Written by: John Van Vleet, Orvis Outdoor Copywriter
[Editor’s Note: Orvis outdoor copywriter John Van Vleet has traveled to Alaska to be an instructor at the Bristol Bay River Academy, which we posted about back in April and which Orvis sponsors. He will be sending daily dispatches on his experiences.]
There are two things you must know about the Bristol Bay region of Alaska before we can proceed. The first, and possibly most important, thing is that you should always wear bug spray if you find yourself in this area. The mosquitoes up here not only rival the swarms found anywhere else in the world in terms of sheer numbers, but they would certainly prevail in any back alley mosquito gang fights. They’re large, they’re tenacious, and just plain mean. I may complain at some point during the week, so consider yourself forewarned.
The second, and somewhat more obvious, thing about Bristol Bay is that it’s a diverse, important fishery that impacts much more than just the local culture and economy. For centuries, villagers in this area wholly subsisted on its voluminous salmon runs for food and money; gradually, an entire industry formed around this natural phenomenon and now thrives from the precious few months each year these salmon reclaim their waters and give birth to another generation of fish that will someday attempt the same perilous, cyclical journey. These native Alaskans, and now hordes of transient fishery workers, depend on the health of these waters and the continuation of the salmon runs in order to maintain a cultural, economic, and social standard of life. Life in southwest Alaska goes as the salmon go.
The fact that the area also happens to be a world-class place to fly fish is simply a bonus, but a bonus that could potentially alter the lives of a large number of young adults around the region.
The Learning Curve Begins
Currently, I’m sitting in the great room at the Bear Trail Lodge in King Salmon, Alaska, staring out at the mighty Naknek River. As wide as the Mississippi, if not wider, it’s a daunting river from this vantage point, and at least in this stretch, completely dependent upon the tides as to its depth. A bald eagle’s nest is in view from my chair, as is the endless blue sky, unbroken only by a spattering of evergreens and a few distant snow-covered peaks.
The reason I’m here isn’t for pleasure, though it’s difficult to claim that any time spent in Alaska isn’t enjoyable. And I’m not here strictly to write, although it is an Orvis-sanctioned trip and, as you can clearly see, I am writing about it. I’m actually spending the next few days along the banks of the Naknek as a guest instructor at the Bristol Bay River Academy, a week-long program designed to teach young native Alaskans everything from how to cast a fly rod and tie a nail knot to how to construct a resume and find jobs in the recreational fishing industry. Now in its fourth season, the River Academy has been the result of a collaborative effort by Academy co-founders Tim Troll of The Nature Conservancy and Ekwok village elder and fishing guide Luki Akelkok, Trout Unlimited’s Nelli Williams, lead instructor and Bear Trail Lodge owner Nanci Morris Lyons, as well as a handful of energetic guest instructors.
The students have already arrived, been issued waders, rods, and reels, and spent most of today going over the basics of rigging, casting, and stream etiquette. Their personalities, backgrounds, and fly-fishing experiences are scattered across a wide spectrum, but the one thread that connects each is a love of their home and the desire to enjoy and protect it.
Earlier this afternoon, after an extended casting session, we took a group outing to King Salmon Creek, where two of the students caught grayling on dry flies. For Blaine, it was old hat. He’s starting a guide business with his father and is taking the Academy to pick up some extra knowledge. For Danielle, it was a first, and it was exciting for everyone. (It’s right here that I’ll mention that four of the guest instructors, myself included, went to the same stretch of water the previous day and came home with nothing but itchy welts.)
These kids have caught on extremely quickly, and each possesses a willingness to listen and learn that isn’t often present in other environments. I can’t wait to see how much better they become as we progress through the course. Much more awaits, both for the students and the instructors.