Friday, August 28, 2009

North To Alaska... Staking A Claim

We had been told of a plywood platform constructed in the heart of a huge spruce grove near the center of the island. A prolonged study of bald eagles had been conducted from this site years earlier. It was there we intended to set up camp. Supposedly, there were no bears on this island. It was said one rested much more soundly knowing that a large Kodiak bear would not wake you digging a Snicker bar out of your shirt pocket in the middle of the night.

Sleet pelted us as we lowered our canoes over the side of 'The Alaskan Dream.' The four of us began to ferry food, camping gear, tents, weapons, bedding and a large variety of personal effects ashore. The wind had risen and the tides ran strong as we worked against the elements to achieve our goal. It proved impossible to hit the island shoreline at the same point with each transfer, so we ended up with supplies scattered up and down a 100-yard stretch of rocky beach. The tide was moving strongly out, and it proved quite difficult to locate the wooden platforms in the dark and driving sleet.

We finally established our campsite, and Larry and his dad began the work of constructing camp as Todo and I carried our supplies up from the various landing points along the beach. The trees and vegetation were extremely thick. Sweat soaked us from within and freezing rain sought us from without. Our breath huffed steaming plumes into the air as we moved through an Arctic jungle. A small dome of lantern light pushed back against heavy darkness that would have been complete.

There was no topsoil as such. A type of peat moss covered everything, making walking very difficult and tedious. The camp was finally assembled and secure. We fell into our bedding, completely exhausted, taken by sleep that was immediate and without dreams.

My eyes fluttered open just before the sky began to brighten the next morning. Slipping out of the tent, I soon had coffee boiling over the camp stove. During the night, the clouds had broken and bright stars were beginning to fade away into the early light of dawn. It was now in the mid-forties, and the others began to stir. We were in awe of the new world surrounding us. Huge spruce trees towered overhead.

Random droplets trickled from the boughs high above. When they passed through spots of air open to the rays of the newly risen sun, they would explode into flashes of brilliance in that golden light, then vanish passing again into shadow. Various ferns and smaller trees were abundant. Bald eagles roosted in the limbs above. Crimson streaked stray clouds in the sky beyond the canopy above. Bacon crackled in a cast-iron skillet on the stove top. Thoughts turned to breakfast, which was savored and unrushed.

Todo and I paired off in one of the canoes, stowed our gear and pushed off into the bay. Larry and his dad (now dubbed 'Yukon' Jack) moved to our right, moving east and deeper into the glassy waters. After several minutes, we approached the mainland. Ahead, a strong stream surged as its waters rushed to merge with those of the bay. Slack jawed, we observed silver salmon fighting their way upstream by the thousands, with the water roiling under their assault. We dug oars deeply into the water and pulled our canoe through the open mouth of that stream, passing what appeared to be an old mining barge beached some distance inland along the banks. Its timbers still appeared solid despite its obvious age.

Perhaps half a mile upstream, we pulled the canoe onto the bank into heavy cover. Bear sign was plentiful. Half-eaten fish, bear tracks and other sign littered the shore. Gulls swarmed overhead by the hundreds. They were joined by a good scattering of bald eagles. Everything seemed to be feeding on the glut of fish. Many of the salmon appeared healthy as I squatted to study them. They defied irresistible currents to fight upstream, find the perfect spot and lay their treasured eggs. This done, their bodies now battered by semi-submerged rocks and boulders, the salmon ceased to fight and drifted listlessly, slowly back downstream.

The birds dove with tireless beaks striking at the salmon broken bodies. The assault continued as they drifted listlessly back toward the bay, finally dying. Many were consumed by the birds and animals on shore. Others gently settled back into the still depths of the bay to feed other aquatic life. Otters frolicked and feasted across the bays in large numbers. Fleeting shapes of larger fish would flash by our canoes, just below the surface. Before our disbelieving eyes, an amazing panorama of life, death and rebirth was playing out its great drama.

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