Sunrise, Point Hope, Alaska

A mid-morning sunrise backlights the village of Point Hope, Alaska.

Two days after this serene morning dawned on Point Hope, the weather turned more extreme. As I write this, our home is shaking as winds out of the South East gust to 60 miles an hour – the “violent storm” category on the Beaufort scale, just below hurricane force winds.

But our home is snug. Steel cut oats for breakfast, perhaps moose stroganoff for dinner. A good day to get some reading and writing accomplished.

October 21st, 2012: Sunrise: 10:35 AM          Sunset 7:08 PM

We’re losing about nine minutes of daylight each day.

Alaska’s Permanent Fund and Trout Unlimited

Daughter Maia works a pool in the canyon country of Oregon’s Deschutes River.

This past summer, we fell in love with the film Away We Go in which Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) find themselves in the enviable, daunting and sometimes scary position of realizing that, although they are not wealthy, they can live virtually anywhere they choose to. Their story unfolds as a touching, insightful comedy as they criss-cross North America searching for just the right place.

Verona: I can do my job from anywhere. And all you need’s a phone, right?

Burt: Well, we don’t want to go back to Chicago, do we?

Verona: No, we did Chicago.

Burt: I used to picture myself in Alaska. God, I love that landscape.

Verona: Alaska?

Burt: Yeah.

Verona: You’ve never mentioned Alaska.

Burt: Wow, they pay people to live in Alaska.

Burt’s line about people being paid to live in this great state gets laughs from audiences, although for different reasons depending on who the audience is. While it’s not true that people are paid to live here, there is something called the Permanent Fund. Without getting into the complexities, Alaska’s Permanent Fund is a constitutional provision established in 1976 that, essentially, taps oil revenues allowing the state government to pay an annual check to every Alaskan resident once they’ve lived here one fiscal year. The amount of the check varies from year to year. The current five-year average is $1,341. This year’s payout was lower, but still appreciable at $878.

That’s where Trout Unlimited comes in.

Barbra and I feel a deep commitment to helping to conserve, protect and restore America’s cold water resources. This commitment flows naturally from our love of salmon and trout and the beautiful and often pristine environs they inhabit and depend upon. Protecting our cold water resources, though, is about more than protecting fish. Trout Unlimited has worked in concert with others to bring down dams that are no longer useful – thus restoring countless miles of free flowing rivers and streams. They work with vineyard owners and other farmers to help ensure water-wise land use. And all across the landscape, TU has, for decades, been instrumental in ensuring that mining, timbering and other resource extraction be carried out with sensible respect for its impact on rivers, streams and estuaries when sensible respect is possible, and that extractive industries be turned away when they can’t conduct their business without destroying watersheds.

At present, TU is in the midst of several critical battles. One of them involves a multi-national mining proposal that threatens the world’s greatest salmon estuary, Bristol Bay. The proposed Pebble Mine could wipe out runs that number into the millions of salmon, as well as fishing jobs and subsistence fishing that generations upon generations of Alaskans (and salmon consumers throughout the world) have depended on. TU is also on the vanguard in fighting against irresponsible extraction of natural gas locked underground in Marcellus Shale. The extraction requires fracking, and it is posing a major risk to the streams and rivers I cut my teeth on as a young angler in Western Pennsylvania.

Again, this isn’t just about trout and salmon. We humans, too, drink the water, grow our farms and forests with it, admire its beauty, and are responsible for passing down a legacy of clean water to future generations.

And so, presented with money that is essentially a gift from our adopted state, the choice on how to spend it was easy. This year, Barbra and I will become lifetime members of Trout Unlimited.

After vetting dozens of organizations, we came to feel that in TU, our contributions will support the causes closest to our hearts. Not just for us, but for generations to come.

To read more about TU’s efforts, click on the following links:

Trout Unlimited’s Home Page

Marcellus Shale Project

Bristol Bay

Maia on a seldom-fished hike-in lake raptly watching her fly line for a twitch. 

Eagle in Fog, Fishing

The fog was so dense we were apprehensive about even being out on the water. Besides, the fishing was slow. We’d just come through a large group of Orcas, (see Orcas Near Resurrection Bay )and, surmising that they were feeding on salmon, we figured the fish had to be there. But after an hour or so of drifting and not catching…

We decided to take a break from mooching for salmon and drop jigs to the bottom for rockfish. Barbra didn’t waste any time putting a fat five-pound black rockfish in the cooler, but that turned out to be the extent of our success. A brilliantly marked orange and black tiger rockfish hit my metal jig. The fish was small and we had been fishing shallow enough that I thought it would survive a release, so I let it go.

The tiger darted for the bottom, but a few moments later appeared on the surface several feet from our boat. That’s when an eagle that had been watching us lifted from its rocky perch and swooped in. You can tell from the photo above that he’s done this before; notice the tell-tale bones of another rockfish.

Orcas Near Resurrection Bay

It has been an excellent summer for wildlife viewing in Resurrection Bay and surrounding waters. Twice, recently, we have found our C-Dory in the midst of feeding and playing Orcas.

The fishing has been slow out of our homeport of Seward, Alaska lately. For days now, thick fog has blanketed the outer islands and waters beyond, and while boats making long runs are still coming back with fish, even some of the charter captains have been struggling. Nearer to Resurrection Bay, water that recently was teaming with salmon, rockfish and halibut seems to have become deserted, with only a few, scattered fish willing to bite.

It’s still great to be out. An occasional silver salmon breaks the monotony of otherwise fishless hours as we scan the water for whales, Orcas, dolphins and other wildlife. The other day, between patches of dense fog we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by about two dozen Orcas! Maybe they had found the salmon that were eluding us.

We slowed down and idled among these killer whales for awhile, and then motored off in search of fish.

