Kodiak Island, Alaska, is a sportsman’s dream. Years ago, when I got stranded there for five days at the mouth of the Karluk River, some people didn’t believe me. Stranded in Alaska? Right!
Traveling with Les Priest of Readfield, who organized the trip through a company he owned at that time, Alaska Outdoors Adventures, we enjoyed a five-day adventurous raft trip down the Karluk River with outfitter Fishing Alaska Style, owned by Maine native Jeff Pyska, who lived in Alaska.
Our guide for the week, Augusta, Maine, resident Bob Smith, did a superb job of putting us onto lots of king salmon and keeping the river’s huge brown bears out of our tent camps.
Alaskan summer days linger late. The sun shines bright up until 11 p.m. and it never gets totally dark. On the third day of our trip I fished for 16 hours, finally stepping out of the water at 1 a.m. so Bob, who stood guard on the riverbank to make sure bears did not bother me, could get some rest.
About 10 p.m. a large brown bear emerged from the alders directly behind me. Bob shouted, “Bear!” That got my attention right away. I quickly abandoned the river, stumbling up the shore to the protection of camp and Bob’s rifle.
That bear was driven off by Bob’s shouting but I fished closer to camp for the rest of the night, glancing nervously over my shoulder on each cast. My last salmon of the night was huge and took line 200 yards down river, but I did not follow, worried about the bear.
About midnight, in the dusky twilight, preparing to cast, I glanced directly behind me to a small inlet brook where a couple of harvested king salmon lay in the shallow water, kept for the next day’s dinner. A nose poked out of the tall grass. I whirled around, fearing a close encounter with a bear when a fox emerged. Whew! I chased him away from the salmon and kept casting.
The next morning I emerged from the tent to sit on the boxed-in-toilet that Bob had set out back in the alders. Finishing my business there, I turned around to gaze into the alders as I pulled up my pants, and there, strolling by no more than 25 yards away, was a massive brown bear. If he’d walked by in front of me while I was seated on the toilet, I wouldn’t have needed to go to the bathroom for a week!
Kodiak Island is a gorgeous combination of lush hills, high snow-capped mountains, boiling rivers and the sea. It’s about the size of Connecticut and, as Les noted, has “a weather pattern that nobody can figure out.”
At the end of our fabulous wilderness adventure we were stuck for five days at the mouth of the Karluk River, waiting for the fog to lift so a float plane could pick us up. The problem was complicated by the fact that the plane could only land on a high tide.
Bob kept our spirits up. Camp cook Jeff Madore kept us well fed. And we just kept on fishing. It helped that a run of sockeye salmon passed right in front of our campsite each day.
After two days of waiting patiently for a plane, we moved up the bay to a small native Alaskan village for hot showers and real beds. Out of the tents at last, clean and comfortable, with stunning scenery and a bay full of salmon, I might never have left if my family didn’t draw me back to Maine. I called wife Linda every night from the village, letting her know I was still stranded there. Not sure she ever believed me!
After landing over 50 king salmon, hooking and losing many more in ferocious battles, seeing brown bear every day, being accompanied everywhere by flocks of bald eagles, and enjoying a true wilderness experience, I yearn to return.
Just before we broke camp and moved into the village, Les and I were 500 yards from camp, fishing the bay, and standing in the water quite a ways off shore, when we heard, in unison, the remaining eight members of our party yell, “Bear!”
Between us and camp a huge brown bear sauntered down over the hill and stood on the shore, Les and I on one side, camp, guides — and safety — on the other.
Bob and assistant guide Pete Potter rushed down the shore with guns, hoping to chase the bear back up the hill rather than toward Les and me. I stood mesmerized in the water, prepared to chuck the rod and swim into the bay if the bear approached. Not a great strategy.
Luckily the bear retreated up the hill, leaving us with nothing but another fine memory and putting an exclamation mark on our wilderness adventure.
The day before we finally packed up, Bob, Les, and I boated back to the mouth of the river where sockeye salmon were migrating through. Standing in a slough of fast water, fishing with fly rods and large red and green salmon flies, we caught dozens of salmon. On light rods, these 10-15 pound fish were all we could handle. I’ll bet a thousand sockeyes passed me that afternoon.
As we motored back to the village, knowing that we were already four days overdue at home, I couldn’t help but secretly wish for one more day of fishing. But my good luck on the Karluk was over. The float plane picked us up the next morning.