Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Salmon Trip to Remember

(photo of the guides in Alaska taken by Matt Millner)

It was late in the 2006 fly-fishing season; it had been an exceptionally rainy year. To me it was just another salmon trip on the Swikshak River, I didn’t complain because it was only my third salmon trip that year. You see I am a “trout bum”, I go to Alaska to take people out and put them on that once in a lifetime rainbow trout that they have dreamed of catching; but that is a whole other story.
Gus, “the boss man”, had another guide named Kasey and myself flying with Harry, one of the areas best bush pilots. A middle aged man who lives in Iliamna year round, most guides would say Harry is a little cranky but I would say he knows what he wants and how he wants it done. He and I happen to get along great because we are both Orvis fans. This particular morning Kasey and I rendezvoused at the Samovar, an old Russian restaurant the lodge now owns and uses as our guide lounge. The lounge is filled with several old couches and chairs that are missing cushions, the pressboard chest that works as a coffee table is usually covered with empty beer cans, cigarette butts and any number of flies, broken hooks and empty Umpqua spools. The other rooms were crowed to the ceiling with waders, boots, fly rods, flies and the other equipment needed for a day trip. There is also the kitchen; a very important room where the guides would find canned goods, spices, drinks, plates, pots and pans that are used to prepare the gourmet lunches. Chowder day was on the schedule so we collaborated our efforts and loaded a chowder pot and pack with all the necessary items for a day on the Swikshak River (we call it by another name to keep traffic down on our secret spot) we had flashy salmon flies, eight weight rods, a few spools of 20 lb. tippet and split shots in assorted sizes. We were ready for a few big pulls off the whiskey bottle to cap us off for an early bedtime. An alarm clock was set to go off at 4:00 a.m. well, truth be told mine was probably about 4:30 a.m., but it would still be early.
The next morning I could hear the wind howling between our guide shacks. I looked over at the door and saw a nice puddle of water had come in under the door over night. I guess that is why they call my shack “the Swamp”. I started stirring around, packing a few extra clothes into a dry sack and smoking cigarettes one after the other knowing I would not be successful in keeping one lit on a day like today. I was thinking to myself of the list of things we needed for the day and checking them off in my head. My good friend and roommate for the season came in; he had found a “warmer” place to sleep the night. He bummed a cigarette and said he was fishing the Moraine Creek that day which happens to be my favorite trout fishery, full of thirty inch Rainbows. I’m sure I had a few “choice words” to say to him out of jealousy and then he tossed me a solid piece driftwood, a perfect club handle and said “whack-um and stack um, Sunshine”, with a smirk on his face. I hurried to the kitchen grabbed a breakfast burrito and dropped it down in my waders. I was not sure my stomach was ready for eggs, bacon and onions. Floats up at 6:30, we had a good flight almost all the way to Kodiac Island. It was the last week of the season, I had a one track mind, get in and get clients on the silver salmon, put some tasty chowder on them for lunch and get out. We landed; Kasey and I got our clients spread out along the muddy ditch filled with salmon. We got a little break in the weather, it was windy as hell but the rain had gone from a downpour to a shower. Kasey and I were doing our best to catch fish so we could fill the coolers for the clients to take home as much meat as possible.
As the morning progressed we started losing clients to the shelter of the deHavilland beaver. The plane became their haven from the weather with warm chowder, and the intrigue of Harry’s stories. By lunchtime all of the clients were back on the plane.
There had been one other lodge, Brian Krafts Alaska Sportsman Lodge take a Beaver with four clients and a guide to fish upstream from us about 200 or 300 hundred yards. The weather was deteriorating fast, torrential rain and 40 knot winds with the temperature dropping. Kaisy and I took the opportunity to try and catch a few more chromers to fill the coolers for the clients to take home. I looked at Kaisy as we heard the familiar sound of a nine cylinder Beaver start up. Realizing the weather had forced them out, I thought to myself will be out of here soon. Their pilot, Freddy took off with the nose into the wind, but for some reason his tail down. Kaisy, an ex-marine, had some knowledge about flying, he looked at me and said, the pilot really needs to raise his tail. I didn’t think much about it just watched as the green and orange plane was heading back to warmth on the Kvichak. The tail raised and the nose turned left, this relieved Kaisy.
It seemed like all of the following events happened in a second. “That scared the shit out of me,” Kaisy said. The plane was turning into a 50-knot crosswind and the engine was coughing. The plane continued down doing three summersaults and crashing into the flooded tundra.
Our clients, oblivious to the accident were still in the plane eating chowder and staying warm, no doubt where distracted by some great stories. Adrenaline kicked in. I dropped my eight-weight rod, ripped my backpack and hippack off and jumped on the float of Fox Echo shouting, Mayday! Mayday! Kaisy and I took off running straight to the crash site, I think we got about 75 yards through the flooded tundra and it was to deep. Harry was yelling at us to follow the river, follow the river, of course he was much more calm and collected; he knew the lay of the land and the best possible way for us to reach them safely. All we knew was instinct.