Bison and Bears (and a C-Dory) on the Al-Can Highway

Ferdinand the Wood Bison kickin’ it in a dust wallow in Northern British Columbia. In addition to breathtaking views of the Canadian Rockies, vast forests, free-flowing rivers and an amazing array of wildflowers, a summer drive through western British Columbia and Yukon Territory on the way to Alaska provides one of the premier animal viewing opportunities in North America. (This is the first of several posts planned about the drive to Alaska and sights both along the way and in Alaska.)

In the fall of 2008 when Barbra and I purchased our C-Dory 22 Angler fishing boat, Gillie, we had no idea that 21 months later we’d be towing it 3,200 miles from Sacramento, California to Valdez, Alaska on a 43-day camping, exploring and fishing odyssey. With the exception of one night in an Anchorage hotel, we camped on Gillie – both at sea and on land – the entire trip. As Barbra and I fell into the daily rhythms of preparing meals and crawling into bed each night, our boat actually seemed to grow larger.

The trip north proved to be an ongoing revelation – one filled with far more grandeur than we’d anticipated.

I’d seen plains bison on trips to Yellowstone National Park, but we had no idea there was another subspecies of American bison, wood bison, roaming free in northern Canada and eastern Alaska. We encountered herds engaged in typical bison behavior including grunting males butting heads, females nursing spindly-legged young, and

individuals dust wallowing.

Our Tacoma had a feature we loved: a sun roof. By shooting photos from the open roof, we could safely get close to roadside animals, neither spooking them nor putting ourselves in danger. It was like having a photography blind.

At the beginning of the journey, we kept a list of the animals we encountered, dutifully tallying deer, elk, bison, stone sheep, moose, caribou, coyotes, hawk owls, and eagles. Eventually the numbers overwhelmed us. But there is one figure we still recall: thirty-two black bears. We also saw grizzlies, near Hyder, not to mention the sea mammals we encountered once we launched our boat in Alaska. And, of course, there were beavers and innumerable smaller animals and birds. But the group of animals we still most frequently talk about were the ones we didn’t see.

One evening, at the kind of typical roadside rest stop that served as our (free) campground most nights, we were walking after dinner and taking in an endless vista of taiga coniferous forest interspersed with aspen fringed lakes and swatches of magenta fireweed. It was around eleven o’clock at night, still light. With not a vehicle or building in sight, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves.

And then we heard it. From a distant hill, a lone, high-pitched howl. Soon it was joined by other howls. Wolves! We listened in awe, our hearts singing.

Cow moose and their calves, such as this one, often hang out close to the highway in bear and wolf country. This helps them avoid predators, but vehicle fatalities run high.

Travelers are bound to see bears – boars, sows and cubs – as they travel along the Al-Can.

Stone Sheep ewes take in salt or other minerals near Muncho Lake, British Columbia. Notice the lamb with the third ewe. Meanwhile, other lambs watch their mothers from the safety of a nearby slope.

For us, the drive to Alaska was the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. I used to pore over my grandfather’s back issues of Field and Stream and Outdoor Life, devouring anything and everything written about the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness. For both of us, the experiences we had on this trip exceeded our imaginations.

Less than a year later, we would be saying goodbye to friends in Sacramento and leaving behind our beloved E Street craftsman bungalow, a yard full of orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime, apple, cherry, peach and pear trees, and our long runs along the beautiful American River. We’d be trading our patch of raspberries for wild cloudberries, our fresh tomatoes for canned.

When we first got our C-Dory, we envisioned weekends to Bodega Bay and other ports along the California and Oregon Coast. We never imagined it would take us all the way to Alaska and a new life.

The C-Dory has a cuddy cabin that comfortably sleeps two, a small dinette in the cabin, and an amazing amount of storage. A dependable Coleman stove served as our gas range.

There is a Lake…

At a remote lake we discovered by chance, the trout are not as long as your leg. Lots and lots (and lots) of 14 to 18 inchers though.

Weighing in at about 15 pounds (including flippers), Super Cat pontoons inflate quickly, can be worn like backpacks, and fish comfortably.

The walk in to remote waters is part of the adventure. On this particular hike, there were wildflowers, game tracks, berries, and a well-camouflaged covey of grouse perched in spruce trees.

Each summer, Maia, Barbra and I make it a point to meet up somewhere to fish, cook together, catch up with each other’s lives, and enjoy good wine and beer and stories. The fishing is secondary, but catching is definitely more fun than not catching. This is the kind of lake where you lose count of the fish turned, hooked or landed and settle into a gentle rhythm of casting, kicking and intense line watching, vigilant for the slightest twitch.

It is a beautiful and rare thing these days to fish a lake – no matter how remote – free from even a solitary scrap of litter. Such was the case on this lake. There was a hiking trail, and part of it traversed a log and board walk over a marshy area, but it was clear that those who know about this lake care about it. Save for a few mountain goats high up on a slope overlooking the lake, a pair of ospreys occasionally circling overhead and a small family of loons, we had the pristine water to ourselves.

On many remote (and not so remote) lakes, a size 8 or 10 bead head nymph dressed in olive, brown or black and jazzed up with something that sparkles is a killing pattern, and such was the case on this day. Lush beds of weeks were visible in the clear water. That’s where the insects were, and of course, the trout.

With a healthy population of trout and several size classes represented, we kept four smaller fish for dinner back at our campsite on a different lake. Evidence of a diet rich with scuds (freshwater shrimp), their flesh was as red as sockeye salmon flesh.

It’s difficult to improve on salt, ground pepper, and glowing charcoal when cooking just-caught fish. Accompanied with freshly picked sweet corn, roasted potatoes and a bottle of Chardonnay enjoyed around a campfire as the evening sky grew dark, our conversation was punctuated by an occasional pop from the fire and loons calling back and forth across the lake.