Two “Alaska” Tales

I bring you two stories from Alaska – one of the recent week and another spanning 55 years.

Story one. Homeys Bill Boyum and Jim Taylor and I returned Tuesday from this year’s run to Alaska’s Kenai River for sockeye salmon. For the days we were there, this was an “off” year, with only a fraction of the numbers of incoming fish we have seen over past years. The daily catch limit early on was three fish per day per person, but for our last day of fishing, Alaska slashed that to one. Be that as it may, we had an adventure. Herewith, a brief summary.

Day 1: Bill and I caught a sockeye each, with one pink and several dolly varden and rainbow trout. Day 2: Bill caught a sockeye and a pink. Day 3: Nobody caught a salmon, but released a few trout. (Let it here be noted tthat, while he had not caught a salmon, Jim was practicing the skills which fueled his long and successful coaching career with the youth of Ellensburg. Over and over it was pracice, observe, study, observe and practice.) Day 4: Bill catches a morning sockeye, Jim catches two. That evening Jim and I return to the base of the cliff, with its very narrow shore shelf and he hooks an 11-pound salmon. In getting Jim’s monster into the net, I leaned a step too far and ended up in the river. The fish left the net, which Jim grabbed, lest it float away. The fish was so fascinated with my demonstration of swimming toward shore in chest waders that it hung around as Jim pulled me back onto the shelf with the net. I then re-netted the fish between my legs. A fisherman upshore yelled, “First time I ever saw the fisherman netting the netter. Bravo!” (Thankfully, it was not cold.). Day 5: Jim and I brought our limit of two salmon back to the cabin. [Duly noted: Coach/Homey Jim Taylor was the only member of our party to catch any daily limits of salmon.]

Story two. On our second day in Alaska, I got word that Jim Erkel had died in his van near his property outside Wasilla, Alaska – a couple hours north of where we were fishing.

Jim and his family hit Denver in the early ‘60s, after teaching welding in Guam and Europe. We babysat his kids. He’d grown up in the fields and woodlands of Minnesota and South Dakota. We were brothers the moment we met. Arguably, most of the great adventures of my life happened when we were together.

I taught him about elk, antelope and mule deer hunting, but that was just a starting point. On a hunt, he might leave our comfortable elk or deer camp with a sleeping bag, rucksack and his old .32 Winchester carbine and return two days later needing help packing a deer and/or elk out of some distant forest. He did everything his own way. He taught me to live life in the here and now – though I was not always a great student.

At some point he and his wife parted ways, and he became evermore his own man. He never had much cash, but he got by. He owned a few apartments and, occasionally, lived in his beautiful duplex in the Colorado mountains (paid for by downstairs renters). He drove VW camper vans that he could rebuild in an afternoon alongside a road, and made most anything else he needed. He was fascinated with flight, flying, and WWII aircraft. He always had a plane – now two. He lived well on the game, fish and vegetables the earth provided. He wintered at his camp in Baja, Mexico or in Australia. He summered at his cabin near Wasilla, catching salmon and seafood, and reveling in the view of the lake outside his window. Transition time happened in Colorado or Texas or elsewhere. Always kind and curious, he was eager to find a woman with a similar soul, but found few takers. Sometimes I thought he was nuts. Often, I thought I was.

One example of high times with Erkel: Over a long Memorial Day weekend in 1978. Jim and I and a couple woman friends flew in his Piper Cherokee to the southern tip of Baja. Erkel had fallen in love with the people of Baja California Sur – different, he would say, from people of urban Mexico, as Nevadans are different from New Yorkers. They were poor, but of the earth and sea, and filled with love.

On a dirt landing strip about halfway between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, an old man pulled up in his beatup station wagon and hauled our stuff down to the beach. For a buck or two and a “Gracias!” From our camp on the beach above high-tide, we walked to the Hotel Palmilla. The afternoon was warm and intoxicating, as were the banana daquiris. We sat in the shade, feet propped up on the low wall around the open‑air bar and gazed out over the Sea of Cortez.

We were like high school kids on a lark. We swam and fished and ate seafood as the sun set sank into the Sea of Cortez. We watched $150‑per‑day‑per‑person charter boats bring in marlin and dorado and yellowfin ‘til we couldn’t stand it. Erkel found a new buddy – an old charter boat captain. With Cokes, bait and charter fees, the captain wanted the equivalent of $99 – less than 25 bucks apiece for a day chasing marlin. We caught two that day – 7 1/2 feet, 135 pounds and 9 feet, 165 pounds. After the pictures and congrats from other fishermen at the little pier, the captain sold chunks of the marlin to the villagers.

Multiply the joy and adventure of that 1978 trip by a dozen or so and you may begin to know my brother Jim Erkel.

Death, of course, is  the future for each of us. Ever wonder what someone might say about you after you’ve gone on? Here’s what Edward Last-of-the-Hucklings wrote about his loss: “Family isn’t really about blood at all. Family is about those who love and care for one another on the hardest of days. Family is about those who can look right through you, and you through them, and still enjoy the view. I have been so blessed to grow up in a family that embraced the truth that ‘family makes you blood, blood doesn’t make you family.’ I have known great men as brothers to my fathers and mothers, and have been lucky to call them my friends, though they are clearly my uncles. This year, in a short time now I have lost two of these men. My heart broke when at first my Uncle Scott passed only months ago, now my heart breaks again for the loss of my Uncle Jim Erkel. He was a man of the wild, living out of boats, planes, vans and cabins. A dirtbag extraordinaire that inspired me to live my life outside the lines. A man that would rather fix it, than buy a new one, and even with houses to his name was never ungrateful for a hot meal and a roof over his head. He molded me and shaped more then I ever told him. His loss will be felt for a very long time. My love goes to his children, and to my parents, all of my parents for whom he was a brother and best friend. Time here is short my friends, don’t waste it. Remember family makes you blood, blood doesn’t make you family; go tell your family you love them.”

RIP, Brother Jim Erkel.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized