Alaska | John Caldwell


The constant wind blew cold rain drops under my hood and directly into my face as I sat outside my tent. Next to me were three rolled rafts, a bundle of oars, coolers, dry boxes, and raft frames. It was the third day of waiting for the arrival of a plane at this remote, southwest Alaska, gravel airstrip and it still didn’t feel like any planes were coming. I filled the coffee pot with water and fired up the stove. The high-pressure system causing record heat in Anchorage was deflecting storm after storm directly upon us and word from the last satellite phone call was that our ride out of there was grounded until further notice. But at least we had hot coffee.

Twelve days prior, it was a similar stormy scene except I was standing on a lakeshore still queasy from the bumpy flight. I watched the float plane take off from the far side of the lake. The queasiness, the weather, nothing could bother me. I was too excited for what lay ahead. We had made it to the starting point of a 60-mile float through the Alaska wilderness. Surrounding us were jagged mountains wearing cloaks of fog and flanked with deep green vegetation. Ahead of us was a river full of salmon, char, trout, braided channels, rarely explored tributaries, and immense gravel bar campsites. We inflated the rafts, rigged our gear, and dug out the box wine to toast the adventure ahead.

The next morning it was overcast, and damp, but the rain had stopped. We packed up and started rowing early. There was a few miles of flat water to push through before the current could assist us. Almost immediately, we were seeing bright red sockeye. Later that day we rounded a bend and arrived at the first tributary confluence. Numerous dark shapes were suddenly noticeable below the confluence and in the tributary itself. I rowed to the bank and shipped the oars. We grabbed fly rods and waded into the run. Chum salmon were defending redds everywhere, what seemed like hundreds of dolly varden and maybe a few rainbows were gorging themselves on salmon eggs, a steady stream of sockeye was passing by, and on the far side a few Chinook rested in the deep, slower water. It was like nothing I had ever seen in the lower 48. We hooked fish after fish. Mostly dolly varden, some of which were quite large. We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave so we camped on the confluence gravel bar that night and celebrated the start of the journey with our first dinner of fresh fish.

The days that followed were full of catching fish and rowing through some of the most wild and beautiful terrain I have ever experienced. We ate salmon the day it was caught, made pancakes with blueberries fresh from the tundra, and sat around warm campfires. We were awed by the massive bear and wolf tracks that criss-crossed every sandbar. The fish watching became as good as the fish catching as we floated over all five species of pacific salmon on our route from the headwater lake to the tidewater.

A few of us were sipping coffee in full rain gear while others napped in the tents when the sound of an approaching aircraft broke the silence. There had been a tip from the village that a guest at a nearby fishing lodge had unexpectedly chartered a plane to leave the backcountry. Although hitching a ride directly to Anchorage was not our intended itinerary this plane was here and appeared to have space. After a few questions about gear and weight, they were willing to give our crew a ride ...if we hurried.

The trip was a few days longer than expected but I wouldn’t change a thing. The fishing, the rafting, the wild landscape, the runway camp; it was all part of what made the experience so unique. As we I gazed out the airplane window at the Alaska wilderness all I could think about was getting back there to do it all over again.