A Long, Dry, Season
Rainey never really got a good look at the grizzly that knocked him into the river. It had been standing at the top of the embankment above him watching him fish, and took a half step forward, curious to get a better look at the salmon that the human was holding. This action brought it too close to the weather-weakened edge, and the weight of the ursine spectator caused the ground it was standing on to crumble and fall out from beneath it. There was only one direction for the bear to go, and that was down. Applying the brakes was a futile effort; the angle of the embankment was too steep and it made a perfect thirty- foot slide to the river below.
The unusual sound from above him had caused Rainey to look up from the salmon he was cleaning and start to turn around to see what was causing the commotion. But before he could complete his turn, 600 pounds of grizzly bear slammed into him, knocking him backwards into the white foamed current of the river. The grizzly made a quick recovery and was pulling itself back up onto the bank, but Rainey now found himself partially underwater and twenty feet out in the current. The deep, roiling water quickly carried him away from the bear, which was a good thing considering the unknown state of mind it was in. Unfortunately, the current that carried him away also had him entirely in its power.
Earlier in the day, Rainey had walked from the camp he had made in the clearing where he had landed his plane, down to the edge of the river and noticed the rapidly moving current. He puffed slowly on the pipe that he had clenched in his teeth and decided that when he fished, he had better pull the belt on his waders tight. He didn’t want to give the glacier-cold water any easy access in the event of a misstep.
This precaution now helped him remain more or less on the surface. His chest waders, although cumbersome, didn't fill with water and drag him to the bottom. The current bore him away at a running pace, his arms flailing in an effort to keep his head above the surface. The bear's impact had knocked the wind out of him and the shock of plunging into the icy water had robbed him of any sense of direction, but he finally worked his head clear of the water, and managed to suck in a deep lungful of air. Through the water streaming down his face he caught a glimpse of the bear. It was standing on the bank, having recovered its dignity as well as Rainey's fish. It was too engrossed in stripping the skin off the salmon it now claimed as it's own to pay any attention to the human quickly bobbing and splashing its way down river.
Perhaps it was the relief of seeing the bear quickly disappearing upstream. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of being alive after such an unusual encounter with Ursus arctos, but whatever it was, it was making him think of what had happen-ed instead of what was happen-ing. He continued to stare back upstream, and it wasn't until a bend in the river removed the bear from his line of vision that he began to turn and face downstream. Unfortunately, for the second time in the space of a minute, his fate snuck up from behind him. Before he could finish the turn, the current slammed him into the waiting boulder and all went black.
* * * * *
He knew that he had to be dreaming because he was at the salmon bake that took place two summers ago at his friend Peter's camp in Cooper Landing down on the Kenai Peninsula. It had been a memorable gathering of many long- time friends and their families, all together for the first time in years. Some had come in from as far away as Rhode Island in the lower 48. It was also just a few weeks before Peter's Cessna would inexplicably spiral out of a cloudless Alaskan sky and augur into the waters of lower Cook Inlet, leaving them all with a bittersweet mixture of grief and fond memories.
But it was a delicious dream nonetheless, so real that he could smell the wood smoke of the fire and the aroma of the freshly caught silver salmon as they were baking. He was crouched next to the fire, using a small camping shovel to dig out the baked potatoes from the bed of glowing coals.
"Damn! Those are hot! Hand me the pan that's next to the cooler," he said to the person he heard coming up from behind him.
He held his hand out, expecting the unseen visitor to pass him the pan, but nothing happened. He started to turn around, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a fast moving, dark shape just as it impacted with him and sent him sprawling. He was suddenly underwater and struggling for air.
He awoke with a gasp and scrambled to his knees, up from where he had been laying on his back in the shallows. In a panic he splashed most of the way to shore, fleeing from the memory of the grizzly. As he became aware of his surroundings and realized there was no bear, the adrenaline rush began to wear off and he sank once again to his knees in the water on the shore edge of the bar. He began to remember what had happened: the bear slamming into him, the desperate struggle with the current, and then the blackness. He dimly recalled feeling the rocky shallows of the gravel bar onto which the river had washed his barely conscious body. He managed to crawl out of the water and up onto the bank before succumbing once again to unconsciousness.
