In our family, the primary pastime among the males was always fishing together. This was a family tradition and our time for male bonding. This is when I got to know my father the best -the times we were out fishing together. It was for this reason that I was glad that he could join my brother, Bruce, and me on this Alaskan adventure.
My father was the dean of admissions at Johns Hopkins Medical School and interviewed people for a living. He also interviewed patients all day, so when he came home, it was difficult to turn the interview mechanism off. When I brought dates, including my wife, to the house to meet my parents, it instantly turned into a question-and-answer session. My wife, upon meeting my parents, found herself discussing all of her life choices, including her decision to become a registered nurse. An orthopedic colleague of mine in St. Petersburg said that one of the most intimidating days of his life was when he interviewed with my father for medical school, with his big bushy eyebrows and stern academic presence. But as I pointed out to my colleague, “You must have done well, as you got in!” My mother often reprimanded my father to try and change this behavior and “turn it off” when he got home.
This trait, however, was extremely helpful when travelling. In the second part of our Alaska trip during our stays at various lodges and bed and breakfasts, my dad was quickly able to ascertain the best places in town to go. After returning from the bush, our crew rented a large club van to take us to Denali and the Kenai Peninsula. While at the bed and breakfast in Anchorage, in no time at all, he learned from the owner that the salmon were arriving at Bird Creek off of the Knik Arm nearby. She hinted that if we wanted to catch some salmon, it might be a good idea to go over there that evening. Our adventure began at approximately 8 p.m. that night (it was light out for most of the night, often until 1 or 2 am). (Dr. Norman Anderson and Dr. Stephen Anderson)
When we arrived at Bird Creek, just a few miles outside of Anchorage on the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet, I could not believe the number of vehicles parked along the roadside. We arrived at the bridge and looked down. There were fishermen lined up shoulder-to-shoulder as far as the eye could see on both sides of Bird Creek just waiting for the salmon to arrive on the incoming tide.
We unloaded our gear, put on our waders, worked our way down to the crowd, and jostled our way into position, shoulder-to-shoulder with the other fishermen. As the tide came in, waves of salmon began swimming up Bird Creek, and fishermen on both sides of the river began hooking fish. The creek was not very large, and frequently, fishermen casting from one side of the river would hook the lines of fishermen on the other side, often causing some heated arguments. This inevitably resulted in the cutting of the other’s line. Hostilities were high in this crowded, competitive fishing environment, but we still enjoyed this evening immensely.
It was not long before I hooked a large pink salmon and promptly landed it. I was very excited. After a few minutes, I happened to notice that I was the only one standing on the edge of the creek – everyone else had taken several steps backward. I soon realized how swiftly that this tide came in. If you did not keep moving backwards a few steps you’d be underwater in no time and perhaps stuck in the mud. We quickly acclimated to this routine until eventually, we were almost 50 yards further back than where we had originally started. This was the polar opposite of the wilderness fishing experience I had during the previous past 10 days. It was 1 a.m. and still light out when we decided to pack in after catching multiple pink salmon. As I hiked back to the car and looked out at the Knik Arm, I was lucky enough to spot several beautiful beluga whales (white whales) swimming in on the incoming tide.
The next day, we began our journey northward to the Denali National Park region. We stopped in Willow, Alaska (Sarah Palin’s home) to acquire some tackle (and hopefully, a little local knowledge in the process) and promptly went fishing on Montana Creek nearby. This was also shoulder-to-shoulder fishing, but the silver salmon in this stretch were much larger and fought much harder. My dad promptly hooked a large silver salmon, which swam through at least 20 other people’s lines before he could land it, as it was so large and difficult to control. Some people got a little irritated, but he was happy to be able to land it. The second consecutive day of “combat” fishing was over, and was beginning to wear on me. (Dr. Stephen Anderson and Dr. Larry Gnage)
Our next stop was at the village of Talkeetna, in order to try and see the Denali viewpoint. We got out and desperately hoped to look for a view of Denali. Unfortunately, in the summer, this is a rare event, and this great mountain was totally socked in. Denali is the highest mountain in North America at over 20,000 feet and the surrounding elevation is approximately 2000 feet, which makes it look even more spectacular than it is – when you are able to see it!
