“I only drink champagne on two occasions: when I am in love and when I am not. ”
White Nights and Wild Salmon
I must admit I've been treated royally during my stay here at Camp Ryabaga, above the Arctic Circle. In fact, I can't remember when I've been so pampered so far from home. Ten anglers fed by three chefs, looked after by four housekeepers, with five helicopter mechanics, a massage therapist and doctor on standby-30 staff altogether-evokes in one a blush of guilt. But one soon gets over it.
Welcome to this northern wilderness of summer white nights. One of the finest fly-fishing outposts in the world sits at the confluence of the Ryabaga River with the Ponoi River on Russia's Kola Peninsula. This is an isolated camp reached only by helicopter. But perish all notions of roughing it: the sauna is a delight after fishing. And for dinner, the kitchen staff serves delicious appetizers of fresh salmon caviar with sun-dried tomato tapenade, followed by specialties such as king crab from Kamchatka.
The prize of the Ponoi? Wild Atlantic salmon returning from the Barents Sea. Where the species once was abundant in hundreds of coastal rivers spanning the vast horseshoe curve of the whole North Atlantic-from the Douro River in Spain and Portugal to the Connecticut River in New England-runs have been relegated to ghostly remnants. Or they have been exterminated altogether. The remote rivers of the Russian Arctic are a happy exception. To shroud Soviet military secrets, they have long been off-limits to all but scattered bands of reindeer herders; and as a result, this craggy, spongy peninsula east of Finland has retained most of its original nature. The Kola came through the 20th century with its wild salmon essentially intact.
The fertile Ponoi River is the largest stream of fresh water spilling off the Kola. More than 425 kilometers long and draining a massive permafrost plateau of 58,000 square kilometers, the wide, shallow flow serves up a continuing embarrassment of riches. Despite dealing with daily fluctuations that at one point sent the river surging to several meters above normal summer levels, my fishing partner and I stopped counting after we each had hooked and lost-or netted and released-dozens of scrappy fish. He had never fished for Atlantic salmon before; I had, and in six days of this marvelous water world I found myself tethered to more planet-rare specimens of Salmo salar than I had during the entire decade past.
Fishing the Ponoi River typically costs $10,000 per top week. But what devout angler deliriously smitten with Atlantic salmon magic wouldn't trade transient treasure for the bliss of casting into this shining, shimmering home of some 30,000 wild adult Salmos?
You can fly to the airport at Murmansk, which has an 8,202-foot paved runway. (On Saturdays, commercial Finnair flights from Helsinki to Murmansk also are available.) After you clear Russian customs, it's a chartered three-hour helicopter ride (about 185 miles as the crow flies) to Camp Ryabaga at the tip of the Kola Peninsula.
When to go:
Salmon season on the Ponoi River runs from late May through late September. You'll find the largest fish during the first three weeks and final three weeks of the season.
Booking your trip:
Frontiers, P.O. Box 959, Wexford, Pa. 15090; (800) 245-1950;
www.frontierstravel.com. (In addition to your passport, you'll need a temporary Russian visa, which Frontiers can arrange for you.)