On the Other Side of Reason

(photography by Brian Grossenbacher)

 A trout angler at large on the Kola Peninsula.

[by Reid Bryant]

Among fly fishers, an Atlantic salmon is the rarest of jewels, and more than one poor soul has lost a fortune in pursuit of “the leaper.” I never took Atlantics seriously, as I long assumed that I’d never gain admission to the places where they are caught. Salmon rivers are closely held, and they flow beneath a haze of cultural smoke and mirrors. Even if I managed my way onto some water, Salmo salar, like most anadromous fish, refuse to eat upon entering their spawning cycle. This poses a serious obstacle to the match-thehatch fly fisher and commonly results in the fishless week. Though I’m not what you’d call overly frugal, I’ve never felt compelled to throw a few months’ salary at a week of not catching fish. So I satisfied myself with palm-sized brook trout, and opined that anyone who declared himself an Atlantic salmon angler was probably a self-indulgent ass anyway.

And then—wouldn’t you know it?—I got a chance to go.

In college, I fished a lot with a friend of mine, Matt Breuer. Much to the chagrin of our parents, Breuer and I managed to graduate with an encyclopedic knowledge of the local freestones, but with no clear aspirations for adulthood. I fell upon odd jobs that afforded me fishing around the edges of the day, and Breuer, ever the pragmatist, made fly fishing a career. By his 30s, he was managing a camp on the Kola Peninsula’s Ponoi River, where, in a sport celebrated for its dearth of fish, several salmon per day remains the norm. A balance of inaccessibility, protection, and cultish secrecy allows Ponoi salmon stocks to flourish, and it takes big money and some serious social collateral just to get there. My friend Breuer was sitting on an ace, and understanding that fishing buddies take care of their own, he kicked a trip my way.

Over the Arctic Circle

Rotors of the Mi-8 helicopter roar and rattle through the cabin, and from a thousand feet up, the Kola Peninsula resembles a green sponge too saturated to absorb any more water. The excess runs over and settles in dimples, which show blue-black and bottomless. Early in the Arctic day, mist sifts through the cloudberry and lichen, drifting over rivers that spread to the White and Barents Seas. Since our crew mechanic has fallen asleep, the softness of the landscape is reassuring. Across from me, Heidi Andrews is fiddling with her necklace. Her eyes are closed. I choose to interpret her attitude as calm and let myself be lulled by the whunka-whunka of the rotor. I turn back to the wash of beautiful emptiness, and the thin air illuminates a landscape so immaculate that I’m suddenly a little more hopeful than a guy in a Russian military-surplus helicopter should be. I look over and smile at Carter, Heidi’s husband. He rolls his eyes and flashes two fingers on his left hand: two more hours. I turn to my window and rest my head against the cowling.

Somewhere below is the sport fish of kings, and an enigma. Hatched in rivers of the North Atlantic drainage, over several years it grows into a scrappy, troutlike fish. At length, the young salmon departs the river and enters the salt. In the waters of the Atlantic, the young salmon grows fat on baitfish and shrimp. It gains strength and savvy, eluding seals and whales and trolling hooks, and eventually a primordial trigger beckons the now-mature salmon back to its natal river in a journey of procreation.

Upon reentering the river, the Atlantic salmon is fighting trim, even as a first-timer (called a grilse) it boasts glittering flanks flecked in black. In acclimating to the fresh water, the “bright fish” ceases eating, and it maintains this attitude throughout the duration of the spawn, which can last up to 18 months, after which it descends once more to the sea. The physical metamorphosis of the spawning fish is profound; silver fades into a burnt-butter brown, and the flecking is replaced with haloed red spots.

One might assume that, in the absence of nourishment, the salmon would maintain a low profile, focusing entirely on self-preservation. But this freshwater period seems the most costly for the fish in terms of energy. Somewhere amidst the waterfall leaping and cartwheeling, Atlantic salmon become aggressive and territorial. The depleted fish, played out from spawning, barely resists the temptation of slaughtering anything remotely incandescent that passes before its nose— all of this while growing snaky and hookjawed, barely capable of a return to the sea. Eighteen months in, they are “dark” and reptilian, but played out or not, they descend, fatten, and brighten in the salt, then reenter the river to repeat the process again and again.

