Tag Archives: Juneau

SHOOTING DARTS IN ALASKA

 

Hand-scrawled

When the day falls and the thin promise of neon rises, the brown liquor and beer go down easier, and with more truth, and there’s a vague life-or-death feel to the whole thing. I’m a pace-and-a-half from the dartboard, but I’m just as apt to walk to the docks—crowded sleeping silhouette-mass of mast wire, swing arms, buoys and hulls—and stare at the moon on the water, letting my girl run wild in my mind, or jump into a barroom mêlée between two hopeless drunk men over a homely drunk woman, if only to feel the blunt sting of one lucky punch finding my cheek before I start swinging till my knuckles are bloody.

The gravity of our last night north of the 49th parallel was settling in. A week in-flight, afloat, on-foot and on the road in a small portion of the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest now reaching its end. There was an other-worldly aspect to being there. Outside of the cruise ships careening to the sky from the main drag and local shoebox storefronts in the shadows plying their trade. Outside the chaos of the tourist-herds migrating from here to there and back in wide-brimmed hats and khaki shorts and sandals. Further outside. The rainforest mountains and calving glaciers in topaz brilliance. Further. An orca in the wide salt spotted from our pontoon plane. Further. Gauze-thick clouds swallowing snow-capped horizons and bear and wolf tracks on sand bars. Further, son. Go further.

Our days were spent surrounded by the old growth spruce and devil’s club and ferns and fireweed, in rivers thick with fish, from the salt to our feet and on to their glacial headwaters. Pinks and chum and dollies, but pinks mostly. Humpies. Angry, bright, toothy, headlong-in-leopard-spot haymakers on almost every cast. Fish six-to-eight pounds and the occasional humped male pushing weight to double digits. So many you could feel the hit on your swung fly and bury a fair-hooked solid strip-set before they hit your swung fly. So many that you let even shitty casts drift. So many that we made things more challenging by throwing dry flies – pink gurglers the size of hummingbirds—just to watch them rise and blindly fumble around after the fly behind those un-earthly kyped beaks. Our voices, hollering Humpaaaayyy!!! echoed up and down the river like kids with a new cuss word on the playground.

And now, a week spent and our last night just reaching good-and-loud, we’re throwing darts with frontier aim, like there are bears at the door and we’re warming up for the main event. Beer and brown liquor truth and the seven of us, rough-hewn and comfortable with the uncomfortable. Explorers, seekers, hunters, letting go of as much as we had gathered. We were hand-scrawled maps on bar napkins and midnight advice between rounds while the juke-box rambled and burned.

Park here.
Fish anywhere from there on up.
Can’t wait to see how many rods you bust.
You need a beer.

Prodigal sons making peace with tomorrow’s journey home, shouldering a dart board confidence and capability that snipes trip-twenties or the walk-off double bull and roars fuck yea bitches and shoves somebody. While the deck hands and locals go on spending paychecks, getting good and drunk and loud like there’s no tomorrow, avoiding themselves and happy for our distraction.

 

(fp note: this piece originally appeared a ways back in the fantastic online journal, Revive Fly Fishing. You should absolutely check them out.)

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WHERE THE ROAD NARROWS

Sitka spruce - Juneau, AK

When we piled out into the dust and cool of the morning we were barely a quarter-mile from the end of the road. Unlike the sprawling blanket of spruce and meadows covering the glacially-crafted elevations we’d seen from the windows of the de Havilland Otter the evening before, we were now face-to-face with southeast Alaska. Wilderness. The end of the road. I stood for a fistful of seconds, surveying the dense growth just off the front bumper of our SUV and turned to identify the one person out of the other six I’d need to outrun if that dense growth produced a brown bear.

