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Alaskan Adventures in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001

Alaska trip, Alaska vacation, 9/11, travel, Alaska fishing lodge trips

Alaskan Adventures in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001



by Wendy Johnson

As the bottom fell out on Sept. 11, I was standing knee deep in an Alaskan trout stream. And the juxtaposition of something so terrible – and something so divine – was life-changing.

There was no way, of course, that I could have known it was coming. For many months, Ken and I had been looking forward to visiting our son, Jason, at the remote fishing lodge where he and a business partner had recently taken over as owners. An autumn vacation in the Alaskan wilderness seemed just the ticket to enjoying the things we enjoy most in life – family and the great outdoors. But when we left the airport in Duluth on Saturday, Sept. 8, a couple of things happened that were later to nag at our consciousness....

A couple of nights before our departure, Jason had called from the lodge to tell me that he’d shot a brown bear that had been bothering local camps and creating problems. He said he’d skinned the critter and had it hanging in the shed, where he was planning to process the hide.

In relaying the exciting news to my friends, Lee and Norma Debe of Cloquet, they advised me that the pelt should be treated with canning salt to process it. Doubting that Jason had access to such a thing out in the bush, I decided to buy some and take it with me. I found that the rigid, cardboard containers the salt came in were difficult to pack, however, so I poured it into a plastic baggie and stowed it in the bottom of my pack. At the time, I actually joked about it, saying how much it looked like cocaine and commenting how I’d be in some degree of hot water if the airport security decided to check my pack. Thankfully, they never did....

And later, as we checked in at the Northwest Airlines counter in Duluth, the woman working behind the counter asked us for our tickets, scrutinized Ken’s driver’s license, and hefted our luggage onto the conveyor belt, thanking us for flying Northwest. In disbelief, Ken asked her, “Don’t you want my wife’s ID, too?” Flustered and embarrassed at her oversight, she belatedly asked to see my driver’s license. Otherwise, she would never have. We sensed at the time that airport security had grown a little lax – but how much so, we were later, tragically, to find out....

After spending our first night in Anchorage, we boarded a four-passenger float plane at Lake Hood, which flew us to Wilderness Place Lodge, about a 35-minute ride by air. Jason met us by boat on the Yentna River and whisked us away to the nearby fishing lodge on Lake Creek. Our first pleasant surprise came when Jason cooked us a five-course dinner that night (bear in mind, this is my son I’m talking about!). He served up a salad of fresh greens, grilled salmon steaks, baked halibut, roasted vegetables, bread, win and apple pie!

The second surprise came the following morning, when we emerged sleepily from our cozy cabin to find a thermos of hot coffee waiting on the railing of our front deck! Life, it seemed, had taken a definite turn for the better.... Later that day, Jason took us far up the Yentna River by boat to fish for silver salmon. We threw out our casting rigs from shore.

It didn’t take long before Ken and I both hooked into one of the powerful fish. In Minnesota, I would have figured I had gotten snagged on a log because the weight on the other end was so heavy and so sustained. But after a good bit of instruction from our resident guide, we both managed to crank in one of the massive fish. they were bright and rosy-colored because they were in the height of the spawning season. We caught several more by the time the morning was over, taking numerous pictures and then releasing them back into the cold, Alaskan waters. Buoyed by the experiences of the day, we slept soundly and well that night, and I awoke anticipating the thermos of hot coffee on our front doorstep. There was none.

As we walked up to the lodge, Jason greeted us solemnly and said, “I think you’d better come upstairs. Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center and one has hit the Pentagon. Another one has gone down somewhere in Pennsylvania....” He had fired up the generator so we could turn on the small television set in the lodge office.

Our stomachs roiled with disbelief and horror. As we sat silently, watching the terrible events being played – and replayed – before our eyes, it was hard to focus on what was happening, especially there, in a place so far removed from the rest of the world.

