"This is the big one," Chris Mautino says as we pause our kayaks beneath the dark cliff at the mouth of Holgate Arm. Our destination is the icy heart of Aialik Bay, but to reach it, we must cross the yawning mouth of this tributary fjord.
Some five miles away but looming so large it feels close enough to touch, the enormous chiseled face of a tidewater glacier stares back at us across the slate-gray water. It grumbles twice, barking muffled thunder, impatiently urging us to begin the open-water passage.
Midway across, the sky begins to lash us with fat, freezing droplets, adding to the chill wind tumbling off the glacier. In the pounding downpour, I take a second to look around at the vast landscape of mountains, sea, and ice in the heart of Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park. There's not a single sign of civilization; the only man-made sound is the metronomic swishing of Chris' paddle. At that moment, there isn't another place on earth I'd rather be.
Just a few years ago I never would've imagined myself in this remote setting, much less savoring the discomfort while riding some kind of irrational high. But here I am, the guy who got into kayaking because my kid liked it for all of five minutes, forever captured by the intimate feeling of stalking fish while practically in their element, on a spiritual pilgrimage to the waters that birthed this best of man-powered boats.
No one is really sure which tribe of northern people first conceived of the kayak more than two thousand years ago. Originally crafted of sealskin and gut lashed over a driftwood frame, these sublime boats have always been imbued with a hunter's heart. And though our modern plastic sit-on-top fishing kayaks look nothing like their predecessors–that outward honor goes to sleek, distance-eating sea kayaks–the spirit that drives them is one and the same.
Chris and I are here to follow that hunter's imperative in one of the kayak's birthplaces. We have two fishing goals. One is to tangle with salmon, the iconic state fish of Alaska, whose legendary spawning runs still sustain the local people. In particular, we've come for the acrobatic silver salmon, sometimes called 'liquid lightning' for their electrifying leaps and cartwheels. Our sights are also set on lingcod, a species common along the entire West Coast but something special in Alaska, where they reach prodigious sizes. They embody aggression; in appearance and manner they're more gator than fish. Their snaggle-toothed smiles yawn wide enough to swallow a bowling ball.
We're also here to explore, and so far as anyone in our wide-ranging circle of kayak fishing guides, paddlesports pro staffers, and curmudgeonly old salts can tell, we'll be the first to touch, see and taste glacial ice from fishing kayaks. It's a singularly meaningless honor, but we are just the fools to achieve it.
The place we've chosen for our adventure is Kenai Fjords, a wild landscape shaped by the unimaginable weight of an ice shield thousands of feet thick. For millennia the ice has flowed to the sea, carving deep furrows into the basaltic bones of mountains too stubborn to yield. Then, very recently in geologic terms, the glaciers stepped back, leaving a matrix of deep fjords and forbidding cliffs. Here, where the land and sea join like interlocking fingers, the water pulses with life.
The land itself remains harsh. There's little flat ground to speak of; the waterways are hemmed in by more than a dozen glaciers and by the fjords' nearly vertical stone faces. The park's interior is still locked beneath the vast Harding Icefield. In the lower elevations, impenetrable thickets of spruce and hemlock crowd the draws, with splashes of green all the more pungent due to the otherwise monochrome palette. The only way to move here is by water, and the long, narrow fjords are almost exclusively the province of paddlers.
Chris knows Kenai Fjords intimately; with his lady, Pam, he spends a hundred straight days each summer shuttling tourists in oversized tandem sea kayaks to and from the park's dozens of mighty glaciers for his Liquid Adventures outfitting service. Kayak fishing charters are sideline; his outfitted sit-on-tops are the only ones within a couple hundred miles. Oddly enough, the fishing kayaks now so ubiquitous in the Lower 48 are few and far between in Alaska. For a couple of inveterate fin-chasers, they are the perfect toys for end-of-season playtime. So when Chris invites me up from sunny San Diego, I leap at the chance.
I arrive at the Liquid Adventures homestead just outside Seward to a cheerful greeting and disappointing news. "It doesn't look good," Chris says. "A storm is generating 20-foot seas at the point. We're stuck; we can't get to the park."
The complication is unwelcome but not unexpected. Weather is always an issue in Alaska. The only question is if the seas will moderate before I have to return to California in four days. The long-range forecast isn't encouraging; in fact, another storm system is hard on the heels of the first one. If we're lucky enough to get even one night at the park, there's no telling when we'll be able to get back out.
