Chad Agy, Fishwest Ambassador and his friend Brian set off on a remote float trip adventure last August. One that not only made memories for a lifetime, but one that left them with a startling experience. Enjoy reading their experience in, The Alaska Chronicles – A Guest in Grizzly Country.
I awoke to a muffled sound resembling someone forcefully uttering my name. It was a warm late-August morning in southwestern Alaska, and I slept well, but was not yet prepared to remove my ear plugs and face the day. But the pleas for my awakening could only be ignored for so long. Eventually, I sat up and removed my ear plugs. My friend Brian was frantically rifling through the gear in the tent, blindly looking for his contacts. He then said something that caught my attention.
“Chad, there’s a bear. There’s a bear in camp.”
“How do you know? Have you looked outside?” I replied.
“Hell no!” Brian whispered nervously. “But just listen!”
The noise that followed was unmistakable. I don’t really know how to describe the sound a bear makes when it’s milling around. It’s certainly not a growl, a roar, or any other sound a layperson would associate with a bruin. They sound more like guttural, malcontented swine, making a noise more akin to a grunting oink. The bear sounded close. Long ago I recognized that I am not a US Marine, and will likely never possess the skills required to shoot a charging bear anywhere meaningful. As such, I do not carry a firearm in bear country. I clutched my bear spray, and slowly, reluctantly, unzipped the tent fly to have a look at the situation.
The grizzly was yards away, and looked straight at me. For a moment, I wondered if we’d get a chance to test the integrity of the electric bear fencing one of the more bear-nervous members of our party set up around the tents every night. I had come awfully close to awkwardly testing the voltage of the electric cord while urinating between the lines during the middle of the night. Thus, I had a healthy fear of the jolt the fencing might provide, but I was growing fairly certain that the bear did not share my fear. In the friendliest tone I could muster, my voice cracked as I shouted, “uh… hey bear!” At the sound of my voice the bear spun on its hind legs, prepared for action. But this grizzly exuded characteristics of what the locals term a “rational bear.” Instead of blasting through our feeble bear fencing and ransacking the tents, the beast powerfully charged in to the river, and swam at a healthy clip over to the opposite bank. Quite clearly, it was more scared of the hairless two-legged creature emerging from the polyethylene shelter than I was of it.
The fishing on this year’s remote float trip was good, but mediocre or worse by Alaskan standards. Multiple large leopard rainbows completely smoked our streamers and gobbled up our bead patterns. We experienced afternoons with gluttonous arctic grayling hitting our large, fluffy dry flies on nearly every cast. We witnessed the line blistering runs of hot silver salmon, fresh from Bristol Bay. But we also spent long parts of every day casting at perfect-looking water that appeared to be devoid of fish. Frankly, Alaska has spoiled me on so many levels during previous trips that I couldn’t help but express my surprise that the fishing was not completely ludicrous.
Strange things are happening with Alaska’s fish populations. On the same year that produced all-time records of sockeye returns, the chum runs in Bristol Bay tanked. With the section of river we floated highly reliant on the nearly-absent chum salmon spawn to bring in the large rainbows, the fishing was a bit subpar. Chum and king salmon populations seem to be disappearing throughout Alaska. Some blame climate change. Others cite local commercial fishing practices and bycatch waste. Some say that Russian trawlers are illegally harvesting more salmon than permitted. In reality, the changes are probably due to a combination of these factors and more.
Regardless, the silver lining to the subpar trout fishing was that I had a chance to revel in the other aspects of the setting. Normally, I get so hyper-focused on the fish that I miss out on the joys of my surrounding environs. But during this trip, I noticed that the bears appeared healthy as ever, and were a joy to watch even if they did result in an uncomfortable wake-up call or two. Bald eagles were ubiquitous, confidently patrolling the gravel bars for any decomposing salmon that might wash up in the shallows. Mere yards from the riverbank, lush bushes of blueberries provided a tasty distraction when the fishing slowed. I spent more time laughing with my buddies around a campfire, while having a beer and enjoying freshly cooked salmon and grayling. I’ll never forget a late evening casting for lake trout as the haunting cries of a group of loons pierced the tranquil Alaskan twilight.
I realized that as long as everyone stays safe and healthy, it is literally impossible to have a bad trip in the Alaskan wilderness. Rain may come down in buckets. The wind may blow sideways. The fishing may disappoint. Bears may show an intimidating nonchalance to my presence. But time spent in one of the healthiest remaining ecosystems in North America will always be a luxury I never take for granted.