As we honor our troops on Veteran’s Day, our Tom Reale wrote this for our November issue about a special fishing trip:
Story and photys by Tom Reale
When someone asks you if you
want to go on an eight-day
fishing trip down a remote
river in Alaska, helping to
guide a group from the Wounded Warriors
Project, what is the range of possible answers?
For me, they went from “Yes,” all the
way to “Hell, yes.” This was in spite of
the fact that my river guiding experience
was, shall we say, limited. And
by limited, I mean nonexistent. But
when Steve Schaber, one of my wife’s
colleagues at Providence Hospital in
Anchorage, asked if I’d be available
for the trip, I made sure I had the time
and took him up on the offer before he
It turned out that Steve, along with
his friend, Karl Powers, had been running
these trips for a few years. Karl
owns and operates Bethel-based Papa
Bear Adventures (907-543-5275; papabearadventures.
com), hunting and
fishing outfitters and transporters.
Several years ago, the two of them
contacted the Wounded Warriors to
ask if it would be possible for “Papa
Bear” to take some of the GIs on a float
trip out of Bethel.
Steve and Karl initially had no sponsors
and no financing, so they did
the trip on their own. Karl supplied
the rafts, the camping gear and the
transportation out to the river in his
floatplanes. Steve supplied food and
more gear, and they made their first
trip in 2011 with two boats and four
passengers on the Kwethluk River out
In 2012, they switched to the Kanektok,
on the southwestern coast of the
state. Since then, they’ve patched together
sponsorships, donations and
discounts to the point where they’re
no longer funding the trips out of their
That’s not to say that it’s all smooth
sailing. The logistical and supply challenges
of finding guys suitable for the
trip, arranging transportation and gear,
and getting all of the material from Anchorage
to Bethel are big. Then there’s
flying the whole shebang into a remote
lake for dropoff, making it downstream
without catastrophe, and, finally, getting
it all back safely.
After Steve contacted me, we made
plans to get to Bethel. Steve had already
spent untold hours arranging
gear and food before I signed on; for
me, this was a cakewalk. In addition
to buying food, he also solicited help
from his co-workers at Providence
Hospital in Anchorage, where Steve
is a pharmacist. People there gave
cash donations, made and packaged
meals and sent along cards and letters
to the guys.
“I’m surrounded by the kind of people
who get the feeling that they’re
making a difference with these guys.
With big charities, we put the money
in an envelope and never really see
the effect,” Steve said. “With this project,
people get to see the pictures of
the trip, hear the feedback and know
that they put a meal on the table for
the guys or bought some fishing tackle; they can kind of feel like they’re out
there with us.”
And as Steve was making final
plans, the inevitable monkey wrench
was thrown into the mix. Just days
before leaving, one of his prospective
guides wound up in the hospital and
had to bow out.
In a mad scramble, Steve called
the Alaska Flyfishers and asked if they
knew of anyone who would be both
qualified and available as a late fill-in.
Fortunately, someone there recommended
Mike Morelli, who turned out
to be perfect for the job. Mike is an accomplished
fly fisher and rafter and a
volunteer for Project Healing Waters,
an outfit that offers services such as flyfishing
outings to injured and disabled
service members and vets. He is also
a retired Air Force first sergeant; Steve
couldn’t have ordered a more suitable
prospect from a catalog.
ON JULY 21, we all flew into Bethel for
the unavoidable last-minute scramble
to get items left behind and to get
gear sorted out. For example, a couple
of the guys had gone to a sporting
goods shop and bought stocking-foot
waders. However, nobody thought to
tell these guys that they’d also need
wading boots. Yikes. Karl had some
stuff available, to avoid catastrophe.
Our cast of characters included
four guys still on active duty (three
Army, one Navy), and two guys who
were out – one Army, one Air Force.
One had flown up from Montana; the
rest were either living or stationed in
Alaska. It would prove to be an interesting
collection of citizens.
As far as the levels of fishing experience,
it ranged from moderate all the
way down to nearly nonexistent. Flyfishing-
wise, one of the guys had spent
a short trip at a remote lodge in Alaska
and received some instruction there,
but that was about it.
On the 22, we were due to fly everyone
in by shuttling groups of guys and
gear in Karl’s two Beavers and a Super
Cub, all on floats. The weather looked
iffy, to say the least, and remote lakes
in the Y-K Delta don’t exactly have
control towers and weather stations.
Figuring out flights involves talking to
other pilots who have been in the area
and keeping a weather eye out.
