Third Place: A Man of Few Words
An Alaskan bush pilot's only advice falls on deaf ears.
Our bush pilot seemed typical of the breed; he didn’t say much. My brother Jon and I had spent months planning this first trip to Alaska. We decided on what’s called “Southwest,” an area with an abundance of salmon, grayling, rainbow trout, Dollys and northern pike.
Our goal was to catch a grand slam, five species in five days. We loaded our gear into the 1951 de Havilland Beaver as our pilot watched. He taxied the plane across the small pond and gunned the engine. Fifty feet from the far bank, the Beaver was still waterskiing. Moments later the bottom of the pontoons brushed the reeds. The pilot looked at us and said, “You boys are carrying a good load.” Soon we were at a huge lake under a brilliant blue sky. I asked if the fishing was better in one area or another.
“It’s pretty good all over,” he said.
As the pilot prepped to leave he said, “Watch the wind; if it turns around, a storm’s coming.”
The first three days were warm and spectacularly clear. With an inflatable raft and small motor we spent hours exploring the streams and sloughs feeding the lake.
By day four we had grown comfortable with our surroundings. The lake was glass and the sun was blazing. The air felt different though. It felt very still.
Our fishing quest had been a success. The grayling hit dry flies. Rainbows and Dollys chased our egg patterns. The sockeyes were huge, with bright green heads and scarlet bodies. Being a Michigan native. I loved catching pike on a fly. We found them in the shallows and they attacked our presentation with a vengeance.
[pagebreak] Despite the success, it wasn’t enough. We were on a mission to catch more, a bunch more. In the excitement of the morning we jumped in the dingy, leaving our rain gear and food behind. Instead, we buzzed across the lake to catch more pike. We didn’t even check the fuel.
Clouds billowed on the horizon and the wind shifted direction. We were about to call it quits when Jon hooked a monster pike. He battled it well, but in our haste we mishandled the release. Jon received a nasty gash across his hand.
Meanwhile, the wind whipped the lake into a cauldron of froth. Jon was in pain and had to settle for a poor man’s triage. Three-foot waves saturated our inflatable. Our tiny motor could barely make headway. Then it started to pour rain.
Halfway back, we ran out of gas. The raft had paddles, but the gale drove us back. It was getting wetter, colder and darker. We were clearly in a lot of trouble.
Landing downwind on a gravel bar, we took stock of the situation. It wasn’t good: no food, no shelter, no fire. Our camp across the lake might as well have been on the moon._ This is how it happens_, we thought.
I was able to patch the dressing on Jon’s cut and then I removed the motor from the dinghy. We flipped the boat over and huddled beneath it, shivering through the night. I thought of bears and told Jon that you didn’t have to be faster than bear, just faster than your companions. He looked at my shoes and didn’t laugh.
At daybreak, the storm broke. We paddled for half the day, finally reaching camp. The two of us put on dry clothes and ate everything in sight. After that we hit the sleeping bags. We didn’t leave the camp until the bush pilot came to pick us up.
As we loaded the plane for the return flight the pilot asked, “Did you notice the wind turned around?” Jon and I looked at him and nodded.