Leon and I met at the harbor at 2 pm. It was supposed to be a 24 to 48 hour trip, but we both were loaded with food and gear for days as you never know when running 30 miles of river and ocean in an open skiff with an outboard. Lots of things could happen. The motor could quit (we had an extra in case). You could ground the boat on a sand bar and be stuck. Fishing could be poor and you stay an extra day. You could fall in and get wet.
We left town in a driving rain and 1 to 2 ft seas. I had my back to the wind and Leon was squinting in the pelting rain to see. When we rounded Salisbury Point, the seas were a little bigger over to Point Bishop, and Leon strained to see the corks of the gillnets fishing there as we weaved around the nets until we got to the entrance of Taku Inlet, where the waves abated, but the rain did not. It did not take me long to realize the jacket I was wearing was not water proof, and my back and arms were soon wet. I’d worn chest waders, so at least my lower half was fairly dry, but I could feel the cold setting in.
I’d made this trip about 20 years ago with a friend and my older sister Jane. Somehow I forgot over the two decades what a spectacular trip it is, or maybe I’ve just grown to appreciate scenery like this more. As we got into the river proper, here come the glaciers. Their massive terminus came right down to the river. These glaciers dwarf the Mendenhall Glacier in town, and you could easily go over and walk on them if you wanted.
Leon knew from 30+ years of making this trip where to look for glacier ice, as we counted on getting it rather than bringing our own ice from town. Once we found one chunk, we saw others nearby, and in about 5 minutes we had enough in our coolers and continued up the river. On the river across from the glacier, I saw a black bear that was standing still, looking back at us from a grassy slope. We stopped for a second to look at it and it continued on its way. Mountains border the river on both sides, rising steeply up from the river side to about 5000 feet is my guess.
The river shallows up as you get up to the glaciers, and people who have cabins up the river mostly use jet boats. We had a 40 hp prop, but luckily most of the bottom is mud so if it got shallow, we slowed down and I used a pole to test to see if we were getting shallower or deeper, and we eventually found deep enough water to get to deeper water where we got on step again. About four and a half hours later, we wound our way up to our fishing spot at Canyon Island near the Canada border.
Some ADFG technicians working at a camp on the river nearby stopped by to say hello. They invited us up for coffee and I was able to hang my wet clothes by their stove to dry and change into new dry clothes I’d brought along. That changed my attitude in a hurry. We returned to our spot on the beach and were the first fishers there for the opening of the season the next day. We got the spot Leon had fished for 30 years. We got the net out, tied one end to the shore, and strung it out along the beach, getting it all untangled and ready to fish. Leon filled a 5 gallon jug nearly to the top with water and capped it. We tied this and a buoy to the other end of the net. At this spot, you can sometimes just toss the jug and buoy into the river and the buoy and water jug will drag the net out into the back eddy in the river. As it turned out, a couple old timers came in and unknowingly fished right on top of us. They didn’t realize we were there to fish, apparently, till they were already set up to fish with their shore-side anchor not far from us. They had heard we worked for Fish and Game and assumed we were there for work. So Leon ended up using the boat to take out the float at midnight so we didn’t tangle nets with our neighbor, who also set their net next to ours at midnight. The nets fished far enough from each other to both catch fish so it worked out fine.
Our neighbors pounded in 1 x 4 stakes about 2 feet apart in the beach, and I wasn’t sure what that was for until I saw them hang a cleaning tough in between. That’s a great idea, I thought. I would be cleaning my fish in an aluminum trough on short legs my friend Ken had made for me for the Dutch Master, and I had placed it on a cooler, which was lower to the ground than the stakes these guys used. All hands laid down for a snooze after we set our nets in near darkness to wait til daylight for the first check.
I’m not sure quite when, but we checked the net after dawn. Leon was sleeping in a sleeping bag rolled up in a tarp, and the river was licking his feet as it had come up steadily from all the rain. It took all we had from both of us to pull the net into the beach. We got over 20 fish the first check. Mostly sockeye and a few coho. Our net mesh was larger by 1/4 inch than our neighbors, so they got some pinks and smaller sockeye while we got all big sockeye and the coho. We put the net back out, and continued fishing till about noon, checking the net every hour or two. I cleaned fish in between and we put them on the glacier ice we collected from the river on the way there. A 20 something came up to our neighbors camp about noon to fish the net, and she was very appreciative to have me show her how to troll-clean a fish after I watched her struggle cleaning fish from their net.
At noon we decided to move our net to the other side of the river after fishing slowed down and we were tangling buoy lines with our neighbors. That was a good move, as we got quite a few more fish over there. We’d run over in the boat to check the net from the boat, then bring back the fish to clean at camp. When we got all the fish we wanted for ourselves and a couple of seniors we were proxy fishing for, we cleaned the last of the fish, I made a pot of coffee for the thermos, packed up the boat, and headed for town. After raining cats and dogs for 24 hours, the clouds thinned out, and patches of blue sky peeked through as we headed for home.
The trip home was fantastic. I learned from the trip in to put my rain gear over the non-water proof coat I’d worn on the way in, and I stayed dry and warm. Plus, it wasn’t raining for the first 3 hours or so. The 3 coolers of fish weighed down the bow a bit, but with me moving back to sit next to Leon in the stern, we stopped the bow from spraying us and we were able to get on step and move right along. The glaciers were again impressive on the way home. The trip home was downstream of course, and took about an hour less then the trip upriver. We got into the wrong channel once, and had to get out and pull the boat back up into the deeper water and find the deeper water. I took on a little water through a rip in the waders by my right knee, but it wasn’t too bad. It didn’t rain until we got to the channel and could see town.
Leon called his proxy when he got a cell signal as we entered the channel so he would come and get his fish when we got to Douglas harbor. We got to town about 615 pm and I carted up my gear and fish up the ramp to the car. I delivered fish to several friends in town. To Samuel’s adoptive grandmother who is making sure he has a dream childhood; to our friend who gave us a pile of youth soccer jerseys they no longer use for me to send to my village in Sierra Leone; and to our friend the local pediatrician who takes care of the kids in town. And then several to my proxy who does welding whenever I need it, as well as advising on building projects and deer hunting with me when he can. His wife is a graphic designer who helped me with my company logo and Sara with her campaign logo.
For our house, I cut up about 5 salmon into steaks, dredged them in a 50:50 salt:sugar mix, let them brine for about 40 minutes, then loaded the smoker that my nephew John helped me build out of an old refrigerator. I then started the fan to dry the fish. When the fish dried with a nice pellicle, I turned on the electric double hot plate in the smoker and lightly smoked the fish with chunks of alder wood until the fish was fairly firm, then canned the fish.
After seeing the glaciers, I made a mental note to take visitors there when they came to town. A pretty simple trip in most weather. There’s also a forest service cabin directly across from one of the glaciers that I want to “camp” in sometime to just sit on the cabin front porch and watch the glacier for a weekend. Another trip of a lifetime.