The Road to Athabasca — The Final Chapter

Chilkat Watershed Photo: Southeast Alaska Conservation Council


A week or so after meeting Earl, I stopped for the night at an RV park just north of Haines, Alaska. I was to rendezvous the next morning with Bob, a fishing guide who owned a fish camp on an island on Chilkat Lake. I’d called him from Fairbanks and reserved a half day Sockeye salmon fishing with him.

The plan was that I would call him on the CB at 7:00 the next morning. As I drove up to the spot he’d picked for us to meet, a couple came walking up the riverbank rather quickly and told me that there were two grizzly bears down there fishing and to be careful! I tentatively walked down to the water’s edge, warily watching for bears.

Bob pulled up in his boat and I hopped on, but before taking off, he informed me of bad news.

“Looks like we picked a bad time to fish for Sockeye – they started spawning yesterday. And when they spawn, they don’t eat.”

With that, he steered the boat over to an area of the lake where a fast-running stream exited. In the crystal-clear waters, I could see a couple of Sockeye spewing roe out by what seemed to be the thousands! And right behind the spawning salmon was another fish that appeared to be eating the eggs!

“What kind of fish is that?” I asked.

“Those are Dolly Vardons,” Bob said.

“What?” I asked incredulously. “Dolly Partons?”

Bob laughed.“No, Dolly Vardons. It a variety of trout and they love to eat salmon roe.”

I began to wonder where this was leading. Was I going to be charged for a boat ride? Bob anticipated my concern.

“We’ll hunt for Cutthroats instead.”

“Cutthroats? What are they?”

‘Another kind of trout, but they don’t eat roe. They live in the deeper part of the lake. I’ll set up the outriggers and we’ll troll for them.”

And he did just that. Bob called his lure a Ford fender – a piece of aluminum foil, bent over the leader like a flag, so that once underway, it jiggled in the water, catching the sunlight. Apparently, that got the fish’s attention, and when he came to investigate, he’d smell the bait and hit the lure. Bingo! Fish on!

Bob and the cutthroats: Photo by Doug

After boating a couple of cutthroats, we docked at Bob’s comfortable looking cabin on the island in the middle of this seven-mile-long lake. While he filleted our catch, I went on up to the cabin and introduced myself to his wife Betty. Eventually, we were joined by a middle-aged couple that had vacationed there before. Bob gave the trout fillets to Betty and she fried them up. We sat at the table and Betty set out a platter of lunch meats, olive loaf, bologna and the like, and white bread. The aroma of the frying fish filled the room and Betty set a scrumptious looking platter of golden-brown fillets in the center of the table. I reached for them while the others passed the lunch meat around and made sandwiches. I offered the fish to the others and they all passed, including Bob!

“We eat a lot of fish here, so it’s not all that special,” he explained.

Well neither is olive loaf, I thought to myself.

Oh well, each to their own. I woofed down two good size fillets and left full and satisfied, on my way to Haines. I was looking forward to what I expected to be the highlight of the trip: whale watching. To do that, I would have to fly to Gustavus, a small island town that served as the jumping off point to Glacier Bay National Park, where I understood one could view whales, not to mention the scenic beauty of the national park. Before leaving for my overnight trip though, I had to first make arrangements for my way back south. The Alaska ferry system is the poor man’s cruise liner of the states’ beautiful Inside Passage. I knew from my issue of Mileposts that one had to book a spot onboard early, particularly if you had a motor home. I went to the ferry office and stood in line to make my reservation. Standing there lost in my plans, I didn’t notice an attractive woman in line behind me, until she asked a question.

“Where are you headed?” she asked.

“Well, south for sure – Juneau first, then Sitka and Ketchikan. How about you?”

“Well, my son and I,” she gestured to a boy about eight years old who was looking out the front windows, “flew up from California. We’re going to Skagway, then take the ferry to Juneau and fly home from there.”

