Fishing in the Alaskan Wilderness

November 23, 2009 by  
Filed under Trail Boss Articles

by Scott E. Becker

On August 8, 1728, twelve hardy men left the relative safety of the Russian ship Sviatoi Gavriil (St. Gabriel) for theThe Cub dark shores off the starboard bow. Shrouded in oil skins and huddled over well worn oars they fought high winds and the pull of strong tides as they made their way to the dark and strange shore.  The skies were low and the seas high that day as they silently made their way to shore to hunt for supplies and bury a comrade on the island now known as St. Lawrence Island, located north latitude 64*30’.  An unnamed cook had died on board ship; his soon to be grave near a Chuikchi village would be adorned with what was likely the first Christian cross on Alaskan shores.  They may have been the first Europeans to visit magical Alaska; they sure would not be the last.

In a short forty years the Russians took from the shores and hinterlands, 319,000 beaver pelts, 51,000 sea otter skins, 291,000 fox pelts, 831,000 fur seal hides.  Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867 for $7,000,000.00.  Since then who knows how much fur, tons of gold, wood and lately, oil have been harvested from these remarkable shores. And after the fortune hunters the settlers, traders, hunters and fishermen arrived.  280 years and 10 days later I followed Capitan – Commander Vitus Bering to the shores of Alaska.  Like that day in 1728, when they buried that cook; the skies were low and the seas high.  That long final into Unalakleet in the Saab 340, twin jet had me a mite worried!  Turbulence spilled my Canadian Club over my clean safari jacket!

We had descended through the clouds over the Sound. It was a lovely site, even with the turbulence.  Flying south we hugged the coast and the dark gray water topped with white caps lapped the black volcanic shore.  The Unalakleet airport was built on that shore and is surrounded by a thriving town.  It has a population of about 750, but the town could really get howling. It has three stores, a gas station, a restaurant and a cannery.  I understand it wasn’t a week before we arrived that the 4-way stop sign in town had a traffic jam of eight ATV’s!

Six of us were headed for camp up the North River near the conflux of the North and Unalakleet rivers.  We were in Alaska to fish for Silvers; medium-size, silver colored salmon; hence the name – Silvers.  I was invited on this trip by my friend, pilot, and mechanic, Bruce. Bruce has been fishing the area for years with a group of friends.

Being the Mr. “I Can Fix Anything,” guy, he fit in fine with the group of doctors, lawyers, business executives and people like myself who spent the first day of Platoon Leadership Class in the Marine Corps, looking for a left-handled, monkey wrench.

Except for Bruce, the boys with whom I was to be spending the next week with were strangers to me; Bruce was just strange.  I was to learn that I was the only normal one in our group.  The trip to Alaska is not an easy trip.  Bob, an Anesthesiologist from California was the actual organizer.   A true fisherman that Bob.  Bob and his friends, Mike and Jim came from California.  Bruce, and Bruce’s cousin, Earl and I arrived from Pennsylvania and we all met in Anchorage.  It was an all day affair getting there. I couldn’t help thinking again of that first voyage; it took Capitan Bering months.  I lost a small bag; Capitan Bering lost five children on his first trip and he himself perished on the Second Expedition in 1741.

White AliceThis is coastal Alaska, the terrain flat; tundra giving way to low hung brown mountains in the distance.  Unalakleet is known as the “place where the east wind blows,” which means literally, “the southernmost point.” The community lies between two peoples: Inupiaq Eskimos from the North and the Yupik Eskimos to the South. What is now the town once served as a major trade center between native Alaskans, the Athabaskans and the Inupiaq.  A trading post was opened here by the Russian-American Company.

We collected our bags and met Padre Chip.  He was our contact.  Tall with a full head of white hair, with his checkered lumberman shirt and hat, Chip looked more like a prospector than a preacher; but he was a real gentleman.  He took us up river to the camp where we were to reside for the week. We were escorted in two riverboats outfitted with jet props.  Bob had arranged for us to stay at the Bible Camp in which Chip was the pastor. It was about 30 minutes by boat, inland from Unalakleet, off Norton Sound, 50 or so miles south of Nome, Alaska.  The camp was built as a retreat for native children.  It was not as Bruce, Earl and I had expected.

We had expected to find a remote camp, where we could lay back with a bunch of like-minded guys in long johns, take a bath only when necessary, tell lies and jokes, smoke a few cigars, drink now and again and oh… fish a bit.  The details of the accommodations were not explained to us in Bob’s pre-trip email.  Bruce was always the chief cook and bottle washer in these groups and enjoyed his place in the scheme of things.  I was looking forward to eating fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Bruce was looking forward to cooking. Instead the camp was inhabited by 30-40 volunteers, building a chapel for the native children.  We were in the middle of a construction site!

