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Jump Into Fishing

Jeff Varvil

A bit blurry and dark but you get the idea:  this was the .... ah .... high point of this trip.  This was one of my team members getting ready to go fishing.

As an Alaskan sportsman I have been blessed with many opportunities that quite frankly no other state could even begin to offer me. Even my miserable failures have been an opportunity to learn how to do things differently next time. Everything in life is an opportunity, that’s the way I see it.

If you have read my previous rants there is no arguing that I have paid the proverbial piper with blood and sweat because of my bad decisions. That’s human nature I guess. We hear people say If died tomorrow doing something I loved, well, may we all be that lucky. That’s the way I want to go to I guess, not in a hospital bed cancer ridden.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no martyr. I want to live forever just like the next guy but I will settle for something in between a slow death in a cancer bed and a fiery plane crash. Fun comes with inherent risk, at least real fun. When I go back to Michigan to deer hunt this month I will inevitably be involved in various conversations in which old friends chatter on with mediocre stories about the “Giant” fourteen-inch Michigan bluegill that got away. That’s not insulting the bluegill. Everything is relative I guess. Someone will ask, “Jeff what have you done fun this year?”

I will smile, take a sip of my beer and say “Hmmm, I jumped out of an airplane at eight thousand feet and parachuted into a great rainbow trout stream where we preceded to catch thirty inch rainbow trout all day. Then we whitewater rafted the three days out.”

“Of course that was only one weekend”!

So goes life in Alaska!

When I first got the call from my friend James, I will admit, I was a little more than apprehensive. It went something like this:

“Jeff, I have great idea, were going to go on a three day fly-out trip and it won't cost you a thing, the whole thing will be sponsored for a TV show”. “It will be me, you and two camera people.”

“Great” I said with gaining enthusiasm.

“We'll fish rainbow trout on a stream that has never been fished”. I’m skeptical, simply because every river has been fished by someone.

“Cool” was again my reply, trusting that he has the whole thing planned out.

“The stream is supposed to be filled with giant bows!” Aha, Never been fished, like I said, skeptical.

“Cool.” “I’m definitely in.” I reply.

“Ok, I will be over in a bit to talk about the skydiving stuff!”

“Ah, What was that?”

“The parachute stuff, you just can’t jump out of a plane without a parachute and some guidance.”

“Ah, Did you say jump from a plane”?

“Yes, it’s all set up. Well, basically, the camera crews, the pilot. You’re the only one not committed, you're the fisherman raft guy, we're all in now.” With that the phone call ended.

I guess I was jumping from a plane.

The PLANNING

I am always up for an adventure but there is just something about the idea of pulling a Peter Pan from an airplane that gives most folks, including me, the willies. This kind of trip takes a lot of preparation and a little help from Mother Nature goes a long ways. As usual, Mother Nature did not cooperate with yours truly. First off, the obvious, you should know that this is not a trip for just anyone. They just don’t let any schmuck jump from a plane, unless that schmuck is a certified skydiver or attached to someone who is certified. You have to go through the proper courses and gain certification. There are jump schools in Alaska and throughout the country that will train and certify you for a nominal fee.

As I understand it there are a few different routes to gain certification with you either starting out with tandem jumps or static lines single jumps. I believe with some training and twenty-five solo jumps you can be certified. A static line is where your parachute is connected to the plane via a cord so it automatically deploys upon you leaving the aircraft. We were opting for the tandem jump as James has over fifteen hundred jumps to his credit and I had, well, none. He is an instructor, which in a tandem jump makes me the guy hanging from the instructor while we are deploying from the aircraft. I resemble a kangaroo baby attached to mom.

The aircraft we would use is a Twin Prop Bonanza with no door. It has two bench seats with seat belts, which I found a little ironic. Let me tell you the first time you fly in a plane with no door, your eyes never leave the door. Our pilots name was “Stich” and he was a friend of James. I did not ask. As long as he could fly the plane, who was I to question his name and its origin and quite frankly, I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to know! I was on a need to know basis. I was there to run the raft and fishing part of the trip. We were shooting a television show for a company called Big Bear Adventures. I was to catch fish and give raft instructions. That is what I needed to know.

A lot of time went into the drop zone or D.Z. as James called it. The plan was to drop an Aire (brand name) 12’ Puma Raft, paddles, life jackets, repair kit and a pump by static line chute into the D.Z. from five hundred feet. The D.Z. was a large gravel bar that ran for around a mile on the edge of the clear Alaska river. It was over a thousand yards wide which James assured me was plenty of room to pull off what we were planning. The “team” plugged in numbers and coordinates to make sure everything was a go on paper, carefully calculating wind, air speed and weights. The raft would be sealed into a duffel bag and padded for the light impact.

We would send down several other chutes with personal gear and the rest of the raft gear. One double chute included a “Red Bull” cooler full of the energy drinks. That was neat to see flying. One of the camera crew was to jump after the raft gear landed safely and film the jump from ground perspective while the other jumped simultaneously with James and I to film the air shots. We would than land safely at the D.Z., assemble the raft, fish, camp and float to our hearts content in wilderness Alaska. After getting scratched due to weather for a week, the cloud cover finally broke and the game was on.
 

