Original post published with Postfly The Wade blog.
This was my third trip to Alaska in 10 months – it was time to bring the fly rod.
I arrived in Fairbanks on a Monday evening after a planes-trains-and-automobiles-kind-of-day. It’s a 5-hour drive to the airport from my modest, middle-of-nowhere abode in southern Colorado. Then, it’s a mad dash through security, hop the train to the gate and endure a 3+-hour flight, an hour-long layover and one more (4-hour) flight until I could grab a rental car and resolve myself to time zone shifts and a cup of tea in my hotel room.
The sun isn’t setting
I thought sleep would come easy. I was wrong. I pulled the blinds only to realize they were stationary; mounted like a useless piece of wall art purchased and hung over a decade ago. I grabbed a random piece of hotel furniture from across the room and shoved it into the sliding glass door, sandwiching said curtains just enough to allow me to blanket the light and ease my over-tired eyes. All the while, I couldn’t help but think about the unexpectedly-muddy river views from seat 10F. Though the waters I saw from above appeared blown out, I told myself that was probably some other river. The Chena will be fine…it’s grayling season after all…all the websites told me this is the time of year to fish this place! I was still (naïvely) hopeful to land some arctic bullets.
The game plan
My professional priority that week was not landing fish. I had work to do and it had nothing to do with setting up new reels, matching flies to hatches, or navigating to unknown fishing spots beyond town limits. My personal priority, however (if I must travel for work and be away from my family, I’m going to indulge), hummed a different tune. I readied my gear and on day 2 – during a lunch break, of course – B-lined it to the local fly shop with a colleague from the lower 48 and fellow fly-fisher.
We walked into the shop determined, headed to the fly counter and found “The Guy to Talk To”. I knew our time was fleeting, so I cut to the chase: We’ve got two days and I’d really, really like to land a grayling – what do you think? He paused for a long moment – like, the kind of pause that translates to “you don’t want to know what I think because you’re not gonna like it”. I waited. He stumbled over his words, apologizing for all the things out of both of our control. The weather got us. This spring was an exceptionally wet one across the region – even though fires were still burning – and the Chena was, in fact, blown out. The fishing was off and mild storms were stacking up for the foreseeable future…he thought we might have a chance floating it, but there was no time for that.
As he marked up a poorly rendered, mass-produced, not-even-close-to-being-to-scale tourist map for “theoretical” productive grayling spots, his eyes lit up a little bit and I watched him write the word. He didn’t speak it and promptly required we take an oath of silence. It was early for them to show up, but word on the street was: They were there. This place didn’t exist and we heard nothing. Whether the outcome was feisty, silvery wild arctic grayling or spawning pigs didn’t matter – the pursuit for anything was on at this point. We grabbed our licenses, flies and headed back to our meeting (late).
I clenched to what little hope I had left
Later than afternoon, we made the drive out to the site-we-shall-not-speak-of…
What should have been a scenic, 30-minute cruise turned into over an hour of navigating in circles, passing one busted, rusted front yard-full of cars, trucks, busses and boats after the next, searching for a cell signal and the slight chance our phones’ maps would reveal a blue spot among on the tan. Found it.
We opened the doors and were immediately met with a cloud of relentless blood-suckers: Welcome to Alaska. We walked.
Stay to the right, pass the ponds, follow the trail about 50 yards. I replayed the words spoken by the “Guy to Talk To” in my head – all the while hollering “HEY BEAR! HEEEYYY BEAR! WHERE’S MY MONEY, BEAR?!” (pretty sure my colleague now things I’m a crazy woman). When we spotted the trail, my hopes boosted a bit.
Reality set in
Cast…cast…walk…cast…swap flies…cast…pass another set of moose tracks…holler for bears…cast…
The waters were muddy, high, and fast. Dries weren’t working and swinging colorful streamers produced a whole lot of nothing. Some time later, with hands and foreheads swollen from the locals indulging on our lifeblood (and daylight still blazing in the land of the midnight sun) we decided to call it. It was getting late and we passed a promising brewery down the road, after all.