Larger Than Life

November 29, 2006
Filed under Travel

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Almost all of the people I’ve encountered on my trips to Alaska have made me feel as though
I haven’t done much with my life. Not that the residents of The Last Frontier have
willfully belittled me and my piddling existence — far from it. In fact, I’ve met Alaska
residents so comfortable in their own skin that they didn’t feel compelled to impress me
with their accomplishments. They either stated them matter-of-factly or only revealed the
richness of their thrilling lives after I poked and prodded. No, my feelings of adventure
inadequacy come by way of comparison, since my athletic pursuits and life experiences seem
as puny as Rhode Island when measured against the oversized endeavors of Alaskans. On a
recent trip, for example, I went fishing with Joe Warchuck, a United States Coast
Guard-certified Master Captain who is based in Skagway during the summer months. Joe owns
Fat Salmon Charters, and as I stepped onto his 35-foot boat, named Badly Bent and
moored in the small boat harbor just steps from downtown, I instantly recognized a man at
ease with the world. Of course, as we set out into the Lynn Canal, I learned that Joe had
good reason to feel so comfortable with the life he’s set up. During summer, Joe takes
clients out to troll for king salmon, the largest of the five Pacific salmon species, and
many of these smiling anglers often have to struggle to hoist their 40-pound catches for
the requisite hero photos. When not catering to clients, Joe dives into the very cold water
of the canal and searches in extremely limited visibility for Dungeness crabs, stuffing
them in a sack, then sorting out the keepers when he returns to shore and can actually see
the creatures. I felt cold and freaked out just listening to him tell the story. To Joe,
however, diving in those conditions is second-nature, since when he’s not chasing fish in
his twin-engine boat he’s utilizing his Professional Association of Diving Instructors
(PADI) Divemaster certification by teaching scuba diving in countries like Honduras (did I
mention he’s an Eagle Scout?). He summers as a charter-boat captain, then winters as a
divemaster at exotic resorts — Joe isn’t exactly working for “the man,” I thought. AS JOE
AND I TALKED about the physical makeup of the channel and about his various jobs, he
emphatically said, “Fish on!” and I jumped for the rod. I lifted it, then yanked hard to
free the line from the downrigger. Then I yanked again, since my first effort was feeble. I
made sure to heed Joe’s advice about not dropping the rod tip no matter what, and to keep
reeling even when it felt as though the fish was off, since inevitably a king will make a
fast run toward the boat, and an unprepared angler will stop reeling, thus losing the fish.
As it turned out, I boated a small king salmon, and Joe asked me if I wanted to keep it,
implying with his tone that I shouldn’t bother. But since my Alaskan fishing luck had been
bad — this was the first salmon other than a fry I’d caught on numerous trips — I figured
a fish in the hand is better than a scaly giant swimming past, so I kept it. When Joe
filleted the fish later, it turned out to be a white king, which is extremely rare
elsewhere but occurs in one of every four fish in the Lynn Canal. The white meat on the
barbecue that night caused me to remind myself that it was indeed a salmon, but the fish
was every bit as delicious as any salmon I’ve ever eaten. Joe lives with his girlfriend,
Courtney Wilson, in a small, old Shasta trailer in a nearby Skagway campground during the
summer. When the season ends, they head for distant lands, where they don backpacks and
immerse themselves in different cultures. I hung out with the couple at their trailer and
admired their rapport and the obvious respect they have for each other. As I walked back to
the RV, I reminded myself that with the love of the right woman, any lifestyle is possible.
WHEN I MET BRENDAN ELWELL, who is a guide for Denali Jeep Backcountry Safari, his stories
seemed borderline impossible. Not that this young, impressive man was lying — it was just
that his feats stretched the edges of credulity. We met high on the bank of the Nenana
River, just north of Denali National Park, in a campground parking lot. Our plan was to set
out on an off-road adventure along the Stampede Road, a rugged swath cut through the
wilderness by miners in search of gold and antimony. After our small group listened to
Brendan describe just how wrong things could go, and how we had no legal recourse were the
worst to materialize, each of us signed a waiver and hopped into one of the three 4 x 4
Jeep Wranglers we would soon court danger in. Compared to the adventures Brendan recounted
as he drove, the off-roading seemed like it involved training wheels. Brendan was a river
guide before serving in Iraq, arriving just after Baghdad fell, then disabling Improvised
Explosive Devices (IMDs) until his tour ended. He free-solos rock faces, meaning he climbs
without ropes and the protection against catastrophe they can provide. He has pendulumed
off the bridge that spans the Nenana near where Denali Jeep Backcountry Safari is based,
and as he described what penduluming entails, I wondered whether it was wise to be a
passenger in a vehicle driven by this man. Brendan, I soon learned, channels a
professional, safety-conscious persona when he acts as on off-road guide. He puts drivers
at ease, communicates via radio with insight and humor and imparts information about the
terrain and its history with style. And he maneuvers the Jeep through mud-bogged ruts and
kidney-crushing potholes like a man who knows what real adventures are.

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