Wild River Fish • 2009 • Trip Report
Our goal was in Malcolm Daly’s words “We want to redefine normal for the disabled outdoors community!” We would attempt to gain access by portage and then to descend a remote Alaskan river with 2 significantly disabled participants. As a team comprised of disabled outdoorsmen matched with able bodied participants we would challenge the traditional notion that the vast roadless Alaskan outback is inaccessible to those without legs. This was a team whose disabled team mates would be integral participants, and not clients or guests, with passive roles. All the team mates were fully invested in the challenges, inspirations, delights and hardships and fully savored the remarkable success of their overland and river borne travels. The trip was funded by donors who pledged financial support to Paradox Sports a non profit organization, earmarked to send disabled athletes to test the limits of expeditionary travel through the wildlife and Salmon rich Bristol Bay landscape.
The team members were Malcolm Daly who hikes and climbs with a prosthetic leg, the result of a 1999 Alaskan climbing accident coupled with frostbite. Michael Schaefer, outdoor photographer and big wall climbing guide, Vijay Viswanathan, paraplegic outdoorsman whose 5’Th thoracic vertebrae was transected in 2003 in a rappelling accident. Richard Voss, an Alaska wilderness expert, and fly fisherman, Alex Rutherford, Alaska wilderness guide, and surfer, Kate Rutherford, Alaska wilderness guide and big wall climber, Karen Daly, Rocky Mountain outdoorswoman and educator. Mark Rutherford, an Alaska wilderness guide and logistics enthusiast.
Our goals: To travel safely across thirty to forty miles of tundra landscape in the designated wilderness of Togiak National Wildlife Refuge estimating our progress as the landforms change, taking note as mountains recede, as canyons approach, and waterfalls thunder. We’d try to fully absorb the immensity and timeless quality of the landscape and its native fish and wildlife. We’d try to capture the experience in words or photographs whether documenting success or failure. Above all, to traverse the landscape while leaving no trace of our passage so that the same opportunity awaits the next group.
Our two disabled team members guided our objective toward a very small, very remote river that by accounts only a handful of contemporary humans had traveled by boat before. It was known from prior accounts that this would be a very difficult trip for any team of able bodied outdoors enthusiasts. The successful outcome while very uncertain, seemed on the whole to be “do-able” by our team. None of the team wanted to get trapped by our ambition and bite off more than we could safely chew. Still there was consensus to aim very high and challenge the limits of what might seem impossible for a paraplegic outdoorsman and a one legged climber!
This report intentionally omits the names of rivers and creeks and any USGS map or Lat/Long GPS references. This is not a “How to” nor a “Where to” narrative. I am hopeful that you will discover similar wilderness landscapes on your own!
We planned, we consulted maps, talked to Bristol Bay pilots and outdoorsmen, we questioned Vijay and Malcolm at length about their abilities, disabilities, goals, stamina, and motivation for such an ambitious quest and then finally we launched. We would attempt one of the more technically challenging rivers in the region with one participant in a wheelchair and another with a prosthetic leg. Even with a strong team we still understood that we might fail.
If it is true that the human genome contains the DNA code enabling coordinated, graceful physical movement across the landscape through time and space, then it is particularly true that our long time friend and professional bush pilot Rick Grant has a very fine strand of DNA indeed. In Rick’s celebrated 1953 Dehavailland Beaver “N911W” Alex, Vijay, Mikey Schaefer and I made up the first load and flew west through Sunshine Pass crossing No Lake Creek, and the Ongivinuk River leaving treeline behind.
The rivers that our flight path transected were high and roiled after a month of rain. We looked at the Togiak River which was bank full then we crossed other streams opaque with runoff. Hmmm. I had second thoughts; perhaps we should consider “plan B” where we would select a straightforward float trip down a well known river such as the Goodnews or Kanektok instead of attempting an unknown river under these stormy conditions? But I kept recalling Malcolm’s guiding words. “We want to redefine normal for the disabled outdoors community!” “We don’t want to come all the way to Alaska to do a “gimp trip” rather we want to show the disabled community ways to fully integrate back into the outdoor lifestyle, to participate in everything. To climb to ski, hike, fly fish, hunt and get out of the “Disabled Rut”!