We were almost relieved when Jason told us he’d have to shut the generator down to conserve on diesel fuel so we had to stop watching the awful events on the screen. Mentally, Ken and I were both replaying the blissful vacation we had taken to New York City a couple of years ago when we paused in awe in the middle of a Manhattan sidewalk to gaze at the mighty towers of the World Trade Center....

Our next reaction was to helplessly think, “What are we doing here when the rest of the people we love are back home?” And so, we began to rack up the minutes on our long distance phone card, calling every single member of our respective families. We continued to do so throughout the days to come, whenever the mood struck us, just to hear their voices. “What’s the weather like there today?” we’d ask – when what we really meant was “I need you.” We talked to them all by long distance more than we had over the entire month before.

That evening, we took the boat to a spot far up the creek. Each of us went off to find our own spot along the shoreline and waded in to fish rainbow trout. As the cold, clear water rushed by on all sides of my rubber hip boots – eddying headlong around me like the events unfolding so far away in the rest of the world – I decided that this was probably the only real grip on sanity I would have in a long time to come.

By nightfall, we fired up the generator at the lodge once again and learned that not only had all commercial airlines been shut down, but so had all the float plane services out of Anchorage.

We were, it seemed, totally stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, nearly a hundred miles from anywhere, with the rest of the country teetering on the brink of possible annihilation....




Part II

Ken and I snuggled cozily together in the darkness as we pulled two layers of thick, wool blankets up under our chins. The wood stove cracked and popped companionably as it cast phantom shadows on the opposite wall. Our eyes were heavy with the effects of fresh air, hard work and an unforgettable evening of trout fishing.

The stage was set for a night of profound slumber. Except, of course, for what was happening in the rest of the world.... It was Night Three of our visit to Wilderness Place Lodge, a remote fishing camp in the wilds of Alaska, run by our son Jason. After hearing the gut-wrenching news of the terrorist attacks on America the morning before, we had determinedly spent the day absorbed in the mindless tasks of splitting wood, cleaning cabins, helping haul boats into dry dock for the winter and organizing the kitchen pantry in the lodge for the winter caretaker.

To think too hard would be to let the terror creep back in. Since the ban on all commercial flying had cut us off from Anchorage for the time being, we decided to simply enjoy the blessings that the Lord had laid out right there at our doorstep.

The last of the later summer fishermen were gone for the season and it was only Ken, Jason and I – along with George, the winter caretaker – who inhabited the fishing camp.

Ken and I had offered to help Jason and George “batten down the hatches” at the lodge in preparation for the winter weather that was soon to follow. Winter in Alaska is a far different season than the golden days of autumn that we had been enjoying, and the sense of urgency was great.

For those who are prone to stick it out, however, autumn in Alaska brings with it the bonus of a late-season boon in rainbow trout activity. One has merely to cast out a line in a promising eddy, and the effort pays off in an exciting battle with one of nature’s most beautiful fish. It was an experience I’ll never forget. To feel the urgency of the current tugging at my hip boots from all sides as I felt the powerful weight of the fishing the other end of the line was to feel a part of the river itself – and it was exhilarating!

That was how we finished out each day that week, standing in the water of Lake Creek fishing for rainbows and then going back to the lodge with only enough time to fire up the generator and catch a part of the 10 o’clock news update.

By the time the United States air space was finally cleared for flight once again, it was the end of the week and we called in to schedule a float plane to come out and pick us up. We were stunned to hear how some 80 hunters had been dropped off in the wilderness just prior to the terrorist attack who were not only unaware of what had happened to our action, but who were also clueless as to just why the float plane had never come back for them at the appointed time and place.

After we landed at Lake Hood in Anchorage, my son drove us to the airport on Saturday morning, the day our flight to Minneapolis was slated to depart. The first thing we noted as we approached the airport was a crew of men putting up an ominous-looking security face at the perimeter of the airport. We later found out it was meant to cordon off an area for the cars that were confiscated after parking along the curb at the airport entrance, which new security measures no longer allowed.

