I Never Saw It Coming by Jeff Varvil
Most Alaska float trips provide endless memories of breathtaking scenery, clear valley streams and excellent fishing. This was not to be one of those trips. For every one hundred Alaskan float trips that go perfectly, there is a trip that does not. I was on such a trip.
It all started when long time Alaskan guide Jimmy Dodge (not his real name, for reasons which will become apparent) called me and asked if I could cover a trip on the Aniak River in western Alaska. He knew I was very familiar with that particular river and figured I would be a good replacement for a guide who had broken his foot on the previous journey. After some anxious negotiating I agreed to do the trip. Through trial and error, I’ve found that I don’t like doing float trips with clients I haven’t personally met. It’s best to personally meet potential clients and learn their priorities before getting out there. When you are responsible for their lives and spending a week in a raft with them, I’d say it’s necessity.
But Jimmy vouched for their credibility and advised me they were two clients he had personally booked.
“It should go off without a hitch,” he said. “If you need anything just give me a call on the sat phone.”
We agreed to use his raft instead of mine because it was already in Aniak and the airline could not guarantee my raft would make the flight on this short of notice. For those of you who have your own raft you understand my hesitation in not having everything set up to my own standards. Boatmen are a picky lot. They are no different than an ice sculptor with specific tools designed for slicing up water. Jimmy told me he would take care of my plane ticket and that I could pick up the ticket at the airport the morning of the flight.
I planned to arrive a day early because I wanted the chance to inspect and familiarize myself with the raft and rowing gear, which was waiting for me in a local hanger. I also wanted to inspect the tent and food to make sure all was adequate. The clients were to arrive the following afternoon so I could make introductions and personally inspect their gear. There was to be one client “bomb shelter” tent provided by Jimmy and I would provide my own, a small M.S.R. guide model. There would also be a cooking tent, which was basically a top with net side curtains to keep the ravenous July bugs away.
The clients would provide their own personal gear such as sleeping bags and rain gear, which came from Jimmy’s list of “Things to bring to Alaska”. The food and gear would be waiting at the airport in Aniak. I would provide fishing gear, as king salmon was on the menu. As with the rafting gear, I like to use my own fly gear to ensure good hook ups and prevent lost fish. It seemed simple enough.
Hitch #1 “I’m sorry sir, I do not have an electronic ticket in your name,” are not the words one wants to hear at 7 a.m. while trying to make a commercial flight into the Alaska bush. “Do you go by any other name?” She was young and cute so I humored her. “Not in the last 30 years or so, no.” She smiled, but try as I might she would not let me on that plane. A call to Jimmy only proved that his voice mail was working perfectly. So back home I went. In hindsight, at this point I should have bagged the whole thing and went fishing. Somewhere else.
At around 4 p.m. my cell phone rang and lo and behold it’s Jimmy.
“Where the heck are you?”
“Well, I’m not in Aniak.” I said.
“Because it’s too far of a walk and I don’t have a red cape.”
“Smartass!” he said, now chuckling. I told him the story and as it turns out his credit card had been declined and the airline never bothered to call and tell him. A new card, a real plane ticket that I was physically holding, and I was back on track the next morning. Except now, I was on the look out for the clients. Jimmy had given me a general description of the fellows and that was about it.
Hitch #2 As I sat down in my seat I went over my equipment and my checklist over and over again while scanning the plane for my clients. It should have been easy: two small Japanese men with black hair in their mid 40’s.
“Don’t worry” Jimmy said, “They speak perfect English”.
I could pretty much see the whole plane and there were no Japanese men on that plane.
The flight to Aniak was uneventful as usual. Upon arriving, I called Jimmy to let him know I had arrived safely and the clients were M.I.A. I told him that I would check all arriving flights, which was easy because I was on the only flight of the day. I did check to see if there were any Japanese men on the previous day’s flight. The nice man working in the hanger gave me the low down, which did not include anyone remotely resembling my two clients. I decided I had better go check on the raft and gear.
Hitch #3 The raft, a 14’ NRS Scout was rolled up in a tarp and seemed in perfect condition. The cooler, which held the food, looked to be in perfect order. It held steaks, rice, soda and vacuum-sealed vegetables, lasagna, stroganoff, as well as cookies. “Yummy”, I thought. I better test the cookies now and make sure they were up to my standards.
