|Pete Van Gytenbeek|
The tension in the old Beechcraft was palpable. We had been in clouds for sometime and now the radio beacon from Iliamna had lost its reassuring drone. To the left there was a boulder field and to the right more of the same. I braced as John Wood, my friend and pilot, dove for the co-pilot seat. Just 24 hours earlier, eight excited fly-fishers had met at Denver’s Stapleton airport for the trip of a lifetime.
It was on to Alaska as we met with our Northair Charter. The aircraft was ill-kept and considerably older than our pilot. The company was recommended by Alaska Fish & Game, so we boarded with worried confidence and took off down Cook Inlet. We proceeded to a point opposite Homer and then turned north over the Aleutian Range to Lake Iliamna. Now flying the plane, John put the Beech into as much climb as it could stand and did not leave the cockpit until we were on the ground.
That night, we exercised some of the trout in the nearby Newhalem River. The next day we met Lynwood, the pilot who would be guiding us from place to place. His Cessna 185 had a few years on it, but was in great condition. Lynwood knew the area and his choices of fishing locations were excellent. Our first night out we stayed in an abandoned cabin at the mouth of Nonvianuk Lake. After supper, John and I went out for arctic char. Four hours later, one of our party members came down to inquire if we intended to sleep, forgetting it never gets dark.
One morning while flying over a mountain, Lynwood spotted a grizzly. We dropped down and flew in tight circles around him. The bear kept turning to keep us in sight. Now dizzy, he sat, but continued to look at us by rotating on his behind. Arriving at Gibraltar Lake, we set up camp. Once our two buddies had their tent up, we pointed out that they were on top of a game trail, though we told them it was a bear trail. We reminded them of how hungry the “Griz” had been and how close to our camp it was when we harassed him. We suggested that the bear could be kept away if one marked the area. The next morning, whenever one of us had awakened, we found one or both of the boys adding to their defensive perimeter.
Lynwood had saved Tularik Creek for our last two days, famous for its large lake-run rainbows. Mike, Owen and I had set a 10-pound goal for a mounting fish. On the first day, we caught numbers of these supercharged fish. The last day broke cold and windy with rain squalls. By noon, I had tried all of the best holds and was still without my wall fish. Elizabeth, my partner in life and fishing, suggested we explore upstream where she made a number of good drifts, but to no avail. I then tried my luck. It must have been 50 casts later that the fish inhaled my skykomish sunrise. As it tired, the trophy rainbow decided to head back to the lake. I kept as much pressure as I dared on him so he couldn’t regain his strength, but how could we land him amongst the flooded stream-side debris? Elizabeth entered the stream and as I guided the trout toward shore, she dove, pinned the fish to a hummock and dragged it to safety.
Later in the day, Lynwood buzzed the cabin. Somehow managing to land on a wide spot in the creek, he stated, “I’ll take the girls, Mike, and the gear. John, you and Van hold on to the tail as long as you can and I should be able to clear the trees with this wind. If I can, I’ll come back and get you later; otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As the Cessna tore from our grasp, it bounced into the air and was quickly swallowed by the storm. Lynwood returned two days later. After 48 hours in wet burlap, my wall fish weighed 13-pounds, 8-ounces. The taxidermist generously said it would’ve been 14-plus just out of water. Mission accomplished!