Miles Nolte's "Alaska Chronicles"July 15

We have a unique group in camp this week. The ringleader and financier (we’ll call him Jake) has been fishing up here with Ken for fifteen years, since this place was only four tents and two guides.

Jake is a very wealthy individual who runs a successful factory business. Every year he brings a group of twenty or so with him—mainly his blue-collar employees: machinists, mechanics, and their sons. He also brings his two boys, one in his early twenties and the other in his mid-teens, along with a few of their friends. So Jake is basically footing the tab for a large contingent of Midwestern factory workers who would otherwise never experience a fishing trip such as this one.

The scene this week is one you rarely see in a high-dollar fishing camp: a crew of guys with chew pushing out their bottom lips, wearing camouflage neoprenes, chucking hardware, and sucking down canned Budweiser as fast as we can supply it.

To be perfectly honest, this is not the culture with which I’m most familiar, and these guys don’t practice the style of fishing that I particularly enjoy, but in some ways they are refreshing.

Often I take people fishing who are not capable of truly appreciating the experience of this place because they have the means to purchase such a trip whenever they choose. If their preconceived expectations (mostly pieced together from glossy ads and feature articles) are not met, they often leave here disappointed. Believe it or not, we can’t guarantee any client a picture of himself holding a thirty-inch trout on a gravel bar pocked with grizzly prints on a bright sunny day with a moose standing majestically in the background. But that’s what some people come here expecting.

In contrast, these guys are content to sit on the riverbank, drink beer, huck metal into the current, and reel in fish. They may not be the greatest sportsmen in the world—they don’t really care which end of the salmon gets hooked—but they’re easy to guide and they provide a dose of reality in a surreal existence. Since the king salmon are so incredibly late this year, they can’t do too much damage to our Chinook fishery—and I really don’t care how many sockeyes they catch. Last year our entire sockeye run was just over a million fish, but this summer we’ve had over two million blow past us already. For now, the sockeye population is safe.

Jake is a salt-of-the-earth type of guy. This is a man who could buy and sell most of our clients, yet he arrived here in shoes with duct tape holding one of the soles in place. He doesn’t bring big-wig captains of industry (like himself) up here to network; he brings his employees because they’re the people he spends his time with. He gets a kick out of giving this sort of experience to the good people who help make him money.

He’s chartered planes in past seasons to bring out cases of beer when the supplies were running low. I even heard a story about him sending out a plane with one case of whiskey on it, just because somebody in the group wanted something besides canned Bud. He’s a no-bullshit kind of man. Last year, the first time I ever guided him, he hopped in the boat and said, “Okay, guy, here’s the deal: you can forget to bring lunch—hell, you can even forget the rods and tackle—but if we run out of beer on the river, there’ll be hell to pay.”

We spent the first half of that day scouting for kings. We didn’t have much luck, but after he had drained a half rack of Bud, he changed to a new game. Jake likes games. This one involved him pointing out a random braid in the river and seeing if I could drive us through it regardless of where it went. After I successfully hopped the boat over a beaver dam in a particularly narrow flow of water and safely navigated us back to the main river, he handed me a crisp hundred-dollar bill and assured me that it was not coming out of the tip he was leaving for the whole camp. I’m pretty sure he never noticed the panic thudding in my chest when we were bearing down on that beaver dam.

Jake is a very generous man, but he’s not the kind of guy whose patience I wish to test. So far as I can tell, he will gladly throw down and kick the shit out of anyone standing in his way, literally or figuratively. I’ve heard several stories of him doing just that.

Today Jake assembled six guides and all twenty-two of his guests on the same gravel bar for an impromptu sockeye tournament. It was Jake’s tournament, so everyone understood that Jake’s team was going to win. Considering the prize at stake was a jar of Goober Grape (the peanut butter and jelly pre-mix), it didn’t really matter anyway.

The rules were simple: there were no rules. People were throwing rocks into holes, slashing lines with pocket knives, and getting tackled into the water. It was the antithesis of the somber tone that so often accompanies the guiding that I do. No one cared or whined about catching (not catching) a big fish. There were no anal discussions or palpations about rod and reel performance or casting technique. This was all about being there and having fun. Well, that and drinking lots of beer.

At the end of the day I was running the shuttle service, ferrying all the people from the gravel bar back to camp, but Jake wasn’t ready to go home. I saved him and one of his machinists for the last run, and then I sat in my boat as the evening crept in around us while they talked about life. They talked about raising kids to be tough and strong. Jake told of how he worked his way up from being on food stamps. They talked about shooting deer in their hometown, how to build the perfect shotgun, and how they struggled to prove themselves as men in the eyes of their fathers. They compared the mafia ties their grandparents each had, and they lamented the deaths of shared small-town acquaintances. They discussed what they couldn’t understand about their teenage sons and the things that made them most proud of those boys.

We sat out there so long that another guide brought us paper plates heaped with steak and potatoes for dinner. I sat and listened and tried to blend into the background. I didn’t want to intrude on a moment of sublime friendship. The bears wandered around us, feeding heavily in the late-day cool. I sat with a loaded shotgun across my knees, but they kept their posturing and hostilities among their own. We ran out of food and beer as the smell of rain turned into splattering drops on the river. It was time to go home.

Do I want to spend an extra four hours on the river every day? No. But it felt right today. If every group was like this, I wouldn’t work here; this is not the kind of guiding I came to do. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t learn anything from these guys.