WE SETTLE IN AS THE LIGHT FADES. Each shelter sleeps two and is built of aluminum ribs covered in tan heavy-duty synthetic canvas, with clear plastic flaps for doors and windows. Furnishings are spare: camp cots and sleeping bags for beds, a plastic bedside table, a plastic box to stow gear. On one side of the kitchen is a mudroom where a second woodstove dries out boots and sodden clothes. On the other side stands a wash area with a sink and a shower heated by propane. Several dozen yards away is an old-fashioned outhouse. Simple as they might seem, these arrangements rate as fantastically lavish when you consider that, under park rules, every bolt and scrap has to be packed away at the end of each season.
In the morning the weather is much improved. There is still no sunshine, but the rain has stopped, the fog has melted away, and the clouds have risen to 1,000 feet. The landscape reveals itself teasingly, bit by bit. Now we can see the top of the far ridgeline, a shark-tooth precipice of wind-scoured rock daubed with remnants of last year's snowfall. To the north, the base of the Chiginagak volcano appears, the vibrant blue of the glacier standing out against the thick white snow that blankets the active caldera.
At breakfast—flapjacks, scrambled eggs, bacon—I share a table with Kristin, Courtenay, and Brinton. The cousins banter cheerfully, loudly, unabashedly. The volume subsides only when they're dishing about another guest. The elder George, it seems, was grumbling yesterday in King Salmon about the delays in Sam's flying schedule.
"I don't like complainers," Courtenay hisses.
After the meal, J.W. announces that conditions are perfect for fishing. A school of 50,000 chum and pink salmon is hanging just offshore, waiting for the moment to start upstream. It's still too early for the salmon to run, but a few impatient ones—a thousand or so—have pushed forward into a holding pool below the camp and are so irritable they lunge at anything that comes near. The chums in particular are gorgeous, up to a yard long, vibrant with color and a scrawl of dark markings like graffiti on the side of a subway train. And they fight with all the crazed obsessiveness of beasts ready to climb up waterfalls.
"For the number of fish, and the volume and clarity of the water, I would have to say that this is the best salmon fishing on earth," J.W. proclaims.
I've been fishing before with outdoorsmen of the new school—the kind dressed head-to-toe in brand-new Orvis—who compulsively measure and weigh each catch. The old school will have none of this; they quietly reel in their fish, beam as they murmur words of appreciation to the flopping trophy, then silently let it go. When it comes to fishing, style is everything, and theirs is clear: It isn't right to brag, any more than it is to complain.
I, for one, can't help going gaga over landing a 33-inch chum salmon. As it heaves about on the sand, I reach down under its head to heft its weight, too excited to notice the wicked canines arcing out from under its lips. With a thrash of its head it slices my fingertip deeply. Bright red seeps out as I hurry up the beach, muttering expletives. A guide pastes me back together with three bandages.
Once my throbbing digit is safely swaddled, I look around guiltily, wondering if anyone has heard my unmanly mewling.
THE NEXT DAY, THE DIE-HARD FISHERMEN stay by the river, while the cousins and I hike over a ridge to the north, drop into an adjoining valley, and trek along a gravel riverbed to a 40-foot waterfall.
We hike in single file. Our guide, Nathan, leads carrying a pistol-grip shotgun. Brown bears are plentiful, and no one has any illusions about how suddenly they can attack. Or how large they can be: as we trudge across the tidal flats to the ridge, we pass tracks so big, you can fit a whole boot inside.
As we wander, so does the conversation. I learn that the cousins' family has long been involved in the leadership of Outward Bound, and each of them has had extensive experience living in the wild. As we force a way through a swampy patch of brush, Brinton tells us about a survival camp he attended over one high school vacation.
"It was set up by these two eccentric brothers who'd been survival experts in the military," Brinton says. "For the last week of camp, they sent us out into the wild without any food, just a pistol with no sight. We were supposed to hunt for our meals, but all we managed to kill was a squirrel. We ate that, but split six ways it didn't go too far. Finally, by the fourth day, we said, 'What the hell, we've only got three more days before we eat—why worry about it?' "
I ask him if he was angry he'd been sent to the camp.
"No," he says. "I volunteered."
We walk along a riverbank that dead-ends at the face of a cliff. To continue toward the coast we have to ford a stream, which looks deep and is certainly fast-moving. Nathan suggests that we link arms and slowly work our way across. Courtenay snorts at this sissified notion and splashes into the stream. I follow. Soon the water is thigh-deep, the swift current tugging at our feet. I wobble with each step, trying to find a footing on the slippery gravel.
Eight feet shy of the far bank, Courtenay goes down; in an instant she's being pulled backward by the current. I grab her waistband and hoist her to her feet. She flounders to shore, drenched in near-freezing water.
Two hours later we're safe and dry, back in camp, regaling the others with our adventure. One of the guides ducks his head into the tent to call us all outside. Down below, on the sand flats we'd just walked across, a hungry-looking juvenile bear saunters around, searching for something to eat.