Why Alaska? An Angler Explains Why He Keeps Coming Back North
The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY TONY ENSALACO
“Daddy, why do you go to Alaska?” You would think a simple question coming from a then 8-year-old girl would be easy to address. But at that moment, I felt like a fool because I couldn’t come up with a specific answer. So I said to my darling daughter Brooke, “I don’t know. I just like it there.” I was hoping that she would accept my lame response and move on to the next subject. Yeah, right! Every parent knows there is no chance that the conversation is about to end there.
“Do you really have to go? Why can’t you fish here instead? I think you should stay home,” she innocently replied. “What? Did your mother put you up to this?” was what I wanted to blurt out, but I decided that it would be better for me to shut my mouth to keep the peace. “Sweetheart, it’s early in the morning and Daddy just woke up. Can we talk about this later?”
“OK, Daddy; I’ll come back, but you have to tell me later.” Then Brooke kissed me on the cheek and disappeared to another room in the house.
Two takeaways from that brief encounter: One: I am not prepared for the day when my children come to me with a serious question like, “What is the meaning of life?” or “Where do babies come from?”
Second: I never gave it much thought as to why I feel compelled to go to the Last Frontier. I just know in my heart that I need to get there. Sure, I can catch most of the same species of fish for a fraction of the cost closer to home on some of the fabled Great Lakes tributaries, but there is something more that draws me to the North. I just never had to verbally express my reasons. My daughter got me thinking that day, and these are some of the things I could come up with.
Come on; it’s frickin’ Alaska! How cool is it to know that you just pulled the trigger and booked a trip to a location that is on nearly everyone’s bucket list? And nothing beats seeing the reactions you get when you mention where you plan on going. Let’s just say you’ll definitely capture someone’s attention.
One of the things that makes Alaska such an exciting travel destination is the different levels of adventure the state has to offer. On any given flight heading into Anchorage, the plane could be filled with visitors from all corners of the world, all who have completely different itineraries. One passenger might be chartering a de Havilland Beaver into the bush, which will abandon him for a two-week, DIY float trip down a wilderness river, leave him at the mercy of the elements and resort to harvesting some of his food via hunting or fishing.
The guy sitting next to him is booked at an upscale, five-star, fully guided, all- inclusive lodge that includes gourmet meals, offers top-shelf booze and a comfortable bed fitted with 400-count Egyptian cotton sheets to nestle into.
When it comes to living on the edge, my Alaskan experiences have been somewhat benign, because I have always relied on the basic modern amenities to make it through my stay. Still, I am not there to test my survival skills; I’ve grown accustomed to being able to take hot showers in a private bathroom and devour meals prepared by someone else. Even when I fished out of a remote tent camp, there were porcelain toilets and running water in the latrine, plus a professional chef in the mess tent serving fancy four- course dinners every evening.
And even though my trips are relatively tame compared to some of the hardcore outdoor excursions that take place every year in the state, the intensity level still the magnitude of Alaska is to see it for themselves the way God intended – up close and personal.
Even after gazing at thousands of professional photographs in travel books or watching hours of footage on a high- definition television, it would be impossible to capture the astounding vistas and the immense size of the state.
Sure, there are plenty of amazing places in this world that offer stunning, jaw- dropping landscapes, but for my money nothing compares to Alaska. Just ask any globetrotter who has visited and they’ll tell you that Alaska is the total package.
Besides having the tallest mountain in North America, Denali, with a summit reaching 20,310 feet above sea level, Alaska has over three million lakes (Minnesota boasts of having a measly 10,000), countless glaciers and fjords, and it is home to the Tongass National Forest, which happens to be the world’s largest temperate rain forest. This untamed wilderness provides crucial habitat for wildlife, and if a tourist is fortunate to be at the right place and at the right time, there is a strong possibility that you can see bears, moose, wolves, caribou and even several species of whales, all surrounded by their natural habitat.
A visitor could spend several lifetimes exploring Alaska by land, sea, or air and could never come across everything there is to see.
FOOD AND DRINK
There is a ritual that I have been practicing every year that goes back to my second journey to the Last Frontier in 2003. In my mind, the trip doesn’t “officially” start until I am buckled into my seat on an Alaskan Airlines jet and the first sip of that sweet nectar of an Alaskan Amber touches my lips. That is when I finally mentally concede my responsibilities at home and am able to fully focus my attention on the vacation.
There are some years when I don’t get around to taking my first pull until I’m flying over Alaska’s air space, and then there are those with exceptionally difficult circumstances leading up to the trip, which causes me to order a beer and a backup as soon as the drink cart makes it down the aisle shortly after departing from Chicago.
What makes me covet the brew is because for many years, the Alaskan Brewing Company beer wasn’t sold in my area. So, every year, when I take that initial taste my brain sensors start to fire, letting me know that I’m about to embark on an adventure. Now, the Alaskan Brewing Company has been shipping its merchandise throughout parts of the Lower 48 and beer distribution has migrated into my Chicagoland zip code.
