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An outdoors writer gets his first assignment, and it yields an unexpected tale

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: May 1, 2018
  • Published May 1, 2018

Christine Cunningham takes notes for a story that would not be told in Western Alaska. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

The message that seemed I had been waiting most of my adult life for came a couple of years ago in February. Christine and I were both working full time, but we had been freelance writing for outdoors publications for few years. Neither of us had been asked to do a specific piece for a publication.

The message, from an editor of a publication both of us had had freelance pieces published in, asked if we were interested in an assignment that would take us to remote western Alaska to fish, take photos and write about the adventure.

Growing up, my nights were often spent hiding under a blanket to conceal the small book light a sympathetic grandmother had given me. I read outdoors stories in magazines and books late into the night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I thought often of becoming an outdoors writer, able to hunt and fish around the world and write stories like the ones that took me anywhere I wanted to go and be paid for it.

The second semester of the sixth grade revealed that perhaps I could be a writer. My teacher, George Gagnon, decided everyone had to write three examples of Haiku poetry each week of the semester. I couldn't write a Haiku to save my life. I suspect now it was more because, at the time, I thought it was silly. Well. I told ole George I couldn't write poetry, but I could write a book.

He grinned at me and said, "All right smart guy, you go ahead and write a book, but it has to be readable and at least 80 pages long." I did. It was about a boy living in the north woods, his dog, and a moose.

George took it and said he would try to get it published. I'm still hoping it will appear on the best-seller list one of these days. But it was a start.

It was decades later before I dabbled in writing again. Starting with occasional freelance pieces, I had some moderate success that turned into published articles on a semi-regular basis (although when I look back at those early works, I am surprised anyone wanted them). But, no "assignments."

So, when the message came, it was like I had arrived. All of a sudden, I was going to be living my dream.

Excited by the prospect, even in my advancing years when I know better, I chose to rely on assumptions and perceptions and accepted the job.

As the date of our departure loomed, we hadn't received the commercial airline tickets that would take us to the western Alaska village, from which we would fly by Bush plane to the lake where we would start our float/fishing trip. I contacted the editor and was told that we would have to get the tickets ourselves.

I had assumed, from ill-informed perceptions, that when one was sent on "assignment" the sender would incur the costs of transportation. A quick mental calculation revealed the cost of the tickets were a little more than twice the amount we would receive in payment for the photography and story.

But, we had agreed, and I blamed myself for not checking, so we bought the tickets and figured we could write off the expense.

When you hear that faint sound of thunder on the horizon, it behooves one to listen. The thunder got a bit louder when the outfitter sponsoring the trip didn't seem to remember why we were there and had trouble finding the equipment we were going to use, never mind the disrepair it was in when it was located.

The days that followed were the quintessential example of Murphy's Law. Less than 24 hours into the trip we learned that while dry bags work great for rain and spray, they are less effective when repeatedly submerged. The camera and lenses were ruined and the only photos salvaged, somehow retained on the camera's SD card, came from the first night in camp.

Emerging from the wilderness six days later, after constant rain, sinking ships and a flu bug, I was lighter by 14 pounds. Christine lost nine pounds. In short, the trip, in the picture-perfect world of outdoors magazines, was a train wreck. But it was a great adventure, the kind of trip that makes Alaska what it is — a story worth telling.

Except stories like that don't sell trips for the outfitter. There would be no story, because it could not be told the way it happened.

In the end, that "free" trip netted a loss of around $5,000 but gave far more than money can buy.

We learned that the money or the "free stuff" didn't matter. The love of the outdoors and the love of writing about it doesn't start and stop with success or failure, it is unfailing, and the stories that come from the experience must be our own.

I suppose you could consider that a childhood dream was shattered. That the romantic image of the outdoors writer was tainted.

Not so.

The allure, the reason for telling of adventures in the outdoors, remains the same as it was those dark winter nights when I would hide under my blanket with a magazine. I could go anywhere I wanted to go, from Africa to Alaska, through the words of those writers.

The best I can hope for in this journey is that, at least on some level, what I write can take folks to the places I've been, even if they are hiding under a blanket with a tiny book light as they go.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. He writes every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at

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