"So this is Alaska." I thought, slapping my forehead, sending another mosquito into oblivion. As I had got off the aircraft in Anchorage the word must have gone out through the bush telegraph. "Maxie's here! The blood bank's open. Come and have an armful".
It's June 2004/ I'd come to the U.S.of A's largest state, at the invitation of my nephew Peter.
My sister Pat, and Peters' younger brother David, were coming up from Texas and so why not make a 'family do' of it? So there I was.
Peter and his family live in Eagle River, just north of Anchorage. He works on the Air Force Base, Verena his wife, for the Armed Forces Commissariat, eldest son Matthew was in the Marines as a Corpman, while youngest son Joshua was still at school.
The family live in a large, by English standards, timber framed three bedroom, detached house with a double garage, a back yard with a shed the size of a small English semi and the obligatory front lawn. A lawn that grows like crazy in 22 hours of summer sunshine a day. In fact my sleep rhythms are shot to pieces. How can you sleep when your eyes are telling you. "It's broad daylight. How can you think of sleep at a time like this?" Then your body is telling you "I'm knackered. Seriously knackered. Lie down at least. It's 2am!" I'm told that a power nap is important. What's a power nap? Right now I'd settle for a common or garden doze!
It's Saturday. Pat and I have had 10 years worth of reminiscing done. I've bought my fishing license at the local Walmart and a King Salmon Stamp, to allow me to catch those royal fish and we're off.
All around me, I can see what looks like inverted, wide cones of ice cream, whose sides have been covered in a dark chocolate sauce. They are the snow-covered mountains that stretch inland from the coastal plain we are travelling along. I'm in what I first thought was a bus, but is a medium sized sports utility vehicle. We've driven down a six-lane highway, turned off the main road and it starts to get lumpy and bumpy on a graded gravel track. One thing I do notice: All the traffic signs have various sized bullet holes in them! People must either get bored with the long trips or the frustrated fishermen take their temper out on the 'Z' bends or 'Bend Ahead' indicators.
We are all travelling along a dusty, twenty foot wide track towards the Little Susitna River and some serious fishing of the King Salmon type.
"Keep a lookout for the wildlife, Uncle Max"; says Peter and I obey. After all is said and done he's been huntin', shootin' and fishin' in these parts for some years now. Never goes anywhere in the wild without his trusty ·44 Magnum hand-gun.(Just in case any stray trains need stopping!) After what seems an age, with the sighting of no more than a few specks of birds in the distance and the possible suspicion of a bear, we arrive at the landing slope on a tree-lined river some 35 to 40 feet across. This is where all the shallow draft fishing boats are launched and landed and is just along the riverbank from where we're to fish. . We unpack all the tackle and the two cold boxes; one for the catch, containing the neoprene wader suits and the other containing our lunches, cold water and fizzy drinks. We're here for the long haul.
It's 8am. Fishing can go on from 6am through to 10pm, although, for conservation reasons, you can only catch a single King salmon each a day.
On a tree, at the start of the trail we're to travel down, is a sign that says, "Bear sightings today" with yesterday's date underneath the information. Peter goes and asks about this and finds that they were upriver from where we are to fish from, so that's all right then! I think.
We set off down the track and shortly arrive at Peter's favourite spot. There's an open grill platform with steps down to the sandy shore that's just two feet wide. Everything is unpacked and my bulk is fitted into a fetching green (or is that a retching green?) neoprene outfit, complete with mucklucks, a quaint native American name for overshoes, to fit over my feet; protecting the suit from any rocks on the bed of the stream.
Although I've been coarse fishing before, this is my first time for salmon fishing and I need a few pointers, from both Peter and Verena, before I feel happy enough to enter the fast flowing glacier fed 30-foot wide stream.
Gingerly I wade into the strong current until the water, that has the shade of a Cappuccino coffee about it, reaches the tops of my thighs and, as I do, I think over the advice I've been given.
I cast my greenish-yellow florescent lure to a spot 30 foot above a point across from my position on the river, as close to the opposite bank as I can: there's a deepish channel there that the fish travel along on their trip up the water. I let the current take the brightly coloured temptation down stream until it reaches the end of its length, or I get a bite! And then strike, smartly, upstream.
