Posted on 07/05/2022 Evan Swensen
In the mid-50s, Standard Oil Company discovered oil on the Kenai Peninsula and punched a road allowing access to Swanson River. New Alaskans Frank Ackerman and I built a 12-foot cartop boat out of plywood, purchased a five-horsepower Evenrude to push the now christened Miss Shapen, and became one of Swanson’s first anglers.
Each Friday evening would find us with Miss Shapen on top of my old Nash Rambler, heading for the Kenai Peninsula. We’d arrive at Swanson River about 9 p.m., load up our obnoxious-looking craft with camping and fishing gear, and go upriver as far as we could before it got too dark to travel.
Frank and I developed a quick camp setup routine, cutting into only about ten minutes of fishing time. After camp was established, we’d get out the fishing gear, and, in the half-light between sunset and sunrise, we’d catch a couple of Swanson River rainbow for our late dinner. One of us would fix our meal while the other continued catch-and-release fishing. After dinner, we’d retire and set the alarm for an early rising.
Our habit was to get up early Saturday morning, take Miss Shapen, and fish and explore further upriver. We’d see some new country, watch wildlife, catch and release more than 100 rainbows before noon, and then return to our tent for lunch. After that, we’d break camp, float, and fish back to where we’d parked the car. We’d then head for Anchorage, taking turns driving and sleeping and pulling into our driveway around midnight.
Most of our free time during the week was spent preparing for our next Miss Shapen-Swanson River outing. This continued until fall. It was one August Friday evening after we’d pitched camp in what had become, by this time, a familiar spot that Frank hooked into the fightingest rainbow either of us had ever seen. In the twilight, we could see Frank’s fish jump and dive and jump again and again. We had no idea where this monster came from. Swanson River rainbows are plentiful but mostly pan-size. This fish was at least ten times bigger than the biggest Swanson River rainbow we had ever caught.
Frank held on, the gear held out, and the fish finally gave up. Frank eased the fish into a shallow, grassy notch in the river’s bank. I grabbed the flashlight to see what this super Swanson River rainbow looked like. When the light played on the fish’s side, we discovered it was no rainbow at all. It was a silver salmon. We hadn’t even thought about salmon running in the Swanson. Frank’s first silver was only one of many as the weeks worked toward winter.
As silvers increased, rainbow catches declined, but we didn’t care; we were living every Alaska fishing fantasy we’d ever had. All summer long, we’d had the river to ourselves. We explored, camped, and fished. This was Alaska each of us had dreamed of: uncluttered, untamed, free of people, and full of fish. And, the creation of our own hands had taken us there—Miss Shapen.