Fish on!

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Monday, July 5, 2004

I know I'm a little behind with the 'Pod, but I've been rather busy hanging out with friends - and their babies - drinking free beer on the east coast of the US instead of spending my evenings as a loser backpacker squirreled away in an Asian internet café trying not to notice the greasy mustachioed Germans playing video games with young boys.

OK where was I? Oh yes, Alaska. The 49th State. The Last Frontier. That Great Big State Way Up There Past Canada Much of Which Is In The Artic Circle But Became One of the Fifty States in 1959 Because It Has Lots of Oil (© Halliburton/Cheney Inc).

Alaska really is a big place, being one-fifth the size of the Lower 48 (2˝ times the size of the next biggest state, Texas) and with more land given over to National Parks than the rest of the country combined. Size not withstanding, the snow-capped volcanoes, thousands of lakes and rivers, and a rugged coastline first mapped by my boy Captain Cook in the 1770s reminded me on more than one occasion of New Zealand, albeit with gasoline-sniffing natives and bears instead of tattooed dancing Maoris and sheep.

If I didn't have friends up here I probably wouldn't even know where it would be on the map (which from a tourist perspective is just as well because I don't think they need any more old people up here in summer falling out of cruise ships and commenting on how it's so much warmer than they imagined whilst trying to pet angry moose). And I certainly wouldn't be up here fishing.

But here I was, the day after Wedding #2 in a supermarket in Anchorage buying enough food and booze for eight guys to live on for five days as we floated, camped and fished down 47 miles of the Gulkana National Wild River somewhere in the middle of the state. Two very full trolleys and one pissed off check-out dude later we were ready to pack up the truck and rafts before heading north, and a bit east.

So here's the cast of characters, some of whom many of you know: Fairbanks Sam, trip organizer and Alaskan outdoorsman extraordinaire; TaiPan Brent, enjoying time away from his factory in northern China; Athletic Director Rookie Shipley, enjoying time away from putting up volleyball nets and ensuring water bottles are full in the Freeman Center at Christopher Newport University in Virginia; Baltimore school guidance counselor Ryan, who is very white despite what some of his students think; DC sports journalist Pete, who promised me a couple of beers if I plugged his website; me, enjoying time away from having time away; and two of Sam's friends from Alaska, Sean and Brian.

The idea of the trip was to get together with old college friends following the weddings and catch boatloads of fish in one of the most abundant King salmon rivers in the world. We almost didn't get to go as that area of the state was suffering from massive forest fires caused by unusually warm temperatures, and the danger of it spreading along the river was quite real (the smoke hanging in the air was so bad that we didn't see the sun properly for three days). But we went anyway.

There are strict fishing rules up in Alaska, such as where and when you can catch certain fish, how many - if any - can be kept, and what type of bait can be used (and you have to have a fishing license, of course). The couple of days on the float on the upper river we were going after grayling and rainbow trout. With grayling you could pretty much bet on catching two out of every three casts, which is fun for about half an hour. I chilled out for a couple of hours as Sam rowed and guided the raft, admiring the unspoiled scenery and staring drop-jawed as a big-ass moose swam across the river in front of us, whilst Rookie went on to catch over 50 for the day (I know, cos he told me every sodding time he caught one). The rainbows were more of a rarity, and therefore more of a rewarding catch.

On Day Two we reached the Canyon where the river courses over Class III and IV rapids (although the low water levels made it slightly easier) where we had to empty the rafts of all the heavy supplies and portage them to our chosen campsite what seemed like miles further down the river (I had slipped over earlier and filled my waders with water, meaning I was squelching around with cold wet feet all day but hey, I knew that this trip - and Alaska in general - is not for tarts, so I sucked it up).

Another discomfort to endure were the clouds of literally trillions of mosquitoes, biting every square inch of skin not covered by clothes or bug dope (we went through two jumbo cans of Off! in five days). After carrying our supplies around the rapids with trenchfoot and getting bitten about twenty times on my face whilst setting up camp I began to wonder why the hell I was here and not still sitting on a beach in the South Pacific. But then, sitting around the campfire, Sam handed me a margarita from the hand-cranked blender and as soon as the cup touched my swollen deformed lips I realized anybody can sit on a beach.

After a hearty breakfast of sausages and pancakes we fished for a bit with a couple of rainbows being caught, before packing up camp and floating downstream towards the Kings. The water level was unusually low for the time of year, and coupled with heavily-laden rafts we had to constantly dodge rocks and get out and push when beached. (Ryan took an unexpected dip when his raft accidentally hit a rock and he was catapulted off, filling his waders. Serves him right for being asleep at the time.) We eventually made it to a large gravel bar where we set up camp and began our quest for Kings.

Salmon are remarkable fish. Born in rivers inland, they go out to the ocean for a couple of years before returning to the very same river to mate one time before dying of exhaustion. The fish we were after had overcome tremendous odds just to make it this far back upstream, so close to their final destination, only to get caught by a hapless Englishman who doesn't know his leader from his spinner.

We could see many fish hanging out and resting in a deep, dark slow moving part of the river, but none of the bastards were interested in our bait (bait which Brent and I had slaved over to make the week before). It was getting quite late, and we were hoping to land a big'un to cook up. Sam eventually got a bite and managed to land a 25 pounder, which was promptly de-gilled, filleted, and cooked on the stove with lemon, butter, onions and peppers. Very tasty it was too.

We decided to stay here the whole day and a second night as it was a pretty good spot with plenty of firewood. The only problem being the lack of nearby trees in which to hind behind when having a poo. Instead we had to go around a bend in the river a little bit and hope nobody would float past in mid-squat. Only two or three rafts a day were going past so the chances were pretty slim of upsetting someone, so imagine the horror of the woman rowing round the corner only to be greeted by Rookie and his hairy arse snapping one off. Oh the humanity.

I don't wish to belabour the point, but pooing in the wilderness is not that pleasant an experience, but it's probably better than unexpectedly seeing someone actually doing it. What makes it worse in Alaska is the aforementioned mosquitoes. They are viscious little things, and even more important than toilet paper is a can of Off! to protect the privates from attack. For most people the task should only take a couple of minutes, but for some reason Rookie liked to take his time, almost as if he enjoyed it. We timed one such arse-dangling event at an amazing 16 minutes which is quite something on a nice comfortable porcelain bowl at one's workplace, let alone on the bank of a mosquito-infested river with potential spectators.

We fished for the next couple of days, but the Kings were just not biting. Sam caught three, Pete managed two (plus he fought a biggie for twenty minutes before it got away) and the rest of us managed one each.* All in all it was a great trip, occasionally frustrating with the lack of fish, and always aromatic. Once again a big thanks to Sam for his excellent organizing and planning, and also to Sean and Brian for putting up with six soft outsiders with very limited fishing skills.

I'm now back on the east coast, visiting friends around the DC area (and going to Wedding #3) before heading south to Atlanta, Alabama, Savannah and Jacksonville (Wedding #4) for a couple of weeks. My ticket back to London is good until the end of October and seeing as I don't have a job to get back for I'm thinking of burning some of my frequent flyer miles and continuing my travels for a couple of months. Somewhere cheap. Somewhere South American.

Stay tuned.

* With the notable exception of Brent and '106 grayling' Rookie who got skunked by the salmon.
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