There’s more to traveling than going to new places

Late afternoon is a mystical time of day when you sit on the bow of a fishing boat, rod in hand, at the height of Alaska’s brief summer. The low sun chisels the mountains in high definition, accompanied by the smells of pine, salt and sunscreen. The water looks like beveled glass, only troubled by otters floating around with a brood of mussels on their bellies.

No sooner than I thought, Man, it can’t get any more peaceful than thisI felt the distinct tug of a rockfish take my bait – fish.

Keeping an elbow in the rod, I brought the fish skyward. As he surfaced, he spat out the hook and landed on his back in the water. It wiggled its appendages like an upside-down turtle before an eagle swooped down from the top of a nearby spruce, grabbed it in its talons, and disappeared into the mist toward the opposite shore.

“Huh,” said a teammate. “It’s not quite what I imagined when I imagined the one who got away.”

Like the rockfish, I too am the one who got away. I lived in Alaska for most of my 20s, just under seven full years. Recently I moved to Colorado, and this summer fishing adventure was on my first trip back.

One of the big dilemmas for travelers is deciding where to go next. Do you venture into the unknown, looking for new customs, food, clothing and language in a place you haven’t been? Or do you spend time slipping into the relaxing comfort of a destination you already know?

Generally, if given the option, I would usually choose to go somewhere new rather than somewhere I’ve been before. Yet last July, I was back in the 49th state on a fishing boat, begging from Alaska, on a return trip to the secluded Waterfall Resort fishing lodge.

In a past life, the station was a salmon cannery, so it makes sense that the waters outside are rich in omega-3-carrying fish. Guests stay in the converted staff quarters and spend their days catching as many salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod as fishing limits and luck allow. Most coveted, however, is a species of salmon known as king or Chinook. They are prized for their rich, buttery flavor and size (they can weigh over 50 pounds, but most fall into the 15-20 pound category).

Although I had been a card-carrying Alaskan for many salmon seasons, I had never caught a king. This would be the year.

The writer (right) on a fishing trip in 2019.

“I call this place Jurassic Park,” Tony, the captain, announced on our second full day of fishing. My three boat mates and I dropped our bait, which immediately took four bites. Every time the hook hit the water, a rockfish, red snapper or vermilion was on it within seconds. Within 20 minutes, the floor of the ship was littered with fish. But still no kings.

Later that evening, I traded fish stories at the Waterfall bar with a gentleman from Texas. It was his 12th summer at Waterfall Resort. The feat was impressive, until he said his father had been coming for over 20 years. The resort, it seems, attracts a lot of visitors. The Texans had already been on the property for three days and had each reached their king limit (non-residents are only allowed to pocket two kings in July), much to my envy.

If I were to land a king, it would be due to our parallel destinies being called home by an unseen force. A salmon’s entire lifespan is an adventure back and forth from river to sea and back again. A year after hatching in Alaska’s freshwater lakes and streams, the young fish ride the current downstream until they are washed back into the sea, often hundreds of miles away. For the next two to seven years, they roam the ocean, eat smaller fish, and gain mass in preparation for their return trip.

At some point, a flip flips, and their only mission is to return to the place, almost exactly, where they came into the world. Over the course of several weeks, the salmon leave the ocean to make their way until they find the area where they themselves hatched to find a mate, spawn and perish. Their bodies are consumed by insects, which will feed the young salmon when they emerge from their eggs. It is this journey that brings them past our waiting bait and, hopefully, into our cooler.

On the last morning we headed south, the only boat to do so. “It’s hero or bust,” Captain Tony said. “Either you won’t catch anything, or we’ll catch everything.

We had only caught one king between the four of us in the past three days. While it was the second largest of the season at 33 pounds and enough for each of us to enjoy several meals, it was well under the limit imposed by our Department of Fish and Game. If we went north, the chances of catching a salmon were slim. We decided to bet big.

Although we sailed to a spot directly above the kings we hoped to catch – they showed up as boomerangs on the ship’s depth monitor screen – they just weren’t biting. (There is some truth in the adage that it’s called fishing, not catching.)

I didn’t get a king. Add to that my recent move from Alaska, and a return trip seemed all the more important. After going through a new life in Colorado—making new friends, buying a house, learning to get around—it was heartwarming to return to the familiar repetition and patience required on an Alaskan fishing trip.

Shortly after, back at the dock, another fisherman shared his story of an escaped salmon. “It was big like thathe growled, holding his hands about three feet apart. And, having been there many times myself over the years, those hands will drift further and further away with each return to this story.

Erik Tofft - On the way

In the summer, boats from the station set off in the hope of fishing successfully.

Courtesy of Waterfall Resort

If you are going to

Waterfall Resort

Book now: Waterfall Resort; rates start at $2,775 for three days, two nights

Waterfall Resort operates from June to September each season. The boats can accommodate four passengers each and the captains are equipped to work with anglers of all skill levels. All accommodations are suitable for two people and include bedrooms in the main lodge and self-contained cabins. The resort includes a dining room, bar, lounge areas overlooking the water, and a gear and gift shop. All tackle including rods, bait, waders and boots are provided.


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