We stopped at a place called York Creek, a horseshoe-shaped cove with an idyllic view of Mount Fairweather, which rises from sea level to 15,300 feet. Some people believe Fairweather is the most beautiful mountain on earth: snow-covered, pleasingly triangular, imposing—everything a mountain should be. I was just settling back for a postlunch nap when a splash near the shore caught my attention. A seal, perhaps? A Dolly Varden? I sat up and looked. I'd brought a fishing rod, a six-piece spinning outfit borrowed from an Alaska Discovery guide back in Gustavus, and while there I'd also purchased half a dozen lures and a license. Kerplunk! Another splash, a heavy one, as if someone had thrown in a bowling ball.
A school of silver salmon—cohos—had entered the bay and in their bizarre, inscrutable manner were leaping three feet out of the water, preparing to make their spawning run up York Creek. Fishermen fly to Alaska from all over the world to catch silvers, and, quite by accident, we'd camped beside one of their spawning rivers. There wasn't another angler within 20 miles. Racing, I set up my rod, attached some sort of spoon to the swivel and cast on top of the next splash. Cohos do not feed before spawning, but they're territorial and will strike a lure out of anger. One did immediately. Sea-strong, it made a couple of powerful runs and jumped twice, but after a 10-minute fight it was 15 feet from shore. We were already discussing the pleasures of a salmon dinner when the fish threw the hook.
Oh, well. That was only the first cast, right? You know how this story goes. For the next six hours the salmon continued their mad belly flopping, beautiful silver sides glinting in the sunlight. I never stopped casting. Two more took the lure in the mouth of the river. One broke off; the other never hooked up. None came home for supper. It was one of the most humbling fishing days I've ever had, but also one of the best. If fishing were easy, where would the fascination be? I even tried trolling from the kayak. Finally, at dusk, the maddening jumping stopped, and I returned to camp, defeated, having lost every lure but one.
The others couldn't believe I'd been fishing all afternoon and hadn't caught anything. To them these were suicidal fish. Most of my new friends had watched for a spell en route to a bath in the refreshingly frigid waters of York Creek. Once in the water, the bathers could have killed a salmon with a rock as the cohos slithered up the rapids, their black backs eellike in the frothy white water. What kind of fisherman was I?
"I guess it must be harder than it looks," said Patty skeptically. I'd been skunked before plenty of times, but never so publicly. And never had I felt reproach quite so keenly as when we sat down to another dinner of freeze-dried glop. If only Amanda had whipped up a pot of spaghetti.
That night as we were brushing our teeth, someone tossed a handful of pebbles into the bay. The water suddenly twinkled with light, as though a hundred tiny fireflies were flashing beneath the surface. Strange stuff. We all tried it. Each time there was the tiniest splash in the bay, the water sparkled for an instant. Phosphorescent plankton was the explanation. Stars in the sky, stars in the water. What an exotic place.
As we were loading the kayaks in the morning—kerplunk!—the salmon run began anew. I'd left my rod assembled, to the bemusement of the others, who had begun to feel pity for me and perhaps a twinge of guilt, like baseball fans who've booed a slumping hitter to excess. I retrieved the rod and, ever hopeful, ran to the edge of the shore. "Show yourself!" I screamed, praying for the angling equivalent of a hanging curveball. I got one.
About 15 feet offshore a second salmon jumped, and I cast to it practically before it had reentered the water. Just like that, it hooked up, and the line was screaming off the spool. The coho ran, it jumped, it thrashed around. The others were terribly encouraging. I think they were afraid I'd do something untoward—burst into tears, for instance—if this one escaped. Fortunately it didn't. It was a male, 12 to 14 pounds. Big enough, in any event, to feed 11. We cleaned it, put it in a Hefty bag and started out for Strawberry Island. It was the start of an extraordinary day.
It was our last full day, we had to remind ourselves, for the time had flown. It hadn't rained since the first day. No one had gotten hurt or ill or become sick of anyone else. We had fresh fish in the hold. The trip had fulfilled everyone's expectations. All that was left was to see a whale.
We reached Strawberry Island around 1 p.m., just as the weather was turning overcast. The rain clouds were definitely Ice left by the tide glistened in the unexpected late-August sunshine, returning. After a quick lunch David offered to lead a hike around the island. The four women accompanied him. The men, meanwhile, put themselves in charge of cooking the salmon. Ted lobbied successfully for a New England-style clambake. The first step was digging a three-foot-deep pit in the stony beach.