My father’s dream was to go to Alaska and fish in the wilderness. As he wasn’t getting any younger, I knew it was time that we started to plan a trip. I arranged for us to travel to a wilderness lodge in Lake Clark National Park in the Alaska bush. There are no roads of any kind in the bush, and all travel was accomplished by the use of a variety of small planes – we would be assigned our own pilot and a 1948 de Havilland Beaver seaplane at our disposal as we travelled throughout the bush.
(Dr. Norman Anderson and Dr. Stephen Anderson on Kodiak Island)
I invited my friend and coworker, Dr. Larry Gnage, and his son Brian on this adventure. The trip got off to a slow start as our 5:30 am flight to Chicago had been cancelled. We returned home and attempted to repeat the trip the next morning. As Larry’s wife was saying goodbye, she was sure to inform him that if her son was killed by a bear, “not to bother coming home.” At that moment, the realization hit us that possibly a mother’s love for the children she bore might somehow overshadow that of any man she would ever marry!
(Brian Gnage, Dr. Larry Gnage, Dr. Bruce Anderson and Dr. Stephen Anderson at Kodiak Island)
When we arrived at the Anchorage Airport after a brutal trip across all of North America, the adventure was just beginning. We took a taxi to the much smaller, remote airport in Anchorage for a flight into the bush. We had united with my father and my brother, Bruce, in Anchorage. At this remote anchorage airport, a man appeared with hair down to his waist, a long beard and a muscle t-shirt that said “ZZ-Top” on it. He looked just like one of the guitarists in the country rock band ZZ Top. I thought to myself that he must be a baggage handler. Sure enough, he grabbed all of our bags and loaded them into the 8-passenger plane. However, he then got into the pilot’s seat and started the engine. I was stunned to think… this was our pilot? We loaded everything on board and met a sixth passenger, a cowboy from Texas. I was sitting next to the cowboy as the plane took off. He then looked at me and said “Last time I was on this flight, I thought for sure I was going to die. “ This was JUST what I needed to hear as he took off towards the Alaska Wilderness.
(Tor, Brian Gnage and Dr. Larry Gnage)
The plane flew below all the tremendous mountain peaks over the Alaskan range during our approximately two-hour flight into the bush. After flying through several mountain passes, we flew over the forest and there suddenly appeared a small gravel airstrip. It looked short to me, but the pilot had no problem landing the plane. As we unloaded our bags onto the gravel surface, I looked around and wondered where the wilderness lodge was. Suddenly, out of nowhere, several college girls emerged from the forest with a dolly to take our bags to the lodge, which turned out to be high in quality with a comfortable mattress and fine food. Each day, we would fly across the state to various wilderness locations in seaplanes to fish.
Our first adventure on the flight was Kodiak Island. This was an hour and a half flight over part of the ocean to get to the island. Our pilot was Norwegian, and his first name was Tor. He was a man of few words but appeared to be a gifted pilot. De Havilland Beavers are the “work horse” of the Alaskan bush. Every day one of us would take turns being the copilot. The flight to Kodiak Island was visually spectacular. As we were flying low over the Alaskan coast, we spotted multiple large brown bears. Without warning, Tor suddenly dived low and turned the plane sideways so we could get a good look. I was deeply disturbed by this sudden sideways maneuver, although the view of the bears on the beach was spectacular. As we landed on a remote lake on the west end of Kodiak Island, he peered out of the plane, produced a sawed-off shotgun, loaded it and pointed it as we got out. It felt like we were on a military mission. He then informed us it was all clear. We had flown the entire flight wearing chest waders, as we had to wade through the water to get in and out of the seaplane. Still in our waders, we hiked down the dense forest of Kodiak Island several hundred yards to a moderately-sized river. Tor was leading the way the entire time with his loaded shotgun, ready to fire at any moment. We came to a large pile of bear scat that still had steam rising up from it meaning that it was fresh. This put Tor on high alert. Upon my first sight of the river, I was stunned. There were red sockeye salmon as far as the eye could see. I pulled out my flyrod immediately and proceeded to catch approximately 8–10-pound salmon on every single cast. Once we pulled out between 50-60 salmon each, we all began to tire. For the duration of the day, Tor stood behind us with a shotgun, loaded and ready to fire. At one point I turned around and asked Tor, “Have you ever used that thing?” and all he said was “Yah” and gave no details. We heard some rustling in the distant forest and then Tor said, “I think it is time to go.” At that point, having caught more salmon than I ever could have imagined and with tired arms, I was ready to return to the plane.
