Three connections, eight hours of layover time, and 18 hours later, I finally landed in King Salmon, Alaska: a 29-year-old Floridian female embarking on a journey from one sportsman’s paradise to another—alone!
You see, a great journey is not measured by the distance one travels or the money one spends but by the special moments and unique experiences along the way. Usually these memories are made with close friends or family members, but my life is never that ordinary. Instead, I accidentally booked a flight one month later than the rest of the group. “Well crap, what now?” While panicking to find an alternative solution, I remembered a friend once told me that the best time to fish was when you can, and I reckon the same is true for traveling.
One month later, I stepped off the 34-passenger airplane, took in a breath of fresh air, and “wowed” at my first view of the Alaskan mountains. Little did I know that those views would soon bring tears to my eyes! Meanwhile, Mike, the Lodge Manager, patiently waited for me inside the airport. He walked up, snickering and pointing at my flip flops and said, “You must be Amanda.”
We drove back to the King Salmon Lodge just in time for an evening coho bite on the NakNek river. I dropped off my luggage, changed into waders, and within an hour I was situated five minutes downriver in the middle of eight other fishing boats. Suddenly, I realized a long-time dream had just come true—I was salmon fishing in Alaska!
These silver torpedoes—also known as silver salmon—were targeting pink jig heads tied with pink feathers. A steady three-second retrieve with a jerk-jerk of my Tsunami travel rod/reel combo had the fish pulling drag and showing off their aerial skills in no time. My excitement was through the roof! The audience was cheering as I reeled in my first salmon, then the second, and then the third. While fighting my fourth silver, another angler jokingly asked, “Are you going to save any for the rest of us?” I laughed. It must have been beginner’s luck, because the only tight line that afternoon was mine.
Later that evening, Matt, another Lodge Manager, introduced me to the staff, a few locals, and a wonderful group of gentlemen who were also staying at the lodge. We shared several stories, laughed about unique experiences, and before I knew it, I was invited on another spontaneous excursion to a remote hunting lodge 50 miles from civilization and 100 miles from another paved road!
The first leg of the trip involved a van ride to the airport and then a private jet ride to Anchorage. Hesitation set in on the second leg of the trip. Am I really about to get on a helicopter and fly to the middle of nowhere with six grown men I’ve known for less than 12 hours? I prayed and prayed about it. Eventually, the little voice in my head said, “Go for it! You only live once, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” So off to the middle of nowhere I went.
Alaska truly is “Mother Nature’s Showcase.” Not even a thousand words could justify the immeasurable amount of beauty I witnessed through those helicopter windows. I wanted to record and photograph it all, and I almost forgot to paint my own memories. With so many shades of yellow, green, brown, and blue accompanied by the ever-changing terrain, my eyes were fixed on the land in amazement. Waterfalls, rivers, streams, lakes, glaciers, valleys, snow-capped mountains, bears, moose… and beauty as far as the eye can see! An overwhelming amount of peace swept through my body, leaving a tear streaming down my face. This is what a great journey is all about!
A few hours later, I was walking through two rapid-flowing streams, trekking through uncharted territory, and climbing down a steep canyon. Even though I made sure to respect the unforgiving terrain, there were still a few close calls on this hike. Rocks were sliding out from beneath my feet, and branches were breaking while I was
sprawled out on the steep cliff, but danger is the spice of life, so I kept going.
I landed at the plunge pool of a majestic waterfall, took off my shoes, and walked through one of the slower-moving water pools. After enjoying several peaceful moments, we made our way back down the mountain and arrived at camp just in time for dinner, drinks, and some campfire stories.
The next morning, our group ate a delicious breakfast and began our flight back to Anchorage. This time, I stowed away the camera equipment and enjoyed the view from my own two eyes rather than the Sony and Action Cam screens. Boy, am I glad I made that decision! About 15 minutes into the flight, we were hovering over a valley of plane wrecks. Apparently, this was a very common but dangerous pass-through for airline traffic. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen fog and other atmospheric changes, this valley had become a tragic memorial site over the years. The scattered debris got me thinking about the risks we take in life. Are they worth it?
In my life, risky decisions usually prove to be very rewarding—from harvesting 13-foot gators with pocket knives to swimming with feisty sharks to sky diving in less than favorable wind conditions, and most presently, accepting the guest invitation for this spontaneous helicopter getaway. I didn’t think anything would trump the waterfall, but once again, these men surprised me with another unforgettable experience.
