Monday, September 28, 2015

Framed by Wing and Float

We put down on Lake Aleknagik, glided into the beach, and unloaded our gear into the shuttles that would carry us back to Dillingham. The week at the Coachman was done. Our pilot, Steve, became our driver and offhandedly observed...

Now comes the dangerous part of our trip.

Yeah, I replied, statistically speaking we were safer in the air than we are on the road.

Not just that. Look at this van!

Funny that he felt less comfortable in a ten-year-old Dodge than he did in the sixty-year-old de Havilland. Funnier still, I did too.

When I told folks that I was going to Alaska they were understandably envious, but most hesitated when I described our daily routine, predicated on venturing out into the wilderness in small floatplanes. More than a few inquired of my life insurance.

But in his book, Top of the Flood: Halfway Through a Fly Fishing Life, my friend Tosh Brown sums it up nicely:

“I’ve never quite understood why some will readily strap themselves into a 300-ton aluminum firecracker and then balk when offered a ride in a small plane that actually makes aerodynamic sense.”

The argument didn’t sway many.

But it’s their loss for while the fishing was fantastic, the flying was better. We soared over forest and water and tundra and rock. We glided high in bluebird skies and crawled a scant three-hundred feet off the deck under impenetrable white ceilings. We watched from an unparalleled viewpoint as Fall found the Tikchik and painted the Togiak in autumnal brilliance. It was simply breathtaking and I’d have happily lain down my fly rods to ride the winds all day.

I took hundreds of pictures from the air but none do justice to the spectacle. Not a one. But I’ll try to show you, as best as I can, Fall’s arrival in Alaska, framed quite nicely by wing and float.

Thanks, Steve and Tor, for sharing your wings. It was a joy.

If this handful of images isn't enough, feel free to check out another dozen here, including some shots of the horse itself, the lovely de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver.

Note: Click on the images to see them in larger format. It's a step closer to the real thing, I suppose, but still pales...

Friday, September 18, 2015


Are you taking pictures of dead fish?

Yes. Yes I am.

I am fascinated by the carnage that litters the Alaskan streamsides and can only imagine what it will look like in a month. The imperative that exists within these fish, to swim hundreds of miles to their birthplaces, to do their thing and then call it a life, amazes me. To see the swimming zombies, spent and deteriorating, flesh falling from their bones, but still fighting the currents to perpetuate their species, humbles me.

Do I have such courage, such commitment, such ragged nobility within me?

Do you?

Mike, you're weird.

Yes. Perhaps I am. But then you probably don't see them as I do.

Or do you?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Goin' Nowhere

Monday, September 14, 2015


When enunciated correctly, the word is both deeply erotic and profoundly disturbing. Say it with me.


Feel the tingle?

When you get tired of catching fish after fish, drift after drift, grayling after goddam grayling (with the occasional lipsticked dolly tossed in to make it marginally worthwhile); when you get tired of fishing that piece of costume jewelry, that perfectly round trinket, that princess-pink bauble painted with just the right nail polish; when easy fishing degenerates from easy to boring (perhaps thirty minutes, if even that long), your buddy says the ‘f’ word and something dark inside of you moves.

You know what you’re giving up. The numbers, the clockwork tug, the comfort and ease of your trapped air technology. (No Charles, it’s not a fucking “bobber.” It’s a strike indicator! For God’s sake, have some dignity.) You give up that mind-numbing rhythm of mending and catching, mending and catching, mending and catching.

They say that you don’t leave fish to catch fish, but they’re wrong. All fish are not equal. All fishing is not sport.

So you ignore the outside bubble line and focus, instead, on the inside snags; the slow water and blow-downs where rotting corpses gather in underwater creep shows. Phantoms, waving in tatters like carrion sheets on Lucifer’s clothesline. You dead drift (acquiring a whole new perspective on the term) tan stingers that, for all the world, look like soiled shreds of toilet paper flushed down Seward’s folly, but promise their targets the carnage they crave. You dredge the putrid downstream abattoir where the meat eater lies. You pursue the beast that's following its basest of urges, not daintily sipping on priss caviar as it gently flows by. You stalk the savage. You want him at his baddest, his inner zombie full-blown, his depravity manifesting in glorious carnivorous splendor.

He deserves a hook in the face and you’re all about giving him one.

Sure, you’re probably foregoing twenty, thirty, to chase just that one. That cannibal. That monster. And maybe, just maybe, he’d think about taking a bead, but what fun is that?

He wants… you want…

... flesh.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Duffle

I made it home with no serious hiccups but my big rolling duffle went walkabout. PenAir decided that they needed to lighten the load by a couple-hundred pounds before we lifted off from Dillingham and I won the “left behind” lottery. It’s a sick feeling to be left standing at the luggage conveyor, watching that last sad bag (someone else’s) circle over and over and over again.

