“Is that how you do it up there?” my brother’s son asks, incredulously.
“Well, we either have to camp on the way down, or get up crazy early and get there in one day,” I explain, “but it’s almost four hours to get to Deep Creek.”
“Ok,” he concedes, “I guess camping a few nights won’t be too bad. You do have a heater, right?”
My brother has been to Alaska one time before, bringing his oldest son up for an adventure several years ago. However, that son has gone on to enlist in the Marine Corps, and after talking to his youngest on the phone, it’s clear that Marshall is of a somewhat different ilk. For a moment I consider changing the plan, skipping the camping and fishing in favor of more urban pursuits. But, seeing as he was raised in the military and lived in places like Italy and the United Arab Emirates, I don’t think I stand a chance of impressing him with downtown Anchor-Town. So, I’ll just have to show him that the vast beauty of Alaska is worth roughing it a little.
We pick them up from the airport as the last traces of golds and reds fade into the June sky. It’s clear and sixty degrees and already I’m thinking we struck it rich. I instinctively put on my tour guide hat.
“Isn’t this great,” I announce with great enthusiasm,” it stays light for almost twenty hours this time of year.”
“That’s terrible,” he replies,” How am I going to get to sleep tonight?”
I let the negativity roll off my back. “You’re gonna love it Marshall, and tomorrow we head for the Kenai.”
By the time we have the camper packed up and are on our way south, the clouds begin to move in. Still, the mountains shooting up four-thousand feet from the inlet always inspire me; so I point out the world-class ski resort just thirty minutes from our door, the amazing tidal action of the Turnagain Arm, and the petrified remains of the great quake that re-located Portage forever. All attempts to impress are met with a roll of the eyes and a look of annoyance as the cell phone coverage fades away.
After a few hours of driving, my nephew appears at least to be enjoying his cousin’s company. My hopes are further buoyed as we pull in and the distinct undercurrent of “they’re in” rolls across the campground. Frantically I crank up the pop-up, put the rods together, and rush for the river. I can’t wait as we come around the bend to the Cottonwood Hole and see bent poles, splashing fish, and just enough room to get my nephew and my son right into the heart of the action.
As they settle in, my son tries to offer some tips for how to flip a fly above a pod of holding reds and drag it back through in hopes of somehow getting the specialized, size two, hook to lodge in the corner of a sockeye’s mouth. I can’t help but puff up with pride as my son hooks, plays, and lands his limit in under an hour.
While the boys are in the honey hole, we work our way downriver to target individual fish in the shallower braids. My brother is having some luck, but I can tell my nephew is just getting more and more frustrated. I’m convinced that all he needs to do is feel the tug of an energetic red on the end of his line and his entire disposition will change drastically. He will become like us, ready to suffer any amount of pain and discomfort just to experience that feeling again.
“Marshall,” l call out, “come over here and give it a try."
He saunters over, thoroughly annoyed that his younger cousin stands on the bank with three fish, grinning like a cheshire cat. He tries flipping right where I tell him to, but to no avail. Finally, I can’t stand it anymore. I don’t have any on the bank, so I hook into one and extend my bent rod to him.
“Here, just try reeling one in, it’s awesome.”
He gives me a disgusted look and replies, “no, I didn’t catch that.” Then, moving upriver he gives a few more half-hearted attempts and gives up. He joins my son on the bank, content to watch fish being caught rather than participate.
“Well,” I think to myself, “You can lead a horse to water…“
I’m able to get my brother into a few more before it’s clearly time to get this crew back to a warm campfire and some hot food. However, just before I’m done cleaning the fish, I hear an alarm ripple downriver from angler to angler: “bear,” “bear,” “bear.” Thinking this is another great Alaskan moment; I grab our fillets and get to a good viewing spot across the river from the juvenile black bear that has wandered down the bluff. Unfortunately, some unlucky soul has ignored the rules and left a backpack on the bank. So when we do catch sight of the bear, he is ripping apart the sack and driving his powerful jaws into a large Gatorade bottle.
“Dude, isn’t that cool?” my son interjects, laughing and pointing. His cousin only stands there with a twisted look on his face. Tromping along the boardwalk back to the trailer, Marshall ducks his head and looks up at the trees encroaching just overhead. “This is how you do it up here? You guys live in Jurassic Park man, I swear.”
Spirits are high the next morning as we prepare for our big event, the halibut charter. The weather has cleared and things are looking up as we clamber into the six-pack awaiting its tractor launch into the surf.
“A tractor?” my brother throws in his two cent’s worth, a little more in wonderment than disgust, “this is how you do it in Alaska, eh?"
Before long, we’re well into our bone-jarring ride across the inlet. The volcano trifecta is ours as lliamna, Redoubt, and Spurr stand proudly along the opposite shore, the sun gleaming off their snow-white flanks. There’s just a slight breeze as we drop anchor, and the guide seems genuinely excited that we’re going to be into some nice fish. Just when I think I might have done something right in my efforts to give my nephew the quintessential Alaskan experience, l glance over to see his face turning a familiar shade of green. There is no mistaking that look of misery, neither is there any attempt to mask it.
“Ugh,” he groans against the three-dimensional motion.
“Look out at the horizon and concentrate on something that isn’t moving,” I caution. “Let's get fishing, nothing like a little action to take your mind off your stomach.”
My brother pulls the first one up, probably thirty pounds or so. It’s early, so we decide to let that one go. Next, my nephew gets a little tug on his pole, and for a moment he brightens up. He starts to reel, quickly at first but then slows as his arms tire. After what seems like a good fight, the fish finally comes into view.
“Well, the good news is you still have two more halibut to fish for.” The deckhand jokes. “The bad news; you caught a dog-fish.”
What little wind had built up in Marshall’s sails immediately disappears. Dejectedly he sits down, and I’m not sure if he plans on fishing again or not. Just then, my son’s rod tip drives straight for the water. Reflexively, I reach over and grab his waist, praying that neither he nor the rod goes for a swim. His eyes are wild with excitement as the fish head-shakes violently and swims for the bottom.
“Let it run, don’t try to force it up ‘till it’s ready,” the Captain hollers.
I watch my son; grinning from ear to ear with sweat forming on his brow. Pumping and reeling, he works that barn door every inch of the two hundred feet we’re fishing in. Then it dawns on me, I don’t have to convince anyone of the majesty of Alaska. I don’t have to prove to anyone how great it is to live here and do the things we do. My son’s smiling face is living proof of the great life the Greatland has to offer.
His reeling slows down, and he looks over at me with a concerned look. That same green tint begins to intrude on his face as well. Suddenly, his head snaps back towards the water and he leans cautiously over the side, staring intently at the waves rolling beneath the boat. Before I can ask him if he’s Ok, he takes a deep breath, and launches an explosive charge into the green abyss. Then, as if he had simply dropped his hat, he straightens up and reels with renewed vigor.
“Yeah, no shame in that, this young man really wants this fish,” the Captain chortles, “let’s get him in.”
My son reels with reckless abandon, working the flat fish through several more runs before the deck hand plunges the gaff below the waterline and drags the behemoth on board.
“That’s probably sixty-five pounds at least,” the Captain announces, “great job!”
My son stands proudly, arms shaking from the fight. He wipes his chin and laughs, “hey Dad, got a piece of gum?”
“You bet, buddy,” I reply. Glancing over at Marshall and my brother, “now that’s how we do it in Alaska.”