When Tom Belknap was growing up, two things ruled his life: a love of fishing and an expectation that he’d grow up to become a dentist in the Spokane Valley, just like his dad and his uncle. He went from Gonzaga Prep to Carroll University in Wisconsin, and all was going well for nine semesters – until he got a job in Alaska.
“My first year in Alaska was 2006, and I knew on the spot that was what I wanted to do,” said Belknap, sitting in the kitchen of his parents’ home in Greenacres. Belknap had gotten a gig as a fishing guide on the Kenai River, and there was just no turning back to drilling in people’s teeth.
During his junior year in high school, Belknap stopped playing football and began taking his dad’s truck and boat down to Lewiston to go steelhead fishing.
“I must have been about 16,” Belknap said. “I completely fell in love with steelhead fishing and I kind of lost interest in athletics after that.”
It was a chance encounter at a Safari Club convention that landed Belknap his first Alaska job.
“He just walked up to this man and said, ‘You have got to hire me this summer,’ ” said Belknap’s dad, John Belknap. “And he hired him.”
Today, after finishing up a business degree at the University of Montana in December, Belknap runs his own guide business on the Kenai River. Things are going great.
“There are lots of guides on the river up there, but I think I’m the only one who truly enjoys what I do,” said Belknap.
Getting to this point wasn’t all smooth sailing. The first three summers in Alaska, Belknap lived in the back of his truck instead of paying rent for a room where, as he puts it, he’d never be.
“I’d get up at 2 a.m. and go down to the river for a bath when no one else was around,” he said, laughing.
Spiders lived in the back of his truck as well, and an encounter with a brown recluse sent Belknap to the emergency room.
“I had this big thing growing on my head, this big bump,” Belknap said. “The first time I went to the ER, the wait was something like six hours, with people who had fishing hooks in their eyelids and stuff, so I went home.”
He ended up in the hospital a few days later when his hand started swelling up, too.
“It was kind of bad,” he admits, but it was also good because it was while dealing with the spider bite that Belknap met his girlfriend, Devon Copple.
“She didn’t seem to mind too much,” Belknap said with a smile, showing off the scar the bite left on his head.
The fishing schedule is grueling during the season: Belknap fishes from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., followed by other chores and getting ready for next day’s trip, until he crashes at midnight – often to get up at 3 a.m.
Of course he eats a lot of fish, but the rest of his diet is not exactly what the doctor ordered.
“I usually drink five of those five-hour energy drinks in the morning, and I go through about a gallon of Mountain Dew and a handful of Snickers in a day,” said Belknap. “I mean, for the dentist’s kid to eat like that, you know, is perhaps not the best.”
And no, he doesn’t have a single cavity – his dad confirms this.
His best friend from Gonzaga Prep, Grant Cox, is clearly proud of his buddy, though he hasn’t gone fishing in Alaska with him yet.
“I got to make it up there, I just have to make it,” said Cox.
The two maintain a close friendship even while Belknap is away from Spokane.
“I may not see him for over a year, but when I do he’s always the same old Tom and we just pick up like we saw each other the week before,” Cox said. “I would also say he’s really lucky to be able to do what he loves.”
Belknap started Belknap Guide Services because he got tired of working for next to nothing for people who own hotels and lodges on the river. He takes four people out on his boat at a time. They range in age from children to grandparents, with skill levels just as different.
He tells a story about a fishing party last year where four fishers got their lines tangled up, just as one of them had hooked a 75-pound silver salmon.
“I leaned out over the boat, cut all the lines, tied two back together and we pulled the fish on board,” said Belknap. “You should have seen the look on the man’s face: he’d just hooked the biggest fish of his life and I cut the line. But hey, it all worked out.”