Ever fancied the idea of casting a line off the end of the world? After months in quarantine, an escape into the wild to breathe some of the freshest air on Earth is more enticing than ever. For would-be travelers dreaming of escape, an Alaskan fishing trip is a perfect antidote to months spent indoors. And you needn’t be an expert angler to appreciate the meditative effects of salmon fishing in the Alaskan wilderness—a fact I discovered firsthand last summer on my hunt for kings on the Inside Passage during a retreat with Waterfall Resort. And now, when the entire planet feels increasingly claustrophobic, the call of the wild echoes louder than before.
The remote vastness of the 49th state, and its inherent mysteries, has earned it the nickname “The Last Frontier.” (And, after prolonged periods of self-isolation—and amidst increased travel restrictions—only the greatest wilderness in America will do.) A myriad of activities awaits adventure travelers in Alaska—hiking, kayaking, skiing, and more. But the best way to explore Alaska’s legendary Inside Passage, the waterway in Southeast Alaska, is by boat—a fishing boat to be exact.
You will start your trip in Ketchikan, at Cape Fox Lodge, and have a moment to enjoy the town. Southeast Alaska is known for its islands, and your journey will begin on Revillagigedo Island and conclude in Prince of Wales Island, where Waterfall Resort operates only in the summer season—ideal for catching the famed Midnight Sun. Located on a hill above the city, the setting of Cape Fox Lodge makes for spectacular sunsets, and there’s also a handy tram available to take you downtown to the village.
Ketchikan is one of the most populated cities in Alaska, but the crowds dwindle come nightfall, once the tourists have returned to their ships. And you will want to stay overnight, as you get to experience the town like a local, and see beyond the cruise-ship shops. While there may be an endless arrays of shops geared towards cruise tourists, there’s also an eclectic selection of local galleries—be sure to check out Soaring Eagle Native Art, the Arctic Spirit Gallery, and Crazy Wolf Studio, which support local artists—and look for a silver-hand logo to make sure what you’re purchasing is actually native handicraft. Says Joe Williams, our wise and engaging Tlingit guide during our Where The Eagle Walks tour: “If you’re making purchases of authentic Alaskan art, this silver hand is what you’re looking for.”
Make sure to visit Saxman City, the historic Tlingit village on Revillagigedo Island, and home to the largest totem pole park in the world. We suggest you learn about the local history with a guided tour while visiting—and Williams is a highly recommended expert to book for your sightseeing adventure. “If we don’t tell the story, it’s going to get lost,” he told us.
And this story, of the land and its people, is invaluable to understanding your surroundings as a visitor. The land is fairly inhospitable to the less-than-hearty, which is why summer is the best season for visitors. Though, the unpredictable weather is beneficial to locals, year-round, as it minimizes the seasonal intrusion of tourists. According to Williams, it rains so much “to keep the crazy people away.” The rainfall also results in the incredibly lush landscape, as is evident in the greenery of Tongass National Forest. The vastness of this wilderness is overwhelming (and awe-inspiring) when viewed from above.
Then, of course, it’s time to head outside into nature. A flightseeing tour on Taquan Air is the first step towards your immersion into the wild. The entire endeavor feels like a throwback to earlier times: “Just past that island with the mountain on it is Japan, so you don’t want to get lost out there” bush pilot, Brentwood, is apt to warn passengers, a smirk curling beneath his handlebar mustache.
His last name remains a deliberate mystery. “Doesn’t matter,” he replied when prompted. “You find another Brentwood; you let me know.”
You’re unlikely to find another Brentwood in Ketchikan, just like you’re unlikely to find many people roaming the streets after the tourists have returned to their cruise ships at sundown. You do feel isolated in the wilderness, a feeling enhanced by the wooden sign on the famous (and delicious) Alaska Fish House, which overlooks the city docks: “Fish House Tsunami Evacuation Plan- Pour a Denali Beer and Run Like Hell.”
Next, you will arrive by seaplane to the isolated splendor of Prince of Wales Island, and head to your accommodations in a former salmon cannery, now known as Waterfall Resort. In many ways, Alaska truly does feel like the last frontier—no more so than when you fly out to Waterfall Resort, arriving into Prince of Wales Island with a fleet of other floatplanes arriving on the wooden docks.
Waterfall Resort offers an immersive experience for guests looking to get it away from it all—and to reel in a King Salmon, the state fish of Alaska, and the very reason for nearby Ketchikan’s existence. The town was founded on salmon fishing, and these fish can weigh up to 126 pounds.