As I went through the tents and stoves it occurred to me that the frame and oars were missing. This was a big, ah …. how do we say …. hitch. I called Jimmy and he assured me that the other guide had left them there for me. I didn’t see any oars or a frame. This was where the term “up the creek without a paddle” begins to take on real meaning.
At this point I was hoping the clients would not show. I could easily use one of our raft contacts and make a week’s fishing trip out of the whole ordeal. I made a call back to Alaska Raft in Anchorage and Tracey gave me the names and numbers of a couple of the outfitters we had sold raft frames to in Aniak, frames that would be adequate for our trip. I went door to door until I found one and paid him a small fortune to rent his frame and oars for a week. Living in Alaska we must improvise from time to time and in this case Tracey came through in a big way. That would later cost Jimmy $150 for the rental of the frame and two cases of beer to Tracey.
I found a beautiful little bed and breakfast and put it on Jimmy’s card for the night. I again laid out all the gear for inspection. All looked well. I figured I could easily make up the lost day by bypassing the first campsite on the Salmon River. The trip could be salvageable. A knock on my door revealed an old buddy named Skip I had not seen in eight years. He had just flown in from doing a guided trip on the Kipchuk, which also flows into the Aniak. I used to guide with Skip on the Tazimina River in Iliamnia. My pilots at Aniak Air Guides had told him I was in town. Alaskan river guides are notorious fibbers. Skip was now Princeton educated in the art of balderdash to legendary proportions. He had just received a bachelor’s degree in economics and put himself through school by guiding high dollar east coast “yuppies” as he called them. They were all doctors and the like from Bean Town where his dad was a cardiac surgeon.
Hitch#4 After a great night’s sleep, (barking sled dogs and other ruckus not included) I hopped a ride on a four-wheeler down to the landing strip. It’s really not an airport in my opinion unless it has a tower. The stepladder bolted to the side of the building really shouldn’t count as a tower. So, it’s a gravel landing strip to me. Skip was there waiting to get on the plane that my clients were coming off of.
“Remember these days Buddy?” he asked, referring to waiting at the Iliamna airport, (they DO have a tower) for clients to arrive on ERA Aviation. We use to stand there and say, “please, please don’t let that be him,” as we would see the “Gap People” as we called them. Gap People are those who can’t fish, but want to look good, and those who buy brand new fishing gear before coming to Alaska on guided trips. As if the guides wouldn’t notice. Real fisherman gear is worn, stinks of cigars, and has brandy stains.
To my delight, the first passenger off the plane was a Japanese man in his mid 40’s dressed like he had just stepped out of a Cabela’s catalog. He still had a tag hanging off the shoulder. Skip immediately chuckled under his breath.
“I hate you”, I hissed back. His fishing vest still had wrinkles from where it had been folded in the box. The second man off was apparently a very close friend. I could tell that they were very close friends because they were holding hands as they walked off the strip and toward the hanger. Not missing a beat Skip said, “That’s not good.”
I thought, “Well, maybe it’s an Oriental custom I’m not aware of”. The men stopped halfway and looked back to the plane. To my joy, there was a 3rd Japanese man getting off the plane. “Good luck, buddy” whispered Skip and I walked out to shake hands with my new charges. Skip knew the trip was for two men, not three.
Hitch #5 I put out my hand and said hello to one of the men at which point he politely bowed, reached in his pocket, pulled out two latex gloves and slowly put them on before shaking my hand. I was still as fresh as a daisy.
“Geez”, I thought, “that’s not very polite”. The other man simply walked by me without saying a word, went straight to the fence, and threw up. It must have been a bumpy ride. The 3rd man had no qualms about meeting me and walked right up and gave me a giant bear hug like I was a long lost brother.
He rattled something off in Japanese to the others and said hello to me in perfect English. Relief flooded over me. At least one of them can speak English. Or so I thought. He then said, and I quote “I’m a sorry, bears are sticky alright” and smiled at me.
At which point I said, “Yes, they can be” and I motioned for them to follow me over to the hanger to get their bags. As I walked I couldn’t help but think that this trip had been cursed since the beginning and I hadn’t even been in the water yet! I could hear Skip laughing hysterically from across the tarmac.
This was the skinny so far: three non-English clients instead of two who speak English, and one boat with only enough food for three. Last but not least, the cub was only scheduled for four trips not five. While we waited I called Jimmy figuring this was as good of a time as any to use his new sat phone.
