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Traveling In Style : Kings Of Sport : An Alaskan Adventure: Battling The Giant Chinook

March 15, 1987|BARNABY CONRAD | Conrad's latest book is "Time Is All We Have" (Arbor House).

I walked out of the Ketchikan brothel and bumped into James Michener, the esteemed 79-year-old writer--who was going in. "Astonishing meeting you here," he exclaimed. "What are you doing in Alaska?" "Catching a plane for what I hear is the best fishing in the state," I said. Michener looked only a little more grizzled than he had when I'd seen him eight years before in Santa Barbara. "My wife and I are the only ones on that big yacht out there on the bay," he said. "Come on out for a drink after I check this place out." It should be mentioned that the brothel in question, Polly's Place, has been defunct for, lo, these many years and is now a tourist stop on Ketchikan's colorful Spring Street. Later we had that drink aboard the fanciest yacht I've ever seen--cost $13 million, plus $10,000 per day to operate, a crew of 14--and for a short while I knew what it was to feel like the rich and the famous. "I wish I were going where you're going," Michener said wistfully. "I've heard about Waterfall Resort." After a pleasant hour, my wife and I left the Micheners and took off in a 20-passenger floatplane headed for a unique adventure in fishing. As the product of Montana parents and grandparents, my first glorious childhood memories are of pulling trout out of Big Timber Creek in that state. I return there every chance I get to fish trout waters--from the Bitterroot in the western part to the Bighorn in the east and the Madison in between. I've also fished the East Walker in California, the Galashiel in Scotland and the Wairaki in New Zealand. But until last August I'd never fished in our 50th state. Nor had I ever caught a salmon in fresh or salt water. I was looking forward to it; maybe too much. Was it all true what I'd heard about Alaska fishing? That the fish practically jump into the boat?

For half an hour our Twin Otter hummed over sunlit islands and bays shaped like the dark-green pieces of a very intricate jigsaw puzzle. We were now over the pristine wilderness of Prince of Wales Island. One hundred and thirty miles long and 45 wide, it is the third largest in the United States, only Kodiak Island and the Big Island of Hawaii being larger.

Suddenly, long shed-like buildings appeared below us, the plane banked into a steep circle and dropped its nose, and in a few minutes we were skimming over the smooth water to the dock. Already we could see fish jumping--lots of them and of a good size. I began to get excited.

Pete Gherini, one of the owners of Waterfall, fortyish and with a big boyish grin, welcomed us and showed us around the resort. Founded in 1912, Waterfall was considered one of the largest and finest canneries in the world. (In 1936, it put up about 220,000 cans of salmon, a record for a single cannery at that time.) In 1970 the layout was converted into a resort dedicated to the proposition that you don't necessarily have to be ill-fed and miserable in order to catch fish. Lots of fish.

Gherini showed us the elegant little cottages, dining room and store for sundries--also the building where the daily catch of the guests is processed, flash-frozen, packaged and ultimately shipped for them. There are no more than 72 guests at a time, with 68 employees on the alert to see that they are well taken care of.

Along the way, Gherini detoured past the pond so that we could view the big black bears, five of them this day, feeding as usual in the ravine beyond the line of cabins. Although the bears were engrossed in the kitchen leftovers, Gherini cautioned us to stay a healthy couple of hundred feet away. Although they are accustomed to people, they are anything but tame; they run hardly less fast than a racehorse, and they each weigh about 500 pounds.

In back of the buildings is the lovely waterfall that gives the resort its name--wide and lacy cascades of water rather than the usual high, narrow and roaring ones. I asked if there were trout there.

"Small ones," Gherini said, "only about 15 inches."

We stowed our luggage in a sunlit cabin at the edge of the bay, and I went down to the long dock where several boats were. My guide was waiting on his 21-foot cruiser. There is an experienced guide for every four people, and my fishing companion turned out to be comedian Jonathan Winters, an ardent fisherman. A great water bed of a man, the ex-Marine was outgoing, friendly and constantly entertaining; he had our guide, Bob Person, in such hysterics before we'd even cast off that I never thought we'd get serious about the business at hand.

We put out into the bay and headed south, our 175-horsepower outboard really pushing us along. With the calm water and surrounded by a sheltering island, it was hard to believe that we weren't on a placid lake instead of the Pacific Ocean.

"After that island over there," said our bearded guide, pointing, "the next stop is Japan."

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