There’s a hard bend in the back corner of the harbor opposite the houseboat that upon initial approach isn’t obvious. Once you make it back to farthest and westernmost point of the harbor it’s possible to see the bend cutting back to the north. A grim reminder of the harshness of navigating the waters sat at the mouth of the river that flowed back into the harbor.
A shipwreck from an old fishing boat that had clearly misjudged its ability to make it through the narrow waters and into the lake. As we moved into the bend it sat just barely submerged and oriented in such a manner that suggested that maybe the captain was caught heading out of the bend at the wrong time and ran aground. George speculated that the boat probably tried placing crab pots in the lake since, as we’d later discover, it was a very productive area for catching Dungeness crab.
Fortunately, our guide and small aluminum craft made it up the river and through the developing yet small class rapids into the lake. We had to move in just as the tide was coming up so that we could leave while the tide was still high. Otherwise, we’d be sleeping there. Like anything in Alaska, you’d best plan every step of the way. If you found a way in then you better know your way out before entering.
It was in this hidden lake that we’d catch a mess load of fish for dinner and my father would almost ruin our first trip in just half a day and only part of the way to our destination.
George found a school of fish holding and anchored the boat. We tossed our spoons tagged with treble hooks into the thick of them on our oversized spinning gear. We didn’t care about the fight. We cared about eating.
We hauled several fish in, all pink salmon, and tossed them into a Rubbermaid trash can. Good eaters, and very abundant. My dad then hooked into one that he proclaimed must have been a whale. It didn’t have a fighter’s chance being that it was on such heavy tackle, but he kept saying over and over again how it felt like he was reeling in something much bigger. Once the fish surfaced next to the boat it became clear what had happened. He foul-hooked the fish right under the skin of the fish’s back near its dorsal fin. The fish had been dragged sideways the entire way.
The moment it surfaced the skin broke with a loud “SNAP!” and the spoon popped out of the fish which immediately kicked away. I looked and saw my dad’s face which could only be described as a bewildering mixture of shock and dread. The spoon that popped out of the fish’s back had flown up into the direction of the rod’s tension which shared the same path as my father’s face and slapped his cheek directly below his right eye. Only one of the three treble hooks was visible and sticking out from his face. The other two hooks were embedded in his cheek all of the way up to the shank.
Here we are in a small boat in a remote lake in the Alaskan wilderness. It required a full day’s travel to get to where we were, and we weren’t even finished traveling; yet, here’s my father with a fishing lure embedded in his cheek so deep it’s difficult to imagine not needing minor outpatient surgery to remove it. The myriad of complications that could arise from two large treble hooks buried just under an eyeball is a thought that’s frightening enough. Compound that with the remoteness of our location, and just the sheer time and effort it took to get there, which means the same time and effort to get back, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to envision the best case scenario in which this could end. There was no way in anyone’s mind it would end right there on the boat. Anyone’s mind except for George’s that is.
George calmly shifted around from the stern of the boat and kneeled right next to my father.
“Remove your glasses and look over that way. Be still and don’t flinch” he said in a placid tone.
He then began talking to dad about a seemingly unrelated topic to what was going. It may have been something like Auburn football or a mutual acquaintance neither had seen in a while. I can’t recall exactly what it was because I was so shocked and sickened by the whole ordeal. As George was talking he took his forefinger and put a gentle but forceful amount of pressure on the side toward the bridge of Dad’s nose and his eye; right in between the nose and the lure.
“Now don’t move,” he reminded him and continued their trepidatious conversation. Then with a quick snatch from George’s other hand, which I had failed to even realize he was using, it snatched away from Dad’s face with the spoon in hand and carrying the hooks with it. I looked at Dad’s face and all I could see were two small holes the same size as the gauge of the hooks. A little bit of blood, but no more than two slight runs down the side of his cheek.
The wounds would later easily clot with persistent pressure from a handkerchief. No stitches needed. It was the cleanest wound you could have envisioned given that two treble hooks had gone into his face up to the shank and then had come out of the same hole.
It was the damnedest thing I’ve ever witnessed.
I know the protocols for removing fish hooks. I’ve seen the lemon demonstration and all of that. I know it’s doable, but the fact that this wasn’t a single #8 panfish or #2 bass hook, but relatively large gauged treble hooks that were embedded (I’m not exaggerating how deep they penetrated) right below his eye is incredible, or in George’s words, “awesome.”
We should have had to go back and wait on the sea plane to pick us up to take us back to a doctor in town. Worst case we could’ve tried ourselves and ripped his face up to the point that we couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. How he didn’t need stitches in that instance is nothing short of remarkable.
But to know George Mann is to know he’s a remarkable person. He understood the need for preparation in more than just the collection of tangible goods. Knowledge was easily one of if not the most important commodity to take with you, and that knowledge undoubtedly saved our first trip. Because of that, we were able to leave the next morning for East Yahtam.