9-11: An Alaskan Guide's Tale
2021 General Nonfiction Story Contest Winner
© Copyright 2021 by Tom Carroll
Every American can recount exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of 9-11, I was in remote Alaska and have a distinctly unique narrative to relate. Guiding for “wilderness” fishing lodges, or those located in remote locations, accessible only by airplane, far from towns and roads, posed specific challenges and circumstances. Limited communication with the outside world, no internet or television service and on-site generator supplied power were both blessings and drawbacks to life in the “bush”. In 2001, my 15’th season in the “Great Land”, I was guiding for such an outfit located on the remote fringe of Katmai Preserve in southwest Alaska. “Mystic Lake” was an elite facility which catered to those anglers that wanted nothing to do with the “party” lodges and preferred to spend their week exclusively pursuing Alaska’s trophy rainbow trout with serious, experienced guides. Quite a step up from my early years, this was, at the time, the pinnacle of the Alaskan guiding ladder, and I had earned my way onto this rather select team of widely respected, highly paid and extremely arrogant “experts”. The clientele was often just as proud and exceptional.
On the morning of September 11’th, I awoke at 5:00 am, the first guide up, as usual, and trudged up the steep path in the dark to the lodge to start the first coffee pot and light the lodge fireplace. As the rather irascible cook came in shortly thereafter, I headed back down to our guide “shack”, coffee in hand, where my three cohorts were just stirring. The lights came on, “big Mike” fired up a Marlboro out on the porch and sleep loving Altan and Dave groaned and told us to be quiet. I turned on the radio and started my morning routine loading and arranging gear in my large guide pack while listening to National Public Radio – the only station available. I immediately recognized a departure from the usual NPR blather, as there was somber background music amid cheerless reporting of several “incidents” occurring on the east coast. (Alaska was four hours behind New York time and the second plane had just struck the World Trade Center)
I tried to absorb and comprehend what I was hearing for a few minutes, then turned up the volume and told everybody to shake out the cobwebs and “LISTEN!” I then hustled back up to the lodge, where by now several of the staff were at their morning duties with a few early rising clients trickling in, and declared that the east coast was “under attack” and to get a radio on at once! We all listened in disbelief for the next half hour as further events unfolded and sketchy analysis and speculation was being formulated by the reporters.
I was scheduled to guide “John” and his wife “Nancy” on my float trip down the lower stretches of the fabled trophy trout water “Moraine Creek” that day (more accurately described as a small to medium sized river) John was a bigwig with a renowned and exceedingly powerful engineering firm and his peers included many potent and authoritative figures throughout the Washington defense complex. Both of them were in their early seventies, had been long-time returning clients to the lodge and I had guided them on many trips down this famous stream. Neither had yet to come in for breakfast however, so I strode over to their private cabin and tapped on the door. John was up and dressed and I informed him that something terrible was happening back east and that he should go listen in the dining room with everybody, while I went down to consult with the pilots and guides as to what we should do about the days fishing schedule.
We all agreed that if any clients really wanted to go out, we would try to dissuade them until more could be learned about the chaos occurring on the east coast, particularly wondering if it was confined to that region or spreading to other cities across the country. There was a great deal of conflicting conjecture on the radio, including false reports of numerous attacks in the west and wild speculation as to the origins and motives of the perpetrators.
I then went back up to talk with John and ask what he wanted to do. Knowing that he was connected to many powerful and influential officials in both the State and Defense Departments, and having heard about explosions and devastation at the Pentagon, I assumed he would wish to be flown to Anchorage directly where at least he could be in communication with the powers that be. Nope. Upon finding John back at his cabin, he looked at me with a deep sigh and said “Nothing we can do – might as well go fishing.”
It was now almost 7: 00 am and there had been no directives regarding the grounding of commercial or private aircraft. No other clients were even considering going out, but I dutifully went back down the hill to find my pilot, Jeff, and informed him that John wanted to go to Moraine as scheduled and that he should warm up the airplane while I got into waders, retrieved my lunch pack from the kitchen, and assembled my usual gear for a day float trip. This included strapping down a somewhat bulky, rolled up four man raft to the float of the Beaver. John and Nancy came down the path in their waders shortly thereafter, fly rods in hand, ready for a day’s fishing as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We loaded up, taxied to the end of the lake and climbed out into the morning sun for the short 15 minute flight, oblivious to the fateful, grave and potentially dangerous day that lay ahead.
My first inclination that things were certainly not normal was the lack of other aircraft in the air. This area of the Alaska peninsula was an extremely busy and popular destination at this time of year as there were several other streams and rivers located close by in this “heart” of trophy rainbow trout country. Although the sockeye spawn was waning on Moraine, it still harbored plenty of 6 – 10 pound trout that were gorging on the eggs and carcass flesh coating the river bottom before their return into sprawling Kukaklek Lake for the winter. On a typical morning there would have been a dozen or more float planes circling the two landing ponds at the upper and lower river sections. This morning there were none.
