Her body gently undulated in the thin, mirrored light of the Aurora as we rested there.
IT’S A FAIRLY YOUNG RIVER as fair rivers go, born in the mountains of far western Alaska before making its raucous way down from the heights and out across the tundra on its broad braided ramble to the sea.
I have never seen its mother lake Kagati, but I know the river well, having fished from its mouth along the coast of the Bering Sea where it dumps into Kuskokwim Bay, clear upstream past where the Bat Channel and the Old Main Channel converge and where the river is still a lean and precocious youth.
The bush plane was due in early the next morning to take me out. So on this last afternoon I worked my way upriver alone in search of one final encounter with the grand and noble salmon who call these waters home, leaving my own fresh tracks atop those of a big grizzly and crossing the broad, shallow bend on foot.
A wide and intricately interwoven river, it was even wider here where it paused to consider its next move, a hundred yards above a deep holding pool where the great chinook salmon could gain temporary respite as they neared the ends of their pilgrimages to find the places where they themselves had become Kings.
They are an ancient, innocent kind, these fine and honorable fish, their lives’ journeys arduous and long and constantly threatened by eagles and orcas and sea lions and bears, and most of all by creatures like me. For though voracious while still at sea, once they enter the rivers of their birth to spawn and die they are completely without blame, striking only to protect themselves and the embryonic treasures they carry.
On the other hand, the trout and grayling and arctic char are all predators, lying in wait for the little orange orbs of life the salmon have so diligently nurtured within their bodies and borne so far to deposit in gravel beds at their end of days.
For my part, I had come here to meet them all, face to face. These fish must be hunted, not just randomly cast to. For many days I had probed the great river with my fly rods and cameras, from its quick and nimble runs far upstream, to its wide gaping mouth, plying its rough and tumble currents and eddies and catching and releasing enough salmon and rainbows and char to satiate any normal fly fisher.
And I still hadn’t had my fill.
But now as I entered the last good hour before sunset on my last good day, I had no inkling that the river had saved her best for me and was about to grant one parting gift—a gift so elegant and serene that afterward I was completely overwhelmed and humbled by its grace and simplicity.
YOU SEE, all I had meant to do here was cross at the broad, shallow bend, then work my way down to the deep holding pool below. I was halfway across and nearly a hundred yards from either shore when they surprised me—three big, gnarly old king salmon, their broad shoulders glistening and their vibrant crimson backs half out of the water. Their fins and sides already showed the first tattered signs of doom, and their powerful tails flung sheets of spray left and right into the clear, side-sheering light, leaving momentary rainbows in their wakes as they rocketed past.
I had landed and released one of their brethren three evenings earlier, just a few miles upriver from the sea. Weighing over forty pounds, he had already changed into his dark crimson spawning colors; but he was still far fresher than the fish that passed me now. He’d taken me well over a hundred yards downriver and halfway into my backing three times before grudgingly agreeing to join me just long enough that I might ease the fly from his angry, pulsing jaw before reviving him and sending him on his way. So I already knew their power, and should not have been surprised by their speed now as they tore past.
As I stood and watched, there were suddenly two more, then two more again, then a group of at least a half-dozen coming straight at me, and I instinctively dropped to my knees in the swift but shallow current, hoping I hadn’t been seen. But I was too late, and they zagged left around me without breaking stride.
I shuffled three or four feet to the right where the flow was broken by a small, barely submerged boulder and eased up against it, sitting with my back to the current, the water lapping against my chest waders, and my fly rod held lightly across my chest in the crook of one arm as though it were no more than a wisp from a slender willow.
And here I sat, far out in the middle of this wild and audacious river with these wild and audacious fish.
The chill water from the mountains flowed steady around the small boulder and me, forming a shallow gravel bar that eventually extended for ten feet or more. My little nest was less than a foot deep, but the river on either side was swift and wide. The gravel in which I sat would occasionally shift slightly, one stone at a time it seemed, as though to remind me that my assigned place in the universe was tenuous at best, and that at any moment the river might rescind its kind permission for me to be here.
So I waited.
