Looking for answers in a remote stream on southern Baranoff Island. PHOTO BY ANDREW CREMATA

A little mystery


I was once a little boy living in Florida who dreamed about coming to Alaska. In those days before the internet changed the way we receive information, my glimpses into the faraway frontier were few.

An old network television show called “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” showed grizzly bears catching salmon in mid-air as they tried to navigate upstream. Wrinkled magazines at my school’s library showed rugged outdoorsmen braving wild mountains to build homesteads and hunt game. The yellowed pages of my grandpa’s fishing books contained line-drawn illustrations of Alaskan fishermen engaged in mortal combat with leaping salmon.

At some point during those days, I pulled out my parent’s Rand McNally Road Atlas and highlighted a line from Tampa to Alaska. The 5,000 mile journey seemed more like a million. Would it take a month to travel that far?  Probably more since Alaska likely had few paved roads and was perpetually covered with snow and ice.

A few months before graduating from high school, I met a man named Tom. He was tall, big around the waist and a crossword puzzle master. During a 15-minute coffee shop break he could finish an entire Saturday New York Times puzzle. As someone who enjoyed crosswords but could rarely fill in more than a couple rows of boxes, I asked him to shed light on the mystery.

“The trick to doing crossword puzzles isn’t knowing the answers. It’s doing enough of them to decipher the clues,” he said.

It would take years to understand Tom’s cryptic answer, but the conversation initiated a friendship. Tom later told me that he had spent some time in Alaska as a young man, and shared a few amazing tales about his frontier explorations during the 1960s.

One day I revealed my childhood dream of traveling to Alaska. Tom responded, “Go. It’s not as far away as you think.”

That night, I pulled out my parent’s road atlas and highlighted another route to Alaska. I planned on taking a month-long road trip after graduation, even though it was doubtful my 1982 Chevy Malibu Station Wagon could make it beyond Tampa city limits.

Nobody in my family supported my intercontinental journey, so as a compromise a friend and I took a week-long graduation road trip along the southern half of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Every night, we pitched our own tents and prepared meals on an open fire. On occasion, the food was fully cooked. Some mornings we saw deer grazing in fields by the side of the road. We even fished a few streams without getting a bite. The trip ended up being an introductory lesson in the outdoors lifestyle that only grew the mystery of Alaska that had taken root many years before.

Eight years later I stopped at the Welcome to Alaska sign at the summit of the Klondike Highway for the first time. I got out of my car and snapped a photo, gratified in the accomplishment. This was 1996, but I still knew very little about Alaska and absolutely nothing about Skagway. None of which prevented me from carrying along all sorts of presumptions.

Much of the adventure of coming to Alaska was tied up in the mystery of not knowing. My preconceptions were based on a few television shows and a handful of printed pages. Sometimes I wonder if that same sense of adventure is possible today with so much information readily available at the touch of a button. It’s likely that many traveling to Alaska for the first time in 2018 have far different preconceptions than I did in 1996, but it’s also likely they’re just as misguided.

Information devoid of experience is worthwhile for preparation, but just like a highlighter tracking a route on a road map it’s incapable of predicting the reality of the journey.

Fishing is no different.

After arriving in Skagway, I learned that one of the most sought after fish (and largest) in the region were lake trout. In all of my preparations for coming to Alaska I never once heard of the species. Catching one became a priority. After checking out books from the library that explained various lake trout angling techniques and reading every piece of information explaining their behavior, I set out toward the Yukon in search of success.

It took four years to land my first lake trout.

I was elated after catching that fish. A friend took a photo of me holding it, and it was pinned to the wall above my dresser so that I could look at it every day.

It would be logical to conclude that catching my first lake trout finally revealed the solution to some great mystery. In truth, the whole event was one colossal accident.

Throughout those four years of failure, numerous local anglers informed me that trying to catch lake trout from shore was a waste of time. Many Yukon angers I encountered suggested using bait or lures that proved ineffective. Much of the printed information on the subject turned out to be entirely wrong. The only reason I was even fishing for lake trout that day was because the wind was blowing too hard to fish anywhere other than Tagish Bridge, and I knew there were trout there because I’d occasionally seen other people catch them.

When that laker started biting, I was busy guzzling beer and flapping my gums with a Canadian angler to my right. Fortunately, the trout managed to hook itself, prompting another fisherman further down the bridge to yell, “Hey fella! I think you got a fish on, eh?”

In the years since, my ability to catch lake trout has increased considerably, but there are days every year when something unknown is revealed. It’s possible to walk a stretch of shoreline a hundred times before resolving the truth behind a subtle hint that reveals hidden fish.

A swirl on the surface as a mosquito is sucked downward from below. An eagle perched in a nearby tree peering down toward a shallow river backwater. A steep cliff face that extends into deep water. The surprising way wind can divert the outflow of a feeder stream into a lake. A ray of golden morning sunlight that sparks an explosion of hatching insects.

Keep walking. Keep casting. Take a few extra seconds to let the bait sink. Gratification may be the reward for success, but only the journey can satisfy a mystery.

The trick to fishing isn’t knowing the answers. It’s doing enough of it to decipher the clues.