We chatted about our vacations to this point, then said farewell after I got my ticket. I planned to be back from Gustavus in two days, so I booked ferry passage to Juneau the day after, giving me an extra day here in Haines. I drove from the ferry office over to the local airport and booked a flight to Gustavus for tomorrow. The agent there was able to help me get lodging on the island for the night. My travel plans for the next couple of weeks were set. Now for some fishing!

When I first got to Alaska, I’d stopped at a pullout before a river crossing. There was a fellow selling fishing lures that were spread out on a folding table.

“What’ya got that’ll catch salmon?” I inquired.

He rummaged through his inventory and pulled out a lure. “This one oughta’ do it.” He held up a silver spoon with a pink plastic ‘eye’ in the center.

“This one huh? What’s so good about it?”

“I dunno’, but it works!”

With that ringing endorsement, I gave him five bucks. I hadn’t had a chance to use it yet, but today would be the day.

Driving along on my way to a river reputed to be good for salmon catching, I came upon two bicyclists on the road. As I passed them, I noticed that it was the woman and her son from the ferry terminal. As there was no traffic, I stopped in the road.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

“Oh, fine I guess,” she answered. “It’s a little farther than we thought.”

“Where are you headed?”

“The river. Ben loves fishing and he wants to watch them fish.”

“Well, I’m going there myself – to fish no less! Do you want a ride? I think we can fit the bikes in the back.”

They were both ready to quit biking and readily agreed. After a few miles, we came to a bridge spanning a fast-flowing river and parked in a lot full of cars. I got my fishing rod and tackle and we headed to the riverbank, only to find it filled with fishermen.

“Well, where we gonna’ fish?” Ben asked.

I looked across the river, but the other bank was full as well. This was clearly a popular spot! I looked upstream and noticed a jetty of rocks leading out to the center of the river.
“How about we try that spot there?” I said to the boy.

We gingerly worked our way over the slippery rocks to a point where my cast wouldn’t cross any of the other fishermen’s lines. I tied my pink spoon onto the line and gave a tentative cast into the river. I’m hardly the most accomplished fisherman and didn’t want to screw up in front of this admiring boy. As I reeled in the slack, I felt a heaviness on the line and assumed that I’d got into some grass. I slowly reeled in, telling Ben that I thought I had a whopper.

Sockeye Salmon: Photo by Pixabay

Only, I did! Hooked onto the end of my line was a 3 to 4-pound sockeye salmon, undoubtedly the most lethargic fish I’d ever caught or ever will catch. It had probably done its spawning thing and was on its way to die. Earl would be proud of me. However, the last thing I’d expected to do that day was actually catch a fish. I pulled it out of the water and looked at Ben’s mom.

“Do you know how to cook salmon?” I didn’t.

“Nope, not a clue.”

Hmmm, now what? I held the fish up for Ben to admire. He was clearly impressed.

“What do you think we should do with it Ben?” I asked.

“I dunno’ – let it go?” he guessed.

That sounded good to me, so I bent down, unhooked the salmon and put it back in the river. With that, a tremendous moan arose from both banks, as our fellow fishermen protested the move in unison.

“Why didn’t you give it to someone? I’d have taken it!” one fellow called out.

I looked at my companions for support, but they were already headed back to shore. I followed, offering my apologies to those on the banks hooting at me.

“I didn’t know!” I offered, lamely.

We packed up and drove back to town, laughing at our strange encounter with fish and fishermen. I dropped them off at the bicycle rental place and said goodbye, wishing them a safe voyage.

Whale Watching

Glacier Bay, Photo Johns Hopkins

The next day, I parked the van at the ferry terminal and hitchhiked to the Haines airport, where I flew to Gustavus, to spend a full 24 hours eating, sleeping and viewing whales the next day before returning that night. Landing at the Gustavus airport, I noticed how similar their Quonset hut terminal was to the one in Ft. Yukon. I went up to a booth labeled ‘Whale Watching tours’ and asked the woman for a ticket to Glacier Bay National Park, which was accessed by a small cruise liner.

One for Glacier Bay please.”

“Do you want to see whales?” she asked.

“Yes, particularly Humpbacks.”

