Summer in Alaska: The Great Ski & Fish Adventure
'Kings and Corn' means spawning salmon, glacier skiing—and, of course, bears
It is 2am at Winterlake Lodge in central Alaska—still light enough to see the enormous black bear clamber onto the deck. Rising to its hind legs, the bear first pushes on the front door, and when it refuses to open, begins to beat on it with both front paws.
The impact shakes the cabin. “BAM, BAM!!” The door shivers before the bear's relentless assault.
This is the third time the bear has returned, and wakened by the racket, Andrew, my 20-year-old son, swats at the mosquitoes, then rises out of bed, grabs the pepper spray and whispers, “I’ve had enough.”
Slipping quietly across the room, he pulls the pin, puts his finger on the trigger and opens the door.
You have to rise early to catch the Otter floatplane that flies to Finger Lake from Anchorage’s Lake Hood. This far north on June 20th, night never attains true dark, and at seven a.m. Andrew and I are standing on the dock helping the pilot weigh our skis and fishing rods. We plan to ski the remote chutes of Central Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains until late morning, or until the spring corn snow falls apart, then heli out to fight one of the thousands of king salmon now flooding up the tributaries of the Skwenta River.
Mixing a contrail of water from its floats and a wall of sound from its huge radial engine, the Otter labors into the air and banks west. For the next hour the 20,320-foot Denali looms off the right wing, the 11,000-foot Tordrillos rise off the nose, and South Alaska’s braided rivers and rolling costal mountains slip beneath the floats. As the pilot sets the flaps on final approach to Finger Lake, a huge bull moose breaks from the forest and trots across the braided Skwenta. Touching down on Finger Lake’s mirror surface, we taxi to the dock where, climbing out of the Beaver, Andrew and I meet our guides.
Winterlake Lodge serves as a rest stop during March’s Iditarod sled dog race. A one time hunting lodge still filled with caribou and sheep heads, Winterlake now offers a quiet, gourmet escape for guests hoping to hike, fish or photograph local wildlife. Unfortunately, for the past two weeks, the wildlife has been black, furry and hungry. Our guide warns us that a family of bears has been camping out at the burn pit.
“Make a lot of noise when you’re walking on the paths” he says pointing to the alder-lined alleys that lead to outlying cabins then cautions, “And do not step between the sow and her cubs!”
Central Alaska’s summer weather is changeable, and Andrew and I drop our gear in the Lodge’s loft bedroom then quickly buckle our boots. While the Air Especial’s turbine shrieks to life, we belt ourselves into the back seat. Ten minutes later we trace a silty white river that rises to meet an enormous blue glacier that in turn assaults the Tordrillos' 11,000-foot black pinnacles. Pilot Rudy Rossi eases down on a wildflower-covered ridge above a snow-filled, north facing bowl. As soon as we unload the skis, the ship lifts off, leaving us in a silent wilderness of rock, ice, ripening berries…and grizzly bears, moose and the occasional molting caribou. Here, surrounded by the Tordrillos hanging glaciers, how you ski defines who you are. We are not crazy. Andrew and I gingerly rock over the cornice and arc through the silky Alaskan corn.
Named “Bond World” after Ian Fleming’s Agent 007, this collision of grinding ice, shadowy chutes and sun cured bowls hides a thousand unskied lines. With one guide leading and another bringing up the rear, we explore a broad solar halfpipe down to a narrow chute that eventually spills onto a glacial moraine where the Air Especial is waiting.
The warm morning sun has baked the snow, ripening the corn across two hundred and fifty thousand acres of bowls, chutes, ridges, glaciers and cliffs. Studied first from the helicopter, when a run delivers on promises it makes from the air, it is named. One after Andrew’s eggbeater, another for a black bear that suddenly rises from the thick green underbrush, the name may stick or be forgotten, to be renamed until it is committed to memory or recorded on a map.
Landing on a high ridge, we watch an enormous grizzly traverse the sunlit bowl we planned to ski. The bear’s tracks approximate dinner plates with claws and, to avoid disturbing the cinnamon colored boar, we detour far down the ridge. That day Andrew and I follow the guides down chutes, through opens bowls, around crevasses, rocky out crops and glacial ice. In the time it takes to ski six runs, the corn sinks to slush and we moraine-hop back to Winterlake.