We landed and taxied to the north shore and I stepped out onto the float, unstrapped the raft, set it on the bank, then spun the airplane and heeled it up close to a grassy ledge where we would unload gear. Jeff exited the pilot door, looked at me and said “I guess nobody else is fishing or flying today, there’s absolutely no chatter on the radio.” He helped John and, particularly Nancy, who was somewhat frail and unsure of herself, unload and step down off of the floats of the airplane, then looked at me and queried “4:30 pick-up Slim? It doesn’t look like I’ll have another trip, so it’s your call.” I glanced at John, who just shrugged, but Nancy chimed in “Why don’t we make it 3:30?” With that Jeff cranked up and pointed the big orange and white Beaver into the wind and roared off into the conspicuously empty sky.
It was a gorgeous September morning. Crisp, but sunny with a light east breeze, the tundra turning to fall colors; a riot of chromatic reds, yellows, oranges and golden browns all coated with a more than ripe blueberry crop. I hoisted the raft bag up on top of my full backpack and we started up the trail over the bluff to the river. As we crested the hill we were immediately met with that other ever present indicator of a waning summer season – the smell of dead, rotting fish. Thousands of sockeye salmon carcass littered the gravel bars and flocks of scavenging glaucous-winged gulls were standing guard picking over the remains, along with several other hulking brown shapes ambling up and down the stream. From our vantage high on the bluff I counted five different bears above and below the cut bank bar where we would inflate the raft and start our day.
I helped Nancy down the trail and across the shallow riffles – John was a vigorous and quite capable septuagenarian who didn’t need any assistance. I spotted several stocky rainbows laying in the flush behind the few last spawning salmon, so I rigged up both of their rods to get them fishing, while I assembled our boat. John was quickly hooked up to a leaping trout of about seven pounds and was soon following the fish down the bar into the calmer water, landing it with skill and removing the hook, gently returning the fish back to the stream. (All trout fishing on these waters is strictly catch and release) The fish were fat and brawny after two months of feeding on sockeye eggs and couldn’t have provided better sport. I finished pumping up and assembling the raft, dragged it to the water’s edge, then walked up behind Nancy to coach her into a similar seven pound beauty of her own. After a few more hookups, we decided to be on our way.
The float was only about four miles along an easy series of riffles and runs with wide gravel bars through open tundra, a few alder and willow thickets in attendance to break the ever-present east breeze which was picking up as we floated around the corner out of the protection of the high cut bank. Several other productive stops produced yet more action, including an absolutely obese hen rainbow for John, easily weighing in the neighborhood of ten pounds. It was an idyllic day, barring the disturbing events of the morning which were occurring far, far away. We had the place to ourselves except for the bears, who were fat and satiated by their own salmon gluttony, most either lumbering slowly along the gravel bars searching for a last meal or lazily napping in the warming September sunshine. But one fact did not fail to escape my notice – there were no planes in the air. None of the customary distant droning sounds of rotary De Havilland’s or humming Cessna’s, the skies and indeed, the entire peninsula, were eerily deserted.
By noon we were halfway through the float, stopped to eat a bite of lunch then made our way down a long straight, boulder strewn stretch of water that ended at a gradual bend and open gravel bar, fittingly labeled the “lunchbox”. As I looked down the straightaway, I spied a lone figure fishing the apron of the lunchbox where a shallow riffle dumped into a traditional, fish-holding run. We rowed closer, the current idly helping us along, when within a few dozen yards I immediately recognized the individual. “Jack” I called out “Where is everybody?” “Jack” was a 60 something lodge owner/pilot who routinely snuck away from his clients to do a little fishing on his own.
“Slim! Haven’t you heard? The world’s gone crazy…. it’s World War III…. The Russians bombed the Pentagon!”
“Well, we heard about some mayhem on the east coast…. But nothing about Russians or World War III…. Really Jack?” I replied, somewhat disbelievingly, hopping out into the shallow riffle and beaching the raft.
“Oh yeah! I dropped a guide and three fisherman at Little Ku early and then flew up here. Just as I was setting up to land, a voice came over 122.9 (122.9 is the universal frequency) and said that ALL private and commercial aircraft are officially grounded. They have AWACS up and have scrambled the F-15’s and 16’s out of Elmendorf and Galena. Word is they will shoot down any unauthorized plane. How did you get here?”
“Jeff dropped us off a little before eight, but we hadn’t heard anything about planes being grounded.”
“It was just a bit after eight. You aren’t gonna be able to get home. My Beaver is parked down at the east wind pick-up beach, you guys should row down there and wait for me. Looks like we are going to be spending the night at the very least. Y’all are welcome to sleep in my plane.”
“Well, holy smokes Jack…. I guess so! We’ll fish our way out and see you down there. We didn’t eat all of our lunch, so I’ve got food, and we could always eat trout if it comes to that. I’ll collect driftwood so we can build a fire when the sun goes down.” By mid-September the sun angle in Alaska was getting low and it was pitch dark by 6:00 pm, not to mention more than a little chilly.
“Sounds like a plan. Watch out for an ornery bear down at the Goldfish hole. He false charged me when I was walking up.”
“Thanks for the warning, I’ve got my .44, see you down there.”
