Another Fishing Trip…

A typical Alaskan lake (Photo by Don Biggar)

    My recent blogs about our July pike-fishing trip in Canada reminded me of another fishing trip, when my late husband, Bob Biggar, introduced me to Alaska during our honeymoon summer of 1962. Since he had already worked in Alaska for a number of years, he hoped to convince me that the state would be a good place to make our home. I was convinced enough to live there for seventeen years, while we raised two little Alaskans.

    That summer Bob was a project engineer on a road-construction job near Fairbanks, where giant Euclid scrapers hauled mine tailings as fill material for the new roadbed. One day one of the scrapers’ huge tires went flat. Bob asked if he could have the worn-out inner tube. He patched the holes and blew it up. As I remember, that tube was about seven feet across—large enough for a whole group of people to play on.

    Bob’s friend, Andy Hall, owned his own pontoon plane. He offered, in exchange for the inner tube, to take us on a spur- of-the-moment wilderness fishing trip. I was so excited that I completely forgot the next day’s luncheon invitation to the home of Virginia Leih, one of my new friends. I scurried around frying chicken and collecting camping equipment. When Bob came home early that Wednesday afternoon, we headed for the float pond at the International Airport.

    The plane had dual controls, and since Bob was licensed to fly float planes, Andy let him do most of the flying. Bob was thrilled, and so was I. I’d never flown in a plane like that before. We headed south, following the Alaska Highway. Then we crossed the Tanana and Little Delta rivers that braided and twisted across the tundra. They ran silty with glacial flour—rock that glaciers had ground to powder. All across the valley we saw zigzagging lines of trees and brush marking where rivers once flowed. Beneath the dark clouds and rain squalls to our right we glimpsed the shining peaks of the Alaskan Range. There were no signs of civilization below us…we were deep into the wilderness.

    My watch read six o’clock when Andy pointed ahead. “That’s Groffin’s Lake.” Bob brought our bird in for a landing. Spray flew past the windows as we coasted to the foot of a promontory topped with tall spruce and birch. Andy tied the plane to a tree. We stepped off the pontoon onto shore and hauled our equipment up the hill.

    In a clearing stood a sturdy sod-roofed log cabin. Traps hung on an outside wall. Door and windows were boarded shut, with dozens of sharp-pointed nails meant to discourage marauding bears protruding from the boards. We erected our tents on a carpet of moss deep enough to nearly hide the wild cranberry plants that grew up through it. The moss appeared to be studded with garnet-colored jewels.

    I set out cold fried chicken and potato salad for our dinner and while we ate, Andy entertained us with bear stories. Afterward, he offered to show me how to fish. I followed him to the shore. He cast out a line and handed me the pole. Immediately I felt a tug and the line snapped straight. Seconds later a big pike lay flopping on the moss.

    A few minutes later I caught another one. Although Bob had said he didn’t care for fishing, he suddenly wanted a turn. For a guy who didn’t like to fish, he seemed to enjoy himself hugely. Andy went to bed. While Bob fished, I built a campfire. Then we lay on the hill beside the fire, watching the moon rise before we too called it a day.

    I was too excited to sleep, and the blanket wouldn’t stay put. Although it was mid-August, autumn already had come to Alaska and the night was chilly. It didn’t help that Andy had pointed out grizzly-bear scat not far from where we pitched the tents, nor could I forget his dinnertime bear tales.

    Through the mosquito netting I watched the moon travel across the sky. Loons filled the night with their weird, lonely cries. By 3:00 a.m. the sky lightened. Bob got up to brew coffee. He brought me a cupful with a couple of cookies. Then I, too, got up. We walked to the brow of the hill to watch a pair of moose feeding off shore. They’d plunge their spreading antlers below the surface for long minutes, then raise their heads to munch mouthfuls of water lilies while water poured off the shovel-like blades. A flock of wild geese flew south, honking, and the loons still called.

