My phone rang Tuesday evening at about 7:00. It was my unlisted private line.
“How are ya?” asked a voice on the other end.
“Fine,” I replied almost automatically. There was a long pause. “Who is this?” I asked.
There was no response. “Who is this?” I repeated… “Bob?” I asked. And then again, “Bob? Bob?” Still no response… and then after another long pause there was a click and the line went dead.
I sat there for a moment in a daze. I knew that voice… of course I knew that voice. It was unmistakably Bob Karp, my friend and fishing partner of many years. He always opened every phone call with that simple question, “How are ya?”
Strange? You bet it’s strange. My pal Bob Karp died with his wife Soni in an automobile accident in France more than eight years ago.
Weird? I’d say so. It was Bob… unmistakably Bob Karp, my good buddy of 50 years. It couldn’t have been anybody else.
We never knew the details. The accident took place on a highway near the village of Chateauroux about 100 miles south of Paris. Someone said it occurred at a “roundabout,” which is a small island designed to slow down the speed of traffic at an intersection.
Sadly, Bob’s voice neglected to leave a callback number.
Famous heart-surgeon-to-be, Doctor Robert Karp was dating Soni Price, my wife Elayne’s best buddy, when we first met. The girls were inseparable, so Bob came along with the package.
We were well matched, Bob and I. He was a tennis player, could throw a football a mile and read the sports pages. Though the son of the president of Paramount Studios, he had no Hollywood hang-ups. He was easy to like, a real no bullshit guy. He could have come from Minnesota.
When I first met Soni, she had been married for a couple of years to a nice fellow, a screen writer, but strictly “Hollywood.” The marriage didn’t last.
Bob Karp had done his undergraduate stuff at Stanford. At the time we met he was in Medical School at the University of California, San Francisco. He later did his surgical residency at UCLA. While courting Soni, Bob was commissioned as a captain in the United States Army. He and Soni married and were sent overseas to Germany where their twins, Andrew and Gillian, were born.
I doubt that Captain Robert Karp M.D. did a lot of cardiovascular surgeries in Germany, but heart surgery was his passion. After his stint in the army, Bob was fortunate to be able to work under Dr. John Kirkland, one of the fathers of heart transplantation at the University of Alabama. However, it meant moving the family to Birmingham. Like a good wife and mother, Soni went along. After all, Elayne was only a twice-a-day phone call away, and airplanes still traveled between LAX and Birmingham.
Birmingham wasn’t Beverly Hills by a long shot, and Bob was putting in 20 hour days in surgery. It was just a matter of time. Soni picked up the kids, returned to California, and moved into Malibu Colony. Where else? Actually, she rented the house next door to ours for a couple of years before leasing another down the street.
Elayne and Soni were, of course, inseparable. They went into business together as stylists for movie and TV productions. It was perfect casting. They supervised hair styling and make-up and dressed the ‘stars’ in the best Beverly Hills had to offer.
Andrew and Gillian went to excellent schools and continued to stay in close touch with their father. Then after 17 years of separation, like a Paramount movie, Soni and Bob reconciled. The family moved to Chicago where Bob became one of the nation’s foremost cardiac surgeons, specializing in the surgical treatment of congenital heart disease in children. Bob was a perfectionist who demanded perfection from everyone on his staff. He is credited with introducing the heart transplant program, at the University of Chicago. (Be sure and check out our Etc. Etc. Etc. segment in this blog).
They took an apartment on Lakeshore Drive and leased a cottage an hour or so away on Lake Michigan. Chicago being a relatively short commute with many flights a day, our wives managed to deal easily with the separation. I had myself ordained a minister in the “Universal Life Church” (food for another Blog), and one weekend while visiting them I remarried Soni and Bob on the sun porch of that lakeside cottage with Elayne and Andrew as witnesses.
Having grown up on a lake in Minnesota I had done a lot of conventional bait fishing. As a teenager I bought my first fly rod, taught myself to cast and even to tie a few insect patterns. Fly fishing is a technical sport however, and if my catch was supposed to translate into dinner, the old-fashioned worm or minnow method usually proved to be a lot more efficient. I hadn’t touched a fly rod in 40 years when Elayne and I were shopping for ranch property in Telluride Colorado in the late 1980s. There was a pond on one of the ranches we visited. I borrowed a fly rod from the broker. A beautiful rainbow trout took my first cast. The fish was hooked, and so was I. We bought the ranch.
Bob too had experimented with fly fishing as a youngster. It was during the couple’s first visit to our place in Telluride that Bob became seriously re-interested in the sport. He too was hooked. We went shopping, and he purchased a rod, reel, boots and waders and all the other basic equipment. Upon his return to Chicago he bought a book about insects, and as only a disciplined surgeon would do, totally immersed himself in the entomology, and began tying his own flies. For a heart surgeon who literally controls life with his fingertips, Bob’s new hobby proved to be a relaxing diversion.