The cadence of our helicopter’s motor subtly shifts. It goes deeper, and the mechanic is awake and looking into the cockpit. Carter’s eyes show concern. We’re either in descent to camp, or going down the hard way. I scan the passengers. They all appear too important to be lost in a chopper crash. I assume salvation based on association, and look forward to being on land. I think I see Matt Breuer down there on the pad.

In Ryabaga Camp

From the helipad, we follow steps down from the tundra and enter the Ryabaga Camp Big Tent, where a fire is blazing in the stove. Camp staff hustle about, stowing duffels in the sleeping tents, bringing out platters of reindeer salami and salmon sashimi. One guest, a Brit, sinks into a couch beside the fire and waggles a stubby finger at Matt. “Have the barman send me a martini.” He inserts another cracker between his jowls and crumbs fall down the front of his shirt. He dusts them onto the floor. Breuer turns to the barman, Igor, who is standing beside him with a towel over one arm. “Igor, this fine gentleman requires a martini.” My friend’s sarcasm is liberal, and I cringe. But Breuer has always managed to elicit a curious devotion from folks he teases the most, and our fellow doesn’t even notice; he’s built a tower of baked Brie on a toast point, and it is quivering en route to his mouth.

Two tables run the length of the big tent and terminate at the bar, which features draft beer brewed in Murmansk and delivered weekly by helicopter. Behind the bar, a vast wine and liquor selection is arranged above a dedicated vodka freezer. Vodka is very important here. I sit down on a barstool and rub my liver. About me is a hum of good cheer. Guests clink drinks and compare notes on recent sporting travels. I’m feeling a little bush league when Breuer sweeps in. “Igor, we need three beers . . . I’m taking a tour of camp.” Igor, apparently accustomed to such requests, smiles and complies, and Breuer hustles me out the door and into the open air, scooping up Carter on the way. We’re in Breuer’s wheelhouse now, and what lies ahead is anyone’s guess, but I anticipate a hangover at the end of it.

Breuer crams us into an ATV, and we roar through camp at a tremendous rate. Fortunately, he and Carter are side by side in the front seats, and their combined weight has to exceed 500 pounds, so I’m confident we won’t roll the thing. Breuer takes a tight turn, and the back wheels slide out, pushing gravel off into the birches. My beer slings out all over me and the tundra, and Breuer shakes his head. “That will be reflected in your bill.” He’s mentioned this on other occasions. “Now, hold on. . . .” Breuer gives it some gas and whips us around, and we stop at a long, low building. “Good. Let’s start our tour.”

Breuer leads us from the gym to the Banya, a glorious sauna of wood milled on-site, then to the luxury shower house, then to the climate-controlled wine cellar. Ponoi River Company owner Ilya Sherbovich has built a 5-star hotel thousands of miles from anywhere. It’s kind of unfathomable. Breuer aims the ATV in the direction of the Big Tent. He misses by a wide margin, and parks us beside the river.

The Ponoi is broad and coppery-dark, gloomy enough to hide a cobbled bottom. Seams and oily slicks braid themselves downstream. The river has cleaved a ragged path toward the White Sea, and the riverbanks are, in most places, precipitous. Seemingly, a wall of water poured through this place not so long ago, chiseling out a channel and leaving behind a river that can’t hope to fill the crack. The tundra sits on a plateau above, and as we approach the river’s edge, I can’t help but think that we are hidden down here. We walk to the water and I touch it. It is colder than I assumed. Carter points, and a hundred feet out, a salmon leaps, squirting from the river and tumbling back down. It’s the first Atlantic salmon I’ve seen in the flesh, and the sun hits it hard and bounces back at us like a beacon. The flash makes it look bigger than it likely is, and leaves a spot of white in front of my eyes.

“Let’s get some dinner.” Breuer is already swinging back into the ATV, with Carter just behind, and I look once upstream toward the late-day sun.