Outdoor writers have a less than stellar reputation in journalism circles. There are strict guidelines that prevent journalists from accepting trips, products and other freebies in exchange for news coverage. But that hasn’t always been the case in the world of outdoor writing.
It’s common for outdoor writers to trade stays at remote hunting and fishing lodges for complimentary stories. The same goes for manufacturers who want a favorable review of their latest fly rod. They get “loaner” rods into the hands of the right scribes, then never bother to ask for them back.
In fairness, the life of a freelancer is pretty precarious. The opportunity to go somewhere incredible without draining your wallet is a primary reason some pass on more profitable careers. Most still try to maintain some degree of integrity and impartiality. But the truth is this: if you’re getting goods or services comped by the outfits you’re covering, you’re not doing journalism. It’s public relations. Not that there’s anything wrong with P.R., but it is something else.
Back when I was writing full time I turned a few of those deals. I took one trip to an Alaskan fishing lodge in a remote village near Nome. I’d always wanted to go to Alaska, I must have started off six or seven times, but never got farther than the state line.
The fishing was mostly good, and that’s what I wrote. What I didn’t mention was that the village was so remote we had to catch a ride on a small tundra-tired prop plane from Nome, which is already about a half day’s plane ride beyond the end of the Earth. I also didn’t mention that on the day we arrived the coast was socked in by a thick, ground-hugging fog. Since the village didn’t have a homing beacon our pilot could only find the lodge flying by sight along the coast until he came to the river delta, then following the water upstream like a salmon to the lodge.
Also not mentioned was that the fog kept forcing the plane lower and lower to stay below the clouds. I remember watching the altimeter needle bounce between 5 and 15 meters for most of that flight, while the wipers worked overtime to keep the windshield clear of sea spray.
We made it, but that wasn’t the end of our adventure. The lodge, at river’s edge, was visible as we circled the village. But the airstrip was a few hundred feet higher, up on a hill, and totally socked in. We circled hoping for a shot at the runway until we were almost out of fuel. We finally gave up and flew upstream to another village where the airstrip was clear.
The lodge sent up boats, but that took another hour. We waited in what passes in those parts for an airport terminal: the one-bedroom home of the elderly couple who lived closest to the airstrip. We crowded into their tiny living room to stay warm while the old guy fussed the entire time trying to get his recalcitrant coffee pot to work. While the old guy cursed we watched an episode of “L.A. Law” beamed via satellite to the edge of the world. I remember watching with a keen interest as my sister’s infant twin boys were stars for a season, playing a baby born to a pair of lawyers in the fictional law firm.
Finally the old man got the coffee pot to work, but just as he prepared to roll out the Alaskan outback hospitality for probably the first guests they’d hosted in like, forever, our boats arrived and we filed out without so much as a sip. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad turning down a cup of Joe.
When I returned home I wrote the typical stuff expected in one of these transactions. Something like: “The coho salmon run up to 15 pounds and come readily to the fly. For a change of pace you can always tie on a dry fly and catch 18-inch grayling until your arm falls off.”
I should have wrote about that airplane ride. That would have made a great story.
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