on the Yukon River northwest of Fairbanks that's one of the world's greatest fishing holes. If you can find it. At this particular spot, in a small delta of about ten flat acres, the massive Yukon narrows, funneling sheefish, arctic grayling, whitefish, pike, and king salmon toward the nets and flies of the knowledgeable. It's a secret the Athabascan Indians have known for generations, calling it El Noo Taat Denh"the flat place where spruce bows are found"and returning each summer to erect a temporary village and stock their larders for the sunless months ahead.
But only since 1990 have outsiders been allowed to join in. It was then that the Athabascans of Stevens Village decided to admit a few Gussucks (a corruption of "Cossacks," the first white people the Indians encountered) to El Noo Taat Denh. Today, the camp bustles with the few Gussucks lucky enough to have heard of this place.
It's easy to see why. On the fringes of the 20-million-acre Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, El Noo Taat Denh is the upper Yukon at its most imposing, a starkly beautiful place of tundra marsh and chilly, ice-blue lakes, with thousands of ducks and shorebirds cascading overhead. At dawn, moose splash through the streams, mist rising like a veil around them. And then, of course, there's the fishing, the secrets of which are imparted by the Denyee Hut'aane Nene' (very literally, "the people of the place where the Yukon River comes out of the Yukon Flats and flows into the Ramparts Canyon area"). One of the Denyee will meet you in Stevens Point and ferry you the six miles upriver to the camp's secluded tent city. Stow your sleeping bag in the nearest empty shelter: There are no room keys here. There's also no schedule and no formal instruction. When you see a fisherman heading out to check the set nets, tag along. You'll be taught how to read the water, how to pluck pike from the fish wheels, and which music is preferred while deploying king salmon nets (Elvis Costello and the Rolling Stones are among the faves). Later, help hang the day's catch in the smokehouse, and then borrow one of the camp's canoes and float along the riverbank, sniffing the wild roses and watching the bald eagles scoop up their own poisson du jour.
Alaskan fishing regulations prohibit the Denyee from selling their catch to campers. (They also prohibit outsiders from using nets, though you can fly-fish if you've purchased a license.) The Department of Fish and Game doesn't prohibit sharing dinner, however, so each evening the entire camp sits down to a communal fish fry, while the midnight sun sparks the sky and the loons provide a shoreside chorale.
Arranging a stay at El Noo Taat Denh is easy: show up in Stevens Village (135 miles from Fairbanks on Dalton Highway). As long as the Denyee are resident at the camp, you'll be welcome. But when the fish aren't runningusually in May and Septemberthe camp is empty. To find out about conditions, call Denyee-owned Yukon River Tours in Stevens Village (907-452-7162). Cost is $45 per person per night.