Like any seasoned paddler, though, Chris has a fallback plan. Knowing that I came here for wilderness as well as fish, he brings it up tentatively. "How about we spend a couple nights at Kayaker's Cove?" he says. "It's close to home, and definitely not the park, but we can still try for silvers."
Soon we're piling boats and gear aboard a sturdy aluminum water taxi. We motor almost to the mouth of Resurrection Bay, hanging a left in the lee of Fox Island and continuing deep into a narrow inlet. This is Kayaker's Cove, an isolated paddler's retreat consisting of a weather-beaten lodge, a small collection of rustic cabins, and a rack of well-seasoned touring boats that rent at bargain rates. It's not quite wilderness but it'll do. We drop our gear in the lodge and head back to the beach.
Chris has already warned me that our chances of hooking up a silver are not good, but I'm eager to take my first shot at a salmon from a kayak, no matter the odds. "What are we waiting for?" I urge, as we hastily suit up and rig our kayaks. "Let's go!"
Also known as Coho, silver salmon are prized for their meat, which is ruby red and silky rich. Silvers don't spawn here, Chris says. They use Resurrection Bay as a way station on their annual migration, tarrying to feed on the schools of baitfish that shelter in the quiet water, he adds while helping me rig. The setup is not kayak friendly; first there's a heavy lead weight, then a bright reflective plate or flasher, and finally a chunk of mushy herring threaded onto a pair of hooks. The whole shebang is five awkward feet long, the very epitome of a drag.
"That's a lot of hardware," I observe after the first ungainly strokes, but it works. Moments after Chris disappears around the next point, my rod bends like a rainbow. An iridescent torpedo cartwheels out of the water. The silver salmon spins the kayak in crazed circles, skips across the water, and never gives in, not even when it's in the net. Eventually, I manage to slip the fortuitous fish onto a stringer for dinner.
But the spirited fish has other ideas. Hours later, when we finally reach the area's prime fishing grounds—a field of submerged pinnacles rising nearly to the surface in the deep water south of Fox Island—I'm alerted by a splash. My beautiful salmon has somehow shaken off the stringer. I watch forlornly as it sinks into the abyss, but there's no way I'm diving after it in the 40-degree water. I examine the giant steel safety pin that held it—the snap is still securely closed. Chris shrugs and explains the mystery with quiet Alaskan wisdom.
"That salmon wasn't ready to leave the sea," he says. "It's gone back to where it wanted to be."
Every fisherman I've ever met is secretly superstitious if not openly so, and I can't help thinking the silver's disappearing act may be a sign that our presence here is unwelcome. This land's indigenous peoples built their lives around the willing sacrifice of the salmon. Are we unworthy?
I needn't have worried. Almost immediately, a second silver salmon hits my bait. When I get it into the kayak, Chris, still luckless, can only chuckle. "See what a good host I am," he says. "I pushed the silver button for you twice."
Later, we paddle into the wryly named Humpy Cove to find thousands of amorous pink salmon queued up at a tiny creek. Unlike their cousins the Coho, these plentiful but smaller fish spawn throughout the region. The speckled species, with distinct sharply hooked jaws and humped backs, buck the current until blocked by a thundering 50-foot cascading waterfall. They are so intent on reaching their gravelly spawning beds that they pay our stealthy kayaks little heed. Chris reaches down and plucks a fish right from the stream, then gently releases it to complete its incredible journey.
This late in the season Kayaker's Cove is a quiet sanctuary for backwoods Bohemians. Besides Chris and I, only three fellow paddlers are sharing the bunkhouse–Jim Bowers and Carol Sloane, two seasoned sea kayakers from Maine, and Michael "Wolfy" Howes, a kayak guide decompressing after a summer herding tourists. He looks at our exotic craft and its silver cargo with a hungry grin.
In the unspoken language shared by scroungers and paddling guides, Chris and Wolfy immediately strike a deal. The latter hops in a tattered boat and paddles off furiously. Just as we finish filleting the fat silver, here comes Wolfy again. Along with his grin, he's toting a pile of fragrant cedar driftwood, ideal fuel for fire-roasted fish and an after-dinner sweat in the sauna.
Chris raids the almost-bare cupboards for an improvised secret sauce. By the magic of the setting sun and a cheerful campfire, ketchup, pancake syrup, and soy sauce somehow combine to create the sublime. The fresh grilled salmon is moist, smoky, delicious—the best any of us has ever tasted. The moment is so perfect, the company of fellow paddlers so welcome, that we linger around the campfire deep into the night, unwilling to let the moment go.