Sud'bá, my friend Will would say. My destiny.

After leaving my forwarding info with Baggage Control, I moved on with just my carry-ons, back through security, and settled in at the gate for my next leg. With a couple of hours till liftoff, and my confidence shaken in luggage logistics, I started a list of the contents of the REI duffle. Just in case.

It turned into a challenge, a game, to remember it all. Exercise for this old brain. And since I’ve written it down, I thought I might share it here. Just for grins.

So here's what came back from Alaska:

Simms G3 Waders – Lived in them. Friggin’ bulletproof.
Simms Guide Jacket – See above
Simms G4 Boots – See above
Redington Sonicdry Wading Pants – Seriously Comfy. Wear them whenever I can. Didn't.
Simms Vapor Boots – See above.
Patagonia Stormfront Roll Top Pack – Best piece of new gear of the trip. Stuff stayed dry.
SmithFly Digi-Pouch – Kept the SLR handy and dry
SmithFly 3X Pouch - Catch-all for small gear. Solid.
Simms Guide Vest – Didn’t use this trip. Guides had it under control.
Folstaf Wading Staff – I don’t leave home without it
Socks (REI, Wigwam, Swiftwick, Simms) – MUST have fresh socks. Carried a wad!
Quick-dry underwear (REI, Patagonia) – Absolutely critical
Boxers (Old Navy) – Comfort around the lodge and when sleeping
REI Midweight Baselayer Pants – Because it’s good to be warm
Select Soccer Warmup Pants – See above
REI Light Poly Baselayer Shirt – See above
Redington SonicDry Baselayer Shirt – See above
UnderArmour ColdGear Baselayer Shirt – See above
Simms Merino Wool Light Sweater – See above
Northface Windwall Fleece Jacket – See above
Allsport Heavy Fleece Pullover – My son’s. A very special warmth, and a tear or two.
Orvis Fingerless Fleece Gloves – Keeping the digits warm
Manzella Light Gloves – See above
Fleece-lined Stocking Hat – Keeping the ears warm
Columbia PFG Quick Dry Pants – Because I generally don’t travel/fish in anything else
REI Sahara Shirt – See above
Levi’s 527 Jeans – For kicking around the lodge
Howler Brothers Longsleeve Loggerhead Shirt – See above
Fiberglass Manifesto Retro Fly Longsleeve Shirt – Sleep shirt. Best logo in the industry.
Tilley Hat – Old school. In case of sun. It could happen.
Nylon Belt – No sagging allowed
Bathroom Kit – Travel necessity
Fireball Cinnamon Whisky (2 bottles) – See above

Those were the things I remembered and wrote down. I’m proud to say that I only failed to recall three items:

Book – Corman McCarthy’s Blood Meridian
Sony Digital Voice Recorder – You can’t always write shit down
Nestle Hot Chocolate Packages – Good with a little Fireball in it

Not bad for an old man with mush for memory. But I must admit, as long as it took me to decide what to take, and to pack it, I should have been able to recall it all. And though the list is long (and I carried more than a few “splurge” items), I stayed under my fifty-pound limit. Given my penchant for over packing, that’s pretty amazing.

So. What’s in YOUR bag?

Note: It all worked out in the end. No need to haggle over the list of items. The duffle made it's way home, a day later. Just long enough to insure that everything inside smelled plenty ripe.

Another note: Of course, I carried-on my fishing gear. You can take my clothes and leave them where you will, but the fly rods are coming with me. Maybe I’ll post the contents of that carry-on too, if anyone happens to be interested.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Rookie

It sucks being the rookie.
The abuse. The practical jokes. The shit jobs.
And it’s worse when you’ve been the rookie for six years.

That’s right. Six years.

So let’s give a little extra viz to the “new” guy,
The guy at the bottom of the seniority totem pole,
The guy looking up.

He damn well deserves it.

Note: That Tyler’s been "the rookie" for six years now speaks volumes about the guide staff at the Royal Coachman. Top notch. Experienced. And treated well by the lodge, it would appear, thus the low (actually NO) turnover. It’s a darn good crew and I thoroughly enjoyed fishing with each and every one of them. Even the new guy.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Too Big

My feet are again planted on North Carolina clay but my head is still cruising at twenty-one hundred over Tikchik tundra. My body clock’s somewhere between.

The gear’s scattered across the back deck and my waders and fleece are spread out on the line to dry. I’d take a picture, but they’re interspersed with Mary’s unmentionables and I wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. It’s quite the contrast, Simms and Chantelle, but that’s what it’s like around here, and I missed it.

When my head and my feet find some common ground and my circadian rhythms stop doing the bop, I’ll try to give you a peek onto the experience. Snippets of the trip, vignettes, and an image or three when the words fail me, as they almost always do. In no particular order, bite-sized pieces of a place that’s too vast to consume all at once, if at all. Just too big.


Stay tuned.