Afognak Island, Alaska—-Luke Randall grabbed onto a set of spruce tree roots that stuck out from the overhanging tidal bank and pulled himself up over the edge. I scrambled along behind him, camera at the ready as we were trying to locate the big Kodiak brown bear we thought might be feeding in the salmon-choked stream to our right.
We found a well-trodden game trail that angled away from the ocean some thirty feet above the narrow creek that tumbled down through the rock ledges. Below we could hear the splashing of the spawning fish as they worked their way up over the gravel bars that proved to be a major obstacle in their drive to get to one of the upstream lakes.
There were spent fish bodies and skeletons all over the creek bed from those that had already completed their mission in life or those not strong enough to finish the journey.
Seagulls were everywhere, hopping from one gasping fish to another, pulling at the struggling bodies, plucking out the eyeballs which was their preferred part of the not-yet-dead salmon. Bald eagles were also in abundance, feasting on the spawning fish as well. They were less discerning, simply tearing at the flesh. Underneath the surface of the water and below the salmon were the Dolly Varden, devouring the eggs that came floating down the stream.
These spawning pink salmon and their parts were the main course at a banquet being enjoyed by a whole host of marauding wildlife. The huge fish were already starting to change in appearance. The minute they hit the fresh water, their bodies began to morph from the sleek shape that served them so well in the Pacific Ocean to an entirely different look.
The males began to develop a huge hump just behind their heads and their teeth started to take on a ragged wolf-like appearance. Many of them had already begun to disintegrate as their flesh started to literally fall off their bodies. All the while they struggled against the current, trying to find a last refuge in which to spawn.
We eased along the wide trail above the gravel bottom slash that made its way through the rocky chute, looking for the largest predator of them all, the Kodiak brown bear. The limbs of huge spruce trees provided a canopy above the rain-soaked, moss-covered forest floor. Our boots made only a slight squishing sound as we walked on the dark green natural sponge. The low, wide-palmed Devil’s Club were everywhere, ready to tear at your flesh with the their tiny hooks.
The seagulls flew up ahead of us, their raucous caws indicating they had been pushed off their spot by something. We peered over the edge of the bank and got our first sight of a monstrous bear.
The big brown bears of Kodiak and Afognak are the largest in Alaska. The browns found in next to the ocean that eat fish are called brown bears. The smaller browns of the interior are called grizzlies. The locals on the islands speak of grizzlies as if they were a perch compared to a salmon.
He was having breakfast. This big boy was wandering up the creek, stopping now and then beside one of the shallow runs, watching the fish struggle their way upstream. Every so often he would make a quick dash and pin a salmon to the gravel.
With practiced ease he would bend his head down to the fish, rip out the egg sack and eat it. If it was a male, he just tossed it aside. He was only interested in the eggs of the females. This big brute was in no hurry. The number of fish available seemed endless and he acted like he had all the time in the world.
For about an hour we followed him up the stream, watching him take fish after fish. Soon he seemed t
o have his fill and he wandered up into the woods, disappearing into the dark spruces on the mountainside. The big fish didn’t seem to notice. They just kept coming in waves, pouring up the river in an endless stream. Although only the strongest made it to the lakes, the numbers were such that there were enough to make sure the species would survive.
Mary Gayle and I had taken the thirteen hour Alaska Maritime Highway ferry ride from Homer Spit, at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, to Kodiak Island. There we fly fished for a week, mainly on the Pasagshack River at the end of the road system, catching pink salmon, silvers and Dolly Varden. On Thursday we caught the semiweekly mail plane out to Afognak Island to stay at the Afognack Wilderness Lodge.
Luke and his brother Josh run the Afognak Wilderness Lodge th
at was first started by their parents. Mom still handles the book work and the staff. It is a short plane ride north from Kodiak, but you are virtually alone in a vast set of islands that are either controlled by the native population or the government. The Randalls run bear hunts in the fall and spring, elk hunts in the fall, and unbelievable fishing and photography adventures in the summer. In one seven year stretch, they filled every bear ticket except one and that was only because the hunter didn’t see the record bear he was looking for.
That first morning Bryan, the world’s best wilderness chef, had started us off with a salmon berry syrup he had made the day before. He poured this wonder over the most delicate and fluffy pancakes you have ever seen. As it turned out, every day he set before us one delicacy after another. How he did it with just the most basic of cooking equipment and a long way from the grocery store I will never know, but he amazed us both.
We spent the days there salmon fishing for the big silvers, (Mary Gayle whipped my butt), and ground fishing for halibut, ling cod and yellow eye. While doing that we saw sea otters with their babies resting on their chest as they floated along, huge bellowing sea lions playing ‘king of the hill’ on gigantic shoreline boulders, humpback and orca whales putting on displays, and bald eagles that seemed to fill the trees on every island.
On Monday we caught the mail plane back to Kodiak and loaded our camper on the ferry for the overnight ride back to the mainland. Just another magical experience on our tour of Alaska.