Karl’s brother Steve flew me in on
the first trip in the Cub. We unpacked
the plane and Steve showed me how to
set up the tent. He left me with a survival
kit and a satellite phone – in case nobody
else got in – and took his leave.
After playing Robinson Crusoe for
about an hour, I heard approaching airplanes
and waited for them on the beach.
Two of the Papa Bear Beavers landed and
unloaded five guys and their gear.
We got the gear squared away, set
up the tents and waited for the last of
our crew to make it in. Alas, it was not
to be. The weather refused to cooperate,
and we gave up on the last three
guests as evening deepened.
The next day one of the guys was
complaining about the rocky beach
and how his Thermarest pad was terrible.
I looked at the beach, and having
spent a lot of nights on some iffy terrain,
I was surprised that he’d been uncomfortable
– the rocks just didn’t look
that bad to me.
“Did you have the pad all the way
inflated?” His blank stare told me
all I needed to know. “The pads we
had in Iraq, you just threw them on
the ground and that was it. I had no
idea you had to blow these things
up,” he said. A short instruction
After breakfast we decided we
might as well fish while we waited –
fortunately the tackle wasn’t on the
plane in Bethel. We rigged fly rods and
light spinning rigs and headed down to
We quickly started to catch fish.
Small Dolly Varden and grayling were the
order of the day, and the guys got into
the mood quickly. Nathan, who’d had
some fly-fishing experience, was helping
his brother, Wayne, learn the nuances of
fly fishing. Pat Upchurch, Thermarest
boy, started out using the spinning rods
before switching to fly rods.
Never have you seen such a quick
and immediate convert from flinging
hardware to presenting flies and beads.
The fish were very cooperative, and, after
landing a few Dollies, he was literally
hooked. There’s nothing like lots of quick
positive reinforcement for converting
hardware flingers into fly casters.
As the day progressed, we kept
an eye on the sky and our ears alert
for airplane sounds – nothing. So we
fished, got the guys familiar with the
tackle and had a very relaxing day.
When dinner approach and no airplane
around, Steve cobbled a meal together
out of our supplies (one of the
coolers was still in Bethel); we ate and
awaited our missing comrades. By the
time evening rolled around, there was
still no Beaver.
THE NEXT DAY, at breakfast we found
out that “Church” slept much better
on a fully inflated pad. While the guys
honed their fly skills, we waited.
Around 4 p.m., eureka! Airplane
sounds. The last three guys arrived
along with the rest of our food; we
quickly packed everything onto the
three rafts and were underway in
The extra days in camp played a
bit of havoc with Steve’s trip plan, but
nothing that couldn’t be overcome.
He’d wisely planned on a lay day so
we could spend one day not having to
break and set up camp and pack and
unpack rafts, but that idea went south.
But, we persevered.
The top of the river was, as the real
river guides like to say, boney – lots of
shallow water and searching for sometimes
nonexistent channels, I ordered
my guys out of the boat to push. Soldiers
make really good pushers!
In addition to the shallow water, it
doesn’t help when the guide misses a
turn and goes on an inadvertent jungle
cruise or two. My guys were very
good-natured about the detours and
the extra work. Frankly, if everything
goes smoothly, you’re left with no stories
to tell and no insulting nicknames
to give to the guide.
From the beginning, sorting out the
levels of fishing ability, backcountry
and wilderness comfort and camping
know-how was interesting. A few lessons
were necessary in things like tent
setup, kitchen hygiene and the inevitable
lessons in how to efficiently and
cleanly do what comes naturally to a
bear in the woods. No “surface mines,”
as one of the guys said.
Quickly, personalities emerged. The
level of profanity and trash talk started
out high and ascended rapidly as the
trip progressed. To someone unfamiliar
with military acronyms, large portions
of some conversations seemed unintelligible.
Rosetta Stone should come
up with a military-to-English program
THE RIVER ITSELF was a learning experience.
After the first couple of days
there was a lot less getting out and
pushing, but the meanders produced
some alternate routes that weren’t
always easy to dope out. Occasionally,
the boats would get separated for
a bit, but the walkie-talkies and GPS
units were invaluable. On a GPS with
good maps, you can follow your progress
down channels and figure out if
you’re in the main stem or hopelessly
As far as tackle, Steve supplied
7- and 10-weight fly rods, and medium-
and heavy-action spinning rigs.
