I slept well, but then again, A Secret Service agent stood just outside. The agent wasn’t there because of me, but rather guarded former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalyn, who were in the cabin next door.
The president was here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, better known as ANILCA. Carter had signed the law in 1980 and set aside some 104 million acres for parks and wildlife refuges in the most sweeping conservation legislation in the world.
At the time, there were protest marches in Anchorage, and Carter had been hung in effigy.
After a round of public appearances, the president and his contingent flew west to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The National Park Service planned to show the president an ANILCA park and treat him to some fly fishing. As the park superintendent, I played host.
We flew south from Port Alsworth up Kontrashibuna Lake and into Upper Tazimina Lake over windswept tundra. We fished for a couple of hours with no luck, so we flew on to a little lake near the park boundary. We followed a narrow trail to the Tazimina River, where three 12-foot rafts had been staged.
The Tazimina is a classic, clear-water Alaska stream, 50 feet wide at most but often much narrower. Its quality is like distilled water, and the streambed shimmers through.
We floated to a wide, cobbled bar. The Secret Service agents positioned them- selves on the bank upstream and downstream of the president. The president, first lady and I then spread out and fished. The guides attended to our guests. I took care of myself. All of us caught and released a few small trout. The first lady landed more fish than the president, and they exchanged one of those married people looks. It was clear some serious angling competition flowed between them. Intent on fishing, the president wasted little time with lunch.
The Carters are experienced anglers and have fished all over the world. I watched the symmetry of their casting, the bright fly lines arcing through the air and their laser focus. They cast with precision and handled their gear with competence. They traveled with their own waders, vests, rods and reels.
As we pushed off from shore again, I placed my rod in the back of my boat, and the guide put the first lady’s next to it. Engraved on hers was a small label that said “No. 2 Made for First Lady Rosalyn Carter.” I was certain the president had a matching custom rod that said “No.1.”
The rods leaned off the stern. The stream soon narrowed where a large spruce had fallen. The first boat slipped through easily, but our guide missed the slot and swung the stern of the boat into the tree. The lines on both rods caught and flipped them into the river. Plunk. Oblivious to our mishap, the boat with the president and first lady floated out of sight. My stomach sank. The first lady’s rod and my own, worth more than half a grand, had fallen into the Tazimina.
Quickly, we hauled the raft to shore and ran upstream to the spruce. We spied the lime green fly line of one caught in the branches, and I thought Oh good, my rod and just as quickly thought Oh good, the first lady’s rod. I was conflicted but not for long—shame, embarrassment and infamy were much worse than monetary loss. We couldn’t see the second rod.
The guide and Lee Fink, my chief ranger, quickly waded in chest-deep. Lee grabbed the line and began to pull, hand over hand, until it grew taut. He could see the rod on the bottom. He pulled firmly, hoping the butt knot on the reel would hold, and managed to reach down and grab the rod. It was mine.
Good, oh not good, I thought. Damn. We regrouped for a try on the first lady’s rod, this time from the raft upstream of the tree. Balancing in the boat, Lee submerged his head and neck into the 40-degree water. He did it again and again, finally glimpsing the neon line on the streambed, chest deep. Slowly, he pulled it in, hand over hand. We held our breath as he lifted the rod into the boat. Thank God.
Coming around a bend, we could see the president and first lady on the bank fishing. We pulled in upstream and our guide ducked into the woods with the first lady’s rod to wind the entire fly line back on the reel. In plain view, I re-reeled my line onto my rod. Then, with what I hoped was nonchalance, I fished my way downstream to rejoin the party.
When our boat hadn’t shown up right away, the other guide had given the first lady a spare rod. After we arrived, the guide returned hers—the one that had gone swimming. The president looked at Rosalyn as if to ask where her rod had been, and the first lady shrugged like she didn’t know or didn’t want to ask. The pure water of the Tazimina had left no mark, no grit in the reel.
We continued fishing, working our way back to our waiting planes. During the return flight, a request came over the radio: Would the president be willing to have his picture taken with the school children of Port Alsworth? When the president and first lady landed, it wasn’t just the kids, but the entire populace of Port Alsworth—all 100 of them—gathered on the dock to have their picture taken. A generation before, the man had been vilified. On this day he was welcomed home.
In the background, Lee and I quietly helped unload the rods. All of the rods.
By Deb Liggett – former superintendent of Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks and Preserves from 1998-2003.