Posted tagged ‘Sockeye Salmon’

Chapter 5: On To Katmai

February 5, 2011

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Preparing for grizzlies

Camping in Grizzly Country. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

In the beginning, God created man and woman, and He created them to rule over His creation. God also gave men responsibility to lead their families. God designed humans to rely on Him and built into us a longing for the Savior. Although sin has damaged mankind’s relationship with God, in His goodness He wants us to be a part of the adventure of restoring His kingdom on earth, as it is in Heaven (Luke 11:2-3). And while God has also given women a sense of adventure, men are, on average, much more likely to undertake an expedition involving danger and unknown risks. Built into them from the beginning, men instinctively feel the “call of the wild”, and with this come desires to tame and conquer something. Many believe that such instincts are “primitive”, and that as we evolve, we will eventually lose these desires to conquer. Such ideas are foolish, and are often the result of feminism. Feminism stems from a desire to “control” men. It results in a backwards-thinking society. But feminism also results when men fail to lead as fathers and husbands. God’s plan for families is for men to be the head of the household, and women to be “suitable helpers” in this (Genesis 2:18). In the most functional families I know, the husband and wife understand their God-given positions.

As the head of the house, men need to love their wives and children, and take care not to have their sense of adventure misplaced. For a man with a family, his number one adventure should be in caring for them, in venturing into the unknown world of changing dirty diapers, helping with the laundry, and loving and caring for his wife and children. But men also need to conquer new lands and test their limits, and for some that may be accomplished through the reading of a book. For others, they may need to test their limits in sports or the business world. And for myself and thousands of others each summer, the massive wilderness of Alaska calls us to come and test our wilderness skills, so our 2005 camp was hardly finished when we were planning for 2006.

Once again we turned to our outfitter, Joe Schuster for assistance in finding a place that would be more remote and wild than Lake Creek. In planning a trip into the wilderness, and for that matter, in making everyday decisions, we must continuously ask ourselves “how much risk am I willing to take?” Determining what equates to a “reasonable” amount of risk is a difficult thing, whether the venture is a new business opportunity or a trip into lands where grizzlies significantly outnumber humans. One trip Joe suggested was down American Creek in Katmai National Park. Filled with lunker rainbows, swarms of sockeyes, and LOTS of grizzly bears, this sounded like the place for us!

The men who would go on the 2006 trip consisted of almost all “repeat Lake Creek customers”, including Mike Boriack and son John, Mitch Eichelberger and son Ryan, Troy Finney and sons Sean and Sam, Rob Sadowski, and my step-son, Kenny Cole. Rob had either participated in, or worked alongside me in virtually every Alaska Camp and Texas Marine Science Camp I had directed over the past 10 years. An avid outdoorsman, Rob’s bear-like size and strength were a welcome part of our 2006 trip to American Creek. Rob did a fantastic job the following year guiding 3 Alaskan float trips back-to-back, an amazing and physically exhausting feat. Our one newcomer was Kenny’s friend, Jacob Duke. An avid outdoorsman who had spent many years hunting in West Texas, we were confident in his abilities to handle the unexpected.

While the remoteness of American Creek was not something to take lightly, we knew we must also concern ourselves with the river we had chosen to traverse. In his book, Wild Men, Wild Alaska, famous Alaskan guide Rocky Mcelveen exclaimed that a wild river “is like a woman, it’s trying to tell you something but you have to listen!” So we listened when Joe told us what he knew about American Creek, and we read books like Karen Jettmar’s The Alaskan River Guide, which helped prepare us for American Creek’s unique personality. If rivers truly were like women, we were about to learn that this one was beautiful, but suffered from a fairly serious case of schizophrenia!

Of course, our biggest hurdle to overcome was grizzlies, or so we thought. We had only seen one grizzly and maybe a dozen black bears on our trips to Lake Creek, with the black bears keeping their distance for the most part, except for the one that stole a carelessly-placed fish carcass not 20 feet from Mike. On American Creek, all indications were that we might see one or more bears per mile on this 40-mile trip. Even if the other outfitters making these claims were over-exaggerating, we could still expect to see many more bears than on Lake Creek. Phone calls to the Katmai National Park Headquarters in King Salmon confirmed our expectations, and park rangers guaranteed we would see grizzlies, and would more than likely have some close encounters. And we listened carefully when the rangers told us how some Park rangers had serious problems with bears on an American Creek float trip conducted the previous year. Apparently they had walked downriver to fish, leaving the camp unattended. When they returned they found their campsite had been destroyed by three rowdy “teenage” bears.

Now we knew what Rule Number 1 would be: don’t leave camp unattended! But if you must leave camp, one way to bear-proof it is with an electric fence. This was also recommended by the Park Service, as well as by other “bear people”, like author Charlie Russell. While not a scientist, Russell spent many years among the grizzlies of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. In his book Grizzly Heart, Russell is adamant about the use of electric fences in any situation where the potential for bear/human interactions is high. So on our first trip in 2006, we brought along a bulky, solar-powered model, which turned out to be Mistake Number 1.

Our biggest question for this trip was how we would deter bears, especially the aggressive ones. I know some people are into the idea that when you enter wilderness, you are entering “their” land. However, this is not how the Bible reads. I have mentioned this before and will mention it again, Scripture clearly states that God gave humans the responsibility to rule over His creation, so when we enter an untamed wilderness, we are supposed to be in charge, not the plants and animals. God did not tell the ducks, river otters, and grizzlies that it was their responsibility to rule over Creation; He gave the job to us! However, we are also responsible for how we treat the life that is there. I was of the mindset that we would leave the bears alone, but if they showed any interest in us or our campsites, we would deter them with everything we had. If a bear was casually walking along the shore opposite our campsite, I would leave it alone, but if it was casually walking along on the same shoreline as our campsite, I would start by yelling, and if that didn’t work, give a few blasts on a portable air horn.

If the air horn didn’t work, we brought bear spray. Bear spray is the name given to canisters containing oleoresin capsicum, a fancy name for “pepper extract in oil”. In 1999, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Commission released guidelines for choosing an effective bear spray. They recommended bear sprays containing a 1 to 2% concentration of capsaicinoids, the compounds responsible for making red peppers “hot”. The canister should hold enough for a minimum 6-second spray duration at distances of 25 feet or more, which equates to about 7.9 ounces (225 grams) of spray.

We have never had to use a can of spray, at least on bears anyways. If you bring the recommended size, they are quite bulky, and space is usually limited on rafts to begin with. For whatever reason, our trips usually have at least one non-bear related pepper spray incident. In one instance, Troy wanted to get a little “taste” of the spray to see how spicy it was. He squirted some out, not thinking about the swirling wind, which blew the spray right back into his face! Fortunately, he had only sprayed a tiny amount, and the pain was gone in a few minutes. In another accident, Mike had a can lying loose in the bottom of his raft. Normally, the spray would be in a better place, but it had fallen from the storage area, and on top of that, the safety pin was broken. When Mike jumped in after a routine stop, he set off the can, receiving a direct hit to the face. This put him out of commission for several hours, and days later he could still taste and smell pepper spray whenever the sweat would bring the oily residue dripping off his brow.

In my experience, pepper spray has proven to be more of a nuisance than anything, and I am not completely convinced of its effectiveness. Most bear attacks occur from surprising bears, and by the time you remove the canister from its holster, release the safety pin, and spray, it could be too late. The spray may not work, too, as was the case in July 2008 for some Denali National Park technicians. According to the Fairbanks Daily News, “an attempt to divert the bear with pepper spray was ineffective” against an attacking black bear. And in December 2003, one of the world’s leading bear scientists, Vityaly Nikolayenko, was killed by a male grizzly. The half-eaten body of Nikolayenko was found with an empty can of pepper spray lying nearby. I would still recommend bringing pepper spray along on any trip into grizzly country, just to have as many options available as possible.

The Denali technicians who were unable to deter a bear with pepper spray were able to subdue it with a slug from a 12-gauge shotgun. This is the weapon of choice in Alaska for defending against an attacking bear. Unlike conventional shotgun shells, slugs are basically a chunk of lead, and are incredibly effective at close range. A 2-3/4 to 3-inch “sabot” style hardened lead slug is a good choice. If you are used to shotguns, but have never shot a slug before, I highly recommend that you practice a few times, because, with over an ounce of lead inside, the slugs can give quite a kick compared to regular shot. We practiced before our first trip, and were able to tell a pretty good difference between the slugs and the regular 12-gauge shells. If you are charged by a bear and it is still closing with less than 50 feet (15 meters) to go, then take aim between the eyes and fire. A brain shot is the most effective at bringing down a bear, but more often than not, 3 or 4 shots are required, so make sure you have several shells in the chamber.

I am not going to advise venturing into grizzly-filled lands without a shotgun loaded with slugs, but if you are a novice with guns (like myself), you should definitely invest in a can or two of bear spray, and keep one clipped to your belt (not stored away) at all times. In his book, Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, bear expert Stephen Stringham suggests that, compared to guns, pepper spray is less-likely to cause retaliation when fired, is easier to keep handy, and less likely to be dropped during an attack, as you can fire the spray while still attached to the holster. Bear expert Charlie Russell has lived safely among swarms of bears for many summers on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and has never carried more than pepper spray and an electric fence. To my knowledge, Russell has never even used his spray. Opportunities for failure exist for both guns and pepper spray, but having both deterrents along on a trip is better than just one.

Another effective deterrent of bears is a large group. While on a float plane from King Salmon into Katmai National Park’s famous Brooks Falls bear viewing area, I chatted with a resident Alaskan who had done quite a bit of reading about bears and bear attacks, and he said that no group of 5 or more people had ever been attacked by a bear. I thought this was great advice. I have floated American Creek twice, encountering at least 200 bears on those trips, and have never had one react in a way where I thought it needed a slug between the eyes, although some of the other campers may have felt otherwise! Almost any bear that we wanted to deter was easily dealt with by a few shouts or blasts on an air horn. And I do mean “almost”, as we had a few that did not respond to sounds of any kind. These were usually larger, older bears, and I don’t know if they were hard of hearing, or if they just really weren’t impressed with all our noise-making. And we always traveled in groups of 5 or more, which I really do think helped.

Applications from Lake Creek

God has designed our minds to think deductively, where we apply rules in a new situation, and inductively, where we find rules. Scripture, mathematics, and engineering are deductive in nature, while science is more inductive, where you draw conclusions from observations made. All of the best educational programs train students to think deductively and inductively. And prior experience does great wonders in developing your deductive skills in the wilderness, and we had learned many things on our Lake Creek trip that we could now apply on American Creek. In regards to bears, we had learned that spooking a bear was the worst possible thing you could do, so we made plenty of noise anytime we were hiking. We dared not surprise a mother with her cubs or a grouchy old male at rest in his daybed. Every hike into the woods or along a stream was done with a persistent calling of “hey bear!” every 10-15 seconds. We first started our “hey bear!” routine on Lake Creek, especially near the mouth of the river where signs of grizzlies were much more common, and we applied this technique without fail anytime we entered the woods or wandered along the shores of American Creek.

We also applied what we learned about rafting on Lake Creek. We had become adept at steering and maneuvering our boats through “rock gardens”, around treacherous fallen logs known as “sweepers”, over small waterfalls and class I-IV rapids. We learned how rowing backwards would slow us down and give us increased maneuverability at important times, especially when navigating past fallen logs, and around sharp bends. At these times, if you did not slow down and gain control, you could end up slamming into a tree and impaling the boat, or even yourself, with the mangled ends of branches and roots, or you could slam into a shore and puncture the raft on brush and sharp rocks. Flying past these spots at top speeds was never a good idea. About the only time speeding up was a good idea was if there was a small waterfall that could potentially suck the raft backwards into it. In this case, adding a little burst of speed to clear the base of the waterfall was helpful. Of course, you could always “line” a raft (get out and walk while the raft passes through on the end of ropes) through treacherous-looking places.

On Lake Creek we learned to “read” the water, and developed a knack for always looking ahead a hundred yards or so, scanning the water’s surface and it’s movements to determine the best route. Every river truly does have its own “personality”, and its mood is greatly affected by water levels. You can read a lot about rivers and rafting before you take a float trip, and you should, but a huge part of rafting is inductive. You just have to do it gain experience. In one river, you become adept at finding the deepest channels, and knowing whether the riffle up ahead will be deep enough for your raft to cross. But then you go to a different river, and it’s almost like you have to relearn it all again. Riffles that look the same and were passable on the previous stream now cause your raft to get stuck. Even the rock shapes are different, with one river having smooth rocks and boulders, while the new river has some that are so sharp and jagged that they pop your raft. Each river tests you mentally and physically in new and different ways.

A new experience for us on American Creek was that it was extremely shallow in many places, so shallow that we would have to get out and walk the rafts, sometimes for hundreds of yards. And American Creek was also full of braids, which were a learning experience indeed, and gave us quite a scare on more than one occasion. I will discuss the braids more in Chapter 9.

