A raven steals away from the ballfield with an Easter egg meant for one of the hundreds of children who flocked to the site on Easter Sunday. Katie Emmets

First impressions


By ANDREW CREMATA

I crossed the Alaskan border bathed in a sea of white. It was early May and the mountains of the pass were fully covered with snow. Fourteen miles away was Skagway, Alaska, and I began to wonder if I’d packed enough warm clothes.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip was downhill, because my car was running on fumes and I didn’t have enough money for another tank of gas. “At least I can coast the rest of the way,” I thought to myself, as I passed the “Welcome to Alaska” sign.

Everything changed as I coasted into Skagway. The white of winter gave way to a verdant landscape speckled with freshly planted flowers, all nestled beneath a resplendent blue sky. The air was an earthy-sweet perfume, something I would later find out were blossoming cottonwood buds.

I made it to Alaska – a dream of my youth fulfilled. The 4,709 mile drive from Tampa, Florida traversed a continent. There were moments along the way I was unsure whether I’d make it.

Just a few days before my arrival, I was about 40 miles from Hythe, Alberta in the middle of nowhere. It was 11 p.m. and the temperature outside was in the single digits. There was still a hint of light to the west when the car began to shudder violently. I pulled over knowing that the rear driver’s side tire was flat.

No matter. I had a small spare that would surely offer 40 miles of reliability. Once in Hythe, I could have the tire fixed, and hope that they wouldn’t charge me too much money or I might have to find a job doing whatever it is they do in Hythe, Alberta.

Five miles down the road, the spare went flat.

Thirty minutes later a truck happened by. It circled around and pulled alongside. The driver poked his head out of the window and said that he would call the tow truck when he got to town.

About two hours later the tow truck arrived. The driver was a burly fellow in overalls that smelled of cheap whiskey. Worried about my limited finances, I explained that I didn’t have a lot of money.

“Well, we can’t very well leave you out here on the highway, eh?” he said.

Hythe, Alberta was a gas station with a restaurant and motel attached. The tow truck driver said he would fix the tire in the morning and recommended I spend the night in the hotel. The woman at the desk was in her nightgown, and groggily signed me in.

I ate breakfast at the restaurant the following morning while the tire was being fixed. After a stern lecture about the quality of my spare tire, I asked the gentleman how much I owed him.

“Just give me $20 and we’ll call it even.”

Apparently this $20 also covered the motel stay and breakfast because, when I went to the front desk to check out, the lady waved me off and said, “It’s already covered.”
An act of kindness lingers through the years, and it vibrates within the heart where gratitude weaves compassion.

My second trip to Skagway came during late July the following year. My efforts to re-assimilate to the Florida rat-race had failed. My taste of frontier life had spoiled me on that way of life. So, for the second time in as many years, I set out for Skagway with far too little money.

While a major concern, my utter lack of funds for anything other than gas necessitated a plan to catch fish along the way or go to bed on an empty stomach. This is a sound idea unless you’re in strange waters with strange fish that don’t like the tackle you happen to carry.

In northern Wyoming, I stayed at a free campsite near Yellowstone National Park. I found a river where a handful of anglers were fly fishing just downstream from a small bridge. The water was clear blue, and it gurgled where riffles shimmered in the afternoon sunlight.

The fishermen’s motions were poetic silhouettes – their lines undulating in a rhythmic dance painting fractals against the backlit sky. A mystery.

My stomach was growling, so I figured the fish were hungry too. However, I had no idea how to use the fly rod in the back of my car, because fly-fishing had always been something people from “out west” like to do. So I grabbed a spinning rig and made my way down the embankment.

Every so often, one of the fly fishermen would pull a nice cutthroat trout from the water. I knew nothing about freshwater trout. What I did know was that I was hungry and eager to catch my first-ever cutthroat – both for food and for the experience.
After 30 minutes of failure, I went back to the car and exchanged my spinning rig for my fly fishing gear. I tied on a

small chunk of thread and tried to mimic the smooth motions of the more experienced anglers. What I quickly discovered was the tree behind my position where my fly got snagged on a branch, and a massive tangle of line wrapped around my various appendages.

After a few minutes of fiddling with the rubbery fly line, I heard a voice behind me.

“Having a little trouble?” it said.

I turned to see a tall man in his late 50s, dressed in waders, a fishing vest, and a leather Aussie hat with a wide brim. He was holding a fly rod, so I figured I was about to get an earful for being a public nuisance in a prime fishing area.

The man introduced himself as Tom, and helped me free my line from a variety of obstacles. As we worked the tangles free, we talked about where we were from and where we were going. Tom then offered me a fly fishing lesson, which I eagerly accepted.

For the next two hours Tom patiently taught me to unlearn everything I knew about spin fishing in Florida, so that I would grasp the delicate symmetry of presenting a fly. He taught me where the fish were likely to hide in the flow of the river and along cutaways on the bank. When I finally caught my first cutthroat, a nice 18-inch fish, he said the lesson was done.

While shaking Tom’s hand, he said, “Knowing how to fly fish will come in handy in Alaska, I bet. Good luck in your travels.” He turned and walked downstream, scanning the water along the way.

I pulled into Skagway on the evening of August 1 – riding on fumes and free from the burden of money. I dug for change on the console of the car and bought a small box of macaroni and cheese that was on sale at the grocery store.

The next stop was Pullen Pond, where I hoped that pink salmon were running. Instead of using my spinning rig, I was overtaken by the urge to grab my fly rod and make use of my newly acquired skill.

That night I cooked mac and cheese along with fresh caught humpy on my camp stove. I can’t claim that it was the best eating fish I’ve ever tasted, but it sure has gotten better with age.

Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings soon at the News Depot and elsewhere.