He lay there, unaware of anything other than the sun beating down on him and how good it felt. His vest and shirt were wet, and his waders still held quite a bit of water. They were perforated in several places with holes and tears from various objects that the current had dragged him over. He slowly rose to his hands and knees and, crawling higher up the bar, collapsed in an exhausted heap. Minutes passed before he stirred again. He tried to sit up, and every muscle objected in stiff protest, sore from the beating he had taken from the current. Although it was painful, he struggled into an upright position and surveyed the damage. There appeared to be no broken bones, but there was a nasty gash extending up his forehead, into his scalp.
That explained why the lights went out so quickly, he thought, wincing as he remembered the half- seen boulder. His matted hair had helped to staunch the flow of blood, now barely a trickle, which he wiped out of his eyes.
"Well, it could've been worse, Rainey ol' boy" he said out loud, slowly standing. He leaned against a pile of driftwood and wriggled out of his waders. Hell, as long as you can walk away from it, it could've been worse, he thought as he sat wearily down on a sun- bleached log.
This philosophy had played itself out in not one, but two plane crashes, and several other near calamities. There were times when it seemed that the land itself was out to get him. When you deal with the Alaskan wilderness on a regular basis, this kind of thing could happen. Life here was precarious, and on occasion, it could be forfeited when a lack of planning would lead to disaster.
He sat down again and tended to his head wound. The waterproof pocket first aid kit he always carried had gauze and tape, which he put to good use. He conducted a further quick inventory of what was in the various pockets of his pants and fishing vest. The results of his search were his pipe and tobacco; waterproof matches he had cached in various pockets; his first aid kit; a folding knife, pack of gum, and an extra spool of fishing line with assorted tackle. This small store of material gave him some peace of mind. These items would undoubtedly come in handy until he was able to follow the river back upstream to his camp. He was unsure as to the exact distance he had been carried downstream, but the fact that even on the edge of consciousness, he had managed to keep his head above water and hadn't drowned made him conclude that it was only a matter of a few miles at most and some pure dumb luck. However, a hike of even a few miles through this pathless wild land wasn't something he was up for at that moment. He was soaked to the bone and thoroughly chilled, so he decided that a fire was a priority.
He gathered dry grass and small pieces of kindling , then touched a lit match to the pile, smiling as it easily ignited and grew into an expanding flame. He felt a sense of security as he added larger bits of wood and watched as it began to turn into a respectable blaze. He removed his wet clothing and hung them on larger branches of driftwood close to the fire so they would dry out. The smoke from the fire helped disperse the late-summer mosquitoes that had started to gather around his head, and the flames' warmth soaked into his bones. After an hour or so, he began to feel better. Better enough, in fact, to notice the hunger that was emitting a growl from the pit of his stomach. He had collided with something that had smashed the crystal of his wristwatch, rendering it useless. Looking up and shielding his eyes with his hand, he tried to gauge the time of day by the position of the sun. But he knew that at this time of year in these latitudes it would be a very rough guess. All he was sure of was that it had been a long time since his hurried breakfast early that morning.
He slowly stretched and walked to the water's edge. The bear had interrupted his cleaning of the salmon that would have been dinner. The salmon bake had been a dream, but the emptiness of his stomach was real and made him hungrily survey the water. He could read the signs on most any lake or river and predict where the fish should be, and the stretch of still water within tossing distance was a good bet to try. Its hidden depths were sure to contain something tasty for dinner. He tied a lure to the monofilament on the extra spool he had luckily carried in a pocket in his vest and tossed the line out into the river, letting it settle before carefully retrieving the line hand over hand. On his second toss, the line tightened and vibrated with life as the fish moved out into the current in a futile effort to escape the hook in its lower jaw.
He sat back and licked his fingers, enjoying the last bit of the two grayling he had caught and cooked on a flat rock in the middle of his fire. He hadn't underestimated how hungry he really was and the smell of the cooking fish had actually made him salivate. With a little ginger and soy sauce, this would've been a meal even Sharon would have enjoyed. The location, however, was one that she definitely wouldn't have picked. Maybe she was right in leaving him and going back to a more stable life. Hell, it's not like Ketchikan was a terrible place. Maybe he just needed to rethink his priorities - get back into teaching. That's what had brought him here in the first place.
