Words by Al Blanton | Images by Blakeney Clouse
It had all the makings of a Hollywood setting. Reed Jackson stood there waiting on a floatplane at the aqua airport in Anchorage, Alaska. His girlfriend, Jana, was there, seeing him off, upset in her heart that he would be gone for six months. It was a beautiful setting, the Chugach Mountains undulating in the distance, as they said their goodbyes. He was supposed to turn around and tell her he was coming home, and she had quietly hoped that he would. But he didn’t.
Reed spent that summer as a guide, assisting novices in the Alaskan nuances of flyfishing. Five species of salmon. Rainbow trout. He fished 12 hours per day, and when the fishing was over, he often had to entertain guests. Not to mention, the way of life in the Alaskan wilderness is not easy. Firewood had to be cut. Fifty gallon oil barrels had to be rolled through 200 yards of forest. Outhouse holes had to be dug with a shovel and a chainsaw. So it was a constant grind. And Reed absolutely loved it.
Even as a child, being outside was something that seemed natural to him. As a young boy, Reed would play a game called War. “We’d paint our chest and face in mud and make spears with cedar sticks,” Reed recalled. “I’d get ‘em from Sam Murphy, and I’d sharpen ‘em down like spears.”
The Jackson family would often go on camping and hiking trips to the Bankhead National Forest. “From there, I guess my dad could see the interest I had. My dad realized how much I enjoyed the outdoors,” Reed said. “We had a natural progression from Bankhead to bigger things.”
When Reed was 8, his family went to Glacier National Park in Montana. There, they hiked above the tree line and slept in a camp house that was riddled with mice. Another year, his father took him to New Mexico to the Pecos Wilderness, where he caught his first trout with a fly rod. Every summer, it was a new mountain venue. Wyoming, Montana, Idaho.
Still, hunting had never occurred to him until his brother shot his first deer. So Reed had to kill one, too. “The very first day, I shot a little buttonhead spike. To say that I was hooked from that point on would be an understatement,” he said.
Reed eventually added turkey hunting and bowhunting to his list of fascinations, and a bowhunting trip to South Africa was perhaps the pinnacle of a childhood spent outdoors. “That was an amazing experience,” he said. “We flew into Cape Town, and then went over to the eastern cape at Port Elizabeth. It was an area fortified by the British during the Boer Wars. There were beautiful coastal towns. Visiting Africa was more fun than the actual hunt.”
After graduating high school, Reed decided to attend Ole Miss. Constantly buttressed by the camaraderie of friends, Reed drank from the elixir of fraternity life—“living on the apex of the fun curve,” as he describes. After five years, he felt somewhat empty and needed a change of scenery. He realized that the only thing holding him back was his black lab named Coal.
While filing through hunting and fishing magazines, he stumbled upon advertisements for Western lodges that needed hunting and fishing guides. So he began to send letters all over the place. Finally, after calling up the Sweetwater Guide School in Big Timber, Montana, he got the opportunity he wanted.
When Reed arrived in Big Timber, he saw the quintessential Robert-Redford, River-Runs-Through-It Montana landscape—the Yellowstone River snaking between the mountains, the flats dotted with wildflowers. And after only a week of fly-fishing, Reed was asked if he would think about going to Alaska to guide. Some time later, he received a phone call from Anchorage. On the other end of the call, an opportunity of a lifetime awaited him.
For several years, Reed spent six months in Alaska and six months at home. Back in Alabama, Reed had begun dating Jana, a young lady originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In between trips, Reed asked her if she wanted to drive back to Alaska with him. Even though it was only 5,000 miles from Birmingham to Anchorage, her adventurous spirit led her to say “yes.”