With that we shoved off and rowed through the lunch box, John remarking that he didn’t buy the bit about the Russians, but that at least we had an airplane to spend the night in. Nancy was pale with fright and shaking.
We continued down the river, fishing here and there until we arrived at the Goldfish hole, or “Goldies” as we knew it. The east wind was picking up, as it usually did in the afternoon, and was blowing 25 – 30 mph straight down the river. Goldies was situated at a sharp left hand bend, was 20 feet deep and marked by a massive rock wall on the north side, a steep grassy undercut on the opposing bank. Standing on the grass bank side, staring at us, was a surly, tough looking boar grizzly of about 800 pounds, undoubtedly the bear that Jack had warned us about. The wind was going to blow us right underneath him and no amount of straining on my oars was going to prevent this course. I bailed out into the shallows and grabbed the bow rope, dragging the raft with John and Nancy safely inside as far as I could back up into the oxbow slough which would now give us a straight shot through Goldies a safe distance from Mr. bruin. We floated by 20 yards from him while he glared at us menacingly
At this juncture it was past 2:00 pm and I decided to row all of the way out to the east wind pick-up to be ready, with the raft rolled up, just in case, by some miracle, Jeff braved the now risky and forbidden skies to come and get us. John and Nancy were both wonderful people, had fished with me for many years and were always great sports irrespective of what Alaska dished out in the way of unpleasant weather or challenging fishing. This situation, however, had us all a bit rattled. My role, as capable, seasoned and “intrepid” guide, was always to present an unerring aura of confidence, if not quite bravado, and an assurance that everything will be fine as long as my charges trusted in me and my abilities. And hey, we had an airplane to camp in…. We just didn’t know when that airplane was going to be allowed to fly again. Would it be a day? A week? Longer? That could get challenging.
We rounded a wide, slow horseshoe corner half a mile above the outlet into Kukaklek Lake about 3:00 pm and were greeted to the sight of Jack’s white Beaver a few hundred yards ahead moored on the high side of the small pick-up beach. We rowed in, unloaded and I had the raft broken down and rolled up in less than 10 minutes. We then sat and waited while thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes circled and croaked their scratchy calls high above us. Suddenly, over the din of the cranes, I thought I heard the faint and distant sound of a motor. Years of waiting on riverbanks listening for airplanes had tuned my ears to that blessed sound, particularly the glorious and unmistakable drone of a 450 horsepower De Havilland Beaver.
It was a Beaver alright, but of more significance, it was “our” Beaver. Jeff came into sight about a half mile out and man, he was on the deck! The bottom of the floats were scraping the tops of the willow bushes in an obvious attempt to avoid radar detection. He banked once and greased the floats down on the water all in one motion, gunned the throttle, coasted up to the beach and before I could secure the plane hopped out onto the floats and bellowed “Let’s load up and get the heck out of here!”
I handed Jeff the raft bag which he lashed to the left float, then helped Nancy up as John leapt onto the lower rear, tapered end of the specialized “pontoons”. In order to taxi downwind, and hence turn and take-off back into the wind, I had to swing the airplane by the tail and point it downriver before scrambling up the float and into the right seat door as Jeff fired up. We taxied several hundred yards and turned back into the stiff blow. Loaded so lightly and with the aided lift of the wind, we were off the water quickly and climbing just as Jack emerged from the “moose run” trail and waved at us. Jeff wagged the big Beaver wings once in reply then threw me a headset and shouted “Put these on and listen!”
I strapped the headset on and just as we leveled off at about 200 feet a forceful and authoritative voice came through loud and clear. “This is Alaska Air Defense Command. You are being tracked by radar. Land Immediately! Repeat. LAND IMMEDIATELY!”
That’s all I needed to hear. I took off the set and handed it to John, who after hearing the same communication, went into an emphatic, thumbs down motion just as Jeff dove the plane back down to treetop level and we raced for the lodge. Ten minutes later we popped up over the ridge to Mystic Lake, all of us dizzy from swiveling our heads looking for military aircraft, and were soon on the water and taxiing up to the dock. Most of the crew were waiting for us including Billy Bob, the maintenance guy, with his four wheeler ready to give John and Nancy a ride up to their cabin. Needless to say, no other fishing parties had gone out.
I stepped out onto the dockside float and exclaimed “Now that was quite a day of fishing!” as Altan smiled, shook his head and threw me a rope to tie up the rear cleat of the plane.
Everybody helped unload gear - “big Mike” even carried the heavy raft bag to the boat shed for me, an unprecedented gesture. Billy loaded John and Nancy into the back of his “taxi”, but not before both of them each gave me a hug, John admonishing “I think we all should go enjoy a rather stiff drink!”
course, we were soon caught up on all of the horrible “truths”
of that unfortunate day. The flying ban was lifted a few days later,
but everybody just wanted to go home, so even though we had two more
weeks of guests scheduled, we closed up shop that weekend and called
it a season. It’s hard to believe it has been twenty years
since that fateful day, but I recall it often as one of the most
extraordinary and inimitable experience of my entire Alaskan guiding