The Silver in Valdez

My first experience going fishing in Alaska was reminiscent of all of the road trips I took with my father and step-mother during my youth–we had the snacks, we had the music, and we had the company to make a seven-hour drive beyond entertaining. A couple things were different of course, we had a cooler full of food to make while we were camping in our car, we had booze for when we got to our camping destination, and I had possibly the best tour guide available to anyone wanting to really explore Alaska. My tour guide, as luck had it, happened to be my boyfriend and while he didn’t boast an official title in that capacity, he could certainly boast of his knowledge of the land.

There is something incredibly special about learning first hand about a place that you love from someone else who loves it as deeply–the beauty of Alaska is more than just the aesthetic (which is mind-blowing, by the way), it’s the intricacies of the history of the people who carved their way through it. Dominating the indomitable, that’s what the first migrants into the Last Frontier are famous for to this day and the first people into Valdez were no exception.

The Klondike Gold Rush in the summer of 1897 was alluring for many people. America was still unstable in an economic depression and unemployment rates were sky-high–who could resist the prospect of discovering gold? Within the first ten days of the announcement of the gold rush, over 1,500 people quit their jobs and set their sights on Alaska. By August of the next year, most of the gold-rushers knew that what they had experienced was a long con job, trails were longer and steeper than advertised and many people died on their quest to strike it rich. Many of those who survived, however, returned home rich–not just with gold, but with stories and experiences of the wild frontier of Alaska. The rest stayed to build the rest of their lives in a place of insurmountable beauty.

Mountains driving into Valdez
Allison Point Campgrounds, Valdez, AK
Photography by Mary Farnstrom

Their story isn’t my story though, my journey was a lot less arduous, and a lot better prepared with the benefit of a lot of luxury in comparison. I didn’t go for gold unless you count the value of wonderful life experiences (like I do). My boyfriend and I went to Valdez for silver, or rather silvers–Silver or Coho Salmon are a more mild salmon than Sockeye or King Salmon, but when it comes to subsistence living, each fish you catch is just extra meat that you don’t have to pay for after processing and butchering. Catching your own food up here is almost like a rite of passage, but it’s so much more than that–the act of catching your own food is like an adventure of its own and is so much more satisfying than simply running down to your local market and scavenging for the best deals. The freshness of the catch is nothing to scoff at either, it doesn’t spend time in a cooler before mass processing and it doesn’t get frozen unless you want to save it for the rest of the season. The rest of it gets canned, dried, or smoked and nothing beats the experience of all of that, knowing you’re the one who plucked it from the river.

The unfortunate side of going fishing for particular fish in a place like Alaska is that there are so many different species of fish that you’re not guaranteed to get the fish that you’re aiming for–as my hilarious boyfriend has pointed out, “That’s why they call it fishing and not catching!”

His hilarious antics and witticisms aside, what we went for were the Silver Salmon, but what we caught was a whole lot of Dog or Chum Salmon–which is appropriate, these fish aren’t the kind that most people will eat, they’re typically used as chum, or dog food, hence the name Dog Salmon. It’s not too terrible to catch or net a few after you’ve been catching Silvers, especially when you have hungry dogs waiting for you back at home, but when you’re told that, “the Silvers are running crazy this year!” you might expect to at least catch one of them before you have to pack up and head home for the season. Nevertheless, we made it home with a ton of dog food (no, not a literal ton), dirty from car camping with no available showers, and happier than ever–it was our first real adventure together as a couple and marked nearly a year of our being in a relationship. Valdez was the start of many great hunting and fishing trips and it showed us that we could not only get along on long road trips, but that we make excellent traveling companions… and excuse me for this but, we may not have found silver in Valdez, but we did realize our relationship was even more propitious than gold.

Welcome to Valdez
Photography by Robert Hargrove

Read more about the Gold Rush in Valdez:
Valdez Museum – Gold Rush
Valdez, AK – History of the Gold Rush

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