An Outdoor View: Wildness

Every so often, I hear the claim that the government owns too much land in Alaska.

I disagree. To me, Alaska’s main attraction — and why I’ve lived here 50 years — is the vast, accessible wilderness. Most of Alaska is owned by one form of government or another, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The other way is private ownership.

The ultimate lock-up, privately owned land seldom is accessible to the public, and rarely is left in a wild state. Only a relatively few wealthy and privileged people can use it.

On the other hand, when land is publicly owned, everyone can use it. With a few rules and a caring steward to look after it, everyone can use it forever.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed fishing in many parts of Alaska. Some of these places were remote, some were not. Without exception, the land at the best of them was publicly owned.

In the late 1960s, while living in Fairbanks, I spent many enjoyable days fishing in, kayaking down and camping along the Chena, Chatanika and Gulkana rivers, all of which flow through wilderness lands. One especially memorable float trip was down the Nuyakuk River, a clear stream that begins at Tikchik Lake, north of Dillingham, and ends 36 miles downstream at the much larger Nushagak River. The upper 12 miles of the Nuyakuk are in Wood-Tikchik State Park, the nation’s largest and most remote state park.

Alone but for the plentiful wildlife, I paddled down that wild river. The fishing was almost too easy. It was a rare cast that didn’t attract an Arctic grayling or a rainbow trout. They seemed hungry, and would chase anything I threw at them.

For five days, the only sign of a human I saw was a long-abandoned trapper’s cabin and a single contrail, the aircraft beyond earshot, miles high in the azure sky. At night I slept on the ground in a two-man tent. It was early July, so salmon weren’t spawning yet. I hadn’t seen any sign of bears, so I felt reasonably safe sleeping near the river. The .44 Magnum pistol beside my sleeping bag helped.

Late on my third day on the river, the sun had finally gone behind the trees. Two steps from where I’d pitched my tent, I stood on the bank of a small bay beside the river, listening to the winnowing who who who who who of a snipe looking for a date, when I noticed the V-wake of a fish on the bay’s surface. A big fish chasing smaller ones, I figured. Picking up my ultra-light spinning outfit, I guessed where the fish might be and cast a tiny Mepps spinner in that direction. The lure had no sooner hit the water when a fish shot from of its hiding place and grabbed it. The predator was a Dolly Varden the size of a small salmon.

I’d heard that northern pike were in the Nuyakuk, so the next morning, I tried to catch one. On my first cast, something glommed onto my 3-inch-long Daredevle spoon. “Ah, there’s Mr. Pike,” I thought. My “pike” turned out to be a grayling, but that didn’t surprise me as much as what was to come. As I pulled the 12-inch grayling to the surface, a trout that was more than twice its size rose from the depths and took the smaller fish in its mouth. After a bit of shark-like thrashing, the trout let go and swam away.

It just wasn’t that grayling’s day. I ate it for breakfast.

Next week: More about Alaska’s wild lands.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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