As we went inside, we moaned to see the serpentine lineups of passengers quayed up at every ticket counter. Though we had arrived three hours before our appointed flight time, it was obvious that most of that three hours would be spent waiting in line.

An occasion young person wound through the crowd with trays of snacks and cold drinks in paper cups. We later found out they were from an Anchorage-area church group that was trying to do its part in helping to deal with the nation’s wounds.

A young couple just ahead of us in line, also slated to fly back to Minneapolis on the same flight as we were called their travel agent on a cell phone and found that our flight had been canceled for lack of a crew. It seems that the cruise ships which disembark at Seward had been using masses of tourists to Anchorage and leaving them at the curb of the airport without first warning them about the flight delays and cancellations, glutting the airport still further.

We were later told that we would have to await a subsequent flight home on a standby basis, and the waiting lists were already 50-60 people deep for each flight. We scratched our heads and pondered our options. No rental cars were allowed out of the state across national borders, so we couldn’t drive home, and the idea of sitting out the week in the airport was unimaginable. We called family members at home in Minnesota and informed them of our predicament. We called our respective places of work and told them we were stranded and may not be back at work for a while. We searched our souls to decide which avenue was the best one to take.

I was talking on one of the pay phones to my mother in Minnesota when Ken leaped up from an adjacent phone booth and came dashing over to me. “You’ll have to cut it short,” he said with a strange sort of light in his eyes. “I just found an RV rental place that’s willing to rent us an RV for a week at half price and with unlimited mileage. They’re going to meet us out at the curb in just a few minutes – and we’re going to see more of Alaska!” I brought my phone conversation to a hasty close, and I stood up to stare at Ken with a sense of disbelief. I felt like a kid who had decided to risk playing hooky from school. “Are we really going to do this?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “We absolutely are!” We gave each other a hug, and collectively took a deep breath. In the light of all the uncertainty and fear in the world, we were going on an adventure!




Part III

As we drove down a steep pass into the picturesque coastal village of Seward, Alaska, the first thing that struck our eye was the luxurious cruise ship docked in the harbor. It looked like a giant monolith in comparison to the fleet of “rough and ready” fishing boats anchored nearby. Its voyage – which had no doubt begun in a flurry of exuberant excitement – had been interrupted by an embargo of terror....

We were told by some of the locals that the cruise ships which frequent the marina in Seward usually welcome outside sightseers with open arms, offering tours of the boat as well as the opportunity to have lunch on board. But following the events of a few days earlier on Sept. 11, only American passengers were allowed to disembark from the ship, and no one – but no one – was allowed to go on board.

Later, after some of the tightly knotted security had been relaxed, the elegant liner found itself in a new and unexpected quandary – with only a handful of passengers for its return voyage to Vancouver and Seattle. The talk on the street was that a person could book a cabin on the cruise ship for a mere $50 a night. But apparently, few were buying because of heightened fear that the giant ship would make an appealing target for terrorists.

Though a voyage by sea was tempting, Ken and I decided to stick with our rented RV and our hurriedly thrown-together plan to “see Alaska.” That afternoon, we hiked to the Exit Glacier, a mammoth, icy giant lurking just outside of town. Although Alaska has numerous glaciers, this one is special because sightseers are able to hike to a point so close they can almost touch it. We stared in awe at the ancient marvel that had once moved mountains. Its bright, blue color – caused by refracted light from its icy surface – was startling and made it look suspiciously as though it was made of plastic!

Later that evening, as we wandered along the Seward waterfront, we came upon a memorial to the residents of the city who had perished not long ago in a terrible earthquake. Next to it stood a new memorial comprised of fresh flowers, burning candles and signs of love and support for the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy. In the way that misfortune has of bringing people together, the residents of Seward felt like kindred spirits with those suffering loss in New York.

We camped that night in a rustic turnout along the flats of a small glacial river just outside of town, and the next morning we boarded a charter boat to explore the Kenai Fjords and get a taste of the sea spray. It was a windy, drizzle-soaked day, the last outing of the season for that particular charter line, and we ventured onto the upper deck on swaying legs that battled for purchase on the slippery deck.

