Just when it can’t get any better, it does. In the wildest version of my dream, I would catch 20 rainbows while casting long, graceful parabolas–like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. In the real-life version, circa 2009, I’m neither elegant nor ruggedly handsome, but in one day I land more than a hundred fish, most big enough to feed two hungry adults. The light, the water, the 10-to-2 flick of the wrist–it all comes together in a died-and-gone-to-heaven kind of way. After thousands of casts, I can spot each silver belly from 25 feet away, and I can drop a bead where the current will deliver it within inches of an unsuspecting mouth. After a week on the river, I’m in the zone.
Working various braids, I nab a few salmon, and lots of energetic trout, but the Dolly Vardens are the prettiest fish I’ve ever seen. One looks like an outtake from Monet’s Haystacks: A russet stripe from gill to tail, blending to ribbons of red and sunset orange dotted with pink freckles just above the milky-white belly. During the entire day, my reverie is interrupted only once–not by food, or fatigue, but by Frank, shouting above the wind to point out a mother grizzly and two very blond cubs sprinting across the river 60 yards upstream, spray flying from their haunches.
My daydream–the one where trout and salmon fight over my lure along a remote Alaska river–was born in childhood, at the knee of an uncle who taught me to bait a hook, troll for pike, and clean a perch. A giant Swede with bad hearing and a booming laugh, Uncle Carl told stories worthy of Twain, including whoppers about the fish he’d caught while working construction up north during the Great Depression. My imagination took flight on his tales, and gained steam as I pursued my own wilderness adventures–with and without a fly rod. Only recently have I come to appreciate the gift he’d given me.
Out of deference to the Conservation Fund–and the ********** River itself–that sense of wonder is all I’m passing on. This spot deserves its anonymity, and that’s why I’ve blacked out every clue to its location. “There ought to be a few places on this planet,” Glenn insists, “that never get discovered, that remain as untouched as they’ve ever been. Places that are still intact, that have the same wildlife in the same balance they started with–places like the ********** should see humans rarely, and then only briefly.”
Fortunately, this is Alaska, so there are a dozen undiscovered paradises to exceed every dream. “You could live in Anchorage, paddle a different river every month, and never repeat yourself,” Frank tells me as we sip Guinness in the sun one afternoon. “And I promise that somewhere along the way, on some isolated stretch of water, you’ll find a spot that belongs to you and no one else.”