As I was flying out of Salt Lake City on my way home from the SHOT Show a couple days ago, I looked out the airplane window and saw a big lake below. Memories flooded through me as I thought about a day at that lake many decades ago.
"I'll bet you a case of Lucky Lager beer that you can't sell a story to a real magazine, Zumbo," the college professor said. We were at a Paul Bunyon party in an old cabin, about 30 of us forestry students and a handful of professors. The bath tub was full of iced down beer, and we were having a little party for no reason. I told the prof that he was on. At the time, I was writing an outdoor column for the university newspaper, "Student Life." I enjoyed writing, even though I was a forestry major and never took a class in journalism.
Bear Lake is fairly close to the Utah State University campus. The big 18 by 7 mile long lake, incredibly turquoise colored, is a remnant of the huge Lake Bonneville that once covered large parts of Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. Bear Lake has a number of indigenous species found nowhere else. One is the Bonneville Cisco, a small seven inch fish that feeds on small organisms and can't be caught by conventional methods. Every January, huge schools of ciscos spawn along the shore and are netted by anglers who wade in the frigid water. Some years the lake is iced over, and holes must be cut in the ice. The air temperature is always bitterly cold, but anglers from all over Utah, Idaho and Wyoming make the annual trip to net the delicious fish. There were hundreds of people in those days, many burning wood or old tires along shore. The local Lions Club sold coffee, hot chocolate and burgers.
It was a gala event, and unique. For that reason, I decided to write a story for Outdoor Life and win that case of beer. I figured my odds were poor, because I never tried to publish anything in a "real" magazine. So I sent a query off to Outdoor Life, after taking photos at the lake with a camera I borrowed from a professor. I waited for months, but never heard from the magazine. I assumed the query was round-filed. After all, I was a nobody, and who really cared about a seven inch fish found only in one lake in the world? Then, to my amazement, I received a letter from Bill Rae, editor-in chief of Outdoor Life. He wrote that I'd sent the query to the circulation department in Boulder, Colorado, instead of the editorial offices in New York City where he was based. Incredibly dumb mistake on my part, but somehow my query letter worked through the system and made its way to Bill Rae's desk. The editor told me he'd be willing to look at a manuscript on speculation, a word that properly defined means "maybe."
I wrote the story, and sent the photos to Bill Rae. Again I waited, for several weeks, assuming the worst. One day, my wife decided to clean out the pocket of the calendar that held letters and literature. There was a letter from Popular Science magazine. She handed it to me, and I figured it was a magazine offer. To my shock and surprise, it was an acceptance letter and a check for $350. You could have knocked me over with a feather. As it was, we had just been married, were broke college students, and that check was a fortune to us. Popular Science owned Outdoor Life back then, and neither my wife nor I made the connection. The check sat in the calendar pocket for weeks.
And by the way, that Lucky Lager beer, which was the motivation for that first article, was mighty fine. And the college professor will always be remembered as the guy who wittingly or unwittingly, was responsible for my career being launched. Articles in Outdoor Life and other magazines followed, and I went to work for OL in 1978 as a full-time writer/editor, giving up my 15 year job as a government forester.
And now you know the significance of me seeing Bear Lake outside that plane window a couple days ago.