October 28, 2010
By Patrick Meitin
When floating 200 miles of wild Alaskan river, anything can happen.
By Patrick Meitin
Photography: Mark Anderson
It was just the hint of something, something familiar but stowed away, something from another place.
There it was again, the subtle pop and swirl. It suddenly registered, and I nearly shouted in my excitement, "Pull out. Pull out!" I spied a shallow gravel bar and went over the side to grind us to a halt, Wade dropping the oars and joining me. We'd managed to stop short of the pool. I jointed the pre-rigged fly rod, stripped some line and flipped the large Royal Wulff well above the nearest swirl. The fly disappeared and I summarily brought an 18-inch arctic grayling to hand, showing all the colors of the Aurora Borealis when turned in the diffused light of another overcast day.
"What's that, a grayling?" Wade gushed. "Gawd he's gorgeous!" I handed it to him and produced a couple drying false casts before flipping the fly above the next telltale rise and was instantly into another, a tad bigger perhaps. "I can taste them now — fried up in bacon grease!" I said. "Skip a day of dehydrated stuff — produce a proper turd."
The two-week float down Alaska's Hoholitna River was about moose, with caribou as a periphery; though it would become obvious that was a monstrous long shot. The Mulchatna herd was finished, perhaps forever. It was nothing like last time — nothing like that at all. I'd squandered my chance. I'd made my choice, the direct approach I'm predisposed to, painting myself into a corner with no way out but to force the issue. So, the moose jinx continued.
I recognized Wade's wanton look and waded upstream to relinquish the rod and claim his spot anchoring the heavily burdened raft. I smiled watching Wade's sloppy casting, shouted conflicting advice, lit a cigar to repel pesky gnats and felt a semblance of relaxed calm.
Although the trip was more than half over, we still had time; not a lot, but anything was possible. My lucky spot waited, the place where years ago I'd recurve-shot a 417-inch caribou; more important to the business at hand, grunted in a behemoth bull moose and seen others.
Through misunderstandings — I'll spare you the details — I didn't own a moose tag on that trip, which, I guess, was the start of my problems with moose. That week, I'd believed it was nothing to kill a moose.
After four days, I was getting over the moose the way you get over being dumped by a gal you've seen only a couple months, the one you liked and thought you had a future with, only to discover she believed otherwise. That'd been another long day, climbing the vertical, rock-littered ridge behind camp and walking its crest to peer into headers cutting its sloping north flanks. We'd crossed a deep saddle and were regaining altitude when we should've been turning back to beat gathering dusk. We emerged on open moss and I saw a conspicuous dark patch, throwing binos on it like I'd done thousands of others. This time it was a bull, maybe 400 yards away. I hissed at Wade and we silently admired his wide palms with their ragged, banana-tined edges.
I cupped my hands and tossed some diaphragm-heaved grunts his way. He swung around and seemed to immediately, deliberately lumber our way. Wade and I exchanged looks.
We didn't quite believe it. We lost the bull to alders for long minutes but I picked up movement again and it was apparent he was coming. We scrambled down and left to slice off more downwind ground and paused intermittently to call, alternating bull grunts with sad cow moans. We found an open patch of moss and nocked arrows in nervous anticipation. Wade offered his fist, two twigs protruding above his thumb. So, this is how it would be. I never win coin tosses, drawing straws, rock-paper-scissors — not against Wade.
In time, clearly audible grunts reached my ears and my confidence soared. I'd drawn the long stick, and it was all but decided. So, I cut straight in, stalking head on to grunts reverberating like a strutting gobbler just outside a pop-up. Then I saw impossible antlers tilting through firs and alder, the hulk of him coming like a lazy horse to a bucket of oats.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the bull cut uphill, and I could see it was only a matter of time before he encountered my scent stream. I had it figured to the degree, that precise spot where it would all unravel. There was a tight hole I could use, my only chance, and I hit anchor as he ambled on. I held the coiled energy at bay for a couple heartbeats before the string slipped away. I could see it all in my mind's eye — the awe and celebration, the dread realization of the hour and the task of paring him into manageable pieces.
