To Ketchikan to camp, paddle and fish a living tide of salmon
By Gary Lewis
In southeast Alaska there are salmon in the trees. And if the essence of the ocean is in the timber, it runs also in the totems.
A bear plucks a salmon from a shallow stream. After weeks of fish runs, he can afford to be picky. If the fish is an unripe female, he may kill it, drop it and go back for another.
One bear might carry 40 salmon from a stream in one day. He’ll eat some, but he’ll leave most of 300 pounds of flesh to rot and be turned to fertilizer by insects, rodents, birds, foxes and wolves. Nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations near some streams exceed the recommended maximums for commercial fertilizers and the trees can grow at three times the rate of rivers without salmon.
We rolled onto the ferry at Bellingham: my daughters Jennifer, Mikayla and my wife, Merrilee and photographer Sam Pyke, headed to southeast Alaska to ride a living tide of salmon.
You can’t get there by car. With less than 2,000 miles of roads and more than 30,000 miles of coastline, to get from place to place, the best way is by plane or boat. This time, we opted for the 418-foot Columbia, the flagship of the Alaska Marine Highway System, on its weekly turn up the inside passage.
For some, the ferry is a floating campsite. Travelers crash on a couch, pitch a tent on deck or take a stateroom on the cabin deck. Some walk on, others drive on in anything from bicycles to motorhomes.
We hit Ketchikan at seven in the morning and made a stop at the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery. Here the tribe raises the kings and the coho that congregate at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek along with the native sockeye, pinks and chums.
On the other side of the creek at the Totem Heritage Center, we saw totems carved from fallen cedar, preserved and laid to rest after standing for a hundred years. Outside, the salmon splashed in the creek and bears waited to haul them out of the river.
That night we stayed at The Narrows Inn then headed north to Clover Pass Resort where we had a boat reserved for our run to Naha Bay.
At Loring, Mark Edwards, the owner of Naha Bay Lodge met us on the dock and hopped in for the ride to Traitors Cove and Margaret Creek.
From the water’s edge, it was a one mile hike to Margaret Lake. We fished our way down, wading from run to run in the clear water over gravel bars that would soon be populated with pinks and silvers fresh from the ocean.
Rainbows attacked the girls’ Promise Keeper spinners. When Mikayla ran a wet fly in deep water, she caught a 14-incher. In the last pool, we found the salmon, maybe a dozen fresh fish. One grabbed a pink and purple streamer and streaked downstream then charged up to battle a circle around me at midstream before it threw the hook.
Back at Loring, we cruised along the wreckage of the Ancon that slipped its lines there on a sunny day back in 1889. That evening, Merrilee remarked that we had yet to see a bear. Sam looked out the window and spotted an animal in the bay. A young black bear, it completed the mile and a half paddle from shore to shore then shook itself on the rocks.
We spent the night in a grove of old growth cedar where the DNA of salmon runs in strands in the bark. Before I closed the door of the yurt, I scouted the trail for evidence of bears in camp.
In the morning, we paddled out of Loring: Sam and I in one canoe, Merrilee and Mikayla in another and Jennifer in a kayak. It was 25 minutes around Dogfish Island to the tidal race of the Naha. From there, we portaged around the rapids, up into Roosevelt Lagoon and explored a mile of shoreline, found the mouth of the Naha and pushed half a mile up the river and dragged our boats ashore.
I put on polarized glasses and scrambled up the bank. There in the shadows, a hundred salmon were stacked in the tea-colored water at the head of the first pool.
Sam took the rod and pinned a pink salmon on a pink Promise Keeper spinner. When Mikayla tried it, she caught a rainbow. I set up a rod with a purple and pink jig and a float. For the next two hours we caught salmon after salmon after salmon.
A black bear showed on the opposite bank. When he smelled us, he sat down and scratched, first with his back right paw and then around his body all the way from his tail to the tip of his nose. He was the first of five bears we saw in 200 yards of river, everything from a half-grown cub to a battle-scarred boar.
As the afternoon sun slid into the cedars, we watched bears fish, posture and prospect while we battled pinks and hoped they stayed on their side of the river.
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