It’s been over seven months since we came back from Alaska, and I didn’t think I’d get around to writing anything about the trip. At the time when memories were ripe for recording, I instead became preoccupied with other ways of spending the remainder of my summer break—visiting my mom in Oregon, helping plan a baby shower, and getting pregnant myself. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had not, apparently, forgotten about our trip. A few months ago it sent me a hefty envelope containing a survey on my fishing activities, along with maps of the state’s rivers and illustrations of the various fish I may have caught, so that I could provide the most precise information possible for their records. Upon seeing the greeting “Dear Angler” on the cover letter, I casually tossed the whole thing in the recycle bin. Surely, I had not earned the title during the four hours I spent joyfully harassing some salmon in the Russian River.
Cut to last week, and the same very official looking packet appeared from amid a stack of campaign mailers. “DEEARRRR…ANGLERRRR!” the letter now read. It was the same letter, but it added that my prompt response would allow the Department to cease its mailing of future surveys. Fine! I had Ben complete it since it involved filling out a rather complicated looking grid and he likes that kind of thing. Besides, he’s the only one who actually caught anything worth keeping.
Like anyone else, we were drawn to Alaska by the promise of experiencing its legendary wilderness. We wanted to see rugged mountains, rushing rivers, and moose crossing the roads (at least until I read about all the bad car accidents caused by moose crossings). Some people go to test out their survival skills and to camp where no one has camped before, but we looked forward to seeing grizzlies from the safety of a tour bus and sleeping in a hotel here and there. We planned out an itinerary that would let us see much of Denali National Park and a swath of the Kenai Peninsula. We packed two extra-large duffel bags with camping gear and clothes for all kinds of weather.
After landing in Anchorage and picking up our rental Prius at dawn, we had a few more camping items to rent, including a can of bear spray. The young lady working at the store assured us that only one of their customers ever deployed a can, but that he was part of a bachelor party and the can wasn’t directed at a bear at all. We stocked up on groceries and beer at Fred Meyers and then made our way to Denali.
After setting up camp, we took a long afternoon hike to get acquainted with Denali National Park. While we didn’t have any run-ins with big animals, we did come face to face with a porcupine and we studied each other for a minute before the porcupine lost interest. We asked another couple of hikers if we’d be able to see Denali herself from one of the nearby trails, but it turned out we’d have to get much closer for that. Overall, it felt like we were in a grander version of the Sierras.
At night, we inflated the queen-sized blow up mattress that fits just right inside our tent. Like I said, the goal wasn’t to rough it. I thought of John McPhee who wrote about Alaska in Coming into the Country. As part of his research, he stayed with a couple in their cabin in a very remote part of the state. One night, his desperation for comfort won out over his need to look like a tough guy in front of his “rugged pioneer” hosts, for whom comfort was apparently no longer a human need. “My hand goes into the pack. The pillow is small and white. The cover is handmade, with snaps at one end, so that it can contain a down jacket, which it does. I mumble an apology for this, saying that nonetheless I feel a touch ridiculous—in their company, in this country—reaching into my gear for a pillow.” (Ben fashions a camp pillow in a similar manner, by stuffing his down jacket into the drawstring cover of his sleeping pad.) The rugged pioneer responded, “Don’t apologize […] We’re not out here to rough it. We’re out here to smooth it. Things are rough enough in town.”
On an all-day bus tour of Denali, we saw grizzlies with their cubs, moose, ptarmigan, eagles, and caribou. The caribou, which would amble down the road right in front of the bus, were looking rough from an unusually warm year, with big patches of fur missing. An impactful piece of evidence of climate change. A couple of hours into the ride we started getting glimpses of Denali, which had “come out,” meaning we were lucky. She often hides behind storm clouds. Eventually, we came to a lookout point and the mountain was revealed as a magnificent centerpiece to the expansive wilderness that comprises the park.
The next day, walking along Horseshoe Lake Trail, a beaver crossed our path. He ambled along, unhurried by our presence, towing a sizable branch, and disappeared into the trees. Another cute creature to add to our mental list of wildlife sightings before it was time to leave the park.
Back in Anchorage, we stopped by a Bass Pro Shop for a couple items and I was gobsmacked by all the stuffed wildlife you can see there. I could see the fine detail on a grizzly’s paw that I just couldn’t make out from half a mile away on the tour bus.
Not that we starved while camping in Denali, but once in town, we were willing to let someone else do the work, so dinner was at Glacier Brewhouse, which I highly recommend. The herb-crusted halibut was perfection and the in-house beers are delicious.
We got up at 4 am the next morning and drove down to the Kenai Peninsula for a 6 am rendezvous with Angle 45 Adventures to go fishing. It was dark for much of the drive, but by the time we neared the Russian River it became clear how charming and beautiful the Kenai is. We parked, met up with our guide, and found out that we would be the only members of the trip that day. Private fishing lessons! In the boat, we chatted with our guide, who was younger than us but had a warm and knowledgeable ease about him. Shortly after rowing to the first spot, we were in our waders, standing in a blue-green river, learning how to cast. The early morning sun came through clouds that released an occasional sprinkle. It was pretty easy to get the gist of fly fishing, although it was a modified form of fly fishing that a novice could pick up quickly. Over the course of the morning, I caught a couple salmon, but released them both: a humpy and a too-mature silver. I also hooked a few that got away after an exciting struggle on both ends. Ben caught two silver salmon that we kept. Our guide cleaned and filled them for us right there on the river before we turned around.
After camping right on Kenai Lake where we ate our first meal of fresh-caught salmon–with toasted pine nuts and buttered green beans–we slept in and then continued down the peninsula to Seward, the point of access for Resurrection Bay and the most adorable seaside town you can imagine. We settled into a quaint hotel and went to the delightfully kitschy Thorn’s Showcase Lounge for dinner, not because we were at all hungry after another filling picnic lunch of salmon, but because I have what Ben calls food FOMO. But of course, by the time we finished off our stiff cocktails and the “bucket-o’-butt” arrived on the table, we had no trouble finishing off all the delicious morsels of fried halibut.
At 8 the next morning, we boarded a ferry to Fox Island for a kayaking tour. The island was covered in trees and mist, rising up dramatically from a rocky beach. It was cool and just barely raining. We joined a big group of kayakers, put on our gear, and leisurely paddled along the coast, getting an up-close view of puffins, starfish, urchins, and the like. Afterwards, we enjoyed a buffet of (what else?) salmon and mashed potatoes at the lodge while watching a ranger’s well-rehearsed presentation on the geology of the Kenai Peninsula.
We climbed back on the ferry to continue exploring and learning about Resurrection Bay, looking for wildlife and admiring the gorgeous scenery. Our enthusiastic, verbose, and surprisingly young captain maneuvered us responsibly close—but still closer than I imagined we could get—to a pod of orcas, which was incredible to watch. Ben had made a good call buying binoculars at Bass Pro, after all. We even caught sight of a humpback whale in the distance.
In that long and fulfilling day we got an unexpected glimpse of everything we hoped to encounter in Alaska. All we had left to do was set up one more campsite, try to eat the rest of our salmon, return our unused bear spray, and go back to roughing it in the city.