Alaska

Alaska

Take the kids. Watch your mouth.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
Crab Hunter

It happened last summer, while fishing in southeast Alaska with my six-year-old daughter, Tate—the first spontaneous F-bomb delivered inadvertently from my mouth to her ears.

We were fishing in Icy Straight with a college pal, Kent Sullivan, and his own daughter, five-year-old Finley. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t pulled Tate aside the previous evening and preached, “Now, you heard those fishermen on the dock say some words that you don’t hear mom and dad ever say, right?” I added, “Did it bother you?” Tate replied, “No, Dad. Actually, I thought it was kind of funny.”

Icy Straight is located west of Alaska’s capital city, Juneau, and runs on a westerly course, opening to the North Pacific near Glacier Bay. It’s a salmon highway during summer, attracting chrome-bright Chinook, coho, chum, pink and sockeye, all bound for myriad inland rivers and streams, such as the Taku. Many of those salmon end up cruising right along Juneau’s waterfront, offering a great beach-fishing opportunity.

This F-bomb debacle began when we decided to forgo our plan to fly-fish for halibut and, instead, trolled for cohos in the straight. We found good numbers and kept the girls busy hauling in four- to 10-pound salmon on conventional tackle, but as soon as the tide changed the bite was off and the girls’ interest faded fast. That’s when Kent started to reel in and a big coho struck. Kent said, “We want this one,” and as he brought the fish to the boat I reached for the net. But Kent shouted, “No, not the net. Get the gaff.”

“The gaff?” I squeaked. I hadn’t gaffed a salmon since college days, and I understood what a challenge that could be, requiring a perfect strike if we didn’t want a fish thrashing wildly around the boat.

As the fish neared I struck at its head, but only nicked the gill plate. That fish went wild and I quickly relinquished the gaff to Kent. To deal with my disgust I launched that F-bomb across the salt water. That’s when Tate said, with a note of amusement in her voice, as if she’d caught Dad with his hand in the cookie jar, “Oh, so now you’re saying it, too.” I hadn’t realized that Tate was outside the warm, heated cabin and on deck. I squinted at her, laughed a little and said, “Hey, what are you doing out here?” Then I turned to Kent, who had a 10-pound coho hanging off the gaff—plus a big “you got caught” grin on his face—and said, “Doy!”

With that fish on ice we headed for Juneau, an hour-and-a-half jog home. When we arrived in the lee of Shelter Island just as the girls were beginning to seriously tire and revolt—“Dad, do I have to wear this lifejacket?”; “Dad, when will we get there?”; “Dad, don’t we have anything to eat?”; “Dad, when will we get there?”; “Dad, can we watch a video?”; “Dad, when will we get there?”; “Dad, do we have any chips?”—Kent spotted a flock of birds hovering over the water. He cut the engine and shouted, “Girls, quick, come here!” That’s when seven bubble-feeding humpback whales smashed through the surface. Herring and frothy-white salt spray flew through the air; gulls dived into the fray; and a couple of brave sea lions carved between the whales gathering wounded baitfish. We were just 50 yards away and the girls shouted, “Wow!” For the first time I saw a look of pure, indescribable amazement on Tate’s face. I wrapped my arms around her. She looked into my eyes, searching for words. She blinked a few times. I smiled and waited. Then she said, “Oh my gosh, Dad. Can we move to Alaska?”

This trip took shape a year ago, when I decided that Tate was old enough to enjoy and remember Alaska. And it replicated my fortunate youth when, each year, my parents sucked up the financial burden and hauled my sister and me out of Seattle and planted us in Petersburg, a beautiful, fun-loving southeast Alaska town nicknamed “Little Norway.” Petersburg rests at the north end of Wrangell Narrows and provides great fishing for salmon, cod, halibut, sea-run cutthroat and dolly varden. Juneau offers the same beauty and great fishing and it’s a place, I determined, where a kid might gain appreciation for the immensity of landscape and develop lifelong passion for all things wild, including fish. Plus, Kent lives there. And he has a boat.

Juneau isn’t just about fishing, and I knew this would be key when spending a week in The Great Land with a six-year-old. When Tate and I touched down in the capital city, just two hours after lifting off from Seattle, we met an awaiting shuttle, which took us on a 20-minute drive to Mendenhall Glacier. There we studied icebergs and the face of the giant glacier, and we scoped mountain goats on the high peaks. Tate touched and tasted real glacier ice and she climbed around on unique rock formations. Then we toured the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, and Tate petted coastal grizzly bear hides and ran her fingers through real glacial silt—rubbing it off on her pants, of course. Outside, we hiked on a boardwalk trail where we saw bear paths along a stream stuffed with spawning sockeye salmon. We also saw two porcupines, at super close range. A couple hours later we were lounging in our room at the Prospector Hotel, just a couple blocks from downtown, when I asked, “Tate, what do you want to eat?” She replied, “Salmon and crab.” I knew from previous visits, there was one place to go—a locals’ favorite called The Hangar. As I sipped on an Alaskan Amber, just one of a hundred beers on tap, and Tate sucked down lemonade, we watched seaplanes take off and land on Gastineau Channel. Small open skiffs bounced on the choppy surface, and a couple sea kayakers paddled by. Soon a massive cruise ship arrived and a small city offloaded. Tate said, “Glad we got here when we did, Dad.”

Juneau is sometimes maligned because it serves as the state’s capital even though it’s located far away from Alaska’s major population base, Anchorage. There are no roads in or out of Juneau, meaning visitors must arrive by air or boat. And thousands of people do arrive by boat, especially during summer months when cruise ships stack up in port and tourists infiltrate the beautiful town of 30,000. While some people view those cruise ships and tourists with a regretful eye, the local economy prospers. Lots of quaint shops, bars and restaurants run steady business in June, July and August, and fishing charters share in the bounty, including Brad Elfers’ Juneau Fly Fishing Goods, which serves as the area’s top fly-fishing resource.

