Giddy. I don’t use the word often, but it’s the best way I can describe my demeanor as our flight touched down in King Salmon, Alaska late last August.
My uncles, first time visitors to the Bristol Bay region, sat chatting a few rows ahead of me. When the plane came to a halt, I did my best “keep it cool” impression as I unbuckled, grabbed my carry-on, and walked up the aisle to meet them. As we stepped off the plane, I smirked and thought, “Holy buckets, this place is about to blow your socks off.”
As I’ve gotten to know Alaska, I’ve confirmed for myself a belief held by many that a love of wild places and conservation work go hand in hand, especially in places as special as Bristol Bay. In a time where being busy is equated with being successful; the quiet, vastness, simplicity, and beauty of the wild has never been more critical. That’s what we were there for that week.
My uncle Scott and his husband Brian and I are close, and they hear about my work in Bristol Bay a lot. As communications director for Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program, I spend a lot of time talking to the public, my friends, and family about the region. With each year living in Alaska, I more deeply fall in love with the magnificent landscapes it offers. I was insanely excited to show it to my family, almost like a justification for why I choose to live so far from them. When Scott told me last winter they decided the time had come for them to see what all the fuss was about, I agreed. I also insisted they should probably bring me along with them. You know, to make sure everything went smoothly.
Following that decision, I connected Scott and Brian with my friend Nanci Morris Lyon, a 30+ year Bristol Bay guide, all-around badass, and the owner of Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon. Soon, the trip was booked, and we were stoked. All we had to do was wait eight months.
Scott and Brian had dabbled in fly fishing, but never in Alaska. There’s no reason they wouldn’t like Bristol Bay, but still, I felt a lot of pressure to make sure their trip was amazing. I’d been talking about this place with stars in my eyes for so long, they’d traveled so far, and fly-out lodges aren’t cheap. I wanted the magic of Bristol Bay to grab their souls like it had mine. Only then could they understand my dedication to its protection. They are familiar with Trout Unlimited’s conservation work in the region to advance long-term protections for this “fishing mecca” by fighting the disastrous, proposed Pebble mine. But to someone unfamiliar with the issue, a mine slated a hundred miles upstream of the actual bay in a remote area may not seem that terrible of an idea. Jobs and copper aren’t a bad thing, right?
When you pull back the top layer, however, you learn that copper is particularly toxic for salmon. And pull back another layer: the landscape of the region is wet, and the ore is low-grade, meaning the mine would need to be massive to turn a profit, and the chance for spill or accident is extremely high. It’s a gigantic risk to a region that’s almost indescribably beautiful, unique, and dependent on wild salmon— with thriving Native subsistence cultures and rivers plugged with the tasty fish.
I just really wanted my uncles to not only see it, but get it. But for them to get it, I knew I needed to take 25 steps backwards. They just needed to catch fish.
After we were settled into the lodge that evening, full and relaxed after a hearty meal, our guide, Rylie, came to set up a game plan for fishing the next day. Meet at the bus at 6:50 a.m. to catch our plane, she told us. Be in waders. She’d pack lunches. Got it.
Sleepy from their long day of travel and jet lag, the uncles went to bed. I couldn’t sleep. The excitement for a day of wilderness, guided fishing, hiking, float planes, and some of my favorite people made my too-excited-to-sleep-o-meter go haywire.
The next morning, squished into a tiny plane flying low over the tundra, I watched small winding rivers, and the massive Naknek Lake pass beneath us out the windows. I quietly marveled at what makes Bristol Bay special: the maze of diverse, intact streams where salmon spawn and trophy rainbow trout, clowned up Dolly Varden, and alluring Arctic Grayling grow fat from a buffet of salmon eggs, flesh, and fry. A few dozen miles to the north, these are the types of waterways most imperiled by the mine.
Our fishing destination that day was the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Many recognize Brooks for its famous falls, the site of the live cam where you can watch fat grizzly bears feasting on salmon all summer. It’s an amazing display of nature unfolding in front of your eyes.
