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The Lure of Alaska

At two luxury camps in Alaska, a writer learns fly-fishing and gets hooked on wilderness cuisine.

The small, grasshopper-like plane makes one final loop around the lake, then disappears behind a ridge of blue-green mountains, leaving me standing in the frigid, waist-high waters of Crab Slough, near Glacier Bay, Alaska.

All is silent, save for the whispering of the tall grasses. When the plane returns this afternoon, I'll be a fly fisherwoman, I resolve. In the back of my mind, I simply hope it returns.

I've come to southeastern Alaska to learn fly-fishing. In the past I've had good luck tossing lures at hungry victims. Mostly I have fished for sport, and as an excuse to linger at water's edge. Occasionally it's been out of necessity: once, during an arduous, windless sail from Los Angeles to Hawaii, I thankfully landed a plump albacore and a rainbow-dappled mahimahi on a haphazard troller.

But I've never tried fly-fishing before, considered by many to be the sport's highest art form. Struggling with my line this bracing morning, I think that it's a skill I'll never master. Instead of flicking tidbits of wire and feather along the water's surface to mimic the flight of an insect in the eyes of a hungry fish, I make macramé in the sky, the line tumbling to my feet in a snarl.

But the two fishing lodges I've chosen to visit, Glacier Bay's Bear Track Inn and Glacier Bay Country Inn, have promised to turn me into a competent fly fisherwoman. They're made for people like me, who refuse to sign up for any old fish camp, where you flip coins with unshaven, sodden strangers to decide who gets the top bunk. Rather, they guarantee not only that I'll learn fly-fishing and catch salmon, but also that I will be pampered and well fed along the way.

The inns are both in Gustavus, a village on the southeast panhandle of Alaska first homesteaded almost 100 years ago, after Grand Pacific Glacier had shrunk back from the entrance to Glacier Bay. Although cruise ships travel along the Inside Passage all summer long, Gustavus is cut off from the mainland by mountains and ice and is accessible only by plane or a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Juneau. For that reason the area is almost untouched. I've seen pictures of anglers lining Alaskan streams to the north, buffalo-plaid elbow to buffalo-plaid elbow. Yet when the plane from the Bear Track Inn lands us in the waters of Crab Slough, the place is vacant, except for the spate of salmon.

Clumsily I slip from the pontoon of the plane into the murky water. Kris Utz and David Mork, two chefs at the inn who also serve as fly-fishing guides, get right to business. They explain to me the rudiments of fly-fishing: how to tie the lure, a mere wisp of feathers, to a light line a few yards long; how to feed a second, heavier line through the rod and reel; and how to master the complex technique of pulling this second line with one hand and waving the rod back and forth with the other to make lassoing loops with the lure above your head. (Think of trying to rub your stomach while patting your head, but a hundred times trickier.) When you finally cast the fly, hopefully in front of you and far away, it should land like an air kiss on the surface of the water. The fish are fooled into believing this is a bug alighting and bite. Or at least they do in theory.

Utz and Mork demonstrate this method to me patiently and cheerfully--and repeatedly. Like many young men, they have come to Alaska in search of adventure. Unlike most, though, they have chosen to look for adventure in the kitchen. Both are in their 20s and recent graduates of culinary school. Other than creating fabulous meals every night, they get to go fishing with me as a perk.

Alternating, the guys provide pointers, then scoot away to fish. I'm unsteady in the slippery, swift river, but by noon I've ceased hooking myself. And I'm no longer a threat to my guides: Mork is concerned he'll be known as "Alaska Dave, the one-eyed chef" if he stands too close to me. Although the lake is thick with salmon, I don't catch a thing. Finally our plane drones in to take us home.

The Bear Track Inn was built just three years ago, in the shadow of its namesake Bear Track Mountains. Situated in a meadow of mustard and lupine, the lodge lies alongside a skinny stream, where salmon hover in shallows barely deep enough to cover their dorsal fins. Bears lumber over to the water each night to scoop up fish, and guests lumber out from their own dinner to watch.

After a frustrating day of fishing, with the upper half of my body aching and the lower refrigerated, I dump my waders and boots at the front door and step into luxurious comfort: a stately, hand-hewn timber lodge where three big friendly dogs bound up to greet me. An enormous moose head surveys some guests who have sunk into fat suede sofas in front of the stone fireplace.

I shuffle upstairs to my huge room (there are 14 in all), where a pair of queen-size beds, piled high with down comforters and pillows, are dwarfed by the vaulted ceiling. After a steaming shower I reemerge downstairs to sate myself on the Alaskan version of surf and turf: grilled medallions of caribou and spotted prawns, served alongside couscous with dates and almonds. A spinach salad with maple vinaigrette and a fine 1995 Silver Oak Cabernet complete the meal.

