Column: More about Prince of Wales Island

Published 8:49 am Thursday, October 25, 2007

By Staff
In last week's column we began our journey to Prince Of Wales Island, or POW as the locals call it, in Southeast Alaska. After stowing the Jeep we rented in Ketchikan deep in the bowels of the Island Ferry, the wife and I went topside for the leisurely three hour ride to POW. Once there, we found that the dozen or so tiny clusters of buildings generously being called villages had changed little in nearly a century. The people also seemed to have been forgotten by time. Friendly, outgoing and eager to help are attributes rarely found in today's world.
We found Prince Of Wales Island to be a most unusual place. Rain sputters down off and on nearly every day year around. Usually not a hard rain, just sprinkles to light drizzles, but it's not above a few hours of serious downpour, either. In the early 1900s POW hosted a booming logging industry and most of the island was stripped of trees. They are now re-growing and with all the rain the island is mostly very dense cedar and spruce forest.
As a result of this logging, the island is laced with over 1,500 miles of roads, which is unusual as the rest of Southeast Alaska is nearly roadless. They're mostly all gravel in various states of repair and disrepair. In fact, half aren't even maintained but most can be traversed if you're not too timid, have a good spare tire and a couple cans of Fix-a-Flat for added insurance.
Our mission was to fly fish the many streams for coho salmon. Wild coho are nothing like Michigan's inbred, decrepit coho. An Alaskan coho is a 12-pound stick of silver wrapped dynamite. Their sizzling runs and somersaulting jumps make a steelhead look wimpy. When one hits, the reel handle barks your knuckle a half dozen times before you can get it out of the way. As my luck would go, it was one of the worst coho runs on record.
On the other hand, one of the largest pink salmon runs in island history was at its peak. Nearly every stream was a seething mass of pinks from top to bottom and bank to bank. I've seen individual schools of pinks like this but never whole rivers full from headwater to mouth. Pinks don't compare to coho in size or spunk. In fact, to most Alaskans they're trash fish. However, I've driven nearly a thousand miles to catch them in Ontario and, considering the absence of coho, wasn't about to thumb my nose at them now. I never dreamed too many fish could be a problem but it was. The moment the fly hit the water it would snag a dorsal fin or tail. The only way a pink could bite the fly was to first dig it out of the back of his neighbor. We eventually found a few streams where the pinks were spread out enough to cast to individual fish and there we had a hoot.
For some unknown reason brown bears went extinct on POW 10,000 years ago but the island is lousy with black bears. Salmon and bears, need I say more? Walking the bear trails along the streams was really neat. Some of the river valleys had never been logged and following these trails winding amongst giant cedars eight feet across, the air dark, wet and dank and moss draped over everything you half expected to see a dinosaur. That is, if dinosaurs don't fear humans for our strolls were punctuated with go-away-bear conversation.
Prince Of Wales Island was a unique experience but I'm not sure I'd go back. The people were great, the best you'll find anywhere. I'm sure the coho fishing could be phenomenal if you were lucky with the run timing. I don't care to fish lakes and there's not much in the way of stream trout fishing so you either hit the run or you're out of luck. All the rain make the streams go up and down like yo-yos, which can adversely affect wading and fishing. The rain also gets depressing after a while. I think I'll continue my never ending quest for Nirvana. Carpe diem.