We enthusiastically joined in the camera brigade as the captain spotted a playful sea otter floating on its back, with its head bobbing above the waterline as he grasped some tasty shelled creature between is front legs and munched happily away at it.

Later, we were entertained by a colony of sea lions, yawning and gaping as our boat roused them from their midday slumber along the jagged coastal rocks. We gazed in amazement as we spotted mountain goats teetering on the side of a cliff, casually munching grass. The guide explained that bald eagles sometimes harass the baby goats as they cling to their steep, rocky perches until the tiny creatures fall to their death on the rocks below – providing a convenient buffet dinner for the mighty birds.

That night, Ken took me out to a local roadhouse for dinner in honor of my birthday, which we had originally expected to celebrate back at home among family and friends. We chuckled at the menu, which sported a preponderance of– what else? – salmon. There was grilled salmon, smoked salmon, salmon omelets, salmon Eggs Benedict, salmon Caesar salad, and even salmon pizza! But after already having spent 10 days of sampling the best seafood Alaska had to offer, this time we were content to settle for chicken and ribs!



Part IV

Life along the backroads of Alaska had most definitely gotten under our skin. We were headed toward Homer, a working-man’s fishing village whose marina is located on a long, narrow spit that runs out into the ocean. Though it lacks some of the quaint charm of Seward, it has a definite flavor of the seafaring trade about it and is fascinating in its own right.

After we got there, Ken and I decided to park the RV and walk the rustic boardwalk that runs along a portion of the spit. Though it boasts a smattering of gift shops, it is mostly made up of charter fishing bases, boat docks, fish markets and float plane services that boast “guaranteed sightings of grizzly bears!”

In the midst of it all stands a dilapidated, old bar whose timbers have weathered to a pale silver from the salt air. The ceilings are barely high enough for a man to stand upright, and they are cluttered with business cards and dollar bills, tacked to it by hundreds of patrons over the years, eager to leave their mark.

The old place is called the Salty Dog, and we learned that it has been the “watering hole” for generations of sailors who ply their trade at sea, returning to Homer to celebrate the day’s catch.

A sign just outside the sagging entryway of the building reads, “Your patronage is welcome. Your dog is not. Please leave him out in your truck.” And sure enough, in the backs of several battered, old trucks parked nearby, a handful of faithful, patient hounds rested their chins on the edges of truck beds, casting doleful looks toward the door of the bar where their masters disappeared earlier in the evening.... From Homer, we drove inland, noting the quaint Russian influence in little communities such as Ninilchik and Kenai. A few communities also bore unexpected signs of affluence that set them aside from the otherwise humble, unassuming villages of their neighbors – the results of a profitable oil trade business over the past decade. Since we were not under any special time pressure to get back to Anchorage, Ken indulged me along the way back by stopping at a number of gift shops – which, being a typical woman, I absolutely love. Their merchandise ran the gamut from inexpensive T-shirts and “bear bells” (to wear on the trail to scare away grizzlies) to investment-quality Alaskan carvings, jade and ivory jewelry, and the omnipresent Ulu knives. (We later wondered just how many hapless tourists had invested in these stainless steel wonders, only to later have them confiscated when they attempted to board the airplane!). Though I thoughtfully made each purchase, I found that in the end, I had gotten so carried away with my souvenir shopping that we had to buy an extra duffel bag to carry it all back!

Late one afternoon, we had been wending our way through the mountains along the breathlessly beautiful Kenai River, which glistens with the same startling turquoise as the glaciers. It was, in fact, that very beauty that sounded a siren’s song to both of us, and we decided we were no longer willing to settle for merely looking at it – we wanted to be out on it!

So we stopped at a little rafting place called Alaskan Waters and asked if we could take a rafting trip. The owner agreed to take us out himself – along with his giant Bouvier water dog named Bear, who teetered on the edge of the raft and stared casually down into the swift current as we floated.

