Salmon spawn in the small streams and headwaters of South Central Alaska. They live in the rivers and streams for a year or two before making their way to the big world. The struggle is real for the Salmon in as they adventure into the big world. Unlike the human world; The Pacific Ocean does not allow or reward weakness or laziness. Salmon fatten up for up 5 to 7 years before returning from parts unknown. The weak and unlucky might only find success by nourishing other animals who are still viable in the big world. Dolphins, killer whales, seals, and sea lions are just a few of the predators ensuring the health of this system by snacking on delicious salmon. The strong and fortunate will return to the clean, aqua blue, lightly silted, rivers and steams to spawn…
I closely identify with the salmon. Growing up in Alaska, as a small fry, my family and I hiked the rivers and streams. When I was older we moved ‘outside’ (which is where everyone outside of Alaska lives if you ask an Alaskan). Outside is where I grew, had experiences, and learned. After High School I joined the Navy and traveled to many places around the Pacific. As an adult there is a strong gravity which pulls me to South Central Alaska.
In contrast to Mr.salmon, I get more than one ‘go with the ladies’ before I die and that requires energy. So the annual plan is to abandon all responsibility for two weeks every summer and journey to the ‘family homestead’ with the mission to return home with a couple of fish boxes to last the year. Pops built a three story, coastal, cabin that comes with a massive ‘garagemahall’ to store kayaks, vehicles, and gear. I feel blessed to have my parents property as a home base.
Doing the math one year I determined that I can get to Canberra, Australia in less time than Clam Gulch, Alaska. A long conversation with my father about the business of moving people through the supply chain of airports being faster than the airport, car, over the river and through the woods it takes to get to Grandma’s house in Alaska. Every year like the salmon I pack up my gear and my son (AKA Mr. T) and we go ‘NORTH TO ALASKA‘.
I am picked up from the airport by a fellow degenerate I knew from the Navy. Dennis Lee Ripper Ward (AKA Rip). We are older now and every year that beer and catch up time gets more precious. He picks us up each year in a different vehicle. Windows decorated with the Alaskan stars just like the flag (broken from rocks on back roads). Usually we have to rearrange all the detritus that is on the back seat and boot in order to fit our gear. No mind the mess… We are just happy to have a ride and see an old friend. It is late when we get into Anchorage, usually pushing midnight, and the sun is just thinking about setting into a solid twilight as the sun sits just below the horizon and the light remains. We have a tradition to drop the bags, at whichever roach motel I find a good deal , then the three of us go get a beer (of the root variety for Mr. T). We catch up at a local brew pub, eat greasy food, and pizza. It makes for along day.
Morning comes and we get the gear into the car to make the slog south to Clam Gulch. We make light of the opportunity to eat at fun places along the way. This was the year I introduced my son to Gwennies. It is an institution in Anchorage that dates back more than 30 years. Those countless heart attacks courtesy of the best greasy spoon in Anchorage. Just good people, cool rustic building, and real food for people with a miners appetite.
Bellies full and back on the road. A famous bit of highway which brings back so many memories… Turnagain Arm on highway 1. As a kid I remember the long delays and my parents driving the motor home on the train tracks. There were frequent road closures while the crews drilled and blasted into the mountain. There is no land here. The mountain drops naturally straight into the ocean. Every inch of that highway was blasted back into the mountain. Today people forget that the 4 lane monstrosity that carries tourists was built of brawn and violent explosions. The mountain is so steep that occasionally the Dall Sheep will fall off the mountain onto the highway. The drive is incredibly beautiful. If you are lucky you might even see the surfers riding waves, in place, as the bore tide rushes into Turnagain Arm.
Hours later we arrive at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Mr. T goes straight to feeding the Grey Jays which as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put it, “…are so rare you’ll never see them.” Well Grandma has 3 generations named by now…
The plan: book a charter out of Seward (where our boat used to reside in slip 13) with Grandpa’s friend. Fish halibut and ling cod like mad. Then book back to the homestead in time to get on the the sockeye salmon bite. A lot of logistics are required to get advanced aged adventures, gear, and two vehicles 3 hours down the road. Mr. T and I usually go ahead at our pace to Seward, find the spot for the motor home, park, wander the dock telling stories, checking fish counts, burgers and ice cream, sometimes a trail hike… then the oldies show up a few hours later.