To get here, our caravan out of Auke Bay, just north of Juneau, followed the blacktop as it wound its way along the coast, guarded by spruce, boulders and dense fern undergrowth on both sides. Between the trees, glimpses of wide saltwater, sharp-shouldered islands, a small, postcard-like scatter of boats seining for silvers and kings. The further we drove the road narrowed. We reached a flagman who held us up to follow an escort truck through a few construction zones. I hung an elbow out my window and watched the rumbling busyness of heavy equipment and men in hard hats and boots busting up massive knots of bedrock to widen and improve passage. The road narrowed even more. A few miles further, as we pulled into the lot, the road curved left ahead of us and disappeared into the immense green.

Pulling on waders, passing bug-dope, stowing water bottles and bear spray in our packs, lining rods and tying on flies like bets placed on a stud hand you haven’t even looked at—the seven of us fell into hopeful, impatient, nervous chatter about pinks, dollies, chum, brown bear and the immensity of what we were about to witness.

But in this moment I felt decidedly, suddenly, disconcertingly under-prepared. Packing lists, advice, cross-country flights and drives north out-the-road listening to bluegrass only get you to the water. Steps along the heavy-canopied peat and spruce paths and into the blind, milky artery flowing from glacier to salt would be my own from this point. Intentions, intuition, instinct and mis-steps would be my own. The road had narrowed more than the blacktop we drove in on. My mind was down to a game trail in a wilderness of its own. I was used to feeling inconsequential – a residential hazard of my upstate New York roots where everyone is holding onto their own small, posted patch of heaven in the face of gluttonous taxes, commercial development and manicured Stepford-suburbia sprawl. Our wild, undeveloped places seem to get smaller with every punch thrown in their defense. But in the grand scheme of Southeast Alaska, of the Tongass and it’s millions of salmon and spruce acres—my inconsequence had more to do with realizing just how small my existence on this planet really is. I was reminded of how I felt on trips to Idaho and Oregon, northern Michigan and the Keys, Colorado and Montana. I closed my eyes and returned to the quiet wonder of my upstate New York childhood when I would escape and spend my days haunting the dense, still-undeveloped shorelines of my favorite fishing spots.

The more I let myself embrace the weight of my existence vs. the magnitude and beautiful unknown of this place and this moment, the bigger I felt. I grew with each whistle that echoed into the primeval growth or pierced the brilliantly dense fireweed for brown bears in day-bed drowse, and each step that found the river bottom, alive and ever-shifting. I began to understand that my steps here, or anywhere on this planet, are not, in fact, inconsequential. Under the vigilant sidelong eye of a host of bald eagles and stoic indifference of snow-covered mountains, I discovered the end of my own road. And the narrower it got, the wider my horizons became.


This is the first of three pieces I’ve written since my trip to the 
Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is in the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and the other showed up on this blog a handful of posts ago. I’m working on getting back – even further north – so I have more to write about.

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THE THINGS WE CARRY

There, from here. --Juneau, AK

There was not much room for gear. A rod tube or two and small day pack each, plus the 5-gallon survival bucket, shotgun and a waterproof boat-bag. De Haviland Beavers are meant to get folks from remote point A to an even more remote point B with a well-planned just-enough. Unnecessary shit is exactly that and burns precious fuel. Add capricious weather and where you want to go and where you actually put down can be two vastly different stories. The former might be what you’ve pinned your hopes on, but the latter gets the pilot back to homebase in one piece and likely keeps you from having to spend a long, miserable night relying on that survival bucket and shotgun.

The prop whined to life. I sat in one of the four jump-seats in the back, headphones on, as the pilot unlooped the ropes from the cleats on the dock, pushed off and climbed in. With only six seats including the pilot and co-pilot, everybody had a window and not much to hold onto if oh shit entered the equation. A few adjustments and flipped-switches and we nosed southeast into the prevailing wind. I could feel the whole enchilada coming to a fevered pitch as we accelerated toward the end of the airport’s 1/4-mile bay. From my window, the billion crescents of reflected overcast light on the surface blurred by below and the grab-rope tied to the underside of the wing held at a waving 45-degree angle. I was surprised how soft everything felt as the plane hit its stride, pontoons now riding in the last half inch of water, and knew exactly the moment when the pilot would pull the yoke toward him to climb. Now, I said out-loud to no one but myself, a single muffled word I felt vibrate in my chest.

