Kickin' Back on the Kenai

Cheechako
  |  Gorp.com

Things have the potential to get tense in Alaska. It's wise,therefore, to honestly assess your coping skills. I was told, forexample, about a pilot who once dropped a hunter deep in the bush. Theman insisted he knew the ways of the wild. He had his gun, his food, andhis pepper spray to fend off bears. Nothin' to worry about. Whereuponthe pilot took off and watched in amazement as the guy squirtedpepper spray all over himself as if it was insect repellant. Hecollapsed in a helpless, twitching heap. The pilot turned around,loaded the "hunter" back on the plane, and hauled him back tocivilization where he belonged.

"Cheechako" is the Eskimo word for tinhorn. Driving SterlingHighway across the midsection of the peninsula — chewing on thatpepper spray story?I resist the temptation to pass myself off as afisherman. This part of Alaska is arguably the angling capital of theworld. During high season, lines get cast 'round the clock. People"combat fish" shoulder-to-shoulder for miles along the shore. TheKenai River is one of the most storied battlegrounds. I pull into a boatlaunch site near the tiny townlet of Cooper Landing. Guide JoshDougherty is tying flies on three clients' poles at water's edge,making ready for departure. It's the tail end of a lower-than-normalcoho salmon run. I ask what the Kenai River is like in the height ofsummer when, say, sockeye fever strikes and the fish hooks fly.

"It's a good placed to get pierced," Dougherty says. "That's whywe go out in a boat."

I opt for a raft. There's an adventure travel company locatedjust upstream that offers twilight rides on the river. I book a seat onthe spur of the moment. Vickie Burton, a British investment bankerturned guide, mans the oars. There are six passengers, and our soleresponsibility is not to fall overboard. "Will we see any bears?"everyone asks. We see pine martens, silver salmon, bald eagles, Dallsheep in the distant hills, and an abandoned miner's cabin. No bears.

"I understand they saw a bear earlier today," Burton sayscheerily.

Nobody really buys that. The ol' saw-'em-earlier-in-the-dayline. We beach the raft after a three-hour glide and start unloadingour gear. Suddenly, there they are: three brown bears — a mother andtwo cubs — are "fishing" directly across the river, working the leeside of a mini-island that hugs the shore. They stare intently at therippling water, then swipe a paw at some unseen target, as often as notsnaring a wriggling salmon. The bears were having a good day. Allthree appeared to be well over the one-coho-apiece fishing limit.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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