We also applied what we learned about fishing on Lake Creek, and many of our tactics worked equally well. Two new fish that we had not caught on Lake Creek were Arctic char and lake trout. Being the incredibly intelligent people that we were, we decided that we should try to fish for lake trout in, of all places, the lake! And guess what? Within 5 minutes of unloading the plane, Rob had landed a nice 20-incher. We also caught quite a few “lakers” in the short stream connecting Hammersly Lake and Murray Lake. Our trip started on Hammersly Lake, a deep and clear lake that served as the headwaters of American Creek.

Rob with the first lake trout caught on our 2006 trip. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

Arctic char up to 30 inches were plentiful in American Creek, following the sockeye salmon to their spawning grounds. Along with the rainbow trout, they eagerly awaited directly behind the spawning salmon, hoping to pick off eggs that drifted out of the redd. Egg patterns and prince nymphs worked great on trout and char, as did Cabelas’ white crystal bugger flies. For spinning tackle, the #4 Blue Foxes were at it again, catching many char, rainbows, and even a few sockeye. Sockeyes were the only salmon we saw or caught in American Creek, which was a bit of a disappointment, but the salmon made up for the lack of diversity with their incredible numbers. We used streamers for sockeye as well. Unfortunately, our chartreuse Saltwater Assassins did not produce as well, but they only really worked on kings, silvers, and pinks in Lake Creek, none of which were present in American Creek. We also did not catch any grayling in American Creek, and I have not heard of others catching them, either.

Some of the most important lessons learned from Lake Creek had to do with what tastes good in the wild! Any time you fly in a plane, weight is always an issue, so dried products are always preferred. We liked to bring some fresh produce like apples and salad, but besides produce, eggs, and sausage, everything else was dried or had little water. Oatmeal, rice, pasta and quinoa were our grains of choice. Sugar and spices, dried mixes and powdered milk made the trip. Foods dense in fat, protein and carbohydrates were packed in, including trail mix, jerky, and Clif bars. Everything was proportioned out to minimize waste but also to ensure stomachs would be full, which, when you have a bunch of teenage boys along, is an almost impossible task.

The Moose’s Tooth and Iliamna weather don’t mix!

We scheduled our first trip to Katmai National Park in late July of 2006. Rob, Mike and John Boriack, and myself would be the first to depart, and would assemble the rafts and campsite. Before departing, we had a hearty meal at the Moose’s Tooth. Named after an Alaskan mountain ridge, The Moose’s Tooth is one of the most popular restaurants in Anchorage, and is known for their homemade pizza and beer. We ordered two of our favorite pizzas, the “brewhouse favorite”, and a “blackened halibut” pizza. This would be our last “real” food before leaving civilization. The metabolism of teenage boys is truly amazing, and I was surprised at how much blackened halibut pizza they could consume. Healthy and fit as a horses, they probably burned more calories while sitting still than I did after a 3-mile run.

With our stomachs satisfied, we headed to Joe’s floatplane, loaded the gear and departed around 6 pm. Our destination, Hammersly Lake, was over two hours away. I sat in the passenger seat opposite our trusted pilot, Joe Schuster, and John, Mike and Rob were fit together snugly in the back. We took off and headed southwest, across Cook Inlet and into Lake Clark Pass. Lined with jagged mountains and glacier-filled valleys, Lake Clark Pass was a sight to behold. Before entering Lake Clark Pass, I spotted Big River Lakes and Wolverine Creek where I had seen my first Alaskan grizzly! Excited at seeing a familiar place, I was awestruck as we headed through the pass, with mountains and glaciers towering above us. We continued out of the pass, into Lake Clark National Park and over the lake for which it was named. The small village of Port Alsworth was to our left. As we continued on, the wind began to blow stronger, and rain drops pelted the windshield. The wind was in excess of 20 knots and gusty, and in a DeHavilland Beaver float plane, that equates to a bumpy, roller coaster-like ride. Lake Clark pass can be treacherous, especially if fog unexpectedly settles in, but it also provides shelter from the frequent strong winds of Southwest Alaska that were now giving us a rather unfriendly welcome. After about 30 minutes of being bumped and tossed, I smelled a familiar odor. I thought to myself, “that sure smells like Moose’s Tooth pizza!”. Then I remembered we had eaten all the pizza and did not bring any leftovers on the plane. Oh no, somebody had lost their fine Moose’s Tooth dinner! And even worse, the plane was not equipped with “barf bags”! Fortunately, the one who lost his dinner had worn waterproof chest waders, which made cleanup a lot less painful.

A glacier as seen from Lake Clark Pass. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

We still had about an hour left in our flight, and the wind kept getting stronger. And in a float plane, the stronger the headwind, the slower is your forward progress. We continued to the southwest, and our next big landmark was Lake Iliamna. This region of Southwest Alaska was often called “Iliamna”, after the lake. As with other names in Alaska, their meanings have been lost, but one suggestion is that it is Athabascan in origin and probably means “large water”. With a surface area of 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers), it is the largest lake in Alaska and 8th largest in the United States. The beautiful blue waters of this oligotrophic (nutrient-deficient) lake extended for miles. Almost like an inland sea, Lake Iliamna supports a population of animals normally found in marine ecosystems, seals. Only a few other places, including Lakes Baikal and Ladoga in Russia, are home to freshwater seal populations.

Little is known about the Iliamna seals, but we spotted several as we flew over the north shore near the town of Iliamna. Mike spotted them first, and after we landed mentioned he saw something black that “looked like seals” on the rocks below. In my infinite storehouse of scientific knowledge, I ignored Mike’s comments and assured him that those “seals” were black bears. However, I was humbled later when we learned of Iliamna’s freshwater seal population from another camper who had researched the lake. Everyone got a good laugh at my expense. It always seems to be quite the memorable occasion when “the scientist” in the group makes a major taxonomic blunder, and I seem to give my students plenty of opportunities for correcting my mistakes.

After Iliamna Lake, we flew over Kukaklek Lake, followed by Nonvianuk Lake. Once we crossed Nonvianuk Lake, we were in Katmai National Park, and minutes away from our destination at Hammersly Lake. With the wind still blowing strong, Joe circled the lake and chose the southern shore where the short stream from Murray Lake entered. We unloaded on a sandbar, and we also unloaded the Moose’s Tooth pizza that had made such an untimely escape from one camper’s alimentary canal. The scenery had been spectacular, but we were all glad the plane ride was over. We scouted out the beach, and quickly realized we were sharing the sandbar with a family of nesting Semipalmated Plovers. It seemed almost impossible that this little bird, and its even tinier chicks, had built a nest in the open on this exposed, pebbly beach. However, the chick’s camouflaging was remarkable and easy to miss, so we marked off their nest to avoid tripping on it.

Semipalmated Plover Chick. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

Hammersly Lake

Because of the wind, the flight took longer than expected, and Joe headed out into the fading light, low on fuel, but at least with the wind at his back. He was able to stop in Port Alsworth and refuel, making it safely back to Anchorage. We set up our tent, caught a few lake trout, and took in the scenery. Hammersly Lake was situated at about 1600 ft (500 m) above sea level, nestled in a U-shaped glacial valley. Like Chelatna Lake, Hammersly Lake was formed by the damming action of a tributary glacier’s terminal moraine. In many glacial valleys, the timing of a glacier’s retreat can be followed, as one or more moraines are visible. This was evident here, as the short distance between Hammersly and Murray Lake was filled by the remnants of another terminal moraine, indicating where the glacier’s retreat had halted for a time before continuing on and forming Murray Lake.

Campsite on our first night at Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

Hammersly Lake was named after Rufus Knox “Bill” Hammersly, a trapper and gold prospector who lived in the area in the early to mid-1900’s. Lake Murray was named after Sam Murray, a trapper who knew the American Creek drainage well. The U-shaped valley was flanked by mountains so steep and rocky that we felt as if we were surrounded by charcoal-gray curtains that rose to about 4,000 feet (1200 m) above sea level. To the north, the mountains dissipated, giving way to tundra-covered drumlins, recessional moraines, and outwash plains dotted with kettle lakes, formed when massive chunks of glacial ice melted. The shoreline of Hammersly Lake was lined with a mixture of short alder bushes and tundra, and less than a thousand feet above it, almost all plant life ceased to grow. Even though summer had been in full swing for a month, snow was still present all the way down to the lake shore.

As we stood on the windswept shore, we started to realize the vastness of the wilderness we just entered. Grizzly tracks were present, but the lack of fresh scat told us there were probably not any recent visitors. The sockeye salmon had not made it upstream that far yet, and the bears knew this. Nevertheless, we anticipated encounters with grizzlies, and we planned accordingly, placing our tent on the open sandbar and next to a small patch of alders for protection from the wind. After Joe’s plane departed, the only sounds were the wind blowing across the tundra. I had been other places where the only sounds were the wilderness, but it was different here, because we knew that civilization was a very long ways away. The satellite phone would be arriving the next day, which made it seem a little more remote than I would have liked. When in wilderness like this, I will suddenly get an overwhelming sense of being alone in the wild. The feeling is like a two-edged sword, frightful on one side and exhilarating on the other. I think the fear comes from the thought of something bad happening and not reaching help in time, but the exhilaration comes from knowing that you are surrounded by miles and miles of uninhabited and unfenced territory.

Grizzly Tracks along Hammersly Lake. Grizzlies don't like walking on the soft tundra, and prefer to walk in previously-made footprints. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

It was as if our float plane was a time machine, and Joe had set it on about 4000 B.C., the approximate time of God’s creative act. And here we were, ready to explore this magnificient, mostly untamed wilderness. It reminded me of how Adam must have felt when it was only him, except for Adam it was probably a feeling of total exhilaration, as he had no concept of hospitals, medical care, or satellite phones to call for help. And, sin had not yet entered the world. It was just Adam and God, and all Adam knew is that he could trust God to be there for him. In our busy society, we often forget that God is in control, and we catch ourselves relying on computers, phones, fast food restaurants, Wikipedia, and wonder drugs for our “salvation”. But God knew we would have wild places and we would have cities, and he designed us to take dominion of both. Wherever we are, we should always remember to trust Christ alone for our salvation, and be thankful for the opportunity to serve others, and sometimes to be helped ourselves.

So here we were, in a land flowing with clean water, salmon, bears, and berries. As darkness fell around us, we settled into our tents for a good night’s sleep. John and Mike were exhausted, as they had already spent several days prior to our trip taking dominion over the sockeye salmon in the Kenai River. It was a great run that year, and they loaded up on tasty fillets to bring back home. We all fell asleep, but a few hours later I was awakened by the tent pushing on my face. In Texas, the wind almost always settles down at night, but I was quickly learning that the weather in Iliamna was similar to that of the Pribilof Islands, where low-pressure systems pass through like miniature hurricanes. The wind would pick up and up, increasing and changing direction, and slowly calm down as the storm passed on. And by 3 AM, with the tent pressing against my face, I was realizing that one of those low-pressure weather systems must be heading right for us! We got up and added several more anchors to the Cabelas Alaskan Guide tent, which did the trick.

The next morning the winds had calmed, but were still gusting to 20 knots. We were starting to realize why the treeline in most of Katmai National Park was only 1000 ft (300 m) above sea level. Above that, only alders and some willows of 8 foot or less grew, along with tundra. The cold and constant winds of Iliamna were just too much for larger trees. For comparision, consider Rocky Mountain National Park, where the treeline is around 11,500 ft (3500 m), over 10 times higher than Katmai’s!

The tundra was a fascinating, weaving, spongy mesh of plants and lichens. One of the most prominent parts of the tundra was the lichen known as “reindeer lichen”, a white, branching liken that looked a lot like coral. Lichens are actually a combination of two organisms, fungi and algae. The fungi attach to rather inhospitable surfaces that normally don’t sustain life, such as rocks and tree branches. The algae that live with them provide food through photosynthesis, while the fungi give the algae shelter. This incredible symbiotic relationship allows lichens to grow where nothing else can. Once established on a rocky landscape, the lichens provide support for other plants, and a maze of intertwining lichens and plants takes shape.

We made breakfast, read the Bible, and then set up the rafts, and at 9:30 decided to hike up to Murray Lake. Hammersly Lake was about 5 miles (8 km) long, and Murray Lake was only about 3 miles (5 km). The distance between the two lakes was a little over 1 mile, but it was surprisingly difficult hiking across the spongy tundra. When we arrived at Murray Lake’s outflow, we were greeted by a short but beautiful waterfall, beneath which a small school of hungry lake trout readily hit our lures. We didn’t stay long, as we expected the rest of the campers at any time. As we headed back down, we fished a deep pool, and I caught a nice rainbow over two feet long. It was a very fat and healthy hook-jawed male, and the largest rainbow I had ever landed. We snapped a quick photo and released it back to its domain.

Waterfall at outflow of Murray Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

Landing a nice rainbow trout in the stream between Murray Lake and Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

For fishermen, some fish are just more memorable than others. As I write this, I can still remember the pool with its clear green waters and tan-colored bottom, and the lake trout and rainbows rushing to my lure like kids to an ice cream truck, all wanting to be first. I had been to wild places before, but I felt that this place was one that an extremely small number of people had ever visited, and that I may have been the first person this large old trout had ever seen. I was more than happy to release this one to produce more of his kind and perhaps thrill another angler or feed a bear some day.