Flying on and on Vijay strained for his first view of his dreamed for Wild River. Then the Beaver float plane banked steeply and there below was our stream. It was high, but clear. We looked at one another with excitement and concern. “It might be doable”, I thought to myself. I asked Rick for another low level pass over one of the portages around a small gorge. It still looked doable, but the volume of water funneled through the canyon walls was breath taking. I wondered what Richard Voss’s opinion would be when he saw it on the next flight bringing the remaining team members?
In the past several days since the group assembled in Dillingham, Alaska. We’d learned a bit about Vijay and Malcolm’s routine logistic needs, getting in and out of vehicles with prosthetic leg and chair, and up and down stairs. We practiced various ways of assisting Vijay on the chair, off the chair, and with short fireman carries and piggyback rides. He had decided how he could transfer to a float plane from the chair. Malcolm’s mobility with prosthesis was remarkable and he helped teach us the basics of a disabled outdoorsman’s daily routines. I recalled the advice that Bob Roark, a Colorado “T12-C1” paraplegic outdoorsman gave me about wheel chairs when used off the road. “Friction plus obstacles equals work.” Looking down at the cross country portage we’d have to make to get to the river I saw lot’s of friction!
Day one. Our challenge after unloading both aircraft loads would be to portage 1057 pounds directly up hill to a bluff top camp that we’d identified as our portage staging area. We’d move people, rafts and gear up a muddy, bear trail to Camp One set on a Tundra ridge. Transferring Vijay to a wheelchair on the beach from the aircraft was smooth and we all made a line to handle gear as it was off loaded from the plane. The mountain bike tire equipped wheelchair was pretty mobile on the gravel lakeshore but friction looked to me like it was going to be a big part of Vijay’s world. The plane went back for the second load, Alex then carried Vijay piggyback across the waist deep outlet and up the Brown Bear trail about 200 feet vertical, preceded by Mikey carrying the wheelchair” The second plane load arrived with 2 more rafts, gear, Richard Voss, Malcolm Daly, Karen Daly, and Kate Rutherford. Up the hill they came and Camp One was established.
Dinner of Pasta, with friendly, though anxious, conversation about what lay ahead, followed by 8:00 pm bed time. No reflection on the company but we all could see the cross country portage route ahead of us along dry tundra ridges and wet bear trails through dwarf willow. So we went to bed as the best defense against what tomorrow might bring understanding that if the portage fails that we must abandon our wilderness travel dream and retreat back to the lake for a float plane extraction. I wondered what it was like for Malcolm Daly to be back in Alaska. In his words “The last time I was in Alaska I was 2,500 feet up an unclimbed route on an unnamed peak in the Alaska Range and took a 200′ fall. I had shattered both of my legs and was stranded on an ice ledge waiting, freezing”. The last sentence in my journal that night was “Common Loons are calling, a beaver patrols the shoreline, a small falcon pesters an eagle, and the blue berries are ripe enough to graze!”
Day Two. From the log of July 31, 2009. Kate, Mikey, and Alex out of camp early with the first portage load followed by Karen, Malcolm, and I. Vijay is packing and organizing gear, staying in camp until we have established some sort of trail to use for him to use in the trek cross country. The weather is recorded each day in my field journal as it has been for 34 some years: Rain held off till mid afternoon then grew steadily heavier. Barometer 29.7. Bugs not bad”. (Since bugs are a significant force of nature, in my notes they are recorded as weather).
The portage scene for the next 6 hours was a series of trips back and forth across the grandest landscape imaginable. The Bristol Bay region is primarily known to sport fishers and commercial fishing crews leaving the wilderness back country (away from the prime fisheries) essentially devoid of humans from snowmelt in May until hunting season. The ecosystems are largely untouched by industry or recreation. Today the scene was persons with bowed heads and backpacks and teams dragging inflated rafts. It was all back dropped by mist shrouded mountains and glacially carved valleys.
It seemed like paradise except for the uncertainty of our ability to safely carry out this day’s work and perhaps two more days of portaging ahead. Smiles were shared as crew members passed one another returning for a second, third, fourth, fifth… load. A smile and a word of encouragement eclipsed the worry lines on our faces tempered with the enormity of the undertaking. Talk centered on evolving options to assist Vijay overland about three quarters of a mile to the river now that we understood the lay of the land. Lunch was just taking on the biggest possible load of carbohydrates and electrolytes between loads.