The plane left the water, rose and pitched west over the Mendenhall wetlands toward Admiralty Island under a forever-reaching low ceiling. Out over open water, I saw an Orca breach in the channel below. Commercial salmon boats were bathtub toys on slate-blue. A spruce blanket bristled softly over millions of miles of Tongass rainforest horizon, punctuated by the occasional bald or snow-covered peak. My thoughts turned to the possibility of two-foot dolly varden, fresh pinks, early silver salmon and brown bear. I thought about the constant balance of salmon and timber here – of life and livelihood, conservation and politics, new realities and old habits. I thought about my boys and their we’re definitely going there sometime, dad, right? dreams of hunting geese and catching salmon in Alaska. I thought about my own childhood dreams of seeing the wilderness that sprawled from the window my forehead now rested against. I thought about my life and how little I really understood about myself, in spite of how well I had thought I’d had my shit together. I thought about my marriage. I thought about the difference I could make in this world as a writer and lover of the outdoors, the difference I am making as a dad, and the immense amount of work I still need to do with both. I thought about how completely far away from everything I was and how rudderless that made me feel.

And then, as we descended into an unnamed bay framed by bleached stones and dark Sitka stumps that shouldered the rising tide, something let loose in my chest and I realized there was nothing that I was going to do – could do – to fix or understand my life right then other than to simply be where I was. I realized that I needed to be mindful of my own burden, the weight I carry around like so much unnecessary shit, burning all that precious fuel in the process, and possibly not being worth a damn to anyone or anything after it was all said and done. Like the plane, I only have so much room. Every day there was a small step toward quiet and simplicity. Both of which are tough to see in the moment. Harder still to hold onto when you’re a lifetime out of practice. But every day I was gifted these slow-waking epiphanies. Subtle reminders that it was OK to feel alone and rudderless because that’s what would teach me perseverance and the importance of paying attention to what’s right in front of me. The necessity and value of what is at-hand. It seems that for every journey I take and leave part of me behind, I bring home something far more meaningful, purposeful and easier to carry. I was in Alaska, and this moment, for the first time in my life. And that was exactly where I needed to be. 

 

This is the third piece I’ve written since my trip to the Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is going to be in the next issue of the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and, with any luck, the other will be landing in a printed magazine that I’ll leave unnamed until I know for sure. Jumping the shark and all that, you know. Oh – and thanks to Tim O’Brien for writing the brilliant book that I pirated the title of for this post.

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INHALING GIANTNESS

My journal holds a breadcrumb collection from the path I just traveled. Loosely penned notes, dates, times, temps, names. Hopeful reminders that will eventually congeal as sentences and full-blown thoughts, filling pages, taking me back. Glaciers and timbered mountain wilderness in evening light from the cockpit of a de Havilland Otter. Dappled sun and hushed spruce-path steps, blazing trails in six-foot fireweed, whistling to the possibility of bears. Tight line after tight line after tight line of toothy, big-shouldered, colored-up pinks throwing haymakers in glacier-gray water. Bald eagles in moss-laden riverside branches, stealthy and silent but for the occasional sharp cry to their mate around the next bend. Falling tide exposing rivers within rivers and soggy, shell-sand-grass-stone acres of what looks like the landscape of another planet. Catching bright, frantically strong and eternally hungry dollies amongst the pinks and chum, brown bear and wolf tracks on the sand bar behind me next to my own. Late night picnic table conversations and laughs and schemes over beers and bourbon about music, kids, work, fish, stories, environment, politics, food, love, loss and travel, punctuated by the occasional silent stretch, each of us retreating into our own thought-filled minds. Heavy morning mist clinging to the rising mountains, filling the valley, filling my nose and lungs as I stand, eyes closed, inhaling giantness.

Before I flew west, I was a long way from Alaska.
Now I’m back east, and I’m a long way from home.

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