Kenai River fishing guide "Swiftwater" Bill Toppa has caught a lot of whoppers in his day, but none quite like the one he picked up this year.
Toppa, who owns property just upstream from Swiftwater Campground in Soldotna, is now the proud owner of the largest-known remaining piece of a river legend.
It all started one day this spring, when the Kenai was still running at about half its normal flow. Toppa was killing a bit of time before fishing season by walking around on a gravel bar just offshore, when he came across a long, slender piece of flotsam that seemed a little odd.
"I was out looking around, and I spotted it just sitting there," Toppa said last week from the banks of the Kenai.
Upon closer inspection, Toppa realized that the piece he'd discovered was a front fascia from a red Ford car. This was not hard to deduce, since the fascia still included the bright blue Ford logo.
Normally, a small plastic automobile piece wouldn't cause Toppa to get real excited. But the color, shape and make of the piece immediately got Toppa thinking about something that happened just upstream of his property a little more than 10 years ago.
It was a sunny day in August, and an unnamed visitor to the peninsula was preparing for a silver salmon fishing trip. The man, perhaps a bit unfamiliar with the red Ford Taurus he had rented for the weekend, backed his car down a boat launch leading to the river. He then hopped out of the car perhaps to unload his gear from the trunk.
In his zeal to get on the river, the man forgot one crucial detail that moments later would have him watching the biggest one that ever got away slowly sinking into the fast-moving water of the Kenai River. He forgot to set the parking break.
After the Taurus went into the water, the man notified Budget Car Rental owner Ed "Yankee" Wehrstein of the problem. Wehrstein then began a recovery effort that included sending divers into the Kenai to try and locate the car.
But the efforts proved futile, as the car somehow managed to disappear completely into the icy waters of the river. Despite Wehrstein's best efforts he floated the river several times in search of any sign of the car the vehicle remained stuck somewhere at the bottom of the Kenai.
Divers prepare to enter the water in August 1993 to search for the car.
File photo by M. Scott Moon
"I've seen a lot of strange ones in this business, but this tops them," Wehrstein told the Clarion at the time.
For almost 11 years, the Taurus remained lost, a large red lunker lurking beneath the silty water. Now, though, Toppa is pretty certain that the car likely is still stuck near the same place where it went in.
"Behind every one of those rocks is a hole that will be six to 10 feet deep," he said. "It's gotta be in a hole somewhere."
Wehrstein agrees. Although no longer owner of the Kenai Budget, Wehrstein said he has vivid memories of the Taurus he calls "Big Red."
"I know exactly where that car's at," he said Sunday. "There's a 13-foot hole in front of that big rock up from Swiftwater."
Wehrstein said he was certain of the car's location back in 1993, but divers were unable to get deep enough to get the vehicle out.
"We could not get to that rock," he said.
Wehrstein even held a raffle that asked people to guess the exact time and date the car would come out of the river. He said if it ever does end up getting dislodged from the water, whoever still holds the ticket is still eligible to take home the car.
"Someone's still holding that damn ticket," he said.
He added that whoever gets the car would be getting quite a deal.
"That car only has 3,000 miles on it," he said.
After eventually spending over $30,000 on the recovery effort, Wehrstein said the car was left in its final resting place.
"That car's still there," he said.
"Swiftwater" Bill Toppa said he reckons that the screws holding the fascia in place finally rusted off, and the current pulled the small piece of car off, depositing it on the gravel bar.
"How else would a piece of a red Ford Taurus get there," he asked.
As for the unlucky angler, his whereabouts are still unknown. But Toppa said the man has nothing to feel ashamed of.
After all, Toppa said, if the man is guilty of anything, it's being too anxious to get out and fish the Kenai.
"I remember at the time, people were just amazed the guy could be so excited to go fishing."
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