In Los Angeles, California, where I live, shotguns are used only by police officers breaking up civil disturbances and by down-on-their-luck capitalists knocking over banks. So the sight of a shotgun affixed to the sit-on-top kayak on the shore of Robe Lake, just outside Valdez, Alaska, made me wonder if I should have worn body armor. Or at least a
flak jacket (I’m pretty sure they sell designer ones in L.A.). I was under the impression that this was to be a peaceful fly-fishing excursion on a calm body of water, a pleasant way to pass a foggy August morn. Instead, in this gorgeous setting — with mist suspended above the pristine lake and no one around to hear us scream — I thought I might get a demonstration on how to discharge the pump-action weapon while staring into the snarling maw of a rabid grizzly. Or at least a lecture about the Second Amendment.
But I got nothing. Not even an acknowledgement that the shotgun existed. Peter Mayer, the fly-fishing guide who works for Pacific Mountain Guides — the organizers of that day’s kayak adventure on Robe Lake and the Robe and Lowe Rivers — simply helped shove my boat backwards into the lake. In Alaska, it seems, shotguns are of no more consequence than bug dope. And Pete doesn’t even wear that layer of defense while fishing, since the fish can smell the bug-awful scent.
Sharon Crisp (the former executive director of the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau), Pete and I set out across the lake slowly, heading toward the headwaters of the Robe. After a short paddle, we reached a narrow slit in the grasses that grew high above the lake, and for a second I thought Pete was kidding. We couldn’t possibly be heading through there, could we? It looked like the passage required a hidden lever, or at least a machete. We pushed through the bushes as the water began to move beneath our boats. I soon started to laugh like a schoolboy because — as we maneuvered through the narrow channel, using our paddles to push off the oh-so-close banks on occasion, listening to
the sound of the rippling water being interrupted every so often by the hollow thud of the boat tail clunking off solids unknown — I realized that this is exactly the kind of adventure I love.
It seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere (we didn’t see another person for the six hours we were out), and it seemed like we were doing something particularly sporting (there was, after all, a shotgun involved), but the water was not moving very fast, and it was always very shallow. When a tree reached out and smacked the hat off my head, I simply put my feet on either side of the kayak, pushed down into the rocky bed to stop my forward progress, retrieved the hat, then put it soggily back on my head. At times, snags protruded too far or the water was too shallow to float, so we simply walked the boats around the impasses until we could continue our mission.
And that mission primarily was to fish. I hadn’t fly-fished for months (and not that regularly — or well — when I had). We beached our kayaks, struggled through waist-deep mud that most likely hid Jimmy Hoffa, then watched as Pete disengaged the 9- and 10-foot Temple Fork rods, loaded with seven-weight and eight-weight line, from his kayak. We
soon were roll-casting to the far bank, into the pool of pink and silver salmon. Well, I tried to roll-cast, anyway. If by “trying” I mean snagging the bushes behind me, then the trees, then my waders, I definitely tried. But even with this display of angling ineptitude, I soon had a pink on the line, and the line sliced zig-zags into the water as the fish struggled to make cover. The silver I soon landed fought twice as hard, breaking the surface twice, then making one last run before I could ease it to shore.
Sharon soon had the hang of the roll-cast, and she landed some nice fish. Pete put on a master class by shooting his fly exactly where he aimed it, finessing the bunny leech away from the smaller fish, then inducing a bite from the monsters in each pool.
We ate our boxed lunch on a grassy bank. I looked across the 10-foot expanse of river and asked what had made the indentation in the bushes and the grass. “A bear,” said Pete. He said he had not encountered any on this river, then explained that the “bang-stick” (we cowards call it a shotgun) was loaded with a loud charge meant to scare away a bear. And what if the bear doesn’t scare, I wanted to ask, but didn’t.
Later, after successfully plundering Pete’s secret fishing hole, we shoved off downstream for our final run. We had paddled through water so thick with salmon that they banged into our boats, and now we moved into gray, glacier-fed water, then heard the larger, faster-moving Lowe River in the distance. “Stay to the right and hug the bank,” Pete said,
then disappeared around the bend into the Lowe. Sharon and I made the same turn, then arrived at our take-out spot minutes later with grins on our faces.