“Well, that’s kind of iffy in Glacier. You’ll see Orcas for sure, but Humpbacks don’t always go up there.”

“Oh, I was under the impression they did. Well, I guess I’ll have to take my chances.” I still wanted to see the national park.

“Or you could go on the Icy Straits Whale Watching trip.”

“Icy Straits?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s a stretch of water that Humpbacks frequently feed in.”

“Oh, huh.” Now I had a decision to make. I really wanted to see Humpbacks. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to go to Denali National Park and see Humpbacks, and I’d already seen Denali. Okay, two things.

“Do they always see Humpbacks on that trip?”

“At this time of year, yes.”

“Hmmm. Okay, how much is it?”

“$65.00, $10.00 less than Glacier.”

“Oh, that’s good. Whose boat is it?”

“It’s owned by the Serano Lodge.”

Humpbacks won out. I’d already seen glaciers on the trip, in Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez had run aground the year before. They were blue when you got up close to them. However, I’d never seen a whale before, and her reasoning that my chances were better in Icy Straits made the decision for me. She gave me directions to the cabin where I’d be staying that night, with the understanding I’d be picked up by the Serano Lodge folks at 7:00 am the next morning.

Bright and early the next day, I found myself with a family of four walking on a pier out to a cabin cruiser docked at the end. When we arrived, we saw a man, or rather the torso of a man, down in the cruisers dingy, hanging over its side with his head in the water. In Alaskan waters, named Icy Straits! When he came up for air, he was literally blue.

“What are you doing?” I asked incredulously.

It took him a minute to answer. He was probably 25 years old, with long blonde hair and a large kitchen knife in one hand.

“Trying to cut the dock line; it’s wrapped around the prop.” Color was starting to return to his face.

I learned that ‘Jeff”, the skipper of our whale watching craft, had been wrestling with the fouled dock line for the past 10 minutes or so, to no avail. He went below and tried reversing the engine, also with no success.

“Perhaps you should call the owner and get some help,” I offered.

He took my advice, and a short time later, a distinguished looking fellow appeared and greeted us.

“I’m Jack Serano and I’m sorry about the delay. We’ll get this worked out and have you on your way pronto.”

With that, he instructed Jeff to put on his wet suit, then held him while Jeff leaned over the side of the dingy and hacked away at the line with the butcher knife. Alas, other than turning Jeff a deeper shade of blue, nothing was accomplished: the fouled line wouldn’t give. After a few minutes of trying, Bob approached our group with an idea.

“Why don’t I take you folks back to my lodge and feed you lunch while Jeff gets this worked out?” We readily agreed.

Jack’s lodge turned out to be a well-appointed estate on a beautiful, secluded bay. I sat on the deck reading while his gourmet cook prepared us a delicious lunch of poached salmon with dill sauce. After a relaxing meal, Jack reported that Jeff had solved the problem and that we could know whale watch. There was still time for me to do that and catch my flight back to Haines.

When we got back to the boat, we found Jeff on board, ready to go, looking amazingly well considering what he’d been through. We carefully cast off the dock lines and headed out into the sunny afternoon, eager to see the leviathans of the deep. I stood on the bow enjoying the scenery as we motored out into the Icy Straits, when I noticed smoke puffing out of the fresh air scuppers of the cabin. I’d done some boating in my days, sailing in the Bahamas with friends and knew a little bit about boats. Seeing smoke coming out of the fresh air scuppers troubled me.

I walked towards the stern and bent down to look in the cabin port hole. To my horror, I saw that flames were leaping from the cabinets in the galley! We were on fire!

“Captain, we have a fire below!” I yelled at Jeff.

“Take the wheel!” he yelled at me and ducked below.

I did and watched as he took a fire extinguisher and battled the blaze, quickly getting it under control. After a few minutes, he returned and addressed his passengers.

“Well folks, we had a little fire, but it’s out now. Do you want to continue?”