* * * * *
It had been his heart's desire to live in Alaska, and teaching was the skill that would allow him to do that. He had returned to college, gotten his certification, and was on his way to Alaska when he met Sharon. She had been teaching elementary school in Ketchikan and was returning from a visit to her parents over Thanksgiving break when he had met her on the ferry coming up from Seattle. There was an instant attraction and they spent the entire trip talking. In a surprisingly short period of time, they discovered that they had much in common and they felt as if they had always been friends. He found that Ketchikan was as Alaskan as she really wanted to get. The winters weren't bitter, the scenery was beautiful, and it wasn't all that far removed from Seattle, which was what she still considered to be home. He had intended to take the ferry as far as Haines, and then travel to Fairbanks on the Alaska Highway, but a day and a half after he had boarded the ferry, he found himself helping to carry Sharon's luggage, as well as his own, onto the dock in Ketchikan.
Initially, as there were no teaching vacancies in the small town, he took a job cooking in a café, and then when the season came, he got lucky and landed a spot crewing on a salmon seiner. He spent his spare time sending applications to other school districts. He talked to Sharon of maybe going farther north. Rainey made teaching there sound like a great adventure they could share, and she finally gave in to his sales pitch. When an opportunity for two teaching positions opened in a village on the Yukon River, just below the Arctic Circle, they applied together and were hired. They packed their belongings and headed over a thousand miles north, into the interior of Alaska.
The excitement of moving to a new place and job caught them up and carried them along. The interior was far different than Ketchikan; this was deep Alaska, the land that was the setting for Jack London novels and poems by Robert Service. A land of legend, it set its own rules and expected you to comply. It could be a harsh existence, but to Rainey, it was his dream come to life. He had finally realized his desire to live and teach in Alaska, but after a few years the classroom started to feel too confining. Everything he wanted was out there, waiting for him: the adventure, the trapping and hunting, the prospecting, the freedom. He would grab it all with both hands.
However, this required his letting go of some things as well, and one of the first to go was his dedication to teaching. He became more interested in running trap lines than in teaching. Writing flight plans became more important than good lesson plans. When one of his older students would rush into the room and excitedly yell, "Caribou, Rainey! Fat ones!" he couldn't wait for the final bell of the day to ring. Then he and some of his students would grab their rifles in anticipation of laying in a supply of meat for the winter. As his interest in these things grew, his commitment to other things weakened. His chosen profession, his relationship with Sharon, his grasp of what was truly important, all suffered as he lived out his fantasy. He was blind to the fact that as one world opened up to him another was slipping away.
Interior Alaska had been Rainey's dream, not Sharon's, and as the long, dark winters began to pile one on top of the other, the dream no longer worked its enchantment over her. Too far from old friends and family, the extremes of life in the interior had turned her head back to the life she had known in Ketchikan, and one night, after weeks of threatening that she would, she finally announced that she was leaving. Rainey could come if he wanted. She would be happier if he did, but her interest in life in the bush had, like the tree line above the Arctic Circle, eventually reached its end.
Her resignation from work was accepted; she wasn't the first teacher to decide that the realities of village teaching were too much to take, and the he rest of that school year had been spent in packing and tying up loose ends. On the Saturday of the first week of June, Rainey borrowed a friend's pick up truck, one of the few vehicles in the village. He loaded Sharon’s belongings and drove her out to the airstrip. The chartered plane was there, waiting for them. It was a tearful goodbye, and as he watched her plane take off, the vastness of the land seemed to shrink in comparison with the emptiness he now felt growing in his heart.
Time passed and his spirits were once again buoyed by his surroundings. The opportunities which presented themselves left him no time to dwell on the loneliness he felt, although it was never very far removed. In the six years since "coming into the country", he had earned his pilot's license, become handy with tools, and had been lucky to pick up an old Helio Courier in pretty good shape. Its all-metal fuselage had a number of dents and patches, but it was mechanically sound. He had taken the wheels off of the plane and replaced them with "tundra tires" and an oversized tail wheel. A sturdy aircraft, it got him on and off of gravel bars and forest clearings that looked incredibly short in length. This ability to access difficult areas allowed him to make mail pick-ups and deliveries of supplies to the region between Tanana and Fort Yukon. It also allowed him to go farther in- country, where there were fewer places for larger planes to land. It was into this territory that he went during the summers to search for gold. He would set the plane down near an unnamed stream, toss out his gear, and work the gravel of the streambed. The "color" was usually good enough for him to meet expenses and put some aside, but it was a hard life and lonely, except for the supply runs back to the village and the occasional letters waiting for him from Sharon. The season would pass quickly, and in the end he was financially satisfied, yet he was nagged by an unnamed emptiness.
