When on a multi-stage expeditionary type of adventure like the one we took to Alaska, it’s important to have a base. Something that grounds the trip, whether physically or objectively. For the whirlwind through Brooks Falls, Lake Creek, and Montana Creek, NakNek was really our homebase.
The river feeds into Bristol Bay, one of the best salmon rivers in the world. Need I say more?
We were fortunate enough to fly out with some people I do business with, who happened to know the owner of a massive 7,000 square foot lodge — a private residence, really, but converted to a lodge thanks to the generosity of Linden Transports’ owner. Clients and guests, people who love to fish, he opens his doors and welcomes us all to the great Alaskan wilderness, right there on the NakNek River in peak fishing season.
We flew in from Anchorage and took a long dirt road out to this remote house, sitting on a gorgeous river like a painting.
When you think Alaskan lodge, your brain immediately jumps to snowy white drifts, tree limbs heavy with fresh powder and little icicles dangling like diamonds, or puffs of gray smoke spiraling gently up into a winter night from the stony mouth of a chimney jutting out through the snow on the roof. Think again.
The first day we got there was calm and beautiful, 70 degree weather and untouched blue skies. The lodge immediately delivered a five star experience with some incredible, amazing food whipped up by a great lady named Paulette, who seemed completely devoted to making us feel comfortable (and comfortably full) throughout our visit.
We got in around 7:00 pm. Alaska summers don’t bring darkness until midnight, if at all, so we ate quickly and headed out to fish. I caught some rainbow trout right off the dock while salmon jumped in the background, as if they were greeting me with wet hellos.
The river is about 23 miles long, but for a moment in time its might and grandeur is reduced to this little bend. Had anyone bothered to check a watch, they’d see the little numbers flashing 10:00, but we were a few beers in and totally unconcerned by trivial things like time.
We told stories in solemn tones that cracked quickly into raucous laughter. We were between delirious fun — the simple joys of camaraderie and catching trout with casual ease — and the sobering realization that we were sitting in the most beautiful wilderness this planet has to offer.
And any time the gravity became too serious, something would lighten it up. We flowed along a steady stream of emotions, tranquil as the waters beside us, and then suddenly we saw a grizzly bear across the way, just rolling down the hill!
He got right down to the bank and disappeared into the thick brush, which gave us all a kick. He seemed to be playing around and frolicking, more or less just like we were. Later on, I looked over again hoping to see him, and I saw him midriver, swimming across. It’s about 100 yards and we marveled at his strength. By the time he made it to our bank, he disappeared into the brush again and I just knew in my gut it was about to be an amazing trip.
NakNek may be famous for its salmon runs, but unfortunately we didn’t time it right during the fish frenzy. We caught a few, but not as many as you’d think or as we’d hoped. We met some great people, coming and going from this lodge — fishermen and women, just like us, all floating through and stopping just long enough to swap a few stories, drink a few beers, and learn about Alaska from the local perspectives.
We caught some salmon, caught some pike, and caught a few rainbow trout. Maybe I’m being pessimistic about the total because the rest of Alaska, looking back, spoiled us so much. There were times when Alaska really felt to me like the way John Smith had described America in his letters back to England — the paradise where fish happily jump right into your canoe.
What I felt I lacked in fish there at our homebase, we made up for with scenery. We saw 7 bears, including some mamas and their cubs, we saw eagles plummet through the air to pluck fish right out of the clear flowing waters of this big, wide, clear river.
The river itself had inlets flowing in and out. Like I said, it’s primarily fished for king salmon, and if you drift down the river and troll the plug behind just right, you hope they hit. They just weren’t running for us. Maybe there’s only room for so many kings in one place at any one time, and if that rule exists in the universe then it makes perfect sense. We couldn’t possibly catch the king salmon we’d hoped when we were feasting with our tremendous host in our little pioneer kingdom, living like lords and making new friendships to last a lifetime.
Or we were probably just unlucky, which is great. Because it means I’ll just have to go back.