“The sad truth is that excellence makes people nervous.”
~ Shana Alexander
Every year, as summer draws near, a persistent internal compass pulls at my soul, causing it to wander aimlessly but inexplicably north to Alaska.
Alaska is a remarkable place because it offers such great personal freedom. For over a hundred and fifty years people have gone there to reinvent themselves. It can bring out the very best in people and produces some extraordinary individuals. It teaches personal responsibility, inventiveness, and the value of cooperation. It rewards determination and hard work, while mercilessly weeding out weaker qualities. It produces leaders; people whom, regardless of the obstacles, just, “get the job done”. I’ve found no truer friends than in Alaska.
There is no job more difficult, nor one that requires the mastery of so many different skills, than owning and managing a remote fly-out fishing lodge. Many have tried, and few succeed. To flourish requires one to be a passionate and talented outdoorsman, a shrewd and risk-taking entrepreneur, a skilled judge of character and effective business manager, not to mention a competent and safe bush pilot. Any one of these is a worthy lifetime accomplishment – to find them all in one person is exceedingly rare.
The Boss traveled to Alaska as a nineteen-year-old, and within a couple of years, owned his own plane and was a competent pilot. He went on to manage a world class fishing lodge. A few years later he owned his own. Owning and running a fishing lodge in Alaska is a difficult, all consuming existence that creates more than its share of curmudgeons and bitter old men. I’d like to believe that The Boss remains young at heart and still loves the life.
I met The Boss in Anchorage over thirty years ago. After spending the morning picking up last minute provisions and loading them into every available square inch of a de Havilland Beaver, we lifted off of Lake Hood. This was my first time in a small plane, and I was fascinated by the choreography of it all. The Boss seemed to be doing three things at once. He turned away from the lake, climbed to altitude and trimmed the plane while talking to the tower. We headed west across Knik Arm and toward the mouth of the Susitna. I sat in the right seat alternately staring out at the landscape below me, and pondering all of the engine and flight instruments. I had a thousand questions, but it was impossible to talk over the roar of the big radial engine. And, as excited as I was, I drifted off to sleep.
“You know how to fly this thing?” The Boss yelled over the engine noise.
I snapped awake. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep, but the gentle rolling hills and boreal forests below us had changed into craggy, wind swept mountains, covered in snow, and seemingly right off of our wing tips. Broad glacial valleys twisted away, filling the space between mountaintops. A silted, boulder-strewn river braided its way through the sterile and hostile looking valley below.
“I said, do you know how to fly?” He hollered again.
The look on my face was answer enough, and The Boss rolled his eyes as he released the yoke and moved it into a locked position in front of me.
“Just keep it at this attitude and don’t hit anything,” was all I caught of his instructions as he released his belt and turned in his seat to start rummaging around behind him.
“God damn it… I know it’s here someplace!” I heard him say, as he slithered deeper into the boxes and bags stuffed to the ceiling in the back of the plane.
I didn’t dare take my eyes off the mountain that loomed in front of us. All I could see out the corner of my eyes were hip boots dangling over the back of the pilot’s seat.
He reappeared. “Just aim for that mountain”, he said, and was gone again.
At that moment the Beaver towered straight up like a high-speed elevator. “Just an updraft,” he yelled from somewhere behind me. “Just keep your attitude straight and level.”
Attitude? I thought to myself. Straight and level? Was he telling me not to panic? Something hit me in the back of the head; a box of groceries had shifted.
“Got it,” he said, as he turned and flopped back into his seat in one fluid motion. “I thought I was gonna die.”
He balanced a deli tray from Carr’s on one knee as he snapped on his seat belt. “I just love their sushi!”
We left the mountains eventually, and followed one river’s course to high ground and then into another watershed. Occasionally we’d break away to cut across country, always working south and west. In the distance, another wall of mountains marked the horizon, and we headed toward them.
“Almost there,” The Boss called out, nodding toward one of the most beautiful lakes I’d ever seen. “The lodge is just around the corner.”
At breakfast the next morning The Boss announced to the crew assembled around him that the day’s first order of business was to move, “that cabin,” he said with a nod, “over there.” He was indicating a spot well over a hundred feet away.
I laughed thinking it was some kind of joke on all of the new guys. Rusty, the head guide gave me a withering glare. I hoped The Boss hadn’t noticed.
“Rusty, why don’t you take Mister White here,” he said with a grin, “and let him unhook all of the plumbing under the cabin.”
There was still snow under the cabin and once all of the pipes had finally been cut, I crawled out soaked, muddy, and miserable. The cabin was then lifted on all four corners with high jacks, and the stump foundations kicked out from underneath. Then, it was lowered onto a track of freshly peeled logs that had been slicked with motor oil. A chainsaw winch (something new to me) and come-alongs were stretched between the cabin and a distant spruce. The slack was taken out, and when all was taut, the entire crew leaned into the cabin with shoulders and levers.
“Ready, one, two… HEAVE!” Rusty shouted.
There was a groaning the likes of which I’d never heard before or since, and the cabin moved one, single, hard-earned inch.
“Great!” The Boss said. “Let’s do it again!”
