The wind had battered the Cessna 207 like a tennis ball at Wimbledon for the entire nine-minute flight to Moraine Creek. The wind was rarely a safety issue, the nervous fly fishermen who sat in front of me who gasped and grasped with every bump and thump of each gust always seemed to think differently. That day’s duo was different because they were a little more seasoned. It was the low clouds that made me a tad nervous. I knew every hill that jutted out from the tundra, they loomed somewhere out in front of our plane. This bothered me more than it seemed to bother them.
So as usual, I took a nine-minute nap while Loren and Vera nonchalantly rated the scariest flights they had taken in their 25 years of coming to Katmai. They even hoped out loud that the ceiling would lower enough to keep other planes from being able to get to the river. Guests always reveled in this dream, the one where they had 6 miles of a premier Alaskan trout stream to themselves. I fell asleep with visions of bears surrounding the old couple and myself on a gravel bar with the northern darkness slowly swallowing us. The next thing I felt was the plane’s floats hit the water, jolting me from my nap.
Getting the couple to the river was a chore by itself. They always wanted to help carry gear, so I gave them a something little to carry aside from their Winstons. This warded off the yearly argument that consisted of Loren insisting he could carry the raft over the hill. He didn’t even fight me on this, surprising me more than a little. We started the slow, 300-yard hike up and over the ridge from the lake as the clouds lowered. Vera was giggling as she said; “There won’t be another plane in for a while.”
Loren was a large man who had played football in college. His knees had paid the price for the memories that he loved to share with me as he fished. It always took him a little extra time and care to get down the steep bank to where we put the raft into the creek. This year I noticed that he was grousing more than usual. Vera usually made a fuss over Loren, always telling him to be careful, but today she was even more mothering than usual. This made Loren even crankier than was normal for the battered old fisherman. He was always a bit raw before he caught his first fish, this I had learned well over the years.
After getting everything situated in the little blue raft and Loren loaded in. I did something that I only did with the long, long time guests.
I asked them where they wanted to fish. I already knew where they would probably want to fish, but I asked anyway. I was somewhat surprised when Loren told me to go to a spot that I knew he hated. Vera looked back at me with a sad, almost tearful look, and said that we should start there. Then a smile chased back her tears as she said; “I am glad that we have it all to ourselves.”
The great thing about Alaska, which is also the worst thing about Alaska, is that the Rainbow trout really don’t care about the weather. Wind and rain are the norms on the Alaska Peninsula and this day was one of those days when the weather gods had to show that they were in control. Wind gusts pummeled the raft, blowing my crew and me back upstream at times. Each torrid gust elicited a story from Vera about a fish or the weather they had encountered here over the years. Of course, Loren had to interject corrections when he thought she had misremembered or she had gotten a miniscule fact wrong. I just smiled as they relived their life with every stroke of my paddle.
Jumping out and dragging the boat onto the gravel bar in the middle of the creek before either of them realized that we had arrived ended their debate over which year was their best on the Moraine. A strong gust carried their last words upstream as I walked to the front of the boat to pull Loren’s large, 260 lbs body to its feet. Vera was still super spry and had sprung out of the raft like a Jack-In-The-Box with a taut spring. This always ticked Loren off. His vanity once again bruised, he thrust his fly rod at me, almost before I had him upright.
Vera traipsed around the tiny island taking deep breaths and swinging her arms back and forth, loosening up like she had done since the first time I had guided them. Loren supervised as I stripped the line from his Tibor and then feeding it through the guides of his rod. We made jokes about Vera’s routine under our breath while I got his rod ready for the day. When I was ready to put on a bead, he reached into one of his dark green G3 rain jacket pockets and pulled out a box full of beads. I noticed that he shook a little as he opened the top of the box, chalking it up to the damp cold of the day, I didn’t think anything of it as he asked; “Which one should I use?” Before he could let me answer, he handed me one. As I tied it on I thought to myself; “Some things never change.”
Loren looked around our little spot wistfully as we walked over to the fast slot that drained the water from large flat filled with spawning sockeye above us. As he made his first cast he said; “It’s nice having the whole river to ourselves. I wish we were at the Rock though.”
“I figured that’s where you wanted to be. When we floated by I expected you to tell me to pull over; “ I said watching Vera as she made her first cast below us. There was a huge gust that ripped a sheet of water from the stream below her just as her line hit the water. The spray hit her hard enough to buckle her knees a bit but she just looked at Loren and I and smiled.
“Your indicator is down! Watch it not us!” Loren yelled against the gust that had just hit Vera. He feigned a huge amount of annoyance with her for not watching her bobber. But then he smiled at me and said; “Go help her with her fish. I’ll manage here just fine.” I noticed his hands were shaking a little more than before as I left him for his wife and her trout. Loren had made another perfect roll cast, even with the wind. He was a great angler and I knew he would be fine. His reassurance hadn’t been needed but that was Loren.
By the time I had made the 70 pace walk to Vera, she had the trout almost landed. She wasn’t making the fuss that she usually made if she thought the Rainbow was bigger than average, so I hadn’t rushed down. The fish was on its side in a couple of inches of water, Sockeye eggs spewing from its mouth as I knelt down and unhooked it. Vera asked me how big I thought it was and I told her 25 or 26 inches as it swam back into the milky water to gorge itself further. She cupped her hands around her mouth as she yelled at Loren what I had just told her. He gave her his customary “thumbs up” as he set the hook on a trout.
Launching out of the water at least 4 feet into the air, the big dark slab looked like a missile that was launched from a submarine. The fish landed in the water with a loud splash and had Loren’s Tibor almost instantly smoking as the fish tore into the backing as it passed in front of Vera and myself. Loren had been up to his knees in the water and was turning to get to dry land when I saw him go down. To his credit, he never let go of the rod as he held himself up on his right hand that was submerged to his elbow.