We took a pit stop in the middle of what I called a “glacier graveyard.” From the air, it was hard to grasp the grandiosity of these free-standing ice chunks. Upon landing, they made the helicopters look like a couple of hawks among a heard of mammoths. Okay, maybe that was a corny reference, but in all reality, these glaciers could have been around since the Ice Age. After stepping out of the helicopter, I jogged over to one of the glaciers and then ventured into a small ice cave. It was glowing a breathtaking shade of blue. A moment of realization set in: my feet may have been the first pair to ever walk on this piece of earth! I wanted to spend hours prancing around, leaving my imprint behind, but I had another unexpected thrill ride waiting for me back at the lodge.
Later that afternoon, I parted ways with those incredibly humble men and returned to the lodge. The fishing guides were already on the water, so Matt dropped me off at a nearby lodge where I could fish from the dock. I saw the salmon breaching the surface, but a cast with my spinning tackle was just out of range. I asked one of the employees if his lodge had any kayaks or paddle boards. With a bewildered look, he replied, “I think so, but I’ve never seen anyone use them.” We ended up finding two behind a barn, pulled one out, dusted it off, and launched it from the dock. I paddled over to a small grass patch and cast in the middle of those rolling salmon. Within minutes, I was hooked up. Where else on earth can you slide down huge ice chunks early in the day and then get pulled around on a salmon-powered sleigh ride? This was amazing!
The rest of my trip was spent learning a variety of fly fishing techniques. My guide and instructor, Ryan Davey, was extremely patient with me, considering this was my first time fly fishing. I wasn’t casting very far and missed dozens of strikes. Not only was I learning a new style of fishing, I was also learning a whole new vocabulary. We were using “strike indicators,” casting upstream, and “mending” with a slow “lift and lay of the line.” I was instructed to set the hook by lifting and pulling the line downstream. And after setting the hook, I had to “strip the line” and hold just enough tension without pulling the hook. It was a balancing act I was not used to. But the steps finally clicked, and eventually I landed my first fish on a fly—a jack king salmon! By the end of the day, I had caught several jack kings, dolly vardens, rainbow trout, and cohos—all on a fly!
With only two days left, I decided to fly out to Brooks Camp, also known as Katmai National Park and Preserve. This park is well known for its large population of brown bears that walk through the forestry, prance down the river’s edge, and sit at the base of the falls in search for a tasty meal. August is also a spectacular time to spot huge schools of sockeye salmon. Also known as red salmon, these fish play a crucial role in Katmai’s ecosystem. The salmon run begins in late June when the fish travel from Bristol Bay into the fresh water of the Naknek River. They begin spawning during the months of August and September. This creates an excellent fishery for rainbow trout by using beads and strike indicators, since the trout are feeding on salmon eggs. The goal is to make the bead look like a natural floating egg and then hope for a strike. Not only did I land several beautiful rainbow trout that afternoon, I also saw hundreds of sockeye and walked among a dozen brown bears.
My final day in Alaska was spent targeting one more species, the northern pike. Ryan drove us 45 minutes upriver until we found the secret honey hole. My excitement was building while he tied on a new fly. This time, I was using a topwater popper. After two or three throws and a pop, pop, pop of the fly, I saw my first wake and then a huge topwater strike! These “water wolves” were quite viscous. As long as I casted in their line of sight and made some kind of topwater ruckus, it was an almost-guaranteed strike. After releasing dozens of these predatory fish, we decided to head back towards the lodge and catch dinner. I was able to land two more cohos and a beautiful rainbow trout on a fly before my last hour was up. But this trip wasn’t complete. I had one more thing on my to-do list: swim in Alaska! So I took a victory dive into the Naknek, thanked God I didn’t go into hypothermic shock, and gave him my praises for such an incredible Alaskan adventure!
~By Amanda Gilbert
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Amanda Gilbert was born in Indiana and was raised fishing from the lake in her family’s backyard. Amanda’s dad was offered a job opportunity in Florida when she was 12 years old that he couldn’t pass up. So naturally, Amanda transitioned from bass fishing to tuna fishing in no time. Since then, she’s grown as a saltwater angler, SCUBA diver, free diver, spear fisherman, and hunter. Although Amanda loves pink, sparkles, heels, and jewelry, she also enjoys driving her big truck, wearing camo, and gettin’ dirty outside! Living life to the fullest is Amanda’s primary goal, and her career choice was perfect for that. Amanda is a certified Physician Assistant (PA) in the ER. Providing healthcare to her friends, family, and community members while bringing health, hope, and faith into their lives has been extremely rewarding for Amanda.