Kukaklek Lake is fed by a small stream, un-named so far as I know,
which cuts through a steeply sided valley with grassy river banks,
liberally littered with outcroppings of large rocks. From the
riverside the first 100 ft or so is heavy scrub with little
distorted trees attempting pitifully to establish themselves
before winter stunts their growth.
This is Alaska, this is fishing heaven.
I had been put down by plane in mid-morning on the tundra
above the river, and was looking down the valley side onto
the most beautiful piece of water imaginable. The idea was
that I should fish my way downstream, spending a blissful
day negotiating some two miles of stream and be picked up
at about 6 o'clock on top of the opposite bank, where the
Bear Cub, a light plane with wheels rather than the more
usual floats, could land and collect me. The ease with
which the local guides and pilots use their planes in this
part of Alaska never fails to impress, they jump in and go
just as we in Britain jump into our cars. They really have
no choice though, there are no roads here. I was staying in
Iliamna, a village about 150 miles west of Anchorage, with
friends who run a fishing lodge. Their normal guests seem
to be mainly jaded oil pipeline executives stoking the furnaces
of resilience before venturing back into the world of international
big business. I was the exception. Oh! How I was the exception!
The other fishermen could not understand why I would rather
fish with a fly than with a bait-casting rod and a lure. The
possibility that a fish might be so lightly hooked that it
could escape seemed to horrify them. In any case,"those
little bitty fly rods are too hard to use." I was quite looking
forward to my day alone company is alright for a while, but . . .
Back to the day in hand. The arrangements seemed quite
straightforward, and without further ado I waved off Larry,
my host and pilot, and set off downstream. I easily found my
way down to the river, trees and scrub proving no obstacle
to an angler preparing to fish a stream which showed no evidence
of ever having been fished before. There are so many streams
like this in Alaska, and getting to them so impossible without
a plane. It was entirely possible the ground my eager feet
were treading had never felt the weight of a fisherman's foot,
or indeed, any foot whatever.
The afternoon passed in a haze of pure pleasure. Rainbows of
monumental greed lay in wait for my fly. I roasted a two pounder
for lunch over a fire of driftwood and roots, all the others
went back, perhaps twenty fish in the two to five pound class
together with the occasional Arctic Char, a most beautiful
fish, bright silver with the most startling orange fins,
really a privilege to see in it's native habitat.
But the fabulous fishing is not the point of this story.
By five o'clock I had crossed the stream and had arrived at
a point below the outcrop of white rock by which I was to
await my pickup. I gazed up the slope and realised it was
more like a cliff than the gentle valley side I had taken
it to be, a very much steeper proposition than the easy way
I had come down. Or maybe I was just tired, too much enjoyment
can take it out of you!
However, 200 feet shouldn't take the hour I had in hand. As
I bent into the task however, it became clear that going up
after a warm day's fishing was very unlike coming down in
anticipation! This slope was also rather more wooded than
the other side, very hard going indeed!
By the time I had cleared the tree line I was sweating and
blowing hard, wishing I was fitter, but made myself proceed
by fixing my eyes on a distant tussock and muttering "when I
get there I'll rest." The real secret of this method of self
encouragement lies in one's determination to reach the chosen
tussock and then say "just one more, then I'll rest." This
worked for the first 100 feet or so , but then just clear of
the trees, exhaustion took over. Hot, out of breath and with
knees creaking, I at last had to stop and rest. I had a half
hour to spare so time did not seem a problem. The sparse leaves
of a little group of saplings kept the still warm sun off my
face as I lit my pipe and leant back in relaxation. As I lay
there, happy and regaining my strength, a strange smell assailed
my nostrils, not tobacco, not sweat, not even feet eight hours
in waders, just a oddly rancid smell, redolent of nothing I
recognised. My thoughts drifted. The scenery was superb, the
weather was almost tropical, a bonus for Alaska in July, the
fisherman in me was replete. I changed position. I moved my
right hand to a spot of greater comfort. Two things now happened
simultaneously. My hand met something warm and soft and I
located the source of the smell. Looking down I saw by my
hand four small black objects not unlike miniature black puddings.
At a time like this reason floods the brain. Bear droppings!
Still warm bear droppings! That little group of saplings was
only twenty feet from where I lay. There was no other cover.
Within seconds all became resolved in my mind. GO!
The last 100 feet of hillside was as a flat field. Encumbered
as I was with rod, tackle bag, Barbour coat and wearing waders,
fatigue was forgotten. I made the top of the hill in what seemed
like mere seconds. Sebastian Coe would have been impressed.
Reaching the top I collapsed and took stock of the situation.
I could see no sign of anything untoward, and felt the panic
subside a little. A few more minutes and I could tell myself
I had imagined it all and had got into a tizzy over nothing.
Besides I could hear Larry's plane in the distance. In the
circumstances I would overlook his being a little early.
Larry was not impressed by my story. He had seen a few bears
that day, admittedly from the safety of the plane, but unless
it is a female with cubs, Alaskans pay them little attention.
When walking where bears may be, they just whistle, shout,
or talk loudly to let the bears know they are there, reasoning
that bears will usually avoid an approaching man. Usually!
Females with cubs are a very different kettle of fish altogether.
They are unpredictable in the extreme and are inclined to be
short tempered and very, very nasty indeed.
"We'll just have a looksee." said Larry as we pulled round over
where I had been sitting not long before. "Let's see if we can
spook your little old bear." His tone made clear that he felt
it most unlikely there was a bear there at all. "Wrong sort of
place for them," he said.
As he took the plane low over the saplings I pointed out to him,
his tone changed a little. "Jeeze." he said. "We don't usually
see that up here at this time of year." I looked down, and with
mixed emotions of horror and justified satisfaction, watched
with mouth open as out from my saplings ambled a very large
Grizzly with two cubs gamboling at her heels.
"That could have been a mite tricky," said Larry laconically and
thoughtfully. "With cubs in tow she could have been a trifle testy."
Bears can cover the ground faster than a man can run, a lot faster,
and are totally fearless, yet this one appeared to have moved out
of my way. It might have been the particularly pungent tobacco
I smoked in those days, I will never know. I don't want to find out.
Anyway , the fishing was unsurpassed, but you will not be surprised
that the day stays strongly in my memory as one never to be
forgotten! ~ Jim Clarke
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, longer ago than he cares
to remember, and on leaving school went into his family's
business - Gunmakers and Fishing Tackle manufacturers. By
the time he joined the firm it had become more retail than
manufacturing , though the history and reputation of the
company was somewhat patrician, which stood them in good
stead in the face of the modern, retail only, fly-by-night
businesses which proliferated in the fifties and sixties
in the climate of leisure time explosion. A few years later,
feeling somewhat stifled in a company run by father and two
warring uncles, he left to take over an ailing gun maker in
Chester, England. He was to stay there for thirty pleasant
years, retiring some six years ago, ostensibly to have more
time to fish. He had given up shooting, but in reality
appears to have retired to garden, decorate and construct
THINGS in the garden. He has, nevertheless managed to fish
in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, with trips to Sweden
and Alaska thrown in. You will find more of Jim's writing in our
WorldWide, Europe section.