We are back in Seward at the J-Dock with minutes to spare. Optimists, we are hauling our big new cooler along in the event we get our limit. Our excursion partners are two friends traveling together from the West Coast, one of whom self-describes as being on the trip of a lifetime. We can relate.
The captain and the boat are weathered. I remind myself this can’t be an easy life. He runs us through the safety procedures check, which is sobering. Someone in the water has only minutes. If anything happens to him we are to use the radio to summon help.
We should expect some wrinkly water once we head into Resurrection Bay proper, around Lowell Point. We are told it will smooth out past Caines Head and, as predicted, it does. The chop keeps us in the cabin when we are under full throttle. The air is pleasurably brisk and the sun is bright – a good day to be on the water.
Fishing has been disappointing lately, so we have a choice to make. Since we have only a set amount of time, we can either go out an hour or so and have three hours to fish, or we can go out two hours and fish one hour. We all vote for more fishing and less travel. This puts our sights on an island grouping to the southeast. Fox Island is the largest of the group, but there are several boats in Sunny Cove already. We decide to move past and fish the less-crowded narrows between Fox and Hive Islands.
Rockwell Kent, an artist, arrived in this area with his eight year old son, seeking solitude. They spent the winter of 1918-19 on Fox Island in a trapper’s cabin. Kent painted, read, and wrote in his journal about the simple happiness and freedom his son enjoyed in this wilderness setting. Kent perfected his woodblock engraving technique during his stay and went on to illustrate a highly regarded edition of Moby Dick. In 1920, he published a book, including illustrations, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska. Combined with a major exhibition of his paintings, this established Kent prominently in the art world. His work can be seen at the Metropolitan, the Whitney and the Rockwell Museums, as well as a dedicated, permanent gallery at SUNY – Plattsburgh in the State Art Museum.
The cliffs of Fox Island are steep on its south end, filled with rookeries, home to many birds. While our lines are baited, a curious puffin comes close enough for a photograph. Pete makes numerous attempts to focus and each time the puffin dives just before the shutter clicks. Finally, we realize this is a game of amusement at his expense, and Pete concedes defeat. Puffins are such appealing birds and we are delighted to have a personal encounter.
To our south is Aialik, a peninsula named with the Alutiiq word for “dangerous” or “forbidding.” We are able to see Bear Glacier across the Bay past Callisto Head, a gateway from the water’s edge into the Kenai Fjords National Park. I see what looks like a styrofoam cooler in the distance, only to be corrected. It’s a large block of glacial ice, floating and bobbing. This is a hint of the dynamic natural conditions in the fjords. Ice masses calve into the sea, stir up plankton for hungry foragers, and recede for plant life to gain a toehold in the rocky crevices. There is a slice of temperate rainforest between the glacial paths and the sea where land wildlife flourishes. Our captain tells of bears, sheep and even moose routinely spotted on the high, forested ridgelines hundreds of feet above the sea.
There is no sign of any fish whatsoever. To seduce a Silver salmon, you must let the bait drop to the bottom and deliberately jig it up and down. Silvers like to put up a fight, but their bite is light. I fear my luck this day will be similar to that previously, where I provide a tasty snack to the fish taking advantage of my clumsiness and lack of experience.
Our two other companions are anxious for a catch as well. The crackle of the radio reveals most boats in the vicinity are having a quiet day. I feel a nudge on my line and jerk back to set it, reeling in a bait-size fish. It’s so small that Pete says he won’t even change his lens to get a photo. Over the side goes the first and only fish of the day, I remind them all, rather testily.
There is enough good-natured grumbling and banter back and forth that the captain decides we should head across to Callisto. The water is a little shallower there so we shorten our drop. I fear we have just set up an all-you-can eat buffet for our salmon friends when I feel a gentle, yet unmistakable tug.
“Fish on!” I start reeling and halfway up to the boat there is no resistance. I haven’t set the hook! The captain had been scrambling for the net, and now he is peering over the side. “Don’t move, it’s following your bait up!” Sure enough, we see a good-sized salmon literally circling the bait. She snaps on it, I jerk her and she is netted and in the boat within seconds.
This catch is sufficiently respectable to warrant a lens change, though there is grumbling that the woman requests the gaff. Pete decides he will defuse this situation by photographing a cooperative ring-billed gull, one of many who thought we might be providing a nice meal as the captain sliced up more bait. Just after he gets the photo, we hear the whine of Pete’s line on the other side of the boat. He’s snagged a big one and it’s running on him. This is far more exciting than my fish that wanted to be caught. Pete’s fish keeps him occupied for what seems like a lifetime. We’re fearful it might run under the boat and snap the line. Pete skillfully disabuses the fish of that notion. When he brings it in, it is far larger than mine as well.
I am conscious that our companions are somewhat envious and disappointed as we make ready to return. We talk a little bit about how difficult it is to feel them bite, and the captain reminds us this isn’t the best year for Silvers in the Bay. He wonders if the Derby results next week will be disappointing as well. We head back through the chop toward the harbor.
After we dock, the fish are cleaned and our paltry catch is deposited back in the (really oversize) cooler. We decide to drown our sorrows celebrate at Ray’s Waterfront. I find myself seated next to an attractive gentleman enjoying a plate of enormous crab legs at the crowded bar. It’s clear after several minutes that this is Ray. He’s a New Yorker who has lived here for years. The menu reveals his brainchild: an impressive variety of prepared seafood, prepared by melding various ethnic influences into the unexpected. Ray wields his authority lightly and good-naturedly, but the respect and admiration from the employees speaks well. If that isn’t convincing, the Friday night crowd surely is.
We reluctantly make our way to the car, as it’s past 8 and we’re due back in Anchorage. If we had to do it over again, we would stay a night or two in Seward to go out on the water all day. The hauls from the full-day trips are enormous in number, variety and size. We would really like to tussle with a halibut or two, so I make a note for the list of reasons to return.
We’re tooling back in the central Kenai at a reasonable clip when we come upon a large black bear galumphing in the right-hand ditch ahead. “bear, Bear, BEAR,” I point out as he bounds alongside my window. This is a smart bear who waits until we have passed, and I twist around to see him head into the woods on the other side. Why does the bear cross the road, indeed?
Dusk comes as we enter the Turnagain Arm portion of the route. The turn-offs provide an unfettered view of the west. There is color spilling in rivulets over the flats from behind the inlet. The sunset’s liquid fire is the perfect epilogue to another unforgettable excursion. We began early this morning searching for silver and now we have been presented with gold just before midnight. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” This day on the water has truly been that.