Friday, September 08, 2006

A Shot to the Heart, Part 2

The next day began with breakfast at Andrewski’s house. He invited us for coffee, toast, and corned beef hash, which he cooked on the top of his Toyo stove. We discussed the current low water conditions on the Swift River and how much trouble we might have getting my boat up into it. Once past the shallow mouth, he said, the river is deeper and easier to negotiate. He thought we could do it, but he offered us his permanent fish camp on the Kuskokwim, close to the mouth of the Swift. He has another camp with a log cabin and steam house that is quite a way up the Swift, at the mouth of the Sunitna, but thought my boat would not make it that far. He was certain my boat would not make it up the Sunitna to Goosma’s land.

After some discussion we gratefully accepted his offer of the Kuskokwim camp. That would be our base camp and we would make day trips from there in the Zodiac. It is about 30 minutes upriver from the village of Stony.

The camp was not hard to find; it is the first sign of human presence for many miles after leaving Stony River, and sits up on a shelf of land with good visibility both upriver and down. We pulled in and found a tidy camp that was perfect for our needs. There is a pebble-strewn beach, which makes unloading the boat much easier and less perilous than the mucky mud flats at Stony Landing. The five-foot high riverbank has a wide walkway cut into it leading up to the flat shelf where a half dozen log structures are scattered among the birch trees. The shelf is about 100 feet deep, and is backed by a very steep hill covered thickly in green and golden birch. There is a large, single-room log cabin in the center of the clearing; a much smaller bunk house with a single window and its own small wood stove; a log steam house, a generator house, an outhouse and a small cabin we dubbed the “entertainment house,” for it is partially carpeted and contains only a sofa, a television and a stereo cassette/CD player. This, we learned later, is Brian’s cabin.

By the time we made this quick inventory there was a noticeable but tiny, high-pitched buzz telling us a boat was coming from downriver. We could barely see a tiny black speck moving on the river, though we could hear the motor’s voice quite clearly. It was a good several minutes of watching the speck slowly get larger as the voice got stronger before Andrewski beached his 18-foot skiff and jumped out smiling. He simply nodded at us; the fact that we found the place was obvious and did not need stating.

He had said to us that morning at his kitchen table that “lotsa guys never make it to all the way up to Stony from Bethel, but have to turn back.” His way of acknowledging that three women doing it was pretty significant around here, too.

Before the massive chore of unloading the boat began, Andrewski wanted to take Lynn up the river in his boat to show her the entrance to the Swift River. We had heard that it is fairly intimidating, that the water rushes out of it into the Kuskokwim in a furious boil. They don’t call it the Swift for nothing. The mouth has a half dozen small channels, but only two are negotiable by motorboat, and only the deeper of those two would be possible for my boat.

Lynn and Tracy jumped in with him and they took off like a shot. Andrewski raced up the river at the very edge, where the current is less and therefore takes less gas. When they returned about 20 minutes later, both women had big round eyes. They said later that he drove straight up the Kuskokwim and then turned full speed straight into the side of the river, into what looked like a log graveyard and boulder field strewn across a shallow creek.

“You would never turn a boat in there if you didn’t know exactly what it was; never, never, NEVER!” Lynn exclaimed.

Both women had their hearts in their mouths as he went screaming up the shallow creek that calls itself a river. He headed for a log at full speed; it was dead ahead, and Tracy thought he was going to try to jump it! She was looking for a place to grab hold of the boat when he came around at the last minute and brought the boat up beside the log.

“New log” was all he said. It was blocking further passage.

When they returned, Lynn grabbed her small chainsaw and she and Andrewski went back up to cut it free. She said later that Andrewski drove his boat right up onto the log, so the front half of the boat was out of the water, resting on it. Then he leaned over the side of the boat and began cutting. Lynn was worried about her saw blade and/or entire chainsaw going into the water, but Andrewski never let that happen. As the saw went through the last bit of wood, the log broke free and moved into the current. Andrewski dropped the chainsaw still running on the floor of the boat, ran back to the motor and backed the boat out of the way.

As they watched to see that the log didn’t re-wedge itself, Andrewski said quietly, “Lynn, you want to turn that saw off?”

On their return to camp, Andrewski had a few final instructions on how to get my boat up the Swift. He gave us the keys to the bunkhouse cabin, told us to make ourselves at home and use the steam bath if we wanted. Then he hopped in his boat and was away downriver.

Unloading took us a while, but we finally got the gear stored under a tarp and the guest cabin cleaned out and set up with our sleeping bags and pads on the three bunks, our two-burner Coleman stove on the table, and food stored on the shelves. Tracy built a fire in the woodstove and the cabin was warm in minutes.

We decided on steaks and potatoes with onions for our first-night-in-camp supper. And there was a bonus; my friend Joan gave us a bag of her special hot cabbage dish and a loaf of homemade bread, and we had a nice bottle of red wine to go with it. Of course we were starved by the time the food was ready, and it was all fabulous.

After dinner we sat for a while around the fire, listening to the quiet and absorbing the peace. It was so good to be there. How lucky we were to have been offered this incredible place to camp.

Despite all good intentions to get up early and be out on the river by sunup looking for moose, the accumulated stresses of the trip upriver demanded some rest before we continued, and we all three slept soundly until mid-morning. The built-in bunk beds were a little narrow and short, but they were at least level and flat, so no one was complaining. It’s a good thing none of us is taller than 5’6”.

The day was a little chillier than the previous ones had been. I could tell we were at a higher elevation; the air had a sharp autumn tang that was still missing in Bethel. There was a heavy, fairly dark cloud cover that morning, and a rising wind. Lynn and Tracy took off in the big boat for an exploratory lookaround up the Swift River.

