“Last cast, buddy?”
That’s how every fishing trip with my dad ended. I can’t remember how many times he said it, or how many times we went out together. Somewhere in the low hundreds, probably. As for how many times we actually caught fish, that number is less than 20. Catching fish always seemed ancillary to our adventures; right up until we arrived home empty-handed and my mom inevitably asked, “Did you bring us dinner, boys?”
Looking back on our best fishing stories, actually fighting a fish is rarely the focal point. There was the time we got my mom’s new car stuck in the mud, the time I caught a snake on the riverbank, and the time my buddy Jacoby showed up in a borrowed pair of waders, but no boots.
The photo evidence from our trips backs this up — there are plenty of shots, but none that show a rod bent under the strain of a Chinook.
When I was about 22, I realized that one day I’d want to show my parents that I was grateful for the 18 years they spent putting up with me. In particular, I wanted to thank them for 1994-97 — when I was in high school, A.K.A the Climbing-in-a-Second-Story-Window-at-3am era.
My mom has always been easy to show appreciation for: She likes massages at a spa and for her three adult children to visit Oregon. She’s returned just about every material gift I’ve ever gotten her, even when my sisters and I chipped in on a car stereo for her completely stereo-less car. For her gift, I figured she and I could go to a cabin somewhere and hike in the mountains for a week.
As for my dad, my idea was always to take him fishing in Alaska. I wanted to be up there, in the wild, on a boat, spotting bears, and, occasionally casting a line. I imagined thanking the old man for times I was a hassle, apologizing for getting in his face once or twice. Maybe we’d finally hook a few big ones too — because, from what I’d heard the fish in Alaska will just about jump onto your line, and I’m the sort of fisherman who needs that assist.
The plan seemed so clear in my head, but 10 years raced by and flights never got booked. I’d like to blame money, as Alaska trips don’t come cheap, but it’s a thin excuse. In 2009, I won $10K in a writing contest and spent it on trips to New York and Australia. So I guess the only explanation is the dumbest one, I thought I had more time.
Then my dad got cancer. I was living in Amsterdam when my mom emailed the news and it felt like I’d pedaled my bike over one of the city’s light rail tracks and been smashed by a train. I’m not your man to live with no regret. I regret all sorts of things. At that moment, when we’d just heard that my dad was sick and we still felt endlessly optimistic about his chances to beat the illness, I regretted that I’d never taken him to Alaska.
“Whatever fish we catch this trip are for your dad, because we all wish he could have been here.”
I nodded and muscled my way through a smile. The words were spoken by Chuck Baird of Waterfall Resort, one of those gruff Ron Swanson-types who rarely gets emotional. Meeting his gaze, I realized that if I tried to thank him aloud my voice might crack. So I stayed silent.
See, my dad was supposed to be on that trip. He was supposed to be casting alongside me, hoping to catch a king salmon, settling for coho and halibut, getting excited every time a fish so much as sniffed our lines. He was supposed to be there — joking and cheering — but he wasn’t. He’d died three months earlier.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned about life: It doesn’t give a damn about our timelines. It has no patience for our schedules. In the end, I did plan a trip to Alaska for just me and my dad… Only I planned it a little too late.
I went alone instead. I considered not going, of course. I knew it might feel awkward and melancholy, but I’ve never really been one to avoid loneliness. Writers rarely are. Moreover, I like thinking about my dad. At that time, right on the heels of his passing, dwelling on my grief was sort of a preferred recreation of mine. I don’t mean feeling sorry for myself — I had the best father I could have hoped for and I got him for 34 years. You can’t ask fairer than that.
I just mean that I wasn’t afraid to spend time missing the guy and an Alaskan fishing resort seemed like as good a place as any to sit quietly and reminisce.
So that’s what I did. I joined up with Chuck and we fished all day — from first light until the sun went down — for the better part of a week. I caught coho, lingcod, and rock fish, and dragged so many halibut up from the bottom that my arms ached. Between casts, I imagined my pop being there. He absolutely loved Alaska and the second my little seaplane landed at Waterfall, it was easy to see why.
I’m not the first person who ever had an itch to take his dad fishing in Alaska. Waterfall does a great job catering to fathers and sons and I met plenty of them over the course of my stay. It’s no wonder that the man-to-woman ratio on the property hovers around 9:1. It’s also a business built on repeat clients. Almost everyone I met had been there before. The two old friends from Ohio who Chuck and I shared a boat with with had visited the resort for eight years running and they were on the low-end of the spectrum. I met a guest from Japan who’d been there 40 times.
The property itself used to be a cannery. There’s no shortage of acreage in Southeast Alaska, so the rooms have plenty of space, but you don’t spend much time inside them. Wake up call is around 5am, the boats race to the horizon by 6:30, and groups file back in by dusk. Because there’s an annual fishing contest with a lot of money attached to it, the whole system of boats going out and coming in runs like clockwork. When you’re not fishing, you’re usually eating fish or talking about fish. If you really feel like switching things up you can walk to a nearby waterfall — which the resort is named for — and watch the bears fish.
At dinner, the host shouts out the biggest catches of the day and there’s friendly banter between the guides and at the tables. It feels like a Rockwell painting, back from an era when people had the time to chat a little. No cell service and spotty internet have that effect on a property. But what really makes the trip to Waterfall special is the time in the boat — whether reeling fish in (which happens often), or just soaking up the environment, the way my dad liked to.
Alaska is every bit as beautiful as you’ve heard and more than that, it’s vast. People carve lives for themselves in that massive wilderness. They build comfortable decks and watch for breaching orcas. They see bears and elk more than humans, and that suits them just fine. Prince of Wales Island, where Waterfall is located, is still wild country, and a week at the resort offers a taste of it.
The people who rush back every year could afford to catch fish with great frequency just about anywhere in the world. They go to Alaska for the experience between the casts. That, I realize around day three, is the part my dad would have loved.
On the last day of my trip, I finally hooked a King salmon. “Kings” are talked about a lot at Waterfall. They’re the best fighters, they’re great eating, and they’re both rarer and bigger than Coho (“Silvers”). “I got my King today,” is basically a person’s way of saying, “My trip is made, the rest is gravy.”
“It’s big,” Chuck Baird cheered, as I fought my fish.
“Let out line,” our guide coached. “He’ll snap it.”
I let out line, adrenaline pulsing through me. As much as I like to think of myself as my father’s son, I do love the thrill of having a fish on. (I’m sure he did too, it just was never the point.)
“I’m going to drive at him,” the guide said, “see if you can get some line back before he makes another run.”
The two guys from Ohio reeled their lines in, so that I could cross the boat to fight my fish. Chuck slapped me on the back and said something else about how big the fish was. A bead of water ran down the taught line. Then, a shiver rippled through the rod and the pole tip whipped back at me up. It was gone. The fish spit the hook. Or the line snapped. I can’t remember which, but I’d come up empty handed.
“You handled him well though,” Chuck tried to reassure me.
I laughed. It was fitting — on a trip that was meant to be taken with my dad — that the best story and the biggest moment of excitement would involve a fish that got away. As my cousin Zach, the best fisherman in our family, said at my dad’s funeral, “He didn’t care what he caught, he just liked having a line in the water.”
That line sums up my dad’s approach to living. Something his results-oriented son could still stand to learn about.
“Tough luck,” I said. The sun was setting. An eagle swooped down nearby and snatched up a fish, maybe my fish.
“You guys can try one more time before we head in,” the guide said.
“Sure,” I thought. “Last cast.”
INSTAGRAMS FROM WATERFALL RESORT:
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