Malcolm made the portage with his prosthetic leg across blueberry fields, side hills, bear tracks, waist high dwarf birch thickets, and then the final push over a bluff and through the flooded willows? During this portage day he was driven as all of us were to load the portage packs heavy and push hard. I knew Malcolm had to be in some pain with the stump of his amputated leg strapped into the socket of the prosthesis but his upbeat attitude was an inspiration! Later he said: “Okay, the portages had me worried. Walking across 3-dimensional tundra, shot through with water-filled potholes, was going to be hard. Prosthetic feet are carefully calibrated and optimized for striding on flat pavement, not for the 2-foot hummocks that form the Alaskan tundra. Each step could land me randomly on an uphill step, a downhill slide or a knee-deep pothole that may or may not be running with water and could throw me in a random direction, cranking my leg like it was in a vice…”
When I asked Vijay, shown above in a raft with wheelchair forward, “what was the challenge of your day?” he hesitated not at all, “The challenge was figuring out with Alex and Kate that we could lash me into a raft, strap the wheelchair in the bow, and then pull me from Camp One across the tundra to the river. The side hilling was Epic!” the rest of us watched in complete awe as the three of them traversed the tundra then in complete amazement as the raft and Vijay was lowered foot by foot down a bluff belayed by some of the climbers on the team..
Later in reflection he added “who knows where I’d be…without that support, people willing to take some risk and think outside the box.”
We loaded boats and we shoved off thankful the first portage was behind us and that for a short sweet spell we would enjoy a raft trip. True another portage lay ahead of us later tonight, and again another portage the following day, but eventually the plan was that we’d be rewarded with a wonderful float down a wild Salmon River.
From the journal: Arriving at an eddy below Camp Two, the lead boaters waded out to catch my raft with Vijay on board just in case I missed a crucial oar stroke…above an unsurvivable waterfall. A blond Grizzly/ Brown Bear was across the river grazing with her young twins… “the thunder of the river now being compressed into a tiny gorge can be felt in ones belly from camp… Dinner of beans and rice, tortillas, and cheese were not enough for our calorie starved crew. A 12 hour day had brought us two miles”.
Breakfast day 3. “The weather foul, we were supposed to portage around a waterfall and a small gorge today but by breakfast I felt that we shouldn’t travel until the storm let up”. I delivered coffee to tents along with my suggestion we wait for better weather tomorrow. My thinking was that if we broke camp in this rain and our tents got soaked, which would be nearly unavoidable, and further if it turned into a weeklong storm, which fit the pattern of prior storms, the discomfort would be substantial. Let’s take a rest day and we’ll make up time and mileage later in the week. No need to hurry our breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries. Winds gusting, rain hammered the camp, we added tie out guy lines to each tent, set up a raft windbreak, and rested in its lee. By mid afternoon the wind and rain seemed to taper.
By mid afternoon, stormbound, needing an outing the gang hadn’t come all this way to see the river disappear over the falls into a gorge from a distance. Vijay determined he could wheel overland to the rim. An hour into it; the wheel chair had progressed to a point where the grizzly trail he followed crossed sloping shattered bedrock, went through an 8 inch gap between boulders, and onto the face of the falls.
From my able bodied perspective, the falls were close at hand, perhaps a two minute stroll but watching Vijay’s wheelchair progress was so slow…each little change in elevation, slope, and rock surface required a new series of movements. Alex worked with him ready to catch the chair if it toppled over. Together they worked through difficult side hill and down hill moves through rocks, tussocks, and then unexpectedly Vijay took a face-forward-tumble! The chair falling on top of Vijay as he sprawled. After a quick recovery Vijay looked at the increasingly challenging terrain ahead, one choice could be to halt the snail pace wheelchair movements and humbly consider the progress thus far gained sufficient. The able bodied could continue ahead leaving Vijay and a companion behind on the rocky promontory to observe. Alex weighed in, his opinion firm in solidarity with Vijay that this trek to the falls was do-able: “I reckon we should stay together. Just a little more patience and the whole team could succeed”.
