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Roughing It With My Son : An Annual Trip to the Alaskan Wilderness Has Become a Lemmon Family Tradition

January 05, 1986|JACK LEMMON | Actor Jack Lemmon's latest film is "Macaroni." He and his son , Chris , are currently at work on Blake Edwards' new movie, "Crisis." and PRODUCED BY LINDEN GROSS

Jack Lemmon and his son, Chris, started fishing the rivers of the Katmai National Park in Alaska 19 years ago, when Chris was 12. Since then, they've missed only two of these annual summer expeditions. "Once a year my son, Chris, and I take off for a remote spot in the Alaskan wilderness. We stay in a one-room log cabin heated by a little oil burner and sleep in sleeping bags laid on wood frames. During the week or two that we're up there, we fly-fish miles of wilderness rivers and streams, eat eight times as much as we normally do and spend hours talking about everything under the sun. We started doing this 19 summers ago, when Chris was 12, and have missed only twice. Each of those times we both sat down and cried.

I wanted to head off alone with Chris because my dad and I hadn't done so until I was well into my 30s. Dad and I were very close, but I always held him a little in awe. I wanted a different, less-formal relationship with my son.

Initially, I wasn't so sure it was going to work out. On our first trip, Chris didn't catch a fish for two days. He'd been losing two- and three-pounders, which was to be expected, since you can't just pick up a fly rod and cast perfectly the first time. But it was enough to drive a 12-year-old kid insane, especially when he saw other people haul in five-pound trout.

On the third day Chris suddenly hooked a monster. The guide and I so badly wanted him to land this fish that we started screaming at him to keep the tip of his rod up. Chris finally turned around and said, 'Will you both shut up,' and proceeded to pull in a beautiful 12-pound rainbow trout. That one glorious moment made the whole trip worthwhile.

Something changes when it's just the two of us up there with the elements. We'll suddenly get the feeling that somebody's watching us. So we'll look up to see a huge bald eagle peering down from its perch. Sharing that kind of experience has brought us a lot closer.

We also discover things about each other that don't normally show up at home. We start thinking more about year-to-year problems up there, like where the world's headed and what might happen to us. And as our conversations change, so does our relationship.

When you're out in the wild, a conscious and unconscious buddy system develops. You wind up depending on each other. Chris has actually rescued me several times. Four years ago I was dumped into the Brooks River, and the current swept me along so swiftly that I couldn't right myself. I felt like I was going 60 miles an hour. I began to holler. I was really scared. Chris, who's much taller than me and very strong, ran along the bank to keep up with me. Once the water shallowed, he plunged in and pulled me to shore.

Of course, we've also had some pretty miserable experiences. About eight or 10 years ago, a four-seater dropped us in a gorgeous spot about a 20-minute flight from camp. It was late afternoon and we were having a terrific time fishing when storm clouds suddenly socked us in, making it impossible for the plane to pick us up. Once the storm kicked in, we knew we were in trouble. It can get extremely cold out there, and the place is full of bear and moose. (Let me tell you, moose are nasty. They'll come after you for no reason.)

Chris, however, was terrific. He first made a shelter out of a small abandoned boat to protect us from the rain. Then he poured the little gas left in the boat's outboard motor into a can that he had filled with sand, and then he lit it. The burning sand kept our hands warm until the plane landed the next morning.

These experiences have strengthened our relationship and taught us a lot. On our first trips, I didn't know any more or any less than Chris did, even though I was his father and had lived a helluva lot longer. It didn't take long before he surpassed me. He's even become the better fisherman; now he gives me tips. It's terrific when a son can help out his old man without needing to prove anything, and I know that teaching me a few new tricks gives Chris great joy. And boy, I listen to him, because he knows what he's talking about. That son-of-a-gun can smell fish.

(These days, he's even started advising me in acting. He'll watch me in a take and then tell me which lines didn't work and why. He's right nine out of 10 times.)

When we took our first trip 19 years ago, I couldn't have anticipated the terrific bond that would develop between us. In many ways, the son I love has become my best friend.

Chris and I know that we share something unique. And we realize how fortunate we are. There isn't a day that goes by that one of us doesn't do the corny thing and say, 'God, aren't we lucky?' "

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