As the spray from a stretch of rapids splashed over my face on the Gulkana River recently, I turned back to look at the man rowing our raft. Reading the water like an eagle, he was trying to use the power of the river in the safest way possible. Stretching behind us were nine other rafts, each carrying an oarsman and three or four men. The timeless rhythm of the sound of the water and the stroking of the oars brought me back to when I first met Dave Lemaire.
I'd been invited to a men's "beast feast," a wild game dinner, at Baxter Road Bible Church several years ago. After dinner, Dave shared a sobering personal account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of his 11-year-old daughter, Mandy, in 1991. He broke down several times as he shared the pain and suffering of that tragedy with the other men. He recalled how his faith in God sustained him during that time, through the trial, and subsequent appeals. In 1999, adding to his pain, the Alaska Supreme Court overturned the original verdict, ordering a retrial. The convicted man was not released from prison while awaiting retrial, and subsequently died before a new trial could be held.
The years after Mandy's death were filled with bitterness and pain. Dave hadn't given up on God, but underwent a period of recovery, questioning why it happened. Understandably he was disappointed with God and the church. At one point, speaking on camera for the television program "Ice Cold Killers," Dave said, "If I didn't believe my daughter was in heaven, I'd have no reason to live." He told me he wasn't suicidal but it was a dark moment in his life. His marriage to his wife of 13 years was destroyed in the aftermath of Mandy's death.
Fortunately, he met a childhood friend, Michelle, who went on a blind date with him. It didn't go well initially. Michelle Lemaire said, "When we met as adults, we went out on a blind date. He had just performed a funeral for a child whose parents could not get a pastor to perform it because they did not attend church. He told me all about his life and everything about Mandy. When I left, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would never go out with him again.
"Besides having too many problems, he was shorter than me, had kids still at home, and had a beard — three strikes in my book. But after much soul-searching and a vision that I believe was from God, I looked at his heart and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a man of integrity. A man I could trust with my heart." They married in 1997.
Dave is a consummate outdoorsman. In 2000, he and Michelle started a ministry for men called Copper River Float Ministry based out of Glenallen. After the first father-son float trip he conducted for a Palmer church, Dave was invited to join a men's breakfast there, as they were asking for another trip. His "aha" moment was discovering the participants remembered a talk given six months ago, but not the talking points from the previous Sunday's sermon.
Now, after 16 years, Dave and a dedicated group of volunteers take groups of men from area churches on up to four 1 1/2-day float trips each year down the Gulkana River for fellowship, to fish and to be fed spiritually. Lemaire's stated goal for these trips is that participating men form a relationship with Christ and relationships with other men in their church. He encourages what he terms "a ranger buddy type of friendship that can push you toward your goals; someone who's there with you through thick and thin."
Participants pay a fee to participate; this trip was $70 per person. The trip was for Clear Water Church, a 3-year-old church meeting at Wendler Middle School. It's rapidly growing and needed this connecting experience for the congregation's men. Trips and participants are generally for a specific church, and, with a few exceptions, for men only. The oarsmen come from various churches and denominations. Usually churches arrange for a speaker of their own. Talks are given after supper on the first day, and after breakfast and lunch on the second day. The speaker on my trip was Taylor Davis, team leader for Cru, formerly Campus Crusade, in Anchorage.
Most men fished along the way for grayling and king salmon. King fishing closed at midnight that first day, so there was a rush to fish as much as possible; three kings were caught by midnight. Arriving at a sandbar, we set up sleep and cook tents, and a port-a-potty. Dinner, fresh red salmon, Dave's trademark blackened recipe, was tasty. Breakfast was eggs and biscuits with gravy the next morning. Lunch served at noon the following day, featured Michelle Lemaire's chili and hearty tomato soup.
"It was the best men's connecting event we've had," said the pastor of Clear Water, Mike Merriner. "Twenty-two guys, many of whom did not know each other, now know each other's names. They shared a common experience. It was the beginning of relationships for a lot of these guys; from now on out. My sense of the trip was it was a fundamental occasion to hang out with each other and foster a sense of community."
"I agree guys that have been on the trip have developed relationships with trip participants and are more involved in the church and what it's doing," said James Embree, adult ministries pastor at Lazy Mountain Bible Church in Palmer. "When you have close friends involved in the church, you become closer to the church."
"A great opportunity, a great ministry. It's a shame it's only a couple of trips per year," said Henry Couser, pastor of Rabbit Creek Community Church.
Dave and Michelle perform a marvelous service for men and churches in Alaska. It's a real example of building "servant hearts."