Not far from the lodge was a creek. I loved getting away alone, sighting a salmon in the crystal-clear water, working the fly rod, listening to the reel click as I pulled off line. During the cast I got lost to the world, concentrating only on the fish and the fly presentation. As the fly landed softly on the water, I began to strip the line in a rhythmic dance. Strip, strip, pause; strip, strip, pause. A strike! The power of these salmon amazed me, and I fought the fish only to have it rip off 50 yards of line on a wild run. My arms ached from exhaustion, but I smiled every time the fish made a dash.
The plan was to fish around the lodge all week and make two hikes up the creek for trout. We only managed one. I fell later in the week and wasn't fit for another hike. Still, the day we did trout fish was magical. We followed a trail on top of a high ridge that paralleled the creek, and the views were incredible. At one point the trees cleared, and there was Mt. McKinley in all its beauty. Walking in waders with my limp, I got up close and personal with the trail many times. But Alaska is beautiful at ground level too.
When we dropped off the ridge to the creek, which was bordered with grass that was head-high, we yelled to alert any bears. It was a good thing we were noisy, because when we reached the creek there was a half-eaten salmon still flopping on the sand.
The magic was about to begin. I caught the first trout. It was about 12 in.—very nice by Georgia standards. I was fishing this ideal-looking pool and had just made my cast when my fly went racing downstream. I lifted the fly rod to set the hook. At that moment I knew I had the largest trout of my life. The reel was singing as the fish ripped off line. I knew it would break the leader if I tried to turn the trout now, so my only choice was to follow.
It was a good thing I didn't have time to ponder my decision. Considering I had fallen all over Alaska walking on dry ground, now I was going to run knee-deep in rushing water over moss-covered rocks slicker than a minnow's tail. Something took over in my body. I guess it forgot about the ALS. I was agile like a cat as I chased down the fish.
Then ahead of me I saw a tremendous tree lying across the banks of the creek, too high to go over and with only about two feet between the trunk and the water's surface. But in an instant I was under the tree, on my feet and still dry. I stood in amazement at what I had just done before the tug of the fish snapped me back to the task. After 50 yards of chasing, the fish began to relent. Cupping my hand in the water, I lifted the 24-in. trout by its fat belly. Removing the fly, I cherished the fight, the beauty and the moment. Then the fish slipped into the water to fight again someday.
I had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease just over a year earlier. The disease had weakened my left arm and leg, and I walked with a slight limp. I knew this would probably be my last trip, short of a miracle, but I tried to keep my thoughts positive and concentrate on the experience. The plan was to drive to the village of Talkeetna and take a boat to a lodge upriver where we had stayed on a previous trip. There we would fish for salmon and trout.