Chasing Dolly Varden in the top of Alaska

What amount of suffering would I be willing to pay for a shot at a trophy sea-run dolly varden?  I briefly considered this question before eagerly signing up for an arctic expedition to seek out these jewels of the north. The top of the world is famed for its harsh environs, guaranteeing some degree of suffering during our autumnal quest. The Arctic certainly threw us a curveball during our week-long sojourn to the top of Alaska. No part of the world experiences the effects of climate change to a greater extent than the Arctic. Locals say that the most noticeable difference is longer, wetter fall seasons. West of Alaska, the Chukchi Sea now stays warmer during the fall, producing more temperate but wetter weather in September and October. As the days grew shorter during mid-September, we found ourselves in the crosshairs of a generational arctic storm. It rained more during that week than it had throughout any other week in the region’s recorded history.

Some of my vivid memories of this trip relate directly to the weather. Midway through the trip, having spent the morning rafting downriver through driving rain, the group needed a break. We searched under logs and beneath trees for materials to ignite while on a small bluff overlooking the swollen river. I gazed skeptically at our pathetic pile of moss and twigs, wondering how these waterlogged materials would ever birth a flame. Deep in Alaska’s Brooks Range, nothing seemed more crucial than starting that fire. Before the trip, we hired Michael Wald, the owner and head guide of Arctic Wild, to help with cooking, rafting, and camp logistics so we could focus on our hunt for the dollies. As hypothermia started to set in, I worried that I would become a permanent fixture in this grove of white spruce that dotted the barren tundra. We would be in some serious trouble if Michael’s prodigious fire-starting skills failed us. But failure is not an option for a guy who has survived several decades of arctic travel.  Sure enough, a small orange flicker begot a steady crackling fire. Soon, I found myself enjoying my umpteenth meal of sausage and crackers as I inched closer to the growing conflagration. I finally allowed my mind to drift back 72 hours, to the moment when I encountered one of the most remarkable fish of my modest fly fishing career.

Several colored-up male dollies were using the back of a slow pool to rest before making the final charge up a tributary to their spawning ground. These were not average fish, and one in particular was a verifiable trophy. Along with my friend Brian Beckstead, we made several attempts at these challenging fish during the preceding days. We only managed to spook this group of dollies previously, as their shallow, crystal-clear holding water made them a difficult quarry.  Our group was preparing the rafts to head downstream, and this would be our last chance at these fish. Brian dominated the first couple days with over a dozen dollies to hand, so he gave me this chance. We theorized that we should get upstream of these fish to avoid lining them.  After we carefully circumnavigated the school of fish, Brian whispered, “crawl out there and get one.”  I crept as close as I dared and fired a cast above the fish.

The water remained calm.  I missed on my first shot, but the surface was void of the telltale V-shaped wakes indicative of spooked 30-inch fish. I gently stripped my line back, and double hauled my cast another 10 feet further in to the pool. The water exploded as the fish acknowledged my offering. I set the hook and felt the sweet resistance of the pool’s monarch on the end of my line. Initially stunned at my surprising success, I returned to reality as Brian admonished me to chase the fish downstream. Stumbling over boulders left by melting glaciers millennia ago, I managed to keep the fish within the confines of the pool and away from the rapids below.  We netted the mighty buck a few minutes later.  It possessed an imposing jet-black face.  Holding its tail felt like handshaking a giant.  Its bright red fins made the illusion of dripping blood as water cascaded from its massive shoulders.  I was speechless as I knelt in the presence of an arctic unicorn.

This moment marked the highlight of an arduous journey. Collectively, we walked hundreds of miles throughout the river system. Some forays proved fruitless, but we found a few more groups of migrating dollies. We realized that we were in for it as the north wind began to howl. The rainstorm of the century commenced and eventually turned the river in to a grey sluice box several times the size of the beautiful stream we found upon our arrival.  Some irritated chum and silver salmon slammed our streamers during the second half of our trip, but the sight fishing for vibrant dollies had all but ended.

During our last evening on the river, we stayed up late around the campfire in hopes of catching a glimpse of the aurora during a brief interlude in the rain.  As the sun descended in to the long arctic twilight, we gazed at six grizzlies gnawing on chum salmon within a few hundred yards of camp. Hours earlier, Brian and I vacated a prime salmon fishing hole to an agitated grizzly that huffed at us from the nearby willows. We saw over 50 grizzlies during the trip.  In general, they were curious about our presence but almost never intrusive or aggressive. As darkness fell, the ephemeral shimmer of the aurora danced above us, and I briefly forgot that our camp was situated in the middle of a grizzly feeding frenzy. I was full of gratitude for this unique adventure as I retired to my tent. I clutched my pepper spray canister as I heard a grizzly moving rocks somewhere down the gravel bar. I tried to get some sleep before the early return of the arctic sun.

I awoke to the juxtapositional mix of glorious sunshine on the rainfly of my tent and the disconcerting sound of water lapping several feet from where I lay. Despite the break in the weather, the river rose 10 feet overnight, and our expansive gravel bar campsite was now an island amidst a torrent. With haste, we broke down our camp and inflated our rafts once more. With our landing strip several feet under water, we needed to find a new spot for our bush plane pick-up. We used the satellite phone to communicate our predicament to the pilot, and we embarked on one last adventure.

After floating about 10 miles in calm and glorious weather, we found a gravel bar that remained exposed above the flooding river. We relayed our position to the pilot and set to work on the creation of a makeshift runway. I felt initial guilt at defacing the pristine gravel bar. We pulled out juvenile willows and moved boulders, but we had little option otherwise. I reminded myself that any trace of our presence on the gravel bar would be wiped away by runoff from the rapidly approaching winter. The pilot expertly landed the bush plane on the gravel bar and we loaded up our gear. I promised myself that I would return to this great wilderness as we flew over caribou and musk ox on the way back to civilization.