A Shot to the Heart, Part 4
We started back to Bethel two days later, hoping to make it home in two days of travel, and hoping the weather would continue to hold for us. On the morning of our departure, Goosma showed up in a small skiff to commend us on our efforts and bid us farewell. He came into the cabin to get warm and drink some coffee and stayed for a long chat. He had come by the evening before while we were up the Swift, and finding the camp empty, helped himself to an inspection of our hunting endeavors. We were proclaimed to have passed with flying colors. He said we had done an excellent job of butchering, transporting, cleaning, trimming, drying, wrapping, and hanging. He called Henry in Bethel to let him know of our success and what a good job we’d done to keep sand off the meat. We were honored to receive Goosma’s praise; it is not lightly given.
We departed about noon with high spirits and high hopes for an easy trip home. The sky remained clear, but wind was really a problem on the river, and we were taking it in the face which made for a rough ride. After about six hours of traveling we were ready to get off the river and out of the wind, so we stopped a few miles above Napaimute, which is not far from Aniak, the half-way point.
We were on a very straight section of the Kuskokwim which runs due east-west for a couple of miles. In the center of this stretch we pulled to the south bank and made camp in a stand of birch that was quite a little hike up the long steep bank, but which had an excellent view. We were about 20 feet higher elevation than the river, and across it we could see three successive rows of progressively higher mountain ranges, and then an incredible sky.
The Coleman stove and a pot of beans had been among the first things off the boat, and by the time we finished hauling in and setting up camp, dinner was hot and ready. A deep red sunset exploded to our far left, directly down the river; the water seemed to flow like blood from the setting sun. The transition to night was quick, reminding us that winter could start to happen any time now.
As the darkness grew complete, the row of mountains in front of us became a proscenium to the most incredible night sky. The Big Dipper rose, crashing bright right up the center of the stage, backed by stardust to infinity. The whole night sky seemed to hold its breath waiting for the moon to rise when, with a whisper and a crackle, there were suddenly Northern Lights dancing all across the sky in front of us! Wavy sheets of crackling blue-green energy, flowing, moving and shifting as if blown by the breath of the Great Spirit. It was totally mesmerizing to sit and watch, with the river flowing by at our feet, reflecting it all. Tracy and I sat together for over an hour, watching the display in silence, each lost in her own thoughts and happy to be sharing such an incredible experience.
The amazing wave of good fortune that had smiled on us throughout the trip continued to give us blessings all the way home. The weather stayed clear and, though colder than on the trip upriver, still very pleasant to travel in. The river was shallower and we found a few sandbars, but we never got stuck. The gas was expensive ($5.00 per gallon in Sleetmute), but at least it was there when we needed it. Editor’s note: this was in 2003; in 2006, gas was $7.00 per gallon in Sleetmute. The current, and our increased skill in reading the river, carried us home faster than we had left it, and we made the trip in two days.
It was just about dark, 9 pm, when we rounded the last bend and entered the small boat harbor, and I was reminded of Michael Faubion’s song from his album about life in Bethel, Paris on the Kuskokwim:
“…when you’re coming in from Kwethluk,
around the river bend,
the Bethel lights are a beautiful sight,
Paris on the Kuskokwim…”
After two weeks in the wilderness, Bethel’s lights did seem like Paris. By the time we pulled up on the beach and got out of the boat, I understood the feeling of men who jump off a ship to kiss the ground of their homeland. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Three women went far up the river and made it home safely, moose and all.
Labels: Tundra Life