The family of four – a man, his wife and two geeky looking pre-teen boys – looked at each other, obviously without a clue. I spoke up, addressing my comments to them:

“Folks, I think it’s safe to say that this boat is jinxed.” Then to Jeff:

“Captain, do you know what caused the fire?”

“No,” he replied.

“Then I think the safe thing to do is to go back to shore.”

The dock was about two miles away. There was no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do. I hoped that I wouldn’t be out voted by my fellow travelers. The thought of ending up in these waters was more than chilling. Fortunately, they agreed with me, and Jeff turned the boat around and headed back to the dock.

Back ashore, Jeff called the owner Jack to report the latest predicament. A short time later, Jack appeared, looking exasperated.

“I’m sorry about this folks, I’m checking to see if we can get another boat. Let’s go back to the lodge and wait there.”

With a flight out at 7:00 that night, it didn’t leave much time to find a replacement. I read my book ‘Alaska’ and awaited the verdict on the deck of the lodge, overlooking the glorious bay. Much to my disappointment, Jack reported that the only replacement boat he could locate wouldn’t be available until tomorrow morning.

“Well, that doesn’t do me any good,” I said. “I’ve got a flight out tonight. I came all the way from Florida to see whales, and now I can’t due to your incompetency.” I was mad as hell and wasn’t holding back. I knew that the ferry didn’t leave out of Haines for two more days, which I hoped would work to my advantage.

“It’s not my fault these things happened,” Jack protested.

“Au contraire, I disagree,” I countered. “It was sloppy work that let that dock line wrap around the prop, that probably led to the fire which, by the way, endangered our lives. It’s bad enough that you’ve spoiled my trip, but you did it on my birthday!” I laid it on thick but told the truth – it was my birthday.

Pod of whales: Photo by Doug

After much back and forth – Jack wasn’t in his position in life by being an easy mark – he ended up comping me a night’s stay at his-out-of-my-price-range-lodge, including another delicious meal, plus the boat ride to see whales the next day and a ride to the airport. And we did see Humpbacks the next day, a pod of them entertained us for almost two hours, swimming and blowing within forty feet of our rented sailboat.

And as we were leaving, one breeched, jumping smoothly out of the water, as if to say goodbye, a sight I’ll never forget.

Whale breach: Photo by Doug

Back to the airport and a single engine plane ride over an incredible array of glaciers, islands, bays and fjords, we stopped in Juneau to drop a couple off, grabbed a cold one, then flew onto Haines and more eye candy. Upon arrival, I called for a taxi, since I’d left the van parked in the queue in front of the ferry terminal. I only had two hours before the ferry boarding process began, and I wasted an hour of it waiting for a taxi. When one never came, I decided to run the two miles to the terminal, making it with only minutes to spare. I jumped in the van, started it up and drove onto the ferry for the six-hour boat trip back to Juneau, where I’d had a beer just three hours earlier. What a day!

Inside passage: Photo by Doug

Inside Passage

Before I’d left for Gustavus to whale watch, I’d made my travel arrangements at the ferry office in Haines. Figuring out the ferry system while trying to estimate how much time I wanted to spend at each stop along the way in the Inside Passage was more complicated than I expected. As I’d been to Skagway to ride the White Pass scenic railroad — which was cancelled because of fog — I didn’t need to go back. So, my first stop would be Juneau, then the island of Sitka, then Ketchikan, then the British Columbia port Prince Rupert, where I would get off and drive back to the states.

The trouble was guessing how long I wanted to spend at each stop, then trying to match that to the ferry schedule. I eventually settled on some variation of two days, two nights, or three days, two nights per stop. That allowed me to fit the van on the various ferries, as their cargo space permitted. They wanted to know the length of my van to the inch, (20’ 7”); after boarding the ferry in Haines, I saw why – the hold was packed to the gills, as they say.

Car ferry: Photo by Doug

When I got up on deck, I was greeted with a sight I could never have predicted: tents. There was a sea of multicolored tents pitched on the open fantail of the main deck; they were able to stay up because of the tensioning of their support poles. As this was 1990, I’d never seen this kind of tent system before and was mildly amazed. The folks I talked to were primarily Europeans and they’d been using this support method for a while.