The rest of the menu also highlights regional ingredients--Dungeness crab, halibut and oysters. But the young chefs add a dose of creativity: they serve elegant arctic ox Wellington in a puff pastry shell and adorn baked coho salmon with a red-onion marmalade.

Although many guests have come to fish, by law the restaurant can use only fish and game that are commercially caught or raised. And despite the superb climate, very little produce is grown here. The glacier began retreating only 250 years ago, so there isn't enough topsoil for farming; most of the produce is flown from Juneau, the state capital.

One food that does grow under these conditions is mushrooms, I discover the following day after moving to Glacier Bay Country Inn. On the other side of Gustavus, just fifteen miles from the Bear Track Inn (the entire village can be traversed in one bumpy 45-minute drive), the Country Inn has a half-dozen small, quaint rooms tucked into its main building and a handful of cabins plunked down across the manicured lawn. The cabins are private, with pretty porches, but mine is a bit cluttered: it has a queen-size bed, bunk beds and a crib, all in one room. Rag rugs are scattered on the wooden floor, and the mix-and-match decor includes cozy flannel sheets.

Just after I arrive, the Country Inn's executive chef, Jon Emanuel, invites me to hunt with him for mushrooms for that night's dinner. After a 10-minute walk we pad into the deep forest. Spanish moss drapes across the trees and cushions the ground. I bounce along so close behind Emanuel I'm nearly stepping on his heels. (Bears!)

Emanuel left San Francisco, where he lived and worked as an audio engineer, only five years ago. I'm skeptical about how much this novice and city slicker can know about wild mushrooms. But he scrutinizes the carpet of moss expertly, prodding at decaying logs, oblivious to anything knee-high or above. He teaches me how to search the ground for hedgehogs--pale butterscotch-color mushrooms with white, spiny underbellies--and the delicious, flaming-orange chicken-of-the-woods. Emanuel also points out varieties that are equally beautiful, but deadly to eat. He collects a particularly pretty one to show innkeeper Sandi Marchbanks: a two-tone, fluted mushroom that has a distinctive, cinnamon-like aroma.

We return by mid-afternoon so Emanuel can prepare dinner, and I'm practically salivating over those mushrooms (not the poisonous ones, of course). I opt for the broiled breast of duck with Mongolian-style glaze and a buttery sauté of the fleshy chicken-of-the-woods. The broiled fillet of coho salmon, marinated in Alaskan Amber Ale and served over creamy hedgehog polenta, sounds appealing, but I refuse to dine on salmon if I can't catch one. Dessert is a cinnamon crème brûlée with fresh blueberries.

The next morning the sun, which has stayed hidden for days, is creating faint shadows. I hurry to the boat with Rich Culver, the inn's fly-fishing guide, and several other guests. We shoot across Icy Strait to Chichagof Island. The sky and sea blend into a delicate, silvery gray sameness. A pod of humpback whales surfaces from the shimmery sea; a puffin skims by.

At an isolated spot on the island, we trudge through grasses so high they tickle our eyebrows. We finally halt in a valley surrounded by mountains of evergreens, footed with alder and willow, and splashed with snow. Bald eagles swoop down; a drab little bird pops up curiously at our feet.

Within seconds Culver is set up to fish, whipping the line evenly back and forth, back and forth. At the final thrust, he snaps it with such force the damp lure leaves a puff of vapor suspended behind it. It lands on the water with barely a wrinkle.

The salmon are here to spawn and seem to nip at the lures more out of irritation and habit than out of hunger. I'm hardly conscious of the gentle tug on my line. Fighting what surely must be a monster, I lose him just yards away.

Hours pass and everyone but me has caught a fish, but I refuse to leave without landing one. Finally I do: a modest salmon with olive-hued skin and purple iridescence that more than suffices for photos. A guide takes my gear and is shocked to see that the fly I had selected has no barbs; in fact, the tip is broken off. With that defective hook, the consensus is, it's amazing that I've landed anything at all.

After I take a few snapshots, I mimic the method of release Kris Utz had shown me. Dropping to one knee, he had coaxed a fish into the current, encouraging it to flee. I do the same. Stunned and gasping for a few moments, the fish I had yearned for, fought for, suddenly bursts to life and bolts away.

Betsy Crowfoot is an offshore sailor who writes about yacht racing for ESPN, www.quokka.com and various magazines.

Published June 2000
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