We made our way back to the plane and followed the river. Now, trying to make our way following the bear path along side the river, running as fast as we could through the tundra, gear falling off of us like flies as we made our way around the bend. My heart was pumping so hard in my chest; I could not feel the headache the Old Jack had given me from the night before. We got parallel to the fallen Beaver, it looked as if it was a crushed soda can.
The terrain in front of us was not a beaten path; it was pieces of the plane floating in tundra, flashing like islands, ditches that you could not see the bottom, too deep to cross. Water was to the top of my waders; I was already soaked from falling down, the rain and perspiration. Kaisy, a non-smoker was in much better shape than me, and he arrived at the crash site a minute before me. My heart dropped when I reached the Beaver. Jeff, the guide greeted me with a hug, he had held his composure. He began filling us in on the injuries and what actions he had already taken by the time we had gotten the 2.6 miles up river to him. Kaisy pulled me aside and said, “keep them moving, and talking and act like you know everything is going to be okay. I wanted to smoke a cigarette but as I looked around aviation fuel sat on top of the water for a good 30 yard radius, it looked like a bomb went off, salmon heads, tails, filets and guts were everywhere, so I settled for the chaw of Skoal Jeff had offered me.
Jeff was nervously trying to call his lodge from the satellite phone; I’m not sure how good his reception was. He had obviously paid attention in his coast guard class because he was repeating everything three times, which is a sign of distress. I had taken my jacket off and given it to someone whom I thought needed more than me. We had moved everyone away from the teetering wing, huddled the three surviving clients and Freddy together and wrapped them in solar blankets and a tarp. I didn’t have much to offer but conversation and promises that everything would be all right. I’m sure they didn’t believe it was going to be all right, they were miles from civilization and they just lost a friend who died on impact whose body was still in the plane. It was cold and still hailing pretty hard everyone was in shock and suffering from hypothermia. I remembered the gun safety class my dad made me take as a kid, at which time I thought I would never use the information they were teaching me. One of the lessons I had been taught was to keep shock and hypothermia victims moving and talking. I was trying to make small talk. One of the clients was a doctor from Georgia, he was able to walk so I threw his arm around my shoulder, and basically carried the man back to our plane.
When we arrived back at the plane, those who had stayed behind helped get his wet clothes off. I took an emergency pack, an ex- CIA agent also a client of ours had gotten together, of tarps, blankets, water, jackets and strapped it on my back. I took a few pulls off a smoke under the cover of the giant Otters wing. I took off running again about a mile into the journey I looked down and the clasp holding the laces on my boots had pulled out, I took my leatherman (a must have for a guide) out and cut my wading belt into four pieces and tied the neoprene straps around the ankle and across the midsection of the boots and continued on. I got back to the crash site and passed out some of the gear I brought with me. Kaisy wrapped some more tarps around the four men.
According to Jeff the Coast Guard couldn’t come because we were on an inter-coastal water way, we would have to wait on the Air National Guard to come from Anchorage which is 300 miles away. I don’t remember what all we talked about as we waited except how it was funny that these clients paid money for this. Jeff told everyone how our mutual friend Jamie Rouse could catch a trout in a puddle on a Wal-Mart parking lot, which put a few smiles on everyone’s face. They say laughter is the best medicine, right? After three hours of waiting I heard the black hawk coming, when it got into sight I was in awe of what an incredible bird it was, it had flown 300 miles to pull these men to safety. It had a fueler jet to refill it on the way home. We helped load the cold, wounded anglers onto the helicopter. A rescue ranger came up to Kaisy and me and shook our hands, screaming over the noise produced by the spinning helicopter blades, he told us he would be back for the deceased and us. We told him not to worry about us; we would make it back to the Fox Echo. As we headed back to the big red, white and blue plane the weather was not letting up. I was wondering if we would be spending the night in the plane, it had been done before, I’m told. Exhausted, holding on to each other Kaisy and I stayed low to fight the wind as we pushed our way back to our plane. Thinking out loud, we said life could only get better from here. Dreaming of hot showers and coffee, maybe even a few shots of whiskey.
We looked up to see a grizzly enjoying some salmon that had fallen from the plane on its way down, right in our path. We could not go around him for the river was too deep on one side and the tundra ditch was 10 feet wide on the other. Waving our arms trying to act big, he didn’t care, that time of year he eats 65lbs. of salmon a day to make it through the winter and he was in the middle of a work free meal. I guess finally God told him how exhausting our day had been or maybe he watched the whole thing and just had some sympathy, he moved off the trail to the other side of the ditch. We made our way back to the plane. Harry got us back to the lodge safely. I got my warm shower, my dry clothes, a few handshakes and words of gratitude for our hard work. I think I skipped the coffee and had a few shots of whiskey and was off to bed. It had been a day I will never forget, it will forever be a part of me as I’m sure it will the others that were there that day. It also gave me a new respect for that part of God’s country, his weather and how in a split second life can change forever.
The next day we got up at 4:00 a.m., or maybe it was 4:30, to start chasing the silver devil on the Swishak River all over again.

(Iliamna, Alaska -photo taken by Matt Millner)

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