The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
Author Brian Kelly (above) made it to Juneau for a great silver salmon trip, but he had to adhere to a lot of COVID-19 protocols to make it happen. (PHOTOS BY BRIAN KELLY)
BY BRIAN KELLY
I have been fortunate enough to travel to Alaska every year since 2011. Every trip is filled with eye-opening moments that one just cannot experience in the Lower 48.
From dime-bright silvers with sea lice and seal scars to fresh grizzly tracks in tidal mud flats, nothing can match the sensory overload quite like Alaska. Of course, after a few trips, one finds out the hard way about the myriad logistical challenges that come with each journey – from cancelled flights to missing baggage to weather that only Alaska can furnish. Throw in a global pandemic and now the fun really begins!
MY 2020 TRIP PLANNING was set into motion in January, just ahead of the world getting set on its ear by some strange new virus, which was first detected in China. Flights, accommodations and vehicle reservations were all in place for an early September rendezvous in Juneau for nine days of salt, silvers, fun and games.
It was time to start fussing over gear, get rid of some holiday pounds and make the eight months hurry up and go by so I could watch a seal eat my pal’s silver as he was ready to land it.
Then came COVID in March; the world came to screeching halt. I must admit, my first thought that came to mind was, “Well; there goes the Alaska trip.” That was about when the travel bans and restrictions started coming in hot and heavy.
But then the reality of the situation at home started to sink in as store shelves were being emptied and people were losing their minds over toilet paper! It all seemed so surreal to be driving to a neighboring state to fortify the liquor cabinet, since the wise and all-powerful governor of Pennsylvania decreed that adult beverage outlets weren’t considered “essential.” What a mess.
Once early summer rolled around, it became apparent that travel to Alaska was going to be tricky, but not impossible. Alaska Airlines was still in business and flying to Juneau. Of course, flight schedules were understandably changed a few times to accommodate the massive hole blown in the travel business. But we had a plane and a ticket for said plane; let the games begin!
AS THE STATE OF Alaska began to slowly reopen and allow visitors from the Lower 48, travel protocols were put in place that were meant to protect travelers and locals alike.
Those in charge decided to offer travelers into Alaska a few choices: 1) Show up with a negative COVID test (PCR nasal swab, the fun one); 2) No test and quarantine for 14 days before venturing out; 3) Get tested at the airport and sit tight until test results come back.
We opted for the first choice, which sounded reasonable – until you read the fine print and found out your negative test result must be in hand within 72 hours of your departure. Hmm, sounds easy enough, right? Well …
I called my doctor’s office a month ahead of the trip to get a test scheduled and explained my need for the 72-hour turnaround. No guarantees were made, but they said they would do their best to make it happen.
Within a couple weeks of departure, my doctor’s office called to inform me that COVID tests were taking three to five days for results, as the labs were at capacity. Wonderful. Now what? Fortunately, I have a good friend back in my home state of Michigan who was soon heading to Anchorage and also facing the same testing dilemma. After making some calls, he found a rural hospital that had an onsite lab that was turning test results around in 24 to 48 hours. Perfect!
Since I reside in Erie, Pennsylvania, I usually fly out of Pittsburgh (two hours away) or Buffalo (one and a half hours). The issue I have faced in the past when going that route is the first and last flights are usually a puddle jump from a hub like Chicago, Detroit or New York City, which has led to missed connections, lost baggage and such.
For this trip, I decided to make a four- hour drive to Detroit, as I would only have one connection in Seattle. So, after getting a COVID test scheduled at the hospital in Owosso, Michigan, two days ahead of my flight, I kissed the wife and kids goodbye and set off on a trip that would cover a fair swath of the lower peninsula of my home state.
AFTER A SIX-HOUR drive across the flat, dull farm plains of Ohio and Michigan, the first stop in the tour was at my friend’s house. He lived a short distance from the hospital for the test. We had a couple cold Alaskan Ambers that evening while he filled me in on his recent adventures on Alaska’s Russian River, complete with regular interactions with moody brown bears.
