Thursday, September 17, 2009

North to Alaska...Outside Influences

Early morning, the fourth of September. I was still trying to get Todo to eat some of Jack's oatmeal for breakfast, but not having any luck. Just as well; it left more for us, and it was warm, filling and welcome on a cold, crisp morning.

Rain was coming down steadily, making our rain gear and hip boots indispensable. They were the only way we had stayed somewhat warm and semi-dry. Clouds settled in and for some time now had prevented us from seeing the magnificent peaks across the bay.

We observed small, fast boats working the shoreline--hunting bear the easy way, we presumed. Todo and I pulled at the oars as we skimmed briskly across the surface of the bay. We shot toward the mouth of the stream and the area we had been hunting for the past few days. Two strangers in a speeding boat rounded the point, and seeing our intent, speeded up and raced to the beached barge, intending to cut off our access to the area.

They beached and tied off near the wreckage as one of them jumped out, rifle in hand, peering upstream. It was obvious they intended to claim the area and acted as though we did not exist. I forced conversation by asking if they were hunting. "Yep," one replied. "Good luck. We've been working this stream for the last three days," I replied. We moved past them and on upstream as if there had been no conflict of intentions.

Some half a mile beyond them we pulled the canoe into heavy cover, secured it and headed into the forest, working together for an hour or so before deciding to separate for a while. Todo took up a position settling into the crest of a sheer bluff overlooking our stream and a small opening below. I worked my way down the cliff face and used a fallen log to cross over without getting wet. Our stamina was improving. I looked over my shoulder, waved at Todo and moved off and away up the other slope.

The forest was beautiful, but thick. Had it not been for the temperature, I'd have sworn I was in a tropical rain forest. Finally breaking clear of heavy growth, I moved into an open meadow and took up a position on its far side with an active game trail in view. A light drizzle turned into a steady rain. I couldn't recall, hard as I tried, who had said "bear hunting is always best in the rain."

As the mantle of dusk settled around us, we had come back together and moved downstream in our canoe. The two men we had seen earlier had beached their boat on our island near our camp but were nowhere in sight. We struggled to reach the island quickly. We felt outrage and a degree of helplessness at the same time. Larry and Jack's canoe shot into view. They reached the island well ahead of us. They had already been aboard their canoe when they saw the strangers slide onto the rocky beach of our island. We saw Larry and his dad move into the forest immediately upon making shore. Their visit with the strangers was short, efficient and to the point. We saw the interlopers break free of the treeline, leap into their boat and leave a small rooster tail in their wake as they shot across the water, seeking only distance and refuge. They never bothered us again. Tomorrow was to be our last full day on the island. We wanted to make it count.

Friday, September 11, 2009

North To Alaska... Small Things

The rising sun had to worry its way through heavy, laden clouds this morning. It never really broke through. The light would brighten, then dim depending on the density of the clouds. We were kind of lazy around camp, and mid-morning were surprised to hear the distant hum of an engine slowly increasing in volume. A bush pilot dropped through the dense cloud cover and landed deep in the bay, much nearer to the mainland. He and a companion offloaded gear and set up their camp beyond the treeline on the beach. This cut us off from several tributaries we wanted to explore. There went the neighborhood!

Todo and I canoed to the same stream we had explored yesterday. I shucked my backpack and, using it as a pillow, stretched out on the bank, watching Todo through hooded eyes. With infinite patience, he cast repeatedly into the churning water. There were thousands of fish, but he never got a strike. A fine mist settled in, and water trickled off our ponchos and the brims of our caps. I dozed briefly, then sat up and stretched. An idea had formed. Protected by chest waders, I slowly eased into the water. Going out until it was knee deep, I turned and faced upstream. Resting my elbows on my knees, I looked into the water and waited.

Within a few seconds, a large bull silver salmon surged between my legs. I grabbed it just ahead of its tail, straightened up and threw it at Todo's feet. "Knock him in the head with a rock, would you, pard? I'll get another one," I coaxed. By the time Todo found a rock and dispatched the fish, I had thrown another at his feet and stood there grinning proudly. He frowned, staring at me, then looked at the rod and reel in his hand. After a couple of seconds, he glanced up at me, smiling around the cigar clamped in his teeth. He tossed the rod backward over his shoulder. Laughing out loud, he joined me in the stream. That's how we fished from then on.

We returned to camp with two good fish each. They were quickly filleted and fried up on the camp stove. Larry and his dad had stayed in camp to rest up from yesterday. Our joints and muscles were in revolt from what we had put them through the day before. The smell of the frying fish was intoxicating. It woke Larry, who came staggering out of his tent. He was a sight, with reddened eyes, tousled hair and knotted fists digging into the small of his aching back. Being extremely fatigued, his morning hunt started a bit late--around three o'clock that afternoon, as I recall.

Rain had settled in around nine that morning. It would come hard, then lighten up. It would not stop for the next 28 hours. Nothing stayed dry. Realizing rain was a constant companion, we returned to the mainland mid-afternoon. Todo and I worked our way once again up our stream. We stayed near the water and worked along the banks, zig-zagging from side to side using dead falls as natural bridges. We crossed back and forth across the water several times.

At one point we rested on the edge of a high-walled crossing spanned by a huge dead fall. An eddy had formed beside a large boulder in the churning rush below. Within that small, perfect pool of clarity, suspended and motionless, was the largest rainbow trout I had ever seen. Briefly, sunlight filtered through the prism of water and reflected a dazzling array of color from his scales beneath the surface. His tail undulated slowly from side to side.

Todo rested a hand on my shoulder and indicated with a whisper he was going to try to catch him. He inched down the bank and eased into the water a short distance upstream. I had never seen him show such patience. Ever so slowly, he approached the eddy. He seemed to become one with the rocks and the water. He eased forward and approached the fish an inch at a time. The depth hovered just above his waist. Almost too slowly to see, his right hand rose in the water. The palm faced up and was cupped slightly. He ever so lightly stroked the underside of that trout, sliding his hand gently back along its length. Then, his fingers locked around the trunk just before reaching the tail. Water exploded around and over him. Lifting the huge fish high over his head, he laughed aloud in delight, almost falling. For an instant, he transcended humanity and almost became a god of the forest. Larger than life, he had briefly touched perfection and rejoiced in it.

You know, he never did catch a fish with the $40 reel he purchased at the 'Hook, Line & Sinker' back in Valdez.

* This posting is dedicated to the 2,819 innocents murdered on this date in 2001 in a senseless act of madness.

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.