CATCHING UP WITH: TIM OSMAR

The biggest fishing day of the year has arrived and Tim Osmar is confined to his bed at fish camp.Tim stays behind in Kasilof on the Kenai peninsula while his crew goes to work on the ocean. Instinct tells him to go, but he can hardly move. His ankle hurts like hell and throbs in agonizing pain from the accident. The boys leave and Osmar closes his eyes. Minutes pass. The room is silent. He listens for the hum of boats launching for the early morning set in the Cook Inlet, a salmon-rich body of water less than a mile to the west. The Cook Inlet is where he makes a living each summer, selling the salmon his crew nets and doing what his dad has done for decades. Miles to the east are the Caribou Hills, where Osmar’s cabin is still surrounded by wildfire that has already torched thousands of rugged acres of dry grass and beetle-killed spruce trees on a remote corner of the Peninsula. Stuck in the middle, though, is a 40-year-old workhorse who has a long, painful road to recovery. It will be months until he’s back doing the two things that make him Tim Osmar: fishing for salmon and racing sled dogs.He should be outside right now, working hard under the morning sun on the rolling sea with his two sons and the crew. So much is happening today – the crew needs to set nets that span 201 feet, wait for the tide and pick salmon, then drive to the local weighing station and sell them to the cannery. But they’ll have to do it alone. Doctor’s orders were to keep Osmar’s shattered ankle elevated. His wife, Tawney, walks into the room.“Please? Just this once?” Tim asks. “I’ll be really good.” “There is no (explicit) way you’re going out in that damn boat right now,” Tawney said. It’s late June of 2007, and Osmar has no choice but to miss a set for the first time in his life. He worries about the crew, but trusts that his sons, David and Daniel, will keep the family business afloat for the next two months. Tears build in Osmar’s eyes. All he wanted was to save the family cabins from a wildfire that threatened to destroy his way of life. A few days ago, state troopers roadblocked the only route to Osmar’s cabin at the end of Oil Well Road. But he refused to let the safety precautions let his cabins go up in flames, so he recruited his daughter’s boyfriend and his handler to skirt the roadblock with four-wheelers and drive a winding dirt road between towering walls of fire.Osmar had already evacuated his sled dogs, but had more to save.“What are you doing?” Tawney asked just before he left fish camp.“I have to go back,” replied Tim, who took off so fast he wore a pair of Crocs instead of his usual boots. “The house was still standing. I have to save it.”Around 3:30 in the morning on June 21st, the longest day of the year and the longest day of Tim Osmar’s life, he and the two men doused water on the two-story cabin. The fire crept closer by the minute. Thinking of his dad’s cabin next door, Osmar hopped on the left running board of his four-wheeler and drove through thick smoke with buckets filled with water. Racing against time, he navigated in the near-zero visibility.Osmar could tell he was about to veer off the road and head for a gully. He steered the four-wheeler in the other direction, but turned too quickly.Losing control, he sailed off his machine and into a cloud of smoke, landing awkwardly on his ankle in the middle of the dirt road.As the four-wheeler rolled away, Osmar tried to run and catch it but quickly dropped to the ground.“What the (explicit)?” he said. “How come I can’t run?”The fire roared so loudly his cry for help couldn’t be heard down the road where the other men took turns fetching buckets of water from the nearby spring to saturate Osmar’s log cabin. He crawled down the road in pain, dragging a busted ankle that was cocked at a 45-degree angle, to the idling four-wheeler. “It looked like my foot was falling off,” he said. “It was the most painful thing you would ever want.”He sat on the four-wheeler for a half hour, inhaling smoke and wondering if this was all just a bad dream. His body shivered – he was going into shock – so he puttered home and called his wife to send an ambulance. Osmar is lying in his bed now at fish camp, thinking of the fish, the fire and the ankle. Tawney feels badly for him. She carefully loads him into the back of her Ford Expedition and takes him to the beach. She brings lots of ice packs.At the beach, Tawney parks the Expedition with its back end facing the ocean. She opens the door so Osmar can span the Inlet and spot his crew picking salmon a few hundred yards away. It’s only been four days since the nasty four-wheeling accident, but already the smell of sea breeze helps him return to normalcy. “This is what he does,” Tawney said. “He fishes like crazy in the summer and mushes in the winter. That’s all he’s ever done.”This wasn’t how the summer of 2007 was supposed to begin for the Osmar family. A season of good fishing earns enough income to feed the dogs and buy groceries and gas until next season. Racing dogs adds to the income, too, but not nearly as much as commercial fishing.Osmar’s yearly income also depends on the number of salmon that funnel through the Cook Inlet during the two-month commercial fishing season. “Last year was pretty much bad,” he said one recent July morning at fish camp. “I wasn’t very productive. But I did; however, hang one net in a wheelchair.”