In the mornings I would awaken in my tent, surrounded by the warm glow of Alaska softly seeping in through its walls, then get dressed and gather my meager gear for the day ahead, slip into my waders and make my way with Leota down the trail through the willows and cottonwoods to breakfast and the boat. We would spend the day on the river with the salmon and the trout and the eagles and the great Alaskan bears. In the evenings I would return to my tent.
It was a warm and soothing tent, its walls the color of thinly shaved mastodon ivory, formed on a Conestoga frame with a clean wooden floor, a simple door on one end and a small translucent window on the other.
There were two single beds. One I used for sleeping and one for organizing and staging my clothes and my gear. Two small wooden tables sat at the head of each bed, and on these tables I kept my extra leaders and tippets, fly boxes and cameras, along with my water bottles, shaving gear and books.
The beds rested on wooden frames set on upturned galvanized buckets at the corners. My thick foam mattress was covered with soft flannel sheets and light layered quilts, and blankets of cotton and wool.
My bed was enclosed with a full-coverage mosquito net suspended from the internal tent frame, which I would pull down around me at night with great diligence, and when I returned from the river each evening Shasta would have made my bed and stashed the netting overhead, loosely wrapping it across its own suspending cords.
It was a lovely place to take refuge at the end of a long day upriver or down, discreetly tucked into the trees and bushes where it was protected from the wind and the glare of the water, and quiet except for the muted hum of the ever-present mosquitoes, which I took great care to keep outside my door.
Shasta’s little brown and ivory spaniel, Leota, was always waiting for me each evening when I returned from the river, and she would accompany me up the trail to my tent and drop her green tennis ball at the same place. I would toss it off into the bush where she would quickly find it and be back at my side by the time I reached my door, much to the delight of us both. “Leota” is a name from the Blackfoot language and means “Prairie Flower.” Shasta had named her beloved little dog after her grandmother.
Once at my tent, I would stand my fly rods against its outer wall to dry, retrieving them after supper and breaking them down and bringing them inside to clean and re-rig in preparation for the next day’s work. I’d remove my fingerless gloves only when I had stepped safely inside, away from the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were one of the constants, like the willows and the wind and the whisper of the river and, of course, the light.
The Light. It would begin to return from its brief absence around 4:30 each morning and would not begin to fade until an hour or so after midnight. But even then it was never completely dark, even on a moonless night, and often I would pull my black stocking cap down over my eyes in order to sleep. It was as integral a part of my cocoon as my pillow and blankets and netting and sleeping gloves.
It was a warm and secure place, my tent, not only for my body but for my spirit as well, and even when the temperature dipped into the 30s outside and the rain fell soothingly on its outer surface, within my tent I was cozy and comfortable and dry.
There was always water in my flasks, and light from my lantern by which to read and write and organize my gear for the next day’s fishing, and bolts and hangers from which to suspend my waders and coats to dry as I slept.
It was a profound place to sleep, and most nights it would rain softly for a few hours, the whispering patter that resonated through the walls as comforting and rejuvenating as the sleep itself.
It was vintage sleep, deep and whole and never restless, even after the most trying days casting large flies and heavy sinking-tip fly lines into the occasional squalls that bore upriver off the Bering Sea.
And then there was the wind.
The Wind. It would begin to build, the mere breath of a breeze, days and even weeks before gaining maturity somewhere out along the steppes of Siberia far to the west. It would then turn and fling itself across the Bering Sea in one great sweeping gesture of fury and flight, crashing headlong across mountainous waves churned into froth by its own malice, constantly swirling so as to maintain and magnify its effect on the defenseless continent to the east that was protected only by tundra and grass and paltry threads of a forest dwarfed by the elements and whose initial mountain defenses lay 80 miles inland.
But then one insidious seam of its wrath would begin probing the coastline, searching for any weakness it could detect. Like biting salt spray in a fresh open wound, it would finally discover a gap that fit its purpose and plunge its cold flaming edge headlong upriver, making its way around and across the sinuous bends of this otherwise peaceful watercourse, where it would then rip the river’s surface into a penetrating spray that sought any imperfection it could find in my coat and hood.
It would even work its way behind the polarized glasses that shielded my eyes from the piercing glare of the light as I stood facing its full force, breathing in Siberia in all its bitterness.
But still I persisted, casting into its teeth, my fly line hugging the thin layer of relatively stable air that lay cushioned between the surface of the river and the wind’s exposed underbelly. Sometimes the line flew smoothly out over the surface, its tight, looping thrust remaining perfectly intact as it delivered the fly to the precise point I had targeted. But sometimes the wind would discover my treachery and catch my cast in mid-course and crash down hard upon it in its resentment and anger, spoiling the precision of the line’s compact, surgical arc and forcing me to cast anew.
It was at such times of perfect imperfection and chaos that I realized the entire universe is still struggling in one great act of giving birth, to what end or beginning I could not fathom. Except to know that, once completed, it would indeed be as the Creator intended—unencumbered by the wind and the quaking earth and other such processes of creation under whose influence it currently exists, pristine in every detail and free from the foul forces that even now interfere with its forming.