We got into Juneau about 10:00 that night; by the time I got the van off the ferry, it was nearly 11:00. The Mileposts magazine said that there was an RV campground nearby and I headed for it, lucking out and getting their last spot. After setting up camp, I walked over to a bar just outside the park. It was Friday ‘night’ and the place was packed. You’d never know it was near midnight — the sun was still shining. I sat at the bar and struck up a conversation with a local fellow named Caleb. The combination of a few beers and my exhilarating day loosened me up.

“So what brings you all the way here from Florida?” Caleb asked.

“Well, my marriage disintegrated and I didn’t like the job I had, so I figured it was time for a road trip.”

“So you’ve come all this way by yourself?”

“Yep. I picked up the occasional hitchhiker, but mostly alone.”

“Huh, that’s tough. I don’t know if I could do that.” He shook his head.

“Well, I guess if you’re unhappy enough doing what you were doing, it doesn’t seem so bad. I’d just moved to a new town, where I didn’t know anyone, with a new job where I didn’t like the way the owner treated me. That and I’d just separated from my wife….”

My voice trailed off. Talking about it made it seem even more miserable. Not only did I have nothing, I had nothing to go back to.

I lucked out in that Caleb was a good guy to talk with – someone without an agenda, a regular guy. I turned the conversation over to him and listened to him talk about his life in his hometown of Juneau. It was getting late, and Caleb invited me to hang out with him the next day and see a bit of Juneau. I readily accepted and we established a time and place to meet.

Alaskan coastline: Photo by Doug

My day spent with Caleb is a bit of a blur to me now; we roamed around the downtown area, looking at the capital and other impressive government buildings. We went up the side of the mountain range that effectively seals Juneau off from the interior of North America. I do remember the view from there: it was fabulous. From that height, the town, the harbor, nearby islands and the majestic Inside Passage provided spectacular viewing. From there, we descended into a more humble environment, Caleb’s favorite bar, where we met up with his chums and drank beer, played pool and laughed until the wee hours.

I later realized that Caleb was the first person on this redemptive trip that I’d spent any ‘one on one’ time with. I’d been so consumed by my grief of losing my marriage and my career, that I wasn’t aware that I’d lost contact as well. I mean I’d made brief phone calls to my folks or to the odd friend, (this was before cell phones, so we’re talking pay phones and phone booths), but hadn’t had any significant ‘face time’ with another human being. I’d been gone for about six weeks at this point, covering over 5,000 miles. And while the day with Caleb and his friends hardly cured what ailed me, it sure was a needed respite from my self-imposed isolation.

Doug’s entire trip lasted about four months in 1990: July – October. He adds the following statement to the story.

“On my return, I left Seattle in time to get to Chicago to see the second to last game played by the White Sox at Comiskey Park. I felt a particular affinity for the place, as it was the sister stadium to my hometown Detroit Tiger stadium, designed by the same fellow and built around WW I. I have been a fan of MLB stadiums for years and have been to all of them.”

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Originally from Detroit, Doug Guido graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, after cramming a 4-year education into 6 years. Subsequently he set off on a ‘Siddartha’ journey through North America in a ’64 Corvair Greenbriar camper van, covering 20,000 miles in six months. After arriving in Houston Texas, he entered the homebuilding field in the roaring ’70’s and ended up in Tampa in 1981. He has written short stories over the past thirty years, reflecting on various incidents in his life that he hopes are entertaining.

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Casting Poetry on the Lighter Side
Enjoy an evening of giggles and guffaws at the new Commodore Theater, 811 E 7th Avenue. Tampa poets will showcase their work at the Victoria Dym Laugh Fest.
April 25, 7:30 p.m.

Season 4 of Poetry in America is available for streaming on the PBS website. Go to for the latest episode as well as listing of previous season collections available to stream on the WEDU PBS app.

  • Events throughout the month of April. Browse through the website here.
  • Poetry Readings at the Dali Museum. Browse through the website here.

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