Day 4 – Bald Eagles and Fish Stew

Ketchican, Alaska: Let me begin today with a disclaimer; I did not want to go on a fishing boat excursion in Ketchican. I told Dan I would be happy to just sit on the balcony and relax while he and Alicia and the kids did a fishing excursion. But Dan said the grandkids would be disappointed if I wasn’t along for the adventure, so of course I acquiesced and dreaded every minute of it.

Before the ship even docked in Ketchican, I was wide awake, and not just because we set the clocks back an hour to accommodate the time zone but mostly because I was thinking of today as a ‘duty day.’ I put on my optimistic face, grabbed my camera, and promised myself I would not let the kids know I didn’t really want to be there. And I prayed I wouldn’t get seasick. As we exited the ship, Dan and Alicia were stopped and told they couldn’t leave the ship with the fresh cups of coffee they’d just purchased at the ship’s specialty coffee shoppe, so we all spent a little time in ‘coffee jail,’ the corridor between the ship’s check out and the gangplank to shore excursions. I’m not sure what the reasoning is; the ship’s crew was handing out plastic bottles of water to guests to take off the ship, yet they were stopping the few passengers with fully-recyclable paper coffee cups. It was yet another instance when I’m grateful to be a tea drinker.

When we got off the ship, a pert young woman named Jamie Carlson met us at the exit and walked us to the skiff she’d be boarding the five of us on for a fishing adventure that included catching our own fish and having them cooked for us over a fire at an island fish camp. Jamie outfitted us with rubber barn boots, rubber overalls, and life vests, along with a brief safety lecture on what to do in case of an emergency. And then we were off in an open-air boat, motoring through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenery I’d ever seen. It reminded me of the Adirondacks, only less commercial, if that makes sense,

At some magical spot, Jamie stopped the boat, handed us all fishing poles, and instructed us in how to let the line out, reel a little back in, and figure out when we had a bite. Within seconds – veritable seconds, Dan and Talia had hits, and Talia caught the first fish – and it wasn’t a tiny one, either! Moses came in shortly thereafter, and I think Dan had a fish on the line and just held off on reeling it in to let the little ones get one first. Meanwhile, Alicia and I waited, and waited, and waited. I got distracted taking photos of the freshly caught fish, flounder, rock quill, and tiger something, so I wasn’t too worried about not getting so much as a nibble. Actually, I was mostly surprised that I was enjoying this excursion I had so dreaded being part of. It was really flat-out fun to watch the kids (and Dan) reel in fish after fish.

Finally, their lines got tangled, or their bait got lost, or something happened to bring the stars and planets together, and suddenly, Alicia and I both got a nibble and caught fish at the same time. Mine was the kind we already had enough of, so we couldn’t keep him, but after learning that the ones you keep get conked on the head with a mallet, I wasn’t too upset to be setting my catch free.

My second catch was a red lion jellyfish, or something like that. Our guide, Jamie, said she’d never seen anyone actually hook one before, so I felt a little exclusive as we let the not-so-little guy go. All morning long, we kept seeing and hearing bald eagles – seriously, and I got loads of chances to get photos of one from afar. But after we had released one of the fish we couldn’t keep, we noticed he had not found his way back down under the sea and was struggling on the surface. We decided to reel in and go see if we could help him maybe make it back to life below the surface.

However, just as we were setting our poles aside and getting ready to head the hundred or so feet to assist the fish, a bald eagle swooped down, grabbed the fish in one motion, and took off carrying what must have been dinner for her entire family. I happened to catch it with my camera, and as sad as we were that the fish hadn’t made it, we were all so breathless at seeing a bald eagle doing her job and getting a meal that would sustain her young family. It was just amazing!

With nearly our limit of fish and plenty to create a delicious lunch for all, we decided to give trolling for salmon one short try before heading to the fish camp. Jamie set the lines up, and we enjoyed the small breeze created as we ‘trolled.’ Let me just say that, while we think of Alaska as a place of Eskimos and harsh winters, the temperature had climbed up into the low 70s, and the sun was beating down on us all so much that we all lost the rubber overalls and boots in pretty short order once we started fishing.

So as we were trolling and talking with one another, Jamie noticed one of the lines pop back – a signal she had told us would probably mean a bite. She and Moses worked hard to reel it in, and I’ll be darned if they didn’t catch a beautiful salmon – a pinkie, which rounded out our variety of fish nicely and gave us all a thrill. With that, we headed for fish camp, a small and extremely primitive camp on an island where the ‘powder room’ consists of a five-gallon bucket positioned beneath a wooden toilet seat with a note to refrain from putting toilet paper in the bucket. The men’s room was any available and off-camp premises tree, so I was glad to be considered the ‘fairer’ sex for the moment.

There was a fire going, complete with a pot of coffee brewing, cocoa for the kids, and a chance to get photos with the group’s catch of the day before it was fileted and cooked up over a fire into a fish stew that was more delicious than any fish stew I have ever tasted in so many years of living. Knowing that the fish were the very ones we’d caught just an hour earlier somehow made it feel so much more meaningful, and it was great knowing there was no waste and any extra fish we didn’t eat would help flavor a less fortunate fisherman’s dinner later in the afternoon.

The fish stew was followed by a blueberry cobbler with sliced ginger on top that may well have been one of the best desserts I have ever enjoyed. And all of it was done around the fire, just the five of us and Jamie, our guide. For an excursion I had dreaded, I had one of the best times of my life! As we motored back to the cruise ship, we were all tired but smiling so hard because we’d had so much fun!

Just before we boarded the ship to leave, we stopped by a restaurant called Dwyer’s, not because we were even a little hungry but so I could get a photo taken under my own surname. And then we were back on the ship for a little relaxation, a delicious dinner, fun comparing sunburned faces, and playing a little game of Crazy Eights. I enjoyed two glasses of wine, which definitely was more than enough after a day like today, and I learned that Alicia scheduled massage appointments for both Dan and I for tomorrow morning.

I was going to say that I’m a little nervous about getting a massage because I’ve never had more than a neck and shoulder massage before, but after a day like today, I need to be a little bit more like that bald eagle and not be afraid to swoop in now and then and grab a fish from the surface to help feed my soul. Funny how the things I worry most about sometimes turn out to be the most memorable moments. I wonder if it’s the same for others, too, and I hope to try to leave some of my worrying habits behind on this adventure and beyond.




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