I am a hardcore angler and I want Tate to be, but I understand that progression must take place at her pace. So each day in Juneau I asked, “Tate, do you want to fish?” and each time, with one exception you’ll soon learn about, she asked, “Is Finley going?”

That first day on the water Tate landed a small Chinook salmon, along with a few pinks and a coho. Finley also landed pinks and she boated a small, chicken halibut, too. Kent said, “This would be a good one for dinner, but we’ll catch more,” and promptly released that flatfish. That’s when the anchor debacle occurred. Then we were at the mercy of the tide, and we couldn’t stay on the “halibut hump.” Before long we turned the bow toward Juneau, totally halibutless.

Before long, we pulled into a cove and Kent backed off the throttle. Soon we were pulling a couple Dungeness crab pots, which came aboard suspiciously empty. “Someone pulled my pots,” Kent lamented. Tate and Finley saw the dejection in their fathers’ faces and asked for an explanation.

I said, “Some losers stole the crab out of our pots,” adding, “and because of that those people will eat fresh crab tonight and we won’t.”

Tate said, “That is not fair.”

I replied, “I know. That’s why those people are going to hell.” Kent looked at me strangely. I raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. “What?”

No sweat. As we motored out of the cove Kent recognized a friend’s boat working king crab pots in deeper water. We cruised alongside and were the beneficiaries of that; we motored away with two magnum red kings. A while later, safely on shore and with the boat scrubbed and washed, Kent plucked a mass of boiled king crab out of a kitchen pot while his wife, Jill, loaded small, stainless-steel cups with butter and lemon, and placed them over individual open flames. I was already at the table, nestled over a plate, digging into the “tail” section of the crab, just the beginning of some severe shellfish gluttony. A while later, with a bunch of empty shells resting in a bowl, Jill implored, “Eat more. Eat more.” Fortunately, I didn’t and the next evening Tate and I were back at the Sullivans’ making king crab wontons and super-garlicky Caesar salad, a classic Alaskan meal. Later, as Tate and I grabbed a cab to the Prospector Kent shouted, “We’ll be at the hotel at nine to pick you guys up. Let’s go to Icy Straight again.”

And here’s where I had to rein in my angling enthusiasm. Because the next morning, after Kent had gassed up the boat and bought groceries for a long day-trip, Tate said, “Dad, I really don’t want to go out on the boat today.”

I told Kent the news, then headed into Juneau. Tate and I walked to the capital building and strolled every floor, taking in the old photos, historic and framed newspaper clippings, and outstanding art. Then we hit the downtown area and looked for a souvenir—a stuffed husky toy, by Tate’s request. After that we grabbed a late breakfast at the Sandpiper—sourdough ricotta pancakes for Tate and eggs benedict for me. Thoroughly fueled, we walked to the Alaska State Museum and spent a couple of hours viewing an amazing collection of coastal native art and wildlife dioramas. And then I called Kent.

“Kent,” I said, “Tate wants to fish from the beach by the hatchery again, where all those chums and pinks are, but she needs some Xtra Tufs like Finley’s so she doesn’t get her feet wet. If Finley is in, Tate would love to see her again.”

Soon Tate and Finley were strutting around in new Xtra Tufs, as proud as some senior girls might be in prom dresses, and Kent and I were helping them cast flies for those salmon, which were churning up the water about 10 feet from shore.

Shortly, all within site of the offices of the Juneau Empire, the city’s major newspaper, Tate and Finley had landed several pinks and, with the help of Kent, one oversized and very toothy dog salmon.

That’s when the girls’ turned attention to the hatchery and its “petting pool.” The pool allows kids to touch and even hold live baby king crabs, hermit crabs, starfish, sea cucumbers, sculpin and shrimp, among other interesting creatures. I believe if Kent and I had allowed, Tate and Finley would still be at the hatchery, probably holding official curator positions by now.

But we didn’t allow that, and after a short drive to Douglas Island Kent and I had the girls casting into King Salmon Creek, to another slug of pinks and chums. That’s where I snapped a photo of Tate proudly displaying a pink salmon she’d just caught on a fly, wearing those Xtra Tufs and a new shirt emblazoned with Alaska: The Last Frontier. I saw a little of my youth in her bright eyes, a level of achievement and wonder that comes from exposing kids to Alaska and all it offers, foundations, I hoped, for a life spent admiring and being active in the outdoors. Tate’s expression made me think that maybe I didn’t get to do as much fishing as I’d have liked, and I didn’t get to throw a fly for king salmon, and I didn’t get to check out some of the pubs that looked interesting . . . but, seriously, I wouldn’t have traded my experience with Tate for any self-serving, independent angling streak anywhere in the world.

The following morning Tate and I hustled to Juneau’s Mount Roberts Tram, which begins on the waterfront and rises 1,745 feet to a terminal that offers expansive views of the city and beyond. Then it was off the mountain and out to the airport, sadly bidding farewell to Juneau.

The following day, while driving from Seattle to our home in Ennis, Montana, we passed Missoula and, having a feeling about our family’s future, I said, “Tate, if we end up in Missoula that will be a good place for us. You’ll like it.”

Tate responded, “Yeah Dad, maybe. But Missoula is a long way from Alaska, and Alaska is where I really want to be.”

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s managing editor, and he owns and operates the edgy Web site Angler’s Tonic. He’s soon moving to Missoula, Montana.