As we continued back to camp, we realized that the wind had picked up considerably, and we were startled to see our tents were blown almost flat in the 30+ knot gusts. We thought there was no way the other campers would arrive that day, and by noon we had started to commit to the thought of being on our own another night. Suddenly though, we heard the distinct hum of a float plane, and sure enough, it was Joe and a second plane bringing the rest of the campers and supplies! We really couldn’t believe it, as we thought our plane trip had been rough, but the wind wasn’t nearly as strong as what they just flew through. Even Joe learned a lesson from the trip the night before, and managed to bring along some barf bags this time. Not surprisingly, several campers exited the planes clutching their now-full bags. In our shock of seeing the planes, we had forgotten about our tents, which were now almost parallel to the ground, and Joe casually mentioned to us that we might want to go ahead and take the tents down. We quickly acknowledged him and had the tents down in seconds. We unloaded the rest of the gear and Joe and the other pilot flew back to Anchorage.

Joe Schuster flying in a wind storm. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

After we finished assembling the rafts, our first priority was to get out of the wind. Setting the camp up in the alders would definitely accomplish this, but we knew this was not a good idea in grizzly country. We settled on a bluff about a half-mile away and 50 feet up from the lake’s southeast shore. The backs of the tents were against some alders, but judging from the well-worn trails along the lake shore, our new campsite looked like it was off the grizzlies preferred paths. After setting up our new camp, the new arrivals were eager to explore, and they headed off to Murray Lake to catch some trout for dinner. We had a great dinner, and afterwards moved our food away from the camp. Bear-proof containers were required in Katmai National Park, and we stored our food in large plastic drums with locking lids.

Here come the grizzlies!

The next morning, July 19, we awoke to almost calm conditions. Once you made it past the alders, the hiking around Hammersly Lake was simply incredible, and several campers headed off. The hikers took off up the mountain, and the remainder of us rowed the three rafts the length of Hammersly Lake, making camp at the headwaters of American Creek. We stopped to fish a small stream entering the lake along the northeast shore, about a mile from the mouth. Such spots almost always hold fish, as they wait at the confluence for insects and small fish to be washed in. We were immediately greeted with several lake trout, and as is typical of most clear-water fishing, the action slowed in a few minutes.

Hammersly Lake, looking back towards Murray Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

By now it was late afternoon, and the wind had picked up again. We had still not seen a single bear, and although we knew the grizzlies would be following the salmon run, we were getting a little skeptical of the 50+ grizzlies-per-trip-claims we had heard. The northwest side of the lake outlet had a large pebble beach, but it faced directly into the wind, which was again blowing strong from the southeast. We chose a spot on the northwest side that was protected by a 15-foot bluff, but had almost no shoreline. We did not expect the water to come up, but if it did, we would probably be in for a surprise. We beached the rafts, and moments later, there it was…..we spotted our first sockeye salmon of the trip! A few salmon had made it to the headwaters of American Creek, but judging by their numbers, we could tell the run was just beginning to trickle in. Most of the salmon were still on the lower end of the river.

We tied up the rafts and unloaded some gear, but were eager to fish as well. Rob waded out into the middle of the creek to try for a sockeye, and I decided to go ahead and take a few pictures. I was snapping away and turned towards Rob when, on the opposite shore and not 30 yards behind him, was a mother grizzly and her cub! In a much too casual tone, I said “Hey Rob, look at that bear.” I could see his eyes widen as he turned around. Thinking the bear was probably hundreds of yards away, Rob was so surprised to see it so close that he lost his balance and slipped into the river, partially filling his waders.

"Hey Rob, look at that bear." Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

While Rob struggled to gain composure, the bear and cub casually strolled along the shore for a while, and then turned north and headed up and over a ridge. Looking back, I think the mother was scouting for salmon, and seeing that there were few in the area, they headed northwest, which would take them to a downstream section of the river.

When Troy and the rest of the group arrived from hiking, we swapped stories. We told them of the rainbows and lakers we caught and of course the grizzly mother and cub, and they told us of the incredible views, amazing geology, arctic foxes, and beautiful flowers and plants they had seen. It was one of those times I wish I could have been in two places at once, but I was also happy to see the others excitement in their hike, especially Kenny, my step-son. Kenny and I have a great relationship, and while fishing isn’t one of his favorite hobbies, he loves almost all other aquatic activities, including rafting. He is also an amazing wakeboarder and surfer, and a great shot with a spear gun. Since fishing is one of the highlights of any float trip, I was concerned that he would lose interest in the trip, but he absolutely loved it, and found that rafting, hiking, eating, sleeping and just fraternizing with the group while doing “bear watches” were his favorite parts.

Chocolate lily. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann.

Wild iris. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

Camping at the mouth of Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

Eating, one of Kenny's favorite Alaska camp activities. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

Seeing the grizzlies also made us realize we needed to be more serious about bear-proofing our camp. I just didn’t think bears would bother our large group, but others didn’t feel the same way, and I wasn’t about to force my “expert scientific opinion” on everyone else. We actually ended up with two electric fences, and we set them up, but just as Joe predicted, we would have trouble grounding them. Our electric fences needed a source of electrons in order to work properly, and because our ground was rocks and pebbles with no dirt, there just wasn’t enough contact to establish a good connection. We briefly got the fence working by piling dirt around it, but our batteries were low, and the fading sunlight was not providing enough energy to charge them. We could feel a slight shock when we tested the fence, but that faded away after an hour or so. Quite sure we had picked a good spot and that bears wouldn’t bother us, I dozed off, dreaming of all the amazing sights and sounds I had experienced that day. However, my peaceful slumber would be brief.

Sunset at the mouth of Hammersly Lake. Copyright 2006, David E. Shormann

Chapter 4: It’s okay to get wet!

November 26, 2010

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Lessons in living in the wilderness but living abundantly

It’s not about surviving

Many books exist about humans surviving in the wild, of men who went for days without food, or were shipwrecked on islands for months or even years. TV shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivor Man have been popular in recent years. Survival though, is something wild animals naturally do, but people only do in desperate situations. God however, wants us to do more than simply survive, he wants us to live. God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to save the world, and give people an everlasting and abundant life. And when we study Scripture, we learn God wants us to do much more than hunt for scraps! He has not made us to be like the animals, for He has made us in His image, and has called us to take dominion over His creation, to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Such messages are often shocking to unbelievers as well as believers swayed by secular opinions, especially regarding population control. In the last hundred years, humans have killed other humans at alarming rates and for stupid reasons, with over 100 million murdered at the hands of communist dictators, and almost as many babies murdered while still in the womb. Many Christians have also become lukewarm on the issue of homosexuality, a sinful lifestyle choice which emphasizes extreme selfishness. Not only that, it is a “sterile” lifestyle, with a birth rate of 0.0.

On the opposite extreme, Christians sometimes mistake their own selfish feelings with God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”. Without considering the cost, they produce large families they cannot support, and become slaves to debt as they struggle to survive. A family in this position is often much more likely to sin against their neighbor as they find ways to provide for their family. It does not help though, that governments do not celebrate large families, but instead find ways to tax them.

In the United States, there are some tax breaks for families with children, but they are not near enough. Governments should never make laws limiting the number of children a family can have, but they can encourage citizens to be responsible and follow Christian principles such as abstinence, marrying one spouse, and discouraging divorce. All governments should remember the simple fact that in order to have an economy, you need people. Russia, a country trying to recover from the depopulation brought on by years of rule by atheist dictators, understands this. In 2006, Vladimir Putin enacted a policy whereby families would receive $10,000 USD for having a second child. Ultimately though, the only incentive a family really needs for having children is God’s word.

If you are a young person, consider some day that you and your peers will inherit the land your parents once lived in and ruled. What will you do then? I hope you will choose to live an abundant life, and to ensure that both human life and all life prospers under your reign. It would be good for you to apply Christ’s parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Be like the servant who, when given 5 talents, went and earned 5 more. This is the proper view of Christian living. Don’t be like the wicked, lazy servant who, receiving 1 talent, went and hid it in the ground. The proper Christian ethic is that when you are given something, whether it is money, an education, the ability to have children, or other gifts, don’t hide it in the sand, but wisely use it and multiply it.

And, when you venture into wilderness, apply the parable of the talents as well. Go with the mindset of doing more than just surviving. But before you go, you must gain some talents of your own, the most important of which include knowledge and experience, physical fitness, and proper supplies.

Hold onto instruction
In Proverbs 4:13, King David exhorts us to “hold onto instruction, do not let it go, guard it well, for it is your life”. While the most important instruction for a Christian is to learn and apply what God said in the Bible, we should also study what God made. Francis Bacon, the founder of the scientific method, couldn’t have explained it more clearly when he said

A man cannot be too well studied in the book of God’s word or the book of God’s works.

Before preparing for an adventure of any type, it is good to read as much as possible about His works. Probably the most important study that you can do is about plant and animal life. Field guides are an excellent source of information. One of Adam’s first “jobs” was to name the animals, and God probably did this so that Adam would build a relationship with His creation, and as a result, feel a greater responsibility and respect for it. Likewise, studying field guides will allow you to learn many things that you did not know, and when you start your wilderness adventure, you will have a greater respect for and enjoyment of your surroundings.

Field Guides are helpful before and during any wilderness adventure. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz

For any adventure into Alaskan wilderness, you will want to know as much as you can about edible plants. There are many salmon streams in Alaska that you could float down and live off of berries and salmon, just like the grizzlies do. Think about it; if the salmon stream ecosystem has enough food to support one or more grizzly bears, then it has enough food to support you! A good field guide that you should plan to bring is Alaska’s Wild Plants by Janice J. Schofield. Most of us are so conditioned to purchasing edible plants from the grocery store, we almost think that is where plants come from. Others may think edible plants only grow on farms. Of course, edible and poisonous plants grow in the wild, which is why a field guide is such a valuable resource before and during the adventure.

Twisted stalk, a watermelon-flavored berry common along the banks of Lake Creek. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

And in Alaska, what an abundance of fruit there is!  Along the banks of Lake Creek in late July and early August, twisted stalk and highbush cranberries abound. These are also favorites of bears, as evidenced by the seeds and undigested berry skins present in their scat. Less common are currant berries, cloudberries and raspberries. Fireweed is everywhere, and its flowers and leaves are edible. Have a headache? Grab a few leaves off a willow tree and start chewing. Willow leaves contain a natural pain reliever, salicylic acid. A derivative of it, acetylsalicylic acid, is the active ingredient in aspirin.

Our favorite Alaskan berry is the blueberry. On Lake Creek their preferred habitat is in open forest on the tops of drumlins, hills formed by glacial movement centuries before. Hiking into the woods along bear and moose trails, we would find literally buckets of blueberries. Several varieties of blueberries exist in Alaska, and the variety along lower Lake Creek consisted of 3-4 ft tall bushes. We ate many of the blueberries raw, but also mixed them with oats, sugar and butter to make a delicious blueberry cobbler.

Other field guides to study before and during a trip down Lake Creek or other Alaskan rivers include guides on birds, fishes, and wildlife. Alaska Pocket Guides, published by Alaska Northwest Books, are excellent resources. Use the guides as a springboard into learning about a particular species, and then if you want to learn more, search the internet or visit a local library. Of course you will want to learn as much as you can about grizzly and black bears, but as you study the guides, you will quickly realize that there is more to Alaska than bears and salmon. Another worthwhile guide is Trout Stream Insects, by Dick Pobst. This is a very helpful guide for learning about the abundance of aquatic invertebrates found in Alaskan streams.

A final field guide you might consider is the Golden Guide on Geology from St. Martin’s Press. Besides Alaska, there are few places in the world with such a variety of geological features, including mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes. Fossils are relatively easy finds, and in many streams, including Lake Creek, you can still pan for gold. In his ingenuity, our outfitter provides us with plastic serving bowls which are actually designed for gold panning.

These bowls serve a dual purpose of either gold panning or holding the evenings meal of rice and Northern pike. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

It’s okay to be wet!
A normal part of most summer days in coastal Alaska is rain. Where I am from in Texas, outdoors activities are typically postponed on account of rain, but not in Alaska. In order to truly enjoy Alaska, one must welcome the rain as easily as they would welcome a sunny or cloudy day. Nevertheless, this does take some getting used to. On our first Alaska Science Adventure Camp in 2002, we had almost no rain until the last night. The following year was different. For the first three days, it rained almost non-stop. A longtime friend, Mike Boriack had come along on this trip, bringing his oldest son John. Mike and John are avid hunters and fishermen, but like all of us, were used to staying inside when it rained. When you go on trips like this that test your limits, you learn things about people you didn’t realize. Mike is one of the most faithful Christian men I know, and I realized that even more on this trip. James 1:2-3 teaches us how we are to be joyful amidst our trials, and it is definitely more difficult to live in the rain, especially outdoors for three straight days! So on that third evening, after rafting through the rain all day, as we were setting up camp Mike loudly proclaimed, “you know what I’ve learned, that it’s okay to be wet!”

