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March 2, 2019
Zack Creach

3 Things You Didn’t Know About Alaska’s Largest Lake

Fishermen flock to Lake Iliamna in the northern end of the Alaska Peninsula to try their chance at snagging a trophy-sized salmon or trout. Alaska’s largest lake is 77 miles long and 22-miles wide and has a surface area of about 1,637 miles. You could fit all of New York City, Los Angeles and Boston on top of the lake, as well as the Hoover Dam in its depths!

Lying between the insanely beautiful places Lake Clark National Park to the north, Cook Inlet to the east and Katmai National Park and Reserve to the south, Lake Iliamna and its islands are a stunning sight to behold. Lake Iliamna has some surprises beyond just being Alaska’s largest lake. Here are three things you didn't know about Lake Iliamna.

Lake Iliamna Has a Monster

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Similar to Scotland’s Loch Ness monster known as Nessie, Lake Iliamna has a legendary creature locals call "Illie". The Tanaina Indians believed a giant blackfish roamed the lake and would bite holes in fishermen’s canoes. When pilots began flying over Lake Iliamna in the 1940s, they reported seeing a large, aluminum-colored fish. Additional reports surfaced over the years, with some saying the creature was 10 feet long and others saying it was 30 feet and resembled a whale.

The crew from the popular Animal Planet TV series “River Monsters” did a show on Illie, and the Discovery Channel has also featured the lake monster. One plausible explanation put forth by scientists is that Illie is a giant white sturgeon. Alaskan white sturgeons can reach 20 feet in length and weigh up to 1,500 pounds, so many descriptions of Illie would align with this theory. Beluga whales have also been found cruising up rivers, so that’s another possible explanation.

Lake Iliamna Sees the World’s Largest Sockeye Salmon Run

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The Kvichak River flows from Lake Iliamna to Bristol Bay, which flows into the Bering Sea. From May to August, as many as 40 million sockeye salmon fight their way up the river to spawn. When they reach the river’s headwaters, the salmon release their eggs and produce billions of offspring that find their way into Lake Iliamna. Once they grow up, they head out to sea to get big and fat on omega-3-rich krill. In three years, the sockeye return and the cycle begins again.

Fishermen flock to Lake Iliamna to fish for sockeye, as well arctic grayling, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden trout (char), lake trout, Chinook (king) salmon, Coho (silver) salmon, and northern pike. All but the salmon are protected by a catch-and-release program.

Lake Iliamna Is Home to the U.S.’s Only Population of Freshwater Seals

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Wait, seals in a lake? Freshwater seals are rare and are only found in five places around the world. Researchers believe Lake Iliamna’s freshwater seals were probably saltwater harbor seals that migrated up the Kvichak River from Bristol Bay to Lake Iliamna to feed on the abundant salmon population. Since the eating was so good, they stuck around and eventually evolved into a subspecies.

Some propose that Illie sightings were actually the seals. Locals have hunted the seals, but the real risk to their survival is climate change and proposed massive mining projects such as the nearby Pebble Mine.

Due to its remote location, many visitors reach Lake Iliamna via a float plane. Small charter aircraft can land on gravel airstrips around the lake as well. You’ll find lodging ranging from rustic fishing cabins to more upscale options, plus privately-owned cabins are available for rent.

In addition to fish, you’re likely to spot other wildlife such as brown bears, caribou, moose, wolverines and eagles. After you’ve reeled in your record catches, you’ll want to take some time to view this pristine wilderness from the air, water or on foot!