Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Togiak-Part 1

This was one of the greatest adventures of my life. My Dad and I spent a year planning our Alaskan Odyssey. The plan was to spend two weeks in the bush, fishing, floating and camping. We took Alaskan Airlines to Anchorage Alaska when I was 13 years old. From there we flew in a commuter jet to Dillingham and then chartered a bush plane from Manakotak (Man uh coh tuck)Air(Dad could never pronounce it and the locals got a kick out of him) to the Atnarko River for a three day "warm-up" before hitting the mighty Togiak for a week. We had a Dan Wesson .44 Magnum (think Dirty Harry) for bear protection and a canoe that folded into a large duffel bag.

I'll never forget that first Bush plane ride. The pilot had a cigar clenched between his teeth and a gritty sourdough Alaskan accent. I got to ride shotgun and when I jumped in the plane, to my suprise and chagrin, I found a steering wheel in front of my seat.

"If I keel over and kick the bucket, you're takin us down young man", exclaimed our colorful captain. I gripped the steering wheel with sweaty palms as we flew headlong into a puffly marshmallow cloud. The plane shook as if possessed by a mighty monster. "Ya gotta watch out for them big white fluffy ones", he said. My stomach settled back down where it belonged and we landed without incident.

At the head of the Atnarko there is a secluded fish and game cabin. When we first landed, I remember swarms of mosquitoes. They were so thick you had to breath carefully lest you suck one up. I snagged a large silvery sockeye salmon that afternoon and the Rangers invited us over for dinner. It was delicious with wild rice and some other native herbs and spices mixed in. The Atnarko is a world renowned rainbow trout fishery, but when we visited, rains had swollen the river, spoiling it's potential. OH well, I wasn't looking for a trophy. I was looking for a bent rod and stiff forearms. The Grayling, Arctic Char and Sockeyes did the trick.
Pops and I paddled down the next day, drifting slowly and enjoying the unspoiled wilderness. Drifting in silence, we finally got our taste of seclusion. Floating for hours without seeing any signs of another human being. No trash, no jetsam, no artificial sound, just the pitter patter of dripping rains on luscious green leaves and the gentle background rush of moving water. When we stopped to camp, I recall the dampness. Starting a fire was an exercise in futility and so we quickly cooked our freeze dried meal and crawled into our tent.
The Tikchic Lakes are a series of seven natural bodies of water, interconnected by small streams like the Atnarko. The next day found us at the lower lake where we would camp and await the floatplanes arrival the following morning. Where the Atnarko dumped into the lake, we found our honey hole. All we needed to do was drop a Pixie Spoon over the side and we'd be hooked up with a fiesty Arctic Char, ready for battle. My Dad stopped long before I did I think and he sat back and just watched me enjoy the bounty of the deep blue Alaskan waters. At some point we called it quits and headed for the camp. It turned out to be the creepiest site I've ever stayed in.

We spotted a cabin on the near shore and decided to investigate. It turned out to be abandoned and moderately dilapitated. The roof sagged but offered a welcome respite from the rain. Inside it looked like some sort of varmints had claimed this as their home long before we got there. My Dad had the welcomed idea of pitching our tent inside, to protect us from any curious critters.
I wish I could say there was something concrete that spooked me; Bones, a grave marker, a humongous grizzly bear track, but the cabin betrayed nothing of its sinister scariness. All I can tell you is that there was a vibe. Like someone watching us from just the other side of the rainforest cover. What it was, I can only speculate, but the feeling was undeniable and omnipresent. Did some old trapper die a miserable death there? Was there a Sasquatch lurking in the shadows watching us? I'll never know but I can tell you that I was very uneasy and I remember it to this day. Dad shared my sentiments and we packed quickly and headed for a gravel bar to await the buzz of the air taxi. In the warm sunshine of midday, on the bank of the lake on the other side of the river, I finally shook off the creepiness and felt at ease again for the first time since we'd arrived at the ghost cabin.

Monday, February 2, 2009


When Tanner was around 2, he picked up his hatchet and held it up to his eye, peering down the length of the handle like a spotting scope. I asked him what he was doing. "I'm booming deer daddy."
You are?
Yeah, is there a deer over there?
I don't know do you see one?
Yeah, I do! I see some! I'm gonna boom em Daddy!
Moms was out of the house and I figured, what's the harm in a little innocent hunting safari.
I showed Tanner how to sneak up on his quarry.
Tanner, we have to be quiet.
Shhhhhhh! Daddy we're hunting, he whispers. His shoulders hunch up and he crouches down, moving like a cat. We use the sides of walls and doors for a rest, so he could get a steady "boom", just like I learned from Miami Vice years ago. We probably got us a good half-dozen deer that day. Give or take one or two. And they were all humongous bucks. I asked Tanner and he confirmed it.
OK Tanner, now you can only go hunting with Daddy OK? Never boom anything without Daddy there. Never boom anything or anyone OK?
OK Daddy.
And, ummm, no booming in front of Mommy OK?
I boomed um! Like this!
Tanner, listen to me carefully. No booming when Mommy is watching OK!
OK Daddy. Boom. Boom.
I could see our little harmless prank spiraling out of control. I never wanted to be that parent that let's their kids run around pointing fake guns at people (or shooting them with those nerf guns) and going pow. But hey, Tanner started it. I never told him to start booming. He's just a natural. It's in his blood. Or maybe it could be all those hunting shows we watch together.
Anyways, Mommy comes home and gets boomed and she's mortified. I realize now the full depth of my incompetent, irresponsible mistake but it's too late. I cling to my guns like Charlton Heston at an NRA rally.
Babe, he already knows what he's doing, we just need to teach him responsibly.
No! He's two years old. He's been saying that at Day Care! We have to teach him that's not right! Tanner, we don't boom anything OK! That's not nice. We don't say that OK?
OK Mommy.
I try to save some grace. Babe, you're right, he's not ready yet. I won't let him say that anymore.
Tanner and I are having a guy day. We're heading out to the duck club to pick up decoys in Heymans skiff. I've got his Lightning McQueen lifejacket and the dog so we roll.
Are we going fishing Daddy?
No, Tanner we're just going to pick up some decoys.
Yeah they're like, fake ducks. They bring in the real ones.
We're gonna get some ducks?
Tanner seems a little unsure as we step into the boat, but it's a flat bottom skiff and stable.
Hold me Dadda.
Ok, you ready?
I idle through the no wake zone and the boat jumps onto plane. We're zooming along, skimming the surface like a harley on asphalt and Tanner lets out his monster cry, "yeahhhhhhhhhhahhhh". It's a mixture of pure unadulterated joy mixed with a little terror. He hangs in there like a champ though he gets a little nervous when I wade away from the boat but he's stoked at all the ducks we're getting. He keeps saying, we've got lots of ducks ha daddy! And I keep piling them in the skiff.
Look at all the ducks we got!
Yeah Tanner we've got lots of ducks. He doesn't even talk about booming them or anything and I'm pretty sure the phase has passed.
We get home and Momma wants to know how much fun he had. Did you have fun at the Duck Club Tanner?
Yeah, we got lots of ducks. We BOOMED em!