Speed was never, ever in my family genes. Flying is apparently because I have no idea how I got to Loren so quickly. But I was there in an instant, helping him to his feet as he cussed at the wind, rain, fish, Vera, getting old and God, all the while trying to turn the drag knob on his reel. Once on his feet, he started to fight the fish as the water drained from his raincoat sleeve. Even though the cuff was cinched down at his wrist, there was an amazing amount of water draining from the arm of his jacket. I asked if he had gotten any water down his waders or any higher up his arm. He gave me a dirty look and continued fighting the large trout in silence.
The clouds had dropped even further in on us. There wasn’t going to be any other planes in that day I assumed, letting my mind wander as Loren and his trout struggled against one another. Vera had made her way up to us and asked me if he was OK. Loren heard what she said and grouched; “Just old and a little wet. Why don’t you go fishing and quit worrying about me!”
Now, Loren could be cranky for sure, but I had never heard him give her such a hard time in all the years I had guided them. Vera and I stood silently by as the smile that Loren had forced off of his face with his harsh words reappeared as the fish began another furious run using the swift current. “Oh no you don’t; “ he said as he stepped down the gravel past us,
flashing Vera a smile as if to say he was sorry for lashing out at her. She patted his arm without saying anything as I gleefully sensed that everything was right again in the world. We started following him down the island as he battled the fish until there was nowhere to go. We were out of island.
The bottom end of the island dropped off into a hole that was at least 10’ deep. That was the bad news. The good news was that there was little to no current to aid the fish in its quest to free itself from Loren’s hook. With only a few feet of backing left on his spool, Loren began slowly pulling the trout toward him. He reeled down and then lifted the rod back up like he was fighting a marlin out on the sea. The trout was tiring, relegating its remaining energy to savage head shakes. These made the tip of his Winston shake violently side-to-side. The wind had been causing the fly line to “sing” in the wind, with each shake of the rod the tone eerily changed. These tone changes made for a haunting musical accompaniment to the fight that was going on. Then suddenly, out of the murky, whitish water in front of us, the Rainbow appeared
The fish was a dark blue, almost black. It seemed to magically glue itself to the bottom of the river that was no more than 10’ in front of us. Loren tried to lift the trout from the depths without avail. Then with a quick shake of its tail, it made one more desperate short run towards the safety of the gushing current just a few feet to our left. Loren staved off this lightning burst with a subtle move of his rod to the right. It was over within seconds after that and I was suddenly kneeling with the massive trout’s tail was in my grasp.
Loren wanted me to measure the fish first. Vera wanted a picture first. He started to try to kneel beside me and I told him to stay standing. I was going to break my rule that day but first I would tape it because I knew knowing the exact length was more important to Loren than the photo. As I stretched the tape across the fish he read the numbers out loud; “29 ¾” inches. Not too bad.” I knew he wished it was 30” from the tone of his voice and most of my clients would have called it that, but not him.
I had Loren stand beside me after I slid the hook out of the fish’s lip. Then I stood up in knee-deep water as I held the fish, just in case I accidentally dropped it. Then Vera got her photo of Loren’s trout. After two quick clicks, I bent over with Loren watching and let the giant trout swim back to where it had started. By the time I had turned around, they were headed back to the raft, hand in hand. When I caught up to them they were already sitting on the little blue boat, both smiling like kids letting the rain pelt them harder and harder with each gust of wind.
We had a cup of coffee and some cookies as we enjoyed a moment that few fly fishermen, let alone many people in general, ever get to experience. Loren relived the battle as he saw it, telling us the story of what we had just witnessed. The weather with its rain, wind, and fog was the paint for a story that took place on a canvas comprised of the tundra of southwestern Alaska. It was a lasting moment.
Later that day after many more trout and a lot more bickering from the familiar couple, another plane managed to make it to Moraine Creek. The radial engine of the unseen Beaver echoing through the low clouds brought a little melancholy to both of their faces. I know they had wanted to believe, that for just one day, the stream was theirs’ and theirs’ alone. But like most good things in life there is always a little blemish that with a few years of passing time we all forget, this would be one of them, of this I was sure.
Both had tired by three o’clock. The weather had taken its toll on them. We had yet to see the anglers that had arrived to the stream late and I was thankful for that as we floated to our pickup spot. Contentment and joy filled the raft as they talked once again about their many trips to Alaska. Slowly the conversation turned to things more important than fish. They talked of family and friends. Then they talked about the previous year when they had brought their daughter and her husband with them. This memory steered the conversation for the rest of the float down the river, the memory keeping them a little warmer as the rain turned colder.
I was finishing deflating the raft at our pickup spot when the raft from the invisible Beaver floated past us. Loren and Vera were sitting close together on a slight cut bank with their legs dangling over, their feet resting on the narrow beach where our plane would ground itself when it arrived. They chatted quietly, hardly noticing the other raft. I knew the guide and gave him a nod as his group floated by. He nodded toward his clients with a wry expression on his face about the same time the one wearing a cowboy hat asked Loren; “How was your day?”
“Best day ever! Lots and lots of big fish;” Loren finished emphatically holding his hands up about four feet apart. The other guide let the wind opportunely turn his boat away from my jubilant anglers.
Loren and Vera would be back next year. Loren’s tremble had gone from a nuisance to an advanced case of Parkinson’s. He would never make it back to the Moraine. Grudgingly he stayed on the local river where he could take a short boat ride to easy wading and he could go back to the lodge whenever he got tired. But every night at cocktail hour, for the last few years that he was able to travel, he would ask who ever went to the Moraine that day how their day went. He would listen intently with a glass of Scotch. Then, when they had finished telling him about their day, he would tell them about the day he had the river to himself.