With COVID keeping most travelers home, he couldn’t get over the lack of crowds in the Kenai Peninsula, both on the road and on the stream! Would that be the case in Juneau? Time would tell.
First things first was getting on with the nasal swab! The test itself was no big deal – 10 seconds of a swab up the sinus cavity and I was on my way – and then we waited to see if I was even going to get off the ground.
Leg No. 2 of the journey took me three hours north to hunker down at my father’s house and cross my fingers for a test result. There are things you cannot control on any trip – flight delays and bear encounters come to mind – and that’s something we are accustomed to when travelling to Alaska, but sitting around waiting for a test result was brutal. After months of planning, it all came down to a simple nose swab. But this is the world we now live in! I didn’t sleep well that night, though I never do before a trip.
However, the next morning I was treated to a welcomed email stating that I was COVID-negative. The hospital was spot on with its timing and was gracious enough to provide me with a hard copy, just in case.
The last leg of my Michigan tour was a three-hour sprint from northern Michigan to Detroit Metro Airport. It was time to get on that 747 and head to my favorite playground in Alaska.
The view of Mount Rainier on a connecting flight to Seattle was a welcome sight. (BRIAN KELLY)
My flight to Seattle was under half-full, which was to be expected. The cabin crew members were very gracious and courteous, but they had a bit of that dazed look in their eyes as their world and careers had just taken a massive hit.
The flight was the smoothest ride I have ever experienced on my many jaunts to the West Coast. Instead of the usual pogo-stick routine as you come down from cruising altitude, it was calm and quiet with clear skies and a lit-up Mount Rainier out the window. In fact, I believe it was the first time I was able to experience the sight of all the peaks around the Seattle area. I took it as an omen of good things to come, as Alaska was now within reach.
SeaTac Airport was more open and alive than I had anticipated. I was actually able to sit down at a bar and enjoy a proper adult beverage before departing to Juneau! The flight north was fairly empty and uneventful. But the fun began once I set foot in Juneau’s airport.
The powers that be weren’t content with a hard copy or electronic copy of a negative COVID test, so they decided to set up a web portal that one needed to access and login and so on. Initially, there was a fair bit of confusion in the airport as to what to do next or how one could safely exit and get on their way.
Fortunately, the airport staff came around with iPads to assist with accessing this new portal and getting to the proper line for a test check. After fumbling around with this new procedure and getting through the makeshift check- out line, I was pleased to see my checked bag on the carousel!
Finally, I was on the ground in Alaska!
WITH MY BACKPACK AND roller bag in tow, I was out of the airport and hiked across the parking lot to my hotel for the evening. By this point, I was ready to crash. Driving, flying, portals and a four-hour time change were catching up to me in a hurry.
But as I approached the main entrance to the hotel, I noticed a shape in front of the doors that wasn’t human. It was an adult black bear, rummaging through the garbage can next to the doors.
Now, I was in no mood to reason with Boo-Boo, so I stopped and yelled “Hey!” at the top of my lungs. This got his attention, and the look on his face was priceless – kind of like the look my German shepherd gives me when I catch him in the trash! I then proceeded to tell the bear to quit acting like some damned raccoon and get the hell out of there so I could get some much-needed sleep! He turned on a dime and sprinted out of the parking lot into the adjoining woods.
I calmly walked into the hotel lobby and alerted the manager to the bear issue in front of the property. Without lifting his head or batting an eye, he promptly responded, “Yeah; been like that all summer.” Welcome to Alaska!
THE FISHING ITSELF STARTED slowly the first couple days, which can be expected on any trip. According to the locals, the fish had shown up in force for a week in mid-August, then disappeared for a week or more and were just starting to show up again.
