What my dad taught me about fishing in Alaska

What my dad taught me about fishing in Alaska

Published June 16, 2022

20 min read

Dark berry bushes shimmer. Leaves rustle—not a wind chime, the day is still, but a rain chime, the pulse of water. Far overhead, a raven looks at us, says “kwok,” as if we’ll know what he’s saying. Then, like a magician’s very best trick, the branches and late salmonberry fruit turn into a wet snout. And then into a bear attached to the snout.

No sooner do I register this than there’s nothing but us and forest again. The problem is, it’s a Southeast Alaska rainforest absolutely full of leaves, and now I know a bear could be hiding behind any of them.

About then is when I realize we—me, my dad, my old friend John Verhey—are on a trail between the bear and the river full of its salmon lunch. “Um,” John says. He’s been guiding this trail to the Anan Wildlife Observatory for more than 20 years, and I’ve been coming out here with him every chance I’ve had for at least the last 15.

Late every summer, as many as a hundred bears trek here to Anan Creek to fish, along with scavenging bald eagles, harbor seals that pop up in the lagoon like basketballs wearing goggles, and anything else with fur and feathers that can get to the water’s edge.

Because there, in the wet-dog smell of rain-coated bears and the ozone churn of a waterfall, a quarter million salmon are packed so tightly it looks like they’re swimming upstream in Blue Angels formations, caught between tooth and claw as part of the food chain, or by that weird quirk of nature that says spawn and perish. “Um,” I say back to John.

A good day for bears

Anan is one of only a couple streams in the state where you might see both black bears and grizzly bears fishing the same stretch of water at the same time, though the smaller blacks tend to hide when the grizzlies show up.

The bears line up at the waterfall and the salmon have no choice but to jump or swim. Older, more experienced bears can grab a fish with almost every dip of their face into the cold water; younger bears miss and come up empty and soaked, learning to read the currents. No question: This bear was a grizzly. In 15 years of coming here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bear without blood on its fur.

So maybe we should take our cue from the black bears and run. That grizzly could be anywhere. But against all instinct, we stand very still. Rule one in this rain forest is: Don’t run. Food runs.

“There?” A spot of brush that looks like every other spot of brush in this green world. “Yeah, there,” John says, pointing. Another bush turns into the shape of a bear, then a sketch of a bear, then a whole bear, plain as day, sitting in the middle of the trail where we’d been only a minute before.

A female who must have already lost this year’s cubs, she watches us watch her. For Southeast Alaska, she’s good-size, 500 pounds of grizzly and growing fatter with every salmon she grabs, getting her through winter hibernation and the sleeping birth of next year’s cubs.

She scratches her ear. Then, without so much as a handkerchief flourish, she’s gone, invisible again in the forest. I have a big smile on my face, my “any day you see a bear is a good day” smile. When I look at my dad, he’s got the same expression.

We lived in Alaska when I was growing up. Not once in those years did my father see me voluntarily go outdoors and be happy. Now, I’m happier here than anywhere else in the world. My dad only saw the young me, stupid and sulking behind a book when I could have been watching the landscape perform magic. A bad idea for which I have paid much penance. Because as a friend recently said, none of us ever should have left Alaska.

Grow up in this bear-scented world, grow up forgetting mountains have tops because around here they’re always covered in rainclouds, and you’re haunted forever. No matter where you go, it looks wrong, because it’s not forest running straight down into the ocean.

But I learned. Life has kept me from living here in more than short stretches, but I’ve returned dozens of times. Each time I come into this chlorophyll world and feel like I’m breathing again after holding my breath for way, way too long.

We’ve come to the Southeast because my dad has never seen that me. Call it the natural desire of looming Zero birthdays—50 for me, 80 for him—to neaten the pages of life. Call it a need to show my dad I turned out okay in the end. Or just say what it is: a chance to go outside and play with my best friend.

The problem is, some years ago, my dad swore he’d never go to Alaska again, because leaving hurt too much. Every year I ask him, every year he refuses. So it’s time to play the trump card.

