Alaska - June 2005

Alaska found itself on the calendar because of Pete McDonald's bachelor party. Pete is getting married this summer in Sweden; so why not a bachelor party to go salmon fishing in Alaska? After all, he had already been to Peru this year for Jim's wedding (remember Pete in the kilt?), so why not another exotic locale? And anyway, Tony - another one of our friends from the hockey days - lives in Anchorage, giving me a chance to finally see his home state.

I arrived - after flying first class through Chicago - at about 1030pm, just after the rest of our group. They had to wait for baggage claim, so it wasn't until 1115p that I got outside to see this view. Yes, the sun was still up! In fact, it never got totally dark the entire time we were there. This late sunset was just a portent of what we would be dealing with for three days.

The first event, of course, was the bachelor party proper. I shan't go into details for fear of making the innocent seem guilty, but as you can see we dressed Pete up pretty well. This was revenge by Kevin for last June, when we all met in Boston for a trip to Fenway and the Dodgers-Red Sox series. In that case, Pete had Kevin wear a wrestling outfit complete with singlet, cape, and mask; I think Pete got the worse deal of it. But he was, as usual, a sport about it, and we had a great time. He was quite popular at the G.A.B.C., a popular Anchorage hangout for things like bachelor parties.

Afterwards, we got into the RV that Tony had rented for the occasion and drove down the Kenai peninsula. It would take us about 2 1/2 hours to get to the place we would be fishing first; we were hitting the road at 3 in the morning, and it was still fairly light outside. We saw a gorgeous moonrise over the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, but unfortunately I hadn't brought a tripod with me - which somehow became a running joke throughout the trip - and couldn't get a good shot of it. So instead you get a second shot of Pete.

After arriving, we took a short nap and then got on our fishing gear. We were fishing for sockeye salmon in the Russian river; this was high season, and we were hoping to catch a ton of fish. Les and Pete brought extra coolers with them to take home all the salmon meat we'd have. This, by the way, is known in literary circles as Ironic Foreshadowing.

To get to the spot we wanted to fish requires crossing the river; what you see here is the Russian River Ferry out on a run. This boat-like device rides back and forth on the river, using the current and an overhead rope to pull itself back and forth across the rushing waters - the current was so strong that even I almost fell over a couple of times. It's a short journey, only a few minutes to cross.

The shore is packed with fishermen and women. The rules are that you have to be in the river to catch fish; you're not allowed to stand on the banks. Also, the method for catching them is more or less snagging; you run your line down current, bouncing the sinker on the bottom and allowing the current to pull the lure - flies only - taut, hoping that a salmon swims into its path. At the end of the cast you yank the line up, hoping to snag a fish. If you hook it anywhere behind the gill plate, it's not a legal catch and the fish must be returned to the water. You cast back and forth innumerable times. I actually had the first bite of the day, but the fish I had on broke the line, probably by sawing it off on an underwater rock, of which there were plenty.

Not everyone is so passionate about fishing; Kevin would be one of those. Not that he didn't want to be there, of course, but he didn't see any need to jump right into the water, preferring instead to have the day's first beer at about 11 in the morning. And given the surrounding scenery, you can understand why: it's a beautiful day, the mountains and trees are fantastic, and with everyone else crowding into the water, why not take a seat? This, by the way, is foreshadowing more irony.

Kevin's catch.  I was fishing when he got this, so the picture was taken by Les.Because, you see, Kevin would get up about half an hour later, put on the waders, and proceed to catch the first fish of the day. While other people on the banks had caught some, we hadn't. My hookup was the first and only one until Kevin pulled in this one. Tony soon followed, though, as did Tony's dad who had joined us around noon or so. We caught a fourth later in the day, but I don't remember who got it. But I can certainly tell you it wasn't me.

It's an event for everyone; women were catching fish too, as were some kids that were out there. We were sharing our bank space with a nice family who pulled up 5 or 6 of their own. And all of us ran into problems with the rocks on the bottom, losing several pound's worth of sinkers. Very frustrating.

At the end of the day it's cleaning time, and there are several tables set up near the ferry to allow people to clean their fish. As you can see, the Alaskan women have no problem getting their hands dirty for this! And for good reason: the salmon is much tastier than the farmed salmon we now eat all the time here in the states. The wild salmon is redder, a little oilier, but much tastier. We ended up barbecuing our fish on saturday night, Pete playing the part of BBQ-master. It was delicious; I totally overate, and since we had potatoes and rice with it, I came back home a good 5 pounds heavier - not at all what I wanted to do going into the July 4th weekend.

