Tag Archives: The Last Salmon Forest

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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Filed under On the water, The road

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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Filed under On the water, The road

DEAR ALASKA

(fp note: since this piece was published as my submission to the TU Blogger Tour competition, I was selected by a panel of magazine editors, writers and other industry folks as one of the two writers that will fly to the Tongass this July and experience it firsthand.)

Dear Alaska—

I’m writing to you because I’m at a crossroads…and quite honestly, it’s about damn time we met.

You intrigue me, Alaska. You have for a long time. As a kid you were stories of sled dogs and Native people, hunting and fishing and smoked meat, caribou and salmon and grizzlies, rivers and mountains and daylight at night. You were adventure and frontier mythology. Life and existence and culture as pure and honest and close to the bone as the tendons and muscles under my own skin. I loved you for that—all of it—and held hope that there would come a time when I was able to place my feet on your soil and add my own weight to the heartbeat of your landscape and story.

Today as I write this, I read about the struggle you bear, as I’ve read for years now, and my hope to see you is even more intense. There is no way to feign awareness. Your story echoes from dirt road to marble hall. The burden of special interest and ruthless speculation carried on the backs of your precious and pristine resources, and my hope to join you is even more intense. You rise immense and proud and rugged and brawling, while the shortsighted reach into your heart and take and take and take shovelfuls in their never-full gluttony, and my hope to protect you is even more intense. Your people stand together. Your cultures stand together. Your mountains and rivers and forests and wildlife fight on, only knowing existence and survival in a smaller and smaller universe. And my hope to stand and fight with you is even more intense.

I read about the Tongass and her 17 million acres of spruce and hemlock and cedar and thousands of miles of pristine rivers and streams and breathtaking runs of salmon and trout. Your gem. A gracious open hand, sustaining her people and the world that extends from her feet. I’ve huddled and discussed over beers with others who have witnessed her beauty first-hand—like Beat poets wrestling with the philosophy of words and immortality—the immense value of her resources and her conservation. The importance of the Tongass 77 and The Last Salmon Forest and Southeast Alaska raising their voice in one unified and vital cultural song. I’m thankful that history has given us the wisdom to protect what we have in her instead of waking to suddenly find that we need to claw and fight to restore a fraction of what we’ve lost.

Alaska, I am at a point in my life where fighting for what’s important is not simply a good idea, it’s a necessity. Surveying the landscape of the next 40 years of my life, I have finally made that decision. My kids are old enough now that they have their own dreams and understanding of who you are. They talk about your landscape and your wildlife. They talk about going there to fly fish and explore with me, and my heart soars. They’re learning—and value you—because you are in our everyday conversations about the importance of respect and passion and care for the natural world we’re blessed to occupy. I think about the idealistic perspective I held at their age. At the end of the day, I know that my actions will speak louder and influence them more than any amount of talking I do. That is the point I guess, isn’t it. Our actions do matter.

It’s time we met, Alaska. I hope to see you soon.

Respectfully—
Matt Smythe

 

This is my submission to the Trout Unlimited 2013 Blogger Tour, sponsored by FishpondTenkara USA and RIO, and hosted by the Outdoor Blogger Network.

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Filed under Fatherhood and venison jerkey, In the woods, On the water