Two weeks ago, five Spokane men flew to Alaska for the fly fishing trip of their dreams.
From Anchorage, they flew to Kodiak, where a float plane greeted them like clockwork for the shuttle to the Karluk River.
They were hooking 18-pound silver salmon, 8-pound Dolly Varden and ocean-bright steelhead within an hour.
Meanwhile, scheduled just a half a day behind them, I was having a fisherman’s nightmare.
Clay Findlay had pumped up his friends last year with stories about the Karluk, where coho after coho ripped line through the fly rod guides until his arms went numb.
Four other buddies jumped on the fishwagon to join Findlay on a return visit this fall. They planned ahead, booking last winter with a rustic fishing camp to make sure they were on the Karluk during peak of the run.
I left four days before the Spokane group with plans to rendezvous on the Karluk the day after they were to arrive. A friend and pilot had invited me to explore the great fall salmon fishing at remote rivers we could reach only in his two-seater Super Cub.
Unfortunately, I spent four days touring Anchorage coffee shops waiting for the wind to calm down enough to fly.
I tried to salvage the time with a halibut charter out of Homer, but 15-foot seas were keeping the boats docked.
With four fishless days behind me, I was anxious to get on my scheduled flight to Kodiak, but the jet couldn’t leave Anchorage. Kodiak had recorded 7 inches of rain the day before, and it was still socked in.
A day later, the crowded concourse erupted in cheers at the announcement that the next flight would depart.
We were in our final approach to Kodiak, visibility zero, when the jet’s engines roared, the nose tipped steeply up and burst out of the fog like a whale rushing for an urgent breath of air.
“We were told the ceiling was 900 feet, but we got to 700 and couldn’t see anything,” the pilot’s voice crackled through the speakers. “We’re heading back to Anchorage.”
Unless you have a death wish, you don’t argue with an Alaska pilot who doesn’t think it’s safe to fly.
But disappointment was obvious, especially among the anglers. Most had carried on their fishing rods and were wearing fishing clothes, ready to be on a river within hours after their arrival.
They had taken the time from work, spent the money on airline tickets, made reservations for guides, lodges and bush planes.
But they couldn’t get out of the Anchorage airport.
“Alaskans learn to live with the weather, or they die,” said my pilot friend back in Anchorage.
I pondered his philosophy as we drove down the street for more coffee. Water splatted against the bottom of the car and the windshield wipers were beating back and forth when I noticed a dozen cars in line for a commercial car wash.
“It’s a car-wash day in Alaska,” my friend said.
En route to Kodiak on the last flight of the day, the flight attendants were halfway down the aisle with the beverage cart when the pilot announced that visibility had deteriorated in Kodiak and once again he wasn’t sure we’d be able to land.
Two fishermen who also had been trying for days to get to the island looked at the cola in their cups. They glanced at each other. Then one waved a $20 bill at the flight attendant, who walked back with four bottles of vodka.
Even the fishermen are giving up.
Of course, we got to Kodiak eventually.
By that time, snug and smug in their fishing camp on the north side of the Island, Findlay and each of his partners had boxed their five take-home salmon. They even had their fill of catching and releasing Alaska salmon on the opposite side of the island where the weather was relatively pleasant.
At the Kodiak airport, however, it was difficult to tell who was more excited: those who had just arrived on the first flight to land in nearly four days, or those who were getting their chance to leave.
The weather still was marginal for float planes to fly. Every rental car on the island was taken. Anglers who had spent more than $1,000 for a fishing dream trip were faced with hitching to a roadside river.
Or drinking more vodka.
One angler on the plane had clapped his hands and cheered upon arrival. But his face paled as he looked out the terminal as the wind whipped the fog and rain.
“I spent four days worrying whether I’d get into this place,” he said. “I’ll spend the next six days worrying whether I’ll be able to get out.”