Kayaking in Alaska

Always up for an adventure, my friend Tara suggested a float down the Chena River. “If you can kayak in Alaska, you’ll be more than ready for any kayaking trip.” 

I looked at her skeptically. Coming from a person who was keen to paddle between ice floes right up to glaciers in Alaska, I had my doubts. I had never even stepped foot into one of the shallow vessels. They looked like they could tip over any moment. Of course, she was suggesting an introductory paddle on the calm, inland waters of the Chena River, not the open sea at Prince William Sound. Plus, she was a trusted friend, one who would not urge me into harm’s way.

Still, I hesitated as she pulled the kayaks onto the muddy banks of the river. I eyed the preparations she was making, tossing me a life jacket, assembling paddles, securing her phone and car keys into a drybag.

“There’s a current,” I mumbled, looking out over the river at the slow drift of the water.

“What current?” she answered with a laugh. “Water does move, you know.”

Next to us, a group of more experienced paddlers were pulling their kayaks to the river’s edge. I hoped that they would deftly climb in and paddle away before they had to witness me loading myself inelegantly into my wobbling kayak. No such luck. Even their dog, wearing a lifejacket, seemed to grin at me as he jumped onto the front of one of the kayaks.

“First time,” I told them, humiliated, as they suppressed amused smiles.

Tara was not letting that stop us though. With a few words of instruction, she pushed me “off the deep end.” Thankfully, I knew that the Chena River was notoriously shallow. Even if I did capsize, I could trust my relatively decent swimming skills to get me back to shore. At first, all I did was swivel against my moorings and clumsily splashed water into my kayak. Immediately my behind was wet from sitting in a puddle. Is this why Tara suggested quick dry shorts?

Finally, we were off. Tara took the lead. I paddled frantically to keep close behind her. The river, swollen and murky, flowed lazily. It was early on a Sunday morning and there were few people on the river. Tara gave me some pointers along the way. Stay clear of “drifters,” random tree trunks that floated in the river and could surface to submerge a kayak. If a motorboat came my way, I should turn my kayak perpendicular to the wake so I could crest the wave without wildly rocking about. I broke out into a sweat and kept my eyes peeled for logs and boats. 

After a while, I started to relax. Shifting, I had not realized how tense I was. I repositioned myself into what I hoped looked like a more languid pose and took in the scenery. I had lived in Fairbanks many years but had never seen the town from the perspective of the river that flowed through it. Boat houses, decorated with moose antlers, stood on the river’s edge. At times, the decks of neighborhood homes looked right over the river. More often the wilderness encroached onto its banks. We spotted a bald eagle perched high on a bare branch. A beaver had built his dam close to the shore. Fireweed blossomed on grassy embankments and willows wavered in the breeze. We floated by a huge sternwheeler with a paddlewheel, feeling miniscule alongside it. 

I started to enjoy the current that propelled me forward. My only purpose this morning was to drift on the water and to see what the river presented to me beyond each bend. My first experience in a kayak might not have taken me to the edge of great glaciers, but it had given me a new glimpse of a landscape that I had started taking for granted.

Silver Salmon in Alaska

“The silvers are running,” Yanni announced.  “Let’s go fishing!”

It was not so much the prospect of yet another fishing excursion, this time for silver salmon, that lured me onto a family road trip to Valdez. We had already gone on several fishing trips this summer and I had more than once proven my poor fishing skills. Ice fishing for grayling and pike in the Chena Lakes. A halibut charter in Kachemak Bay. “Combat fishing” for red salmon in the Kenai River. I had managed to catch not a single fish while the rest of my family triumphantly caught their limit within an hour or two.

“My fish was so big I needed help hauling it into the boat!” Helen proudly related. Yanni was intent on filling our freezer with enough fish to last us all winter, a task he deftly accomplished. Even Nick, whose angling experience I had thought did not surpass mine by much, successfully reeled in our dinner that evening. I, on the other hand, stood watching them hopelessly, snagging my fishing line on rocks and driftwood and seaweed.

This time it was the landscape that drew me in. We had driven down to Valdez many years ago, when the children were still little, and I remembered the drive to be a beautiful one. Placing this firmly into my mind and trying not to think of rising at the crack of dawn to stand knee-deep in a cold Alaskan bay, I grudgingly helped load the camper with fishing rods, coolers, lures and waders.

Once again, Alaska did not go unpromised. On the half-mark of the drive, Rainbow Ridge rose in all shades – blue, violet and orange. We drove in high country, near Summit lake, in windy terrain, well above the tree line. In the surrounding mountains, watersheds sculpted the earth and ended in blue-green creeks. At Thompson Pass, a great river of glacial ice presented itself, hued in purple, making us feel humanly miniscule. Descending from the mountain pass, we saw waterfalls, one diaphanous, like the veil of a bride, another one braided, like a horsetail in the wind. Close to Valdez, we caught sight of Prince William Sound, far-reaching and blue.

Not quite 6 am and Yanni roused everyone in the camper, ready to fish. The tide was right. He had already given us a tutorial about the different types of salmon: chinook, sockeye, coho, humpback, chum. Was I learning a new language? We discussed the difference between pink and silver salmon, both presently “running.” Pink salmon had black lips, a white mouth and spots on their back. Silvers were much larger in size and had a distinct silver luster. We were fishing for the latter, Yanni emphasized.

“Try unlocking the reel before casting out, Mom,” Yanni patiently instructed, suppressing a smile. Some hours later, my toes had grown cold despite the Xtratuff boots I had borrowed from Helen. My bicep ached from fruitlessly flinging about. When Helen cackled at me while she scooped yet another fish into her net, I decided I had enough. 

I settled myself onto a rock and took in the scenery instead. The bay glistened. The sound of the seagulls filled my ears and the salty air settled on my skin. I listened to the gentle swoosh of the lapping waves at low tide and to the humble manner in which Yanni unhooked an unintended pink salmon, still flapping in his net, while he promised “Hold still, Buddy, I’m returning you to the sea.”  

In the end, it did not matter how many fish we hooked or let go again. It was more about a sunny weekend in a place where it typically rains, and learning about fish I will probably never catch, and about being with the people I call my own.