Friday, September 4, 2009

North To Alaska... Into The Wilds

With the canoe pulled into heavy cover, we began to work our way inland. Walking beside the stream, we saw numerous bear tracks and partially eaten salmon. Moving away from the banks we encountered deep beds of peat moss. Various ferns and broad-leafed plants were profuse. Jack had identified one as broad leaf Astor, remembering seeing them on an earlier outing in Canada. More huge trees towered over us, and the undergrowth was dragging against our every step. We searched for more open country hoping we could see a greater distance.

Finally we broke free of the jungle and were somewhat startled to find ourselves on the perimeter of a huge open meadow. The thick beds of peat made walking extremely tedious and we tired quickly. On occasion, what appeared to be solid ground gave way suddenly beneath our feet. A leg could plunge into submerged pools of water, hidden until you stepped into them. For this reason, when away from camp we lived in chest waders and prodded ahead with staffs cut for that purpose.

We covered a considerable area, though resting frequently. Beautiful views emerged. Snow-crested mountains surrounded Fidalgo Bay. At one point, a group of mountain goats on a sheer bluff emerged some distance away. We enjoyed watching them through binoculars and observing their antics, but knew the range was too great. We could never pull off a successful stalk and pack out an animal before dark descended. After last night, we did not want to be caught out here by the setting sun.

Turning and working slowly downward, we reentered the dense forest growth. The peat moss was amazing. It embraced any fallen tree and absorbed it into a soft smothering blanket of green sponge. Forcing our way onward through the verdant growth, we could see no more than some thirty yards at best. Bear sign was very prevalent. There would be no room for error if we came upon one of the brutes now. The words of our boat captain rushed back to me. "Never hunt alone. A bear's heart only beats twelve or thirteen times a minute--you can blow his heart to bits and he still has two or three minutes to be thoroughly pissed at you before he cashes in!" Sage advice!

Completing the descent down a nearly sheer wall of some thirty feet, we walked side by side along a ridge that was ten to fifteen feet wide. Below and away, another wall dropped an additional forty feet into the rapids of the rushing stream beneath us. I saw Todo hesitate, then stop. We had hunted so long together, my reaction was immediate. I froze, looking to the spot his nod indicated. From the thicket ahead, I saw the vapor of breath floating in the still, cold air. Dropping to one knee, I rested my elbow and rifle on the other. We were hot and somewhat winded. I pulled in deep lungs full of air and waited for my pulse to settle. We watched the clouds of breath form and disperse regularly in the air ahead.

Breathing evenly, I gripped my rifle tightly, nodded at Todo, and we separated to approach the dense growth from different angles. We were now right on top of it. The breath disappeared as we eased into the lair. There was no sign of the animal. A limb snapped off to the right and we waited expectantly. The imprints of huge pads littered the area. We moved slowly ahead. The bluff below was rent by the passage of the large beast as it descended to the stream beneath. There was no visible sign of it. There was only the stillness and the lingering musky smell of its body hanging in the air. The sound of water gurgled below. We felt far more relief than disappointment. The encounter had not been on our terms at all. Some time later, we found our canoe and pushed off.

We relished rare steaks and scotch for supper. A simple meal, but one of the most enjoyable in my memory. Later, we sat on the shoreline of our temporary home with arms folded over our knees, smoking cigars and enjoying a symphony of the night. Not of sound, but sight, as the Northern Lights splayed their sparkling hews of magic across the silent velvet expanse of a flawless Alaskan sky.

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