An Alaskan Summer Part: Qankun

31 05 2011

After the marathon sprint that is salmon season in Bristol Bay, my dad thought we could use some rest and relaxation.

On the docket was spending time with Rick, a close friend of his from when he lived in Dillingham.  Then we were going to do a little recreational fishing.  You know, the type with just a pole and some beers.

We were well into July and I was getting my first experience of what summer is really like in Alaska: giant mosquitoes, trying to sleep with the sun out, and freedom.  Freedom to watch bears pillage the dump at will.  Freedom to really do what you want when you want to do it.  The absence of darkness really opens up a lot of options for a person.

At Rick’s house with my dad it was like I was one of the boys.  I remember staying up late and shooting pool listening to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, while they talked about old times.  By the way, if you’re going to survive in Alaska you need certain comforts.  Having a room in your home that is basically a small pool hall/bar is one of them.  My life’s lesson during those couple of days was how to make a proper bridge with my hand.  I also learned the basics of controlling the cue ball and how to practice my stroke with a coke bottle.  Trust me,  it’s way more impressive than it sounds.

Rick was a family man who lived his life his way.  He survived on money he made from his smoked salmon business.  I say survived, but he actually lived quite comfortably.  He took us in like we were family, and for the next few days we ate, laughed, and listened to classic rock.  Rick was the type of guy you could count on in a pinch.  The old cliché about the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back, that was Rick.  Or, say you needed someone to destroy evidence: Rick was your guy, no questions asked.

One year for Halloween, when my dad lived in Dillingham, they dressed up as a two-headed monster.  Spent the whole night in costume, now that’s a good friend.  The group photo of their early 80’s indoor volleyball team is priceless.  Rick has a two-foot beard and my pops has half a stache on one side, half a beard and no stache on the other.  It looked like they always had a good time together.  Of course it was the early to mid 80’s in Alaska there was plenty of snow to play in.

Sadly Rick passed away several years later from a heart attack.  My dad took it pretty hard, but I know Rick had few regrets.  When you live life your way on your own terms, the only regrets a person could possibly have is not seeing their children all grown up.  Although as difficult as life can get at times, if my last memories were of my kids when they were young without a worry in the world, I think I’d be fine with that.

After we wrapped up our time at Rick’s we met with another of my dad’s cronies, Dave.  Dave ran a charter boat business, but was taking us out, no charge, as a favor to my dad.  In the process of thinking back to these memories I’m also figuring out I was very much along for the ride.  I just went with the flow, like a leaf floating down stream.  What I mean to say is I was never really asked what I wanted to do.  I didn’t care, I was seeing everything for the first time, so it was all good to me.

We departed Dillingham early in the morning for Lake Aleknagik (uh lick na gick).  The road was a long straight line and covered in gravel.  Dave was the proud owner of a 70’s era Chevy truck.  It had some “added features” that you just don’t see everyday.  Here’s an example:  half way through our ninety-minute drive, it started to rain.  “What ever will we do?”  Not to worry, there are windshield wipers, which are manually operated by way of a left hand, a coat-hanger, and a shoelace.  For those of you who have always had the convenience of a Napa or Auto Zone, allow me to explain.

The coat hanger was tied to the first wiper on the driver’s side, then bent to come around to the driver’s window.  A shoelace tied the second wiper to the first wiper.  Dave would reach out the window and pull the coat hanger several times, thus clearing the window.  It was one part ingenuity, one part idiot savant.  Eli Whitney would have simply said, “You win.”  The cotton gin?  Really?  This is Alaska, go hard or go home.

Dave had a large ski/bass jet boat he used for his charter business.  It was a nice setup, two custom-built gas tanks which would hold more than enough fuel for our 250-mile trip.

We spent the first couple of days at a cabin on the lake mostly doing nothing but sleeping and playing cribbage.  It was the first time where it was just us with no noise.  No people who wanted to entertain, no sound… and really for that matter, no modern convenience.  You know, like electricity.

I should explain the geography.  Lake Aleknagik is a massive lake that is the end result of glacier run-off.  The Agulowak (Uh gool a wak) river is the river that feeds from the glacier into the lake.  Along the way, the Agulowak river puddles up into tiny lakes.  There are five of these lakes spread out over 100 miles, the last one being at the base of a massive glacier.  My dad had only ever been as far as the third lake.

Now the trick to getting up to the different lakes is to have a jet boat.  The jet boat has no propeller, so when it gets up on step, or top speed, it basically glides over the water.  Since these rivers are so shallow, it’s the perfect boat. If you have a foot and a half of water you’re good to go.

Dave was a master of his craft.  Like Han Solo navigating the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back.  Dave knew these rivers.  I remember vividly as he asked me, “you ready for some scary shit?”  Then he punched it!  There’s something about going 45 to 50 mph in a boat that’s amazing.  In a car, not so much, but in a boat feels like the sound barrier might be broken.  Dave popped in a tape of CCR’s greatest hits.  Just as John Fogarty was getting warmed up, Dave sparked up a huge joint.

My dad would later explain that there were areas in the river where the boat was too wide to pass.  Specifically large boulders that were just inches beneath the surface of the water.  Boulders the size of VW van.  Dave would have to come in at an angle and then cut back, banking the boat up on its side in order to squeeze through.  This was all made possible by the use of Mary Jane to calm the nerves.  Whatever he needed to do to get the job done was fine with me.  I didn’t like the prospect of hitting a boulder, at top speed, in the middle of nowhere.