Our exploration of the beaches and boardwalks are a repeat every year… but every year we are excited about these well known sights. The railroad that was washed off its foundation in the Great Quake, the quirky board walk catering to tourists (that was never there when I was kid)…fantastic vistas of Resurrection Bay and Mount Marathon. I can beach comb and watch the otters forever without being bored.
Eventually the old Allegro motor home rolls into camp in time for a short walk to see what the charters are bringing back to the dock, before dinner. We know tomorrow is the longest day of the trip so we cut the night short and hit the sack about 10pm. 5am comes early. Mostly no one talks. We know our tasks. Coffee, bags packed with lunches and snacks, boots, everyone out… let’s go. 530am in Seward is peaceful. The fishing community has not woken up yet. Seagulls haven’t even woken up yet! The sun is just poking over the snow capped mountains shimmering on the bay. It is cooler, clean air, clean enough that your lungs thank you with every breath. We all walk silently to the docks. Our boots crunching the gravel under our feet. Everyone but me goes straight to the boat. I always stop at Coho Joe’s coffee shop to get a quad-shot pumped directly into my vein. Every time they walk away I get a heart flutter… we are a crew! We should be sticking together! I have plenty of time but always rush to catch back up with the fishing team.
Our captain is happy to see the family again. He has seen Mr. T grow up over the years. The familiarity goes beyond just captain and passengers. Every couple of years there is a new deckhand or two. They all have their quirks. Broken in some way but hardworking and good people. All ships are the same, just like the Navy, you depend on your shipmates so you build bonds with them that last forever, no matter how crazy or depraved the situation gets, you will always trust them. Safety brief is done (I stared blankly at a boat and dreamed… missed the whole thing) and people stake out their territory for the 3hour ride out to Montague Island. This gives a 13 year old lots of time to play with the camera. This gives old people time to nap. It gives me time to disappear into my head and ponder the wondrous world, make right with bad decisions, people left behind, and generally be at peace.
About 30 minutes before we reach the fishing grounds the engines change tone. Captain is looking hard at the depth finder to find structure. This prompts everyone to being to stir. Deckhands who have been working hard since we left port are still on the hustle. Flat-landers, wedding parties, and old folks who have nodded off during the 3 hour peaceful drone being to wake. Typically there is at least one person who has already begun to chum in the berthing trashcan. A further change in the engine tone, idle, then the sound of rocks being poured on deck as the anchor chain drops. The mic cracks, “…er, ok folks we are going to try here for a bit. We have been having some luck here lately.” Those that have not already staked out a spot at the back of the boat emerge from the galley confused and looking for a spot to fish. Common knowledge is that the back of the boar is best. My luck is such that where ever I am not, is the hot spot. This usually means that the 12 year old girl from Iowa who was moments ago wretching in the berthing lands a 100+lbs halibut while the rest of us go home with chickens (common term for 20lb fish). We move a few times through out the day and proceed to blast our arms and back like we were Arnold in his prime.
The deck hands do clean the fish and bag them for you on board. This is a valuable service completed just for tips. That many fish after slamming big fish all day would just be too much work. Even yet, back at the dock there is a lot of trimming, sizing, and repacking to do before dinner. It is not uncommon for our small dinner pile to become too large for even the hungriest of bear families to eat in one meal. Grandma usually makes fun of us for overestimating our abilities to scarf fresh tempura halibut. As we finish packing we are rewarded with beer. Grandma gives us each a turn to pick which piece we want first. Naturally, this become a show while the rest of the bear bemoan not having fish at that moment.
Bellies overly stuffed with fresh tender fish we all rolled into bed for a will earned rest.
Morning. Sore young bodies roll out of bed and quietly put on boots to hike and beach comb while sore old bodies continue their repair sequence. A few hours later we drag back to the motor home for coffee and breakfast. No time is wasted. Trash out. Dishes cleaned. Batten down the hatches! This boat is getting underway! We have 150lbs of fish to get into the freezer at the house. Grandma and Grandpa hit the road. Mr. T and I explore the other end of the beach looking for a trail that we had heard of in oral legends told by the elders. Finding the head of the trail but not wanting to pay $5 to park, we parked at the bottom of the hill and hiked up, over, around, through streams, and Salmon Berries.
