By now I should have known even dream jobs were prone to abject disappointment. To get here I had flown hundreds of miles across barren tundra, thin forests, braided rivers and thousands of lakes to one of the most remote fishing lodges in all of Alaska. Upon landing on the gravel airstrip I was awestruck by the surrounding wilderness that was no longer an exception but the rule. Whatever dreams I had chased in my mind as an adolescent were unfolding with every step forward off that plane. It was the raw definition of personal adventure – voluntarily emerging from a zone of comfort and immersing oneself into a foreign and unfamiliar world.
I was nervous about meeting the expectations of my new employers and consequently the head guide at Unalakleet River Lodge, or affectionately to be known as URL. The head guide was a lanky old dude from Idaho named Norm. He wasn’t genuinely friendly nor was he interested in reciprocating friendly gestures. Initially I brushed him off as perhaps a stoic savant and offered simple banter to hopefully pacify his demeanor – to no avail. As for the rest of this budding fraternity we came from all points south, every guide an addict at heart willing to do just about anything for the promise of fish. On the surface it was the only thing we had in common, but it was enough to form friendships rather than foes.
There were plenty of opportunities during the first few weeks to out fish even our most far out dreams. Life had restored its pulse to the area after a typically harsh winter. Chinook salmon were beginning to run up the rivers even though they were frozen highways just weeks prior. Daylight engulfed a generous portion of the day and we only had to work a modest schedule readying the lodge for the first round of guests. The remaining 10+ hours we spent exploring the Unalakleet River and its’ most prolific tributary, the North River. It was imperative we become confident in our own skills here before the actual guiding began, so technically we were training and perfecting our craft.
A couple guys had returned from previous guiding seasons which was a sign I had picked a good lodge – with so many guiding opportunities in Alaska it’s impressive to have guides return for more. The money was predictably good but the fishing was apparently legendary in this place we had never heard of and just recently learned how to pronounce. Their info and tips were critical to our initial success, as some of the methods employed were foreign to anyone who hadn’t taken salmon from heavy current in a boat. We were all fly fishermen at heart but the job at hand was to put fish in the boat – that required the use of level wind reels and stiff rods feeble clients could handle. We ‘back trolled’ in the current, pointing our stern up-river with the bow pointing downstream. The idea was to position the lure(s) in the prime seams of current where the salmon would be swimming, creating an obstacle to their relentless forward progress. These fish were no longer feeding and would be making haste for their spawning grounds nearby, so anything in their way was swiftly dealt with. A neon orange or pink wiggling mag wort was a deadly mistake for these early season Kings.
The first two weeks were known as ‘Early King Season’ and offered guests a chance at world-class fishing for 50% the normal fee. It was a bit of a gamble considering they could arrive when the Kings were still stubbornly making laps in Norton Sound, but this particular year paid out handsomely for those willing to come early. It was also a great opportunity for the owners and Norm to flush out any problem guides – which had happened in the past. It was about this time Norm’s reputation as an enforcer came to light. Apparently, Norm was a former law man for the US Forest Service in Idaho – a black belt in some kind of martial arts discipline to boot with the personality of a saddle blanket. He had known the owners for many years, and this marked his sixth or seventh season, his tenure earning him the title of head guide by default. The story told from the other seasoned guides was that Norm kicked the shit out of the previous head guide and forced him to voluntarily extricate himself from the lodge. I don’t recall the circumstances, other than there was a disagreement and Norm’s special skills were either undervalued or discounted entirely by his predecessor. The guy supposedly hid in his tent for three days until he could arrange return transport to Anchorage. Then Norm assumed the role of head guide.