(Dr. Anderson on Kodiak Island)
As we left Kodiak Island and flew back to the mainland on our small seaplane, a storm came up causing the plane to sway back and forth. There are no instruments in a de Havilland Beaver seaplane. It is all visual flying. I wondered what would happen if we suddenly had to ditch into the stormy ocean, as there appeared to be 8–10-foot seas in the cold Pacific below us. We arrived safely back at the lodge to enjoy a wonderful halibut and salmon dinner served by the same college girls who greeted us at the gravel airstrip the day before.
(Dr. Larry Gnage, Brian Gnage, Dr. Norman Anderson, Dr. Bruce Anderson and Dr. Stephen Anderson – Dinner at lodge)
There was a beautiful hiking trail that I enjoyed walking on in the evenings after a long day fishing. One evening, I hiked by myself perhaps a half mile up from the lodge and then returned. As I rounded the corner, I heard rustling and noises and became awfully nervous. I peered around the corner, and there stood a woman armed with a large can of bear mace and had it pointed directly at me. I stopped and yelled, “I am human!” Luckily, she did not discharge the bear mace, because it has been known to knock a bear down from 50 yards away, so who knows what it would have done to me.
The next day, we flew to a different area of the bush where we were dropped off with a guide. He was carrying a large pack with an inflatable raft on his back and a large sawed-off shot gun. The plan was similar to a military mission. We would be dropped off in the bush, hike overland for approximately a mile to a river, inflate the raft and then fish our way downstream for approximately 10 miles. There we would arrive at an Eskimo village and be picked up by our pilot and taken back to the lodge. This seemed like an aggressive trip, but when you are in the bush, moving quickly and efficiently is of the essence. Because we were in the bush, Larry brought his surgical kit with him. In an emergent situation, he could remove an appendix if necessary, or stitch up any open wounds. The seaplane dropped us off at a remote pond with the guide and his large pack, and we hiked overland as planned to fish on the beautiful blue glacial wilderness river. The guide inflated the raft on the bank of the river and we proceeded to have one of the most spectacular boat trips I have ever been on. Large schools of sockeye salmon filled the river, and I caught more salmon than I could ever imagine. When we arrived at the Eskimo village at the end of the trip, our seaplane was there to take us home.
As we were ready to take off, it was my turn to the be the copilot. I climbed into the seat in my chest waders, buckled my 1948 seatbelt and shut the seaplane door. As the plane was taking off from the large wilderness lake, my door flew wide open. As I felt myself being sucked out for an eventual several hundred-foot drop in the deep-freezing cold water in chest waders, the pilot irritatedly exclaimed, “That damn door always opens on takeoff.” With one hand on the wheel, he reached over across my lap, grabbed the door and slammed it shut hard. Luckily, it stayed closed. I was pretty shaken up, as the only thing keeping me from a 200-foot drop into a freezing cold deep-water lake in chest waders was a 1948 rotting seatbelt. Thankfully, this did not happen again during the remainder of our trip.
The following day’s excursion involved a lengthy flight to the Nushagak River in the western bush for silver salmon. We were once again reunited with Tor, who was known to be the best available bush pilot. Hopefully, the door to his plane would not open during takeoff. As the plane landed in the Nushagak River in the pouring rain, I realized it was going to be a long, cold day. To be honest, I do not recall ever being warm on this entire trip. We began catching large silver salmon despite the 45-degree chill and rain. We had seen numerous caribou nearby as well as seeing large herds of caribou during the flight. I had never seen caribou, and this was extremely exciting for me. Suddenly, from across the river, we heard multiple gunshots. Bullets started flying within 20 yards of our position, and Tor again became on high alert. Some native Eskimos were apparently hunting caribou across the river, and somehow the bullets were headed towards us. We began to yell loudly. They did not seem to notice and continued on their way. Those few random shots may have been thrown in our direction just to shake us up, encouraging us to depart.
