Grizzlies and Salmon on the Nakina River
By Joe Valceschini (Westminster College)
When reading through Round River’s website I was drawn to the Taku program for multiple reasons, the main one being the nine day backpacking trip along a traditional Tlingit trail to the Nakina River. To me this was an amazing opportunity to get a small taste of what multiple generations of Tlingit people depended upon for their way of life. While simply being invited by the Taku River Tlingit to be a part of their tradition was an honor, I had two hopes for this hike. First I wanted to see a Grizzly Bear in the flesh, preferably from a safe distance. Seeing Black Bears while camping in Northern California and reading literature about the grizzlies peaked my interest in the legendary creature. For whatever reason simply snapping a photograph of one of these graceful beasts and postings it in some remote corner of cyber space would give me fulfillment in the same way I imagine a trophy hunter gets a rise from mounting the head of one of their taxidermy victims. Secondly, I wished to catch a wild salmon.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, salmon played a vital role in indigenous cultures as well as in the incentive for settlement by white men. However, the salmon runs along the Columbia River have been strangled and suffocated by hydroelectric dams that have become a vital part of modern American culture. It seems that I was born a century too late to be able to catch a truly wild salmon in Oregon. Thankfully the Nakina with its natural quality presented me with the opportunity to fulfill my desire of reeling in the magnificent fish.
Our hike to the Nakina took three grueling days of meandering through thick bush and hoards of mosquitoes. The third and final day of our trek was the longest and most difficult hiking I have ever done. Upon finally making our way to the Nakina River I set up my tent, sat next to our fire and decided my tired body could wait until the morning to start my wildlife quest of salmon fishing and grizzly documenting. The Nakina seemed to have different plans.
Within an hour of being at our campsite, a solitary grizzly on the far side of the river meandered upstream towards our camp. I frantically scrambled to my tent, ripped out my camera, set my exposure, and began clicking away. The bear waded into the river and swam to the other side where it dunked its head under water looking for fish. It took no longer than a minute of two for the bear to point its nose in the air and notice the sent of a dozen sweaty naturalists observing upwind. After looking directly at our crew the bear trudged out of the river, shook, and slipped into the cover of the forest. Feeling blessed with this sighting I went to bed to rest for fishing the next morning.
I spent the next two days on the river trying desperately to hook a salmon. After multiple hours of unfruitful casting while being burned by the sun and bit by more bugs than I care to recount I began to lost hope in my fishing venture. Thankfully I wound up catching a Dolly Varden and others had reeled in salmon so my hope was still alive. The second night on the Nakina I decided I would wake up early for a final attempt at salmon. I was up around 7am and began casting away, still in a groggy half asleep state of mind. Within 5 or so haphazard whips of the line I was jolted into full consciousness by the strong tug of a fish. Could it be a salmon? I wondered as I eagerly cranked on the reel. The fish surfaced displaying its vibrant red body, it was a Chinook. Excited, my unrefined fishing intuition told me to reel hard, ignoring everything my fishermen friends had told me about tiring and catching a large fish. As I jerked clumsily the fish came closer to the bank however this was also where the current was the strongest. Thinking I was about to catch a salmon I put my back into and reeled faster.
Snap! All the tension in the line was gone as quickly as it had arrived. For a brief second I didn’t register what had just happened. My first thoughts were to be frustrated at all the hiking, casting, and time I had spent trying to catch this one fish before so clumsily loosing it, displaying my inexperience as a fishermen. However I shifted my focus from this frustration, after all how lucky am I to simply be able to be here in this near pristine river, sharing my fishing hole with grizzlies and eagles? Also I now have an excuse to justify a future trip up here, my salmon is still waiting.