Campers acclimated to Alaska's summer rain sit by a fire, while others prepare the evening meal under a makeshift rain fly. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

This encouraged all of us, and simple lessons like those are great for young people to learn at an early age. Often, when we are faced with a new situation, we have two choices to make; either let it get the best of you, or persevere and be better off for it. Unfortunately, perseverance does not come naturally, but as James teaches, if we count our trials as joy, we will develop perseverance, and become mature and complete. All Christian parents long to see their children mature and complete in Christ, and since God has given parents the responsibility for raising children, it is up to them to allow their children to work through trials. Of course, wisdom must be applied, and you don’t send your son or daughter out into the Alaskan wilderness without a raincoat and waterproof bag full of dry clothing, hoping he’ll “pass the test”. The goal is not to see if they will live or die, but to give them a little more to handle than they are used to.

The great thing about most trials is that after you go through them, you realize they really were not as bad as you expected, and that your main problem was that you were letting them get the best of you instead of counting them as joy and understanding that God was trying to teach you something through your trial. I have definitely learned a lot about persevering through less than pleasant weather conditions in Alaska, and I now actually look forward to the challenge of inclement weather, rather than immediately running from it.

What to bring
On a wilderness trip in Alaska, expect some trials, but most importantly, be wise and plan well. Knowledge, experience and prayer become important. And when you think about it, if you compare a group of uneducated, inexperienced heathens to a group of educated, experienced Christians, it is easy to see who would get more out of a trip to Alaska, and more out of life! Thomas Jefferson saw the importance of education and experience when in 1803 he asked the well-educated Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition into America’s West. And Lewis picked a friend who was an experienced outdoorsman and military leader, William Clark, to help lead the expedition. The famed Lewis and Clark expedition helped shape America’s future, and a National Park and Preserve in Southwest Alaska is named for these two explorers.

Lewis spent months planning and preparing his expedition. Planning is the most important step on any adventure into new lands. To prepare for Alaska camps I read as much as possible about the land before departing, and I encourage the other campers to do the same. On the first Alaska Science Adventure camp, I relied heavily on the camping and outdoors experience of my friend, Jim Kronjaeger, and the knowledge and experience of our pilot and outfitter, Joe Schuster. With their assistance, I learned what worked and what didn’t.

Some of the most important things to bring on an Alaskan float trip include a hooded raincoat, chest waders, and felt-soled wading boots. Waders and raincoats made of breathable material work the best, but are also the most expensive. Breathable waders allow water vapor to pass out, while preventing water from entering. This is important, especially when you are perspiring a lot, as perspiration can collect and even soak your clothing when wearing canvas, vinyl, or other non-breathable rain gear. As longs as you are careful and do not overexert yourself, you should be fine in less-breathable gear, but you do run a greater risk of hypothermia with the extra dampness.

Felt-soled boots can be worn with or without waders, and are great for gripping slippery, algae-coated rocks. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Some Alaskan fishermen wear hip waders, but on a week-long rafting trip, chest waders are better. As you raft down the river, your raft will get stuck on rocks, and one or more passengers must get out and free the raft. The water surrounding the raft is variable in depth, from knee deep to over chest high. Chest waders come with a “wading belt”, which should be secured and tightened while on the river. In case you fall in and water comes over your waders, the wading belt limits the amount of water that will enter, and often prevents you from becoming completely soaked.

Boots are also important, and as mentioned, felt-soled boots are preferred. If you have never fished rocky streams before, then felt-soled boots may sound really strange. When I first heard of them, I thought “are you serious? Somebody actually sells boots with felt soles? Why?!” However, the felt that is used is not like the felt in your daughter’s craft box. It is much thicker and sturdier, and I have boots that have made it through several-years of float trips and have many more to go.

The purpose of the felt is to help your boot cling to algae-covered rocks. It just doesn’t seem like it would work, but with felt, you dramatically increase the surface of the sole exposed to a rock. And in shallow water, the rocks are almost always covered with a slippery layer of algae. Felt-soled boots don’t completely prevent you from slipping on algae-covered rocks, but the difference is orders of magnitude better than ordinary soles. The felt-soled boots become even more important when you are in strong currents, or if you are less than 150 lbs, as the current sometimes tends to sweep lighter people off their feet.

Another important item is the tent. Our outfitter has always provided us with Cabela’s Alaskan Guide 6-man tents. They actually comfortably sleep 4 men on cots, and cots are pretty important because most camping is done on rocky gravel bars. When camping in bear country it is important to camp in an open area, which prevents surprising a bear, and also gives a predatory bear fewer places to hide. Camping in an open area like a gravel or sand bar also leaves the land less-disturbed. Our outfitter provided us with lightweight aluminum-framed Roll-A-Cots, which are a little small for my 6’ 3” frame, but were much better than sleeping on rocky ground.

You also want a good sleeping bag, and there are many to choose from. You do not want to bring one that is big and bulky, but one that stuffs to a small size and is rated to keep you warm in temperatures of 32° F (0° C) or lower. I bring a sleeping bag that is rated for 45° F, together with a silk liner, and the combination has kept me warm on the coolest Alaskan summer nights.

One year, I forgot a sleeping bag. The first problem was that the airlines lost my luggage. It was expected the following day, but my float plane was scheduled to leave that evening, and I could not wait. I made a trip to Sportsman’s Warehouse, and purchased everything that I thought was in that suitcase, but forgot the sleeping bag! Of course, the first night was almost always the coldest, as it was at the highest elevation. I just wore some extra clothes and everything seemed fine, but about 4 hours later the cold set in and woke me up. I searched for more clothes, but did not want to disturb the other campers too much. I curled up into the tightest fetal position a 40-year old man possibly could, and slept fitfully for a few more hours. In The Wilderness Hunter by Theodore Roosevelt, America’s 26th president described sleeping outside in sub-freezing weather, wrapped in a “buffalo robe”. And I was wishing I had a buffalo robe now! By 4:30 a.m., the sun was already out, and I could not stand it any longer, so I got up and made coffee. Another camper heard me and assumed it was breakfast time, but when I told him what time it was, he staggered back to bed. I had never been so happy to see the sun in my life, and grateful I had not awoken to a cold and rainy day! To warm up, I walked up and down the shoreline of Chelatna Lake, and when the sun was high enough, I found a sunny spot to stop and sip my coffee. I never slept in a sleeping bag that whole trip, but the other nights were warmer, and I dressed with even more clothes than the previous nights, and all was well.

Clothing is another extremely important part of any Alaskan adventure, and I have come to appreciate the warmth and water-repelling characteristics of fleece. On an Alaskan float trip, being wet and cold can be deadly, so bring clothing that will maximize your ability to stay warm and dry. Fleece does better than any other material I am familiar with, and it is also relatively inexpensive. I always bring at least two pairs of fleece long-johns, as well as some gloves and a hood-like covering called a balaclava. A popular myth is that 80% of your heat loss occurs through the head. This may be true if the rest of your body is covered, as your head would be about the only place where heat loss could occur. Whatever the case, keeping your head and neck warm with a balaclava can mean the difference between comfort and peril.

Try to avoid anything made of cotton, and use polyester instead. Cotton is hydrophilic, meaning it readily absorbs water. Polyester is hydrophobic, and repels water, which is ideal when you want to keep moisture away from your body. Bring polyester socks, underwear, t-shirts and long-sleeved fishing shirts. You may want to throw in a cotton t-shirt in case the weather gets exceptionally hot and sunny. For socks, some people like to wear a polyester liner with a cotton sock on the outside. The polyester sock pulls moisture away from the skin, which is absorbed by the cotton sock.

You will also want to make sure your clean clothes and other supplies stay dry. There are many good “dry bags” on the market, and I would recommend storing clothes in Ziplocs or similar bags, and then placing these inside your dry bag.

A hat is also important for keeping the sun off. I prefer a baseball cap, as I can leave it on all the time, and when it rains I just pull the raincoat’s hood over the cap, and the brim serves to keep rain off my face. Always remember, the weather is extreme in Alaska, so be prepared for long, bright, sunny days by bringing sunscreen, chapstick, and sunglasses. If you are a fisherman, polarized sunglasses are essential, as their glare-reducing qualities allow you to see underwater better than regular sunglasses. This is extremely important in clear waters where you can see the salmon and trout, and greatly increases your ability to properly direct your casts.

One thing you will quickly learn in Alaska is that there are lots of mosquitoes. Next to rainy days or falling in the river, mosquitoes are probably one of the biggest trials to endure on an Alaskan float trip. Bring some insect repellent with 100% DEET, even though you may not even use it. Like rainy days, I have also learned to endure the mosquitoes, and I rarely use insect repellent unless the mosquitoes are particularly vicious. I just stay clothed most of the time from head to toe, leaving only my hands, face and neck exposed. I have also used insect-repellent clothing made by Ex-Officio. Their Buzz-Off clothing is treated with permethrin, and I was surprised how well my long-sleeved fishing shirt worked. You can also buy permethrin-based clothing repellents from camping supply companies, and apply the repellent to any of your clothes.

So as part of your Alaska Adventure, expect to get wet, cold, and mosquito-bitten. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun at all, but before you think you really don’t want to have an adventure after all, let’s review what an adventure is. According to Webster’s Dictionary, an adventure is “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.” Hopefully, getting bit by a mosquito is not your idea of a dangerous and/or unknown risk, but if so, then Alaska will be full of adventure for you! Seriously though, mosquitoes, water, and temperature changes, should not really define your adventure, especially if you prepare accordingly.

Some other items to consider include your camp towel, soap, waterproof matches and a lighter, and other personal items. Foot or talcum powder is essential, and since you won’t be taking a shower for a few days (although you may want to rinse off in the river), apply the powder to feet and other areas that need some dryness. Hand lotion is also very helpful, as your hands will be wet almost all day, and they tend to lose oils that keep the skin soft and flexible. A little lotion can keep them from chapping and becoming sore. A travel packet or two of hand/body wipes are also great to clean up.

And of course, don’t forget a first aid kit! Bring pain killers, plenty of band-aids and gauze, emergency splints, elastic bandage for wrapping sprained ankles, etc. In the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual, bear expert Dr. Stephen Stringham recommends packing a bungee cord or surgical tubing to make a temporary tourniquet, gauze to press against a wound and duct tape or a Velcro strap to hold it in place, and a powder called Urgent QR to assist with coagulating blood. Also bring medicines for digestive problems such as antacids, Pepto Bismol, and laxatives. Coleman makes some mini “survival kits” that contain general first aid plus other survival items such as fishing line and a hook, and matches. An emergency blanket, scissors, extra lighters and waterproof matches round out any well-stocked first aid kit.

What tastes good

Although the goal of my Alaska Science/Adventure camps was never to survive, but to live abundantly, we purposely did not bring enough food. In the relatively untamed wilderness of Lake Creek, we fully expected to find a bounty to harvest, and we were not disappointed. Salmon was the main entrée almost every night. Occasionally, some of the boys would refuse to eat the fish, which I always found to be ridiculous. I have never had much tolerance for “picky eaters”, and was usually not overly sympathetic to them. We were on an adventure, and that meant a culinary adventure as well! It is true that young people have more taste buds than adults, and they are naturally more sensitive to strong tastes. The boys who refused to eat salmon were probably exposed to some bad tasting fish at some point, and therefore assumed all fish had a strong “fishy” taste. However, this is simply not the case with fresh-caught, sea-bright salmon. The key is not to overcook them, which is sometimes difficult to judge properly in a rain shower with swirling winds that constantly alter the camp stove’s temperature.

Salmon, rice, and corn, a hearty streamside meal! Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz

The first order of business is to fillet the fish. Salmon are relatively easy to fillet, and for their size, yield a bounty of tasty meat. I usually bring a standard Rapala stainless steel filet knife along, the inexpensive kind found in most outdoor stores. Don’t forget a knife sharpener. Cutco makes a nice fillet knife with an adjustable blade length. Its sheath has a built-in knife and hook sharpener, a clamp to grip the fish with, and a snap to secure it to a belt.

To fillet a salmon, I begin by placing the head to my left, with the belly facing me. Using a gentle sawing motion, I make a cut immediately behind the pectoral fin and down to the backbone. The cut is made at an angle that begins slightly above and to the left of the pectoral fin and passes down and to the right of the fin. When I feel the vertebrae, I pull back up slightly, and begin cutting and twisting the blade until it is parallel to the backbone. With the knife resting against the backbone, I then continue cutting towards the tail. As I cut, I gently wiggle the blade up and down, which helps keep it positioned along the backbone and maximizes the amount of meat removed. Cut too deep and you cut through the backbone and have difficulty removing the fillet. Cut too high and you miss a lot of meat. When the first side is filleted, flip the fish over and repeat the same procedure.

