By Jenny Weis
Flying low in a DeHavilland Beaver over Bristol Bay, Alaska’s Naknek River, I could see weeds in the clear water, shallow stretches with rocks illuminated by the sun, and deeper pools hiding trout and probably a few king salmon staging to spawn.
The window was to my right, and the amost-11-year old son of my boyfriend’s found-family sat to my left. The Beaver’s pilot, Alex, and his wife, Heather, have been coming out to the region for over a decade to work at (and now partly own) a fishing lodge. Along the way, the couple has added three awesome children to their annual migration who sat in the plane with us. My boyfriend, Connor, situated against the far window, is in the midst of his seventh season as a guide and clearly, has become equally hooked to the lifestyle.
It was a rare day off for them—their first of the season, actually. Guests of the lodge had left yesterday morning, and the new group wouldn’t arrive until later that afternoon. Having a Beaver handy, a pilot, rare spare time, and a world-class fishing river literally out the backdoor, they took the opportunity to fly as a family to fish together and luckily for me, invited Connor and I to join.
I’ve been to the region a handful of times, but this is still all new to me. As they went through the familiar routine of wadering up, grabbing fishing gear, and loading the plane, I kept telling myself, “play it cool.” Getting ready to go, I did my best to act like this was semi-normal, even though inside all I could think was, “BEST. DAY. EVER!!!!!!!”
Alex and 13-year old Lexi flying around the Alaska peninsula
One by one, we all got into the plane and settled. We taxied down the river and took off. For me, that’s when the trouble really started.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed this problem. On a made-up scale of emotions where one is misery and 10 is elation—at this point, if I’m not between a three and a seven, I’m crying. I’d assume many people can relate at the sad end of the spectrum, but the happy end is the one that tends to throw people off.
Thank god I had my sunglasses on.
The thing about flying over Bristol Bay is that you can’t help but think about vastness, beauty and fishing opportunity. Forget about buildings. There aren’t even fences or roads. There is just brightly colored tundra, ponds, lakes, and winding tributaries that eventually find their way into the major rivers that make the region famous. Its brilliant colors and wildness are stunning.
I’m overcome by the beauty of the place I’ve found myself, the kindness of the people I’m with, and gratitude that they’ve invited me to join their family time. Essentially meaning, I’ve very well above a seven now.
A few moments go by in the air, (tearfully for me) taking this all in when, Sammy, the couple’s five-year-old, pipes in that he’d seen a bear on the headset microphone. Alex, the Dad/pilot, chimed in.
“Huh. Sammy figured out the headphones,” he said. “Didn’t see that one coming.”
Sammy’s high-pitch voice chimed in regularly on the radio with questions and observations for the remainder of the flight, about every minute or so. Always starting with,
Enjoying the sunshine and the view, each time his voice crackled into our headsets, everyone else laughed. I cry-laughed, because that’s apparently a thing.
Ultimately, it turned out to be too windy to land and wouldn’t have made for fun fishing anyway. We toured back to the mouth of the river to see the commercial fishing boats, eventually landing at the lodge. After playing on the dock, we headed out in a boat to search for king salmon with the kids on the beautiful, sunny afternoon.
Later in the day, Alex and Connor apologized a couple times for “such a weird day,” and not being able to go fishing. I wish I could have properly relayed the insanity of their apology but instead just said that I’d had a really great day and appreciated everything.
Soon enough I’m sure we’ll be back out fishing, plane or not. And, if I’m lucky enough to spend more time here, soon enough they’ll understand what inevitably happens when I go ‘above a seven’ —even if there are no fish (or even fishing) involved.
Jenny is the Alaska Program communications director. She lives in Anchorage.