Grabbing at something with both hands requires letting go of something else.
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 bluff watching him fish, and it took a half step forward, curious to get a better look at the salmon that the human had just pulled from the water. 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 forty- foot slide to the river below.
Rainey had just started to skin his fish and had been admiring the salmon's succulent red flesh when an unusual sound from behind caused him to stop and look up. He started to turn around to see what was causing the commotion but before he could complete the turn, 600 pounds of tumbling grizzly bear slammed into him and knocked him backwards into the white foamed current of the river. The grizzly made a quick recovery and had pulled itself back up onto the bank, but Rainey 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 that morning, Rainey had landed his plane above the bluff and set up camp. He walked down to the edge of the river and noted 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. That 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 its 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. Then, 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 everything went black...
He should have known that he was dreaming because he was at the salmon bake that took place two summers back at his friend Peter's camp in Cooper Landing down on the Kenai Peninsula. It had been a memorable gathering of friends from college, old fishing partners, some of the original gang that had moved to Alaska back in '81, and 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 indeed fortunate that they were all able to get together and relive those old adventures and have one more chance to listen to the stories that had been told dozens of times before, yet they never grew tired of hearing them. Only a few weeks later Peter's Cessna would inexplicably spiral out of a cloudless Alaskan sky and auger into the waters of lower Cook Inlet, leaving them all with a sad, 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 camp shovel to dig out baked potatoes from the bed of glowing coals.
"Damn, those are hot!" he said as he heard someone coming up from behind him, "Would you hand me the pan that's next to the cooler?"
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 hit him and sent him sprawling. Suddenly he was 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 side 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 grate against his waders and 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. He lay there, unaware of anything other than the sun beating down on him and how good it felt. He was soaked, 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. His matted hair helped to staunch the flow of blood, now barely a trickle, which he wiped out of his eyes. That's what made the lights go out, he thought, wincing as he remembered the half- seen boulder.
"Well, it could've been worse, Rainey ol' boy" he said out loud, slowly standing. He leaned against a pile of driftwood and awkwardly wriggled out of his waders, the water-filled boots making a sucking sound as he pulled his feet from them. Hell, as long as you can walk away from it, it could've been worse, he thought as he wearily sat down on a sun- bleached log.
This philosophy had played itself out in not one, but two plane crashes, and several other near calamities. Life here was precarious, and on occasion, it could be forfeited when a lack of planning would open the door to potential disaster. When you deal with the Alaskan wilderness on a regular basis, this kind of thing could happen. Unexpected encounters with bears, snow machines breaking down in a blizzard, an overturned canoe in a treacherous stretch of rapids, or a mountainside looming up out of a cloudbank to snatch a plane from the sky, there were times when it seemed that the land itself was out to get you.
He sat down again and tended to his head wound. The water-proof 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; 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 wasn't sure as to the exact distance he had been carried downstream, but through some pure dumb luck he had managed to keep his head above water and hadn't drowned. He concluded that it was only a matter of a few miles at most. However, a hike of even a few miles 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, and then struck a match. He cupped his hands protectively around the small flame and touched it gently to the pile, smiling as it readily 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 it 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 a while, he began to feel better. Better enough, in fact, to notice the hunger that was growling in the pit of his stomach. The crystal of his wristwatch had gotten smashed, rendering it useless. 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, and the salmon bake had been only a dream, but the emptiness of his stomach was real and made him hungrily survey the water.
He could cast a line 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.
An hour later 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 he had salivated at the smell of the cooking fish. 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. She had left him, and maybe she was right in moving back to Ketchikan. It was a more stable life, and hell, it's not like it 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. Spending a few years after college working in restaurants, he had realized that wasn't going to be his chosen profession, so he returned to school and got his teaching certification. It had been his heart's desire to live in Alaska, and teaching was the skill that would allow him to do that. With his wallet stuffed with the remains of a student loan and the money he had squirreled away from a job he had gotten on campus, he was on his way to Alaska.
He had planned on taking the ferry from Seattle when he met Sharon. She had been teaching elementary school in Ketchikan and was returning from a visit to her parents over summer break.
There was an instant attraction and they spent almost the entire trip enjoying each other's company and talking. In a surprisingly short period of time, they discovered that they had much in common and 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 caf 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. They were caught up in the excitement of moving to a new place and beginning a new life and it carried them along as if their feet weren't touching the ground.
The interior of Alaska was far different than coastal southeast Ketchikan; this was deep Alaska, the land that was akin to the setting of Jack London novels and poems by Robert Service. A land of extremes, 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'd use both hands to grab it all. As his interest in these things grew, his commitment to other things weakened. He was blind to the fact that as one world opened up to him another was slipping away.
One of the first things to weaken was his dedication to his chosen profession. He became more interested in running trap lines than in teaching. Writing flight plans became more important than good lesson plans. When the word in the village was that the caribou had begun their seasonal migration, he couldn't wait for the final bell of the day to ring. Then he and some of his older students would grab their rifles in anticipation of helping to lay in a supply of meat for the winter.
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 without protest; she wasn't the first teacher to decide that the realities of village teaching were too much to take, and the rest of that school year had included packing and tying up loose ends. On the Saturday of the first week of June, Rainey borrowed a friend's pick- up truck, loaded Sharon's belongings into it 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.
Enough time passed and once again his spirits were 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 stock wheels off of the plane and replaced them with "tundra tires" and an oversized tail wheel. It was 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 provided him with financial opportunities; he got the mail contract for the region and was responsible for delivering incoming and outgoing letters, packages and supplies to the scattered mining camps, lodges, and geological stations in 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 here that he went during the summers to prospect 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 fulfilling of his scheduled mail and supply deliveries. And there were the occasional letters waiting for him from Sharon, enquiring as to his health and if he was thinking of visiting some time. He was pleased to get them and would write replies that were heartfelt but just shy of commitment. Then the season would pass quickly, and he found himself busy yet 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 took the small aspirin bottle filled with nuggets and flakes and decided that a week or two fishing was just what he needed to shake the feeling of discontent. He stowed his gear, climbed into the plane and took off...
The night had been spent in relative comfort, and morning found him rested and ready to start back up river. He still had a bit of a limp, and he was walking in the cut off boots of his waders. 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 with 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. He could feel it too, but the chill he felt had already been in the room waiting for him.
He watched as the smoke from his pipe was carried off by a gentle breeze. The "kauk" of a raven caused him to look up. The ravens were riding the afternoon thermal currents, rising on them high above, then falling out at the top, spiraling back down towards the ground and then 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 small streams that joined together and ran as one might still sing and course its way to the larger river. Rainey had been living through an emotional drought, and his life was a single stream that had become a trickle, the whisper of a song with fading 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. As he started down the slope towards his campsite he made up his mind. He finally knew what it was that was missing from his life.
A Breaking down his tent and loading his gear into the plane, he roughly calculated how long it would take to get back to the village, pack some clothes, and fly to Haines. He should be able to start out in two days. He'd have to check the latest weather forecast and draw up a flight plan. He'd call Sharon from Haines and let her know he was coming for a visit, and he'd take the ferry to Ketchican.
The flight to Haines and the ferry trip would give him time to think. He didn't know exactly what he was going to say to Sharon once he saw her, or what she might 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.