“The year before it was pretty damn good. So you just never know.” On a good day, his crew will pick 300 to 400 salmon. The going rate for sockeye salmon this July was 95 cents a pound, giving Osmar a potential to earn $285-380 a day. “That’s quite a pile,” said Osmar, who now walks with a slight limp and feels much better than he did this time last summer. “We typically don’t get 300 or 400 days until the main run gets here. We’re hoping the main run’s not here yet. Of course you never know, but we’re pretty sure.”On this particular day, Osmar is wearing a navy blue T-shirt that reads “Exxon Sucks” in bold white letters – a jab at the Supreme Court’s decision on June 25 to reduce the $2.5 billion in punitive damages awarded in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to $507.5 million. Osmar was one of the 32,000 fishermen who waited 20 years to hear whether Exxon Mobil Corp. would pay punitive damages for spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Osmar calls the 1980s the “heyday” of commercial fishing for his family, when he fished 30-something nets in the Cook Inlet with his dad, 1984 Iditarod champion Dean Osmar. “That was back before the Exxon thing, when life was good,” Tim Osmar said. Dean still commercial fishes 15 to 18 nets. The previous year was tough for Dean, too, when he lost his wife, Sarah Armstrong, in an automobile accident on the Sterling Highway in December. But if anyone knows how to survive hard times, it’s an Osmar man. Tim grins ear to ear when he tells stories about his grandfather, Per Osmar, who homesteaded on the coast of Cook Inlet before statehood. Back then, no roads led to the Kenai Peninsula, so Per and a couple of friends launched a boat loaded with all their possessions out of Anchorage and found a place on the Peninsula they named Clam Gulch.The explorers found the land appealing because it had a draw where a creek dumped into the sea. They carved a road with pick axes and shovels and soon built their new homes. “Them old homesteaders were tough,” Tim said about his grandfather. “He talks about how his kids would freeze to the floor at night, and how he’d have to thaw ‘em out to peel ‘em off.” “Times were tough. They’d go down to the bluff and carry back buckets of coal to start the stove. He basically makes me look like a wimp.”Per claimed fishing sites and started a cannery called Osmar’s Ocean Specialties. The cannery burned down in 1979 on a bluff now known as Knapp Lookout, but Per built another dock along Kalifornsky Beach Road near the Kasilof River.Per also started the original Clam Gulch store and post office. But like Osmar’s Ocean Specialties, they’re not around anymore. He’s outlived them all. Today a road near Clam Gulch is named after Osmar’s 91-year-old grandpa, whose cannery was purchased years ago by Inlet Salmon. Per passed the hard-working mentality to his grandson, giving him the drive to make a living off commercial fishing and sled dog racing. Tim spends nearly every summer of his life in an open dory.“I didn’t really get serious until I was three,” Tim said as he mended a gillnet with a fid, his wife sitting on an orange buoy.“He’s serious when he says that,” Tawney said. “He would work the beach nets with his mom, while Dean was out in the boat. He and his mom would go out and put the net on the beach, turn it and pick it.”“She wouldn’t let me drive, so I had to walk (along the beach),” Tim said. “It’s not for everybody, that’s for sure.”It’s July 19th and Tim Osmar hasn’t done much more with his sled dogs in the past month than pet his main leader, Scout. Osmar parks his truck next to the dog lot and says, “See you guys in another month.”Up until last year’s four-wheeling accident, he had raced in 22 consecutive Iditarods. He placed in the top-10 ten times and never scratched. But when doctors drilled a rod through his heel to his shin to keep his shattered ankle together, Osmar knew it was the end to an ironman streak that began when he was an Iditarod rookie in 1985.“I definitely missed it,” he said. “But there was no way I could stand on a sled for more than five miles at a time. I’m back now. Not 100 percent, but I think I’m in the 80’s somewhere.”Osmar’s comeback to race in his 23rd Iditarod started in August, conditioning his dogs via four-wheeler on long stretches of sand along the same beach where he launches boats to commercial fish.Osmar said he plans to take it easy next March as he visually guides young musher, Rachael Scdoris, for the second time in the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.“I don’t know if I’m good enough to be a competitive musher yet,” he said. “I want to get some young dogs to Nome and see where it goes after that. I’d like to slide back into the money again. Right now it’s just one thing at a time.” Kevin Klott is a sports writer for the Anchorage Daily Newspaper where he has covered the Iditarod and other dog mushing events for the past 4 years.

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