WHEN NATURE OPENS THE BUFFET - AN ALASKA SUBSISTENCE JOURNEY

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MARK SIREK
MARK SIREK Administrator Posts: 296
edited April 1 in OUR STORIES

Words and Photos from Rick, Joe, and Pancho

(Joe) This trip really started for all of us almost 20 years ago, when we all worked together counting fish. Bob, our supervisor at the time, found enlightenment in the adventures of his Fish Technician employees (us) at field camp, and we all quickly became friends. When planning this trip, we wanted to include our friend Bob and his remote cabin property, so we decided to coordinate logistics to finish our journey there. "There" just happened to be about 60 miles away from our starting point, with nothing but carnivore-infested land and exposed tidal waterways in between.  

(Rick) When we worked together, we were all at different camps and had a tradition: Subsistence Saturday. We would make a nice meal out of whatever we could get our hands on and share our successes and failures over the sideband radio at night. Later, we talked about doing wilderness trips where we traveled light and foraged for our food along the way.

Pancho and I tried it out in Russia, shorting ourselves two dinners on an 18-day trip. Incredibly, we didn't catch any of the giant rainbows famous in Kamchatka, despite using the sophisticated "CondomRod" ultralight fly rod prototype (this is not a Hyperlite product–yet! Hint hint: Hyperlite!). There was only a single tributary that wasn't running brown due to recent rains, and one bite on our fly was all we got. The only thing eating for the next few days were the clouds of ravenous blackflies and mosquitoes that freely gorged on our pale, skinny bodies.

We tried again the next year in Iceland, again shorting ourselves a few meals on a long trip. This time, we focused on saltwater species and were rewarded with a giant flounder that staved off our hunger for half an hour.

(Rick) As we began discussing our reunion trip back in Alaska, it became clear this was an ideal time to realize our dream of a subsistence wilderness journey. Armed with a fly rod, a spinning rod, a hand line, a jug of oil, ghee, butter, flour, and spices, plus snacks and choice breakfasts like this, we set off on our quest.

Our travel took us through a variety of terrain using a variety of modes of travel. We paddled on salt water, across a long lake, down a marshy river, and through a mini-gorge, and hiked along the coast, through open meadows and spruce forest, and bushwhacked through Devil's Club and cow parsnip and alder jungle. The route let us avoid exposed waters and avoided the longer stretches of nasty bushwhack.

We found fishing success immediately, catching kelp greenling for our first meal, followed by pink salmon, then sockeye salmon. Yes! We know what we are doing and are super cool!

And then–we hit a patch of ocean that was barren of fish. We had hiked, then paddled and fished all day en route to our camp that night. Once at camp, we jigged. And jigged. And jigged. And the sun dipped low on the horizon at some unknown hour of the Alaskan evening. And we jigged. And two of us quit jigging and retreated to shore, resigned to eating some nuts and dried fruit for dinner. But then–could it be? Yes! Pancho rolled in with a freshly caught cod in tow. That is worth a big hug for the returning hero!

(Rick) It wasn't the only night we faced a skinny meal. One evening, we could only catch some tiny lingcod, and we resigned ourselves to making a humble soup. I was tied off to a piece of kelp with my handline when I saw Pancho far off in the bay making some funny splashes. As we started towards him, he began paddling for shore. We could see his rod bent over as he paddled–must be something on the line! Just as he reached the beach, the rod snapped upright. A perfect 20 lb halibut had just broken off. Noooooo! In the bay, Pancho had been unable to land the fish without risking a potentially lethal treble hook rip in his packraft, so he made for shore. Our stomachs grumbling, we headed back out into the bay for a last-ditch effort while Joe prepared the soup fire. And Pancho hooked another one! Again, we were unsuccessful at landing the fish in our boats. Even with two of us, we tensely paddled to shore, this time with Joe, to wade in and receive the rod before the boat beached. Success! We feasted on round after round of delicious buttery fried fish.

(Rick) We caught kelp greenling, pink salmon, sockeye salmon, pacific cod, lingcod, halibut, flounder, and rainbow trout. When we referred to previous days of the trip, we used the names of the fish we had for dinner that night ("Oh yeah, that was on pink salmon"). We foraged for seagull eggs, found chicken of the woods, rigged up a crab ring with the Alpacka Pex cowling and some mesh, and ate some miscellaneous greens to keep the scurvy away. We ate berries, but only during the last few days due to the unseasonably cold weather preceding our trip.

(Joe) We often referred to the previous few months as the "Summer of '53." That was what the locals were naming the "summer" in the months leading up to the trip. Meaning, rarely was it not raining, and rarely did any thermostat in town register above 53 degrees–in summer. But, when the stars align, the phase of the moon is right, Mercury is in retrograde, and the prevailing wind patterns cooperate, favorable conditions can certainly occur. And those conditions certainly did occur for almost the entire duration of our little walkabout. Great weather, huge vistas, and stunning sunsets prevailed almost every day, even in the Summer of '53.

(Joe) When traveling by foot on coastal terrain in remote areas, beachcombing takes on a whole new meaning. The treasures that wash ashore abound, from derelict fishing buoys and gear to glass bottles and foam soccer balls from foreign lands and infinite floating plastic items from the ocean. You never know what you're going to find. The one constant item you can count on finding is an ENDLESS supply of firewood. High-grading beaches of only cedar wood for fires, which we started with acquired birch bark, became a daily ritual once we found our beach of choice for sleep every day. And, an endless supply of dry driftwood also makes for endless options for living room furniture. 

After a spectacular journey, we arrived at Bob's and spent the next four days helping him build a sauna. Then we used said sauna as much as possible. It was the perfect ending to an excellent trip.