(Dr. Stephen Anderson and Dr. Bruce Anderson – Kodiak Island)
Later that week, we had another aggressive plane trip into the western bush, which forced us across the peaks of the Alaska range. We arrived at another wilderness river where Tor had a jetboat waiting, and we proceeded to take the boat several miles up the river to go fishing for Arctic char and rainbow trout. As usual, the fishing was spectacular. Larry and Brian, in particular, were having a good time catching large 5–6-pound char on every single cast.
(Dr. Larry Gnage and Dr. Anderson – Kodiak Island)
Suddenly, the cloud cover became very thick and Tor, looking at the sky and being a man of few words, said: “Yah, you keep catching fish like that, we spend a week here,”
I looked at Larry and said, “Larry, I think we have to leave.”
Larry replied, “No, we can’t leave now. This is the best fishing of my life,”
I said, “No, Tor says we have to leave or we have to camp on the ground here and eat fish for a week,”
Because of the weather, Tor would be unable to fly home as the de Havilland Beavers seaplane required sight flying only. There are no instruments. Suddenly, Larry caught on. He looked at me and looked at the cloud cover coming. Apparently, a huge storm was blowing in from the Bering Sea, so we all piled into the jet boat and raced downriver to get to the seaplane. As we got into the plane, Tor said, “Yah, I go for it.” (Oh great… and I was in the copilots seat!) With those words of confidence, we lifted above the trees. He flew the first 20 miles approximately 10 feet over the tree tops in a narrow window between the clouds. I was terrified. As we approached the massive Alaska range, the fog thickened, and suddenly we were flying between snow-capped peaks with only 50 feet of leeway on either side. Somehow Tor managed to wedge between the mountain passes and peaks and fly through the thick fog without incident.
(Tor and Brian Gnage)
As we crossed the pass and headed to Lake Clark, the sky opened up, and we could see the lake and the lodge in the distance. I was never so happy to arrive back to the safety and comfort of that lodge.
The weather front officially arrived the next day and forced the grounding of all the planes. So, Larry, Brian and I decided to hike a mile and a half into the wilderness to a nearby waterfall and do some grayling fishing. As we fished below the waterfalls and were catching some decent-sized grayling, all the while admiring the beauty of this waterfall amidst the Alaskan wilderness, a moderately-sized black shape appeared over the waterfall. It fell into the plunge pool below. Larry looked at me and said “That looked like a dog,” I said, “There are no dogs in the wilderness, that’s a bear!” Sure enough, a brown bear cub had somehow fallen over the waterfall and was suddenly swimming towards Larry. At first we thought, “Isn’t that cute?” Then the thought came… if that’s the cub, then where’s the mother? We decided in the interest of self-preservation, it was perhaps time to hike back to the lodge. The bear swam towards Larry. As we moved away, it emerged, seemingly lost and began making noises – probably calling its mother. We began a rapid exit and return hike to the lodge. Luckily for us, there were no other bear sightings that day.
The following day, we had a scheduled flight back to Anchorage in a different plane. We arrived at the ground airstrip to see our plane lopsided and tilted to one side. This did not instill confidence in us for our flight home. Apparently, the baggage was not dispersed evenly, causing the shift. To remedy this, the two young pilots, who looked to be in their early 20s, added some heavy boards inside the tail of the plane to help balance it. About nine of us filed into the Brazilian plane, and Larry and I were fortunate enough to sit directly behind the pilots. As we took off, the cloud ceiling was once again low, and the pilot informed us that the first 20 miles of the trip were going to be a bit dicey over the trees (Gee, where had I heard this before?). As we flew low over the trees, a “drip-drip-drip” of water began to hit us from the roof of the plane. Larry and I looked at each other and then we noticed the copilot was reading a manual entitled, “How to fly a Brazilian (whatever type of plane this was) plane.” She was actually reading the manual on how to fly this plane from the copilots chair! This undoubtedly added some stress to our flight, but the cloud cover lifted as we crossed Lake Iliamna, and it turned out to be a beautiful flight back to Anchorage.
At one point it occurred to us that we had not seen the sun once while we were in Alaska. When the sun does comes come out, it is actually known as “cloud failure.”
I returned to this remote lodge in Lake Clark National Park in the bush for the next two consecutive years. After that, there were reports of several people mauled and killed by bears on the very trail that I hiked every evening outside of the lodge. My wife became concerned after reading this in my Alaska magazine. I never returned to the bush after that, but Larry, my father and I would often reminisce about our Alaskan adventures.
(Lake Clark Airport from the air)