I watched with fascination as a young bald eagle swooped low overhead, thrust its talons in the water with a white splash, barely missing the salmon it had been eyeballing for lunch. It took a hunting vantage point on a dead tree no more than twenty yards from where we had our pontoon raft anchored. With its fuzzy brown feathers moving in the warm breeze, it watched us with curiosity as we hunted the river our way.
Less than an hour later, I would be pulling my own prize, a 4.5 pound, 22-inch rainbow trout, out of the icy blue water. The fish fought me with everything that it had, but 10 minutes after hooking it with my light fly rod, I was scooping it into the net. After a couple of quick photos and one last admiring glance at its colorful beauty, I gently slid it back into the water and watched it dart away. This was my first attempt at fly fishing. Now I understand the fanatic following that the sport produces. My trout was not the only creature that got hooked that day.
We were float fishing the Kenai River in Alaska, a sportsman's paradise nestled in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The milky glacier sitting high in the mountains behind us was melting and providing icy clean water for the running salmon. All around us was unspoiled nature, there was not another human or structure within eyesight in any direction.
I was blessed enough to spend three fabulous weeks in Alaska in 2006. I can finally understand why people's eyes light up when you say the name. Our largest and least populated state, Alaska is also undeniably magical. You can feel it as soon as you get off the plane. The small airport in Anchorage is filled with excited chatter about grizzlies, fly rod cases and smiling faces. Many people come to visit this amazing state, but it takes a special type of person to stick around and make a life here. The people are tough yet friendly, resourceful, and generally laid back. Why not be happy when you are surrounded in every direction by some of the greatest gifts the earth has to offer?
The grand finale to our fishing trip was running through a canyon with boiling white rapids. Skip Matthews, my friend and guide, was at the oars grinning and making it a point to hit every swell just right to spray everyone aboard with ice water. At the far end of the rapids, we came to rest in Skilak Lake, the postcard picture summary of all that is Alaska. The sparkling, cold water was so still that it offered a perfect reflection of the snow-topped mountain chain behind it. The only other manmade item was a small red bush plane that had landed on its floats, but the passengers were out of sight, having an adventure of their own, probably.
The buzzing hum of our 15-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor sent a flock of white birds into the air as we zipped by the shoreline. For one hour we crossed the lake, hugging close to the shore and keeping a watchful eye for wildlife. Along the way, we never passed another boat, never spotted any structures along the coast. We had found a secluded yet easily accessible paradise. The state was full of outdoor addicts like us, where were they on this perfect July afternoon? It dawned on me that they most likely were out in the field, but the field was so big that everyone had room to play without getting into each other's way!
Like all good adventures, we finished the day exhausted, hungry, grinning from ear to ear.The night was spent camping at Russian River Campground, not far from where we were fishing. That night, I decided to take advantage of the perpetual daylight and find the perfect finish to a day of outdoor adventure. I would borrow a friend's mountain bike, ride two miles on a rocky trail up the mountain to watch the salmon jumping up a series of waterfalls.
After dinner cooked on an open fire, I made my way up the narrow trail. My calves burned with effort, the gears on my bike popped under the strain of the incline. Hanging from my hip was a metal canister of bear spray. My experienced friends had warned me that we are not the only creatures that enjoy all the late daylight. The bears – browns and grizzlies – were notorious for hunting at night, on this very trail. Not that I thought a squirt in the face would stop a charging bear, but I have to admit, the weight of being armed at least with something, was reassuring. When I passed a monument for a boy who had been killed on the trail the year before by a grizzly, I stopped for a minute to catch my breath and pay respect. I thought it might be prudent to read the instructions on the bear spray. I was alone in the woods, it was 11:00 p.m., I was feeling jumpy!
At the end of the trail. I found exactly what I was looking for. I stood and watched in awe as dozens of salmon played slave to their instincts, jumped straight up a vertical waterfall, trying to reach the place of their birth to die. Some made it and others didn't, but they kept trying, over and over. After watching for quite a while, I decided I had fed the droning mosquitoes enough and went back to camp, happier than ever.
The second week was spent driving with my friend, Jessica, along miles and miles of water with the Cook Inlet on our right side and the mountains on the other. Under the watch of white Dall sheep, visible high in the rocks above the road, we made our way south, to the small town of Seward to watch my friend's mom run in the famous and grueling Mount Marathon Race. The annual race is 3,000 feet straight up a steep mountain, it takes a strong mind and body to finish it. After the race we drove another four hours south to the town of Homer, a small community with art and Halibut fishing being the top two priorities. The wind was cold and strong blowing across the “Spit”, a narrow piece of land that juts out into the water, offering boat docks on both sides and lots of shopping and eating opportunities. Despite being the middle of July, a cold front had moved through and temperatures were somewhere around 45 degrees.
Jessica and I hitched a frigid ride in a skiff across the inlet to try our hand at netting jumping salmon for dinner. After an hour of no luck, we did it the easy way and went back to the Spit for fresh fish and chips instead. The mountain views offered from Homer were breathtaking. I could have stayed for weeks, but if I had any hope of scratching the surface of this mammoth state, I knew I had to keep moving. After loading the jeep, we were off again, driving a full day back to Anchorage.
On my last week, I took a hike and climbed one of the inviting brown peaks that jutted above the green valley. The Chugach was a short drive from Anchorage, offered some spectacular mountain views for people of all experience levels. I did the climb alone, arranging a pickup later, assuming I would be able to navigate my way back to the gravel car park. The first half of the day was spent hiking the steep incline up the mountain. I gained more and more altitude, until eventually I was above the tree line and walking across virgin patches of snow in my shorts and white T-shirt.
When I reached the base of the final ascent to the top, I almost didn't notice a small marble plaque set into the rock with the name and dates of a young climber who was killed in the very spot I was preparing to scramble up. None of the rock had a bolted route, a nearly vertical scramble. I managed to claw my way to the top of the loose shale. As I was climbing the last daunting stretch to the peak, I learned first hand how brittle the rock becomes after so many freezes and thaws. A large rock ledge I was standing on gave way underneath my weight. I frantically grabbed at whatever I could to stay alive. I thought about the teenage boy whose name was on the monument. I only ended up with a few scratches from the sharp shale, I was lucky, he was not. I listened nervously for what seemed like several minutes as the big boulder thundered down the mountain side, out of view.
With wobbly legs, I finished the climb, no more mishaps, and was rewarded with the most spectacular views of any landscape that I have ever encountered. The shades of green in the valley below appeared mysteriously unnatural, they were the perfect companion to the powder blue sky. I stood on the windy peak, completely alone, drifting in my own thoughts until a massive shadow passed nearby and snapped me back to reality. I looked up just in time to see a full grown bald eagle, three foot long wings fully extended, enjoying the currents that threatened to blow me off my rocky wonderland. I couldn't have asked for a better grand finale to Alaska, or my trip. A little less than four hours later, I was climbing into Jessica's jeep with a torn bloody T-shirt, wide eyes and a great story.
Alaska is the type of place that infects your heart and mind forever. Sitting in my living room, I sometimes feel the chill of blue glacier water rushing past my hip waders, or I smell the green abundance of the Chugach. Alaska will never be tamed. All who come here have no choice but to leave a chunk of their heart behind with the bears.
More photos and stories about Alaska are available on my homepage.