It was during these moments that I longed for day’s end and looked past my obligatory supper to the quiet hour when I could return to my tent and my books and my sleep.
The Sleep. I prepared carefully for sleep, making certain all my gear and attire for the next morning were properly organized and could easily be accessed when I awoke in the thin light of dawn. I made sure that anything I might need during the night was at hand on the small wooden table just outside the mosquito netting above my head.
There was actually very little I might require were I to temporarily awaken—just my glasses and flashlight, and my pen and little notebook; and one of my water flasks and watch, for I did like to know how close dawn had crept if I awoke during the night and, more importantly, how much sleep remained.
I would lay the spare coat that had become Leota’s bed on the floor beside me and then lift down the mosquito netting that Shasta had draped over itself as she made my bed during the day, making certain it was securely tucked in around the foot and back of the mattress where it butted up against the thin curved wall. Then I would ease into bed and pull the netting down around the outside and over my feet and head. My old stocking cap and open-finger gloves were stashed beneath the pillow, and I would slip them on and pull the covers up around my shoulders and would most likely be asleep before Leota had stopped circling and settled into her own bed.
I slept long and I slept deep, sometimes catching and re-catching the same trout and grayling and innocent salmon I had caught during the day. I was always aware of Leota’s gentle breathing as she slept, and sometimes my hand would find its way outside the mosquito netting and she would half awaken and nuzzle it and I would scratch her head or cup my fingertips into the hollow at the base of her ears and it would remind me of Betsy, my own little Brittany.
Betsy and Carly had overlapped by a year and a half, and I still have films of them playing together when Betsy was old and grey-muzzled and Carly’s hair was just beginning to curl.
Mary Jane and I had brought Betsy home as a puppy on the first Friday evening we’d lived in our very first house. The following morning I had taken a picture of her in the front yard, such as it was, sitting in the fresh straw beside a small, freshly planted oak tree.
Thirteen years later, on the last weekend we’d lived in that house, the grass was rich and thick where formerly there had been only straw, and the once-young pin oak was now 25 or 30 feet tall. And on that final Saturday morning, I had carried my little friend a mile across the south face of Bluff Mountain and buried her high overlooking the valley where our footsteps cannot be numbered.
I buried her above a lovely little spring surrounded by laurel and rhododendron in full bloom in a place she and I had discovered years earlier when we were both still nearly pups. We had hunted that little swale countless times through the intervening years, sometimes pausing there to eat our lunch and have a short nap, and often we’d shared a deep drink together shoulder to shoulder from the same pool where now I knelt alone and washed my hands and arms after I had pulled the moist soil over her and firmly pressed it down and covered it with leaves.
She had died with her dignity. She had died in my hands, my head against her head as I whispered “. . . it’s okay . . .” over and over in her ear and grimaced in a useless attempt to hold back tears as Dr. Williams loosened the tourniquet and emptied the quieting drug into the vein in her foreleg, and for one long liquid moment her spirit had passed through my own to mingle with the spirits of those who together we had hunted and together we had loved. And then I was alone.
Now as I lay here in the darkness scratching Leota behind the ears I realized that midnight had come and gone, and once again it was the 17th day of July. I smiled as I realized that life does indeed have its symmetry, and I quietly whispered “. . . happy birthday Be’sy Dog.”
Sometimes an idea or a fragment of a verse or poem would nudge me far enough into consciousness to compel me to reach outside the mosquito netting for my pen and the little pocket journal I carried nearly everywhere, and in the morning when I would try to decipher what I’d written, my shaky handwriting was often difficult to read.
I would awaken gradually, bathed in the gathering light seeping in through the warm inner walls and reach up and out through the netting at my head and feel for my watch, and it seemed always to read 4:53 or 4:54. For a while I would drift aimlessly between sleep and the waiting river, until a question or a thought would begin to gather itself in earnest.
Then I would remember where I was and why I was here, and eventually the insistent river would begin to call or I would hear Leota shuffling her feet at the door. I’d sit up and carefully disentangle myself from the warm covers and the mosquito netting and my dreams, and eventually my stocking feet would find the cold wooden floor and I would stand and stretch and ease outside into the chilled Alaska dawn, where the mosquitoes were always happy to greet me.
Stepping back inside, I would then get dressed and gather my meager gear for the day ahead, slip into my waders and make my way with Leota down the trail through the willows and cottonwoods to breakfast and the boat. We would spend the day on the river with the salmon and the trout and the eagles and the great Alaskan bears.
In the evenings I would return to my tent.
NOTE: This is a chapter entitled “THE TENT” from the author’s widely acclaimed fly fishing book, THE LAST BEST DAY. Now well into its second printing, a limited quantity of this book is still available from Sporting Classics at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or simply call 1-800-849-1004.
You may also purchase THE LAST BEST DAY through Amazon by simply clicking on the book cover below.
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© MICHAEL ALTIZER