I’ve finally hooked one. A surge of adrenaline flows through my body as the line zings through my reel and my salmon takes off for deeper waters. Careful now. Don’t slip on the rocks. The current is strong here and I’m nearly waist-deep in it. Any wrong move at this point and I’m swimming… something you really don’t want to do in the frigid waters of the Talachulitna River.
Besides, I’m determined to land this fish.
I can’t believe the fight this guy is giving me. Called king salmon in Alaska (we refer to them as chinooks or springs in B.C.), these North Pacific monsters can reach weights of 50-60 pounds by the time they return to their home rivers to spawn. Mine is closer to 35 pounds — but that’s plenty big. With the fast-flowing current and the king’s fierce drive to survive, he’s as much as I can handle right now. Time and again I wrestle him in to shallow waters — only to watch helplessly as he fights his way back into the main current. It’s like an aquatic tug-of-war. Pull hard, watch the rod bend nearly in half, reel in as fast as possible, and then hold steady while he counter-attacks. My forearms scream with pain. My feet scrabble uncertainly across the pebbly bottom. I’m not sure I can hold on.
My guide, Olympic downhill champion Tommy Moe, is standing right next to me, giant net in hand, coaching my every move. He’s smiling as usual, and totally calm. Every now and then he casts his eyes over the three other fishermen in our group to make sure everyone is safe. A large-bore handgun is strapped tightly against his chest. Around here, pilgrim, you never know when a hungry grizzly might show up on the banks of the river looking for an al fresco fish lunch.
And suddenly I feel the need to pinch myself. Was it really only last night that this same group was unloading from a helicopter at Top of the World deep in the Tordrillo Mountains? Barely eight hours since Tommy had led us on a late evening ski outing — our first in this remote Alaskan Range? Seems hard to believe somehow…
Especially given how exotic last night’s adventure was. Imagine, if you can, skiing high above primordial glaciers while the midnight sun lightens north face slopes almost like it was midday. Imagine gazing across a five-mile wide river of ice to a still-smoking volcano that scratches the sky at over 11,000 feet. In the distance, far to the south, sparkle the legendary waters of Cook Inlet. Grizzly bear tracks bisect our path as we traverse a wide-open bowl. A bald eagle surfs the thermals far below. And no, we’re not skiing powder. But with fat skis, this creamy midnight schmoo feels just as good.