We were anticipating using the lighter
stuff for rainbows, grayling
and Dollies, and the heavier
outfits for the salmon we anticipated
running into as we
The thinking was that, for
the less experienced guys,
the spinning rods would be
more forgiving, and if anyone
wanted to transition into fly
fishing, we’d have the gear
necessary. As it turned out,
there was a range of reactions
from jumping right in
to casting flies to gradual
and/or intermittent use depending
all the way to a couple of the
guys just having no interest
in making the leap. Getting
guys to warm up to the
whole flyfishing idea isn’t
easy-making fishing harder
isn’t an easy sell for some.
For terminal tackle, we
had floating line on the
7-weights and sinking line on the
10s. Leaders were mostly 15-pound
Maxim fluorocarbon for the trout and
20-pound for salmon. Mike used 1X
and 0X on his rod, the same sizes that
he uses on the Kenai River.
For the fly rigs, we had Wooly Buggers,
leeches, egg-sucking leeches
and some streamers, plus a variety of
bead sizes and colors. By far the most
productive were the beads. Steve had
boxes of them, and once we got the
right sizes and color dialed in, they
It seemed like the size choice on
the beads depended on where we were
in the river. The bigger, 14mm eggs
worked pretty well, for me at least, in
the upper river, and as we got farther
down, the 8mm and 10mm sizes performed
better. The best color was a
pale pink, but anyone fishing a remote
spot would be well-advised to bring a
variety of sizes and colors – this is not
a place where you want to pinch pennies.
Tackle shops are in very short
supply out there.
Streamer and leech patterns
worked well too, especially on rainbows,
but after a while, most of us just
quit experimenting and stuck with
the beads. We pinned the beads a
couple of inches above size 8 or 10
Strike indicators worked well to the
point where, at times, the fish were hitting
them at least as well as they were
hitting the beads. And all of the fishing
was catch-and-release style, except
for some salmon on the lower river.
For the spinning rods, we used a
variety of sizes and types of Mepps
spinners – the Flying C was outstanding
– especially once we started seeing
Since we went in late July, we
didn’t start seeing silvers until the last
few days. We saw kings at times, but
they were looking pretty ragged, as
were the chums.
An earlier float than late July would
get you into kings in better condition,
but going a bit later will have silvers
more evenly distributed throughout
the river. Humpies are an even-year
phenomenon, which puts a lot more
eggs in the river and gets a bit of a
feeding frenzy going on, as will having
more silvers in the upper reaches.
This makes for even better rainbow
fishing than what we had, which is
kind of hard to imagine.
But the Dollies were the hot ticket
for us. Occasionally, we’d find spots
where there were just scads of them
hanging in clear pools, and we’d get
into places where literally every cast
would ensure a hit.
Again, there’s nothing like loads
of positive reinforcement to keep
guys who are only occasional fishermen
to jump into the action, especially
when they’re just learning to
handle a fly rod.
The rainbow fishing was intermittent,
and finding them was a real bonus
for us. When just catching Dolly
after Dolly got too boring, occasionally
we’d tie on a leech or a streamer
and go prospecting for ‘bows.
Some very nice ones were landed
on flies; then again, we caught
more than a few on beads, so there
were no sure things.
The other occasional break in the
constant stream of Dolly Varden was
when we’d hit a grayling. Most were
average size, but one of the guys
caught a very nice one in the upper
river. Again, they were hitting beads,
and I’m sure if you’d target them with
dries you could have an absolute field
day with the little sailfish.
Speaking of grayling, Nate earned
himself a bit of ribbing when he landed
a whitefish in the upper river and
told his brother he’d caught a “female
grayling.” While lots of groups
might have let something like that
pass, with these guys, any possible
excuse to embarrass or humiliate a
companion doesn’t go unnoticed.
ON THE FIRST full day downriver, one
of the guys caught the first fish of his
life. This is a guy who has done several
combat tours, been fishing a few times
when he was younger, but this really
was his first. “Thomas, you’re way too
country to have never caught a fish before,”
On the second day out, our guys
were in for a surprise. In mid-afternoon,
we heard helo sounds. “Hey, that
sounds like a Blackhawk” changed to
“Hey, look, a Blackhawk – they must be
having training missions around here.”
Finally: “Holy (cats) – they’re landing”
and “They’re bringing us pizza?”
Steve and Karl had arranged for the
National Guard base in Bethel to bring
pizzas to the river and deliver them to
the guys, who were understandably
blown away. The Guard guys thanked
our soldiers for their service and posed
with their bird for a truly unique Kanektok
River photo op.
As for working with the guys, when
you have a group dynamic such as this,
you learn that every situation is unique.
“After 10 years as a first sergeant,
I found that it takes a few days for
the personalities to sort themselves
out,” Mike said. “I learned to figure
out the different guys, to learn how
to work with them and to just let
them all be themselves.”
