Written by: John Van Vleet
[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.]
Alaska’s Brooks River, located in the heart of Katmai National Park, is known more for its bears than for its fly fishing. It’s possibly the best place in the entire world to see a brown bear in its natural habitat. You know all those photos and documentaries you’ve seen featuring brown bears catching salmon out of the air in a small waterfall? That would be Brooks Falls, located about two-thirds of the way down the Brooks River—the river we fished all day.
To answer the obvious question: yes, we saw some bears. Very early, and very closely.
The best way to get to the Brooks River is by float plane. For most visitors to Brooks Camp in Katmai, it’s their first exposure not only to bears, but to flying in tiny aircraft that take off and land in water, as well. Many of the students, however, had travelled by float plane before—they are from Alaska, after all. I’ve come to realize that float planes are the SUVs of the tundra. This being my first time in the Bristol Bay region of the state, I’d never had the opportunity to fly in one, and was rewarded with the co-pilot’s seat, which gave me an unparalleled view of Alaska’s wild and astounding beauty.
As we descended onto Naknek Lake and approached Brooks Camp, we saw several park rangers on walkie talkies, waiting for us to de-board the plane. Several hundred yards to our right, a mating pair of brown bears rested on the beach. The female, a lightly colored blonde, looked positively sleepy as a gigantic darker male circled around her. From the planes, we each got great views of the bears before they ran off into the woods, but I couldn’t quite capture them on film.
This would not be our last encounter with the bears.
Once the entire group was ashore, we stored our gear (my camera included) in a bear-safe locker, watched a presentation on bear safety, and then moved to a picnic shelter surrounded by an electric fence to eat lunch before hiking to the headwaters of the river. Just as we broke open the coolers, two rangers sprinted by the pavilion and told us to remain calm. Off to our left, the female bear wandered through the woods about 75 feet from us. With all of our attention focused on her, no one noticed the male sauntering up the path directly toward the picnic area. I turned my head just in time to see the bear walk by the ranger station, come within 20 feet of us, and then start chasing after the female again.
Thankfully for us, he only had one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t food.
After the great brown bear photography fiasco of 2012, we started our hike to the headwaters. The Brooks is a short river—just over a mile in length, connecting Brooks Lake and Naknek Lake—so we didn’t have to hike far, but when you’re loaded down with gear and completely out of shape, it becomes a burden. I speak for myself here, because all of the students had no trouble whatsoever. As we reached the top of the trail, we ran into a handful of anglers already in the water. It was at that point I started thinking to myself, “It’s going to be one of those days.”
We decided to head downstream to find a place for all 21 of us to fish—not an easy task on a stretch of water so short that’s already dotted with anglers. Throw in the fact that the river was flowing strong and only a few of us any real wading experience, someone was bound to get wet.
That someone was me.
After bushwhacking down a trail for a bit, we decided to check the river to see if we could begin fishing. We crashed through the trees and down to the bank only to find an older gentlemen smoking a cigar with a hefty rainbow on the end of his line. You fly out into the middle of nowhere and you’d expect to find no one. Instead, we were able to teach the students valuable lessons on perseverance, stream etiquette, and how to avoid becoming frustrated before even wetting a line.
Upstream of the cigar-smoking man, Russ Schnitzer (a fine photographer and guest instructor for the week) and I blazed a wading path across the stream for several students. Russ led the way, and I followed behind, making sure no one got carried downstream. As we crossed, one of the lesser experienced students began to freeze up and told me he was scared. I hooked his arm into mine, and told him to mirror my steps. Instantly, I remembered all the things I was taught when I first started wading, and I passed those along to him as we moved across the stream. What I didn’t remember is that I was carrying my camera bag and that I’d rolled down the tops of my waders for the hike.
All it takes is one drop of ice cold water in your crotch to snap you out of whatever you’re doing.
With all of us safely across, and my waders full of water, I could finally stop to assess the damage. One of my camera lenses was completely soaked, as were my socks, pants, and most of my shirt.
Yep, it’s one of those days. And we haven’t even started fishing.
The students found a few long stretches of productive water, spread themselves out, and put their flies, knots, and skills to the test. There were a few fish hooked, guest instructor Sam Snyder landed a few excellent rainbows. I, on the other hand, hooked a large Dolly Varden, fought it for a few seconds, and watched in horror as it ran straight under a log jam and broke me off in a flash. At least I punctured a hole in my thumb as I tied on the next fly. I had that going for me.
As we fished down to where the Brooks dumps into Naknek Lake, the students were gaining confidence in their casts, even in the face of a growing wind. Willie and Travis, two students from Koliganek, took to the river like seasoned pros. They worked the seams, practiced different stripping speeds, and even started incorporating hauls into their casts. Whether it was on purpose, or just part of their inherent skill, I’ll never know. But it was impressive to watch them work.
Once we made our way back down to Brooks Camp, we encountered two-foot high breakers on Naknek Lake as the wind whipped the surface of the water into a foam. It was then that Nanci informed us we’d have to hike all the way back up to Brooks Lake in order to safely fly back home. While the kids certainly didn’t mind, after lugging all my camera and fishing gear around, stabbing myself in the finger, breaking off a fish, and being wet from the waist down all day, I could have done without it.
It was most definitely one of those days, but having one of those days in Alaska is much more preferable than having it just about anywhere else.