Talkeetna, Alaska • After 30-some years of dreaming about standing in an Alaskan river and casting to salmon I finally made it. But before the reality of it even had time to truly sink in I was experiencing something I can only best explain as “Survivor’s Guilt.”
It is a term often used in the climbing world when a partner is lost in a fall or an avalanche. The survivor feels guilty for having avoided death when their partner perished.
For me, the survivor’s guilt is not so harsh, and I’m only using the term because it best describes how I felt while casting to pink and chum salmon Wednesday evening.
The dream of making it to Alaska started early for me. As I remember it I was flipping through a magazine and came across a story about fishing the interior waters. Photos of big rainbows and Arctic grayling lured me in and by the time I was done reading the article I was determined to make it to Alaska. Through the years I set the hook deeper by developing an interest in catching salmon on a fly rod.
I arrived in Anchorage about 1 p.m. on Wednesday with my friend Reed Sherman from Salt Lake. Fellow outdoor writers Mark Taylor of Roanoke, Va., and Mark Freeman of Medford, Ore., picked us up in a motor home and we started our journey toward Fairbanks. We came to Alaska to attend the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) annual conference, but are spending time fishing before and after the meeting.
By the time we made it out of town and stopped in Wasilla for our licenses and bear spray it was early evening. We checked a few rivers during the drive, but found them high and off color due to recent heavy rains. Finally, we found Montana Creek. We went to scout the river before getting suited up and spotted salmon immediately.
“I haven’t had shaky hands while trying to run the line on my rod for years,” I told Taylor.
Stepping over dead salmon — and what is it about me that has to kick a decomposing fish stuck against a rock or branch downstream — we started casting.
It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. The living fish were focused on one thing and one thing only — spawning. Finally, one of the fish decided to accommodate my whims and lightly took my pink fly.
It was then that the guilt hit. Somebody I had dreamed about this moment with for decades was back in Salt Lake. Starting in junior high my best friend Cory and I dreamed of fishing Alaska while exploring the waters of Utah. We talked about how one day we would make the trip to the motherland.
Here I was living that dream and he wasn’t with me. It bummed me out, but then the fish turned its head and got that big hump in the current working my 7-weight rod like it was meant to be worked and the excitement returned.
Fish finally in hand, the realization of a dream accomplished sunk in. I raised the salmon in a toast to Cory and let it go to perpetuate the species.