Kings Rule In the Land of the Midnight Sun
By John Cleveland
Planning a wilderness adventure with a good friend is always exciting as you anticipate the alchemy of unknown challenges, and the vagaries of luck that become the fabric of an adventure. This past spring, my good friend Adam Gore and I decided we were ready for the challenge of chasing Chinook salmon—considered by many people to be the ultimate freshwater big-game fish in Alaska. The Chinook, also known as king salmon, migrate into their natal rivers in late May, June, and early July in southcentral Alaska. This would be Adam’s first trip to Alaska, and I was confident this would be the perfect full-immersion experience for a Michigander in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
Both Adam and I had safety concerns about the uncertainties of traveling and joining strangers at a lodge during the pandemic unfolding around the world. We decided it would be prudent to search out a small, remote lodge where we could relax and feel safe by limiting our exposure. I told Adam I had met an interesting couple named Steve and Nadine Burak at the Pacific Northwest Sportsmen’s Show in Portland a couple years ago. They own Bent Prop Lodge on Shulin Lake in southcentral Alaska and had enthusiastically told me about their fly-in operation just a short flight north of Anchorage. They explained how their unique operation offered an unpretentious, authentic, wilderness Alaskan experience with both local fishing and fly-out options available. Steve informed me that he was chief cook and bottle washer for the lodge, as well as head pilot and guide. It sounded intriguing. I gave Steve a call in March and booked what promised to be an epic king salmon adventure in late June.
There is a special sense of adventure as you step into a floatplane that is not unlike what it must feel like to be beamed up to another galaxy on an episode of Star Trek; it never gets old and you never really know for sure what it will be like at your destination. As Steve taxied his classic 1956 De Havilland Beaver up to the floatplane dock in Anchorage, the throaty rumble of the Beaver’s dependable radial engine was calling us like a dog whistle, and we were ready to get beamed up! One of the things I noticed immediately about the plane was the pristine condition of this 64-year-old bush bird. It looked like it had just rolled off the De Havilland factory assembly line yesterday. It was a beautiful machine.
When we arrived at the lodge, we were greeted by Steve’s wife, Nadine, and their friends from Idaho, Carl Pottala and his wife Maggie. Carl and Maggie are avid outdoors enthusiasts, and they were here to catch king salmon, relax and recharge before heading back to their busy work schedules and kids back home in Idaho.
The lodge is a beautiful example of resourceful Alaskan-bush engineering; superior craftsmanship with a few sprinkles of Peter Pan-inspired imagination. The camp was personally designed and built by Steve. His entrepreneurial spirit and wanderlust are evident in just about all aspects of the operation. The main lodge is perched on a small berm overlooking Shulin Lake and is constructed of massive spruce logs with a cathedral ceiling that is framed at its peak with wall-to-wall plate-glass windows that spill natural light into the lodge’s common room. Unique touches of design were evident everywhere in the lodge: custom-fabricated door hinges, light switches, and a wood-burning stove with a custom-fabricated hatch with the name of the lodge on it. Every piece of decor had a story and Steve’s storytelling throughout the week made each detail an interesting chapter as he entertained us with how he managed to create such a beautiful lodge in the Alaskan bush.
Our cabin was located a short stroll from the lodge down a wood-slatted walkway. The structure is an impressive two-story log cabin with large decks on the first and second levels. It sits nestled in a copse of tall spruce trees with separate quarters for guests on the first and second floors. The second-story room has a custom-built, wrought-iron spiral staircase leading to an open porch with an expansive view of the lake. The rooms are well appointed in beautifully handcrafted log furniture, and bush-smart practicality, including a table and a couple of convenient benches with lots of hooks and pegs for clothing, waders and gear that were kept ready for deployment each morning as we suited up for action on the river.
It did not take us long to get our gear stowed in the cabin before heading over to the lodge for a lunch and a brief orientation to the fishing program for the week. Steve told us we would begin by targeting king salmon on local waters at a run he referred to as the king hole. There is excellent king salmon fishing on an unnamed tributary of the Kahiltna River just a few miles from the lodge. We would travel to the local honey hole by climbing aboard a Suzuki four-track that resembled a small tank, and venture out on a labyrinth of soggy trails surrounded by thick forests of tall spruce and birch trees that created a dense, shaded overhead canopy. The trail then transitioned to an open prairie of floating tundra that shook like Jell-O as we rumbled across it. As we entered the tundra there was a stunning, panoramic view of the Alaska Range dominated by the massive presence of Denali, which on most days was partially obscured by a stratus of white clouds hugging the mountain’s shoulders and masking the full magnitude of its 20,310-foot peak.
Steve parked the Suzuki on a berm overlooking the river. We then continued on foot for a hundred yards or so, crossing the river to access the best beats. A convenient safety rope had been set up across the river to assist in crossing a wide stretch of knee-deep water flowing over a rocky, cobble bottom. The sound of the water chattering over exposed rocks added to the sense of exhilaration as we approached the main channel where we would begin fishing for the salmon holding in loose formation. They were positioned like a regiment of soldiers ready for battle in the swirling currents of the run.