Over the next four days, my fishing partner and I took turns getting the hot hand. We have fished together for over 20 years and things like this can happen, but rarely does one of us go stone cold while the other can do no wrong. It would start and stop like this no matter the time of day. At one point, we just looked at each other and broke out in laughter; what else could we do?
Then, it all came together on an incoming tide halfway through the trip and we were doubling up on what seemed like every other cast. It was a morning bite you dream of when you come to Alaska, and all the struggles up to this point just seemed to vanish. But the elation was short lived.
I had always heard from Alaskan locals over the years that you don’t want to be here when the weather switch flips in the fall. It can be brutal. And we were about to get a firsthand taste. I was awoken ahead of my alarm by what sounded like a freight train. As I pulled back the curtains, I could see the trees bent over and rain coming down in sheets. This was going to be a fun day. But being the stubborn pair that we are, my pal and I geared up and headed out.
Neither of us had ever fished in anything quite like this. The wind was howling right down Gastineau Channel, and there was nowhere to hide. The rain was pounding down and driven by 30-plus-knot winds.
The strangest part of the day was the small clearing in the sky to the west that we could see but never quite made it to us. We managed to land a few fish in that mess by fishing the biggest pink spinners we had in the box. The water in the channel was getting dirtier by the hour and we finally called it quits well before supper time that afternoon. The storm lasted into the next afternoon and the runoff dumping into the channel had the water pushing into full-on mud mode.
The last couple days of the trip were a bust, as the rain seemed to push the majority of the fish to the hatchery. On the afternoon of my departure, I sat at the Macaulay Hatchery and watched packs of seals hunting the big schools of silvers that were fighting to get into the fish ladder. At one point, a seal was brazen enough to dive into the fish ladder! And yes, he came up with a meal for his efforts.
I counted a dozen seal heads cruising around the docks and net pens at the hatchery – all looking for a meal. It was like a Shark Week scene, except with seals feasting on fresh silvers. A massive sea lion came up with a salmon in its mouth and ripped it in half with one chomp of its jaws. These are sights and sounds we do not get to experience in the Great Lakes!
IT WAS AN EXHAUSTING trip, but well worth the extra hassle of the test, portals and protocols. But it was also not the same Juneau of years’ past. No cruise ships meant no income for most of the locals, and you could see the hollow look in their eyes as they came out in droves to try and catch some fish for what was surely going to be a long winter.
Our favorite bars and restaurants were either closed, at reduced capacity or carry-out only (thank you, Island Pub, for staying open and making the best pizza in Alaska!).
I will admit we did break a local ordinance our last night in town and went out for a halibut dinner at a local establishment. Not that this was being enforced, mind you, but we were gently asked at the airport to avoid going to bars or restaurants since we were outsiders. But we were welcome to get groceries and supplies at Fred Meyer or Safeway.
An odd feeling surrounded the whole town. However, there was one place that seemed unaffected by it all and that was the laid-back staff at our food processor, Jerry’s Meats. They were happy to see us every day as we brought in our catch to be vacuum-packed and frozen for the trip home.
It was good to see the familiar faces of those who have taken care of us on previous trips going on about their business, pandemic be damned!
As I watched my fish boxes get loaded on the plane, all I could think about was getting home to my family and filling that freezer with prime silver fillets. Mission accomplished!
Would I do it again? Absolutely! In fact, as I sit here typing this story in the middle of January, my flight, lodging and minivan – oh, yeah! Best salmon-slayer vehicle ever – are booked for a return engagement the first week of September.
Everyone has reasons to go to Alaska. I’m driven by the thought of my grandfathers who were not able to make such a trip. One passed away in the late 1930s from leukemia, and the other escaped Nazi Germany to find freedom and a new life in America. Sadly, he passed away from stomach cancer shortly after retiring.
COVID may have changed how we travel and live – for now – but don’t let it stop you from taking that dream trip to Alaska. Life is short, and so is the silver run. Take advantage while you can! ASJ