Ken, who had always dreamed of piloting a raft himself, asked if he could take a turn at the oars. And after a few quick instructions, he was guiding our raft through the swift current all on his own – and was in his glory! I, on the other hand, hit my personal stride the next morning as we departed on a two-hour horseback ride up into the mountains. The familiar creak of leather and warm scent of horse were made even better by being able to view the scenic gorges from atop instead of merely the road below.

During the course of the entire trip, I had been longing to see a moose but had thus far been skunked. The closest we came was on our last night on the trail, as we were about to turn in to our campground from the road. I glanced off to the right of the highway and for a brief second recognized the ambling gait and homely rear end of a moose heading up the trail.

“THERE’S A MOOSE!” I cried, startling Ken so that he nearly drove the RV off the road. When we stopped to look, however, there was nothing there, and even I began to have my doubts. As we pulled into the campground, however, we spotted a couple anxiously pacing around with camera in hand. We stopped and rolled down the window, and the two of them chorused, “A moose just ran right through the campground! He was HUGE!” Ah, well....

We later got an opportunity to see a moose in captivity at a wildlife refuge that rescues injured animals in the wild, but somehow, it just wasn’t the same. It was there, also, that I attempted to take an “award-winning” photo of a bugling elk – only to narrowly avoid extinction when he charged full force into the fence through which I was shooting! (I must have been wearing the wrong perfume!) The “parting shot” to our vagabond tour of Alaska was a glimpse of a Beluga whale not far off shore, just outside of Anchorage. He had a seagull perched on his massive back as the morning sun glinted off his shiny whiteness. It was an anticlimax, to say the least, when we at last reached the Anchorage airport for our flight home. The tight-laced security, welcome though it was, seemed suffocating after our self-indulgent wanderings in the wilderness.

As we settled in for the two-hour wait at our departure gate, I grew restless and told Ken I was going for a walk up the concourse. As I meandered along, daydreaming about our trip, I spotted a gift shop just ahead and decided I might as well may one last shopping foray.... Before I realized what I was doing, however, I’d crossed back over the security line. Immediately recognizing what I’d done, I leaped backward – but alas, not in time. A siren started to wail and rotating lights began to flash overhead. A guard swooped in on me in a matter of milliseconds.

I desperately tried to explain that I’d already checked through security and had only been headed back to the gift shop. But he told me I’d have to go through security once again, which, of course, required that I have my ticket to present. And as luck would have it, my ticket was in Ken’s coat pocket – and Ken was seated at the other end of the concourse!

Much to my embarrassment, the airport officials had to send a messenger to tell him his wife was in a bind at the security gate. Upon our arrival in Minneapolis, the airport looked like a wasteland after the bomb was dropped. The ticket counters were completely closed down. Our son, Nathan, who had come to meet our flight, was leaning up against a pillar – the lone soul in the entire, echo-y concourse! Suddenly, it seemed that we had left the joys of our Alaskan hiatus far behind and the reality of what had happened while we were away had hit us full force in the face....

I learned many things on that trip. I learned that I could go three full days without washing my hair if I wear a baseball cap. And I learned that I could shower and shampoo my hair inside of seven minutes – when that was all the hot water eight quarters would buy in a public shower!

But I also learned all over again that life is dear, and there is much in our world that is well worth preserving. And I learned that Americans are the same everywhere – in Alaska, or Minnesota, or New York City – and that our pride in country will be our saving grace in the face of all.


-Wendy Johnson is the chief manager and columnist for the Cloquet Pine Journal located in Cloquet, Minnesota. To submit feedback on this article she may be contacted at wjohnson@pinejournal.com

Further articles by Wendy Johnson can be viewed at www.alaskafishingtravel.com

Wilderness Place Lodge www.wildernessplacelodge.com

Published: 2006-12-31
Author: Wendy Johnson

About the author or the publisher
Operating Manager for the Cloquet Pine Journal Newspaper, Cloquet, Minnesota

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