Always make sure you are cutting in a direction leading AWAY from your body, and make sure no one is standing in the path of your knife in case you slip. If you are a novice, you may even want to consider wearing some fish-cleaning gloves, which not only prevent knife injuries but help you grip the fish. Some people don’t like the salmon skin left on, but I leave the skin on the salmon and remove it after cooking (or eat it). The skin helps hold moisture in and contains fats that help keep the salmon juicy. This technique works well on salmon of about 12 lbs or less. Unless you have a really big knife, the technique will be more difficult on larger salmon, but the general principal of cutting along the vertebrae still holds. Some people also like to cut larger salmon in steaks, which usually yields more meat, but also has more bones to deal with.

Sockeye and silver salmon fillets. Note the beautifully-colored meat. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Now that you have your salmon filleted, it’s time to eat! Our outfitter provides us with Coleman propane camping stoves and iron skillets. I add enough canola oil to cover the bottom of a skillet, plus a couple of tablespoons of butter. I cook the fish on both sides, until it flakes easily. If it becomes “brittle”, then it is overcooked. I usually add some salt and of course dill, which I think is the best herb for seasoning salmon. A splash or two of white cooking wine also enhances the flavor. I usually served this with a heaping mound of rice or pasta. In later years, we started using quinoa, a high-protein grain similar to rice that is popular in South America. For campers wanting to add a personal touch to their meal, other seasonings, including black pepper, lemon pepper, and Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, were always available.

One of our favorite ways to serve salmon is to make a sauce using McCormick’s Creamy Garlic Alfredo Sauce mix. The small and lightweight packets were great for camping, and required butter and milk. We bring along powdered milk, also great for packing compared to hauling gallons of perishable milk around. I would cook pasta along with this, and it never seemed like we could make enough of the sauce, as the boys in particular were especially fond of it.

Another favorite method of eating salmon is not to cook it at all, but instead, to marinate it, along with the roe, in teriyaki sauce. I liked eating raw salmon plain or with a little salt, but after marinating for about an hour in teriyaki sauce, it is heaven! Cut into half-inch thick strips, the teriyaki sauce tenderizes the salmon, and makes it seem like you are eating some sort of juicy berry.

Lunch is our least exciting camp meal, and is designed to be eaten on the go, as we want to spend our daylight hours fishing, and exploring. Trail mix, Cliff bars, and crackers with meat and cheese are standard lunchtime fare, with some fruit thrown in as well.

Oatmeal is a staple on our trips, and is the main course for breakfast most mornings, along with some beef jerky, which is either eaten at breakfast or saved for lunch. We usually prepare sausage, egg and cheese breakfast burritos the first few mornings, but for the rest of the trip, steaming bowls of oatmeal greet bleary-eyed campers. We always bring along plenty of butter to go with the oatmeal, along with raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar. We also use oatmeal to make a delicious fruit cobbler. Typically made from blueberries, we have to switch to crowberries in Katmai National Park, as blueberry bushes are almost nonexistent along the river we rafted. Blueberries are cooked, together with a bit of sugar. A few spoonfuls of flour are dissolved in water and then added as a thickener. This is boiled for several minutes until it begins to thicken. In a separate iron skillet, some butter is melted with a few spoonfuls of sugar and a dash of salt, and then oats are added and toasted for a few minutes. The toasted oats are poured on top of the cooked berries and served. Blueberry cobbler is a highlight of our float trips, and I now make it on a regular basis at home, much to the delight of my family.

Wild blueberries along Lake Creek. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Harvesting the natural bounty of berries. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Berry-stained hands. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Serving up wild blueberry cobbler. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.


At breakfast and dinner, a hot pot of water is always available for instant coffee or hot chocolate. During the day, we drink filtered water, and we bring plenty of powdered Gatorade to add to it. Some of the boys discovered that hot “Gatorade tea” is actually quite enjoyable on cool evenings. It is important to filter any unboiled water, as surface waters likely contained the microscopic, protozoan parasite known as Giardia. The illness caused by this parasite is called giardiasis, and a popular slang term for the disease is “beaver fever”, named after another of Giardia’s non-human hosts.

The most common manifestations of giardiasis include diarrhea and abdominal pain. Symptoms and signs of giardiasis do not begin for at least seven days following infection, which has occurred for me on more than once occasion. However, I am usually not as careful with my drinking water as I should be, and occasionally drink straight from small streams. And while it tastes wonderful at the time, I sometimes pay for it a week later! As with most illnesses, the young, old, and unhealthy are most susceptible to having a severe reaction to the parasite, and I have been fortunate that my reactions have been very mild. In most cases, giardiasis is self-limiting and lasts 2-4 weeks. The best cure for beaver fever is to follow comedian Tim Hawkins’ advice. According to Hawkins’ a common “cure all” procedure his mother prescribed was “to go sit on the pot”, which is not helpful if you have a broken leg, but is sound advice for sufferers of beaver fever!

So, if you can stand the rain, cold, wet, mosquitoes, bears, and beaver fever, then a week on an Alaskan salmon stream should be right up your alley! Some readers may be thinking “I cannot wait to go!”, while others may be thinking “why would anyone ever want to go?!” But, as I have said earlier, the adventure is not about these things. These are things that you prepare for so that you can have an adventure. And when you do end up cold, wet, and mosquito-bitten with an upset stomach, you either follow James’ advice and count it as joy, or you let it get the best of you and have no adventure at all.

The beginnings of another adventure down Lake Creek. Adventures are things people do that few, if any, have done before. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Four years of science/adventure camps on Lake Creek taught me a great deal about Alaska, salmon streams, and wilderness camping. By this time, we had many science camp regulars, including Rob Sadowski, Mike and John Boriack, and Troy Finney and his sons, Luke, Sean and Sam. Troy is an amazing outdoorsman, who grew up near Yellowstone National Park. After their second trip down Lake Creek, both Troy and Mike were ready to “take it up a notch”, venturing deeper into Alaska’s wilderness. Lake Creek is a wonderfully remote place, but quite a few people venture to lodges on the Chelatna Lake headwaters, with even more lodges and fishermen at Lake Creek’s mouth. We wanted to find a place that would have almost no people or lodges, and after looking over options, we chose American Creek in Katmai National Park. Known for its remoteness, hordes of sockeye, and large rainbow trout, we were particularly interested in the possibility of seeing many grizzly bears. Some outfitters who floated the river claimed you would see 50 to 70 grizzlies on the 40-mile float. Little did we know that this would turn out to be an extreme underestimate. With our confidence elevated by our successful Lake Creek adventures, we headed boldly on to American Creek. But would we be ready for it, and for the bears that lie ahead?

Chapter 3: Lake Creek Years

November 18, 2010

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Making a plan

God has allowed me to be a teacher, so I knew that when I returned to Alaska again I would want to share the experience with students. In the fall of 2001, I started hatching a plan to conduct an Alaska Science Adventure Camp. My first idea was to rent a van and trailer and camp at numerous spots on the mainland. This would be great fun, as there are many incredible places to visit from the road. I may still do a trip like this someday, stopping at places like Denali National Park, the Russian River Falls, and the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. 


Sockeye salmon ascend the Russian River Falls, Alaska. Copyright 2000, David E. Shormann


What I really wanted to do though was conduct a camp in the wilderness of Alaska, in a place where bears outnumbered people. My family and I had canoed and camped along the Brazos River between Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney, and we always enjoyed the seclusion and natural setting provided by those trips. Those trips got me thinking about doing the same thing in Alaska, rafting down a salmon-filled river and learning about the incredibly productive ecosystems known as salmon streams. Almost devoid of life in winter, in summer salmon streams can sometimes become literally choked with salmon. The salmon build nests, called “redds”, lay their eggs, and then die. It seems strange that they die, but their Creator did this for a reason. If all of those adult salmon had to eat while they were in the stream, they would quickly eat up the food supply and starve. Instead, salmon eat their fill while at sea, then stop eating once they enter freshwater. More aggressive species like pink, silver and king salmon will strike a lure or bait, but less aggressive species like chum and sockeye are more difficult to catch. Spawning salmon strike out of habit, not because they want a meal.

I started researching about rafting trips, looking for a good first time opportunity. Joe Schuster’s Sportsmen’s Guide and Air Service website caught my attention. Based out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, Joe guided fishing and hunting trips, but also provided rafts and camping gear for groups wanting a more do-it-yourself approach. This is exactly what I wanted, and I contacted Joe and began making arrangements. He suggested we do the Talachulitna River trip in late July. At this time, there was the best chance of having all 5 species of Pacific salmon in the river, along with good numbers of resident rainbow trout and grayling. Being the closest to Anchorage, the “Tal” was also the least expensive float trip. I was quickly learning that getting into remote Alaskan wilderness was also an expensive proposition, but it was a cost that was worth every penny to me.

Joe Schuster and his DeHavilland "Beaver", dropping off campers and supplies at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.


Wise counsel

As plans for my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp materialized, my wife and others began to ask questions, mainly about my experience regarding wilderness camping. Prior to Alaska, my longest camping trip had been two nights, and I had never camped in bear country. Proverbs 12:15 describes the wisdom in seeking counsel and the foolishness of not doing so. I have chosen not to seek counsel on more than one occasion and ended up “playing the fool”, but I knew this float trip, where more than just my own life would be at stake, was one where I should seek as much advice as possible.

Enter Jim Kronjaeger (pronounced krone-yay-ger). Jim was a Boy Scout leader, and led many camping expeditions, including snow camping in New Mexico and float trips down the Colorado River in Central Texas. An Eagle Scout himself, Jim’s two sons, Timothy and Micah, followed in their father’s footsteps. With his extensive knowledge of camping on rivers, as well as wilderness camping with large groups of boys, I knew his advice would be invaluable on this trip. Not only did Jim help with preparing the trip, his camping experience really shined during the trip, when we came across any number of problems.

Jim Kronjaeger with a nice silver salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann


One of Jim’s many great ideas was to conduct a one night “practice” by floating down the Colorado River. The trip gave the boys who signed up a chance to meet each other, and to test our skills at camping. It also helped us make proper preparations for food and first aid. In addition, it reminded us all that when you are on a float trip, you are going to get wet, and you need to prepare accordingly.

Jim also had some experience camping in bear country. Newly married, Jim took his bride on a camping excursion through the Rockies, and even camped near a site where a grizzly had attacked and killed a woman the night before. Much to their relief, the grizzly did not visit them, too. Jim understood some basics of camping with bears, the most basic of which was to store all food away from the tents. Unfortunately, with neither grizzly or black bears on Texas’ Colorado River, we did not gain any experience with them on our practice trip, and we would wait for Alaska to experience them firsthand.

Change of plans-Chelatna Lake

Our group arrived in Anchorage on Aug. 30th, and soon we were headed northwest in Joe’s float plane to the Talachulitna River, or so we thought. It turned out that the Tal was too low to float, and Joe made the decision to take us to Lake Creek instead. Lake Creek, which was a river by my standards, was formed by the outflow of glacier-fed Chelatna Lake. The lake was near the base of Mt. Mckinley, which at 20,000 feet is the tallest mountain in North America. Lake Creek also had as good or better fishing than the Tal, so how could we complain about this change in plans? The only drawback was that I had studied topographic maps of the Tal until I knew every twist and turn of it, and now I was heading to a river I knew almost nothing about. Fortunately, our outfitter was on top of things, and provided detailed topographic maps complete with campsite suggestions.

The change in plans to Lake Creek turned out to be one of the best surprises ever, and solidified my trust in Joe as a competent outfitter. When someone changes your plans for you, then drops you off in the middle of nowhere and flies away, you better be sure they know what they’re doing. From the look of the camping gear and rafts that Joe provided, together with his skill at piloting the DeHavilland Beaver float plane, it was easy to see he knew what he was doing. I enjoyed Lake Creek so much that I floated it 5 times in 4 years, taking from two to 12 others along each time.

Chelatna Lake is an emerald jewel of a lake. Its waters are a milky, emerald green, typical of many glacier-fed lakes. The lake itself was actually formed by a glacier, and its dam is a terminal moraine of the former glacier. As the glacier receded over the years, Chelatna Lake was formed. The shoreline of the lake forms the characteristic U-shape of a valley carved by glaciers. We set up camp at the outflow, the headwaters of Lake Creek. One thing we learned about Chelatna Lake was that it had a healthy northern pike population, and a slough about 2 miles away from the outflow held the highest concentrations of this aggressive gamefish. We caught many pike from the lake, some as long as our legs. We also learned that they made a tasty meal.

Chelatna Lake from the air. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Sam Finney weighs a nice Northern Pike at Chelatna Lake. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.


On more than one occasion, we swam in Chelatna Lake. Although we never measured a water temperature over 62° F (17° C), many days were warm enough for a refreshing dip. One thing that is different in Alaska compared to where most people live is that there is an over-abundance of daylight. In early August at Chelatna Lake, the sun was up for 17 hours! On calm and sunny days, 17 hours of sun is a lot of sun, and even if the water is a little cool, a brief swim feels unbelievably good and is a welcome relief.