As the kitchen was used all day for feeding the volunteers, we found out much to our surprise we were obliged to interact and eat with the volunteers.    The 30 or so volunteers couldn’t have been nicer.  They made us feel welcome.  The volunteers came from all over the country giving up their vacations and retirement time to build this chapel.  The rules were that there was no smoking, drinking or swearing in camp – three of my favorite pastimes.  I did try to watch my tongue around the group out of respect, but I have to admit I fell out on the other two.  I liked to have small toddy and a cigar after fishing and before dinner.  I had a tendency to show up for dinner sporting both.  Bruce mentioned about half way through our week that my chances in the hereafter were diminishing every time I made a trip to dinner.

On the first morning, the cold damp weather left us and the sunlight filtered through the Cottonwood and Black Spruce and dappled the forest with soft light and shadows, as the river beckoned.   Successful Salmon fishing is a hit or miss prospect.  Once salmon begin their run up river they do not feed.  If they take the bait, they do so out of annoyance that a strange critter had the audacity to swim across their swimming hole, making fishing for them very unpredictable. Silver Salmon are the most acrobatic of all the salmon.  They are not as big as the Kings that run in June, but are more fun to get on a line.  They have silver sides, white bellies and dark blue-green metallic greenish colors that tend to turn red after they enter the fresh water streams. When in prominent spawning colors, males develop a hooked nose called a kype.  Salmon average 8 to 12 pounds and can get up to 30 inch.  They range from the Chucki Sea and lower Yukon River near Canadian border.  Native life revolved around the annual salmon runs. The native elders tell of stories handed down through generations regarding the salmon runs.  They would name the months based on the runs.  The coast ‘Salish’ people called September, “chen’thaw’en,” or “time of the Coho.  We used Pixies, Coho flies, streamers, or big spinners and were fairly successful on Dolly Varden as well as salmon.

Dolly Varden trout is a subspecies in the salmon family although technically they are a char.  Dolly are known as “Belyi golets” in Russian and in my opinion they are tastier than Silvers. The southern Dolly Varden ranges from lower Southeast Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Chain, and the northern Dolly is distributed on the north slope drainages of the Aleutian Range northward along Alaska’s coast to the Canada border.  Most of the southern form Dolly Varden reach maturity at age 5 or 6.  At this age they may be 12-16 inches long and may weigh from 1/2 to 1 pound.

Silvers and Dolly Varden were everywhere, in the North and the Unalakleet Rivers.  Earl, Bruce and I took one boat; Dr. Bob, Mike and Jim fished in the second.  We fished that way for the remainder of the week and it worked out fine.  Bruce, Earl and I are not avid fishermen.  We enjoy fishing but I would rather bow hunt or take photographs. Bruce was brooding because of the camp and food situation and Earl; well he enjoyed the force marches.  Actually we just enjoyed the country, the company and being away in a beautiful location for a short time.  We fished and had a great time, but once we caught enough fish we were ready to move on.  Bob and his Band of Merry Band of Fishermen took it very personal when we caught more fish, which happened more often than not.

The North River is not the river of choice for Salmon. It is narrower than the Unalakleet and very shallow.  To scott_1090navigate the North we either had to speed up in our jet boats and run over the gravel bars or take it real slow!  The fishing on the North was not that bad.  The river was crystal clear and most of the time we just floated it down and fished the holes that were just filled with salmon and Dolly Varden

Salmon begin the dying process as soon as they leave salt water for the “last swim.” Many of the fish were turning when we caught them.  The meat was still good but not as good as fish still in the Sound. The local’s fish Norton Sound in boats filled with ice.  The caught fish are thrown alive on ice.  The boat returns and the cannery cleans, vacuum packs and freezes the fish and ships them off to the lower 48 – that day.  When we as consumers purchase Pacific Salmon at $10-15 a pound, the fish is virtually fresh caught. Instead of dragging the fish I caught home,  I had a plan.  I was going to have friends over to share a salmon dinner.  I would buy fresh caught Alaskan salmon at Wegman’s Market and proudly described to all that would listen as to how I personally caught this fish with a fly rod with flies that I tied myself!  If there was interest, I could describe the fight to the finish in lurid detail!

We fished fairly steady for the first three days. By the fourth day, Bruce and I figured that some exploration was in order.  Loading my backpack with about 50 lbs of camera gear, and with my trusty .44 Magnum at my side we headed out for a jaunt on the tundra.  The word tundra comes from the Finish word “tunturia,” which means barren land.  It is anything but barren, but it might appear so for the casual observer.

The temperature can drop to -94* below zero Fahrenheit in the winter with winds between 30 to 60 mph, steady.  The ground remains frozen 10 inches to 3 feet below the surface, which is referred to as permafrost.  There is very little precipitation.  When the top layer thaws in the summer the surface is very soggy and sponge-like.  Lakes and bogs form because there is nowhere for the water to run.  The areas on either side of rivers are home to various conifers, cottonwoods and willows but elsewhere there is little vegetation.  The growing season is barely 50 – 60 days and grows mostly shrubs, mosses, lichens, and grasses.  Scientists ponder that there are 600,000 black fly larvae in about three square feet of streambed and more than 12 million adult mosquitoes hover above one acre of northern tundra.  It makes one wonder who they hired to do the count

Actually, there is no exploring much of the tundra in the summer.  Until the ground freezes the tundra is virtually impossible to cross.  Fortunately there are great roads in the area that allowed us an opportunity to explore a bit.  The woods were very still after we left the pounding hammers and grinding noise of saws of the camp.

