VALDEZ, Alaska (MCT) — As she rowed a raft to a productive fishing spot on the Robe River, Stephanie Holcomb’s eyes suddenly widened and she uttered the words no one wants to hear from this or her fishing guide.
I slowly turned to see what had her so worried and saw a huge grizzly bear staring at us, not the least bit intimidated by our presence.
“Usually, they’ll turn and run when they see fishermen coming,” said Holcomb, who runs a guide service near Valdez. “But this one worries me. This is probably where he has been fishing for salmon and he doesn’t like us being here.”
After several minutes of trying to scare the bear away, Holcomb watched as the bruin circled around, then slipped into the river and began swimming away. That gave her the chance to row back to the dock and rush inside her log home.
Moments later, she returned with a friend carrying a big rifle.
“He’s going out with us in case that bear comes back,” she said. “He’ll be our protection.”
It’s the first time I’ve ever fished with an armed guard. Luckily, he wasn’t needed.
The bear went off his own way, we caught silver salmon and this story had a happy ending.
Hey, I was looking for adventure when I planned my trip to Alaska, and that’s what I found.
We don’t have creatures that want to eat us when we go fishing in Missouri or Kansas.
But that’s only one of the things that added to the intrigue of Alaska, an outdoorsman’s version of the Magic Kingdom. I had been there once before, but on a cruise.
That’s no way to see the state, in my opinion. We took brief excursions and got a taste of what makes Alaska special, but you need to be on the ground to really get the feel for what the wilderness state is all about.
You need to travel the roads that cut through some of the most awe-inspiring scenery you’ll ever lay eyes on. You need to talk to the people and get a feel for what the wilderness spirit is all about. You need to get out on the wild rivers and experience the fishing everyone always raves about.
When I found out that the national Outdoor Writers Association of America was having its annual conference there this year, that gave me my chance.
I set out with visions of grandeur and Alaska didn’t disappoint. It took me 4,500 air miles to get there. And once there, I put another 1,650 miles on my rental car.
Along the way, I learned that even in the wilderness, you’ll find the orange barrels and cones of construction zones. Traffic often came to a halt when a flagman stopped one lane of traffic so that construction crews could do their work.
I also learned that you’d better stop whenever you see the rare gas station or restaurant. They’re few and far between.
But there was a reward for the remoteness of those roads. Every turn offered new treasure. I marveled at snow-capped mountain peaks, waterfalls, countless creeks bubbling out of the mountains, and hillsides colored bright yellow from the changing leaves of aspen and birch trees. I briefly drove through snow in mountain passes, I fished in world-famous venues, sand I took a dog-sled ride on bare ground, not snow, at the Chena Hot Springs Resort near Fairbanks.
I sat in restaurants and bars and listened to talk that centered on fishing and hunting. My kind of places. I listened to the residents talk about the snow that the mountains had received the previous night, a sign that winter was on its way. And I talked to people such as Holcomb, who looks forward to winter in the remote wilderness.
“I came here to ski and snowboard,” she said. “I worked with a business that offered heli-skiing, and I still do that myself.
“But it’s the guiding for salmon that is the most fun for me. A lot of people come here and catch their fish of a lifetime.”