“What!” was all he could say. I assured him I wasn’t pulling his leg. Jimmy told me he would split the money with me and so the deal was sealed.
“Well, go get paid and figure it out with the clients and I’ll call the air taxi.” was his reply. Through the beauty of a Visa card we were on our way.
I should tell you now that I had concocted a plan. I could live on salmon and water for a week. I bought an extra 12 pack of diet coke for myself. With dry bags in hand we walked over to the bed and breakfast. I can assure you that two men holding hands walking down the main street of Aniak drew no little attention. After inspecting their personal gear, I was the first to fly out to the Bell Creek strip, which dumps into the Salmon River. I was followed by the raft and remaining gear. One by one the pilot dropped off my tourists. When the little Supercub pulled away into the sky our trip had begun.
The little fellow with the latex gloves was Yoshi. He was the leader of the bunch. He was stern-faced and never smiled, not once. His partner, Hashimoto, seemed to be the more “high-maintenance” member of the group. He was puking again. The friendly fellow I called Sam. I liked Sam. He was very outgoing and friendly. He was also the camp clown. He was apparently a policeman of some sort in his country. He showed me his badge and ID card. It took me about an hour to get the raft together including the small portage trip down to the main river.
At this point I would normally give my little river talk about brown bears and rescue procedures but it all seemed like a waste of time. I picked up the rescue bag and made a halfhearted attempt to explain its use. Sam grabbed the rope and put it around his head like he was going to hang himself and the briefing was over. The more I was around the three men, the more I noticed Sam looking after Yoshi. It became apparent he was some sort of bodyguard or our equivalent. All that was missing was the suit, dark glasses, and headgear. I loaded the gear and men into the raft and we set out for our seven-day journey.
We floated the three blocks into the Salmon and continued downstream past my normal first campsite. I had to make up a full day so I briskly rowed through the straight stretches. It was 70 degrees and there was not a cloud in the sky. All was peaceful and the sloshing of the water against the rubber floor put Yoshi and Hashimoto to sleep. I could only imagine how long the flight must have been from Japan. I tried to talk to Sam using hand motions and broken English. Why do Americans slow down and talk like little kids when we speak to foreigners?
It was a slow process but fortunately on a float trip you have plenty of time. He taught me a few Japanese words. As we rounded a corner, we approached what I affectionately call “bear alley”. There is a large bluff with thick vegetation all around and overhead too. It feels as if you are in a culvert. The water is shallow with pea gravel and the giant kings spawn here every year. I pulled the raft over on a gravel bar as my nose alerted me to the presence of a bear before my eyes did.
Hitch#6 With the raft secure, the two sleepers woke up and jumped out onto the bar. Sam was pointing down stream and rambling on in Japanese and using the one word he could say very well in English, “bear.” Like most Alaskans, I am accustomed to seeing bears in their natural environment. For the most part, bears are peaceful creatures that mind their own business. They are all too happy to gorge themselves on the fresh kings and chums that were spawning in the clear water all around us. Then there are those other bears…like the one that was headed straight at us. She had come across the river about a hundred yards downstream and nonchalantly walked up onto the gravel bar where she stood for five minutes watching us.
The river in this area was only about a foot deep and about thirty yards across. Floating by her while she was in the water was not an option. She was big. I estimated the sow to be about eight to nine feet. The men dug out their cameras and began taking photos. Her curiosity got the better of her because she started to head our way. The men stayed in front of the raft after my repeated pleas to get them back into the boat. Even Sam seamed mesmerized just by the site of a brown bear.
At this point I learned that one universal language spoken around the world is the sound of a twelve-gauge shotgun with a live round being racked into the chamber. No interpretation needed. Apparently the sow spoke the Remington language too. She stopped about thirty yards away. To my left I saw two smaller bears crossing the stream in our direction. This was a sow with older cubs still hanging around. This was bad news for us.
Sam grabbed the two men and hauled them into the raft. Hashi was distressed, apparently flustered by all the commotion. I was apprehensive about firing a shot into the gravel because I did not want to alarm mama. For the moment she was just being nosy. After all this was her spot, and we were uninvited guests who crashed her dinner plans. Sam took the shotgun and I grabbed the oars.
We floated by her at no more than fifteen feet. We just did not have a choice. Sam kept the muzzle on her the whole time. I expected her to false charge and have him fire at any moment. He looked like the turret of a tank as he swung slowly from side to side as the raft moved with the current. I was trying to hug the other bank and was paying little attention to behind me. Suddenly, I felt a tremendous pain in my neck. I screamed out in pain and irritation as the wasps stung me repeatedly.