Lake Creek

Although Chelatna Lake is beautiful and very relaxing, we had not come to Alaska just to relax, and after a day or two, the campers were eager to begin our float trip. We never saw any bears at Chelatna Lake either, but were hoping that would change soon. Our outfitter told us that earlier in the year, a grizzly had walked through a riverside camp, and was sniffing around a tent. The camper inside never fired, but he pressed the muzzle of his gun into the bear’s snout, with only the tent between them. The bear left without harming the tent or the campers in the party. While we hoped to see a grizzly bear, none of us wanted that close of an encounter!

Lake Creek begins as a slow and lazy river, and rowing is required in order to move at a decent clip. In a few miles though, the speed, and the noise of the river begins to pick up. Numerous Class II and III rapids appear, but the pools beneath the rapids are great fishing spots. Literally every pool contains some king salmon. In years with good sockeye salmon runs, pools may have hundreds of sockeyes resting up before continuing their journey to Chelatna Lake.

Sockeye Salmon make their way up Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

In Lake Creek, king salmon are the first to arrive in late May, followed by sockeye salmon in mid-July. Pink salmon (in even-numbered years) are usually right behind the sockeye, followed by silvers and chum salmon. My trips on Lake Creek have always occurred the last week of July and first week of August, when silver and chum salmon are also just entering the river. On one trip taken during the second week of August, we caught silver salmon most of the length of the river, but usually they were concentrated in the lower half of the river.

King salmon are fun and often hard-fighting, and the 30+ pounders found in Lake Creek are incredibly difficult to bring in. We were always on Lake Creek after the king salmon season was closed (July 13), so we could catch but not keep the kings. We tried to leave them alone as much as possible, because many had begun digging their redds and were spawning. The king salmon were the dominant salmon in Lake Creek. While the sockeyes were usually more abundant, they were just passing through, headed to Chelatna lake to spawn in tributaries feeding into it.

John Boriack hefts a big Lake Creek King Salmon. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Silvers are my favorite salmon species to catch. They often strike aggressively at lures and flies, but other times it takes more finesse to get them to strike. The Lake Creek silvers also usually had changed color the least upon entering freshwater. By early August, the kings had metamorphosed from bright silver with olive backs to a rich and deep red coloration. All Pacific salmon go through a metamorphosis upon entering freshwater, changing color, growing larger teeth (and hooked snouts on the males) and thicker skin. Their muscle tissue changes as well, and they are not as good to eat after undergoing this metamorphosis. Lake Creek silvers however, lived up to their names, and were more often than not shiny and silvery! Their flesh was a brilliant orange color, and when cooked properly tasted fantastic. If we floated Lake Creek later in the year, then the silvers would have been red, too.

A pair of Lake Creek Silver Salmon

Sockeyes were our favorite salmon to eat, but also the most difficult to catch. They just don’t display the same aggressive strike response as some of the other kinds of salmon. Although I have seen relatively fresh-from-the-sea sockeyes on Lake Creek strike a fly, this seemed the exception rather than the norm, and snagging them in the mouth was really the best way to catch them. When hooked, they put up an exceptional fight, usually jumping multiple times before being brought ashore. And their meat is fantastic. It is a bright orange-red color, and when cooked in a little oil and butter along with some garlic, dill, and salt, they are exceptional eating. Some of us also enjoyed eating them raw, although not all the campers were interested!

Pink salmon were our least-favorite to catch and eat. The smallest of the Pacific salmon, they are also the weakest-fighting fish, and their flesh was a pinkish-tan coloration and usually a bit tough. However, we did eat them on several occasions when we were unable to catch any sockeyes or silvers. Male pink salmon are called “humpies” because of the large hump they develop upon entering freshwater. Pinks only run in even-numbered years, but we would inevitably see a few in the river in odd-numbered years as well. Pinks have the shortest life cycle (2 years) of the Pacific salmon, and immediately head out to sea in the spring after hatching, returning as adults the following summer.

Lake Creek Pink Salmon. Pink Salmon are mainly in Alaskan rivers in even-numbered years. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

Chum salmon were the least common species on Lake Creek, and the last to run up the river. I was always intrigued by the timing of the salmon runs. While there is some variability in individual runs, you can usually predict within a week, two at the most, when a salmon run will occur. One of my goals with the Alaska Science/Adventure Camps was to purposely not bring enough food with us, forcing us to live off the land. By observing the timing of the salmon runs, I knew that the two best-eating salmon, silvers and sockeyes, would be in the river the last week of July. However, the salmon runs can be quite variable in quantity, and in 2002 and 2003, there was an abundance of sockeyes, while in 2004 and 2005 sockeye numbers were very low and we had difficulty catching them. Chum salmon were never in abundance, and we only caught a handful and never cooked one.

Rob Sadowski (left) and Paul Grass holding Lake Creek Chum Salmon. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

If you are a fisherman, you are probably wondering what we caught our salmon with. The majority of sockeyes were caught with streamers of any color, with a half-ounce weight attached 18 inches above the fly. With spinning reels spooled with 15 lb monofilament and 6 to 7 foot rods, we employed the “Russian River Flip” method of fishing. The method involves holding a length of line in your left hand, and “flipping” the streamer upstream, letting it drift through a school of sockeye, and repeating. Polarized glasses are very helpful, so that you can see when the fly enters a sockeye’s mouth. At the slightest resistance, the hook is set. Fishing for sockeyes usually results in a number of hookups in other spots on the fishes’ bodies besides the mouth, but even though the majority of fish are snagged anyways, legal capture requires they be snagged in the mouth.

We used a variety of bead-head streamers for catching kings, silvers, and pinks. These were attached to a 7 or 8-weight fly rod spooled with sink-tip line. One of my favorite methods for catching silvers was to spot some resting close to shore in relatively fast-moving water, and, approaching stealthily, present a bright bead-head streamer such as a Cabelas #8 Crystal Bugger. It took patience and concentration on my part as silvers in this position usually did not move much to attack the fly, but you would see a slight turn to the side. Even with polarized glasses and clear water, the swirling current still made it difficult to follow the fly, and many times I set the hook on nothing but water. However, I was rewarded on more than one occasion with a great battle and a tasty silver.

We caught most of our salmon on spinning tackle, and #4 Blue Fox spinners in chartreuse and pink were very effective on kings, silvers and pinks. However, our favorite lure was a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin rigged on a 1/16 or ¼ ounce lead jighead. I knew that salmon were attracted to brightly-colored lures and flies, and one day while fishing for speckled trout in Texas, the thought dawned on me to try the Saltwater Assassins in Alaska. The 5-inch, soft plastic body is threaded onto the lead jig head, and is a very effective lure for catching speckled trout and redfish. On our 2003 Alaska Camp, the Saltwater Assassins worked wonderfully. King and silver salmon struck at them aggressively. We were all excited to have “discovered” a new lure for catching salmon, one that did not exist in any tackle store in Alaska, but that outfished many of the more conventional salmon lures. The chartreuse Assassins also worked exceptionally well on Chelatna Lake pike.

This Lake Creek king salmon couldn't resist a chartreuse Saltwater Assassin, a lure normally used for Gulf Coast speckled trout and redfish.

About half-way down Lake Creek is a place referred to as “the canyons”. Here, the river cuts through a terminal moraine, and the walls of the canyon are composed of dirt and rock. Although small for a canyon, with walls maybe 150 feet high at the most, it is still a spectacular place. More importantly, the canyons held a series of deep pools that are sometimes filled with large schools of silver salmon. On our first trip in 2002, I was standing up in the raft as we entered a large pool, and noticed a dark streak in the water that stretched for 25 yards. As we got closer, I realized it was a tightly packed school of silvers! We pulled the raft over and began casting Blue Fox #4s, and we all hooked up immediately with 6-10 lb., hard-fighting silvers. It was a blast catching them in the clear water, watching them dart and cartwheel both below and above the water. The action fizzled after about 15 minutes, which we learned was a typical pattern. Anytime we would stop to fish a pool, the action was good for a few minutes, and then the fish would get used to our lures and ignore us.

A nice haul of silver salmon from the "canyons" of Lake Creek

Not only did we catch salmon, eat salmon, photograph and video them, we also dissected them. Since my camps were science-oriented, we brought along all sorts of field guides and science equipment to help us explore this fascinating ecosystem. For studying fishes, a 1980 copy of The Freshwater Fishes of Alaska by Robert Morrow proved invaluable. In our first year, none of us had much experience with salmon, and we especially had difficulty distinguishing between female silvers and sockeyes. Morrow’s book made identification easy, as he described not only color and shape, but also quantized accounts of the number of scales along the lateral line, number of pyloric cecae, egg size, and number of dorsal fin rays, to name a few. With Morrow’s help, fish identification was easier.

Dissecting salmon in our outdoor classroom, a gravel bar on Lake Creek. Copyright 2002, Jim Kronjaeger.

All of the students on my first trip had taken high school biology with me. I own a teaching business, and homeschooled students meet me at various locations around Houston for weekly math and science classes. Science class involved a hands-on-lab activity each week, and now I had my students deeply engaged in dissecting salmon on a gravel bar in the wilderness of Alaska, quite a different setting than a stale classroom. We would literally pick the salmon to pieces, going over every detail.

A fish’s gill rakers always tell an interesting story. Fish gills are composed of three parts, the gill arch, gill rakers, and gill lamellae. The rakers and lamellae branch from the arch in opposite directions, with the rakers pointing anteriorly (towards the head), and the lamellae pointing posteriorly (towards the tail). Lamellae to a fish are like lungs to a human, and are the place where they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide and other waste products like ammonia. Gill rakers are arranged like teeth on a comb, and their length and spacing reveal clues about their feeding habits. Silver salmon had shorter gill rakers that were spaced up to 1 cm apart. Sockeye salmon, however, had longer, thinner gill rakers that were closely spaced. Sockeye salmon are planktivores, meaning their main diet consisted of plankton. They ate some of the same foods as the chuchkis of the Pribilof Islands, and perhaps fed together on occasion. The long, closely spaced rakers act like a sieve, trapping plankton and preventing their escape past the gill cover.

Silver salmon, unlike sockeyes, are piscivores (fish eaters), and their gill rakers identified them as such. You may be wondering why a fish even has gill rakers, and why it cannot just keep its opercula, or gill covers, shut when its mouth is open. The reason is that when a salmon feeds, its mouth opens and its buccal cavity -the area between its jaws and gills-expands. This expansion creates a suction, drawing the prey inside their mouth. The fish cannot just swallow all the water it sucked in, so it opens its opercula to let the water exit. The gill rakers prevent prey from exiting through this opening.

While something like fish gill rakers may not sound all that exciting, they really are amazing, and are yet another testimony of God’s creative powers. The timing of salmon runs, the ability of the fish to swim thousands of miles to return to the place of it birth, gill rakers designed in specific ways for each species, all of these are testimonies to the purpose and plan God puts into everything. Scripture teaches that God knows so much about His creation, that he even knows how many hairs we have on our heads.(Matthew 10:30). While God created us in His image, giving us some of His creative powers, it is impossible to comprehend the absolute thoroughness of His understanding. He cares for His creation in ways we can only partly comprehend. Unfortunately, many people have given up hope in understanding His creation, and concoct weak explanations for the interactions they see. Some people actually believe that fishes like salmon, through a long series of genetic mutations, turned into human beings. This idea,known as evolutionism, flies in the face of every method we have of interpreting reality, including science, reason, and Scripture. Evolutionism is anti-science, because all scientific research on genetic mutations proves that mutations are either lethal, or they cause slight modifications such as changes in color and shape. Evolutionism theory is also against reason, because to truly believe it, one has to think that fish were unhappy with their aquatic habitats and wanted to get on land somehow, so they changed their genes over millions of years to accomplish this feat. That seems very unreasonable to me. And of course, evolution theory is against the ultimate foundation for truth and reality, God’s word. God tells us in Genesis and other places that He made the universe, the seas, and all life forms, and it even says He made living things “each according to its kind”. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, made it clear on page 62 of The Descent of Man, that his chief end in writing his seminal work on evolution, On the Origin of Species, was “to show that species had not been separately created”.

A salmon's gill rakers give clues about it's diet. This is a set of silver salmon gill rakers. A sockeyes would be a bit longer and much more narrowly spaced. Copyright 2005, Kip Lutz.

Fortunately, more and more people are realizing the fallacy of evolutionism, and are accepting the mounds of scientific evidence revealing there are limits to genetic change. Since no one was there to see the formation of the universe, there will always be two opinions about it. Some will speculate about origins, and others, like myself and millions of other Christians, will simply trust God’s word when it says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Salmon dissection was probably the most intensive scientific investigation performed on those first Alaska Science trips. We observed every part of their bodies, including their heart, brains, and even the beautifully spherical, crystal-like lenses in their eyes. We made the most of those salmon as well, and when dissection time was over, we would fillet them and cook them for dinner. This is one of the rare times in science class when it is okay to eat your experiment!

It doesn't get much fresher, or better than this! Pan-frying some Lake Creek silver salmon.