And while everybody didn’t mesh
perfectly with every other individual,
things settled into a good working relationship;
you learned who could take
a joke and who couldn’t.
One thing that was a bit disconcerting
to the more knowledgeable anglers
was that after a few days, some
of the guys were getting pretty jaded
about the fishing. Some got tired of
just catching fish after fish and were
content to just loll around in the raft
and watch Alaska scroll by. Those of
us who knew exactly how spectacular
this world-class opportunity was kept
urging them. “Get your damned line in
the water” was often said to no avail.
It’s like some of them thought that
this was just a typical fishing trip and
that this was a normal set of circumstances.
Well, unless they’re extremely
fortunate, chances are their next trip
will prove to be eye-opening.
“Wait, you mean there are places
where you don’t catch a nice fat fish on
every cast?” It was a rude awakening
Of course, there are worse problems
to have on the river than a couple
of guys not fishing every possible
minute – like bears. And while we didn’t
see any brown bears after the first few
days, on literally every sandbar we
fished from or camped on there were
lots of bear tracks. So sightings weren’t
an issue, but that sort of thing definitely
keeps you on your toes and your head
on a swivel at all times.
As we got further down the river,
by day five we began to hear and see
some other boats. There are a couple
of fishing camps along the way that
move their clients up and down the river
via jet boat. This was a reminder that
we were getting closer to what passes
for civilization in this part of the state.
While it was nice to stop in at one of the
camps for coffee and some new faces
to see, it still tended to negate some of
the uniqueness of our situation.
However, the guys at Duncan’s upriver
camp radioed to their downriver
camp that we were coming, and they
had fresh-baked cake waiting for us.
It was a pleasant surprise.
ON DAY SEVEN, Steve had a brilliant idea
– Guide Appreciation Day. The idea
was this: the guides didn’t have to do
any work except fish, while the soldiers
rowed; then they’d set up camp
and do the cooking and cleaning up.
Since they’d had a week to watch the
real professionals in action, they took
to it pretty well.
We got to fish and give whoever
was on the oars a ration whenever
things didn’t go perfectly, and we were
able to relax in camp while the guys
took care of camp chores. The only
glitch came up in the cooking, when we
heard, “Patrick, how the hell can you
burn beans that were already cooked?”
Otherwise, it was smooth sailing.
Eventually we got down to where we
were seeing boats coming upriver from
Quinhagak on a regular basis. While
the salmon fishing picked up nicely, it
was obvious that the trip was coming
to an end. On July 30 we got to the
village and the work began – hauling
out rafts, unpacking everything, repacking
for transport, making sure
everything was loaded properly.
Then it was off to the airport to
fly back to Bethel. Once there, the
Bethel chapter of the VFW hosted
us for a steak dinner. We were able to
play a montage of photos from the trip
for everyone on a big screen, and they
voiced their appreciation for the guys,
for their service and for all of the sacrifices
they’ve made for their country.
After that it was one last night at
the Papa Bear guest house, then back
to Anchorage. As everyone scattered
to their destinations, everyone made
the usual promises to keep in touch,
and that was that.
So what does the future hold for
trips like this? Steve plans to keep it
going as long as he can. And while one
of the earlier trips was on a different
river, he feels like now that he’s got the
Kanektok dialed in, he’ll probably continue
to stick with it. “It’s been a phenomenal
river,” he said, “And too many
things have worked out too well to
make a change. If we have a presence
on the same place every year, there’s
more continuity with sponsors and the
other people who help us out.”
The range of companies and individuals
it takes to put on an expedition
like this is phenomenal. Steve,
Karl and Papa Bear Adventures have
given time, effort and resources to
make this happen, and their level of
commitment is impressive. In addition,
Steve solicits help from local
businesses and his co-workers for
help, which people supply unselfishly.
It’s a humbling experience to be
allowed to participate.
So a phenomenal trip went into
the memory banks. We had good
weather, excellent river conditions,
and other than the small scheduling
snafu at the beginning of the trip, all
went according to Steve’s excellent
And of course, there was the fishing.
To be able to access such magnificent
fishing over such a long period of time, to
hook and land literally hundreds of eager
big fish was truly an experience to savor
and remember always. And to be able
to get to know six guys who have given
so much to all of us was truly an honor.
I was thankful to the Wounded Warrior
Project for allowing me this opportunity.
I was talking to Steve, and he said,
“I think it was a pretty good trip,
don’t you? Would you so it again?”
I replied, “Hell yes, I’d do it today!”
Editor’s note: For more information on
the Wounded Warrior Project, go to