It’s been a couple years since I traveled to Alaska and a couple years seems like way too long. Last time, I came with a handful of friends to explore the Kenai Peninsula and drive around the interior a bit. That trip was incredible with plenty of fishing, laughs, and site-seeing. The opportunity came up this year to go back and highlight some of the good times I had before but from a new perspective through the lens my job at Fieldcraft Survival provides. How do you attempt to replicate the awesome group chemistry you naturally had with your friends but this time in front of a camera for the audience to enjoy. The answer is, you don’t. You must simply trust you will have a great time in this rugged environment. When you have an opportunity to go back to Alaska, you don’t pass it up. While the world has changed some since 2019 when I was last here, I’m happy to report there is something familiar about this land. You see, the less things change the more the land keeps calling me back.
Much like my last trip to Alaska in 2019, the halibut fishing trip we planned was cancelled to bad weather. This time around, we flexed and looked to see what we could do instead of belly-aching about not being able to go. We discovered a local canoe outfitter and were pleasantly surprised with what we found. The outfitter gave us a serious break in the rental and livery fee and we canoed 11 miles from Skilak Lake to Bing’s Landing. This trip was epic with plenty of wildlife sightings including bald eagles, Coho salmon, and fishermen losing their cool when the catch of the day got off the line. Whenever we stopped, we found wild edibles everywhere including rose hips, salmon berries, and other sweets. This trip turned out to be an incredible way to see the river, poke fun at one another, take product photos and instagram videos, and slow down the pace we traveled. The bonus was the relationship we formed with the canoe shop owner who entertained us with her animated stories about customers, politics, world travel and more.
Bush Plane Experience
There is no travel like that found in a bush plane. On my first trip here in 2016, I experienced this for the first time and just like my last trip and this one, the experience is simply incredible. There is something about cramming into a plane that is decades old, rebuilt, and essentially a flying tank. The plane of choice for most bush pilots is the DeHaviland Beaver and just like all the other times, our pilot was a serious flyer capable of landing that plane anywhere. We took off from High West Adventures and flew over to the Kustatan River. The ride was exceptionally smooth except for a few pockets of air that resulted in a turbulent drop or two. We wanted to land on a lake to fish from a boat but the weather didn’t cooperate. The pilot gave us a choice of either turning around and heading back to our start or landing and bank fishing. We didn’t come this far to come only this far. We chose the latter and the pilot gracefully put down the plane at Sib’s Cabin. When we landed, we found frost on the dock and plants along with an eerie fog just over the water. The sun was still rising and burning off the fog and turning the bad weather day in one location into a perfect blue-bird sky day here.
Silver Salmon Fishing
Alaska is home to one of the greatest fisheries on the planet. You can’t travel to Alaska and not fish. When we landed the plane at Sib’s Cabin, I admittedly thought we weren’t going to catch anything. Last time, our guide was prestaged and he knew exactly where the run was. I was pessimistic this random run would pay out as it wasn’t the primary choice. It was a sandy bank that was about a 5 minute walk from the lake. Since we planned on fishing from the boat, only 2 of the guys in my trip had hip boots and two had knee-high boots. This meant we had to piggyback carry those guys to the island spot we fished from. When we threw our cured egg sacks into the water, it wasn’t more than a half hour before the silvers started hitting and my negative thoughts disappeared. The fisherman positioned to the front of the run would hook up, then the next, and so on as the fish came in spurts. I wasn’t optimistic at first but that changed when I realized the number of fish that swim through this waterway. We limited out with 3 a piece and caught some serious fish. By the end of the trip, we packed out 33 lbs of fish in nicely packaged portions.
Part of this trip to Alaska included podcasting Dan Bigley. He is a brown bear survivor who was blinded by a bear on the Russian River in 2003. We first learned about him last time when his friend Jeremy “Jaha” Anderson of the Silvertip Lodge recommended his book. It was incredible listening to that book as we drove to Denali. This time around, we sat down with him face-to-face and we learned even more. What amazed us was the idea that he was really in the wrong place at the wrong time and there simply was nothing he could have done to change the trajectory of the day’s events. Despite the outcome, the man has made a great life for himself and is a success story. Part of this trip required going to the scene of the mauling and we actually spotted a brown bear at the river feasting on the salmon run. The whole week we were in bear territory but this drove home the idea that they are in the area. We had seen signs and tracks but to see one of these creatures move so gracefully and efficiently was humbling. We carried revolvers and bear spray but we knew we would rather use distance, the size of our group, noise, and awareness to prevent a run in. As gorgeous as this land is, you can’t be lulled into a false sense of security. You are not at the top of the food chain here. Just when you think you can sit back and enjoy the scenery, that’s when bad things happen. You have to be on top of your guard here.
The Less Things Change
I’ve heard people say “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” That may be true but Alaska is still largely undeveloped and the river you visit today will likely look that way in a few years too. That is what I experienced. The less things change, the more you get to experience the same great time in the wilderness. This is why I will always be drawn back to the 49th state and what it has to offer. Change isn’t always a good thing when you have a picture-perfect destination like Alaska.
I’m glad you did not pass up another opportunity to go to Alaska! Sounds like (as always) AK was not a letdown, and that is amazing you got to meet Dan. Since 2019 I’ve read his book several more times. Good times and memories to cherish!
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Kevin Estela is a Survival Instructor at Estela Wilderness Education. Kevin is a frequent contributing writer for publications such as RECOIL, Athlon Outdoors, and Beckett Media. He is a Sayoc Kali Associate Instructor Level 5, as well as a BJJ Purple Belt.