Students in my 12th grade Advanced Placement Composition & Literature class at James Island Charter High School recently discussed personal experiences applicable to their college application essay topics. When we came upon the subject of “an event that led to a realization about yourself,” Emily Adkins immediately raised her hand to relate her incredible summer vacation tale of encountering a grizzly bear while fly fishing in Alaska.
Emily has been fishing since she was three years old. She reflects on her passion for angling. “Everyone says it’s really interesting that I break the high school social barriers by being a cheerleader” in addition to being a young woman who loves fishing. “I think it really builds character. I have always been a daddy’s girl since I was really little; my dad and I have always done everything together.”
Two years ago, Emily began fly-fishing. She practiced in neighborhood ponds on James Island before angling larger waters near Lake Marion. “It took me a good year to really understand the motions of fly fishing,” she notes.
Robin Montgomery, Emily’s great uncle, recently realized his dream of buying and running a lodge in Alaska. So when he and his wife Rene acquired Box Canyon Cabins in Seward, Alaska, it was inevitable that their Lowcountry angling kin would make the cross-country trip. In anticipation, Emily’s parents gave her a Christmas gift of a nine-foot Wright & McGill seven-weight fly rod and reel.
The final week in July, Emily and Steve embarked on a father-daughter trip to Seward. They wet their feet, or rather their waders, several times with a guide, who “showed us the ins-and-outs” of fishing Alaskan waters during the peak of the salmon run.
Besides fly-fishing the Kenai and Russian rivers, the Adkins spent a day offshore of Homer, Alaska in pursuit of halibut. Emily describes the magnificent scene: “We couldn’t see the mainland, but we could see the Ring of Fire, volcanic islands off the tip of Alaska.” The lines were dropped to a depth of 300 feet, a long way to reel in manually a halibut. “I have never been that sore in my life!” Emily laughs. “I caught 110-pound halibut and my dad caught 98-pound fish.” The daughter bested her father, who could not have scripted a better fishing story.
Most days, Emily rose at 5:00 a.m. and headed out for six-hour fly-fishing excursions on the river. “Dad fished with me a few times in the streams and we both got our limit of nine rainbow trout each, as well as catching foot-long salmon. The cool thing is that we ate all the fish we caught!”
Before tackling the Russian River alone, Emily visited Seward Flies, a fly shop right down the street from the river. “I was checking out flies to see what the salmon would hit. The owner knew that beers are in that area and there have been a few attacks. He asked if I had bear spray, which I didn’t, so I bought a can of bear spray from him.”
“When I went to the Russian River, I took my uncle’s .470 Nitro Express elephant rifle. I was going to take the 9 mm pistol, but Uncle Robin said I needed to take the ‘big-boy’ gun. I left the rifle with my tackle bag on the bank while I waded in the river to fish; I didn’t want to keep it strapped over my shoulder because I didn’t want the gun to affect my cast.”
Emily waded out into the river and began working her fly rod in the three-foot-deep water. Then, she noticed a change in the air.
“The wind started to blow and I noticed a really foul smell. Think of rotten food in a dumpster and multiply that by one million.” She knew she had company — a grizzly bear. Since you can smell grizzlies from far off, she hoped to avoid an introduction.
“I just continued fishing,” she says. After a little while, I hooked into a salmon that must have been 12 pounds and the fish started to break the water and make a lot of noise.”
The lone angler’s elation was short-lived. “Then, I heard splashing and growling and looked up and saw the bear charging me. He was 10 feet away and stood up on his hind legs and started smelling the air. I stood my ground because I remembered that you can’t run from a bear. The wind was blowing towards me, so the bear spray wouldn’t do me any good; it would have blinded me.”
The splashing salmon certainly didn’t help the situation. “I let out line so the fish would swim off and stop jumping and making so much noise.” After awhile, “the bear ducked his head in the water, took my salmon and calmly walked away.”
When Emily returned to the lodge, her father initially didn’t believe the story — until he saw the chomped salmon head attached to the end of her line. Unfazed, Emily fished alone several more times before leaving Alaska, though she altered her routine a bit. “From then on, I kept the rifle strapped to my back the whole time!”
Looking back, she considers the ordeal: “I didn’t really think about it. I knew where I stood with the bear.”
Emily is well on her way to receiving a license to work as a fishing guide in Alaska, a role her Uncle Rob hopes she will assume this summer. She and her father recently bought a boat and she also intends to earn her captain’s license.
Next year, Emily aspires to pursue her passion for forensic pathology at the University of Tennessee. While school is in session, she thinks it would be cool to work as a fly fishing guide near Knoxville. And during her summers home from college, she hopes to lead inshore trips around Charleston.
If she can stand up to a hungry grizzly bear in the Alaskan wild and live to tell about it, I have no doubt that Emily Adkins surely is equipped to realize all of her dreams.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at email@example.com.