We had clipped a low hanging wasp nest as we swung through the narrow canal. “Freaking perfect”, I yelled out, finally upset at myself for even being here. Fortunately, the swift current took us past the danger zone. The term, “I would rather be judged by twelve, than carried by six” kept drifting through my mind. Shooting a brown bear, even in self-defense, is a tricky business in Alaska. You better plan on a pile of paperwork and a rectal exam from a State Trooper if you pull the trigger.
By the time we cleared the bears and the wasps our little Hashi had lost it. He was rambling uncontrollably. Suddenly, Yoshi smacked him full on in the face. He then said something very sternly and pointed to a gravel bar and then to me, as if to say, “If you don’t stop this, that crazy American is going to leave you here”. Sam was smiling and said “ kid’s a big wussy”!
So, I had learned that that Hashi and Yoshi were father and son. The rest of the day Sam would stand up in the raft and reenact the whole scenario, adding some growling and fangs to the story. He would then imitate me swinging at bees. I’m sure by the time the story made it back home Sam would be wrestling the bear in our defense. We reached the next campsite around seven p.m. and called it a night. We settled down and drank rum until the wee hours of the morning.
Day two on the river consisted of fly fishing for kings in front of the tents. Sam and Yoshi caught and released fish all morning. They were very good fisherman. Hashi read books and stayed out of the way, still embarrassed from the previous day’s events. One of the bright sides to having him in camp was that he was a gourmet chef. He loved to cook and I didn’t have to prepare a meal the entire week. He also did dishes and filtered the water. Yoshi would not let me do any common labor. Hashi did it all. This was a treat for me. Guiding is normally hard work. I thought maybe it was a punishment from his father for carrying on the way he did.
About noon it began to sprinkle so we loaded up the raft and headed down stream to seek out more mischief. I switched off with Sam on the sticks as he had made it clear that he wanted to learn how to maneuver the big blue raft by himself. I stood behind and showed him the basics on a straight stretch and then let him have the helm. He was a quick study. When he would make a mistake I would grab the oar and point the direction I wanted him to go. As it turns out, that half hour worth of lessons would pay off by evening’s end. The rain continued and the water slowly turned brown.
Hitch # 7 At four p.m. I began looking for Noah and his Ark. The river rose a full three feet and the gravel bars were disappearing fast. There were full logs rolling and tumbling end over end down the river. It was liquid chaos. The boys were oblivious to it as they were to busy viewing the many moose, brown bears and bald eagles that call the Aniak home. At six p.m. the water began to overflow the banks and create new channels through out the woods making it impossible to pick a safe route. It was time to find high ground. My normal campsites were long gone. I’ve witnessed the Aniak do this before so it was not a new experience for me, but finding high ground is always a problem on most streams under these conditions. I found a small eddy cutting into a high bank that had been created by the torrential downpour.
Our language barrier became a problem again. So: do I risk losing a client by having him jump in and tie us off? Do I do it myself, and possibly send them down river with no guide? Do I stick with the river and possibly peter out in some god-forsaken field or gravel bar? Then I would have to drag the raft back upstream to continue on. No thanks.
I decided that I would stay on the oars and someone, in this case Sam, would have to jump out and pull us up onto higher ground once we entered the slough. Not an easy thing to do with a fully loaded 14’ raft. In addition, Sam is about four foot six and weighs a hundred and nothing. In the end I switched places with Sam and pointed where I wanted him to go. The water was as thick and as dirty as pea soup. The current was moving rapidly and I went clear up to my waist. My life jacket took over for me numerous times, keeping me afloat.
I touched bottom about every three steps. It felt as if I was walking on the moon. I quickly tied a half hitch to a tree and I hear Yoshi let out a giant “Yahoo”!! I was dumb enough to think he is celebrating. I smiled and then my leg snaps under tremendous pressure. I plunged backward into the abyss. I felt the log roll up my leg to my waist then onto my chest. The branches were tearing clothes and skin as they spun around and around. I turn my head sideways and the log kept tumbling over my body until it cleared my head and I popped up about ten yards down stream. All was calm while I regrouped and tried to collect my thoughts.