We were a fly fishing team. During the summers we fished the great trout streams in Michigan. When he could get away, we fished some of the famous rivers in the American West.
Delighted of course to be rid of us, the girls, Soni and Elayne, had no trouble entertaining themselves and used our fish-a-ways as an excuse to get on an airplane for some adventures of their own. Though they had retired from their styling business, they loved to shop. Having done some professional modeling herself, Soni was a designer’s dream, and she knew them all.
After 30 years at the University of Chicago, Bob retired. He and Soni left Chicago and moved to Aspen, Colorado where they built a beautiful home on the bank of the Roaring Fork River (Where else?)
Though Bob continued to do some writing and took on a few speaking engagements, he and Soni thrived in Aspen. They both skied, and Aspen offered an active social life. Bob now dove into fly fishing in a big way, and of course I gave him plenty of encouragement. We fished virtually every fishable stream in Colorado, joined on many occasions by my brother Gary (Butsy), who also has a home in Aspen.
Bob and Soni loved dogs; Labradors in particular. One big Black Lab named ‘Son’ used to share their king sized bed. I had one rule: when we went fishing, Son stayed home. My brother had a Golden Lab he nearly lost one day while fishing in the Roaring Fork.
We drove all over the American Rockies, sometimes fishing with guides, other times exploring on our own. Borrowing on his professional expertise, Bob was chosen to do the research. If there was a fishable stream in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho or New Mexico, we tried to fish it.
Much of our driving was on country roads. We slept in Best Westerns and ate at Subways or Mom’s Cafés. The latter was a challenge for Bob, who loved fine food and vintage wines. We fished the early morning rise (when the fish come out for breakfast) and late in the day at dusk when the insects hatch and the fish become active.
Note: Artificial flies are tied to imitate water born insects in their natural evolutionary process, maturing from egg to nymph to adulthood, a life cycle that could last no more than a day or two. The females lay their eggs before dying, and the cycle begins again.
Fish could be feeding at any one particular stage of maturation. Bob’s job was to figure out what the fish were eating so we could choose a fly that would hopefully “match the hatch” as the expression goes.
The whole evolution of insects from eggs to flying creatures is much too complicated for me. There are literally thousands of insect species. Bob, as one might expect, became immersed in the science. He was my own private authority.
If the “bugs were coming off” (a fly fishing term) you couldn’t get Bob out of the water. I recall one occasion late one day on the North Fork of the Provo River in Utah. There were high reeds along the bank, and we had become separated. By then it was dark and so far no moon. I called out, “Bob.” There was no answer.
I blew my bear whistle which I carried on my vest, for obvious reasons. There was no response. Bob, of course, wouldn’t think of carrying one of those “things” (as he referred to my whistle).
Actually, I too was a bit lost in the dark that evening, but somehow managed to find my way back to the spot where we left the Jeep, turn on the lights and blow the horn.
Ten minutes later Bob climbed up out of the reeds. Recognizing that I was expecting an explanation, Bob replied that he was “just working a fish.” Later he admitted that he would still be out there in the reeds if I hadn’t turned on the lights. What with the sound of the river, he never heard the whistle or the horn.
There was a certain comfort that came with that whistle. In fact, some fly shop in British Columbia also sold me a set of bells to put around my ankles so I wouldn’t wander into and surprise some bear. They also sold me a canister of Mace. Can you imagine ever getting close enough to a bear to spray it in the face?
Fishermen usually try to split up when there’s plenty of river to fish. One day while fishing on a remote stream in British Columbia I came upon a gravel bar with a lot of half-eaten steelhead trout. I mentioned what I’d seen to our guide back at the camp. His response was, “Bears.”
“Grizzlies?” I asked.
“Could also have been blacks,” he replied.
“They say black bears tend to be less aggressive than Grizzlies. Is that true?” I probed.
“Did you check the “scat?” he asked in reply. (“Scat” is a term for bear manure.)
“Not really,” I answered. .. “Why?”
“Well,” he explained with a grin, “If the scat was full of bells and whistles, it was a Grizzly.”
Bob and I had only one rule during our junkets around Western America; I insisted on being the designated driver. Bob Karp was one of the most disciplined most responsible people I have ever known. However, put him behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, and he became ‘Mario Andretti.’ He loved sports cars, especially Porches, and owned a series of them. Bob had a reputation however. In one week while driving around Michigan in his red Porsche, he accumulated three speeding citations.
After a few similar experiences with Bob at the wheel, I laid down my mandate; “I drive… he rides.” His Porsche stays in the garage. The Jeep would be just fine. Bob was forced to give up the pilot’s seat and assume the job of navigator. I’m afraid I earned a reputation as an overly cautious driver, however even with me in the driver’s seat we had a few “deer in the headlights” encounters on Western America’s back country roads.
Bob and I shared our passion for fly fishing with several others including my brother Butsy and my son Dan. The four of us fished together in the American West as well as Canada and across the Pacific in Siberia.
