The Newhalen River is swift and much wider than I expected. A boat carrying two Alaskan natives drifts by us and they don’t wave. A guide (who is known for lying) told me earlier that the natives hate white Americans here. I wave anyways, genuinely thinking that it is my way of telling them sorry for intruding on their land (white girls- they think a wave makes things better). I think again about the village and how all of these people decide to live out here year around- it is peaceful, but I am not sure I fully understand the call they have on their hearts to live in wild Alaska (that is what all of the new reality shows call it- Wild Alaska).
I follow the others and jump in the boat, trying to pretend that I know what I am doing. I’m awkward and sweaty, again… I have not truly fished since I was a kid and someone may find out.
As we make our way up river towards the end of the rapids I realize why the guides were sitting facing backwards on the boat- my glasses had a family reunion size amount of mosquitoes caked to them. Once we park, the guides disperse like secret agents on a mission as they find their fishing spots and start fly fishing (glad to be on their own after a day of dealing with guests). Jer is polite and helps me get my fishing rig set up. He slaps on a large single-barbed hook and some fake fish eggs (if you know Jer, you know the real story).
Jess lands a nice size salmon with her fly rod, making it look so easy and graceful. Her sister, Megan, also lands a large salmon at the same time. After watching them, I am now concerned that I will catch a fish that big and not remember what to do with it. I start listing questions in my mind like: How do I take it off the hook? What if it pulls me in the water? What if I have to kill it myself? And, how do I look in this hat?
I follow Jer around, like a little puppy again, and have him show me what to do. After about ten casts I am reeling in and feel my line tighten. The drag on my fishing rod starts to roll out…tkkkkkk. The sound alone is exhilarating- it means I have caught my first fish in Alaska and that I am one step closer to being a summer native, like the rest of the staff.
I fight the fish for a while I land it to find out it is a large sockeye salmon! I notice that I have hooked it in the tail- which means it was swimming away from my line so I did not actually “catch it”, I “hooked it”. Jer grabs the fish in the net for me and knocks it in the head without my blessing. I pretend to be tough and agree with his decision. He shows me how to rip out the guts and fillet it for the freezer.
With fish guts smashed onto my waders, I walk into the water and hope that my new friends see the blood and think I am cool. But the “coolness” moment is brief as my next cast gets hung up on a rock and like a kid waiting for their mommy to tie their shoes, I stand there waiting for Jer to help me with my line again.
In the next two hours I get my line tangled four times, hit myself in the back of the hat with the hook, slap myself in the hands every one minute to fight off mosquitoes and to top it all off, I fall down clumsily in shallow water. The rest of the staff was fishing so effortlessly while I was looking like a city sissy that was thrown out in the wilderness for a reality show. Even though I had spent the last two summers on the Forrest Service stream survey crew, I still felt like I was a hundred years behind in comfortability compared to these Alaskan guides. But I didn’t give up, I felt the first tug of an Alaskan salmon on my line and I desperately wanted to feel it again.
While sitting on the boat, trying to get my line untangle by myself for once, I look up to see where Jer is located (in case he can help me). I see a bear across the river, it’s a grizzly. I yell nervously,
“Jer, there is a bear over there!”
He responds with his red neck accent, “Yes, them bears are here to fish with us! Har har”.
He continues fishing, along with the rest of the crew. I stay in the boat, as if that would protect me from a bear mauling. These people are insane! A guide fishing close to the bear caught a large salmon and the bear started to run towards him. He reached into his pocket for a knife and cut his fishing line while slowly walking backwards. The bear stopped charging and grabbed a fish in the water!
I take deep breaths to calm myself down and inhale a small family of mosquitoes again. I think: surely we will be leaving now, right? Everyone moves to the opposite side of the river the bear is feasting on and keeps reeling in monster salmon. I waddle my way out of the boat and continue my adventure. This time I actually “catch” a salmon and rip it off of the hook by myself, while nervously looking over my shoulder for bears.