Keep on doing this enough times, it is said, will bring the required result. A King Salmon, the record for which is, I believe, about 96 pounds. That's a lot of fighting fish and I'm excited by the thought of getting a big fish on the end of my 30lb braided nylon line.
A couple of hours go by. I can feel the sun on the left side of my face and know I'll be burnt there but I carry on anyway. There have been quite a few brightly coloured birds around, Blue jays and Red Starts, flitting from place to place in the woods on the high bank, across the stream from where I stand. It's a beautiful day for doing whatever one wants to do. Especially fishing. In the river the mosquitoes are behaving themselves impeccably. I'm eaten alive but don't notice it at the time. Concentration numbs the senses.
I'm getting into the rhythm now; concentrating hard. I've had a few bites and even held the fish on for a couple of adrenaline filled seconds but nothing landed as yet. Peter says I need to strike harder with the hook, as they're a hard-mouthed species.
"Look up, Uncle Max". This is from Peter who is on the bank behind me. They have all stopped fishing and the rest of the family are having a bite to eat, something to sup and a chat.
I look straight up, past my obligatory long peaked cap, thinking there's a Golden eagle, or better still a Bald eagle; but don't see anything.
"No Uncle Max. Up on the bank opposite".
My mouth becomes very, very dry.
Adrenaline says "Get out of here you fool, you can't fight this thing".
Forty foot from me, on top of the bank and looking straight at me, is a Grizzly bear.
His little piggy eyes are hidden in the depth of his eye sockets set into a wide face and a long snout.
He looks huge. No. Forget 'looks'. He is huge.
And there are no bars between him and a very frightened me
I look again, sort-off, out of the corner of my eye. Without 'bear'ing my teeth. Oh What a puny pun!
His head is hunched down between his shoulders and he's looking very intently at me.
I wonder if he's thinking, "Where do I get two pieces of bread big enough to go either side of him?"
Peter says, "He's only a young one, about three years old. We'll see what he does".
See what he does! See what he does!? I've heard about what he does. Never mind him! What the hell do I do?
I ask him, very quietly, through the corner of my mouth.
Peter answers. "Slowly, reel in your line and don't catch a fish".
I do as he says.
It wouldn't do to catch one of this bear's fish.
Nice bear! Oh What a beautiful bear.
It seems to take an age to slowly reel in forty foot of line. I don't show the lure. I don't want him to be attracted by it.
"Now what?" This is also soto voce.
"Move very slowly towards the bank, sideways", Peter advises.
To turn your back triggers the hunting instinct. To go backwards is almost as bad.
Now I know what a Ferrari must feel like, in first gear, going through very thick treacle and with low revs. It wants to go, go, go, but can't! After what feels like two hours, I reach the bank and climb out.
Verena starts taking some camera shots while the men, and one jelly, ready ourselves to depart and she gives us a running commentary as she's snapping. "Mmm. He's moving down the bank opposite. He looks a bit like Pooh. (That girl has a fixation about the small honey eating bear) He's getting ready to cross. He's actually salivating. He's crossing the river now".
As nephew Peter often says "We're out of beer and out of here!" We're packed and ready to go in record time and make a whole load of noise leaving the area.
Along the path back to the car we meet a young man; fishing tackle at the ready.
Seven of us chorus "I wouldn't go down there. There's a bear down there!"
His only reply? "I haven't seen a bear before." And off he saunters, another prime candidate for the Darwin Awards!
As we shut the car doors to set off back to civilisation I say to Peter, "Thank God you always carry your · 44 Magnum with you. At least we had a second line of defence".
His reply? "I didn't bring it. I forgot. First time I've ever done that, Uncle Max! er… Uncle Max! Someone get Uncle Max a strong drink!".
Who cares about mosquitoes?
This as I'm spilling the medicinal single malt down my throat.
Compared to bears, they're a minor nuisance.
I slap again.
There goes another one.
Only another trillion billion to go.