So they puttered out that May with no specific route in mind, with spotty GPS and only an atlas and a highlighter. Reed wanted Jana to see the places he’d traveled in his youth, scenic outdoor places he’d loved and cherished. They drove through Denver and Wyoming, drove on the western side of Yellowstone into Montana. Then they drove up through Glacier and into Alberta. When they pulled up to the guard shack in a little town called Waterton, a park ranger informed them that they were the only people in the park and they didn’t have to stay on the roads. “Jana and I go off through a meadow and separate a herd of elk—there’s elk on both sides of car,” Reed said. “We sit by edge of a lake with 100,000 acres to ourselves. We pull up to the Prince of Wales hotel and shoo bighorn sheep out of the parking lot. All of this stuff was surreal, looking back on it. At that point in my life, it was pretty normal.”
After Waterton, they drove up to Banff and stayed for a couple of days and eventually moseyed over to a place called Jasper, Alberta. They hung a left into British Columbia and then traveled north through Yukon Territory. Crossing over at the Alaskan border, they were forced to stop when a bridge was out. The car in front of them had been stopped by a traffic cop, and when they pulled closer they noticed that the people in the back were waving vigorously. Reed looked down and laughed when he noticed they had an Alabama license plate. What are the chances, he thought.
Finally, Reed and Jana arrived in Anchorage and there was considerable waiting for the floatplane to be able to land successfully. Day after day, the flight was postponed. Then one day the pilot said, ‘Today’s the day—get in.” Reed told Jana goodbye and hustled onto the plane. Jana flew back to Birmingham knowing she would not see him again for six months. “I look back now and feel terrible. She’s stuck 5,000 miles away and doesn’t know a soul,” Reed says reflectively. “But it was divine intervention. We knew after that test we could be together forever.”
That six months passed, and Reed and Jana continued dating. At the time, he was considering becoming a guide at lodges in either Argentina or Chile, but after a friend’s suggestion, he decided to get a “real job.” He was hired on at Tractor & Equipment Co. in Birmingham. “Secretly, everybody in my family was relieved,” Reed said. “They thought I was going to let [Jana] get away.”
But he didn’t. Reed proposed, Jana accepted, and the couple made a vow for the rest of their lives. What they didn’t realize, perhaps, was that they were forging out on their greatest adventure yet: the adventure of family.
Now Reed and Jana have three daughters—Julia, Scarlett, and Lillian—that keep them both busy and vie for their time. A perfect night for Reed is a Saturday night at home, grilling steaks and cooking homemade macaroni and cheese and watching the football game with his family. It was a long journey to this place, but Reed has found a sense of peace—peace with himself, peace with God—that had been fleeting for many years.
“Alaska taught me that I didn’t have to go out six or seven nights out of the week; I didn’t have to be with my best friends every second of the day. That I actually enjoyed being by myself, and I get a lot of entertainment out of it,” Reed said. “Jana and I ended up getting married and having children, and I really didn’t want to be with anyone else. She was and still is my best friend.”
That friendship was put to the test when their youngest daughter, Lillian, was diagnosed with a heart condition called Tetralogy of Fallot soon after she was born. A few months later, Lillian underwent heart surgery at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. “They took her in, and when they take somebody that small from you and tell you it’s going to be OK, you don’t know that it’s going to be OK. You put all your faith in God’s hands cause that’s who’s in control. Watching them take that baby away from us was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to see,” Reed said.
But there were moments along the way that Reed was assured weren’t just coincidences, moments that God was orchestrating in the midst of their ordeal. For instance, the cardiologist told Reed that his boss had been good friends with Reed’s grandfather, Harvey Jackson. “Deep down inside, I had some things that made me feel like, man, we are being watched. Somebody’s looking out for us,” Reed said. “And for me to be saying that God had a plan in my life is a big thing because 10 years ago, I don’t know if I believed in it. I would have never said God was in my life. This was my next adventure, and God was in my life.”
The surgery was successful, and as Reed pulled back from the trying event, he began to realize how lucky he is to have a wife and three daughters who love him dearly. He’s thankful that he’s found faith, and that his future adventures will include a walk with God.
“The other day, for the first time in my life, I took my kids to church without my wife,” Reed said. “I’m still not a 100 percent, every Sunday guy. I don’t make it every Sunday, but I know what I believe, and this definitely made me believe.
“I’m just glad I found it.” 78