I was content to remain in camp reading and writing and resting up a bit from the rigors of travel; I am older than my two best friends, and have a few back problems. For me this trip was more about camping than it was about hunting. I have never shot an animal, and don’t forseeably intend to, though I believe I could if it were necessary.

I had a fire in the fire ring and coffee in the thermos. It was a quiet morning. I sat on the bank of this huge, amazing river, and watched as it swept endlessly, majestically, silently by me. The current in the center was swift. A tremendous uprooted tree floated by at quite a good pace and was pretty quickly lost to sight around the bend downstream, about a mile away.

Across the river two ravens were fighting and squawking shrilly over a dead fish. They kept at it so long I was tempted to get out the .22 for a little target practice. They’d be in no danger, since I wouldn’t aim close to them, but maybe they’d shut up.

A loud SPLOOSH startled me from my rivertrance, and following the sound, I could see something struggling in the water near the opposite shore, a short way down from us. The binoculars revealed the osprey I had seen the evening before; it had dropped from the sky like an avenging angel—the sploosh. As I watched, the bird struggled and strained to get the large fish held in its talons out of the water. The cargo was too heavy to get lift off, and the bird was not about to let go! So he struggled and flailed, beating the water with his wings, humping the fish out of the river one jump at a time. The splashing continued for a minute or so and then bird had fish up on shore and was beak-deep in fish guts in a flash. With cold swiftness, bird tore fish to shreds and gobbled up most of it. The leftovers were quickly set on by ravens. I had to tell myself to sit back and breathe.

What I learned later was that eagles (osprey is also known as “fish eagle”) have a locking mechanism in their claws. They must choose their prey well, for once they dive and grab, their claws lock closed and will not release until they begin to eat. The osprey would have drowned before he could let go of that fish which was too big to fly off with. I had witnessed a death struggle for him to get the fish to shore.

The motor buzz telling me Lynn and Tracy were back came about two hours after they had left. The drawn, tense looks on their faces told me something had happened up the river. By the time they moored the boat, stashed the gear and came to the campfire they were starting to relax a little, but were still clearly wired on adrenaline. It took several minutes of pacing before they were ready to sit down and tell me the story—a story that Tracy would forever after call “The Magic Boat Ride”.

They had gone into the mouth of the Swift and managed to find the one channel deep enough to allow them passage. They went several miles upriver, following twists and turns, past logjams and sweepers and beaverworks, through land so wild and beautiful, so distant and remote, it seemed a human sound had never split the air. It was twisty, windy going, narrow channel, fast shallow water, challenging, a little scary.

When they pulled over to the side of the river to sit with the motor off and listen for animal sounds, they gained an appreciation for just how swift the Swift is. If not tied off very securely they would quickly be swept downriver. After nearly an hour of quiet watching they decided to head back. Further access upriver looked decidedly hazardous, and the trip back downriver wasn’t going to be exactly easy. They looked at each other and grinned. Out here when something goes wrong, you have only yourself and your companions to depend on. Everybody better be paying attention.

As they moved back from the bank, the bow of the boat caught the current and whipped the boat around, sending it charging downriver in a nanosecond. Lynn had the motor running to have some control, but the ripping fast current threw them toward a snag and they could not steer around it. The lower unit hit with a thud that threw them forward and made their stomachs lurch. The motor died instantly and they were wedged on the snag with incredible current racing past them and the deafening sound of rushing water roaring all around them. Only the high transom on the back of my boat prevented the river from swamping them completely.

Lynn jumped to the starter and miraculously, the motor roared to life. She threw it in reverse, gunned it hard and the boat came off the snag. The lower unit was apparently intact. Off they went again, careening down the Swift with Tracy in the bow using an oar to fend off trees, sweepers, the bank, whatever came close. The current was running so fast it was all they could do to avoid obstacles and get out of there.

They were headed toward a bend, riding the cutbank current, on a path that would take them into a head-on collision with the bottom of an upended tree with roots radiating out like a sun, and the size of a garage door. Tracy threw all her weight against the oar and deflected them just enough. The force knocked her back on her butt in the bottom of the boat.

Finally they threaded their way through the boulder field at the mouth of the Swift and roared into the Kuskokwim. What relief--and what an incredible river! Once the adrenaline wore off, they were both exhausted.

After lunch, the three of us went out in the inflatable Zodiac to explore some more small tributaries. We had been advised to check out the Tahloweetsik River, which empties into the Kuskokwim a few miles above the Swift. It is shallower and slower than the Swift, with eddies that support the shallow-water plants that moose love to eat. Lynn wanted to see how far up the Tahloweetsik River they could get, and look for moose sign. She wanted to do an overnight siwash camp (bare bones and silent, sleep with your gun) as soon as they found some sign. What she was looking for were things like trees with their bark rubbed off five to eight feet up, piles of scat that look like little mounds of raisins, hoof prints, tufts of hair snagged in the bark of trees, or the sounds of cow and bull calling to each other. The sounds of bulls taunting each other with insults and the clashing of massive antlers would come later in the season as the rut progressed.

We returned a few hours later, having seen more gorgeous scenery and picturesque side rivers, but no sign of large mammals roaming the area. We felt fairly certain that the best chance of finding moose would be up the Swift River. be continued...



Anonymous greens522 said...

"New log"

I love it. How very Yupik. I can almost hear the calm, weathered, drawl.

The story is great and I really enjoy how you tell it. Looking forward to the next installment.

Friday, September 08, 2006 10:46:00 PM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

What an interesting fact about the eagle.. i will have to remember that!!!

Saturday, September 09, 2006 8:48:00 AM  

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