The jangling of the telephone sliced through the darkness, shaking me to my core. It was 4:30 a.m., and in the handful of instants before Ken could pick up the phone on his side of the bed, I imagined every possible disaster in the book.
“Who is it?” I mouthed, unable to stand the suspense a moment longer. “Northwest Airlines….” he lip synched to me in return. And so, our vacation began. For months, we had been planning it – our return to Alaska after a two-year hiatus. And now, the recording on the other end of the telephone was telling us our flight had been canceled because the Duluth Airport was socked in by fog. “Oh, noooooo…..” I moaned into my pillow. I quickly reemerged, however. “Let’s get in the car, drive to Minneapolis and catch it there!” I cried. We leaped out of bed and scrambled around in the darkness – resolve quickly taking over for despair. Twelve hours later, we found ourselves circling over the tree-covered hills, dramatic ocean flats and snow-capped mountains surrounding Anchorage. It was like coming home again – our fourth trip to a land we’d grown to know and love ever since our son, Jason, first moved there to attend college in Fairbanks.
We made a quick trip to the market for supplies to replenish the pantry at the fishing lodge Jason now operates on Lake Creek, and we arrived at Rust’s Flying Service on Lake Hood shortly before 5 p.m. with our four big duffel bags and five boxes of groceries. A group of tourists who had just returned from a flight seeing trip to Mount McKinley seemed impressed by our mountain of gear. “You’d think we were going out caribou hunting for weeks, wouldn’t you?” I commented with a grin to no one in particular. We went into the office and checked in for our float plane flight and then returned outside to await our departure. An older woman from the flight seeing group tentatively approached me and asked shyly, “Are you really going caribou hunting?” “No,” I laughed, “we’re actually going out to our son’s fishing lodge.” “Oh, darn!” she replied, looking disappointed. “I was so impressed to think that you were actually going caribou hunting!”
It wasn’t until the next morning, when we were finally knee-deep in the middle of Lake Creek in our hip waders that I finally began to relax and let Alaska truly began to seep under my skin and rid me of all the stress and tension of the days and weeks leading up to that moment. Before I was even ready for it, a silver salmon hit my line. “Mom, mom, let him run with it!” yelled Jason. “And don’t forget to keep your rod tip up or he’ll break it right off!” No matter how often I’ve done it before, I always seem to have that “breaking in” period where I forget everything I’ve been taught – and simply panic. And as quickly as it began, my “battle” with the fish was over as he broke loose and darted away. It wasn’t long, however, before another one hit my line. At this time of year, the salmon are preparing to spawn, so they hit the bait more out of anger and distraction than hunger, and they put up a mighty fight when they get hooked.
My line zinged almost continually as the silver salmon made run after run with it, and finally he managed to cartwheel his entire length above the surface of the water. “Man, oh, man,” I yelled. “This is living!” Remembering at last my carefully-tutored instructions of a couple of years ago, I patiently worked the fish until I got him far enough up toward shore for Jason to ease him out of the water.
The 8-pound salmon was solid muscle and in the early throes of turning the tell-tale scarlet of the spawning season. Intending to release him, I wanted first to have my picture taken with him. I handed my digital camera to Jason, and he carefully transferred the fish into my eagerly waiting grasp. “Now, Mom,” Jason cautioned, “be careful not to squeeze him too hard, but keep a firm grip so he doesn’t get away from you….”
I wrapped one hand around the base of the fish’s tail and gingerly slipped the other just under its gills, keeping him low to the water. And then, as I looked up into the camera lens and turned on a dazzling smile, the fish gave one mighty twist – and got away.
The bone-chilling cold of the morning was warring with the sleep-inducing warmth of the big quilt that engulfed us. The skies had cleared overnight, and the temperature had dipped below freezing, coating the grass and the front porch of our little cabin with a brittle coat of frost. Though it would have been easy to give in to the beckoning of our warm covers, the thought of the thermos of hot coffee that I knew would be waiting out front on the porch railing was too strong to resist.
I gingerly crawled into jeans that were as cold as the outside air, dragged a sweatshirt over my head and darted outside to grab the waiting thermos and the thick mug that accompanied it.
I knew that my son, Jason, probably had been up for hours already and I marveled at how all things come full circle…. Later, we walked up to the main lodge, where Jason was frying hash browns generously laced with onion on the grill in the kitchen. Off in another corner of the grill was a mountain of eggs scrambled with thick slices of sausage. Breakfast is definitely one of the high points of the day at Wilderness Place Lodge, and after one sniff of its delicious aromas, there was no turning back! We pretty much inhaled our breakfast, however – eager to set out on our planned trip to a salmon creek known as Eight Mile, up the mighty Yenta and Skwentna rivers. We were soon zooming up the Yenta in one of the lodge’s flat-bottomed jet boats, bundled up to the eyebrows against the icy morning air. For a time, I felt as though my eye sockets were freezing – until we rounded a bend in the river and were greeted by the full panorama of the Alaska Range in bold relief against the brightening morning sky. It took our collective breaths away, and we forgot all about being cold.
At last, we arrived at our destination – a sand bar just at the confluence of the Skwentna and Eight Mile. We beached the boat, threw the anchor ashore and disembarked with all of our gear.
As the morning sun began to warm us, it was a day unlike few others – and the silvers were biting! Silver salmon are fighting fish, and their acrobatics and reel-smoking runs make stream fishing for them as exciting as any fishing I’ve ever encountered. One minute the line is casually drifting through pockets of calm water along the shoreline, and the next, the brawny fish hit with spine-tingling aggression and proceed to give you the wildest game tug-of-war you’ve every played!
And though we did battle with so many of them our arms were aching by the end of the morning, we only kept three of them – one to eat for dinner that night and two to take back and smoke over a slow-burning alder fire in the smoker.
Before heading back to the lodge, we decided to stop and hike in from the river to the Skwentna Roadhouse for lunch in the warm, homey kitchen of the old two-story house located in a small clearing in the woods. The roadhouse, like so many others scattered across Alaska, is meant as a stopping-over place for remote travelers in the Alaskan wilderness. This particular one also once served as a wintertime boarding house for children whose families lived in areas too isolated for them to get to school every day. It also plays host to race spectators during the famous Iditarod Sled Dog race each year (the Skwentna Post Office across the river is the race’s first official stopover).
The couple who has owned and run the roadhouse for the past 40 years has been trying to retire for the past several years so they can fulfill their dream of living on a sailboat off the coast of Baja California. But alas – they have been unable to find a buyer and so they run it still.
Part of the ritual of stopping there is sitting around the big kitchen table and “shooting the breeze” with them for a while before ordering your food – no matter how empty your stomach is. When we mentioned we were from northern Minnesota, the husband, John, commented with a grin, “Wow – as if I couldn’t tell from the accent!” “Whoo-ee, Joyce,” he guffawed to his wife, “maybe we should put on the ‘Fargo’ tape while these folks are here…!!”