My father taught me years ago, as I grew up on Lake Superior, how to adjust to cold water. He simply threw me in and said “adjust first, swim later”. I would always hit the water and hold my breath, compose myself and resurface. I would almost play dead just to see what it was like. Maybe it was to scare the old man a little for throwing me in.
The spruce branches had ripped me to shreds. I could taste the blood before I saw it. Both my nostrils were bleeding and my nose was on the left side of my face. You know how they say “you can’t feel any pain when your adrenalin is pumping in cold water”? They’re full of crap! I was hurting everywhere.
I swam hard for shore and pulled myself up and out of the water. I heard an immense cheer from the raft. I felt as if I had just stuck a triple landing in the Olympics. Have you ever been hit so hard, you nod your head yes, yet there is nobody asking you any questions? That was me! I went to raise my hand to give them the thumbs up and my left shoulder was not working. I was also bleeding from my left thigh as I had a nice cut there. I staggered back to the raft and found that my comrades had managed to get onto the bank.
I was spitting blood out of my mouth and discovered I had lost a rear tooth. I dug into the bags and pulled out the cooking tent and the boys put it up for me. We moved everything from the raft to higher ground. I took off all my clothes to get a better look at the damage. A spruce tree can certainly do a number when it meets a human. I dug into my medical bag for supplies. Doc had packed it up good for me on our last trip. The cut on my thigh was bleeding pretty badly so I pressed my poly pro shirt into it. When it started to clog up I added some super glue to the cut. Holy cow does that feel great!
Being stung by a hundred wasps seemed like nothing in comparison. Before I could look at it again Yoshi took over. He pulled out some butterfly bandages and a new pair of gloves. He then wrapped the whole mess with dressing and taped it up. Hashi was already unpacking the stove trying to pull his weight. Sam pointed to his nose, then mine, and said “you Rocky.” This was not the first time I had broken my nose, nor will it be the last. I won’t lie here. Sam set my nose and flames shot straight outta my wazoo. In all reality, the various scrapes and bruises looked worse than they were. The tooth was a bummer, however.
I have played hockey all my life and to lose one to a tree is, well, flat embarrassing. I figure I have probably broken a hundred hockey sticks and this was the tree getting even.
I took a few left over Demerol from a previous battle scar and I crashed. The boys readied and waterproofed camp for the long-term weather and they would give me a reassuring tap on the shoulder from time to time while I slept. They knew I had done what someone had to do. I was being paid to do it and there it was. I woke up around 9 a.m.
I felt stiff everywhere. I opened up my bandage and poured some Iodine onto my thigh wound. My body was not so much full of bruises as much as one continuous bruise that ran from my left eye to my left toe. My small shaving mirror revealed that both my eyes were blackened. I pulled myself out of the tent and the rain was gone. It happened that fast and it was all over. Blue skies were rolling in. My dry bag had been left outside and my clothes were all wet.
I decided to go fishing while the others slept. I heard the laughter behind me as the others appeared from their tents at the sight of my very white bum in the river. The cold water against my naked skin was soothing. I did have my hat on. The cameras came out. About thirty seconds later, I heard the buzz of a jet boat and a family of natives from downstream rounded the corner. I was unwilling and unable to move, so they passed by me at twenty yards shaking their heads at the sight of the crazy naked white man.
I began to make breakfast for my friends. My shoulder was stiff and sore but working again. My knee was sore but nothing seemed to be broken. We ate breakfast and I listened to what were obviously bear stories. Sam was walking slow and stalking Yoshi like a bear would, although he was growling and had bigger teeth than anything we had encountered. Next Yoshi began to imitate Hashi by crying and acting afraid. Luckily, Hashi was laughing at himself and maybe growing up a little in the process. Then they moved onto the raft debauchery. It was a great trip. We spent four more days under bluebird skies as four new friends.
Now here comes the clincher. It turns out the real clients missed the plane and cancelled out of Japan. I had picked up three clients headed for a float trip on the Kipchuk with another raft company. They had come in a day early and the guide was due the very next day. They thought I was their guide, and I assumed they were my clients. Whoops!
Yoshi was a member of the House of Councilors – whose members are elected by the people. He would be along the same lines as one of our US senators. Sam’s real name was Tadashi and he is a member of the Japan Defense Force — something like a secret serviceman. Hashi was indeed Yoshi’s son. In the end I never did get paid for that trip. I had shoulder surgery to repair my shoulder. My nose, well, it’s still crooked. But I have an open invitation to visit Japan whenever I would like to visit.