Almost ready to fish, this angler makes a smooth touchdown near the river. 

Jump Day

As we slowly gain altitude out of Wasilla I exchange glances with each of the other skydivers. I get a slow nod from each of them. It somehow calms my nerves.

When we get to the proper low altitude and proper drop location I can see James speaking with Stich through his headset. James grabs the raft bundle and positions it in the door. The plane's engines quiet as Stich cuts back on the power. With a quick shove the raft disappears and James stretches his neck like a turtle out the plane as he watches the bundle all the way to the ground.

Three times this scenario replays its self and three times each load gently sets down onto the D.Z without a hitch. Even the giant can of Red Bull drifts slowly to the ground, landing upright with its cargo of little red bulls safely inside. Red Bull was a sponsor of course.  Normally I am not in the habit of hauling a giant can around with me on a float trip, but it was a cool sight to see. Personally, I would have had a Bud light cooler.

As we make another low pass, Tara, the only woman on the trip, slides over to the door. She calmly gives each of the other skydivers a big smile followed by some kind of secret slide of hand and bump handshake. From what I gathered this is as close as you can come to hugging a guy, wishing him good luck, just before sending him to a firing squad. That is followed by that reassuring nod that all was going to be well as she positions herself by the door.

Tara connects the static line, gives one last look back at us, makes the sign of the cross and does a peter pan out the door and disappears to unknown depths below. James peaks out the door gives the thumbs up and we begin to climb.

I exchange glances with Jason the other cameraman. He has a hard black skydiving helmet with long forgotten ancient logos from his youth on it. He is wearing an all black ninja looking suit that has skeletons patterned into the legs. The hi-tech camera is hooked to the top of his helmet and is equipped with a flip down eye piece. He has an athletic trim build at about 155 lbs and moves around the inside of the aircraft like a spider monkey capturing different shots. He has over 500 jumps to his credit and seems to have nerves of steel. He gives me a smile and begins adjusting his leg straps.

I feel a tap on my shoulder as James motions for me to stand and allow him to hook up his equipment to me. I already have my harness on that resemble a climber’s sling. I basically sit into his lap and he pulls on various straps until he feels we are secured together. He gives my leg one rub just to get a rise out of me and to try to get me to take my eyes off the door. No chance!

I give the boys the traditional bump with my fist. Jason positions himself next to the door as I sit up and find myself now standing in the open door way looking down at a red and orange landscape twelve thousand feet below. I hear James say “ready, set” and on "go" I fall forward to the earth below. The cold September air cuts at my face and I scramble to remember my pre-jump lesson. Arms out, legs apart and arch back. I see the airplane flying away at what seemed like light speed. At that moment I thought to myself, "shouldn’t I be looking at the ground?" No more than did I say it and we flipped over into correct position facing the earth below.

I was oblivious to James behind me as we dropped at more that one hundred and thirty miles an hour. He taps me on my arm and points to my left. I strain to turn my head to find Jason falling butt down, legs spread up into the air and one arm to the side as he controls his spin. He rolls tape as he falls and is as calm as if he is watching his favorite football game in his living room. We freefall for a full minute as the cameras roll and the world stops.

The chute opens and we suddenly lurch to a halt. James taps me again and says "look up!" The big red, white and blue chute is a beautiful sight against the gray Alaska sky. He taps me again and asks me to hold the controls and I oblige. I pull right and we go right, etc. I pull both strings and we come to a standstill hovering like a bird. James takes over and slowly guides us into the L.Z. I raise my legs high into the air as we gently slide in on our butts. I look down the gravel bar and Jason is just landing and Tom is already gathering up the equipment. High fives are given all the way around.

The Raft Trip

I was a little more familiar with this part of the trip. 

We carefully pack up the parachutes in dry bags and unpack the rafting and fishing gear. I inflate the raft with a battery pump and lay out the dry suits, paddles and life jackets. After a small Rafting 101 orientation to the new paddle crew we begin our three-day float on the beautiful Alaska river.

We elect to use paddles on this trip and all contribute equally every day while on the water. This helps build a fun team atmosphere. We swap stories, they tell me skydiving stories and I give them my best fish tales and we all become close friends.

I never did get that thirty-inch rainbow -- like I said, skeptical. That was the first “fishing trip” I have taken that I really did not care if I caught a fish. We do, however, feast on silver salmon and Red Bull for three days. I was wired out of my skull and only slept about 8 hours in 3 days.

The mornings drift into evenings and the days all blend together as we meander through the high arctic crimson landscape as it slowly gives way to large growth spruce forests. It was like a living portrait that seemed to change with each second. The river takes the path of least resistance and we eventually arrive back at the designated pick up area, which for this trip is a vehicle and my wife.

There is a sense of disappointment when you round that last corner and see a sign of civilization. Don’t tell my wife that.

Two weeks from now I will be saying, “What did you say about bluegill?”

Jeff Varvil has been an Alaskan fishing guide and rafter for many years and is currently the Manager for West Marine in Anchorage. 
 

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