We headed back up the Kenai Peninsula, just in time for the salmon to arrive at a few key fishing spots along the Kenai and Russian Rivers. The only trouble is, their whereabouts weren’t a closely guarded secret, and it was a Friday.
Soldotna, you’re not making this easy for me
We pulled in to Soldotna’s main campground shortly before noon, as advised, in order to secure a spot. There were no spots. None. Meg was starting to smell a bit funny anyway, so perhaps, we thought to ourselves, this isn’t so bad after all — perhaps it’s time we checked into a hotel to get Meg cleaned up a little . We drove around town, we drove out of town, we drove back into town; we looked at hotels, inns, and horrendously skeevy motels. No vacancy whatsoever. Nothing. “Sorry, we’re full,” they said with their lips. “The salmon are in town — duh,” was the gist of their body language. One receptionist asked us if we were from Anchorage, and the way she intoned Anchorage, with her upper lip curled toward her snout, she may as well have asked us if we were visiting from Hades.
We went back to the campground to see if anything had opened up. “There’s a waiting list,” the young lady at the checkpoint told us, “but we’re not adding any more people to it because we’re too full.” Then, when she saw that my eyes were starting to well up, and she was about to have a grown man weeping at her window to deal with, she whispered, “well we are out of camping spots, but if you want, you can just find a piece of wilderness anywhere you can, and pitch your tent there.” This was welcome news indeed. “I still have to charge you the full price though,” she said sadly. At this point, we would have paid double. “If you must,” I replied, softly. “I must,” she nodded.
Into the woods we trekked; pretty soon our tent was pitched in an attractive, if small, green thicket a little way off the road. It was attractive not only to us — desperate campers — but also to a thriving hive of bees who, in fairness, did get there before us. Two of them in quick succession let me know, in no uncertain terms, one on the foot and one on the arm, how they felt about us being there.
It gets worse
It was early afternoon by now, and all I’d achieved so far today was four hours of setbacks, two pulsating bee stings, and one overpriced and terribly crappy campsite. I still didn’t have a fishing rod. My wonderful wife remained in good spirits, though, and with her at my side we set off to a local sporting store to procure rod, reel, and waders. I knew better than to do what I did next, but I did it anyway: I bought a super-cheap, all-in-one, ready-to-fish kit. Finally! Ready to fish. Or so I thought…
Meg dropped me back at the campground (which has access to the river) and then drove herself off to a yoga class back in town. I walked down to the river and got my very first taste of what is known as combat fishing.
For hundreds of meters up and down the river, it’s like this — people jostling for spots, elbow-to-elbow as they try to floss the mouths of upstream-bound salmon. Not exactly what I typically look for in a day of fishing, but I had come all this way. Daunted, I took to the water anyway, and on my second cast, the top of my super-cheap reel popped off like a flipped coin, somersaulted twice, and disappeared into the water below. I had been fishing for less than a minute. Meg was gone, with the car, for another two hours.
By the time she was showered and back, we were able to rush into a (different) sporting goods store in town before they closed, and buy another reel — a decent one this time. Damned if I wasn’t going to give this one more go.
For about an hour, under the midnight sun, I tried, and tried, until the mosquitoes and the cold became too much to bear and, luckily for the salmon, I called it a day, having extracted nothing from the river except a tacit agreement with it that next time, I’ll come slightly better prepared and in return it’ll treat me a little better. Nevertheless, I had fished for salmon in Alaska (bucket list: fish for salmon in Alaska, CHECK).
A new day dawned. During Friday’s Soldotna debacle, somewhere near the end of my rope I had called up a charter/guiding outfit in desperation, and — in a rare stroke of Soldotna luck — they had a spot available on a fly-out charter the next day. I was about to have a day that made up for all that had gone wrong the day before. Possibly even things that had gone wrong in years gone by. It was the Kenai Peninsula’s way, I now know, of apologizing to me. I accepted.
While Meg took herself off for a much-deserved spa day (told you she needed to clean up), I took off in a seaplane — (bucket list, CHECK), across the Cook Inlet, to an unpopulated stretch of water, for another chance at some salmon. I won a coin toss (the Kenai Peninsula was simply groveling at this point) — the upshot of which was the chance to sit up in the copilot’s seat. I was treated to some of these views as we made our way far, far from civilization (I use the term liberally).
We flew first to a glacier, buzzing low over its icy surface for some spectacular view of it, and ahead of us its tail opened out into a larger water basin, where we would eventually land, and hop into a small boat, headed for Wolverine Creek.
I’m pleased to report that I finally did catch salmon, which made for some fine campfire cooking in nights to come. (Catch salmon in Alaska, CHECK.)
In the afternoon, we were joined by a surprise visitor along the banks of the river, a few feet from our boat. She appeared quietly, surveyed the water for a moment, and then charged — thundered — into the shallows, plunging with all her might and weight into the cold water, emerging with her prize. It was over in a matter of seconds.
So after I’d seen a grizzly bear (CHECK) catch a salmon (CHECK), and carry it to the bank, it was time for her to send for her miniature reinforcements. Enter her two little grizzly bear cubs (CHECK).
From the other side, then, she dashed into the water again, in a display of stealth and brute strength like I’ve never seen in nature before (and I’m from Africa), and emerged, again, with another trophy.
If you can spare a minute, take a look at this video of the three of them walking around the river bank right where we were fishing. Apologies for the shaky quality; I was fishing with one hand and filming with the other!
The trip back was no less spectacular, and the day wasn’t over yet. We still had a date to keep with our friend Hobo Jim — half the reason we’d come to this stretch of land in the first place.
Cleaned, and overdressed for the occasion, we stepped into Hooligans and ordered some drinks.
We tuned to the sounds of Hobo Jim at the mike. He’s been playing his gig here at the salmon run for 42 years in a row, engaging the crowd with jokes, like “I’m getting old now, though I still take a poop at 7am sharp, every morning…. But I don’t get out of bed until 8”, and singing songs about life as a fisherman in Alaska. It was around the time he sang about the Tourette’s Syndrome chicken at Old McDonald’s farm that we tuned him out again, and resumed talking about our next move, Denali, over some of Alaska’s very fine beer, at the end of a long and truly marvelous day.