For several years, I have been drawn to the idea of living off the grid in remote Alaska. In June 2022, I finally made that dream a reality: for 70 days, it was me, a small canvas tent, and the Nushagk River.
I got a call from a fishing buddy in the spring about a job opportunity to be a fishing guide in the illustrious Bristol Bay Region of Alaska. I was intrigued and wasted no time in calling up John Carlin, the owner of Alaska Trophy Fishing Safaris.
After a two hour phone call, I was hooked. My mind was a whirlwind of mountains, bears — and of course — one of the last good King Salmon runs on the planet.
Over the next couple of months, I dreamt of the day I would arrive. Time slowed to a crawl for the next few months as I dreamt of the day I’d arrive in Alaska. Once June came around, I jumped on a plane bound for Alaska.
Alaska captured my heart since I first visited in 2016. This would be my second summer living in Alaska, but it was clear this summer was going to be a different experience than the previous. Over the next few days we loaded planes with everything needed to run a remote fishing camp for three months.
There was one problem: as summer arrived, a combination of dry and hot weather set the stage for a string of wildfires that erupted across the state. The biggest of which was in the Bristol Bay region. The smoke made flying difficult but we did our best to remain patient until it was clear to fly.
Once we got the green light, I and a group of guides I had just met climbed aboard a small plane headed to Lake Illiamna, a vast lake located in Southwest Alaska. We’d spend a night there gathering gear and preparing for our flight into the bush the next morning.
The next morning, we loaded our Beaver float plane as full as we safely could and took off.
The flight had me feeling a bit nervous; anyone who has spent time in Alaska or knows those who have has likely heard tales of small bush planes being caught in inclement weather — often with an unfavorable ending. Luckily, this day was a bluebird day with no clouds in the sky, a light wind, and a slight haze from the smoke of the fires.
The pilot gave us the nod and the engine roared. Off we went, clipping across the water at an increasing speed. Watching intently through the window, I was fascinated as the floats gradually lifted off the water and we steadily climbed into the sky leaving civilization far below. It wasn’t long until we saw the fire: massive chunks of land — some smoldering — blazing under the hot sun. After about 45 minutes, I looked over at the pilot's GPS and saw we were approaching our destination. I looked down and there it was, the Mulchatna River.
Once we touched down on the river, the pilot maneuvered the plane over to a muddy bank where a few guides were waiting with boats. We jumped off the plane and were immediately hit with the thick smell of smoke.
A large plume, resembling what reminded me of the aftermath of an atomic bomb, was visible to the west. My gaze was abruptly interrupted by my new friend: the mosquito. One quickly turned to two to three and so on. As I quickly exterminated the little pests, I thought back to a text from John from a conversation we had in the spring: “be prepared for Jurassic sized mosquitoes…”
He wasn’t kidding.
We jumped in a couple old aluminum boats equipped with trusty 25 horsepower Yamaha motors and helmed the vessels upstream.
I did my best to gather my bearings as we went, trying to remember the braids and curves of the river. A fellow veteran guide pointed out some fishy spots that had created many memories over the past few summers.
Arriving at camp, we secured the boat and I gathered my personal gear. After hiking up two flights of stairs carved into the side of a steep hill, I was greeted by what would be my home for the next two-and-a-half months.
Little did we know, our camp had been overtaken by a group of Smokejumpers, who had arrived the day before and thought it was an old abandoned hunting camp.
If you are unfamiliar with Smokejumpers, think of them as the Navy Seals of wildland firefighters. They were assigned to the area, jumped out of plane, and got to what they called “a good one” (we came to learn meant a good fire fight, where they defended a hunting shack from being engulfed with flames).
Over the next two weeks we got to know every guy in that group. Just like us, they came from all over the US and were looking for adventure.
The following days were a blur as we loaded up everything from fishing equipment, canvas tents, beers, and anything else that is heavy on our backs and trekked up two flights of makeshift wood stairs.
I’ll tell you first hand: if I ever build a fishing camp, I will not be putting it atop a hill.
When a lot of people think about being a guide, they think it’s fishing and helping people fish for a living. As they say, the worst day fishing is still a great day.
But as a “bush guide,” you’re not only the guy sitting on the boat pointing at where to cast. You’re responsible for everything, from cutting and splitting wood, to making sure the generators are running. You learn quickly that our days aren’t only filled with catching, hauling, cleaning, and cooking fish. Most of it is setting up and maintaining a camp for a large group. It’s hard work.
Satisfying, but hard work.
The next three weeks we turned what looked like an abandoned hunting camp into a bustling village in the middle of nowhere. What appeared as old wood frames were now covered in canvas tents and assigned a role — from the kitchen tent to the tackle tent to sleeping tents. A whole city seemingly-magically popped up in just a few weeks.
As that time passed, we watched as the fire slowly creeped closer and closer to us. Our hopes for a forest-saving rain were left unanswered and we worried about the season being canceled.
Luckily the fire was on the opposite side of the river as our camp, but as a precaution, the Smokejumpers rigged the whole camp with a sprinkler system and constantly assured us of our safety. We watched everyday as planes and helicopters flew over us, radioing intel down to the Smokejumpers on the position of the fire.
Finally, a week before our first group of guests joined us, the rain came.
The fire was extinguished quicker than I ever could have imagined, and our worries of a canceled guiding season were no longer.
Time seems to pass differently in the bush. I never really owned a watch before — I never saw the need for one. I had always been intrigued by watches, but I was afraid that I’d buy one and then I wouldn’t end up wearing it. After all, don’t we all have clocks on the phones in our pockets?