The king hole was a 100-yard bend in the river with a defined channel that contained multiple pools and submerged boulders that provided holding areas for migrating salmon. The beats we fished were just upstream from the river’s confluence with the glacially swollen rapids of the Kahiltna River. The far side of the run was dominated by a steep sandstone bluff that was home to dozens of swallows that were darting through the air and picking off unsuspecting caddis flies as they hatched from the river.
I had made a half dozen 60-foot casts quartering across the river with my 9-weight fly rod, swinging a pink and white Dolly Llama through the run without effect, when suddenly it happened. The exhilaration felt like a lightning strike as an authoritative bump stopped my fly in mid-swing. I made an assertive strip-set and water spray rooster-tailed across the surface of the run as my line came tight, pinning the big king to my fly. Moments later three feet of silver-blushed salmon exploded into the sky and executed an exit plan that was initiated by sprinting 100 yards downstream while ripping backing from my reel in an attempt to escape in the wild, glacially swollen rapids of the Kahiltna.
As I brought my first king salmon to hand, I was struck by the beautiful matrix of dots on its back and the muscular, maroon-hued flanks. It was absolutely humbling to experience the raw power it had unleashed as I frantically fought to direct its path to the river’s edge and tailed it. The explosive runs towards the big river and almost certain freedom from my hook spoke highly of the powerful survival instincts that are imprinted in a Chinook salmon’s DNA. As I let the fish rest in my cupped hands, I could feel the powerful muscles in its flanks tense just before it bolted to the safety of the river’s swift current. My first Chinook had lived up to its mighty reputation as the king of Alaskan salmon.
Shortly after landing that fish, I heard Adam let out a whoop and saw his rod bent with the power of a big king instinctually busting its way toward the freedom of the tumbling, glacially silted rapids of the Kahiltna just as my first fish had. Adam is a dedicated gear fisherman and would be testing his best heavy-duty spinning tackle all week. He used Dardevle Klicker spoons, and a variety of dark-colored Dolly Llama flies to great effect. Adam, a steelhead junkie from Michigan, is practiced in how to use floats and roe to catch steelhead. He quickly adapted to Alaska’s king salmon by using this technique, substituting a fly for a spawn bag, resulting in an incredibly effective rigging for him that he used with great success for the rest of the week. A float with a Dolly Llama suspended approximately four feet below enabled him to keep the fly right in the strike zone for the entire drift and consistently produced solid hook ups for him all week. Swinging his ¾-ounce Dardevle Klicker spoons across the river then slowly retrieving the spoon upstream through a run also triggered some very aggressive takes.
Carl and Maggie had not flyfished before this trip, but with Steve’s instruction they were quick studies of the sport and began hooking kings with their fly rods almost immediately. It was fun to watch them gain confidence in their new skills throughout the day as they landed a half dozen nice kings on this secluded stretch of heaven. I knew as I watched them slip into the magic and wonder of the fly life that they would soon be addicted to the sport. Throughout the day we had all been impressed and humbled by the wild spirit and raw power that these magnificent fish possess. By late afternoon everyone was exhausted and ready for a break from the frenetic action on the river and we headed back to the lodge to hang out on the deck. Life was good after a long day of play on the river. It became our daily routine to spend a little quality time each afternoon munching on appetizers, and sipping draft beer from the keg located on the deck, while enthusiastically embellishing the day’s events with a little creative story telling.
Early the next morning as I opened the door and entered the main lodge, I was greeted by the amber glow and comforting push of warm air radiating from the embers of the burning logs in the iron stove a few paces from the front door. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon that filled the air in the cabin felt almost sensual to an old bush bum like me. After filling a large, ceramic mug with hot coffee, I stepped outside and took a moment to stand on the veranda and take a good stretch in the rays of the morning sun as I anticipated another day of adventure in Alaska’s remote bush country.
Our second day fishing the king hole was just as awesome as the first with laughter and whoops filling the air as we kept Steve running up and down the river tailing kings throughout the day. We had all gained confidence in our abilities after the success of our first day, and it showed in the number of fish we successfully landed. I had been told by knowledgeable friends prior to arriving in Alaska to keep my expectations prudent as the king fishery has been in a serious decline for several years in some regions of Alaska. When I consulted one of my savvy Alaskan friends about how many king salmon we should expect to catch in a day, he told me that on many river systems a good day might result in only landing a couple of kings. To our delight, each of us were hooking 12 to 15 fish a day and landing about half that with the majority averaging right around 36 inches.
After a couple of days, it had become evident that Steve was not only a good head bottle washer but possessed excellent culinary skills that made for some very tasty meals. Steve’s barbecued ribs and seasoned T-bone steaks served with homemade potato salad were outstanding. He prepared every scrumptious meal from scratch using delicious recipes developed especially for his friends and visiting guests, including delicious homemade desserts served every night.