Often when Bob and I drove off (or flew off) on one of our junkets, for even as short as a week, Soni and Elayne would find an excuse to fly off to Europe. It seemed as though every week was fashion week in Paris or Milan. One year the ladies went to cooking school in France. Why not? On several occasions however, the girls traveled with us. The shopping may not have been up to par, but I think they really enjoyed our trips to South America and New Zealand. Come to think of it, Elayne loved to travel, anywhere anytime… and she did, with or without me. She didn’t fly fish or scuba dive, but was always ready to pack her bags. We traveled together all over the world, often with our children. Therein lies material for future blogs.
Though Bob enjoyed skiing during the long Aspen winters, he was beginning to feel restless. After all, how many flies could he tie? A neighbor suggested that he consider doing some consulting at the Aspen Valley Hospital. They were having some serious financial problems, and several of his friends thought that Bob might be able to offer the staff some guidance. The timing was right for Bob, and he agreed to step in as interim CEO.
The hospital was a catastrophe, losing a million dollars a month. The administration was in a battle for control with the local Aspen medical establishment. Bob had no patience for that kind of infighting. He simply cleaned house and put the locals on notice that they’d better play ball with him if they wanted to keep the place open. Though Bob couldn’t have cared less about the credit, I was told by a couple of Aspenites that his “no-nonsense” management stint saved the Aspen Hospital.
Our most exciting fishing adventure was certainly our trip to Kamchatka, a Siberian peninsula across the Bering Sea from Alaska. Kamchatka is about the size of California, but has a population of little more than 320,000; most of whom live in one city, Petropavlovsk, the location of a Russian submarine base. There are only a few towns on the peninsula and even fewer roads to reach them. With 29 active volcanos, Kamchatka is 99% spectacular wilderness. Prior to 1991 and during the Cold War, Kamchatka was closed to visitors.
My son Dan and my brother Gary joined us on this trip. We helicoptered to our destination over the hundreds of remote rivers and streams that crisscross the peninsula, most of which had never seen a fisherman. Some joker advised us to check to make sure the helicopter was leaking oil, because it was the only way to be sure that the Russians had remembered to put oil in the helicopter. We spent a week floating down one of those rivers, the “Sedanka Spring Creek,” in rubber rafts from one camp site to another, because there are no access roads. Besides, what with Kamchatka’s large population of Grizzlies, it’s safer to travel by raft and wade-fish close by.
Our Russian guides both carried high powered rifles. Not having any bells, whistles or mace I asked one guide what I should do if suddenly confronted by a grizzly in Kamchatka. His answer was to “be sure and run faster than my companions.”
Actually my son Dan was chased by a big grizzly one day when we were fishing on a beautiful stream up in British Columbia. Fortunately the guide and his boat were nearby.
Because we were required to release all the fish we caught, our guides provided our source of protein, thanks to Kamchatka’s bountiful herds of caribou which made pretty good steaks that were quite lean and tasted very much like American elk.
Back in Aspen, Bob Karp had an impressive wine cellar. On Kamchatka he had to settle for considerably less, which also included some terrible tasting home brewed vodka. He enjoyed a good cigar however, and could be seen out in the middle of a river stalking a fish, emitting a trail of smoke.
Bob and I had an understanding… No smoking when sharing a motel room, cabin or tent. On the other hand, when we fished in Kamchatka, where the mosquitos were so thick that we couldn’t take a deep breath without inhaling a couple dozen, Bob’s cigar was always welcome around the campfires. The bugs don’t seem to like tobacco smoke, so there were times on that trip when Bob’s cigar was our only means of defense.
Today the beautiful home in Colorado on the Roaring Fork river is long since sold. Soni and Bob’s son Andrew, his spouse Kim and their daughter Maddie live in Chicago. Gillian, her husband Ian and their son Jack are presently living in Germany not far from where Captain Bob and Soni were stationed 50 years ago. Unfortunately I don’t see enough of them. Hopefully they will enjoy this blog.
In conclusion, I have to say that I certainly miss my pal Bob Karp. I don’t get in much fishing these days. I miss Soni as well, and most of all her girlfriend Elayne, my beautiful wife and travel partner of over 55 years. If there are boutiques up there in paradise, that’s where you’ll find the ladies. Hopefully as I write this Bob, trailing a cloud of cigar smoke, is working some allusive trout in some challenging stream in the sky. I’m waiting for his next phone call.
To truly appreciate the unspoiled beauty and character of Kamchatka’s spectacular wilderness, one has to travel there to personally enjoy the experience. Because of its remote location however, there are only one or two flights a week from Anchorage, Alaska to Petropavlovsk depending on the season.
Acknowledging this fact we have included some highlights from a beautiful Russian video which we virtually smuggled out of Petropavlovsk. Check out our “Begged and Borrowed” segment or, for your convenience, click play below.