And even though I find the suds delectable, I refuse to purchase a six-pack because, in my mind, it would be bad karma. I don’t want to take a chance of upsetting the fish gods if it wasn’t consumed in the right setting. What can I say? Fishermen are superstitious and I’m not willing to risk throwing the Earth off of its axis because I sometimes get thirsty.
As far as the grub goes, I definitely would not consider myself a connoisseur, but I do like to challenge my conservative Midwestern pallet by expanding my dining horizons wherever I travel by indulging in the local cuisine. However, there are a few unconventional Alaskan delicacies that I refuse to taste and defer them to the diehard foodies or the native Alaskans who have developed the gastric fortitude to properly digest some of the more exotic dishes.
When I first started going to Alaska, my idea of crossing over to the wild side was ordering the reindeer burger at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse during a layover in Ted Stevens International Airport. Since then, I’m proud to report that I’ve challenged my taste buds by sampling moose, black bear and seal, and I even got a hold of a chunk of muktuk, whale blubber.
I wouldn’t say that I left Alaska craving any of those foods, and there is a good chance that I will never voluntarily consume many of those recipes again, but I’m sure glad that I got a chance to try them.
Whether it is meeting another visitor from a different continent, or perhaps reconnecting with past acquaintances from previous trips, the camaraderie is becoming one of my favorite reasons to return to the 49th state. I truly look forward to catching up with the employees of the lodge where I stay, as well as the locals who frequent the bar and restaurant, just so I can listen to their tales about what they had to endure since the last time I saw them.
What’s fascinating is the cross-section of cultures and backgrounds that I come across on any given night. There aren’t too many places in the world where you can belly up to a bar and, quietly enjoying a beer on the left of you, there will be a commercial longliner who lived his entire life in a remote Alaskan village of less than a few hundred people. And on the right barstool is a boisterous hedge-fund manager from the
“Sure, there are plenty of amazing places in this world that offer stunning, jaw-dropping landscapes, but for my money nothing compares to Alaska,” states the author. (TONY ENSALACO)
East Coast putting on a show and pounding down the brown water like he’s going to the electric chair.
And just to spread out the diversity, standing across the hardwood taking dinner orders and pouring drinks is the sitting mayor of the town. Again, only in Alaska.
And what really intrigues me is discovering the myriad motives about why a person would choose to move to Alaska. When you ask most of them, they are usually more than willing to share their backstories. The reasoning can be as simple as looking for work or wanting to add some adventure in their lives.
I also have met a few hopeless romantics who chose to drop everything in the Lower 48 and move to Alaska in the name of pursuing a love interest. And I’ve encountered more than a few lost souls who wanted to leave their past in the rearview mirror and get as far away as possible from their previous lives. They felt they had no choice but to run away, so they figured where’s a better place to relocate and attempt to make a fresh start on life than the Last Frontier?
There was one particular trip traveling with my father that we had a rotating guest list sitting around us on each leg of the flight. It seemed that almost everyone we spoke to was trying to disappear from society for a variety of reasons, and blending into Alaska was the best solution. It was a mind-blowing reality check to hear some of the reasons for their escape, but it was a little disturbing as well.
Who are we kidding? It’s all about the fishing. Where else on the planet can you go out in the morning and catch a 100-plus- pound barn door halibut, along with a 25-pound feeder king salmon trolling in the saltwater, take a lunch break, and then go hit the river in the afternoon and watch in awe as a 27-inch leopard rainbow trout attached to the end of your fly rod goes cartwheeling downstream out of control? Only in Alaska, baby! Sure, there are tremendous fishing opportunities around the world and I would love to investigate all of them, but those dream destinations will never be my first choice.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand why some fishermen might wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming of a 50-inch musky following a bucktail to the side of the boat and then glomming onto it during a figure eight. Or why someone can’t function at work because he’s daydreaming about double hauling a 4/0 crab imitation in front of a school of tarpon as they silently glide across a sand flat.
There are just too many excursions to list that provide outstanding piscatorial challenges throughout the fishing grounds that would have no problem falling into other people’s wheelhouses, but I have other aspirations. Give me the raw brutality of a giant Chinook peeling 100 yards of line off the reel on its initial run, and there is nothing anyone can do but hold on and prey that the salmon decides to stop.
Or, when it becomes “go time” to start frantically casting towards a school of 50 silvers that just miraculously appeared in the tidal pool you have been patiently waiting at for the last half-hour. I even enjoy messing with those “nuisance” pink salmon with some light tackle when the right situation arises.
If someone thinks that I’m biased, then I would have to say they’re correct. I can’t cure my addiction of pursuing mint-silver, anadromous fish that return to their Alaskan natal rivers and streams, so the only thing I can do is accept my weakness and make it back to Alaska as often as possible. I think I’m ready to confront my daughter.
“Brooke, Daddy wants to talk to you.” “Yes, Daddy?”
“I think I could answer your question now.”
“You mean the one about why you go to Alaska?”
“Yes, that one dear.”
“I already know why. It’s because you love to fish. Everyone knows that. But, can I ask you something else?”
“What’s that, honey?”
“I have a question about babies.”
“Go ask your mother, and if anyone’s looking for me, I’ll be locked down in the base- ment tying jigs for the next 10 years!” ASJ