Five of the eight team members including the two disabled participants were experienced rock climbers, and alpinists of some renown but neither Alex, Richard nor I have had that experience. As our progress toward the river ground meter by meter closer maybe the climber’s mindset of visualizing “pitch by pitch” one set of challenges to the next applied best to this expedition. Instead of vertical rock objectives ours were mostly horizontal pitches. Some pitches crossed tundra firm while others transect boulder fields or beach cobble. So meter by careful meter the wheel chair crunched down over ledges, and listed off kilter into muddy bear trails. Vijay sometimes ran short of self propulsion options. Later he recollected that “there were times when I realized it would save so much time to just carry me”. So to continue forward progress he’d request a “power assist” from Alex and me to lift the chair “litter” style up and over a Volkswagen size boulder. In hindsight he told me he’d thought he could “definitely do it” all self propelled, indeed he told me a story about one of his “Para” friends who would definitely have spent the entire week on the first portage just to prove that point.
Vijay felt that as a team member he was free to ask for help like a piggyback through a cleft in the granite or a quick lift to save time and move us toward our larger landscape objectives. We leaned on Alex for many of the “carries”. Alex weighs in at 150 pounds. Years of surfing give him a relatively high power to weight ratio and in a snap he’d load 145 pounds of Vijay on his back. Mikey and I “spotted” bouldering style as Alex & Vijay’s two bodies merged into one, ground covering, machine. During some moments on rain slicked lichen rock you could cut the tension with a knife but then it was past and Vijay went to the next pitch…
August 2, 2009. No option but to travel in “less than stellar” weather. Still it is good to be moving! From the log: Stormy, south wind at 10 mph, gusting 25. Barometer 29.85. Unrelenting wind, drizzle, and showers. We finished what we’d begun 2 days prior, the third and final leg of the portage, and began rafting down the small river. The wheelchair and four rafts, camp, and equipment was carried down to the river on trails carved by millennia of bear traffic. We had earned ourselves a river!
The “river plan” was for a lead boat to scout followed by two lightly loaded rafts, and a chase boat to bring up the rear. (The reason for four boats instead of 2 or 3 was so that no raft would be loaded with more than six hundred pounds for responsive shallow stream maneuverability.) PFD’s and throw ropes on board, spare oars lashed, the boats were “rigged to flip”. Rigging to flip might ensure that we’d lose minimal gear if a boat flipped which is an awful scenario in this Bering Sea weather. We decided that all channels would be scouted on foot if the outcome couldn’t be seen by the upstream boat. By days end we had scouted and rowed our way down only 4.75 miles of river. But by god we were on a river trip now!
Bears! Doesn’t their presence help define the wildness we love about this salmon enchanted landscape? All of these Bristol Bay rivers are prime Grizzly / Brown Bear habitat. The sighting of the big bears during our trip became a common, but never a casual occurrence, and we took great pains to avoid close encounters. We watched bears chase salmon, or stand erect to see the fish in the riffles. Others grazed with cubs in the on tundra hillsides changing to autumn colors of gold and red. These were not “Park Bears” habituated to humans any more than were we “Park People”. This group didn’t seek out Park style accessibility nor cling to the notion that we were on top of the food chain here. Both species, we humans and the Brown/ Grizzly bears, took pains to give the other room.
We rowed down the little valley, exhilarated by our movement through the fog, the bears, and the glacier etched mountains. Breaching an awful topic, “that there may be no gravel bars to camp on, due to high water” I proposed that we might find a camp on a ridge above the river? But we all prayed secretly for a gravel bar, anything but another uphill portage. The river split into channels which disappeared around willow choked bends. Scouts went forward and again. If we couldn’t travel comfortably then at least we would travel safely!
On one scouting stop Karen strung up her fly rod and cast a streamer. The rod tip violently slammed down and a Rainbow Trout rocketed out in full view of all the group. Karen had tangled with a grand wild Rainbow. The fish, as charismatic to some anglers as the big bears of this land, are to others. The outcome of the struggle was never certain until the moment Malcolm scooped up the prize in the net. Through the battle her face was a wonderful collage of excitement and joy tinged with fear that such a precious thing might be so easily lost.