Yet the vision was shattered as quickly as it formed. My broadhead contacted the smallest twig and rocketed upward, seemingly gaining momentum through this deflection, sailing over his back and rattling through deadwood beyond.
Wade — with his compound — wouldn't have missed. This bothered me; knowing I'd taken something from him.
A Frozen Hell
Wade landed a couple fat grayling of his own and we stowed them in Zip-Loks and tossed them in the cooler that acted as the raft's rowing bench, continuing our nomadic existence. It was late afternoon and time to seek camp, which wasn't always easy. One evening, one landing after another under bruised skies revealed nothing but lumpy swamp and dog-hair thickets.
We quickly encountered one river split after another, the river that had been transporting us with palatable progress suddenly braided and confused. We were out of the raft as much as in it, pulling her over and around logjams, bouncing from one tight bank to the other and crashing into overhanging trees. I tried to spin on my back during these collisions, absorbing the brunt of the impact with outstretched boots. We rounded a bend to find a sweeper across much of the river.
Wade pulled strenuously, resulting only in mild deflection, and we were greeted by another on the next bend. We crashed beneath it, which turned my recurve inside out. I kicked with my feet, attempting to grab gear being snatched overboard. Spinning out of that, shaking sticks out of my shirt collar, jamming dislodged gear into available holes, I turned my attention to my abused recurve.
Wade issued an oath. "Hold on!" was all he managed before we smashed beneath a horizontal fir dipped close to water. The air was filled with a cacophony of smashing wood, ripping canvas, human yelps and rushing water. On my back, kicking wildly at sharp sticks of the toothy monster, I was breaking away or avoiding the most dangerous spiky obstacles. Then the bottom was yanked from beneath me.
The world went dark, my chest crushed and every part of me was assaulted by interminable needles. I was buried in broken glass, tumbling helplessly through a frozen hell. I understood finally my eyes were clamped shut and opened them to see light, kicking upward, my legs and arms shackled and heavy, my lungs about to explode. I broke into fresh air, boring downstream in fast, deep water; seeing a blue rubberized bag, I latching onto it as if it were a child to be rescued. I couldn't catch my breath and my limbs wouldn't function.
I was in no position to act as savior. I reached out to clutch a sprig of willow and stopped my descent, clinging as if on a precipice until current ripped me away, tumbling downstream again. I began to believe death was possible, but my feet touched bottom and gave me renewed hope. Trying to stand, I fell several times. I was suddenly wrenched sideways and dragged against the current. It wasn't until I was ashore, gasping and coughing, that I realized Wade was beside me wheezing like an emphysema patient conquering a flight of stairs.
"Thought you were a goner," he finally said. "I ran along shore. Couldn't find you. You bobbed up finally." Then he jumped up and rushed into the water, dragging something else ashore. "Help me!" he yelled.
I stood with difficulty and saw more gear bobbing our way. Stumbling into seemingly warm water, I grabbed smaller items and tossed them onto the gravel bank. Wade yelled for assistance, dragging our water-filled but tightly latched cooler toward shore. Most of our food, remarkably, was intact, if now floating in water. I sat while Wade rushed out a couple more times and saw him return with my recurve and a waterlogged daypack holding individually Zip-Loked GPS, satellite telephone, fire-starting material and other essentials. I still hadn't quite recovered from shock.
In the dying remains of day, we could clearly see blue canvas wafting in the current like a tattered flag in a gale. It looked hopeless, beyond repair, but we really had no other choice but to extract it from the sweeper's grasp and eliminate options. As if reading my thoughts, Wade said, "We can't wait 'till morning. It'll only be worse."
We had rope, and Wade already had a plan that had him installed in Gore-Tex waders, bungee-corded tightly around the chest. The rope was around his waist like a mountaineer's lifeline. I had the other end. He used a Swedish axe to hack his way along the top of the sweeper, on the edge of losing his balance all the while, and worked out to the middle where the raft hung. Reaching the raft, he tossed the axe ashore and sat facing downstream, fishing with his feet until it became apparent the water was too deep. "Give me some slack!" he yelled above the rush of water. He offered a thumbs-up and yelled "Hold on!"
