By Grant Olsen
A light rain drizzled around us when we arrived at the airport in Juneau. The family friend who had come to pick us up informed me that this was one of the wettest summers in the past forty years. I heard the roar of engines overhead and looked up in time to see a column of helicopters heading off to the east.
“There goes the suicide squad,” said our friend. “They’re taking tourists over to look at the Mendehall Glacier.”
“Why do you call them the ‘suicide squad’?” I asked.
“Because they’re always crashing—people die up there every year.”
I smiled, though it seemed rather morbid. This was my first trip to Alaska, and I was simply content to soak it all in. I was traveling with my dad and my grandpa, two of the finest men I’ve ever known. My grandpa has always been my hero. During the tumultuous years of WWII, he served in the navy and captained a patrol boat in the Pacific. Following the war, he resumed his stellar track career and competed in the 1948 Olympic Games in London. During his forty years as head track coach at Brigham Young University, he coached 26 Olympians and 118 All-Americans, earning him a place in the U.S. Track Coaches Hall of Fame. I have always loved and revered my “Pappy.”
One of Pappy’s former track athletes, a pole-vaulter named Dave, runs a fishing lodge in Gustavus, Alaska. Each year, he invited my grandpa up to stay in the lodge and fish in the pristine waters of Glacier Bay National Park at a substantially discounted price. I’d always dreamed of joining Pappy on one of these trips, but because money was tight, I had to settle for the pictures and stories Pappy brought back from these annual treks.
Then one day I received an unexpected phone call from Dave. He introduced himself and explained that because my grandpa’s health had been failing a bit of late, he felt it would be important for me and my dad to join Pappy on his next Alaska trip. Dave must have known that my teacher’s salary would make it difficult to afford, because he generously offered us the same discount he always gave Pappy.
And so here we were, flying in a single-engine plane from Juneau to the tiny airport in Gustavus. The next morning, we set out into the magnificent Glacier Bay. Humpback whales surfaced and jumped all around us as we patiently waited for the halibut bite. We only caught a few that day, and none were over twenty pounds. Yet, I couldn’t complain. I’d just spent an amazing day with my dad and grandpa, surrounded by humpback whales and sea otters.
After dinner, I sat with Pappy for a couple hours and he told me stories of past Alaskan adventures. My grandpa’s stories were legendary, and despite his recent health problems, he spoke with a deep, commanding voice. It was a wonderful conclusion to the day.
Out on the water for a second day, the bites were again few and far between. My dad hooked one big halibut, but when it got within fifteen feet of the boat, a sea lion exploded out of the water and tore it to bits! To me, it was worth losing the fish just to witness that spectacle. Pappy and my dad were less enthused. They scowled at the creature as it dove back into the depths with the remains of the halibut in its mouth. To be fair, after we’d lost several more fish to the sea lions that day, I had to agree that they were annoying, greedy creatures.
The next day was our final day of fishing and we decided to hike into a nearby river to fish for coho salmon, then finish up with some halibut fishing in the bay. The silvers were giant and plentiful, and we limited out in less than an hour. But it was bittersweet—because of his physical condition, Pappy had been unable to hike up the river with us, and had to wait on the boat.
When we returned to the boat and headed out together into the bay, I was excited to spend this one final day fishing with him. And what a day it was—the sun was shining and the sea lions were sleeping (or mating, or whatever it is they do when they aren’t stealing halibut). The fishing was just starting to pick up when my dad let out a shout! His pole doubled over and I swear the boat rocked. My dad is a former NFL lineman, so to see him straining that hard made it clear this fish was definitely a monster.
The battle was intense and lasted about an hour. Because firearms are prohibited in the bay, the captain harpooned the halibut when we got it close. We all pulled together and somehow managed to get my dad’s 395-pound halibut into the boat!
When we reached the dock, a crowd gathered to gawk at the behemoth. Pappy stood right next to my dad the whole time and looked like a kid on Christmas morning. I snapped this photo of them after we had loaded it into the back of the lodge’s pick-up truck, along with the other massive halibut we caught that day. This picture is now one of my most treasured possessions. It was an amazing end to the special trip we’d been able to share with Pappy.
About two weeks after we returned home, Pappy died peacefully in his sleep. It was a terrible blow, but I was comforted by the memories of our special trip. I’ll definitely never forget those sacred days I spent in Alaska with my hero.