Looking back now there’s no way this guy didn’t fly a chopper in Nam.  I’m surprised he didn’t have a flashback and yell at me to, “get on the M60!”  This is as close to simulating a Huey ( Bell UH-1 Iroquois) yank’n and bank’n its way up a river in the Mekong Delta a person can get.

The trip was going to take a couple of days, so we stopped at third lake, and spent the night in a state park cabin.  One of the cool things about Alaska is there are cabins in the middle of nowhere, built by the state, that anyone can use.  The design of the cabin was very basic, but since we were in the middle of nowhere it was pretty impressive.  There was a table with two chairs, a pot belly stove, a couple of windows, and two sets of bunk beds.  The bunk beds were nothing more than plywood and 4×4’s.  The idea was you would roll out your sleeping bag and supply your own pillow.  There was a fresh supply of wood left behind by the previous guests.  The rule is: Use what you need just make sure you replace it for the next person.  (Selfish Authors Note: The world might be a slightly better place if we applied this rule to other issues.)

Once the stove was going we all started thinking about food, so my dad and I walked down to the river.  The salmon were so thick the water looked like it had streaks of red.  Realizing he didn’t want to invest any time by using bait, dad opted to cast a treble hook (three-sided hook) out and on the first cast snagged a red salmon.  As it turns out this is illegal, but when you’re hungry laws have a way of being over looked.  We fileted the salmon right there on the bank and chucked the remnants in the river.  Bears love fish guts, so you really don’t want them hanging around.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, this is grizzly country.

As we walked back up to the cabin I looked at the bark on a tree, “Hey dad, whats the deal with that bark?”  He replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the bark, that’s where a bear has sharpened its claws.”  I kid you not, it looked like someone had tried to keep tally marks with the tip of a chainsaw.  That’s how deep those claw marks were.  This was the first time that things started to get real for me.  This is Alaska: there are no phones, there is no hospital around the corner, and hungry grizzly bears kill people who camp by rivers.

Right behind the tree was an elevated wooden structure that looked like a small dance floor.  “What’s that?” I asked.  Half way laughing, dad said, “That would be a buffet line also known as a tent pad.”  I tried to do my best for the rest of the evening conjuring up images of every friendly bear I had ever seen.  You had Yogi, the dancing circus bear with a tutu, old Ben from Grizzly Adams.  Unfortunately, the .44 Magnum the old man kept at his side was a constant reminder of the actual danger involved.

After dinner, Dave sparked up another doobie and zeroed in on my bear concerns, pointing out how sturdy the door was.  The front door looked like every main gate you’ve ever seen in movies involving castles.  When the door was closed there was a huge 6×6 block of wood about four feet long that dropped in to brackets as a brace.  This is the part where my dad in his quest to always get the facts correct, chimes in with, “No, no, no, all that grizzly is going to have to do is lean on that door with all of his weight and it’ll cave right in.”  I’ve had better nights sleep.

After waking up alive and without incident, we had a huge breakfast.  Eggs, bacon and potatoes, like a skillet scramble, man was it good stuff.  There’s something about breakfast when you’re camping that’s just phenomenal.  We even managed to squeeze in a game of cribbage.  That little cabin was great, but it was time to move on, so we packed up our gear and started loading the boat.  As my dad and I loaded, Dave was smoking a joint preparing for the final push to 5th lake.

In the process of bragging about my cribbage victory over my dad, I realized I had forgotten my deck of cards at the cabin.  So I ran back and grabbed them off the table.  As I casually strolled back to the boat with deck in hand, the mood had changed.

My dad motioned me over to a mini sandbar that had formed near the river bank, just to the right of the boat.  I knew this type of summoning, it was of the “don’t talk, just move your ass” variety.  I stood there, like, “what are we looking at?”  With no words, as he peered into the dense brush south of the boat, he pointed down.  It was at this moment I noticed two things: A) The pistol was in his other hand and B)  There was a massive paw-print, so fresh it was still filling up with water.  Dads next words were clear and to the point, “get in the boat, now.”

I’m not really even sure if my feet touched the ground between that sandbar and the boat.  Dad’s may not have hit the ground either, because as soon as I was in, he was shoving the boat off shore, and then we was in right behind me.  In a world full of choices, a guy smoking weed and dodging boulders in a jet boat will always trump coming nose to nose with a grizzly bear.

After a couple of hours, and pushing the boat by hand through areas where there was only six inches of water, we arrived at fifth lake.  I kick myself for not bringing a camera, but things were different back then.  There was no social media, no digital cameras on everything like today.  The final lake was something to behold.  There were several waterfalls that poured into the lake from the glacier.  The water was crystal clear and ice-cold.

The sky was slightly overcast, which took the glare off the water, and allowed us to see all the way to the sand bottom.  The water was so cold that nothing grew, it was like staring into an enormous aquarium and watching the fish (arctic char) swim around.  Surrounded by forest, and the sound of roaring waterfalls, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.  I remember thinking how cool it was to be in a place where very few people have ever set foot.  It seemed so unlikely there were still places like this in the world.  We spent the next hour or so fishing and taking it all in.  To add a little perspective: Even my dad, who had been going to Alaska for more than twenty years, was awe-struck.  We were taking this all in together for the first time.

The trip back down to the main lake was uneventful, sans one large exception.  As it turns out pot is good for calming your nerves in pressure-packed situations, and bad for doing mathematic calculations.  Dave had botched his calculation and we ran out of gas several miles short of home.

I guess it’s not really a boat trip unless you get the chance to paddle with an oar in your hands.  As I paddled I thought, “Surely this is nothing a coat hanger and a shoelace couldn’t fix.  Oh well, at least we won’t run out of daylight.”

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