Papa Bear Adventures in the Kuskokwim hub community of Bethel recently took six veterans on a rafting trip. The guiding company brought them down the Kanektok River near Quinhagak, a village about seventy miles southwest of Bethel, as part of the Wounded Warriors program. The group found relief from injuries on one of the premier fishing rivers in the world.
Steve Powers runs Papa Bear Adventures. He says this trip is his company’s way of supporting service men and women.
“We try to do a trip with the Wounded Warriors each year, and take some wounded soldiers out to float down one of the rivers, to get the chance to go fishing to enjoy Alaska. My brother originally thought about it and we talked about it and we just felt like this was the right thing to do,” say’s Powers.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a national program with the sole purpose of honoring and empowering veterans of the United States Armed Forces who are hurt or injured in battle. Papa Bear guiding company has been taking Wounded Warriors on trips for five years.
One of those being honored is Alaskan Mike Buzinski. He served in the Air Force as a crew member on board a Boeing E-3. During his service he was stationed in Iraq. He says he was disabled after being diagnosed with tinnitus, a condition that causes constant ringing in the ears. He says though this is an annoying condition, he is more fortunate than others.
“My disability is very minor compared to some of the other guys that were in the army and the marines that went to Afghanistan, and had injuries from shrapnel and different disabilities created by the conditions on the ground,” say’s Buzinski.
Buzinski lives in Anchorage, but had never been to the Bethel area. He and a few other veterans anxiously wait at Papa Bears lodge on weather hold, because of fog. He’s eager to fish Pegati Lake at the headwaters of the Kanektok.
“I’ve never been out there, a couple of us have made it out there already and the rest of us are sitting here waiting for the fog to break so we can get out there and join em.”
Eventually the fog lifts. Buzinski and 5 other veterans are enjoy some lake fishing and then a seven day float trip down the Kanektok. When they return to Bethel they’re treated to a welcome back gathering and dinner at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building.
There, they exchange many humorous stories such as some members falling off the raft. But perhaps the most interesting story of the trip involved a once in a lifetime delivery as recounted by veterans Patrick Upchurch and Thomas O’Brien.
“Karl from Papa Bear Lodge, and the National Guard came out and visited us on I think day 3, and brought us some pizza from Bethel, awesome pizza, so that was a pretty welcome surprise I mean,” says Upchurch. “Floating down the river and an Army Black Hawk comes soaring by, everyone’s looking around all confused, and then it lands and there’s Karl waiting for us to float right up to him,” says O’Brien.
Papa Bear’s Steve Powers hopes to continue giving warriors a chance to experience some of the best of what Alaska has to offer.