    We’d kept our fish fresh in the lake overnight, but the back half of one was gone. Andy told us another pike had probably eaten it. While Bob cleaned the others, I practiced casting but got no bites. Then the line seemed to catch on the bottom. I jerked and jerked. Finally it came free, dragging a big hunk of water plant which seemed strangely resistant. When I finally reeled it in, another big pike was on the line. Not by its mouth, but hooked through its back. Andy said they sometimes strike at the bait and miss, bumping the hook on the way past. So we had one more fish to put in the cooler.

    By 5:00 a.m., we’d struck camp and were skimming over the tundra, where we counted seven or eight moose within a short distance of each other. We flew closer to the mountains this time, through rain squalls and bumpy weather. We flew over a radar site which Bob had helped to build, then turned toward Fairbanks. We landed on the float pond at 6:30, ate breakfast at a pancake house, and then the men went off to work. I went home to take care of our fish and get ready for our temporary return to Washington.

    The day got so busy and I was so tired from the sleepless night I forgot all about the luncheon I was supposed to attend. Only later did I find out there’d been a surprise in store—I was to have been the guest of honor. Virginia, the gracious and forgiving hostess, continued as a cherished friend when we returned to Alaska the next spring.

Mother moose (with head underwater) teaching her babies to browse a stream bottom.
(Photo by Don Biggar)

Bugs, Birds, and Lac la Biche

A midge resting on my knee
Dead midges border the shores of Lac la Biche

   Even way up north at Lac la Biche, where we were camping with our Canadian cousins, there are fishing restrictions. The northern pike have to be at least 30 inches long, and each licensed fisherman could take only one home, although we could catch and eat some as well during our stay. On his first trip out, Hank was thrilled to catch a 36-inch pike, as I mentioned in the last post.

    That day, there’d been a hatch of billions of midges–half-inch soft-bodied insects that cruise through the air hunchbacked with tails tucked up in front of them. At first, Hank was horrified to find himself surrounded. He didn’t know this kind didn’t bite. They were as thick over the water as brown smoke. The fishermen had to keep their mouths shut to keep from swallowing them.

    I learned from Wikipedia that there are several kinds of midges, from the small no-see-ums with outsized bites to large crane flies whose larvae feed on grass roots in lawns. You can tell midges from mosquitoes by their habit of resting flat on a surface rather than standing up on the tips of their legs. Their legs are so brittle that they break off easily.

    The females of the midges we saw lay egg masses over open water or attach the eggs to vegetation. The larvae drop to the bottom, where they scavenge on organic debris. Some overwinter in the larval stage. Then they pupate for about 48 hours before they emerge from the pupal skin and rise to the water’s surface. The adults do not eat. Their life span is only five to ten days. However, midges in populated areas can cause havoc just by their sheer numbers. They swarm around lights and on screen doors. They stain outside surfaces of buildings and find their way into houses.

    But they are also an important item of food for many freshwater fish and other aquatic animals. As we saw firsthand, they provide a banquet for the birds that live around Lac la Biche as well.

     By the time I went out in the boat next morning, the life cycle was over for many of them. They were falling into the lake where they floated, matted together with other dead midges. They washed up in thick windrows along the shore.

Franklin’s gulls feeding above the Owl River

  In the evening Cousin Allen Shaw took his nineteen-year-old daughter Katrina, her boyfriend Aaron, and me down the river to the lake to try for sunset photographs. We were almost too late, though pinks and mauves lingered in the water. Alan turned off the engine and told us to listen. We heard a high-pitched humming from the direction of the cattail marshes along the river–the love-songs of billions of midges. Clouds of birds whirled above the cattails.

    Then small, black-headed Franklin’s gulls began to swoop near the surface where we rocked in our boat. Soon we were in the middle of a veritable ballet…hundreds of birds diving and looping through the quiet air, so intent on their feeding they were almost completely silent.  The dance of the gulls followed us all the way up the river to camp, even though the light had nearly gone. By the next morning, few of the midges remained. Those who’d escaped the birds had mated and laid eggs for the next generation. Now they’d die and sink to the bottom of the lake and the river to provide nutrition for other creatures.

    Those billions of insects that to some seem annoying and useless sustained not only the birds and
the lake creatures, but also helped sustain us humans
who ate the pike who fed on the lake creatures. What a good example of God’s abundant provision!

           Top of the food chain: Cousin Vicki with northern pike