The next day the river was on fire! We were getting aggressive strikes from fresh, silver-flanked arrivals to the river, as well as the beautifully blushed fish that had been holding in the creek for a few days on their epic journey to their spawning redds. At one point four of us had fish on at the same time. We had monofilament and fly lines spiderwebbed all over the river as these fish bolted in random directions in their attempts to escape. Steve was scrambling up and down the river with a big smile on his face, tailing slippery beasts knowing he had been the ringleader in setting up such a successful day. Adam had the big-fish day with 40- and 43-inch kings caught with his float and Dolly Llama set up. Nadine had made a fire on shore when we arrived to break the chill and give us a warm base to rest up between landing fish. At noon Nadine had put the “Can Cooker” (a really cool pressure cooker designed for outdoor cooking) into operation, producing hot, smoked sausages and sauerkraut which I complimented with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and I quenched my thirst with a cold Coke. I felt like I was eating from the top of the food pyramid as I stood on the river’s edge munching on this delicious food. It is hard to beat the primal feeling of being totally grounded with the wilderness, while sitting around a fire on the banks of a remote river, the ethereal smell and warmth of burning driftwood warming your soul. I couldn’t help but be appreciative of how the river had given each of us a small piece of its character and innate serenity as we immersed ourselves in its braids and shared in the camaraderie of a special day with friends.
We had all expressed a desire to spend a day catching grayling as part of the week’s fishing program. Steve had told us earlier in the week about a lake located in a high-mountain pass that, according to a friend, held large grayling. He suggested the clear weather forecast for the following day would make it an ideal day to try for grayling. The passage to the lake was a spectacular journey. The plane seemed to float in the sky offering a slow-motion, cinematic view of the mountainous landscape passing several thousand feet below. Lush stands of boreal forest and rugged slopes sporting white patches of snow passed below as we climbed from the modest elevations of the lodge to the mountain heights surrounding the shoulders of Denali.
It was not just the altitude that took my breath away, but the shimmering beauty of the lake below as it sparkled like a diamond set in the glacial-cut stone high above the tree line of the Alaska range. We began by fishing the outlet of the lake and then tried the inlet to the lake without success. We could not find the grayling anywhere, but as it turned out what we found was possibly more powerful. After the initial feeling of disappointment, everyone relaxed and began to take in the truly inspiring beauty of the lake surrounded by slopes covered in loose, rocky scree with white patches of snow that added to the chill in the thin mountain air. The smell of lichen, mosses, willow, and the view created an intoxicating elixir and made it impossible to do anything but relax and simply be in the moment.
Carl and I had waded out over 100 yards into the shallow lake as we were drawn by the mysterious dimpling of the water’s surface by pods of what turned out to be whitefish. There was an emerging caddis fly hatch and dozens of whitefish were dimpling the surface while enjoying the bug buffet. We spent an hour temping them with size 18 bead-head nymphs, only managing to land a couple fish. Regardless of our catch rate, it had been a magical time as we followed the feeding schools of whitefish as they moved about the lake with us in tow. We gave up our quest when Steve called us back to shore for lunch. It is hard to accurately describe just how good food tastes while surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the high-mountain lake and enjoying the camaraderie of good company. Adam and I took a break on a large, flat rock as we enjoyed shore lunch and the magic of the moment while soaking up the heat from the solar-heated rock we were perched on like a couple of lizards. The unspoiled beauty and splendid isolation of this high-mountain lake was reward enough, even though its pristine waters did not yield any grayling for us. Steve went back later in the summer and found the motherlode of grayling further downstream in the outlet and landed specimens to 18 inches.
Every adventure in Alaska has at least one “Oh my God” moment, and ours came on the morning of the final day while traveling to the king hole. As the four-track came out of the woods into the open tundra, there was a collective gasp as our eyes were drawn to the northern horizon. We were treated to the sight of the naked shoulders of Denali bathed in the buttery, angular light of the Arctic sky, its massive body rising like a church steeple into the heavens. I could not help but feel like we had entered the domain of nature’s version of High Church.
The conditions at the king hole were perfect with bluebird skies and the level of the river had dropped a few inches overnight. This concentrated the salmon in a few strategic holes, making it easier to target them. It became evident early in the day that Carl and Maggie had become salmon magnets! They put everything they had learned during the week into play and managed to land a grand total of 20 beautiful king salmon between them by late afternoon. Adam and I kept in the game with a respectable dozen fish brought to hand. It had become the kind of day when all the mojo comes together, and you can do no wrong. I think it’s fair to say that everyone’s expectations had been exceeded this week with the quantity and the magnificent character of these great fish. There were pure expressions of joy and fulfilment on everyone’s face as we hiked up the berm to board the Suzuki for the ride back to the lodge.
It is always a special treat when you have the opportunity to spend time with gracious hosts such as Steve and Nadine. We were lucky enough to have enjoyed a week in their special retreat in the Land of the Midnight Sun, experiencing the essence of what makes a wilderness fishing adventure truly memorable. We landed dozens of trophy-class king salmon, enjoyed the camaraderie of new friends, and spent time becoming part of the cathartic simplicity and innate humility of a place that is much larger than the busy, urban lives we live in the Lower 48.
Steve Burak – Owner
John Cleveland is the Marketing Director for Dardevle spoons in Michigan, and a freelance outdoor writer for several publications. When not working or fishing he stays in shape for his next adventure by competing in triathlons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared as Kings Rule In the Land of the Midnight Sun in the January 2021 issue of Fish Alaska.