A fish in the hand posed a dilemma for hungry campers. I won’t belabor Karen’s grand Rainbow trout which was quickly released, but we were hungry, and it raised a question. We eat fish, don’t we? The team knew and accepted that we had not packed enough food for the extraordinary demands this type of travel made on the participants. They also knew we’d travel a river which should be rich with migratory fish. From the outset we planned: that to reduce weight on the portages, we’d pack as backpackers do, in contrast to the over-laden style of rafters. Among other things we would eliminate the heavier foods. Certainly no canned items. If a meal called for 3 cups of rice we cut it to 2 cups. Weight was shaved ruthlessly. So “Pilot Biscuits” were packed but not bagels, 1 energy bar per person/ per day, rolled oats for breakfast. Beer was only a fleeting consideration, an amber dream left behind. A typical dinner menu was Grayling Cheddar Potato Chowder. On the river we hoped we could depend on fresh Dolly Varden Char or Grayling to supplement our simple fare.
We carried just enough stove fuel for the first portage camps in the tundra, some for an emergency, and then switched to fires in pits dug on gravel bars. Truly planning to cook on wood is a fine idea, saves weight, and conserves fossil fuel. But tell that to Malcolm and Vijay whittling willow driftwood creating the shavings for tinder prior to any attempt to kindle the flame in the wind and rain. They began to fantasize about having a hatchet to get at the dry “heartwood” of the rain sodden driftwood available for fuel. Fully a fantasy, no such hatchet. Too heavy! Before leaving each camp the fire pits were filled in with rock and smoothed over by boots.
For cooking purposes the best gravel bar fire pits were trench shaped, and aligned with the wind to oxygenate the fire. A narrow trench about 1 meter was dug with boot heel and oar blade.
Insert image 20090804_Togiak_0921 Alex Vjay cook
Pots could be balanced atop the driftwood fuel so no grill/grate was needed. How about pan seared Dolly Varden Char rolled in Nori seaweed with rice, ginger, cream cheese, and wasabe? Washed down with liters and liters of hot Tang, Gatorade, and tea.
Insert image Rich eats something hot
Day 5. August 3, 2009. “Weather very well behaved. No rain until near midnight. Only some pesky headwinds. Nice considering the past several days…5 bear seen. There was a pair of yearling cubs on river right. An adolescent bear on river left standing up to see salmon with his shaggy head bobbing. Richard and Karen saw another juvenile on the far bank which could have been the adolescent “head bobbers” sibling.
Vijay described the interaction involving a young Brown Bear frightened by our appearance and memories of which may be ingrained in both man and bear forever. “The young bear…the way it looked at our “extraterrestrial convey” floating by, while it was fishing… My heart leaped, and we were in that moment experiencing true wilderness…” all the while rescinding the consequences [of the rappelling accident which] was so real just 6 years ago. That feeling is what I live forS…”
“We found rich Chum Salmon spawning grounds in the lower river and Dolly Varden Char. In clear side channels we watched the spawning process unfold with the newer salmon arrivals digging redds, while those that had been in the system awhile spawned. As the salmon spawned, the Dolly Varden darted through the redds eating eggs, which in turn stimulated the hooked nose male salmon to attack the offending Char. Meanwhile the oldest, spawned out fish, drifted off to the side in varying degrees of decay. Salmon becoming compost, entering the landscape as nutrients.
We entered the last small canyon late in the afternoon. It looked both inviting and unnerving. Black volcanic rock funneled the emerald water. Curling wave trains formed. Bedrock ledges created foaming holes. All of it disappeared out of sight around a bend. We pulled all 4 rafts over into a modest eddy, from there to climb the rock bluffs and scout. Richard and I were not sure which rapid this was from our prior experience and the airplane over-flight. Could it be safely run by our party? If not what would that mean?
In that tension between knowing and not knowing if we will succeed or fail on this rapid, the sensation of time stretches. It is like the sensation of powerlessness that we share with the lemming in the moment when the shadow of the Rough legged Hawk passes over. The tension of not knowing tips the scales. Now I was put in the dilemma of a small animal on a large landscape. Now I could more easily understand the dilemma of Vijay dependant on the resources of the clan/ team for assistance and protection. Now I didn’t feel at all like the ruler of the world. I did understand the lemming though and in this tension I was more alive than ever!