Expert guides such as Richard Parrick (a beloved mainstay of Waterfall Resort), lead guests out on daily fishing excursions where one is likely to spot sea lions, orcas, and humpback whales, as well as Lingcod, halibut, and (hopefully) king salmon. Expect to be in awe of the beauty of your surroundings and the creatures lurking beneath the grey waters. In short, expect the unexpected.
In the words of the charismatic Parrick: “If you go to Alaska, you don’t want normal. You want adventure.”
And, before I begin describing a typical day at Waterfall, let me be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert angler—far from it. But I quickly found my stride—or, rather, my bliss. The vastness of this wilderness is overwhelming (and awe-inspiring) when viewed in a seaplane from above. But, there’s nothing like being entirely within it. Additionally, unlike hiking or skiing, on a Waterfall fishing trip, it’s not compulsory to be in excellent shape. And there’s nothing like an off-shore nap.
A typical day feels like camp, or camp if you went to camp in one of the wildest places on earth. The uniform? A surprisingly stylish set of yellow waders (and jacket). The old-school attire, plus the nostalgic charm of a cluster of fishing boats, calls to mind an aquatic Wes Anderson film. The Life Aquatic, if you will. Or, rather, the Vacation Aquatic.
Fishing outings begin early in the morning, and there’s a weigh-in later in the afternoon once you’ve returned. The weigh-in is not for humans, thank God, though it is for fish. My boating companion griped of the shame he felt on a particularly bad day of ours (or, should I say: mine)—size matters. And the fishing is, as expected, spectacular. (And there are regulations to the amount of fish you can catch, so environmentalists can rest easy they’re not disrupting the natural population when dropping a line.
Speaking of which, at Waterfall Resort, you drop the line until it hits bottom, then slowly reel it back up. It’s very meditative. What comes to the surface is always a surprise—truly. Lingcod are outrageous-looking creatures who have perfected the “ugly/pretty” aesthetic otherwise found in ads by Prada, just translated to the Northwest Pacific.
Even the halibut are shining and immense, and if the King, once caught, is successfully reeled in. It’s a majestic sight to behold—very regal indeed. But, in the immortal words of Omar TK from The Wire, “If you come for the king, you best not miss.” And a bite is not the same as a catch—visitors who let their minds wander can easily stray from their targets, and end up feeding their fish Thanksgiving dinner. (Reader, I did.)
But perhaps that is the whole point—maybe it is best to let the mind wander. Maybe that is the entire point. I felt myself enter a meditative state during my hours out at sea. It’s easy to get distracted by the sound of a whale exhaling nearby or a congregation of sea lions on a rock. There’s so much emphasis on mindfulness and wellness these days, but Alaska is the original wellness.
Wellness comes more naturally in the 49th state, when you can measure your own breath against that of a spouting humpback, monitor the circuit of your thoughts by the rhythmic casting of your rod—reeling myself back in. I felt engulfed by the wildness and set free within it—a tiny speck in this infinite space. And now at a time when the world feels more crowded and life more restricted than ever, that’s not the worst feeling to have.
And it’s a feeling that many people I’m sure will be seeking out when they’re able to travel once more—social distancing comes more naturally when humans are outnumbered by sea lions, after all.
Plus, would-be visitors should check out the 2020 rates to capitalize on fares for the rest of the summer season. And uncertain travelers who are hesitant to book a trip for this summer should begin to plan for next year. 2020 has already been such a disaster that it’s not too soon—or too eager—to state that 2021 must be our year. (For fishing and beyond.)
But regardless of when you visit Waterfall Resort, one could argue that the fishing (spectacular as it may be) is actually beside the point. (Or at least that’s what I told myself when I had relatively little to contribute to the daily weigh-ins upon disembarking from the boat. But whether you had a day of massive success or (relative) failure—though it’s hard to come up empty in such fertile waters—there’s always the Lagoon Saloon awaiting you at the end of the day. The resort’s bar is legendary for its gregarious bartender, Ron Koch, and his deadly drinks (we suggest the blueberry tea, which is far less healthy than it sounds.)
Finally, expect—anticipate, really—travel delays. If the floatplanes can’t fly in inclement weather, you will be taking fishing boats, buses, and ferries to inch closer to the mainland (and your return flight home) by any means necessary. But don’t think all provisions will be disregarded on your journey.
“There will be a limited amount of food if anything,” the ferry captain warned as stranded passengers boarded his vessel en route to Ketchikan. “But, there will be a full bar. After all, it is Alaska.”
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