Mike Overcast, operations manager of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska, prepares to lead a group of anglers down Talachulitna Creek armed with colorful flies and a bear gun. | Brett Prettyman/The Salt Lake Tribune)
I have had some pretty amazing birthdays, but I doubt any will ever top spending my 44th in Alaska. I've returned from a two-week trip to Alaska based around the Outdoor Writers Association of America annual conference. I serve on the board of directors of OWAA and "had" to be at the conference. Knowing that, I took some time to plan my first trip to the state I have dreamed of visiting since I was 10 years old.
The trip included many forms of transportation including: motor home, canoe, ATV, raft, float plane, train and helicopter. Lodging ranged from the aforementioned motor home to an off-the-grid spectacular cabin to a room at Chena Hot Springs Resort to the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge.
I spent nearly every minute of the two weeks with good friends Mark Freeman from Oregon and Reed Sherman, my fishing buddy who produced all the fishing and wildlife videos on the Tribune YouTube account. Along the way I hooked up with other good friends: Bill Klyn, Mark Taylor, Tim Zink, Chris Hunt and all my old and new friends with OWAA.
Through all the planning I could not have picked a more fitting end to the trip or a better way to spend my birthday on Tuesday. Mike Overcast suggested Mark, Bill, Tim and I join him for a float trip down Talachulitna Creek above Judd Lake, where the lodge he operates is located. The Talachulitna River, well known for producing big rainbows, starts out of Judd Lake right where the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge sits. We quickly agreed to the adventure as all of Mike's suggestions had reaped enormous fishing rewards to that point.
Tuesday morning we loaded the helicopter with inflatable rafts and our fishing gear and took the incredibly scenic flight to the launch. I took three steps out of the helicopter and landed on a grizzly footprint. I had thus far gone without seeing a bear in Alaska and I later told Mike I was both relieved and disappointed to not have seen one. I carried bear spray during the entire trip in Alaska - well, not in the motor home or in the train - and Mike was sporting a huge pistol during our float. It was tucked in a holster on his chest along with a colorful assortment of flies.
The first spot we stopped to fish the creek was loaded, and I mean chock full, of sockeye salmon. The banks on both sides of the river were stamped with bear tracks bigger than my face. We soon started to spot big piles of what I called fast-food remnants from the bears. Not bear scat, but big piles of partially consumed sockeye littered the banks. I figured if I was ever going to see a bear in Alaska that this was the time and that it was more than likely to be a close encounter.
We fished through and behind the sockeye seeking Dolly varden and rainbow trout that collect with the salmon to dine on the eggs leaking out or being laid. I found it a bit hard to concentrate with decades of grizzly attack stories seeping out of my brain. Nonetheless, I still managed to hook up with big Dollies and 'bows. A little farther down the creek we ran into our first log jam. It wasn't too big, so we just pulled the rafts over the log and crawled back in to continue on our way. Mentions of Lewis and Clark were shared and laughed about, but any similarities disappeared when we hit the next log jam.
We hit a good fishing hole and after we started casting Mike walked down to explore the creek. He came back a few minutes later, grabbed something out of the raft and headed back downstream. My fears of encountering a grizzly, at least for the next few miles, faded as Mike fired up the chainsaw and jumped on the logjam. Five minutes on the chainsaw easily equalled a hour's worth of my measly "Hey Bear!" call. We ended up using the chainsaw several times saving my voice from getting hoarse from all the yelling.
I have never felt so far away from the chaos of the world as I did on Tuesday. Feeling that way cleared my mind in a way I've never experienced and lifted me spiritually. I already crave to experience that feeling again.
Back at the lodge that evening the staff brought out candles, luckily only three, on dessert and my buddies, the other visitors and the folks at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge sang happy birthday to me. A birthday never tasted so sweet, although I must confess that I really was missing my family at that point.
Flying back to Anchorage in the float plane on Wednesday I scanned the terrain below us very carefully for a bear. I was suddenly desperate to see one, but we hit the outskirts of town with no luck. I guess that means I'll have to return to Alaska.