Deep in the mountains of *****st Alaska, the *********** River tumbles from a windswept lake frequented by caribou, grizzly, and the occasional wolf pack. Relentlessly resculpting an ancient path carved through tundra and boreal forest, it courses 100 miles to the ******* Sea, providing habitat for mink, otter, eagles, and–in summer–untold thousands of spawning salmon and the giant rainbows that gorge on their eggs. Join our editor-in-chief for the ultimate float-and-fish adventure.
Even in my wildest daydreams, the fish weren’t this big. They measured 12 inches, maybe 14, about the length of my wading boot, but not 20, the size of the rainbow I’d hooked as we careened through the whitewater of the ************* River’s ********** Falls, or 22, the size of the Arctic char James had coaxed from a deep pool just below. And they certainly weren’t as powerful as the hefty slab of king salmon that’s just now bending my fly rod at an alarming angle toward the opposite bank.
Only three days into a 10-day float from the ************* Range to ************, a hardscrabble village chiseled into the permafrost along the ********** coast of Alaska, almost every fish outstrips a fantasy I’d nurtured for 30 years. My forearm shaking from a 20-minute fight, I’m enthralled and mildly disoriented: This place was my personal Atlantis, a mythical spot I never expected to find. Yet here it is, a sprawling wilderness brimming with bears and salmon, unspoiled by the hands of man. The fish are huge, and we’re catching so many. It makes no sense–no logical sense–that reality could so far exceed the expectations that a favorite uncle had planted in my head three decades ago while teaching me to fish. But it has, and over the next seven days it will only get better.
Salmon feed and fertilize Alaska. From Ketchikan in the southeast to Bethel in the southwest and around the coast to the North Slope, there’s no source of nutrients more important to the state’s population and ecosystems than the sockeye (aka red), Chinook (king), coho (silver), pink (humpies), and chum (dog) that return every year to spawn in its rivers.
In the ********* part of Alaska, where the ********** River empties into the Pacific, up to 70 million salmon swim as far as 100 miles inland to lay their eggs. They generally stop feeding once they hit freshwater, which explains why native Alaskans erect their camps and drying racks low on the rivers, to capture fish still thick with ocean fat. It also explains why most salmon species turn red as they spawn: Lacking sustenance, the fish are literally dying as they swim upstream, their bodies shedding pigment, muscle, and–eventually–the very skin off their backs.
On our trip, we see lividly red kings swim by within inches of our legs as we cast across thigh-deep channels, and we marvel at chum that snap at trout to protect their eggs–despite bodies so far molted that strips of flesh hang from them like the rotting undead in a Hollywood zombie flick. On other visits, I’ve watched gulls perch on the backs of (barely) living silvers and peck away, taking the first bites of a feast that will eventually feed more than 120 species.