I dallied a loop of rope around an alder and held the other end fast. He jumped right in, going under, the tan of his waders melding with the sky blue of raft. He was under long seconds, finally coming up clinging to the gunwale rope and swinging toward shore, stopping just short of my reach. "Need the other end of the rope!" he sputtered as water attacked his face and he held on like a hung bull rider.
It took three throws to get it to him, and he looped it through and held the loose end, kicking and swinging towards shore, where I was able to help. "Water's cold," he said as if supplying the time of day, patting himself along his thighs and offering, "Waders worked good." He was walking out onto the sweeper again before I could say a word.
In the middle again, he worked with the axe, hacking at submerged branches, clinging with the other hand. I could see his mouth forming fuming curses and knew he was losing patience as light melted away. He finally winged the saw beside me and, taking handholds atop the sweeper, swung into the water, kicking at the hung canvas, the water pulling at him, his grip slipping. And then he was sucked under in a finger snap, the raft coming free and swinging down to come tight farther downstream. Wade was simply gone. I yelled his name for no reason other than sheer panic and fought through slapping alders, stumbling along the bank. I saw him pop up well downstream and, running to arrive as he found the gravel that had saved me, dragged him ashore.
Bruised, But Not Beaten
We sipped the last of our whiskey beside a steady fire, drying the raft deep into the night, reluctant to sleep. Ultimately, we fell into damp sleeping bags, praising rubberized dry bags and fresh-caught grayling. With morning, we labored over tattered canvas, feeling a desperate impatience, our time short, our destination uncertain. We had three surgical needles with attached sutures borrowed from the first-aid kit, 60 feet of fly-fishing leader material, two tubes of super glue, a tiny patch kit and a mini Leatherman to work with.
We had three major rips to repair. We took turns with the needle and pliers, turning drying clothes on alder racks beside the smoky fire. When the stitching was complete, we carefully applied super glue to the seams and covered sketchy corners with our limited patch material. The day passed quickly and night sneaked up on us. Tomorrow we would see if she held air — and if we could realistically travel without oars.
After two hours of pumping air into the repaired raft, we were loaded and ready. I couldn't help but notice Wade's compound bow atop it all and knew then he'd held onto it when he bailed from the raft before it went under. My recurve, despite its recent treatment, seemed to shoot where it was supposed to. The sun climbed into a blue sky, but it was chilly and we proceeded slowly using cut alders as push poles, bailing out in the rough spots and walking her through. We found our first bright yellow oar maybe 500 yards below camp, part of an assembly of sticks and beaver cuttings. The second oar I caught sight of as we slipped through a tight chute between overhanging alders, hung on the bottom.
I grabbed alders and hung on, just able to stop the hurried raft, but lost my grip quickly as the water tugged unrelentingly downstream. Wade poked and prodded at it with our single oar, cussing and grunting as I warned him I wouldn't be able to hold on much longer. It was not a place we could return to, the banks too overhung, the water too fast. Finally, the oar dislodged and Wade hung well over the side and emerged with it, dripping and shuddering. We were in business, though we would have to pause at occasional sandbars to pump more air into our wounded craft.
During the first half of the day, we landed at forks and split up to scout ahead. But this soon gr
ew tiresome, and as the memory of our ordeal faded with the miles, we regained our mettle and began to press forward on intuition until the river seemed to regroup, returning to a powerful, expansive single channel as another river joined ours and trundled us along at a steady clip, taking us home.
We'd entered a deep channel below high, steep ledges. The water was filled with rocks the size of cattle, creating swirls and eddies of slower water — holding water — those telltale breaks of dimpled water appearing once more.
"Too bad we don't have a fishing rod," I said aloud, more to myself than anyone. "Could catch some more of those good grayling," I said, pointing out another rising fish.
"We've got the rod," Wade replied, nonchalantly. "Took it apart and stowed it in one of those duffels where it wouldn't catch on brush."
I understood he was serious and nearly shouted in my sudden excitement, "Pull out! Pull out!"
We had two more days. Tomorrow we would revisit the place where I once arrowed a Booner caribou and called in a 65-inch bull moose. There was time.
Anything was possible.