We always seemed to find time for fun. After five days of sharing a very small space all six of us (four adults and two toddlers) in an Anchorage dorm room we were ready to depart to help a friend renovate a recently purchased building along the Kvichak River. Another teaching couple we knew that taught in Levelock, a small Yup’ik Eskimo village, had recently bought a five-acre homestead from an Old Russian trapper along the Kvichak River.
The Kvichak River was a large river about 50 miles long. It started at Lake Iliamna flowing to the Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay on the southwestern Alaska Peninsula. The lodge was 23 miles from Levelock. Jack had a dream to turn the old building into a fly-fishing lodge and even had a couple of ‘real’ guests coming later in the summer. Jed and John offered to help Jack with some of the remodeling projects to start changing the main cabin into the Lodge area and the old scow into sleeping quarters for the guest fishermen. Mary and I offered to help with cooking, cleaning, and keeping up with all of the six children that would be running around.
The day we arrived was Zach’s birthday so of course there had to be a party. Amongst the three families there were three two-year olds, one five-year old, one six-year old, and a three –month old baby. It was a rambunctious, demanding, chaotic birthday celebration and a week full of fun and laughter. We would just finish feeding everyone breakfasts and it was time to prepare lunch. Washing clothes for the group was a constant chore. With the long daylight hours and a desire for an afternoon walk, dinner always seemed to sneak up on us. There were evening tasks, such as clean up and getting kids to bed. Alaska’s rural lifestyle did not include dishwashers or even the latest washing machines. I was becoming quite accustomed to wringer washers and hanging clothes outside to dry between rain squalls. It was exhausting, but fun.
The remodeling tasks were interspersed with fishing, which was greatly appreciated. The Kvichak River was known for its salmon and trophy size rainbow trout. Yummy! I truly believed a person couldn’t live in Alaska unless they liked fish.
On July 1 we decided it was time to leave and continue on to Los Angeles. I was anxious to see my Mom and sister. It had been two very long years since my last visit to California. Without a ‘real’ home base in Alaska I kept referring to California as home, even though I was feeling less and less like I would ever live there again. I really didn’t know where I felt home was anymore. Most bush teachers in Alaska were from ‘outside’ of Alaska. Many arrived the day before their contracts started and left the day after.
Jack radioed Levelock and said he was bringing two and a half passengers to catch the mail plane into King Salmon and then on to Anchorage. He also asked if they would check availability for seats on the next flight to Los Angeles. In the ‘70s travel in rural Alaska was so simple even though it involved many connections and miles.
Jed and I gathered our packs and all of us climbed into a 16 ft. aluminum fishing boat. John decided to tag along so he could assist Jack with the shopping in King Salmon before returning to the Lodge. There were four adults and Zach in the small fishing vessel. Off we went up the Kvichak River.
Little did we know the morning we decided to leave was the day the ‘red salmon’ started their yearly spawning adventure up the Kvichak River to Lake Iliamna. Salmon always returned to their same spawning grounds each year. The constant spinning of their bodies as they flung themselves against the current was physically exhausting. During the ritual their bodies turned a crimson red color reflected in the water. The color was distinctive in contrast to the normal blues and greens seen by observers. The eagles and bears watched eagerly for the annual event.
We knew salmon made this yearly journey in June and July to spawn. Here we were actually witnessing this occasion, not reading about it in a National Geographic magazine. The valuable contribution salmon made to the food chain fed many, birds, animals and people. Because the trek from the ocean, up the rivers was so vigorously exhausting the salmon needed to be ready. Salmon fattened up in the ocean eating lots of plankton before beginning the voyage upstream. When they reached the river there was little for them to eat and they were ready to spawn.
Observing the salmon and other animals was breathtaking and exhilarating. Two eagles flew by and then returned to their nest. I tried to call out the different animals for Zach — swans, cranes, ducks, and geese. Something moved in the bushes and I spotted two moose grazing along the riverbank. A couple of other furry friends dropped into the water before I could really distinguish what they were. Jack started laughing as he looked around the boat at the three of us. The water from the kicker soaked John, Jed and me. The spray from the propellers while traveling up river had drenched us and no one had noticed or really cared. We were so electrified from the experience we had just had. When Zach heard us laughing, he pulled his head out of his raincoat and looked around at everyone. He had stayed pretty dry by just peeking out as I kept pointing things out to see.
Suddenly the boat slowed down and stopped just as Jack said, “f—k”. Zach was trying to repeat the word, as most two year-olds. I distracted him by saying “duck.” We were stuck on a sandbar right out of Levelock. I looked up and could see the boat landing just ahead. I knew it was the destination point to catch the plane to King Salmon. John and Jed quickly jumped out and began working to free the boat. They pushed and pulled the boat releasing it from the sandbar. The mail plane was circling to land and I began to pray it would wait for us. We all laughed and agreed it would be a trip we would always remember even if we missed the plane.
Lucky for us the mail plane waited. We ran into the air service office, provided them our weight, plus added pounds for the water dripping off of Jed. There was no time for him to change his clothes. We paid for our tickets and thanked them for the information about connections from King Salmon on to Los Angeles. The plane started to lift off as we took a deep breath and exhaled all of the excess adrenaline we were still feeling. About half way to King Salmon the pilot spotted and circled over an enormous Alaska Grizzly bear busy fishing. He must have received the memo that it was the day of the Red Salmon.
We just made the connection out of King Salmon to Anchorage on a F-27 and barely had thirty minutes before the flight from Anchorage to Los Angeles took off. The layover in Seattle finally provided an opportunity to call our parents and tell them we were arriving three days early.