We continued further north to the Earthsong Lodge near Healy, Alaska, north of Denali National Park towards the Arctic Circle. This lodge was built on the permafrost of the tundra. Of course, my dad, as usual, enjoyed interviewing the owner in great detail as he explained the intricacies of building a lodge on top of the permafrost of the northern tundra. (Dr. Bruce Anderson, Dr. Stephen Anderson and Dr. Norman Anderson)
All of the rooms in the lodge had room darkening shades, as it never really seemed to get dark at all during the summer months at this far north latitude. The first day, we ventured out to go dog sledding on a sled with rollers. These sled expeditions were a common summer activity at the lodge (although I would imagine it would be a much smoother ride dog sledding in the winter snow). As our gravel road dog sledding trip ended, the dogs were brought back to the kennel to be fed. It was at this point that my buddy, Larry, decided to call his wife from the payphone located outside near the sled dogs. As he was talking to his wife on the phone, his son Brian and I watched the dogs preparing to be fed. As the dogs had been patiently waiting, they suddenly began to howl – deep, long calls, similar to wolves. I decided to have some fun and started yelling at Larry, “The wolves have got Brian,” as the dogs continued their howling. His wife became concerned as she could also hear the loud calls of the sled dogs awaiting their food. Then Brian and I quickly hollered out, “Just kidding!”
The following day, I was determined to catch an Arctic grayling on the Alaskan tundra. There was a remote lake on the tundra at the end of a dirt road west of the lodge. We drove several miles out on the tundra before we saw the lake – there were no trees anywhere. We put our waders on and hiked to the edge of the lake. For those of you who have never hiked on Arctic tundra, it is very wet in the summer and you sink six inches to a foot with every step you take. It is a slow, methodical grind to get anywhere – almost like working the Stairmaster machine on high resistance level. (Dr. Norman Anderson and Dr. Stephen Anderson)
On the lower end of the lake, we fished with virtually no success. I noticed multiple boils of grayling rising on the far edge of the lake, almost a half to three-quarters of a mile in the distance. As I knew my father would be unable to make that lengthy hike in chest waders in these conditions, Larry and I embarked on a hike around the lake through the tundra while my father remained behind. Each step was very hard on your legs. After about a half-hour of quad-crunching hiking, we reached a beaver dam on the far end of the lake. Grayling were boiling everywhere. I quickly popped out a black gnat fly and whipped it out into the mass of boiling grayling with an instant hookup. We landed perhaps 30 graylings between us within 45 minutes. It was then that I looked south towards Denali and noticed a snowstorm was approaching. Even though this was early August – we were pretty far north. We made a hasty retreat towards the vehicle as the snowflakes and sleet began to pelt us. Larry commented to me later that he never felt warm the entire trip, a sentiment I shared with him.
(Dr. Stephen Anderson with an Arctic grayling)
After a brief sojourn into Denali National Park that included local hiking within the park, we began a southward journey to the Kenai Peninsula. We arrived at our hotel, which was located right on the only highway in the Kenai Peninsula near the town of Soldotna. I had set up an early morning trip halibut fishing into the Cook Inlet the next day. When my dad sat on his mattress at the hotel, which was approximately $20 a night, his mattress sagged all the way to the floor. I sat on my mattress with the same result – I guess you get what you pay for. At 3 and 4 a.m. the large semi-trucks, filled with salmon were driving down the highway with their lights shining in our window. After this “restful night” we got up early and headed out with our halibut fishing guide.