I may have mentioned before that I was gregarious by nature at this stage in my life. I was 25 and still believed most people were honest and worth forging a friendship with. Norm was no different – I tried but failed to earn his admiration which was becoming a bit frustrating despite my attempts to find his soft underbelly. I eventually took his rebukes to be offensive and considered our interactions to border on contentious. The owners were cognizant of his reputation among the guides but they cared little to intervene. The other guys were far better adapted to this type of adversity in the workplace than I was and it made me a prime target for Norm. His former career in law enforcement should have been my first indication that this guy was used to winning, and subsequently I was going to lose. The thought of this old lanky geezer physically kicking my ass amused me to the point of wanting to poke the bear. I was plenty accustomed to brawling but to be honest I’d never had my ass kicked by anyone except my brother and my luck was probably running out. I didn’t get the sense Norm wanted to throw down in his waders but I was damn glad to have my dog at my side when we weren’t fishing. Bear Dog would have killed that old fucker had he decided to kung foo me on the trail.
The stage was set for a fabulous summer of fishing despite my rocky start with Norm. I got along famously with a couple of the other guides and we spent hours fishing together after the guests were fed and tucked in for the night. My clients were having a great time and it was my boat that brought in the first Coho for the season – an exciting development for everyone who had ever dreamed of having their backing exposed. My reputation with the owners was also on solid ground despite the negative undercurrent flowing with their most seasoned veteran. They offered some advice to help quell the animosity but it was useless. I still didn’t understand that it wasn’t important for Norm to like me – he didn’t like anyone. My best friend in the group was Lee – a big kid from Oklahoma who to this day remains one of my favorite personal encounters. His good friend Ty had spent a season at URL a few years prior, prompting Lee to apply for a job the same season I had. Ty was a bit of a character and pushed Norm to the same level of consternation that I had – to the point of seeking Norm out in his home waters of Idaho despite Norm telling him to never talk to him again. The story Lee told was a great reminder that revenge didn’t have to come in the form of violence. Norm was a Steelhead fisherman – only the lucky and the dedicated are successful in their pursuit and I’m sure Norm was exceptionally honed at catching these noble beasts in his local rivers and streams. Ty was the ultimate fishing addict, doing a fair amount of globetrotting to find sport fish when he wasn’t guiding. The fabled Steelhead of Idaho rank up there with Copper River Kings, Tarpon and Roosterfish – people can spend a lifetime in their pursuit. Ty saw his opportunity to fast track his mission to success and tracked Norm down on his home water – he was warned to go away but persisted to the point of taking fish from Norm’s secret holes, never earning the approval or respect from Norm that he no doubt cared little to obtain. I loved that story and Lee would recount it anytime I wanted to seek revenge against the only drawback to an otherwise perfect posting.
One particular trait that I possess in deference to most fisherman is that I’m usually in a hurry. This didn’t sit well with Norm who was in nobody’s hurry. I wanted to go farther than anyone normally went to catch fish that would otherwise have been home free. In that pursuit I had a tendency to encounter shallow water and, consequently, gravel. Jet drives don’t necessarily care for gravel and the ramifications can be deadly to the impeller system. The owners warned us about running thin, braided sections of the river and so I earnestly took every precaution to lighten the load in my jet sled every time I could predict a close scrape. Once I had memorized both rivers I knew precisely where to ditch my client(s) on the bank while I navigated the treacherous section and we’d be safely on our way above or below. I led some epic adventures up the North River to places few white men or women had ventured by boat – or at least it seemed like the natives that occupied fish drying shacks in that area were just as mystified by our presence. No roads existed – nothing could be accessed without a 4-wheeler, boat or snowmobile in the winter. It was what people referred to when calling Alaska ‘The Final Frontier.’
