Ambler Road: My Father's Foreboding
By Barry Whitehill
Fly-fishing and athletics were my Dad’s salvation. At age 12, his father was sent to the penitentiary in Monroe, Washington for embezzling funds as a Justice of the Peace in Klickitat County. It probably didn’t help my grandfather’s cause to try and cover his tracks by setting a fire that burned the woman’s bathroom of the County Courthouse. Suffice to say, my father’s life became harder after that, with the Depression still making it almost impossible to make ends meet. His school grades reflected those times, with straight “F’s” his freshman year of high school. Fortunately, he was a good athlete. Fly-fishing was my father’s salvation.
Pat Whitehill with his first sheefish on a fly rod. Photo by Barry Whitehill
Patrick credited two men with providing him paths that served him well for the rest of his life. One was his high school basketball coach who needed my father on the team. With his help, my Dad became the first in his family to graduate from college after turning his high school grades around to get a college athletic scholarship and ultimately earning his PhD from the University of Oregon in physical education.
The other man, Big Butch, was the older brother of my father’s good friend who had just returned from fighting in World War II. Butch had a love for steelhead fly-fishing, which he shared with Patrick. From that beginning, my Dad went on to test the waters with his fly pole in Venezuela, New Zealand, Christmas Islands, throughout Europe, South Africa, and all over North America.
Late in life my Dad confided with me that he had a dream. He wanted to catch sheefish, or “Tarpon of the North” for their tail walking abilities, on a fly before their runs were diminished. Patrick could read the handwriting on the wall; climate change and human factors would likely start to affect these huge ocean-run whitefish. His wish was to fly into remote Alaska and float the Kobuk River in northwest Alaska where he had heard reports of sheefish, in excess of 40” and 40 pounds. He wasn’t disappointed.
Cal’s first fish on a fly with Grandpa’s tutelage. Photo by Barry Whitehill
Probably the greatest thing he did on that trip was sharing with his oldest grandson, who was 12 at the time, his love of wild places and fishing in a setting that had been the norm for our world for thousands of years. That norm is evaporating fast. The Ambler Road, if it comes to be, will mean the end of yet another swath of North American wildness that will never return once it is gone. Sadly 40” sheefish will likely disappear with it, as any number past examples, from bison to salmon, will attest.