Somewhere a crow cawed into the stillness, but there was no other sound except the faint murmur of wind in the leaves.  Mud made travel difficult until we reached the road a half mile upstream.  From the road we traveled a steady course uphill.  A hundred yards perpendicular from the river we emerged from the woods into the tundra.

The sky, dark and foreboding caused a feeling that our good luck for weather was about to end.  For more than seven miles we trekked through tundra and up a gradual hill.

The hill we were ascending was one of the numerous sites of the White Alice Communications Systems (WACS.)  It was a United States Air Force telecommunication link system constructed in Alaska during the Cold War.  It featured lower atmosphere or tropospheric scatter links as well as line-of-site microwave radio links.  Deserted since 1995, this site was known as the North River location, and is the highest point in the area.

We found ourselves in a place of relative silence. Yet it has its own small sounds, sounds a hunter knows; a wind stirring among the branches, creak of boughs, drop of an acorn or a pine cone, movement of a small squirrel.  The view was spectacular!  On one side of the hill lay the Unalakleet River, large, pondering, dark brown, winding through the tundra like a large snake after prey.  The other side of the hill laid the North River; banked by poplars and tamarack, narrow and swift, like it was in a hurry to beat its sister river to the sea.  Both disappeared behind tawny colored hills, emptying into the slate gray, Norton Sound, miles to the west.  All around us was a vastness, without people, without cities, towns or villages; endless tundra and long grassy valleys.  An eagle circled above, slow, almost lazily, with the infinite patience of a confident and successful hunter. Sitting there above the lands under a cold gray sky with a hint of rain, sort of made me feel small and insignificant.  Neither of us had much to say, we sat with our thoughts to ourselves.  This is what it was about; sharing this moment with the visitor that preceded us by a thousand years and the visitor to come a thousand years from now and all those between.

It was a moment neither one of us wanted to leave.  We had come 7 or 8 miles and we gauged that we would be making the return trip in the rain.  Looking at my watch I realized that in order to make the cattle call at 6:00 PM we needed to leave.

The last two days consisted largely of floating down the North River, dropping our line when it suited us, not really caring if we got a bite.  I thought about taking my boots off and using my toes to hold the pole like Huck Finn, but discarded that notion as the temperature did not usually get above 50* and the glazier fed river was positively chilly!  Surprisingly we did not see a lot of wildlife.  The cut gravel banks of both rivers were inundated with carrion of all types.    The end of the trail for salmon was evident everywhere, when you couldn’t see the bank you could smell it.  We were warned to pay attention to grizzlies.  We didn’t see any bears, just tracks now and again.  I took that warning to heart!  Bruce thought it comical to see me trucking out in the middle of the night, in my long johns and hat, a roll of toilet paper in one hand and my Smith and Wesson .44 magnum in the other hand.  If I had another hand I would have had my Randall Made #2 knife.  I have had encounters with the big bear before and had no intention of departing this life with a handful of toilet paper and my drawers around my ankles!

The trip back to civilization is always sad.  We took our time tenderly feeling our way down stream.  Even though we got a little rain, the water level had dropped.  Always a shallow river, soon it would be impassable to all but a canoe or kayak.  I didn’t mind taking our time.  I always kept my eyes on the shore.  The soil erosion is evident wherever the river cut the banks.  Natives say they find prehistoric fossils and occasional elephant tusks sticking out of the banks.  This is especially true on the Yukon River, north of our location.  We were almost down the North River when Bob and his band of merry men came roaring around the corner, Mike handling the helm like Ahab, chasing the whale in a jet boat.  We had warned them.  Sure enough, we came around the corner and they were hung up on a gravel bar, luggage in the water and Ahab, up to his butt in the water, chasing his clothes as they were swimming downstream.  Bruce thought we should be sympathetic; I thought it was funny, and Earl sided with me.

Capitan – Commander Vitus Bering returned to the shores of Alaska in what is referred to as Second Exhibition in 1741.  Bering’s ship, St. Peter, was battered and finally dashed to pieces by terrible November storm on an island that was eventually named for him.  Stranded and out of supplies, Vitus Bering, died on December 8, 1741.  The crew wintered on the island.

Twenty-eight crew members perished before the remaining survivors built a 40 foot boat from the wreckage of the St. Peter.  The survivors returned home with some of the finest fur in the world and the fascination with Alaska began.  We left as we had arrived.  We paid for our ticket, boarded the Saab jet liner and happily accepted a small libation – for $5.00 of course and settled back for a long trip home.  Staring at the snow capped mountains, forests and rivers at 23,000 feet I wondered how we would survived had we come to these shores as Capitan – Commander Bering had those many years ago.

Unalkleet River



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