Lake Creek-Trout

The fish that provided the most entertainment for us though were Lake Creek’s rainbow trout, Salmo gairdneri. I had fished for rainbows in the lower 48 states, but nothing came even close to the fishing experienced on Lake Creek. Most of the fish caught during our trips were rainbow trout. On the 2005 trip, we performed a detailed survey of rainbow trout size, measuring every trout we caught. The twelve of us caught a total of 506 rainbows, with an average size of 12.5 inches. The majority of the fish were in the 10-13 inch range, but we did manage to catch 27 fish that were 20 inches or more, a nice rainbow in anyone’s book.

A beautiful Lake Creek Rainbow Trout. Copyright 2005, David E. Shormann


The wild Lake Creek rainbows are absolutely gorgeous and much more colorful than the hatchery-raised rainbows I was used to catching in the Lower 48. I had never seen rainbows with such brilliant, and thick, pink stripes. Even their gill covers were pink, and on some, their pelvic and pectoral fins as well. The males’ colors were typically brighter than the females, but there were also variations within the sexes.

Since Lake Creek rainbows are regulated as a catch-and-release only fishery, we were unable to perform any dissections or stomach content surveys. The stomach content surveys would have been interesting, just to see whether the salmon-egg “flies” we used to catch rainbows were also their preferred food source. We had tremendous success using egg patterns that matched the size of the king salmon’s eggs. Smaller egg patterns did not work near as well, if at all.

Nevertheless, our trout measurement survey taught us a lot about the size distribution of rainbows in the river. Trout in the upper half of the 54-mile-long river averaged 13.7 inches, over two inches longer than trout in the lower river. Upper river trout were probably able to migrate into Chelatna Lake during the winter, where its warmer waters provided a longer growing season. Trout in the lower river either wintered in pools, or migrated down to the lower river and its confluence with the Skwentna River, a cold and turbid glacial-fed river with little aquatic life.

Besides egg patterns, we also caught numerous trout on Cabelas size 10 bead-head Prince Nymphs, and Mepps Aglia #1 spinners. Cabelas orange size 6 yarn eggs caught numerous rainbows. The best producer of all was the D’s King Salmon Super Eggs. All they are is a plastic bead of the approximate size and color of a King Salmon egg. We would slip these on the line, and then tie on a #8 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. The bead is “pegged” about 1 or 2 inches above the hook by inserting a toothpick into the top of bead and breaking it off. The purpose of pegging the bead was to create friction by sandwiching the fishing line between the toothpick and the bead. The bead worked best on fly rods, but could also be fished with spinning tackle by attaching a few split shots. In fly-fishing, the goal is to cast the line, so the weight of the fly is not that important. With conventional tackle, the goal is to cast the bait or lure, so its weight becomes important, hence the added splitshot.

One of our favorite places to camp and fish was Yenlo Creek, on the lower half of the river. This location was usually loaded with king salmon that were waiting patiently for high water and a chance to spawn in the creek. And any place there was a concentration of kings, there were also lots of rainbows. One evening, while cleaning pots and pans in the river, I noticed swirls in the water immediately downstream. I quickly realized the swirls were being made by rainbow trout gorging on the scraps I was putting into the stream. I had brought a diving mask along with me, and we had some salmon roe (eggs) left over, so one of the campers got upstream of me and I leaned over a rock and put my face in the water. The camper released some eggs, and I watched in amazement as several trout rushed up, inches from my face, to inhale the eggs. We all took turns with the mask, and had a great time watching the feeding frenzy. It was quite apparent that the trout were “trained” to feed on dinner scraps, and had dined on the scraps of other groups as well.

Lake Creek Grayling

Lake Creek also has a good population of the arctic grayling, Thymallus arcticus. With a body shaped like a trout, it is easily distinguished from salmonids by its beautiful sail-like dorsal fin and small mouth. Not as colorful as rainbows, Lake Creek grayling are dark gray on top with crème-colored bellies and scattered small dark spots on their sides. The dorsal fins usually have small orange and yellow spots, and the pelvic fins usually have some yellow stripes. From a distance, grayling are, well, gray and dull, and you have to look at them close to better appreciate their beauty. Not as hard of a fighter as the rainbow, we could usually tell we had a grayling on before we saw it by the way they fought to stay near the bottom. While Morrow’s Freshwater Fishes of Alaska text described grayling as “primarily a surface and mid-depth feeder”, we usually caught them at the bottom, where they dined on abundant aquatic insects, including the larva of caddis flies, and mayfly and stonefly nymphs. While we did catch many grayling on egg patterns, nymphs seemed to be their preferred food, and the #10 bead-head Prince Nymphs worked well.

A Lake Creek Grayling. Note the large, sail-like dorsal fin. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann.

If you have never looked at the rocks on the bottom of a trout stream, when you do you will be surprised at the abundance of life, especially in the summer months. Rocks near the shore will be covered with a variety of insect nymphs and larvae, primarily stonefly and mayfly nymphs, and cocoon-forming caddisfly larvae. I enjoy fly-fishing, but not as much as some, and have often been surprised at the detail some will go to “match the hatch” by creating fly patterns that mimic the flies that are hatching that day. However, just like I am amazed at the importance of salmon to bears, others are fascinated by the connection existing between insects and fishes like trout and grayling. If you want to develop your skills as a stream ecologist, there is probably no better way than to avidly pursue fly fishing, as this sport forces you to understand the connections between predator and prey, organism and environment.

Alaska regulations allow keeping 5 grayling per day on Lake Creek, so we did keep a few for dissection and for eating. Dissections confirmed that their preferred food was aquatic insects, although we did find a few king salmon eggs mixed in. One thing we learned was grayling are big eaters, as the stomachs of fishes we studied were always full. We enjoyed their mild white flesh, but we almost felt silly keeping them when one sockeye salmon would feed 4-6 hungry teenage boys, while one 12-15 inch grayling was a mere snack. We mostly appreciated the grayling for their willingness to strike our flies and their strange but beautiful dorsal fins, which were yet another reminder that God creates with a purpose in mind. Seeing that grayling inhabit fast-flowing streams, it almost seemed like God made a mistake, as their clumsy-looking dorsal fin might pose a real problem for navigation in fast current. Trout and other salmonids have a small, triangular dorsal fin, which acts like the feathers on an arrow, adding stability to their movements. However, grayling have many uses for this fin. Like salmonids, they use it for stability and propulsion. Males also use theirs as a way to display aggression to other males, raising it in a way similar to the “betas”, or fighting fish, found at most pet stores. Males also use it during spawning, draping it over the female to hold her in position over prime spawning locations. Grayling don’t dig redds like salmonids do, but rather lay strings of sticky eggs on top of the gravel. This difference in spawning strategies alone is enough to convince me of the plan God had when he made grayling, and in His goodness He knew that we would also appreciate their uniqueness and beauty.

First Grizzly at camp

On my first Alaska Science Adventure Camp, we were all eager to see a grizzly bear. However, most of our bear entertainment was provided by black bears. At Yenlo Creek, a mother black bear was raising her three cubs. Quite shy, she kept at least a hundred yards away from us. Yenlo Creek was a great fishing spot, which meant that it was also a good spot for bears. At all camp sites, food was stored away from our tents, and no one was allowed to bring food into their tents. It is easy however, to relax the rules when you don’t see many bears, but now that we had, our sense of proper bear etiquette was increased. One of the most important rules in bear country is to never spook a bear, especially a mother with cubs. Also, supposedly bears have never attacked a group of 5 or more people, which is also Rule #5 in the Alaska Magnum Bear Safety Manual’s “10 Golden Rules of Bear Viewing” by Dr. Stephen Stringham. Keeping these rules in mind, any ventures from camp were done loudly and in groups. This was especially important when fishing along the river, as the rush of whitewater was quite loud and could easily drown out the sounds of a person walking along the stream. Not only that, bears focused on eating salmon are attracted to splashes in the water, and will investigate any splash, whether from a fish, a thrown rock, or a person walking. It is important to make sounds other than splashing when walking along a stream. Some people wear “bear bells”, but the river can easily drown out their sound. The best thing to do is to just yell “hey bear!” every 15-20 seconds while walking.

Mother Black Bear and cubs, Yenlo Creek. Copyright 2002, David E. Shormann

We never saw any grizzlies at Yenlo Creek, or any other part of Lake Creek, until the very end of the trip. The last night of the trip was usually spent on a sand bar a few miles from the end of Lake Creek near a lake called Bulchitna Slough. We usually saw black bears at this campsite, and signs of grizzly bears were evident. The unmistakable tracks, along with large piles of scat, revealed their presence. The grizzlies seemed very wary of people however, and were more nocturnal than bears I would later see in Katmai National Park. During that first trip in 2002, one evening after dinner, we decided to fish some braids in the river upstream from camp. After hiking about a mile and catching a variety of fishes, we found a nice pool that held chum salmon. Two of the campers, Rob Sadowski and Paul Grass, caught chums, and we snapped a picture and released them. Also known as dog salmon because of their enlarged canines, we were careful when removing the hooks from their toothy jaws. It was almost dark by now, so we started walking back and suddenly, on the opposite shore, a grizzly bear appeared! Not more than 50 yards away, he looked at us and then headed into the water and searched for fish. Some of the campers wanted to return, but my instinct was to stay and watch. I had my video camera, but it was too dark to film the bear, and some of the campers were getting extremely nervous, so we turned and headed back to camp.

That night, we woke to the sound of cracking branches in the alder trees directly behind our camp. By the sound it was making, we were sure it was a grizzly passing through. We were all excited about the grizzly bears around our camp, and the boys had some memories that would last forever. We never saw any other grizzlies until a 2007 trip that Rob Sadowski guided, when they saw 7 on Lake Creek, most of them on the lower few miles and near the mouth of Lake Creek at the Skwentna River.

That first grizzly encounter on Lake Creek taught me something. Although some of my students were scared silly, in reality the grizzly showed no signs of aggression towards us. Perhaps it was our large group that intimidated him, or was it? Was the fear some of the campers displayed justified, or were grizzlies more predictable than most people thought? My years as a scientist had taught me that the latter was probably more likely to be true, and if I took some time to learn more about grizzlies, I could greatly reduce my chances of being attacked when venturing into their domain.

End Ch. 3

Here’s a YouTube video I made about syllogisms, using Lake Creek rainbow trout as an example:

Chapter 2: The Great Land

November 12, 2010


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Adventure: an undertaking involving danger and unknown risks

Pribilof Islands
There is probably no better place in the world to have an outdoors adventure than Alaska. The Aleut Indians gave it the name “Alyeska” meaning “Great Land”, which indeed it is. With an area almost 2-and-a-half times larger than America’s 2nd largest state, Texas, and a human population only 3% of Texas’, there is plenty of room to roam. In Texas, we have a saying that “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes”. This is even more true in Alaska, as I have never seen a place with such rapidly changing weather. And I don’t think I have been anywhere with more rapidly changing weather than the first Alaskan place I visited, the Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992 David E. Shormann

The village on St. Paul Island

The Pribilof Islands are composed of two inhabited islands, St. Paul and St. George, and several smaller islands. A common saying on the islands is “”This is the only place in the world where you can experience all four seasons in one hour.” I arrived on St. Paul Island in July 1992 as part of a scientific team studying the local ecology. I was a graduate student at the time, working on my master’s degree in marine science. My advisor, Dr. Terry Whitledge, had worked extensively in the Bering Sea and knew the area well. Whether researching Texas bays, the Mississippi River Plume, or the Bering Sea, his ability to organize and head up an expedition never ceased to amaze me, and this was no different. At a time when the economy of the former Soviet Union was collapsing, Dr. Whitledge had organized this research project, consisting of the two of us and 5 excellent Russian scientists who probably desperately needed some cash.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Michael Flint (right), and another Russian scientist heading out to sea to do research.

The Naturalists
While the Russian scientists did not have access to the same array of high-tech tools we had, they made up for that with their knowledge of plants and animals in the area. The Russians were my first experience with people that I would truly call “naturalists”. Up until my master’s degree, all of my education and employment was engineering-related. I started working at General Dynamics in 1989 on the then-secret Navy A-12 project, but the project was canceled in 1990, and everyone was sent back to the main office to work on the F-16 Falcon. I could see the writing on the wall, and after lots of thought and prayer, decided to pursue a master’s degree in Marine Science. The University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas was searching for graduate students, and I wrote them a rather silly letter about how I wanted to be a “fish conservationist”. Dr. Whitledge liked my engineering background, and while I never directly studied fishes, I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor or a better area of study (water quality). Providence led me down the best path, and I started in August of 1990. That December, General Dynamics released everyone with 5 years experience or less (which would have included me), and I was sad for many of my friends who lost their jobs.

When I started my master’s degree, I had little experience with biology or even science. Engineering is more deductive, where you apply rules in new situations to build things. Science is more inductive, and is about finding rules. And my master’s research focused mainly on water chemistry and a single algal species responsible for creating a “brown tide” in local estuaries.

