This article originally appeared on Foxworthy Outdoors. Jan. 18, 2012.
It was cold and the night was on us.
The moon was bright over Alaska’s Chilikadratna River. A father and his 14-year-old son, carrying a stringer of fish, walked along the river towards camp where their two rafts were tied and an inviting fire was waiting. That father and son was me and my oldest son, Matt.
I had caught my greyling on an 8-weight fly rod with a small orange egg pattern fly. The secret was to attach a tiny split shot twelve inches above the fly. You allow the fly to work downstream then you feel for the fish as the fly drifts along the bottom. Man….. every other cast I caught a greyling! Matt was also busy catching them with a spinning rod using a Mepps spinner, allowing it to bump along the bottom with a slow retrieve.
I’ll never forget that walk back towards camp with my son as we carried our fishing rods while pulling a long stringer of greyling. I also won’t forget the sight of a third raft in camp.
There were six men, including my son, on the trip. Dr. Steve Vogt, my buddy from Orlando, and I had hunted this same river ten years earlier by raft. We were almost killed. It was 1989 and our raft crashed into a sweeper. A sweeper is a tree that has fallen into the river. That hunting adventure was a survival trip that I will discuss another day.
Now ten years later, after many unguided trips, we had learned much. On this trip, my son and four other friends were along to share the adventure. The closer Matt and I got to camp, the louder I heard obscenities coming from a stranger: “I need that #@!*%* oar.”
I told Matt, “Stay back,” as I walked into camp.
I adjusted my Ruger Bisley .44 mag with a 7.5-inch barrel on my right hip and unsnapped the holster guard. Matt remained on the riverbank armed with his Ruger .45 long Colt. He had been taught at an early age about gun safety and the proper use of rifles, shotguns and handguns. As we were in bear country, I didn’t think twice about him having a pistol.
I walked towards the camp fire, past the strange raft, and found a long haired, bearded man with his back to me. He was carrying a rifle in his left hand. It had a folding tripod on its stock, however, he was holding the gun in a non-threatening position, Even so, one doesn’t walk into another’s camp demanding a spare oar while carrying a rifle.
He was talking to our friends and he was rude. With his back to me I walked up from behind, when he whirled around and said, “#!$%@*, where did you come from?”
I said, “I’m supposed to be here…you’re not.” I then noticed Steve Vogt wasn’t among our group. Seconds later, I spotted him back in the distance, holding his Winchester 300 Win mag in the ready position.
The stranger looked to me and said, “I lost my oar in a sweeper up the river and I need your spare oar.”
I replied, “No.” There was silence. The stranger stared at me in a very firm way. I responded the same.
He said, “You can’t send me down this river with one oar…..its suicide.”
I replied, “You should have carried a spare. I am responsible for these men and you can’t have our spare.” I told him that he would probably find his oar further down river in the morning.
My son Matt then walked into camp and said, “Dad, we can make him an oar.”
The stranger replied, “#$%@!*, you can’t make an oar.”
I said, “Well, you better hit the road with the one you’ve got because you can’t have ours.”
“Alright, let’s make one,” the stranger conceded. He put his rifle in his raft and we got to work.
Steve now walked into camp carrying his rifle.
“#$%@!*, how many of you are there?” asked the stranger.
“Watch your language,” Steve replied, as we cut a spruce tree down.
Strangely, my son Matt struck up a friendship with this stranger named Joe. In private Matt would refer to him as Camel Joe, because Joe smoked Camel non-filtered cigarettes, one right after the other. We cut the tree at 12 feet in length and trimmed the branches off. We flattened out one end for the paddle and on the other end we carved the handle and duck taped the handle so Joe wouldn’t get sap on his hands. We then duck taped the crude oar to the raft frame. We all stood back and admired our work. That is, all of us but Camel Joe.
He wasn’t very happy and it was obvious he really didn’t like me. But one thing was for sure, he had struck up a friendship with Matt. He climbed in his raft, looked back and said, “Matt, do you want a candy bar?” “
Yes sir!” Matt replied.
Camel Joe picked up a pillowcase filled with candy, untied the neck of the bag, reached in and pulled out a large Baby Ruth bar and handed it to Matt. He then looked at me with hard eyes and tied the bag back up quickly and set it in the raft. He really didn’t like me. We pushed him out in the river, and as the raft was catching the current, Joe looked at me and said, “Mister, you’re a cold man.”
Steve replied, “Well, it’s a cold river.”
Then Camel Joe disappeared into the night.
I looked at Matt and said, “Let’s clean these fish.” We gutted the greyling and cooked them over an open fire. Those fish may have been the best I had ever eaten. We talked until the cold started to run most of the group into their sleeping bags. I watched as Matt sat next to the fire, feeding it drift wood and staring into its magical flames. As I watched Matt loving that camp fire, I thanked God for my son and I also thanked the Lord for that special moment.