Just when I start to become seriously addicted to catching salmon, one of the guides informs us that it is 2 A.M… I notice the sun is starting to dip towards the horizon. The guides have to be ready to fly guests out in the morning and Jess, her sister and I have to be ready to serve breakfast in four hours.
We drive back insanely fast on the Alaskan dirt roads, with dust and rocks flying behind us and the breathtaking sunset shadowing our suburban on the tundra.
I get to my room and notice my hands resemble a victim of a chicken pox outbreak due to the feast the mosquitoes had all night. I also notice that I am smiling. I think: what a wild adventure that was- fishing at night, next to bears, catching huge fish! It was so wonderfully terrifying and unexpectedly the most fun I have had in years! I feel alive and capable of so much more than I had originally expected of myself. I hang the dark curtain to shut out the Alaskan night sunlight and say an earnest prayer of thankfulness….Something I have not done in a while.
A full week goes by and I realize I have not contacted my family once or even had time to worry about them like I usually do. We take a trip to the post office, which I soon find out is the ‘big exciting part of the day’. We bring back all of the mail- (the only real contact from the outside world) and disperse it amongst the guides and clients like it is Christmas.
I call my mama and let her know I am safe, but I withhold 75% of the news about our adventures, or our close encounters with bears- I don’t want her to worry. The phone is planted in the middle of the kitchen and my phone card only has 20 minutes on it, so I have to keep it short and only tell her I love her. I also call my boyfriend of 3 years and tell him he has been so supportive, but I’m confused and need to take a break from keeping in touch. I feel horrible- but relieved to be honest about what I am needing.
I’ve never felt so selfish in my life, but I am getting used to only worrying about making sure the table napkins were folded correctly and trying to piece together warm clothes for when we were able to experience the Alaskan nights. My mind is re-attaching itself to new concerns that are, in the grand scheme of life, miniscule concerns….And it feels strangely refreshing, but also has a sprinkle of guilt for what I know I am not able to do at home for my family.
After the guides and guests have flown out, we clean the cabins. Each room has fish hanging on the walls and so I try to learn the fish’s species and test myself with each room we come to. Like Snow White trying to guess which dwarf is connected to which name whittled into the head boards, I try to guess which guest fits into each room. Twisted, I know. It keeps me from falling asleep on the freshly made beds after long nights fishing and goofing off under the Alaskan midnight sun.
When we are done with the rooms, we play cards, lay in the sun, take naps, play pranks on Jer sleeping on the recliner or dare each other to jump into the frigged lake Iliamna. The playfulness of this idle time is much needed and makes me feel like a child as I have so little responsibilities. I decide to use this time to start running.
I take Jer’s dog, Nelly and head out on my first run. The only CD I can find is John Mayer and so I slip it into my disc-man and start running like a crazy white girl through the village. I run so fast because I am worried a bear will jump out of the bushes or a wayward native with a bb gun will open up a few rounds on me. I get back to the lodge and have to wade into the lake in order to “ice” my knees from the unexpected trauma I put them through. I guess I turned into an adrenaline junky because the next day, I went again and then it turned into an afternoon habit. Strange, like many of the other things I was starting to do.
I notice that even my food habits are starting to change. The cook (Jess’ mom) is a food miracle worker. It is heavenly- Pecan Crusted Salmon, Chocolate Tarts, and Mango Salsa Steak…..it is delicious. The first week at the lodge I was so nervous not knowing what will be for dinner or when we will be able to eat. When will we eat? What about at night when the cook has gone to bed…what will I eat??? I was still living in the poor college student mentality of “eat as much as you can because you never know when you will again”. I start to emulate Jess’ families’ eating habits and notice that instead of “eat as much as you can”, they go for “eat a normal amount, when you can”, which on some days is not that often.