A love of the outdoors and fishing led me to naturally learn the names of many of the birds and fishes of the Texas coast, but until I met the Russian scientists, I had never met people who were so incredibly gifted and knowledgeable about everything in the ecosystem they were studying. They knew more than just the fish and birds; they could identify practically anything, from the largest whale to the smallest plankton. They loved the ecosystems they studied.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Horned Puffin, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Black-legged kittiwake, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Thick-billed murres nesting on a cliff, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Arctic Fox puppies, Pribilof Islands

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Stellar's Sea Lions, Pribilof Islands


In the book of Genesis, one of the first things God tells Adam to do is name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). I think one reason God did this was to help Adam care for the animals. One of the very basic ways we care for other human beings is by knowing their names. It is rude and inconsiderate to call out “hey mister” to a person we have known for a while. Not only that, it shows ignorance and a lack of concern. In the same way, if we do not know the names of any of the creatures God has made, it is easier to not care about them.

The Russian scientists taught me a great lesson in the importance of being a naturalist, and this is something I encourage everyone to do, especially children.I think that training children to be naturalists is an extremely important part of their education. In government schools, evolution is emphasized in high school biology, and too much time is wasted teaching this ridiculous theory. Rather than lowering a teenager’s already fragile self-esteem by telling them they evolved from monkeys and that they are products of random chance, it would be far better to teach them about the local flora and fauna and their responsibility to care for it. Students that are more familiar with their local environment are more likely to care about it. But until government schools in America, Russia, and elsewhere start teaching children they were created in God’s image and have a unique purpose, children are much better off learning at private Christian schools or in home schools.
Pribilof Adventures
I had many adventures on that first trip to Alaska. The flight from Anchorage to St. Paul was an adventure in itself. Climbing aboard a Reeve-Aleutian Airlines Lockheed Electra, I noticed the date of manufacture stamped on a bulkhead. I do not remember the exact date, but I do remember that it was before my birth year (1965). I was used to flying in large passenger jets, and getting into this 4-engine turboprop that was older than me was a bit unsettling, but it performed flawlessly, and a few hours later the pilot made a nice landing on the dirt runway in St. Paul.

The next big adventure was driving with one of the Russian scientists, Yuri, from the airport to the house we had rented, which doubled as our research station. Come to think of it, driving anywhere with Yuri was a bit of an adventure. Yuri was in his late 40’s, but had never driven a car. However, he was fascinated with the 13-passenger van we had rented, and he insisted on driving it everywhere. He actually drove pretty well, but his main problem was that he overcorrected, a typical characteristic of inexperienced drivers, and this always kept us hanging on to the seats a little tighter than normal.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

More than one adventure has been terminated by an unexpected run-in with the Pribilof Islands.

Conducting research in the Bering Sea around the Pribilof Islands was amazing. We hired a local captain, an Aleut Indian with a Russian name, Timon Lestenkof. The uninhabited Pribilof Islands were discovered in 1788 by the Russian explorer Gavriil Pribylov. Soon after, Russians forced Aleuts Indians from the Aleutian chain (several hundred miles south of the Pribilofs) to hunt seal for them on the Pribilof Islands.Today, the Pribilof Islands are home to the largest Aleut Indian community in America, and many of them make a good living through fishing. Timon was a wonderful man who had served America in Vietnam. He would take us just about anywhere we wanted to go, provided it was close enough for him to pick up the island on radar, a distance of about 10 miles. This was in the days before GPS was in widespread use, which would have made navigating around the island and beyond much easier.

We would collect water samples from various depths using “Niskin bottles”, and use the winch to raise and lower them. We would also tow plankton nets and store the samples. Northern fur seals would come and visit us while we conducted research, as would fulmars, gulls and kittiwakes. While waiting for us to collect water samples, Timon would sometimes fish. One time I watched in amazement as he tore a 3-inch chunk from an orange-colored rubber glove, threaded it on a hook, and proceeded to catch several 15 to 30 lb halibut. Timon had a painting in the wheelhouse depicting Christ standing behind a sailor, directing Him through a storm. On more than one occasion, the fog set in while we were at sea, and we had to rely on instruments to direct us back to the harbor. The Russian Orthodox church was the lone church on St. Paul, and while I don’t agree with some of their teachings, I am still glad they trust Christ for their salvation. And I was glad that Timon trusted God that our instruments were right and wouldn’t send us crashing into a cliff or a shoal in the foggy weather, which they never did.

One of my favorite parts of research on the Pribilofs was catching seabirds for Dr. Sasha Golovkin. My main job was to perform chemical tests on the water samples we collected, but due to the extreme weather conditions, we often had to wait for days before we could get out to sea. So when I could, I helped the other scientists with their research. I would travel with Dr. Golovkin to the cliffs where millions of seabirds nested, and we would catch and weigh puffins, murres, auklets, anything we could catch. Dr. Golovkin was particularly interested in least auklets, which the locals called “chuchkis”. Dr. Golovkin was studying their diet and metabolism. About the size of a sparrow, chuchkis would fly out to sea in large flocks to catch small crustaceans called copepods. The chuchkis lived along rocky shorelines, and built their nests in the crevices of rocks. In the evening, the chuchkis would return to the rocks, and we would hide behind large boulders, and when a group of chuchkis would come by we would swing large nets into the sky and capture them. Most of the birds were released immediately, but some were kept for further observations. Dr. Golovkin would sample their stomach contents, and they would invariably be full of one species of copepod about the size of a rice grain. Like freshly cooked crabs or shrimp, the copepods also changed from their natural opaque coloration to a pinkish-red color, the heat from the chuchki’s body in essence “cooking” the copepods.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Golovkin holding a horned puffin, Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1993, David E. Shormann

Crested Auklet, Pribilof Islands


Chuchkis, like puffins and other auklets, were able to “fly” underwater. Denser than most birds, the majority of the chuchki’s body was submerged underwater when swimming on the surface. Dr. Golovkin built a 5-foot square holding tank to observe the chuchkis swimming, and we were all amazed at the ease with which this tiny bird moved underwater. It had to be incredibly agile to catch the small copepods that were its primary food.

We spent many hours exploring the island. There was a 500-head herd of caribou, and one time I spooked them and sent the whole herd stampeding in front of me, inches from the front of the ATV I was driving. We saw many ships hopelessly wrecked on the beaches, along with whale carcasses. Snowy owls, arctic foxes, and of course, Northern Fur Seals inhabited the island as well. The Pribilof Islands are the summer calving grounds for approximately 500,000 fur seals. Almost every beach had fur seals on it, some more than others. In prime spots, there were tens of thousands of seals. The males would form a “harem”, consisting of 1 male and a group of females and their pups. At the larger rookeries, the sound, and the smell were incredible. I could sit and watch the seal pups for hours, playing and interacting with one another. With such an unbelievable amount of animal and bird life, the Pribilof Islands were one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and highly recommended, if you can stand the smell.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Dr. Flint photographing a baby Arctic Fox. Note the caribou herd in the background. Pribilof Islands.

Copyright 1992, David E. Shormann

Baby Northern Fur Seals. Larger, lighter brown seals are mothers. Pribilof Islands.

Mainland Alaska-Kenai Peninsula
Research continued on the Pribilof Islands in the summer of 1993, and I was also able to experience a bit of the mainland and its world famous salmon fishing opportunities. Before I left for the Pribilofs that summer, my father and I .made a fishing trip to the Kenai Peninsula. Our destination was the Kenai River and a guided trip for king salmon. While the majority of Alaska is devoid of people, the Kenai River in late July is not one of those places. Known worldwide for the incredible size of its king salmon, the Kenai River is probably the busiest river in Alaska. If you are looking for pristine wilderness, the Kenai River is not the place to be, but if that doesn’t bother you, then it is a beautiful place with lots of fishermen.

We failed to catch a king salmon on our trip, although one of the men in our boat did land a beautiful 50 pounder. The Kenai River also sports one of the largest sockeye salmon runs in the state, and anglers flock to its banks for this tasty prize. Since sockeye are very reluctant to strike a lure, fishermen must basically “snag” the salmon in the mouth with a streamer fly. Occasionally they do strike a lure or fly, but most sockeye are caught by snagging them in the mouth. I managed to hook a few, but my tackle, which was meant for light-tackle speckled trout and redfish in Texas bays, was no match for the combination of powerful fish and strong current.

Those two summers on the Pribilof Islands, and the time spent reading about Alaska, had me hooked for life, and I was determined to make it back to this great land. Besides the wildlife, there were other features about Alaska that intrigued me as well, such as the mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers. Alaska seemed to have everything an outdoors enthusiast could want, and in 2000, I was able to return again with my father.
As a young boy, my father would take me fishing, and before long, I was passionate about it. Growing up in Kingwood, Texas, I would ride my bicycle several miles to the San Jacinto River and fish for catfish and bass. My love of fishing seemed limitless, and I pestered my hard-working father to no end, constantly wanting him to take me fishing. I am now more reasonable about the amount of time and effort I put into fishing, but I still love to go, and my second fishing trip to Alaska in 2000 is one I will never forget.
West Cook Inlet
On this trip we decided to head to the west side of Cook Inlet to fish for silver salmon. It was early August, and the silvers were beginning to show. We were on a guided trip with Talon Air Service, and took a float plane to fish the Kustatan River. The river was high and muddy from recent rains, and the fishing was slow. Growing up fishing the spring run of white bass on the Trinity River, I knew that the bass would stack up in clear sloughs and creeks when the Trinity ran high. I had noticed that we traveled down a clear slough to get to the Kustatan, and suggested this as a possibility. We returned to the slough, and immediately began catching silvers almost as fast as we could get a line in the water. We had our limits in short order.

The next day we had a halibut trip scheduled, but it was canceled due to rough weather. We decided to try again for silvers, but this time we fished a spot where Wolverine Creek emptied into Big River Lakes. We had great success with silvers again, but more than that, we were treated to front row seats of a mother grizzly bear catching salmon for her two cubs. This was the 2nd wild grizzly bear I had ever seen, and my first Alaskan grizzly. Little did I know that it would not be my last. Sockeye salmon were stacked up beneath the outfall of Wolverine Creek, and the mother grizzly had easy pickings. When a large male black bear came on the scene, the mother grizzly bear chased him up a steep incline. We simply could not believe how an animal of that size could move so quickly up something so steep.

Wolverine Creek was a fascinating place, and after we had caught our limit of salmon, I persuaded the guide to let me out of the boat to get some pictures of salmon swimming up the creek. Several people cautioned me about the mother grizzly being nearby, but I could not see it and proceeded upstream. There were at least a dozen boats fishing in the area, and the mother grizzly seemed perfectly at ease, so I was not too apprehensive about hiking up the creek.

Suddenly, someone spotted the mother grizzly bear heading towards the creek, and everyone started yelling at me to come back to the boat, but I could not hear them because of the rushing water. It was not until I saw my guide approaching and waving his hands that I realized I needed to get back. The bear kept approaching, but it never charged or seemed concerned about my presence on the creek. This was my first experience that convinced me of the fact that all wild grizzlies are not ferocious man-eaters.

I took more photographs of the mother grizzly bear and her cubs than of anything else that trip. As I photographed the bear, I couldn’t help but think about Thomas Mangelsen’s photo I had seen back in 1989. That photograph was such a perfect trinity of bear, salmon, and photographer. It revealed the incredible abilities of all three, the bear and its hunting prowess, the salmon and its ability to leap up and over a rushing waterfall, and the photographer’s ability to have the camera settings optimized for the occasion. The bear I was photographing had a different hunting technique than the Mangelsen bear, and would “snorkel” and then dive down about 6 to 8 feet to catch its prey. And while I knew I would not get any photos like the Mangelsen bear photo, that snorkeling bear provided plenty of opportunities for photography practice, and made me realize more than ever that I wanted to be around these magnificient creatures and the salmon streams they loved.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.

Cubs at Wolverine Creek.


Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Mother Grizzly, Wolverine Creek, Alaska

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.

Sockeye Salmon congregating at the outflow of Wolverine Creek.


Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.

Cubs' mother returning from her snorkeling trip with a sockeye.


After returning home from the 2000 Alaska trip with my father, I spent hours looking over the photos I had taken, longing to return to Alaska. Flying on the float plane, as well as observing the huge number of aircraft flying in and out of the Lake Hood float plane airport in Anchorage, made me realize that to get “off the beaten path” in Alaska, I would need to either go by plane or by boat. Since 1997, I had been conducting Marine Science Camps in Port Aransas, and the thought occurred to me that I should attempt an Alaska Science Camp. I discussed the plan with Rob Sadowski, a former student-turned-camp-assistant, and he couldn’t agree more.

By the summer of 2001, my beautiful wife Karen, and I owned two math and science education businesses, we were homeschooling my 15 year-old son, Kenny, and we were the proud parents of a daughter born in June. When Christ said He came to give us an abundant life, He wasn’t kidding, and mine was getting more abundant by the minute. I knew though that for some reason exploring Alaska figured into the picture of this abundant life, and I was determined to find out how.