The next day we broke camp and headed downriver for a mountain range 20 miles away. A couple of hours into the trip we rounded a bend, and would you believe it, Camel Joe was in the river up to the top of his hip boots, trying to pull a caribou he had shot to shore. I pulled our raft over as did Steve, who was manning the second raft behind me, and we helped Joe pull the bull to shore. We proceeded to help him to skin and butcher the caribou. After 45 minutes of helping Joe with the bull, we said goodbye and piled into our rafts. Then Joe said, “Matt, you want another candy bar?”
“Yes sir,” Matt replied. Again, Joe gave Matt a large Baby Ruth. Joe then looked at me and again with a firm stare, tied the bag back up and tossed it into the raft. Joe really didn’t like me.
We started down the river as I was eyeballing my son tearing into that chocolate. Matt just looked at me and smilds. We had run out of most of our food with 6 men on this trip. Two of our friends were well over 300 pounds. We were down to eating a lot of greyling. Bill Curtly was on my raft along with Matt, when he said, “You know Scott, we could whip that old river rat and take his candy.” I laughed, but for some reason, I don’t think Bill was kidding. Then down the Chili we raced.
That afternoon, Matt shot a fine caribou bull with his Remington mountain rifle in .270. He used a 150 grain Remington core lock, round nosed bullet and made a clean, quick kill. A few days later, while hunting a mile off the river on a mountainside, Steve made a great shot with his Winchester model 70 in 300 Win mag. He killed a large bull at 350 yards. Steve and Mark Pregman started to work on the bull and Matt and I kept climbing the mountain.
After reaching the top, we looked around and had the feeling of being in another world. It was beautiful. We were standing on a bald tundra mountain staring at open rolling tundra in every direction. It was a sight that can clean a man’s soul, like standing before God. While viewing the scenery, Matt and I spotted a herd of bulls coming our way, some two miles away. I watched them with my old Leupold 9x35 binoculars. There were twelve bulls and no cow. This was something I had never seen before.
The bulls came right up the mountain where we were. Matt and I sat down as the bulls walked almost on top of us. My Winchester 375 H&H magnum bellowed and a large bull dropped with a thud from the 300 grain soft point. Matt and I hovered over the bull and examined him for 20 minutes while taking pictures and filming the animal and surrounding scenery. We skinned and bagged the meat in one hour. It was a tough trip to camp, some 2.5 miles away. Steve and Mark helped us backpack the meat to the river. The trip was almost over.
The next morning we broke camp for the last time. We had to get to Dummy Creek for our pick-up point. We had been on the river for nine days. The Chili, a very fast and dangerous river, had emptied into the Mulchatna River, a slower, more peaceful river. Further down the Mulchatna, we would reach Dummy Creek, an area which is wide and deep enough for planes to land. As we neared Dummy Creek, Bill Curtly said, “I smell bacon.”
I started to laugh and said, “No you don’t.”
Then Bill said, “I smell pancakes.”
“Bill, you can’t smell pancakes,” I quickly replied.
But as we came around the last bend…..lo and behold, there was Camel Joe at Dummy Creek, cooking all his food so he wouldn’t have to fly it out. He had a big frying pan over an open fire, cooking bacon and pancakes. Man, it smelled good.
We beached the rafts and Joe said, “Matt, you want some pancakes?”
Matt looked at me and I said, “Go ahead son,” and Matt took off.
A few minutes later, I heard Joe say, “Mr. Railey, can I have words with you?”
Well, “Here we go,” I thought.
I walked to Camel Joe’s tent as Joe said, “Mr. Railey, you were right back there on the river…..you did the right thing and I want to feed you breakfast.”
I replied, “Joe, I thank you but I can’t. It wouldn’t be honorable to eat in front of my friends.”
Joe stared in the direction of our party and looked at me and said, “I’ll feed them too.” I motioned for all of them to come and get it and it looked like an Olympic sprint.
I had eaten my food and was noticing Joe, on his knees, leaning over the fire cooking. Holy cow…..he had nasal discharge dripping right into the pan. I watched as he would lick the spatula before flipping each pancake. I shook my head. “Dang, this is terrible,” I thought…… “dadgum!” I feel guilty to this day because I did not let the others know about my discovery as they chowed down.
You see, if Matt and I were going down…..everyone else was too. As the rest of our buddies were finishing breakfast, I pulled Steve over to the side and said, “Steve, watch Joe cook.” As another round of drip from Joe’s nose fell to the pan, Steve looked down, folded up his empty paper plate, tossed it into the fire and walked back towards me.
Looking at me seriously he said, “When we get back to Florida, I’m gonna kill you!” Joe, unknowingly, had his revenge.
I think about all my trips to Alaska and can’t help but think of a beautiful land that hasn’t changed and never will. I even think of ole Joe. Heck, say what you want…. he was a man’s man. How many men do you know that would travel a remote river in Alaska shooting his winter meat in bear country alone? Not many.
Even though Joe was rough, I admired him.