Then I realized that when I checked the time, I wasn’t just checking the time. My attention was pulled to a never ending flow of notifications distracting me from my active objective and what was actually important.
When you’re not experiencing the constant distraction of a device in your pocket, your focus diverts to the here and now. In what we’ll call “the real world,” time is something I grapple with everyday — trying to balance running a business and having a life outside of it. There never seem to be enough minutes, hours, or days to get everything done because there was always more.
Now, the watch on my wrist was about the only thing I needed to know. The rest was happening in the moment. The only distractions coming from a bald eagle screeching in the distance, or the growl of a bear on the other side of the river. My Olmsted became the constant in an ever changing world around me.
Guests arrived and the season started. The other guides and I have gone out fishing every chance we got the past few weeks. We knew it had been fishing well — the first round of King Salmon had strong numbers.
I’d be lying if I said guiding was perfect and easy. Days started at 6 a.m., and most nights we didn’t arrive back to camp until 9 p.m. Every morning started off in the “eating tent,” followed by client assignments for the day, and then some chatter about what areas of the river were fishing well, and what tactics were best. We gulped down coffee as black as tar to help get ready for the long day ahead.
After scarfing down some breakfast, we tied salmon roe in sacks of mesh yarn to be used throughout the day. We loaded boats with gear and lunch, fired up our boats, and headed off on the river.
We fish far and wide all over the river, some days traveling 30 to 40 minutes upstream before wetting a line. Around lunch time, we would find a dry gravel bar and prepare food, usually teaming up with another guide or two in the area. We gathered firewood, discussed tactics among guides, and shared memories as a group of anglers.
Most days, the lunch was that morning's catch cooked over the fire and served with potatoes and carrots, enjoyed right there on the river.
As amazing as this all may sound, remember two things: just as salmon is abundant in Alaska, so are mosquitos and rain. It would be a disservice to you, the reader, if I described only the thrill of fly fishing amidst the romanticism of the Alaskan salmon run and stream-side culinary exploits while ignoring the never-ending buzz of mosquitoes and bone-chilling rain. Nostalgia makes it easy to remember the good and forget the challenging, but what is good without a little challenge?
After a long day of fishing (and I’m proud to report: generally catching), we’d drop the clients back at camp where they were met with a warm shower and a nice hot meal. The other guides and I would load up our catch coolers and take our boats a mile or so downstream to filet the fish. You could tell among the guides who had a good day of fishing and who didn’t based on how much they were talking: loud and happy, or quiet and disgruntled.
Of course everyone wants all the others to be catching fish as well, but being the competitive guys we were, everyone wanted to have the story of the biggest “kinger” of the day.
Filets were vacuum sealed and frozen, and we would arrive back to camp tired and hungry. The guides shared more fisherman’s tales over dinner while we set the game plan for the next day. If we were lucky, we’d have a little time to go out and do a little fishing ourselves in the evening.
If you don’t get the itch from watching others catching fish all day, you might as well just pack your bags and head home.
Guiding for four weeks straight will wear you out. The early mornings, the long evenings, the relentless rain and mosquitoes. Once the rain came in early July, we saw only one full day of no rain by the time I left Alaska in late August. The mosquitoes were constant, the only escape you got from them was hard rain or heavy winds.
If you ever do make it to this region of Alaska, you have been warned.
Luckily for us, the fishing was awesome. It would take a lot more than rain and mosquitoes to bring our spirits down. Our summer season ended late July and we had eleven days to prepare for our fall season. Once that came, our focus would shift from King/Sockeye Salmon to Silver Salmon, or the Coho Salmon as it is also called.
Fall season was a smaller and shorter group than summer. A few guides went home to prepare for school or get back to other responsibilities. August 11th came and the silvers were already in heavy numbers. A group of about 14 anglers had come in from Switzerland, ready to pack their coolers. This group preferred fly fishing over traditional tackle, and as a fly fisherman myself, I was excited to guide a group of likeminded fisherman. After the first day of guiding them, I realized that they wouldn't need guiding. Instead I assumed the role of “boat driver” and “fish netter.” On most days, we reached the limit of five silvers each by noon.
Although there was a hard language barrier standing between the guides and most of the Swiss, the language of fishing is pretty universal. Turns out it’s pretty hard to contain your excitement when you feel a silver crush your fly broadside as you slowly strip it back to you.
The eleven days of guiding silvers quickly flew by, and the Swiss were headed back to their home country with smiles on their faces and coolers packed with filets. Just like that, my summer of guiding in Alaska was done, gone just as quickly as it came. Over the next handful of days, we tore down camp, and said our goodbyes, cherishing the last moments of summer with a group of guides I only met a few months ago.
Looking back on the summer months, the memories shine brighter. I went to Alaska as a fishing guide, but being a fishing guide wasn’t necessarily my big dream. I went to Alaska to live in a beautiful place, untouched by man, away from the structure of our everyday lives. A summer without social media, the constant negativity of news, politics, or what have you. Just waking up every morning in a truly wild place, roamed by bears, wolves, moose, where the rivers ran red with salmon. To experience one of the greatest natural resources left on this planet. The friendships and memories made are something I’ll cherish forever. After all, you really can’t put a price tag on experiences can you?
When you see a resource like this, you definitely realize just how fragile the natural world is, and how important it is to get out there in the wild places. A resource that is truly only understood when experienced first hand. A resource that must be protected, so that our children, and their children and so on can experience a place so magical.
I’ll throw in a quote from the book Into the Wild that really inspired me to chase this experience:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism…” -Chrisopher McCandless
See you out there.
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