JULY IN SOUTHERN ALASKA MEANS about 20 hours of light a day. Half of those hours are overcast, with the light coming down so diffusely that it's impossible to gauge the time; 8 a.m. could just as well be 4 p.m. In a while, you fall into the odd chronological disjointedness that one experiences after a few days in a casino: time doesn't seem to be passing at all, and then, wham, it's gone.
Each day, some of us fish, while others hike. Occasionally a few go down to the beach by the river's mouth for a fruitless attempt at surf casting, or take a boat to a nearby headland to hunt for fossils. Mostly I hike: across the ridgeline behind the camp, around a nearby hill, over the tidal flats, and up the river. The high country is best. Above 500 feet the willow and alder shrubs give way to open, springy tundra, a joy to bound across. In the high country we see moose, caribou, and even, fleetingly, a solitary lynx.
J.W. had booked Sam to fly us around the neighborhood in his helicopter on the second-to-last day. We were all hoping to take a joyride over the volcano's steaming caldera, but the weather is too foul when the day comes. Instead we ferry over to Yantarni, the next bay south, where we beachcomb for shells and try to imagine the spectacular vistas that J.W. assures us lie just beyond the cloud cover. To warm and amuse ourselves, we build a bonfire. Driftwood is plentiful but soggy, so we stack it around the little flame to dry it out, and then stack more, and more, and eventually the whole pile goes up in a conflagration hot enough to smelt tin. We stand back and stare at the flames.
After a week without TV or radio, one becomes accustomed to such quiet pleasures. By now we've figured out how to fill the idle hours by talking, reading, or just gazing off at the mountains. We've gotten in the habit of retiring after dinner to the ringtoss court that J.W. and the guides have laid out behind the wash tent. George Jr., to his surprise, displays astonishing aptitude.
Another source of entertainment is drinking. Scotch, it turns out, not only has a warming effect but also makes it possible to experience the drizzle with a kind of philosophical detachment. Beer also works. One evening, I take a couple of cans and head down to the mudflats with two of the guides, Tim and Nathan. We light a fire, drink, and set off seal bombs—nifty explosives that look like giant firecrackers. They flash when you throw them into the sea and send up a column of water with a muffled whump. "J.W. doesn't like us doing this," Tim says, as if his boss might somehow fail to notice the sound of the explosions echoing off the distant cliffs. Pretty soon we run out of bombs; then we run out of beer. It's time for bed.
The best thing about near-constant rain is that it eventually stops. If you are particularly lucky, this will happen on the last day of your visit.
Wanting our trip to end on a dramatic note, J.W. has Sam fly us north about 20 minutes to Agripina Bay. Over the craggy ridge we soar, gliding above a snow-patched tundra crisscrossed with caribou tracks; then we swoop down over a coast of rock buttresses standing by the electric-blue sea like ruined Irish fortresses. Everything is bathed in luxuriant sunlight, the lush valleys oozing with green, the bare rock mountains sparkling like jewels. Sunshine is nature's Prozac.
The serious fishermen are set down to work over a pool full of char on one end of the valley. The cousins and I alight at the other end to hike to a different pool. The way is easy, through a broad valley of knee-high grass and over a rocky saddle ridge. As we begin our descent, Nathan signals for us to stop, and we all crouch in the bushes: a hundred yards ahead, a young bull moose is foraging by the edge of the water. For half an hour we watch him chewing, strolling, chewing some more. Slowly we move forward, in single file, to make ourselves appear more mooselike, at least to a shortsighted ruminant. We're within 50 yards when the penny drops. The moose lopes away, and we wander down to the pool.
It's a marvel: here, in a hollow shielded on three sides by a curving hillside, an eight-inch-deep river abruptly bellies into a crystalline pool 20 or 30 feet deep. Dark shapes glide back and forth in the shadows like World War II torpedoes. There are thousands of fish in there, big char and chum salmon.
As I cast my fly in the water it starts to rain—a sprinkle at first, then hard. Courtenay, who has no interest in fishing, sits on the sandy bank in her yellow rain suit.
I wade deeper into the water and throw my streamer farther out. White against dark, it settles amid the reflections of the hills and sky. A shape materializes beyond it, gliding closer, a gray strip, almost touching, almost biting, then veering suddenly away and disappearing. Again and again I cast, summoning these ghostly shapes, but never set a hook.
Rain drips from the brim of my hat; my gloves are soaked. Even through the heavy rubber of my waders, the water is bitingly cold. Some people—probably most people—would never want to come to a place like this. It's too inaccessible, too harsh, too frank.
But for some, for the old school, this soggy, bug-infested wilderness is really a paradise, a place free and absolutely pure, a place untainted. It has what it has, and in abundance, but nothing else. That's perfection.
A char zooms in on my fly, follows it, then zooms away. Mumbling under my breath, I glance over at the bank. Courtenay is slumped on the shore in her rain suit, head propped on a backpack. An unsteady, rumbling noise emerges from beneath her hood. I listen and hear it again: a deep snort, followed by the faintest whistling sigh. In the chilly subarctic drizzle, Courtenay has fallen asleep. Asleep on the sand, in an Alaskan beach paradise.
J. W. Smith's Alaska wilderness safari costs $3,995, plus $300 for air charter from King Salmon. Reservations can be made through Rod & Gun Resources (206 Ranch House Rd., Kerrville, Tex.; 800/211-4753 or 830/792-6800, fax 830/792-6807; www.rodgunresources.com).
In August, when these trips are run, the Alaska Peninsula is generally wet, with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. There are intermittent periods of sunshine that occasionally lift readings into the seventies. Rod & Gun shelters are snug and dry, but unheated. Warm, moisture-resistant clothing—polyester fleece beneath a waterproof, breathable shell—is recommended. Rubber boots and a sturdy rain suit are a must.
Alaska Airlines runs nonstop air service several times a day into King Salmon from Anchorage. Reservations can be extremely hard to get in summer, so book as early as possible.