Let’s see, I thought to myself, Twelve inches to a foot… times more than a hundred feet… that’s… what’s so great about that?
“Ready, HEAVE!” Yelled Rusty.
Without knowing it, The Boss had just taught me my first lesson about life in Alaska; if it can be moved… even an inch, then moving it a mile is only a matter of time.
So, I was justifiably terrified when, a decade later, The Boss pointed toward the base of the isthmus that the lodge occupied, and declared, “We’re going to build a runway!
The first thing that has to be done,” he continued, “is to cut out all of the brush. Come on; let’s go walk it off. We’ll need at least fifteen hundred feet.”
A summer’s worth of back-breaking work revealed a swath of cleared land fifteen-hundred feet long by seventy feet wide… with a solid monolith of ancient granite as big as a Volkswagen planted perfectly in its center.
“Now what?” I asked, as we circled the rock.
“We’ll just bust it up,” he replied.
Even a twelve-pound sledge made little progress, and whoever did the swinging needed full body armor to protect him from the razor-like shards of granite that cut through the air with every bone-jarring blow.
Work came to a temporary halt.
The next morning, The Boss announced at breakfast, “We’ll bury it!”
A hole was started next to the rock that very morning. It was determined that the most difficult aspect of the operation would be keeping the monster from falling in prematurely and crushing whomever was digging. To his credit, The Boss did a lot of the shovel work. A few days later the hole was deemed big enough to swallow the obstacle, and it did. Now all that was left to do was to move several thousand metric tons of gravel.
A John Deere tractor was ordered that fall. When it arrived in Dillingham the next spring, it was disassembled into manageable parts and flown out to the lodge. The lawn was awash in a sea of green and yellow parts until, phoenix-like, a tractor emerged. There were several pieces left over, but everything seemed to work just fine.
A series of gravel pits were dug using the tractor and layers of rock have been continually spread over the length of the landing strip ever since.
The lesson had been reinforced; if it can be moved, even an inch, it’s only a matter of time and determination.
For all of his focus, The Boss could still have a good time. It was a perfect midsummer evening, the fishing had been good all week, and the guests were content. We were anchored in the narrows casting to a pod of feeding Grayling. Two hundred feet away a sow brown bear and her two cubs fed on salmon that’d washed up on the beach. All in all, it was a perfect scene… except that the Grayling were being a bit fussy about what they’d eat.
“They aren’t having much to do with my dry fly,” The Boss said. “What’re you using?”
“A little copper-bodied nymph that I’ve been working on; size 18.”
“Here,” he said, holding out his hand. “Let me see your rod, and slip the anchor a bit.”
The boat stopped 70 or 80 feet from the bears, which, while a bit concerned, kept feeding. The Boss stripped more line from the reel.
“Watch this,” he said, lengthening out his false casts and finally shooting a perfect line over the sow’s rump.
The bear turned around, startled, but still confident. The Boss paused, looked at me with a smile, and slowly lifted the rod. When the line came tight, he “set” the hook in the matted fur, and the bear bolted up the bank and over the hill, cubs in tow. The reel screamed. He palmed it, applying drag, and finally broke her off.
“Nice fly,” he said, “but you’d better work on your knots.”
A few years later, The Boss and I were sitting in the crew room talking about old times.
“Remember how we used to play poker all night?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied. “A guy could play it tight all night and make a few bucks, but whoever was down would want to cut cards at the end. I always ended up back at even, if I was lucky.”
“How much would you guys cut for?” Asked a new guy. “Was it a lot?”
“Want to cut for twenty?” The Boss asked, ignoring the kid.
“Sure.” I said turning over a card. “Nine of hearts”
“Double-or-nothing?” I asked.
“Seven. Go again?”
“Duce,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Let’s see,” The Boss said, “Twenty, forty, eighty bucks.”
A small crowd was beginning to gather. “Mind if I get in?” The kid asked.
The Boss was on fire, and in a short time a couple of the young guides were into him for a hundred and sixty dollars apiece.
I knew The Boss would let me keep going double-or-nothing until we were even; that’s what friends did. But, I was afraid that he’d teach the new guys a lesson, and make them pay.
“Tell you what,” I offered, “I’ll pick up the kids markers and go double-or-nothing for all of it, four hundred dollars.
“Sure,” he said, grinning. “King.”
“Ten, damnit! Eight hundred. Go again?”
Finally, I thought, as a hush came over the crowd. “Four,” I moaned.
The room erupted in applause. Everyone, even the two kids whose debt I’d taken on, were cheering for The Boss. He was undefeated, and ahead sixteen hundred dollars. I was just beginning to wonder if The Boss might not mean to teach me a lesson when Lisa walked through the room.
Sometimes it’s best to put your cards on the table, especially with your wife. “Honey,” I said. “The Boss is up by sixteen-hundred dollars. Do you want to cut him for double-or-nothing?” The silence was palpable.
“Sure,” she said without hesitation.
“Jack,” said The Boss.
“Ace,” Lisa declared. “We’re all even.”
She gave me a peck on the cheek and walked away while the cheers subsided.
“Oh Bob?” Lisa called from the other room. “Can we talk?”
“I better go,” I said, getting up from the table. “The Boss is calling.”