Later in the sauna, as I pour one last, relaxing ladle of hot water down my back, any disappointment is forgotten. A day in Alaska can't get much better, whatever the setting. In a sense, the weather delay has been a blessing.
We wake to word that the forbidding seas at Aialik Cape have unexpectedly calmed. What's more, the weather window is expected to remain open for the next three days.
Finally we get to leave civilization behind. We load our kayaks aboard the Weather or Knot for the 30-mile trek around the storm-tossed point and on into the heart of Kenai Fjords. Disembarking at McMullen Cove, we pitch our tents on a low spit of large, smooth rocks, a glacial moraine formed of giant flagstones. It will be a flinty place to bed down, but that can wait. Now that we're finally in a part of Alaska scarcely changed over time and still largely claimed by ice, we start our search for sea monsters.
Alaska is renowned for big fish, notably halibut that reach hundreds of pounds. We're not looking for fish sticks, though, no matter how large. We want something meaner: vicious, muscular predators with teeth a vampire would envy. We're after the lingcod that lurk among submerged rocks ever ready to rip into unwary fish, and even smaller members of their own kind. The area outside McMullen Cove, where ocean currents wash among sheer rock faces, is a prime place to find them.
Chris ties on an enormous hair jig, a weighted hook festooned with a huge fluffy white powder puff, and drops it to the bottom. Before long, the stout rod he's using is bent double. With a grimace, he struggles mightily to turn his quarry before it can hole up in the rocks. When he finally muscles it to the surface, there's no suspense–it can only be a lingcod, a chunky one, with leathery skin of mottled brown and yellow. This one is an old campaigner, its scars and notched dorsal fin are testaments to past battles, but it's as strong and ornery as ever. It thrashes wildly, showering Chris with salty spray as he carefully grasps its toothy jaw with a release tool. But before he can lift it high enough for a weight, it slips the hook with a powerful gator roll and dives to safety.
I have to wait until the next day to get my own double-digit lingcod on equally absurd bait: a foot-long curl-tail grub is apparently more than a hungry gator can resist. It's not the 40-pounder I'd dreamed of, not by a long-shot, but still a gratifying personal best. I'm happy to see it swim away trailing an angry wake. Later, we jig up one hefty rockfish after another, a procession of 6 and 7-pounders, all in the shallows. The abundance of untouched Alaska is a wonder to behold.
We traverse the open water of the Holgate Arm under the driving rain and the baleful gaze of Pedersen Glacier, then race the peaking tide into lower Pedersen Lagoon. We make one last cold and soggy camp on soft moss, then rise early to pay our respects to the ice. Threading our way up the channel between the upper and lower lagoons we draw nearer to the glacier's immense face.
Tidewater glaciers like the Holgate or the mighty Aialik are too dangerous to approach in a kayak. The house-sized splinters they calve generate intimidating mini-tsunamis that can easily engulf reckless paddlers. In contrast, a piedmont glacier like the Pedersen grinds to a halt in a shallow melt-water lagoon. Here the cast-off icebergs sit in state, glowing an ethereal blue.
We wind our way through a fantasy maze of frozen waves and delicate arches, crunching through a spider-webbed veneer of fresh ice on the water's surface.
"I never get tired of this place," Chris says, breaking the chilly stillness as we pass a dome supported by three graceful columns. The blue room beckons, but the steady stream of drops raining from the ceiling warns of its perilous impermanence.
That's when it hits me: We've reached our goal. We are very likely the first to thread the glacial ice in fully rigged fish 'yaks. The meaningless achievement deserves a properly silly photographic commemoration.
"You know you want to," I tease Chris. "Come on, you've got to make a cast!"
Chris smiles at the absurdity of the suggestion. There's no fish life in this freezing freshwater pool, but he obliges me with a few camera-ready casts. With a boat to catch back to the real world, and a new set of storms blowing in from the Bering Sea, it's time to leave the glacier's domain. Paddling down a speeding river of tide-quickened water, we race miniature icebergs through a bucking wave train and into the fjord. As we float along toward the waiting boat, I have a moment to think back on the experience of the past few days.
Kayak anglers pick up the sport for a variety of reasons. It's relatively cheap, there isn't much in the way of maintenance, you can go on the spur of the moment, and success or failure rests in your own hands.
All good, but for me there's one better—the priceless chance to immerse yourself completely in the natural environment, to taste the rain, to feel the burn of tired muscles, to glide quietly beneath hunting eagles, and to follow in the paddle strokes of the ancients. I won't tote home a cooler full of frozen fish like the charter-boat tourists thronging the airport, but I don't care. I'm going home with something more meaningful.