King Salmon Alaska may as well be the end of the world for anyone looking to travel beyond this desolate outpost. To the south lies the long arm of the Alaska Peninsula. Hemmed in by the Pacific Ocean to the east and Bristol Bay to the west, it is one of the last great American frontiers. The Pacific coast side is particularly remote, even by Alaskan standards. The land is dotted with active volcanoes and an unbroken chain of formidable snow capped peaks, with every mountain draining into a succession of valleys where unnamed creeks merge into unnamed rivers.
On a cloudy afternoon we get the call from the hanger that the control tower has approved our flight plan out of King Salmon. Rus issues his edict. We leave tonight. Chris and I do a once over in the room we have taken in town to make sure we haven't left anything important behind and double check our gear bags before we race back to Egli Air Haul for our flight into the bush. Sam Egli is there prepping his plane, a navy grey Cessna U206. I imagine Sam is the last of his kind. The old breed of no nonsense bush pilots who would fly you through hell without breaking a sweat. He packs the back of his plane full to the brim, even managing to shove in Rus' acoustic guitar. Then it's our turn to cram into the cabin. We throttle down the runway, Sam opens her up and we lift off over King Salmon, bank hard over the giant Naknek RIver, and fly south towards the unknown.
In a haze we unload the plane. Only a few hours of daylight remain as we scramble across the barren tidal flat keeping our eyes peeled for bear. Their paw prints traverse the soft pea sized gravel in every direction, interrupted by the intermittent tracks of fox and sea birds. The surf hums in the distance and the air is thick with the brined smell of the sea. It feels good to see the Pacific again.
Sam helps us unload the last of our gear and quickly fires up his plane to beat the tide. The three of us watch as he disappears into the developing fog, the drone of his engine fading until gone. Once again we are alone and surrounded by wilderness.
It isn't until the next day that I really see the place that will be my home for the next two months. Our camp seems enormous. Sitting atop a nice flat above a steep wooded hill with a small creek running down one side and groves of stunted alder encroaching in every direction. Head high stands of cow parsnip and Alaskan fireweed overtake the maze of footpaths that meander through the camp. It is late July, and the fireweed blooms in clusters of fuschia giving the entire place a tropical air. Chris points out the individual campsites by name. Now mearley paved flats, they are soon to be the future home of steel framed tents that will house our guests and fellow crew members. There is HQ, Zen Den, Meadow View, Pilots Tent, Buena Vista, and the Boar's Nest, to name a few. The cherry on the cake is the observation post. A promontory notch of paved sand at the front end of camp. From here you have an unbridled view of the full tidal flat; the bay and open ocean beyond and the high ridges and mountains of the Aleutian range colliding into one another. A Volcanic plug named Harley Hill looms over the back of the flat. It's sides cleaved away over the centuries leaving pillars of exposed rock that fall dramatically into the impenetrable woods that crawl up it's flanks. In every direction there are bears. They patrol the beaches and high sedge grasses that grow up to the tide line. Sows nurse rambunctious cubs. Lone males keep their distance. Dark clouds of salmon come in with every high tide. It is a paradise.
Within the next few days the rest of our crew is flown in. I meet Chris Carr, the cook. Wyatt, one of the guides for the season. Steve, a returning guide from last season who is our setup guy, and Jack, the camp helper. We all quickly find ourselves hard at work to turn what was wilderness into something resembling an army barracks. Tents pop up like sprouting flowers in a meadow. We put rafts together, dig trenches, install water lines and even fashion a shower with a hot water heater. Life is good. Finally, with the majority of the bigger to do's checked off the list Rus sends us into the backcountry to scout, and more importantly, to fish.
One evening Rus and I take a raft to the mouth of the estuary to have a look around. Rus is curious to see the lower river and skillfully pilots the boat up a shallow arm of the tidal flat. A high sandbank covered in dune grass is all that lies between us and the northern Pacific. We spook a sow with cubs, they run in bewilderment as we draw nearer. One of the cubs turns and stands on its hind legs for a last glimpse before disappearing behind a ridge. Later, I realize we are probably the first humans this animal has ever seen. The mouth of the river, really no more than a creek, dumps into the flat in a shallow braided section but carves out a deep enough channel for Rus to thread the needle and take us into the lowest section of the river.
Suddenly, on either side of the boat the gem blue water of the creek turns black. Untold numbers of salmon run past the boat in an unbroken chain of glimmering white bellies and shadowed backs as we slowly motor further upriver. Most of them are pinks (Humpy) but every once in awhile a massive chum will shoot past the boat followed by a corresponding yelp from Rus or myself. In disbelief I say aloud:
There must be hundreds of them
The first guests arrive and we fall into the weekly rhythm of guiding, eating, sleeping and repeating steps one through three. The weather turns south for days on end as low pressure systems churning over the volatile northern seas come crashing into the coast. We endure days of rain and fog for what seems like an eternity, then the weather breaks giving rise to serene days of warm sun and calm winds. The ocean is lulled to sleep while offshore thousands upon thousands of salmon stage to begin their final migration. Chum salmon and pink salmon enter the tidal flat in droves. Up in the valley Dolly Varden begin to show their spawning colors as they prepare for the ultimate feast. We all wait in anticipation for the first runs of silvers.
A rare day of exceptionally calm seas presents the opportunity to target salmon in the surf. Something few anglers will experience anywhere; the chance to sight cast to rolling sea run fish in the salt.
Sometime in late August the first run of silver salmon (Coho) begin to make their way into the tidal flat. At first there are only a handful mixed in with the swarms of pink and chum salmon that continue to pour in from the sea, but as the nights grow longer and the hills fade from a lush green to a rusty brown they soon replace the chum in number. Like apparitions they suddenly appear in the lower stretches of our river. Their backs glow a blue green in the emerald pools and deeper troughs where they hold beyond the schools of dark pinks.
There are days of fishing into the fall that defy any and all expectation, leaving guests and guides alike spellbound and without words. Outgoing tides that teem with hundreds if not thousands of big brawny silver fish erupt into a frenzy as the sound of pounding surf fills the crisp sunlit air of Alaska's autumn. The white dome of the volcano gleams in the distance with a fresh coat of snow from the night before as gulls litter the sky in silent observance as fish after fish after fish is taken on the fly.
Nothing lasts for long in the far north. Our window of perfect fall weather was cut short when another nasty low pressure system reared its ugly head promising to put an abrupt end to our final few days of fishing. We sent our last group out early and braced for the oncoming storm.
Soon it was time for us to go. We dismantled our camp, returning our small foothold in this rugged country back to the wild. Every night the bears wandered closer to camp, as if they knew we would soon be gone and were eager to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Finally, on a cold and windy day, with the adjacent ridges and volcano showing brilliantly in the background, we boarded Sams 206 and lifted off the beach. Back to King Salmon, and the rest of the world that lay in waiting below.
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