“Let’s go fishing.”

My plan is this: I’ll show Dad the Alaska I learned to love despite myself. And then I’ll take him to the Alaska he loved the most, the one he tried so hard to show me and share with me, when I was too dumb to realize he was offering me the keys to paradise.                   

And when he steps back into that paradise again, he stops so fast I run into him.    

“Oh. Oh, I’d forgotten how good it smells here.” We’re home.

The magnet of the Stikine River

My Alaska, my heaven, centers on the Southeast fishing town of Wrangell, part of the Alexander Archipelago, deep in the Tongass National Forest. I first washed up here fleeing a failing marriage and desperately looking for calm and quiet—two things Wrangell has an excess of. Its false-front downtown looks like a Gold Rush photo brought to life. Its houses could be from any suburb where there might be bear tracks, where a couple thousand people make a living working their boats.

Protected by a water channel too narrow for big cruise ships, Wrangell has been left to be what it wants to be: a place where the hardware stores have better hours than the restaurants, where most dogs seem to have their very own trucks to guard on the slow main street. And where, when I lived here, I woke every morning to a raven alarm clock, smiling that this was my life.

Wrangell is the place where I once needed fish for visiting a friend. Problem is, in fishing towns, grocery stores simply do not sell fish. But “I’ll just run home and get you some,” the clerk said.

Downtown doesn’t have a single trinket shop, none of the tanzanite nightmares of the cruise ship ports. But “look,” I say to Dad. “The barber shop opens if you put your name on the sign-up sheet.”

The magnet that drew the fine people of Wrangell, who could live anywhere and have all made the conscious decision to live right here, is the Stikine River. Everything in Wrangell, even the ocean view from town, is influenced by the Stikine.

Draining more than 20,000 square miles of forest and glacier, the last great un-dammed river on the continent rises 400 miles away, deep in British Columbia (where its headwaters are now seriously threatened by mining interests). Flowing fast and wild, the Stikine carries so much silt that the current makes scraping sounds against boats’ hulls, like whispers of welcome.

“Everything wonderful is on the Stikine,” says our boat captain, Brenda Schwartz-Yaeger. She steers her jet boat through a maze of sandbars, gesturing at a line of basking harbor seals at the river’s mouth. “Had a pet one when I was a kid. Named it Shadow. Dad rescued her when she was orphaned. Only thing was, she liked to go swimming in the morning and then try and snuggle back in bed.”

(Why Indigenous tourism could mean richer wildlife tourism in Canada.)

I wonder how I would have reacted if my father had brought a wet seal to share my blankets. But I guess that‘s the difference between being fourth-generation Alaskan like Brenda, and part-time second, like me. 

Nevertheless, I know exactly how to react to the Stikine: I do the same thing I do every time, going out of the cabin and wedging myself against the rail on the back of the boat. Through the spray on my glasses, I watch how the landscape hangs the moon at horizon height, how waterfalls pour off every facet of the mountains, range behind range, splintering the land into a hall of mirrors, reflecting back a happier me.

My father looks at me. This is my kid who was afraid of boats?

“Remember the last time we were out here?” I ask Brenda. “A berg split, kicked up a wave, and the boat started bouncing like a rubber duck. One of the tourists yelled, ‘Are we safe?’ And you just looked at her and said, ‘Well, it’s not like knitting, but we’ll be okay.’”

“And we are okay, aren’t we?” I say.

“We are very okay,” Dad says.

Every fisherman’s dream

Except my father isn’t quite okay. Through dinner—our table overlooking the silt of the Stikine pushing into the sea, as adolescent ravens in huge mobs fly past looking for their tree for the night, streaking black in a pearl sky—Dad’s hands twitch. They make a small pulling, reeling motion.