The summer heat became oppressive and temporary relief would come from torrential rainstorms, swelling the river to what would be considered flood stage had any populace existed along its banks. Debris in the form of entire trees and their shallow root wads would come with elevated flows, requiring focused navigation as we explored the rivers north and east. Giant sweepers would block critical channels and the flat bottom jet sleds could essentially be driven over them with caution. The actual jet sat flush with the bottom of the boat’s transom, but you wanted to tilt the motor as you cleared the debris to avoid sucking junk into the impeller. This became a routine practice on our outings, but again the owners cautioned us against using the tiller of the outboard as a lever to tilt the engine, as it would cause unwarranted stress on the engine – fair enough, at least under supervision. Abusing the equipment that we needed to traverse these amazing landscapes was never a good idea considering they had to be flown into camp. My cavalier attitude toward machinery in that wilderness outpost was just enough to tip Norm over the edge. Ultimately it would be the linchpin to his unhinging and he focused his wire framed, government issued spectacles on my every move.
A wild group of bankers from Atlanta were on a return trip to URL one week, the choice guides getting at least one or more constituents in their boat. These guys were party animals on a fishing trip – they weren’t die hard anything except fun boys, which was great considering they wanted their guides to revel in the madness as well. So it was a fast and furious week with this crew and I was determined to meet their expectations, within reason. Shore lunches were scheduled every afternoon with coolers stuffed with beer and mixers. They must have brought over a pound of weed with them which suited the guides fine, we were dangerously low on supply. Their antics were contagious and it was easy to get lost in the fun. They were just as much in love with our situation as we were.
Returning from a typically long day on the river I was following a line of boats down the final ¼ mile to the lodge when I saw a giant sweeper billow off the bow, right in front of the lodge. Of course I was running full tilt, so the natural behavior was to slam down on the tiller to raise the jet foot, clear the sweeper and head for the dock. I do remember him standing there at the fish cleaning station – his piercing eyes somehow visible behind his glasses from over 200 yards away – but I knew he saw me do it and I knew we were headed for a row. I had committed the fatal error that would bring Norm and I to truly understand each other.
After I dropped my clients at the main dock I returned my boat to her respectful place along the other guide boats and started the proverbial cleanup process. Norm was waiting for me on the trail in the woods that connected our tents to the main lodge, about 100’ above the river’s edge. Like a friggen bird of prey he stood up there gawking, waiting. I had time – hopefully he didn’t. The long climb to my tent seemed formidable – but Bear Dog was waiting for me and Norm was going to intercept me along the inevitable trek to the guides’ pantry through the woods. At least I had ascended to fair, high ground – I didn’t like him standing anywhere above me – if it came to blows I was going to need to use gravity to my advantage.
The resulting encounter was the first time I had ever come to disrespect an elder – and Norm had me by a cool 40 years. I recall guides trying to intervene from both directions of the trail, cautioning us that everyone in the area could hear us shouting , but I could care less. He had me in a compromised position, blocking my way to food and my dog was on full alert behind my heels. He called me reckless and incompetent – the former probably true, the latter an unforgivable insult. Despite the explosive nature of our squaring off it never came to blows, thankfully. After that heated exchange he knew precisely how I felt about him and enough respect had been earned to stave off any further problems between us.
Following our public display of disdain for each other I figured I was as good as fired. I grovelled over the frustration of having to leave the lodge early but the owners also knew they had an asset to keep on board if possible. The clients liked me and I clearly loved my job – it was just Norm that I couldn’t stand. Tough shit, kid – you’re gonna meet a lot more Norms in your life. That was the sage advice Sally gave me – and of course she was right. He was the worst I had ever dealt with, but he taught me how to identify his type as I navigated my life thereafter. Norm was what I now consider to be a necessary evil in life – he was inexplicably yet strategically placed in my path as an immovable object that conjured up humility and confidence. He represented every critic I’d ever tried to discount or ignore in my life but he was inescapable. It forced me to deal with my flaws and to understand that I was indeed fallible and disposable. It was simply time for me to learn how to get along better.
I never saw anyone from URL again after that summer. I informed the owners that I would guarantee my return if they could promise Norm was finished – but they were right to refuse such a pompous proposition. Norm was reliable if not shy of insufferable, and he could catch fish. I could catch fish too, but at the end of the day clients weren’t coming to Alaska to meet gregarious guides – they were coming to feed an addiction.