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As he cast his line out over the sparkling, pristine river he couldn't help notice the majestic purple, snow-capped peaks of Mt. McKinley framed by lush green Alaskan timberline. The air is crisp, the scenery a post card, and the salmon fishing -- out of this world.
It was a dream Steve Majors, from Spring Valley, woke up from more than once. An avid outdoorsman, Majors was fascinated with the notion of visiting what many outdoor enthusiasts consider paradise. His dream came to fruition this past summer as he packed his half-ton 4X4 Ford pickup on June 27 and headed north to Alaska.
"I left with no particular plans -- just to have fun," Majors said. Although exact destination points were sketchy, Majors researched the trip for nearly a year before venturing out and counted on books like the Milepost, a best-selling guide to Alaska, to give him pointers. "I highly recommend the Milepost to anyone thinking about traveling to Alaska," Majors said. "It's the Bible to the North Country."
Once on the road, Majors found that he didn't want to stop driving and logged 700-mile days. Day one took him to Williston, North Dakota. Day two to Airedrie, Alberta and day three to Fort St. Johns, British Columbia; on day four, Majors drove to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
"I was getting such a scenery rush that I didn't want to stop driving," Majors said. "I started keeping a journal of the wildlife I saw when I got on the Alaskan Highway -- black bear, elk, mountain goat, mountain sheep, moose, caribou, grizzly bear, lynx, coyotes, wolf -- I finally had to quit because there were so many."
When he did finally stop for the night, Majors alternated between motels and sleeping out of the back of his off-road pick-up -- a perfect rig, he says, for such a vacation.
On day five Majors reached Fairbanks, and decided to follow in the footsteps of earlier prospectors who waded the glassy streams panning for their fortune.
"I think I only ended up with enough gold to buy a postage stamp or two," Majors admitted, "but the experience was worth it." Another memorable excursion involved driving up a remote mountain in Hyder, Alaska to view the spectacular Salmon Glacier.
"It took nearly 25 minutes to get to the peak -- and there were no guardrails." said Majors. When his truck began pushing through thick clouds and visibility dropped to zero, he admitted becoming a little nervous. "I was on one of those kind of roads that if you went off the side, you'd probably never be seen again," he said.
Majors kept up his trek until he saw a sign that read: "Salmon Glacier, Proceed at Your Own Risk". "I really wanted to see the glacier I had heard so much about, so I kept on a little farther until I saw a sign that said 'Road Is No Longer Maintained'," he said. After helping a couple whose vehicle had become stranded on top with battery and brake problems, Majors eased his truck forward and back until he could make a safe turn and headed back down the mountain without so much as a glimpse of what he set out to see in the first place. A postcard would have to suffice.
His long trek was rewarded when he reached the base of the mountain, however. A movement a few yards away along the side of the road caught Majors’ eye. It was a large grizzly bear feeding on a kill. "I stopped and watched it for a long time," said Majors, who took several photos from a safe distance. "I was close enough to smell him or whatever it was that he was eating," he said. "By the sounds of the bones crunching, I don’t think he was eating fish."
Sightseeing aside, what Majors really drove thousands of miles to do was fish. Starting out as a youngster fishing for bullheads in the iron mine ponds south of Spring Valley and in various trout streams throughout Fillmore County, Majors’ focus this go-round was Alaska’s variety of salmon at their peak of spawning.
"Peak fishing is July 15 through the 30 when good sized runs of Sockeye and King Salmon come up the Kenai River," said Majors.
When the fishing is good, so is business for the small river towns. "Many of the small towns, like Soldotna, double in size during peak fishing season," said Majors, who fished alongside sportsman from Italy, Germany and Sweden. As fishermen lined the river’s banks casting and recasting in hopes of hooking a keeper, the fishing seemed almost synchronized, according to Majors.
"We all had the same goal -- to try to get your line inside the gulping mouth of a Sockeye Salmon," said Majors. "You can’t play out salmon like you do the fish around here. You have to horse them in and get them out of the fast current. When you get them hooked, you feel a tap and then you set the hook and your line begins to peel."
When you’ve hooked a 10 – 15 pound fish that’s pulling against you in a seven mile-per-hour current in glacial-fed water, it’s vital to keep steady footing, according to Majors. "You definitely don’t want to get swept in with your waders on," Majors said. During his trip, Majors landed more than 30 Sockeye Salmon, and admitted to losing more than twice that from snapped lines. The average size of each catch was 10 pounds.
While Majors was away from home, he kept in touch with family and friends via the Internet. He’d sign on at libraries in Soldotna, Anchorage and Homer. "Most allotted an hour of free Internet access per day," said Majors, whose Spring Valley relatives got e-mailed news of how the fish were biting at the same time as his sister who was living near Dublin, Ireland. "It’s a wonderful resource for travelers and a great way to break up the time between fishing," Majors said.
When his brother, Tim, also an avid fisherman, caught wind of the great fishing capers his younger brother was experiencing, he hopped a flight to join in the fun. The two brothers had several successful outings, landing a 44-pound King Salmon on the Kenai River in Soldotna and later, catching and releasing more than 100 Pink, Silver and Chum Salmon during six hours of fishing where the Little Willow River enters the Big Susitna. "I heard Tim say something that I never thought I’d hear – he was physically tired of fishing," Majors said.
But that wasn’t the end. The two rested up for their next big fishing trip to Homer, Alaska, -- the self-proclaimed quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem. They joined a charter in the "Halibut Capital of the World" and motored out 35 miles where they dropped anchor in about 150 feet of water. They picked up rods as stiff as pool cues rigged with 80-pound test line, a salt-water halibut hook and baited with a 14-inch frozen herring and a two-pound weight.
"Halibut are voracious bottom feeders so we were instructed to lower our rigs down slowly until our bait hit the bottom," Majors said. "When a fish hits, you feel a series of quick tugs, you set the hook and basically drag and pull, drag and pull, until you get them to the surface – it takes a tremendous amount of effort."
When the charter had their limit of "chickens" -- the name locals give to 15 – 30 pound halibut -- the captain pulled anchor and headed for kelp beds. "Our captain said, ‘we’re going after a couple of fatties’," Majors recalled. He then began mixing up a Halibut Cocktail – a burlap chum bag full of decayed salmon heads, frozen herring and octopus juice.
"It was a scene right out of Jaws," said Majors, who witnessed the smelly, oily concoction drift into the depths. It worked. Major’s rod started to jerk vigorously. "The captain knew it was a nice one," said Majors. The fire drill began. All other lines were pulled in as Majors worked, like he never has before, to land the monster on the other end of his line. The fish was so large it had to b