We’ve been in my Alaska long enough. He’s seen bears, seen my paradise, but my dad is a fisherman, and he’s been looking at water for days and never touching a line. So although I’d happily stay in Wrangell forever—in fact, before we leave, I ask friends to keep an eye out for a house—we take a ferry south one town, climb into a float plane, and fly for an hour to the southern edge of the state, where Alaska’s Inside Passage meets the open sea, the location of every fisherman’s dream.

Waterfall Resort is like a fishing ashram, the ultimate summer camp for people who consider fishing the true religion, like my dad.

These people take fishing so seriously that we’re in a boat barely 10 minutes after our floatplane lands. They take fishing so seriously we don’t even slow for humpback whales waving their flukes to splash rainbows into the Alaskan sky.

Our boat blasts to the fishing zone, through swirling mist, fishing poles bending in the slipstream like they’ve already got a bite. No matter how I crane my neck to look back, the whales disappear in our speed, lost in the island curves of the landscape, in the madness of fishermen on the hunt.

I’ve spent most of my life not fishing, ignoring people throwing string at water everywhere from New Zealand to Iceland. I’ve never once landed a salmon in half a life spent in Alaska. I’m having a nice time out on the boat; I don’t need to ruin a fish’s day.

Now I realize, I worked so hard at not fishing that I never really thought to try sharing my father’s joy in it, all those years as he headed out with a happy whistle and a pole slung over his shoulder.

Thankfully, mistakes like that can be corrected.

The captain cuts the engine. Five minutes after Dad drops his line into the water, he’s brought it back up, first salmon of the day. Nothing fancy, just a nice seven-pound silver. Not at all like knitting, but now we are both very, very okay.

When I’m in the Lower 48, everybody asks me why all my Alaska stories are about water: the sea, the river, the streams, even the rain that adds drop after drop to the largest mid-latitude rain forest left on the planet. It’s simple. Land doesn’t count.

Look at a map of southeast Alaska: it’s a shatter of waterways. In fact, most maps don’t detail the interior of the islands here because there’s no reason to—no towns, no roads, no visitor attractions off the coast. If you venture inland, you’ll only find yourself in impenetrable forest full of bears who don’t like being surprised by hikers. True life in the Alexander Archipelago is measured by time spent in boats.

Which is what we’re back in right now, piloted by a guide from Waterfall. My father looks at me as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

“You should have listened to your father.”

“I did, eventually.”

“We never should have left.”

“I’ve been trying to get you to come back for ten years. You should have listened to your son.”

“I did, eventually.”        

The boat pulls up near a huge finger of rock jutting out from the water like a confused icicle. Dad brings up a couple of halibut then dips to king salmon depth, hoping for the big one. I count 14 whale spouts around us, some close enough for us to hear the hard whoosh of exhale.

Which is when the humpback explodes right next to the boat, 40 feet of barnacled body coming up and up into the sun, proof against gravity—until it splashes back down with the sound of the world’s biggest belly flop.

Then it repeats this again, again, again, flippers held like a ballerina en pointe. What can you do but applaud?

Far too soon, cooler filled with halibut, we head back to the lodge. Dad will spend a ridiculous amount of money Fed-Exing halibut cheeks, my sister’s absolute favorite food.

(Why you may not be getting the salmon you paid for.)

We never should have left Alaska, I think for about the millionth time, right as a man runs past us, yelling, “I just saw a 600-pound bear!”

Dad looks at me, accepting for the first time that no matter how reluctant I was when I was a kid, now this is my place and I know the secrets.

“The island here only has small blacks,” I say. “Maybe he saw three bears stapled together.”

Which of course isn’t the story that will get told at home. But it wouldn’t be a fishing story if it didn’t have a few exaggerations. Besides, there is no bigger exaggeration than a normal day in Alaska. Where bushes turn into trees and ocean into whales. The place I never should have left. The place that has never left me. This gift of the landscape and my father.

Edward Readicker-Henderson was an award-winning National Geographic Traveler contributor. In 2014, he gave a TEDx talk about the downsides of bucket lists after he learned he had a terminal illness. He passed away in 2016.

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