But I didn’t have to wait long.
For soon the salmon were again pulsing their way past, as though I were simply one more errant obstacle to be negotiated on their long journeys upstream, sometimes skirting so close that I could reach out with my bare fingertips and touch their royal scarlet shoulders as they passed.
By now my senses had become fully attuned to the rhythms of the river. I could see scores of fish undulating in the holding pool below, and I thought about how far we had all traveled to be here together at this one perfect intersection of space and time.
For my part, I had come only 7000 miles or so; I wasn’t sure exactly how far.
But I was certain the salmon had journeyed much farther since they had last passed this place years earlier as young queens and princes on their way downriver to the sea.
I would like to have known just how far their lives had taken them. But only God knew for certain, and He wasn’t talking.
But then again, maybe He was—in a tongue only He could help me understand, now that He had my full attention:
“You see that one salmon coming toward you? I know him well. His mother was small as Chinook salmon go, smaller than most, but she was particularly swift and cunning. On the other hand, his father was mighty. So once long ago, she in her diminutive essence and he in his strength and power made their separate ways up past this very spot where I have now set you. They eventually found the little side lead a mile upstream from here where they’d each been spawned, and they finally came together to make this very salmon, which—easy, you can touch him as he passes if you are cunning like the bears—as I was saying, this very salmon, which is on his way back to that selfsame place to do as his fathers and his fathers’ fathers have done for generations.
“Now, wasn’t that fine!”
And as I sat there, a part of all that surrounded me, He continued to reveal what I had come here not knowing, not knowing I needed, not knowing to ask.
Shrieking gulls swept the shoals below, picking off pale bits of flesh from the bodies of salmon whose work was done, while an eagle circled above me and then plucked a small char from the water and headed back upriver to a place only she knew. Off on the eastern shore, a sizable chunk of the riverbank broke away, crumbling and tumbling into the swift current to be transported downstream where its materials were more urgently needed.
I thought of the grizzly whose trail I had followed back on the gravel beach, and of how right it would have been for her to be sitting here instead of me, taking salmon one by one as they powered upstream against the current. Perhaps I had stolen her place, and even now she was anxiously watching me from a low clump of willows, trying to decide whether or not to challenge this territorial indiscretion by a creature she knew was far weaker than herself, yet one whose kind she had long ago learned to fear.
What could I do, where could I go, what could I say to her if she came, right and righteous in her complaint and fully capable of transforming me into mere protein, as she regularly did the salmon? Might she leave me alone and unmolested, or might she leave my few remaining scraps strewn downriver and along the far shore for the gulls and eagles and rainbows and char to clean up?
It was only a passing thought . . . nothing more.
For I felt no fear or trepidation, no sense of just how alone and exposed I was.
Not here. Not now.
To the contrary, I had never felt safer or more secure, sitting here in epic solitude at the center of all I could sense and all I could imagine, with the water flowing relentlessly around me, the tiny planet close beneath, and the limitless universe hovering above and around and within.
Were my body to be torn from my soul here, would not my spirit surely soar to the Infinite and become one with it, the two having never been more intimately entwined?
And so as the lingering sunset slowly dissolved into the brief Alaska night, the river continued to hold me close as I sat there warm among the stars, open to all Creation and tender to its touch, a tiny and inconsequential speck in the Greater Reality that now soared above me and around me as it heightened my senses and probed the depths of my perception.
I could sometimes hear the great salmon as they passed, so close they would spatter me with their spray. And once one of them paused in my lee, her body gently undulating in the thin, mirrored light of the Aurora as we rested there, she and I, alone together in the Cosmos.
I arose at first light, stiff and cold and complete. And as I slowly stumbled to shore and then followed my crumbling trail from the previous evening back downriver, I noticed there were grizzly tracks atop my own.
Michael Altizer’s books, THE LAST BEST DAY, NINETEEN YEARS TO SUNRISE, and RAMBLINGS—TALES FROM THREE HEMISPHERES can be ordered online at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or call 1-800-849-1004. The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions, critiques and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.
© MICHAEL ALTIZER