After rigging up and getting introduced to the park, Scott and Brian kept calling themselves “star struck” for the famous brown bears that surrounded us as we hiked a mile or so along the trail to the upper river to fish for rainbows. We noticed bright red sockeye pooling and immediately got our lines in the water. A hooked rainbow on the first cast set in motion an epic day.
We caught plenty of rainbows and hooked into some bright red sockeye — it’s always a thrill to fight a fish that big on a 6wt. I caught a 22” rainbow thanks to some expert guiding from Rylie, Scott got chased by a brown bear, my whole party almost took an accidental swim while crossing the river to get away from the same brown bear, we got slightly lost in the woods, had to wait for another bear to snack down about three salmon to get back to our own lunch, and stood watching the falls in the rain — mesmerized — for longer than Rylie could probably stand.
All told, a classic Brooks Camp day served up a once-in-a-lifetime kind of day for the rest of us. That night, our heads hit the pillows with equal parts amazement and exhaustion.
Early the next morning, we hopped in a boat down at the Bear Trail Lodge dock and sped up the Naknek River amid a brilliant Alaska sunrise, which we only get to see late in the summer as the daylight hours level up with our normal waking schedule. The sky was painted in orange, pink, yellow, and purple. In that moment, we sat in silent awe of the sky, too content to care if we saw a single fish that day.
As the brightness of daylight set in, our desire for fish predictably returned. We spent the morning chasing coho (silver salmon) for Scott and Brian’s freezer, the noon hour eating turkey sandwiches from the boat with the sun shining on our faces, and the late afternoon catching the largest freaking Naknek River rainbow of my life.
As you’d guess, my fears about my uncles’ satisfaction were unfounded. They left with a freezer full of fresh coho to enjoy all winter and to share with friends, and I knew without a doubt that now, they got it. They understood how there’s an entire region of Alaska, a state known for developing its resources, that’s just meant to be wild. They got that places like Bristol Bay should be explored and experienced as they are, because they’re places that make us understand sometimes the best thing we can do as humans is to just leave something alone. They saw why so many regard Bristol Bay as a place meant simply for fish and for fishing.
Staring again out the window at the streams I waded through the day before, reflecting on yet another incredible experience in the heart of salmon country as I flew away, my mind went back to the simple resolve of our trip and a key driver of the region.
Though fly fishing is made complicated by a myriad of variations in flies, line, fancy rods, gear, regulations, you name it — the sport at its core is simple. It’s the joy of the pursuit. It’s marveling at the catch — the colors of wild trout, the shimmer of salmon. It’s the satisfaction of watching them swim away and return to where they belong.
On our flight from King Salmon back to Anchorage, I thought about the gin-clear waters and color of coho underneath my feet in the belly of a boat. I thought about my uncles’ gratitude for the river that filled their freezer and will provide healthy meals throughout the winter, and of my own freezer, which is similarly full. I thought about our shared gratitude for those who have taken care of the resource before us and who allow us on their land to experience the same stretches of water upon which their ancestors relied. I thought, again, about responsibility to take care of the place for the cultures and bellies these rivers and fish have left to nourish.
Simpler yet, I thought about how fishing is about being outside. Being, for a moment, a part of the river. It’s spending time away from screens, being fully present, and building connection not only among the people with whom we fish, but the places we spend our time.
There are tons of places to go fishing in this country. But anymore, there aren’t many places nicknamed “salmon country,” and if they are, the name hearkens back to some historic moment where fish used to fill the rivers - now just memories. There aren’t places where you can fly low and quietly take in miles and miles of tundra and intricately winding rivers without seeing a road, building, or fence. There aren’t many places you can catch multiple rainbows over 20”, fill your freezer with wild salmon for the winter in a day, and be home by dinner.
After only two days, my uncles understood that Bristol Bay revolves around fish, and that it must stay that way.
Sometimes it takes standing in a freezing cold river to take you back to what matters. When you have a place that makes your too-excited-to-sleep-o-meter go haywire over this simple act, you know it’s something worth protecting.