Its strange territory for me, but I start to not think about food until I am hungry….What? You mean people don’t eat food unless they are hungry? This is just as strange as living in the middle of no-where in Alaska. I am starting to think more about how to catch fish versus how I will find a way to have someone from the mainland Fed Ex me some nachos.
The next morning at breakfast, the lodge owner (Jess’ Dad) comes into the kitchen and says they have an extra seat on the plane today and he wants to know if I would like to go out fishing. I look at Jess for approval and she smiles the kind of smile that tells me I have no idea what I am in for. I start to think of an excuse because it sounds scary, but tell myself to shut up and get out of my own way.
I quickly finish my chores, pack a bag and head towards the float plane. The clients aboard were kind, wealthy gentlemen from the oil industry. They were on their yearly adventure to the lodge. I feel like orphan Annie being picked to go to stay at the Warbuck’s mansion; people pay thousands of dollars to go on a day trip like this- and I get to go!
We small talk briefly, but there is not much to say. I think about saying: “How is my serving going? Do you guys think I am an actual waitress?” or “Are you the guys with the porn magazines in your room?”, but I don’t. Instead I laugh to myself about how funny that would be to ask those questions. When the plane takes off, I get more serious and press my face against the window in awe of just the process of taking off. My mind is overflowing with a concoction of curiosity, bewilderment and a dash of terror knowing we will be flying further from home base, where I was just getting comfortable…..
We soar over Lake Iliamna and I peer out in search of the Iliamna Lake monster, which the guides always create stories about for the guests. We climb over a mountain and see a herd of caribou lying in the snow. The valley is breathtaking- rolling hills with lakes and ponds connected by tiny creeks. The plane’s reflection on the lakes remind me we are the only humans experiencing this part of world at this time- this vast area is only seen by our eyes alone in this moment; it’s a humbling thought.
The pilot finds a grizzly fight going on down below so he circles around it both ways so each person gets a front row seat. One grizzly is blonde and the other is dark brown; they are standing up at least 8 ft. high. They battle for about five minutes and then stop to catch their breath. The guide, Tom, points out a spot where he saw a pack of wolves fighting a grizzly (I found out later that the guides make stuff up all the time, but I sure spent a lot of time looking for those wolves during the flight). The clients eat up the stories and also stare out the window constantly, looking for animals.
We are in the air for about an hour and land on a river….let me say that again…we land on a river! We trolley our way to the Katmai National Forrest Brooks camp ground area, a part of the Brooks Range. I clumsily climb out of the plane in my over-sized waders. A horn blasts loudly from nearby. Tom educates the group, who looked at him puzzled, and says that the horn means there is a bear running through the camp ground- it alerts the people to steer clear and also scares the bear away. Ok, so I don’t need to ask the question about whether or not bears will be fishing with us today!
Tom hands me a fly rod and tells me to “just watch the others for a bit” and once they are all set up he will come back and teach me the basics of fly fishing.
I stand there staring at the clients, like I am told. Just then a mamma grizzly with cubs comes out of the bushes across stream and I start running down towards Tom (which was a really stupid move). We all re-locate safely to a different part of the stream in the opposite direction of the mama grizzly. I’m surrounded with guys so I try to act as brave as they are and I don’t want them to judge me as a wimpy girl unable to stand up to her own fears. “Treat me like the boys”, I think in my mind, but simultaneously I admit to myself that I hope the bears will charge one of them versus having me for lunch.
Tom spends some time teaching me the bare basics of how to fly cast and has me cast without a fly for a while. He ties a fly on and leaves me alone to go check on a client down around the corner. I am by myself….I hear a horn blast from across the way but try to remain calm. Tom would come get me if I were in danger right? I start casting and get my line stuck in a tree behind me. Sigh… I’m so frustrated with myself. I don’t want to rely on anyone for help anymore- I want to learn. I break the line with my teeth and walk up stream to ask him to give me some flies and show me how to tie it on myself.