So it was when the fireweed was just starting to top out, signaling the waning days of summer, that he decided that he had enough of the prospecting life. He had small nuggets and flakes enough to fill an aspirin bottle and it was time to cash out. He felt that a week or two fishing was just what he needed to shake the feeling of discontent. Leaving his sluice box for the season, he stowed his gear, climbed into the plane and took off.
* * * * *
The night had been spent in relative comfort, and the morning found him rested and ready to start back. He still had a bit of a limp, and walking in the cut off boot sections of his waders didn't help, but he felt pretty good otherwise. He had been walking for a few hours now, following the river as much as he could and bushwhacking through alder, dwarf spruce and tussock- filled muskeg when he had to. Walking along the riverbank gave him time to think. He had come to the realization that this was a damned strange life to lead. It was exciting but seemingly just a few steps ahead of disaster. Even more, he concluded that lately, he wasn't deriving much satisfaction from the life he had chosen.
The journey back towards camp had been pleasant, though. The day was sunny, the temperature not too warm for a walk. He wasn't burdened by a heavy pack on his back, and there was always time for a break when he came across a particularly rich patch of late summer salmonberries or raspberries. The possibility of suddenly coming upon a bear kept him singing or talking out loud. If he found the berries appealing, so, too, would a bear. One close encounter of the furry kind had been enough.
He stopped and stood quietly, looking out at a far curve in the river. He took a minute to fill his pipe. The tobacco had dried by the fire and was quite smokable. He lit a match, held it to the bowl, and puffed. It was a habit he picked up a few years back, and he enjoyed it, but it had annoyed Sharon to no end. Besides the health risk, it was the way in which the smell of the burning tobacco would permeate everything: the cabin, his hair, the furniture, the curtains, his clothes . . . her clothes. He had compromised by not smoking indoors. He would stand on the porch and enjoy his pipe, even in the deepest winter. He found a quiet peace in standing in the dark, drawing on his favorite briar while the northern lights danced overhead. Of course it would be a quick pipe when the thermometer plunged to 30 or 40 below zero, but using the bowl of the lit pipe as a hand warmer would usually allow him to finish his smoke. Sharon, sitting close to the wood stove, always said that she could feel the temperature in the room drop after he walked back in from a winter smoke. Funny thing, he could feel it too, but the chill he felt was already in the room waiting for him.
He watched as the smoke from his pipe was carried off by a gentle breeze. The harsh "kauk" of a raven caused him to look up. The ravens were riding the afternoon thermals, coasting on them high above, then falling out at the top, spiraling back down towards the ground and riding them up once again, as if in play. This gave him pause for thought. He had almost everything he wanted. Almost. His life was as he had wanted it, as he thought it should be, yet there was a space in it, which nothing seemed to fill. The adventure, into which every day had turned, suddenly seemed as pointless as the ravens' silly game with the thermals. His existence was like a mountain stream, tumbling swiftly down its bed, turbulent but shallow. A dry season might turn a single stream into a trickle and cause it to fall silent, but two joined together as one might still sing and course its way to the larger river. His life was a single stream that had become a trickle, the whisper of a song with no words.
This thought was on his mind as he came around a familiar-looking ridge. As he emerged from the scrub willow that grew around it, he found himself looking down at his plane and tent, sitting just as he had left them. They were probably the only things in his life that were just as he had left them. He had made up his mind as he started down the slope towards his campsite. He finally knew what it was that was missing from his life. He was roughly calculating how long it would take to get back to the village, pack some clothes, and fly to Fairbanks. He would drive down to Haines where he would catch the ferry to Ketchican. He could have flown the entire distance, but the drive and ferry would give him the time he needed to think. He'd call Sharon and let her know he was coming for a visit. He didn't know exactly what he was going to say to her once he saw her, or what she would say to him. But he knew that the words would come, like the lyrics to the song sung by two, small mountain streams when they ran together and found that they had survived a long, dry season.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of William Vaudrain.
Published on e-Stories.org on 10/07/2010.