Les' dad was with us too. He's a big fisherman, but like me, had no luck on the day. Indeed, despite bringing all the coolers, we only caught four fish, of which we ate three, and then two more that Les Jr. caught on Sunday afternoon. Not exactly the haul we expected. I think his face tells the story better than I do. Although he's probably just exhausted in this picture, as we had little sleep the night before and this picture was at the end of the day.

After the Russian River we drove down to Anchor Point to camp for the night. It was only around 8 or 9 o'clock at this point, so it was still bright outside, and we had a bit of a drive to get to the camp. We would barbecue steaks that night, and play poker in the ambient light til 2am. I won $25 that night.

It was cold at night; the temperature got down to the low 50s, which was quite a change from the 70-75 degrees of daytime. But we were prepared with coats, although I think it was colder than anyone really expected. And sleeping in an RV with no heater didn't help. Nor, by the way, did the fact that six of us slept in the RV, three of whom snored and we were all probably starting to get whiffy. Coupled with the lack of darkness, it was nearly impossible for me to sleep. I think my total amount of sleep for the trip was 10 hours.

Our camp was near a river, with bald eagles flying around. And in the morning, one was perched in a position that allowed me to get some good shots of him with my zoom lens. Unfortunately, my zoom lens isn't very good, and so my eagle pictures came out just slightly out of focus. But this one came out pretty well, despite the fuzziness. They're beautiful birds; I had never seen them in the wild, so I was really excited to be so close to them. But they have a really lame-sounding call. Unlike the screech of a hawk or a falcon, the bald eagle's call is short and whiny, and not at all what you would expect of such a large predatory bird.

We then joined Tony's dad for breakfast, followed by a trip to the westernmost point of the North American highway system. If you look at a road atlas, you'll see for yourself. West of this point, there are no highways in Alaska. The waterway here is the Cook Inlet, and on the other side is the volcano Mt. Iliamna. The volcano is about 60 miles away in this picture; as it was a clear day, we had a great view. There is a second volcano, which would be to the right in this view, called Mt. Redoubt; I put a picture of that one in the gallery which you can click to at the bottom of this page.

And you can see the volcano in the background of our group shot. Everyone is here except for Dave, Pete's brother-in-law, who had decided to go down to the water and while he was gone we found someone to take a group shot of us. Front row is Kevin, Matt, Pete, Les, and Les' dad (also named Les); back row is Dan, me, Tony's dad, and Tony.

Since we didn't have a picture of Dave for our official group shot, I threw this one in here so he wouldn't feel left out (even though he's always a little out in left field). From left, here is Dan, Les Jr., Dave the brother in law of Pete, Kevin, Matt, Tony, and Les Sr. Tell me that's not a handsome bunch!

After the photo opportunity, we went to the Norman Lowell gallery. Mr. Lowell is an artist who came to Alaska in 1958 and since then has created a substantial body of work; his ouvre contains oils, pastels, and drawings. This is one of his largest paintings, and one of the most popular. I was quite impressed by his skill with dry and oil pastels, and took several pictures of his paintings. I would highly recommend anyone interested in landscape art to write him at PO Box 167, Anchor Point, AK 99556. His work is excellent, and in fact Pete spent a lot of time talking to him about purchasing some prints.

Mr. Lowell and his wife live in a nice home now, but his old cabin still stands. It's been added to several times and now serves as a studio also. They still live on the same land, with a large vegetable garden and plenty of lilacs and other shrubs and trees on the property. But as you can see, the old cabin itself is pretty run-down by now.

The rest of our trip was spent fishing, driving, eating, playing poker (I lost $10 on the second night) and driving back to Anchorage on sunday. The rest of the photos I have uploaded are all scenery from driving around, and don't really require any more explanation than what you'll get as you mouse over the pictures. I used up 3G of memory cards taking digital pictures, plus I shot 2 1/2 rolls of slides. I was trying to get everything; most of the time I was limited either by lighting conditions or the speed of the RV driving down the road, but I managed to get a lot of nice shots of what we saw on the Kenai peninsula. It was a fantastic weekend, made all the better by spending time with friends I don't get to see very often these days - there's no better way to take a vacation.

Gallery of remaining pictures

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