Once back to my fishing spot, I practice for about ten minutes and finally get my fly to drift naturally through a slow riffle. A fish rises to snatch the fly and I quickly jerk the rod up like I was spin fishing. Thankfully I held onto the float line so the fish stayed on the hook. I slowly pulled the line in and the fish danced around. It was a rainbow trout, about 8 inches long! I did a happy dance and felt so excited I could scream. Tom ran down and showed me how to unhook the fish properly and I insisted on doing it myself.
From then on, I was a crazed Alaskan (-ish) fisher woman. I didn’t worry about the bears, or the male clients that were judging me, I wanted to improve my skills and feel that jiggle at the end of the fishing rod that I held in my own hands. It was empowering to go from feeling so terrified and risking looking completely foolish to being able to catch a fish on a fly rod, by myself.
We fished for about four hours and then went to see the bears feeding on salmon at the famous Brooks Falls. The bears were used to humans staring at them as they went about their business. To be so close to animals that could cut my head off with their claws was astonishing. I look over and notice a bear about 30 ft. from where we were standing and realize that we are not at some exhibit, these bears could charge us at any point. But they don’t, they are too busy chowing down on the delicious spawning salmon…(Don’t tell my mama about this one).
We walk back to the plane and the sky is tattered with small clouds that hold flicks of pink and the breeze is picking up. The guests and I take pictures and high five each other for the awesome day catching fish next to bears, and leaving alive. I try to wipe the goofy smile off of my face, but I can’t hide the excitement from learning to tie on my own fly, catching a bunch of rainbow trout, being in a place that only a small amount of the world will ever see and overcoming fears of imminent death-by-bear-claws.
The flight back to the lodge was unlike the previous flight. Tom let me ride up front next to the pilot and all of the guests fall asleep, exhausted from the adrenalin filled day. I quietly stare out over the thousands of miles of Alaskan wilderness in awe of what it was doing to my own way of seeing the world…. and possibly how I see myself. I re-play the events of the day and notice I am thinking less and less about my own self-pity. Could it be that the Alaskan rivers were washing away the muddy globs of depression that I have been hauling around?
I picture these experiences as brick building blocks- stacking in around me as support beams. Like a construction worker doing a re-model on a broken down house, God is using these blocks to strengthen me- to help me rise up to battle this sadness that I have not been able to face. It will almost be a year since our close family member was taken away from us; I hope my heart and mind will be strong enough to handle that difficult date hovering on the calendar.
The pilot asks me if I want to fly and I hesitantly say “yes”, not wanting to miss out on any opportunity presented to me in Alaska. The plane cuts through the air gracefully as I ungracefully maneuver the controls as directed. I fly for about a half hour and thoughtfully decide I will never be a pilot.
The wind has picked up and we can’t land on the lake due to the high, ocean-like waves. The pilot radios into the lodge and lets them know of the situation and together they decide to try to land on a small pond that is next to the lake. The pond?!
We fly over it and it is for sure a minuscule pond……I start to wonder again if this is my last flight on earth. The pilot circles for a while, hoping that the wind will die down, but it doesn’t. He instructs us to brace for a rough landing and to pray we can stop by the time the pond ends. He laughs. I nervously chuckle. I look back at the rich white guests behind me and yep, they are looking terrified.
We go in for the landing and I close my eyes like I am on a roller coaster, while holding tightly to the seat. The pilot cusses, pushes buttons, and pulls levers while sitting high in his seat to look out at the landing room. A huge gust of wind throws us around and he changes his mind last minute, pulls up and circles around.
He goes for the landing again and comes in smoother this time. We hit the water hard and the wind pushes us sideways…I hear the water splashing up on the plane’s skis and we skid partway up on the sand that holds the water in the little pond. We made it- glory, glory, halleluiah.
Jess drives over to pick us up and I try to act calm at first like- ‘just another day in the life’ (like she always portrays), but then I can’t hide it and I hit her in the arm and say “Oh my goodness, I can’t even tell you how much fun I had today!” I walk into the lodge like a astronaut returning from space, expecting everyone to clap and reel at the ‘adventure woman’ who made it back alive and had stories to tell.