Aliveness felt in every simple act, every blueberry nervously picked and eaten by scrambling scouts, every sound heard of curling wave breaking on rock, every footfall on bear trail walking to the viewpoint. Every moment saturated with aliveness! Certainly the tension between knowing and not knowing was heightened by the weather and logistic challenges we’d faced these past days. What if these rapids were not safely runable at this level? What then, could they be portaged?
Sweet Joy! From the viewpoint the rapid was simple and runable. We skipped down slope, shared our plan with the team and took the modest rapid just right of center skirting the bigger standing waves. I can still see the smile on Vijay’s face as the bow of our little raft rose to meet that gray sky! Turning around, we watched as the other oars-men and oar-women each rowed their chosen lines confidently through the canyon. Down came our precious little “Clan” of travelers. Even as I write this, I see Alex & Kate leaning on their oars. Those two, who are my “blood”, are my grown children. I felt gripped as I watched each of them. Gripped down in some ancestral part of my soul, some place, perhaps common to all humans crossing the vastness of the landscape. There they rowed helping move our little clan down the river…. There went Richard with an appreciative and gratefull smile. He rowed the green Puma precisely where he wanted, dancing it through the haystacks and nimbly avoiding the holes.
Day 6, From the Journal of August 4, 2009. Weather: “No rain last night. Each evening we set small rock cairns marking the river water level at each camp. The river has dropped for three days in a row. The barometer looks like a roller coaster, it’s still windy and spitting rain but the river level is dropping. It was a long day. We covered fifteen miles to make up for prior weather and scouting… Midnight before anyone got to sleep” Richard rowed Vijay, Malcolm and Karen shared the oars, Alex rowed me, Kate & Mikey switched off.
The sloughs of the lower river, out of the main current, were full of spawning Salmon. Malcolm set down the oars, knotted on a fly and waded into the river. Like all of us, he was awe inspired by the salmon spawning pageant.
Prosthetic leg in Waders and a gleam in his eye. Malcolm had come far and worked hard to be in this one place, on this small tundra river, at this exact moment!… I think when the sun came out and he went fly fishing the strains of the voyage began melting away.
As someone who spends lots of time watching and teaching fly fishers to cast I was curious how Vijay would adapt. He hadn’t been able to fish much in the six years since his rappelling accident. Would his cast be effective? Without strong abdominals could he remain upright when fighting a powerful Char or Salmon? I had prepared as best I could to support Vijay’s rafting and casting needs by asking for advice. Chuck Ash, an outstanding guide, owner of Brightwater Alaska Fly fishing, had considerable prior experience with disabled U.S. veterans and was really supportive. Ron Ferris, in Colorado, www.riverboatworks.com, passed along valuable first hand advice about modifying rafts for paraplegics. Bob Roark, lifelong outdoorsman and white water kayaker, who’d lost the use of his legs, had advice both as a fly caster and regarding the expeditionary medical issues for a paraplegic fly fisherman.
During rafting periods and at lunch, or during scouting breaks and on arrival at camp Vijay would hoist himself out of the raft and into his chair and then wheel up and down the beaches casting for Char and Trout. His focus shifted from traveling amidst the bears and wildlife across the landscape to fly-casting among the salmon spawning, participating in the Char, and Rainbow drama. Karen and Malcolm joined Vijay and pretty soon all the team was fly casting from the beach or walking up channels A report came downriver that Alex caught a notable rainbow. I sat on the side of the blue raft, ate lunch, and watched Vijay catch rainbows and char. A sow with twins appeared and disappeared quietly along the base of a riverside mountain. We moved on.
We were near the end. The challenges were behind us. Our sense of relief was palpable. Vijay later said “it’s so hard to put into words just how meaningful and extraordinary my time in Alaska was. I can compare it to [a surfer] dropping in on a perfect wave, or the sublime feeling of floating through the aspens on a perfect powder day [skiing]. These moments are when I feel most alive, and more in harmony with the way I was supposed to live….You might imagine the feelings that swept over me when I woke up [after the rappelling accident] in the hospital and realized that [my accident] was real. It was me, it was permanent, and as hard as I wished it wasn’t a nightmare!”