(Dr. Stephen Anderson with an Arctic grayling)
When we arrived on the beach where our boat had been loaded onto a trailer, I noticed all the adjacent docks were totally exposed, meaning that the tide was very low. This meant that we were going to have to launch our boat from the beach. My guide informed us that the difference between high and low tide was often 40-50 feet. He also mentioned that people from California frequently come here, park their vehicle on the beach, and go out for a walk. The tide comes in so swiftly, that when they return they often find their vehicle swept away and now underwater. As we launched the boat into Cook Inlet, the guide made a statement I have never heard before or since. He said “If I am killed or go overboard, here is how to drive my boat and call the Coast Guard.” This did not instill confidence in our intrepid band of explorers as to what kind of wilderness adventure we were about to engage in. None of my Florida or Montana fishing guides have ever started a trip with that statement. We promptly began an approximately 20-mile voyage into the Pacific ocean. The giant mouth of the Iliamna Volcano towered in the distance. The guide exclaimed, “What a wonderful, calm day” as the boat slammed up and down in 4-6 foot seas. If this was a “calm day” I could not imagine what a “rough day” was. (Dr. Bruce Anderson, Dr. Larry Gnage and Brian Gnage)
After reaching our destination in the ocean, we pulled out the tackle which had 8-pound weights, and dropped them into 300 feet of water. I had never before used an 8-pound weight on the end of a rod. How in the world were we going to bring this 100-pound fish up from 300 feet deep with an 8-pound weight attached? My father reeled in the rod after he thought he had a bite, he was so exhausted after reeling in the 8-pound weight in from 300 feet deep, that he put the rod down and fished no more. Brian suddenly got a huge bite but could not move the rod. His father had to grab the rod with him, and together, they were able to hoist an approximately 50-pound halibut from 300 feet deep into the boat. They were both exhausted. I asked the guide why we needed an 8-pound weight. He informed me that in order to get the bait to the bottom where the halibut are, with the current often being at 30-40 knots, a heavy weight is a necessary requirement. After a day of reeling in large halibut, some as much as 50-60 pounds, we were all exhausted. As we were beginning to pack up to leave, the guide had learned that my buddy, Larry, was an orthopedic surgeon and asked, “Doc, why do both of my shoulders pop like this, like crazy?” I thought to myself – from reeling in 8-pound weights from 300 feet deep all day every day. This seemed like a lot of stress on the joints. As we headed back, we were not looking forward to another “restful night’s sleep” on those lousy mattresses 20 feet from the truck highway. (Dr. Bruce Anderson, Dr. Stephen Anderson, Brian Gnage and Dr. Larry Gnage)
The next day, we proceeded to fish the world-famous Russian River at its confluence with the Kenai River for more “combat’ salmon fishing. As we pulled into the crowded parking lot at the Russian River, I noticed a pickup truck with a large dead brown bear in the back. Several fishermen were looking at the truck. Apparently, the people had just recently shot the bear in that vicinity putting us on alert once more. We continued another day of shoulder-to-shoulder combat fishing on the Kenai River. This time, the majority of the salmon coming up river were red salmon. I noticed that one particular fisherman was having great success while the majority of the others were having no success, including ourselves. I had recently bought some “red salmon flies,” which appeared to be nothing more than a bare hook with some minimal hair around the top of the hook. I could not understand why fish would hit this. I was able to jockey into position next to the successful fisherman and happened to notice he was doing something a little differently. He spoke the truth, an unwritten rule, that no one in Alaska was willing to say. “You have to snag them. You have to hook them in the mouth. Give it a jerk when it gets near the mouth. They do not really bite at this stage of their spawning run.” I was shocked to hear this as I had been a purist fly fisherman my whole life. I did notice, indeed, that as his fly drifted towards the mouth of the fish, he would suddenly jerk it, hooking the fish. The rules were that the salmon must be hooked in the mouth only, or it had to be thrown back into the water. My dad was a purist fly fisherman only, waiting for the fish to strike on its own, and therefore, caught nothing all day. (Dr. Stephen Anderson and Dr. Larry Gnage)
Still with limited success, I observed a solo fisherman catching salmon after salmon approximately a quarter of a mile away from the crowd. I pointed out this fisherman to my buddy, Larry, and we decided to go on a trip in our van and see if we could find that point of the river. After a considerable drive upstream and across the river, we reached the isolated point and hiked in. That fisherman had left, but I saw large schools of red salmon everywhere. We promptly began catching large red salmon on every single cast while eying the large crowd across the river catching almost nothing. To be a successful fisherman in an area you are not familiar with, always observe the habits of the native fisherman around you. This philosophy has always served me well in my fishing career.