Instead, I run in and change into serving clothes- pulling my waders off and putting on earrings. I serve the guests that I fished with today and they say things like:
“Here is the fearless fisher woman- out there fishing next to bears by herself”!
I kindly laugh with them, but think about how today was not the toughest thing I have ever done or the hardest moment of overcoming my fears…they have no idea the battles I have endured. I know I make it turn dark, but the fake playful banter is getting tiring at this point as I feel like they see me as a silly girl with no adventures of her own.
That night I finally decide to start writing in a journal that I had received from graduation. The front cover says:
“She decided to start living the life she imagined”.
-Which I originally thought was cheesy and too fluffy for my dark sinister words that were stewing in my mind. But today it feels fitting as I want to remember each adventurous moment here and also remember the other ones from real life that I have not yet documented for myself. Unsure where to start writing- I instead draw a fly rod. It symbolizes a beginning for me…a fresh new way, or reason, to connect with the outdoors and with myself. I draw in some building bricks and picture them in bright colors, providing evidence of the ways each new adventure here is aiding in shoring me up.
After some deep time in thought, finally, I muster the strength to write my first words in a journal for the first time in a year:
“God, forgive me for not thinking you were capable of fixing my brokenness…I need you”.
That night the wind blew fiercely- I wrap myself in a blanket and sit out on the back porch around 3 am, unable to sleep for some reason. The northern lights are out in full glory, a show few ever get to see. For a moment I have to re-think the night and make sure my drink had not been spiked at some point, because the greens and purples projected across the sky are so bright and intense, it does not seem even possibly real. I take a deep breath. I don’t need to be anywhere or take care of anyone- it was just me…. facing the open sky with the wind rushing through my hair and throwing it all around.
I get it. I know why people want to live their lives here: isolated from the world and wrapped in a simpler way that allows the person to live in the moment, without constant tasks pressing in, and protected from the things that suck away our time here on earth. Its hard to explain in words, but here, I can’t hide from God – he is seeking me out through the wind, the northern lights and stillness I find on the peninsula.
It is here on the porch that I decide no matter where I end up in life, part of me will always be trying to get back to Alaska. I also decide to let the wind take away all of my uncertainty and anxiety about the future, and I choose to let go of the darkness I have held on from the past. I sing this David Gray song, “As I’m Leaving” out loud as it rolls through my mind from the fact that I’m changing, throwing my heart out and turning it over to something bigger. I slowly pull myself away from the miraculous show in front of me and make my way to bed.
“As I’m Leaving”~David Gray
As I’m leaving a change comes on my eyes
These streets persuading me with mumbles strange goodbyes
And through the water, through the ring
To the soul of everything
Throw my heart out on the stones
And I’m almost gone
And there’s no meaning in clothes and coffee cups
Cheap hotel furniture where silence never stops
And through the water, through the ring
To the soul of everything
Throw my heart out on the stones
And I’m almost gone
And now I’m dreaming I’m staring at the walls
At cars all frozen now in late night winterfalls
And through the water, through the ring
To the soul of everything
Throw my heart out on the stones
And I’m almost gone
This is my sister, Kyla Kulp, who came up later in the summer to join me for some river adventures and kitchen adventures! I will write the rest of the story someday! We had a blast together- and got into a little trouble! 😉
This is Megan and I at King Camp- She always caught the biggest fish and she laughed at my jokes and jumped into the freezing lakes with me! Such a fun gal!
Please check out some other amazing pictures from this wonderful photographer (who took these pictures above) based out of Port Alsworth, AK: Glen Alsworth, JR at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Farm-Lodge-and-Lake-Clark-Air/80250967898
And Thank You to Glen for allowing me to post your beautiful pictures on my blog, which reminded me of my many memories in Alaska.
And Thank You to the Johnson family for bringing me to Alaska!