Paul Coleman of Florida angles a sockey salmon he hooked on the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in Soldotna, Alaska. Coleman said he and his wife have come to the Kenai Peninsula 11 times from the Lower 48, forging a longtime friendship with a Soldotna couple. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Paul Coleman of Florida angles a sockey salmon he hooked on the Kenai River on Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in Soldotna, Alaska. Coleman said he and his wife have come to the Kenai Peninsula 11 times from the Lower 48, forging a longtime friendship with a Soldotna couple. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

Across 20 years and the entire country, Alaska and Florida couples build friendship

Though he’s only here for about a month each summer, Paul Coleman knows many of the fishermen on the Kenai River bank in Soldotna.

Through the thin 5 a.m. light, he waved to several anglers flipping for sockeye from his perch at the base of staircase 12 in Soldotna Creek Park. At 82, the staircase helps him stay upright as he flips his own line for sockeye.

“I lean on this railing here — it’s kind of my spot,” he said.

Fishing the Kenai River and the surrounding waters calls the Florida resident and his wife Joanne to the peninsula again and again. This year marks his 11th time coming to the Kenai, with the visit regularly punctuated by fishing.

It was on the same bank in 1999 that Paul and Bob Condon met, beginning a cross-country friendship between the two couples that has continued for nearly 20 years. Each summer for the past few years, Paul and Joanne have loaded up their summer gear and driven the approximately 5,000 miles from their home in Florida to come to Alaska and stay with Bob and Nancy Condon, who keep a little cabin on their property near Soldotna available to them.

Paul and Bob began their friendship over fishing line. The sockeye salmon were running and kept snapping Bob’s line when he got a fish on.

“I said, ‘I have more line in my truck,’” Paul said. “He said, ‘No, no,’ but I went up the bank and got it. At the time, it was just the bank, they didn’t have these (stairs and boardwalks).”

That was the Colemans’ first trip to Alaska. They were staying in a campground in their RV at the time, and Paul planned to go caribou hunting. But that meant Joanne would be in the campground by herself.

“Bob said, ‘Well, we have this little cabin, why don’t you come stay there?’” Paul said.

At the time, the Colemans lived in Pennsylvania. Paul grew up there, working briefly in the coal mines as a child before being drafted into the military, fishing the rivers. They made several trips to Alaska from Pennsylvania before retiring to southern Florida, where they now live near Everglades National Park. With the wide assemblage of fish in the tropical salt water, Paul said he fishes there year-round.

The Condons don’t fish much anymore, but Bob is and always has been an active hunter. In their home off Echo Lake Road, animals — both taxidermied and live — outnumber the couple at least five to one. Three small dogs skittered among the delicately articulated muskoxen, lynx, bears and moose, and a fenced-off dog agility course takes up a chunk of the yard — every Thursday night, they host dog agility contests, Nancy said.

Though several rare pieces decorate their tables — mammoth tusks and an heirloom polar bear head rest quietly beneath window — an absolutely enormous moose looms over the room. After Bob shot it in 2012 in the Arctic, when he was 73 years old, its rack weighed in at 98 pounds, with its total weight estimated at more than 1,500 pounds. Though he was shaking at the sight of the monstrous moose bearing down on him and knew he had the chance to shoot it, he said it brought tears to his eyes to bring down such a magnificent animal. Hunting runs back generations in his family — a plaque with a good-luck poem to hunters carved by his Scottish immigrant grandfather hangs on the wall — and upon bringing down the animal, he nodded upward.

“When I shot that one, I said, ‘This is for you, Grandpa,’” he said.

Hunting has long been a part of the Condons’ lives. When they lived in Maine, they ran a hunting guide service. Though Nancy said she doesn’t hunt anymore herself, she held a guide license in the Northeast and was one of the first female guides in Maine.

While they owned the lodge, they offered free hunting for kids — “you’ve got to help the kids,” Nancy said. That’s something they noted about Paul, who often offers advice to other anglers on the river. Joanne, who isn’t fishing with Paul this season but goes with him to the river, notes the same.

“He’s always helping people out, teaching people,” she said.

Bob and Nancy look forward to the Colemans coming up each year. Both Bob and Paul are now in their 80s but remain avid sportsmen. Bob praised Paul’s efforts to coach people on the river when he goes out fishing, saying he spends most of his time on the water for the month that he’s up.

“They are constantly meeting new people, very friendly,” Nancy said. “They said they were getting too old to drive the highway. They told us this year, ‘Oh, we’ll just fly up,’ and we said, ‘Great,’ and then they called us and told us they were packing up the car.”

Down on the river, Paul had just freed a sockeye salmon he hooked in the belly when three or four other anglers briefly had fish on before they got away. The water fell quiet again quickly, and he shook his head cheerfully. He adjusted a small hook that another local angler had told him to try out, saying he’d watched someone else land sockeye after sockeye on it. Even when the salmon runs aren’t strong — like this year — he said he’ll still come to the river.

“What a difference a day makes,” he said, looking upriver toward the rising sun.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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