b>Saltery Lake Lodge – Kodiak, Alaska
Milton Sams and I left Atlanta on Saturday August 21 for a week in Alaska. We flew Delta direct to Anchorage and then took a Dash 8 operated by Era Airlines to Kodiak arriving at 11:00 PM on the last flight of the day. After getting our bags and finding out that the Best Western’s shuttle driver failed to report for work that day, we began the process of locating a taxi. About 11:45 they turned out the lights and locked up the airport terminal leaving us and our bags standing outside. The taxi came at midnight and delivered us to our hotel, about 5 miles away.
For weeks whenever I told anyone that I was going to Kodiak the first comment, without fail, was, “don’t get eaten by the bears.” I had come to expect that from people in Atlanta but I was not prepared for the Kodiak taxi driver to immediately tell us that the authorities had just killed a bear that had become an aggressive nuisance. I assumed that the Kodiak locals would be rather passé concerning the bears.
At 7:35 AM on Sunday Doyle Hatfield, co-owner of Saltery Lake Lodge, called to say that it was too foggy to fly. We were to have been picked up by the lodge’s float plane for the 20 minute flight to Saltery Lake. Doyle said that they would pick us up at 11:00 and drive us to the lodge, so we headed to breakfast.
As we sat down to the hotel’s breakfast, enjoying the view of the harbor through the rain and fog, in walks Tyson Reed! Here we are on an island 3,800 miles from Atlanta and we meet an AFFC member. Our club members sure get around! Tyson and his boss had been on business in Anchorage and came to Kodiak for the weekend to do a little fishing. Oh, they did plan to make some prospecting calls while they were there.
Doyle met us in the hotel lobby and shortly thereafter his business partner, Bill Franklin, pulled up in a well used Chevy suburban. The lodge is about 30 miles from Kodiak, the first 12 miles are on the highway and the last 18 miles are over what could generously be described as an ATV trail. It seems this “road” was built by Seabees during World War II. It was abandoned shortly after the war and has been unmaintained since then. To give you a sense of the road, it takes two and one-half hours to cover the 18 miles. It was amazing what that jacked-up, four-wheel-drive suburban could drive over or through.
Bill pointed out that their lodge was the only lodge on the island that could be reached by land. All of the other lodges are fly-in only and their expected guests were left sitting in Kodiak until the next day. This is one of the conditions that pressures bush pilots to fly in marginal weather and contributes to the high accident rate in Alaska, which is twice the national average. The road seemed like a good idea to me. Incidentally, that very day a Beaver, carrying three park service employees and a pilot, went down and had not been found a week later when we left.
We arrived at the lodge and as we were taken to our cabin to settle in we saw a bear swimming across the lake. We had a quick, late lunch and Geoff Abramczyk, our guide for the week, led us on the short walk to Lake Creek where we fished for Dolly Varden trout for a couple of hours before dinner. As we came out of the bushes on the edge of the creek we happened upon the bear that we had seen swimming. She was finishing off a sockeye salmon and ran away as we approached. Geoff said that she was a three year old cub that liked to hang around the lodge. She looked big to me.
The lodge is located on the shore of Saltery Lake, a clear 20 acre lake surrounded by mountains. The lake is fed by Lake Creek and empties into the Saltery River. The river flows about two and a half miles to Ugak Bay. The salmon; first the sockeye, then the pinks and finally the silvers, swim up the river to the lake where they stage for a while before they swim up Lake Creek to spawn. The silver run was just beginning.
Lake Creek is small water by Alaska standards…about the size of a large Smokey Mountain stream. It was filled with bright red spawning sockeye salmon. I caught several Dollies using the same bead technique that we used on my trips to the Kenai River, although these fish are generally smaller; in the 12 to 18 inch range. As I fished my way upstream I saw the second bear of the trip and even at 50 yards he looked really big. He paid no attention to me and just kept fishing. I paid attention to him and quit fishing.
Monday was a clear and sunny day. We went to the lower Saltery River where I caught 5 chum salmon, two were quite large. In the afternoon we caught mostly Dolly Varden. I did get one small silver salmon.
Tuesday was another clear and sunny day, quite unusual according the lodge staff. After breakfast we noticed a bear sitting on the shore of the lake next to the lodge’s boat; right in front of our cabin. We decided to spend the day fishing Lake Creek. Geoff said this was prime bear territory and as it turned out he was right. Milton and I caught Dollies all day; we must have landed 30 to 40 fish each. Some were quite large. We fished all morning then hiked back to the lodge for lunch. After lunch we hiked back to where we left off and continued to fish upstream. We encountered bears at regular intervals all day.
We first saw a large boar (male bear). He was upstream and upwind so he couldn’t smell us right away. We hollered to let him know we were there and he stood up to get a better view of us before ambling off into the woods; quite a sight to see such a large bear raise up on his hind legs. Next a blond sow with two juvenile cubs appeared in the stream. The sow wasn’t aware of our presence and began to lead the cubs downstream toward us. We hollered and the cubs heard us and appeared to be curious. The sow was oblivious and kept leading her family downstream. When we finally got her attention she turned and ran from the river with the cubs splashing behind. As if that weren’t enough, shortly another bear ambled out of the woods in about the same area.