Following a quick lunch, the helicopter follows the braided Skwenta River to a clear tributary where the kings rest in dense, dark schools that spook as the ship’s shadow sweeps across the stream. Even a non-fisherman—one who does not feel the ebb and flow of the tides in his blood, or the pressure of the salmon flooding against the current—cannot help but stare in wonder at the numbers of fish. Andrew and I are awestruck by the dozens of Kings holding in the clear water. A hundred fill this hole and there are scores of holes in the river.
Under the best circumstances King Salmon are difficult to hook and harder to land. The forty-pound weight and power of the fish strip knots, break tippets, eviscerate reels and occasionally shatter graphite rods. Once hooked, the Kings shake and porpoise against the rod’s resistance. Even the smallest twenty-five pounders can easily break off by turning downstream. But salmon are driven to spawn and genetically cannot run with the current. A number of the most aggressive wear jewelry–lures and flies collected in their backs and mouths as they've run the gauntlet of fisherman from Cook Inlet.
Andrew casts to the head of the pool and a minute later feels weight in his line. Raising his rod, he watches as a huge hen explodes out of the pool, turns and runs to deep water. For the next twenty minutes, he pumps and reels as the fish porpoises between the alder walls. In time the hen turns on her side in shallow water, where he removes the fly and turns her loose.
That afternoon, Andrew and I fight and release Kings until we can’t hold our rod tips up. And still we fight these powerful, wild fish until the helicopter pilot advises us that dinner is waiting back at the lodge. Our request for another half hour falls on empathetic but deaf ears, and we reluctantly slip our rods into the ski baskets and climb into the ship. During the next five days, Andrew and I will each catch and release thirty fish. And the only reason we stop is that we lose most of our flies and exhaust our arms. Six months later my elbow still aches from fighting those strong wild fish.
That night Rudy Rossi flies us to a ridge facing Denali for a lamb dinner. There, with the evening light touching North America’s highest peak and Alaska’s rivers, forests and lakes unfolding for 360 degrees, we toast the guides, Kings and Corn, and the beneficent forces that control the weather and fishing luck.
It is two in the morning and still light when the black bear wakes us. Holding a can of pepper spray in one hand, Andrew opens the door and shoots the huge bruin with a sustained long blast to the face. The bear snorts loudly, then clawing at its nose, staggers backward and falls off the porch. I catch a last glimpse of its glossy haunches as it crashed into the underbrush. At that point, Newton’s law of propulsion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—takes effect. The residual cloud of pepper spray wafts back into the lodge, blanketing Andrew with cayenne-scented tear gas. Less than a second later, my eyes, nose and mouth catch fire.
When my eyes and mouth stop burning, I wonder how the guides who are sleeping in tents are faring. As it turns out, not well. During the night the bear raids one tent, then runs off with a dry bag containing a guide’s fishing lures, reels, leaders and flies. At breakfast the following morning he is fuming. “That bag represents a lifetime of gear,” he tells us. “I had reels, and lures….” he describes each in loving detail, where it was bought, how much it cost and what it caught. Muttering darkly he promises if he catches the bear he’ll skin it with his bare hands…”until there won’t be enough left to piece a rug together!!”
During the next five days we skied bowls, chutes and ridges. We caught and released dozens of salmon. Our guide’s dry bag was eventually found in a nearby thicket with all reels and lures intact. “Probably just a curious cub,” he says, grateful to have it back.
If a petroglyph that was discovered in Rodoy Norway is accurate, skiers have been gliding downhill for over four thousand years. There is no telling how long nimrods have been casting lures to spawning salmonoids. But admitting that a visceral love of fishing and skiing is hardwired to our double helix may help explain why booking one of Chugach Powder Guides' Kings and Corn weeks may be the best investment you’ll ever make.
2013 adventures run June 14-20, June 19-25 and June 24-30 and cost $9,500 per person. Ski champion Zach Crist will be one of this year’s guides.
• Guided heli-supported king salmon fishing
• Corn snow heli-skiing/ snowboarding
• All meals prepared by award-winning chef Kirsten Dixon
• Round-trip flow plane transport from Anchorage to Winterlake Lodge
• Fishing gear and tackle
• Use of Mammut Pulse Barryvox avalanche transceiver
For more Information, visit chugachpowderguides.com.