Reflections: Mark “I was so inspired seeing Vijay use his determination to gracefully pass thousands of obstacles that lay in the path of his wheel chair. He tried techniques to travel across the landscape that he’d never done before. Some worked and some didn’t. He was committed minute by minute to the entire expedition which obviously was a huge challenge. For me to travel through the wilderness with Vijay was a lesson in applied bravery. He is not simply a risk taker. He was most certainly afraid at times, like we all were, and yet he proceeded onward through the fear”.
“ I learned so much from Malcolm while organizing and working side by side this past year. First of all the trip was Malcolm’s idea. It was his strong belief that participants with disabilities could do so much more “athletically” than they or the public knows. Malcolm’s prosthetic leg turned out to be a fine tool, when coupled with his strong will. If Malcolm had a gap in his education as an outdoorsman, it was that his Colorado life left him unprepared for the Bristol Bay “moisture” (i.e. 24/7 wind driven rain). By trips end he reflected that in Colorado: “When it rains, we go inside or hide under a rock because we know it’s going to end soon. In Alaska, it doesn’t end, so I had to figure out how to “Zen” my way through it. I learned that it doesn’t matter. Need fire? Just hack away at a stick with your knife to find dry wood. We’d put on our waders in the tent before we got out and leave them on until we went to bed. No big deal. Besides, when it rained the mosquitoes would lay down. Every time the sun would come out so would the headnet and DEET. I learned to prefer the rain.”
These participants fundamentally raised the bar for what I know outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen are capable of.
Final Journal entry. “Flying back to town Vijay and I counted 13 Brown / Grizzly bears out the window of the floatplane”. I wrote: “this was the most fulfilling wilderness trip of my life!” I’d witnessed Vijay Viswanathan make the journey without use of legs. I’d watched Malcolm Daly wading in swift water with a prosthetic leg to net his wife’s fish!
Karen reflected on the factors that made the trip such a profound experience for her after we returned: “it has nothing to do with the negatives: cold, rain, small rations or fear of bear attacks. It was not the tears of joy, or the exhilaration of catching the big fish, nor the glory of the portages. It has taken me weeks to really understand; as with any strong emotion, the answer is complex. There was “balance”. First we couldn’t have succeeded without the wisdom and experience of our “older” crew—the ones with the guns”.
“And we literally couldn’t have succeeded without the strength and kindness of our “younger” crew and the many loads they carried. “
“We couldn’t have had the trip at all without Malcolm and Vijay. They were the heart and soul of the trip.”
“But, it wasn’t just the perfect balance of experience, brains, … and brawn. There was more. The remaining components are intangible – courage, joy, respect, humor, patience, and humbleness. In short … love that was pervasive, unexpected and authentic”.
Finally I want to emphasize that this narrative is foremost about the Bristol Bay wilderness ecosystem that we were all extremely privileged to enjoy and only in hind site, since the group members were profoundly moved, did we tell this story in greater detail. Especially and with their permission, portions regarding the disabilities of two members. We felt that the athletic accomplishments of the whole group raised the bar in various ways, about what outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen could accomplish. In that light we took special care to recollect our thoughts and share this story.
Special thanks to: John Merritt, without whose generous financial support none of this could have occurred. John, a writer, fished in Alaska with me for many years and explored many vast and wild Bristol Bay landscapes while battling Multiple Sclerosis. He would have been here if not for his MS which now keeps him closer to home. The Bedell World Citizenship Fund contributed generously making it possible for Vijay and Malcolm to travel into the Alaskan bush. Patagonia provided waders and boots and outerwear and encouragement for this trip, which made comfort in outrageous weather possible! Without Paradox Sports’ vision, this trip could never have occurred. It took the abilities of Malcolm Daly, Paradox Sports Executive Director, to inspire us all to complete a journey whose scope was so large. Thanks to outdoor photographers Mikey Schaefer and Richard Voss for the use of their professional photographs and for all the crew for snapshots and personal reflections. Any factual errors in recounting this are my own.