Once the bears cleared out we continued upstream and finally reached what appeared to be the end of the Dolly Varden water. On our way out we fished some of the best runs and holes with the goal of keeping enough fish to feed the lodge for lunch on Wednesday. We had not kept any to this point because we did not want to be carrying fish for very long in bear country. We quickly accumulated a nice string of 16 to 18 inch Dollies and, naturally, we encountered another bear.
Geoff said it was one of the three year olds that have begun staying in the vicinity of the lodge. She was downstream of us, knew we were there, and was in no hurry to leave. She sat like a dog, scratching her ear and then laid down to take a nap, pretty much blocking our route downstream. We hollered at her for several minutes to no avail so I picked up a large stick and began beating on a log. This racket was sufficiently annoying to cause her to get up and amble into the woods; rather lethargic. We would encounter her again.
As we came to the last run we planned to fish there she was; asleep on a gravel bar about 50 yards away from the stream. This particular run was guaranteed to hold big fish. It was a classic deep run under a huge fallen tree. I had fished it on the way up and botched the cast so I was determined to have another go at it. This time the cast was perfect and the fish was right where he was supposed to be. Hook up! As soon as the fish broke water for the first time I looked over my shoulder to check on the bear. She was no longer asleep! Apparently she just wanted someone to do the fishing for her. She stood up and took a step and I yelled. She stopped and finally laid back down about the time I landed the fish. That was my last fish of the day.
Wednesday was once again a clear and sunny day. We went back to the lower section of the Saltery River hoping that more silvers had moved in overnight. I caught a big humpy (pink salmon) and then foul hooked about 20 more. That is the problem with the pinks. They are thick in the river and once they get into spawning mode they don’t seem to eat, they just manage to get foul hooked.
After lunch we took the boat across the lake to the “bay”, as the lower end of the lake is called. I caught 3 silvers and 2 dollies and Milton caught 2 silvers, one of which was very large. We also feasted on Salmonberries that grow on the lakeshore; they look like raspberries and are very good. I wonder if they get their name because they are ripe when the salmon runs take place.
We saw only one bear on Wednesday, the Oreo bear, so called by the guides because she had dark brown fur on the rear half of her body and blond fur on the front half and a dark head.
Thursday was overcast, finally. We hoped for better fishing because under cloudy skies it is harder for the fish to see us. We went to the “bed springs” hole in the middle Saltery River looking for silvers. I caught a silver, several dollies and three rainbows. One of the rainbows was 18” which is pretty large for this river. According to Geoff this is one of the few places on the river where rainbows can be found. We saw one bear. She was upstream coming toward us. When she became aware of us she went into the woods and after a few minutes came out downstream, just as I was catching my large rainbow. After lunch we went back to the middle river below bed springs and caught more dollies and a couple of rainbows.
Bill and Doyle came in Thursday afternoon and spent the night. Bill flew in and Doyle drove bringing four 55 gallon drums of fuel for the generator. The lodge and cabins have power 24/7 supplied by a generator and battery backup system that Nathan maintains. The lodge’s fleet of vehicles includes 4 suburbans, used by the guides and Nathan, two pickup trucks (I’m not sure if these even run) and a tractor. All of the suburbans and trucks predate 1995. These are the vehicles that stay at the lodge. There is another old suburban and a Ford pickup that are based in Kodiak but make supply runs to the lodge. Keeping these vehicles running, especially considering the abuse they take, requires a lot of mechanical know-how. Bill and Nathan do all of the maintenance; I get the impression that there is nothing they can’t fix. Bill began replacing the bearings in the front axle of one of the suburbans on Thursday afternoon. It turned into a multi-day project. He worked on it until about midnight on Thursday and a good part of the day on Friday. Nathan planned to finish the job on Saturday. People in Alaska have to be self-sufficient and pretty resourceful.
Friday dawned foggy but by late afternoon the sun was out. We went to the lower river and I caught a couple of pinks and a big chum. Just before lunch we went to the “lower hole” which is actually at the upper end of the river, above the weir and just below the lake. No fish, but we saw a bear on the other side of the river. After lunch we went back to the bay and it was dead so we went to the mouth of Lake Creek. I caught my first arctic char; the first of several. They look very much like dollies (which are char) but they also look like big brook trout (which also are char); they have the same white markings on the lower fins. I also caught a few dollies and Milton must have landed 20 good sized dollies in the span of an hour.
Bill left after dinner on Friday to fly back to Kodiak. We all went out onto the lawn to see him take off. In about 5 minutes he was back. There was a problem with the trim setting on the plane. Out came the tools and after a quick check Bill determined that the jack screws that adjust the trim were stripped. He was able to get it locked into a “nose up” setting that would enable him to fly back to Kodiak with a lot of physical effort pushing down on the controls. It did not seem likely that Bill would be able to pick us up in the plane on Saturday morning. It probably did not matter because Saturday dawned foggy and Milton and I had an 11:25AM flight out of Kodiak. We had to begin the 3 hour road trip into Kodiak by 7:45. The ride was no less arduous the second time.
I had a six hour layover in Anchorage before my non-stop flight to Atlanta left at 7:35PM. Milton’s flight to Salt Lake didn’t leave until 1:20 AM Sunday; he had to hang around the Anchorage airport for 13 hours! Ugh. Milton was going to Billings, Montana to meet his brother for a few more days of fishing on the Big Horn River.