We hike along the trail snatching orange and red salmon berries. As we hike it is important to make a little noise to inform the resident fur bags you are there. The worst thing you can do is sneak up on a sow and cub. It will not end well. As we are absolutely walking through their berry patch. So as we walk and talk we grab a berry and say, “mmmm, don’t mind if I dooooo”. It becomes a joke as we gorge our way down the trail.
On the way back to the other side of the Kenai Peninsula I spot a sign for Kelly / Peterson Lake. There are so many lakes in Alaska that not all of them are even named. Many of them likely have never been fished or touched by man. Kelly Lake is not one of those… this man has touched it. I caught my first fish there in fact… around 1981 or ’82. Mr. T has to see this place. It is amazing. My grandmother and I would walk the banks eating rose hips and catching leeches for bait. My mother and I would hike the hills across the lake and befriend the bears who would just look at us in disdain while working across the hillside with us. Grandma and Grandpa (mine; Mr. T’s Greats) are spread at the far end in the lily pads. I remind Mr. T of the bears and we talk loudly as we hike around to the beaver dam. As we hike I point out beaver, moose, and bear sign.
Back at the homestead we get back to work. With our side trip to the lake, a stop at The Moose Is Loose Bakery, and some general purpose meandering… we got back at the same time as the elders. Perfect timing! Now to unload fish, clean dishes, wash clothes, and back to relaxing. Chores and lunch done we discuss the fish count for the few local rivers and despite the rain do some exploring on the property.
The next few days are spent in the river working hard for limits of sockeye. Early rise, make coffee, pack a snack, down to the river to swat the water for hours. Peaceful rumble of water, frigid water calf high we fall into a rhythm. Toss the fly slightly upstream. Let it bounce down stream about 120 degrees, slide the fly home, and toss it again. Sockeye bump the hook as it drags along the bottom. There is much debate about if they actually take the fly or it just drags through their mouth. In either case there are primarily two kinds of fish 1) Neither of you know the are hooked up 2) the fish takes off and goes ballistic. Fighting these fish on fly gear is the most sporting and fun. Many people are more concerned with getting as many fish as possible. Not advisable. Most of these fisherman do not actually use the fish they take and every year authorities find large amounts of fish dumped in landfills.
Pops shows off a decent fish caught on his 6 weight, one piece, graphite fly rod.
Being the sporting type of family… we like to play fish on light gear. Here is the issue though; it takes some skill! The challenge and reward to playing a fish till it will belly up to the beach far outweighs the feeling of yanking fish out forcibly with 60lb test and a spinning rod. I can rant all day about the classes of sportsmen but that would not be as much fun for you, my fellow reader!
“FISH ON” the call goes out. All eyes within ear shot look to see how serious the fisherman is. It is Grandpa and he has been fishing this river for 40 years… it is legit. The fishermen one and two up/down river take a step back to give him room to play the fish. Dad is an artist with a fish. Never letting the fish get too much line on him but with the drag set enough that the fish has resistance when taking line. Most cases a fish will take three good runs before calming down enough that you can turn them in towards the beach. Occasionally, you will get a beast fish that wants more or a tired fish that just swims right to the beach with no fight. Most fish take the required three runs though. Landing the fish is the most critical part of the operation. Many fish are lost on the transition between fight and land. My favorite and most entertaining way to see fish lost is the net. If you play a fish properly, then no net required. You can walk up to the fish and pick it up. Sometimes the fish will take a last run but since it is tired you can point its head toward the beach and the fish will beach itself. These are proper and sporting ways to land a fish. The opposite of sporting but more hilarious method is to let Bubba come running down the beach, splashing everyone, scaring the fish, then stabbing after the fish with the net. More often than not it ends with Bubba knocking the fish off the line. Sometimes people fall down. Rarely, but it does happen, the hook come flying out and catches someone in the face.
Fishing sockeye (or reds) gets crowded and you may be standing shoulder to shoulder with the people next to you. That is no fun so we go early or find new places that are not overrun.
Another long trek home with heavier boxes. Successful freezer stocking trip to see the family and take in an adventure. If you do it right your annual adventure can set you up with a freezer like this.
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