“There are great wild places all over the globe. Far more than the climate change panic-ers, animal rights nuts and radical political ecological activists would have you believe. Alaska is incredibly vast and wild, almost beyond comprehension. It has to be seen to be understood. Understanding the vastness and primal wildness of Alaska is life-changing, yet it is just one of many wild places in the world.
No logical person would deny that mankind has to be ever proactive to reduce pollution, conserve wilderness and wildlife, but there are many who actually believe that we have ruined all of the world’s wild places and natural splendors. Most of these people live in crowded cities, and may have never set foot in an actual wild place. Never mind that all of the people in the world could fit into a corner of an average sized county, in an average sized state in America, with lots of room to spare. These people think that human kind is a plague that has completely over run and despoiled the globe and that we should be eradicated, or at the very least, governed into submission.
Well there is no better cure for delusions of this type, in my opinion, than to prescribe an up close and personal experience in the wilds of Alaska. No one can spend time in Alaska without gaining a new perspective on the true nature of wilderness.”
These thoughts were randomly floating through my mind, mixed with other ideas pondering the stunning beauty before me, the potentially dangerous remoteness of where I was currently standing, and my own relative insignificance, as I punched long Spey casts out into the untamed river currents in which I found myself. Thoughts of a juicy steak, a cold beer, old girlfriends and the other typical imaginings of a fly-fisherman, filled in the voids.
It was the end of summer in South West Alaska and the snow line was further down the mountains each morning now. The fireweed had bloomed to the very top of their stalks. The tundra was turning red, the river valleys were turning gold and rolling out of the sleeping bag to stoke the morning fire, in the frosty air, was getting more and more challenging. It was that in-between period as summer abruptly exits and winter charges in. On the calendar it was still summer but it looked, smelled and brought the quickening pace of late fall.
The tributaries that pour into the Bearing sea were absolutely jammed with fish. The last of the Kings were still around, Cohos were everywhere. Dollys, Char and Grayling and virtually every other fish, bird or mammal were frantic in their desire to fatten up before the long dark night. Rainbow trout of gargantuan proportions were my target this day and they were no different.
A couple of buddies and I were closing out the season with a busman’s holiday of sorts. Having spent the last 11 weeks traveling around the Bristol Bay water shed guiding clients for all that the area had to offer, we had had our share of giant, brutish King salmon and long hard days of work loading float planes, rigging and maintaining gear and running jet boats. Now we were exploring and fishing for ourselves, while also traveling around closing up outpost camps that we’d maintained for the summer’s fishing clients.
I’d caught score upon score of all that can be caught in Alaska’s river systems, from pike to grayling. Giant rainbows were my main target now in the last week before I’d make a hasty retreat back to the lower 48, where I’d trade fly rods for bow hunting gear and a bit of actual autumn.
Some might think a Spey rod is overkill for rainbows but I can tell you that in Alaska, it’s not. I was in a river that was famous, (among a very small group of tight-lipped people), for having enormous resident rainbows, though “resident” is a relative term. These rainbows did travel a lot. We were 20 miles from the ocean but it was common to catch these giant “residents” with sea lice stuck to their flanks. Beautiful, football shaped, heavily spotted “Leopard Bows” in the 24-30” range were the rule. Mixed in among the locals, we found a good number of ocean run Steelhead too. The biggest, fastest, silvery-est, Steelhead I’ve ever seen. Coho were pretty common too, so the Spey rod was the perfect tool to handle bulky, enraged fish, and it was my preference for the day if for no other reason than a change of pace, and a love for a bit of tradition.
I was intermittently throwing mouse patterns, egg flies and rabbit fur “flesh” flies and all seemed to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and everything was catching fish but by mid-day I was leaning towards the mouse. Rainbows, Steelhead and Coho all went for it readily, and the Spey rod would punch out casts effortlessly, and then handle the psychotic brawl that would ensue upon setting the hook. Nothing is as fun as catching fish on the surface. The shark-like takes are something to behold. Fish would sometimes charge the fly from a distance with their bodies, dorsal fins and tails half out of the water, or launch themselves completely out of the water to land, mouth agape, on top of the fly on their descent. The takes weren’t subtle, but rather murderous instead.
This un-named river flowed through a long tundra valley, mountain ridges flanking both edges. The valley itself was about 5 miles across…or maybe 10. It’s so hard to tell and the distances always tend to be far greater than anticipated, especially if there’s a hike involved. The valley was rolling tundra engorged with berries. Blueberries, salmon berries and high bush cranberries spread out for miles in every direction. This valley, being remote and untouched by tourists and lodge traffic was perhaps the most pristine that I’d experienced. Not uncommon, there are thousands of similarly untouched valleys in Alaska, Far more than anyone could explore, in a dozen lifetimes. This one seemed to be all mine at this moment in time.
Being remote seemed to suit the wildlife in the area. It was hard to take in a vista that wasn’t crawling with animals. Moose, caribou, wolves, foxes and of course bears. Large coastal brown bears were everywhere. On the day our float plane dropped us off and after setting up our tent camp, I glassed the surrounding area for about 10 minutes, spotting 21 bears within sight of camp, which was a sobering reality that never really left our thoughts. With no trees in sight in which to stash our food and supplies, we would have to hope for the best.
Our camp was set up right where three tributaries came together to form the main river that we were concentrating on. We picked a little rise in the tundra for our camp, about a hundred yards away from the river, due to the very heavy bear traffic on the banks. We felt that a little distance from the bear’s dining room was a wise choice. The elevation gave us some small sense of security, being able to see an approaching threat. As it was, the smaller tributaries were still full of spawned out salmon and the bears were still intent on gluttony. One of the tribs circled around our promontory, about a hundred yards away on the other side of our camp from the main river, creating a bit of a peninsula. While we did have a couple of bears check out our camp, one in broad daylight, one at night, the biggest threat turned out to be a lack of sleep caused by the constant noise from all the bears splashing and crashing after salmon, at all hours of the day and night. Added to our distractions was the constant sound of tundra swans, loons, wolves and ptarmigan, the latter of which loved to hang out around camp all night, “talking” the way ptarmigan do, which if you’ve never heard it sounds like Leprechauns or elves holding court. One day, for about 16 hours straight, a herd of caribou flowed down the valley, crossing both rivers and coursing around our camp on their way to greener pastures. The noise of splashing, grunting and clicking knee joints was like freeway traffic. I took to stuffing my ears with toilet paper, pulling my stocking cap over my eyes and ears, and pulling the hood of my mummy bag tight to block out the sound for a bit of shuteye. Then they were gone, as quickly as they had come.
Written words can’t ever do justice to the spectacle that we witnessed every day. The wildlife and stunning natural beauty was breathtaking. It was untouched, un-assaulted, unspoiled and certainly unsurpassed, yet this experience in this relatively small valley was just one in a million, in Alaska, or in one of the many other great wildernesses around the world.
The Great Plains, the Rockies, Alaska, the Yukon or any of the Canadian provinces, the Great Lakes, the South West, the Smokies, the Appalachians, Maine, The Everglades and bayous, the Sonoran desert and countless other areas in North America alone are comprised of vast expanses of wilderness. There is far more wilderness than “settled” land. This is true of just about every other continent on Earth as well.
The next time you find yourself “in the wild”, stop and take solace in the fact that there is far more wilderness left in the world than you, your children, your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren can ever hope to fully explore in all of your collective lifetimes. While you’re at it, start working on a list of places that you want to see and start working on your attempt to conquer and explore our wild planet. Alaska might be a great starting place….and it might be all you’ll ever need.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.