Friday, March 13, 2009

The Togiak-Part II

The Grumman Goose circled Togiak Lake and touched down smoothly near the headwaters of the river. We unpacked on a sunny beach and waved goodbye to our pilot. As the drone of the engines faded into the wide-open Alaskan sky, it hit me: an infinity of suffocating silence. There was the slight gurgle of moving water and the wavy swoosh of wind, maybe a bird chirping, but the absence of any noise pollution whatsoever was both stifling and liberating. We were alone, that was sure. The nearest town, actually an Indian village, was about thirty miles down river. If I didn't understand why my Dad had spent the last year meticulously packing, planning and deliberating over this trek, it was definitely beginning to sink in now. Any mistakes from here on out and help would be a long timing coming, if at all.
The next day we floated and fished at our whimsy, stopping along gravel bars to eat and sleep and fishing until late into the morning. In the northern latitudes, during mid-summer the sun barely sets, dipping below the horizon for a few hours. It plays tricks with your biological clock and you find yourself engrossed in letting your spoon drift through the currents ripples, hooking fish and fighting with them until your arms tire. Often we wouldn't retire until well after midnight with no signs of fatigue or even a hint of darkness.
It was probably two days in before we saw our first bear. It was a long ways off across a swampy bog. It stood up and sniffed us and disappeared. We made our way down the river quickly.
I hooked a nice king salmon on our third day. We were standing on a beaver pond and I could see it struggling deep down under the cool clear water. I remember trying not to give it too much pressure and instead gave it too much slack. I watched in agony as it opened its massive jaws, shook its head and spit out the spoon. My Dad, for the first time in my life, didn't say a word when I yelled out "F(*&!".
The next bear we saw before it saw us. We were drifting around a bend and the bear was working it's way across the bank. It reminded me of a shaggy puppy, only slightly smaller than a VW beetle. "We can drift right up to it", whispered my father.
"Won't it get us?", I asked.
"Not if we're in the water", he replied, feigning confidence. I wasn't so sure but I remember distinctly that when it stood on it's hind legs, caught our scent and went "whooooof", our paddles both hit the water simultaneously, like those synchronized swimmers in the Olympics. The massive bundle of fur, muscle, claws and teeth wheeled and ran into a thick stand of Alders. What impressed me the most though, wasn't it's size, but it's quickness and grace. Retreating into the bush, it didn't make a sound. Maybe I just couldn't hear it over the pounding heartbeats in my ears!
We met the first of three other groups only minutes later. A make-shift fishing camp greeted us along the same bank as we had seen the bear. We told them about it and they replied that he was their pet. Only in Alaska. The second visitor was a game warden/biologist. She didn't check our licenses but preferred to talk about the weather. "You guys are pretty luck" she said. "Before this week there's maybe been a day and a half of sun. The rest has been nothin but rain. Last summer we might have had five days of sun all summer." Considering that we had been there five days and had only seen a light shower once, we did indeed consider ourselves very lucky.
My Dad hooked a lively Chinook later that day. He fought it for maybe fifteen minutes until finally he brought it up alongside me. I had the net ready and scooped it up, knocking the lure out as I jammed it into the small net. The tip of the salmon's nose hit the rim of the net and it's body circled in the mesh so that it's tale hit the other side of the round rim-it barely fit! We were both ecstatic.
The last day of the trip the river slowed into a slough's pace. I had all but given up on my chances of catching a mighty king, though we had landed many sockeye and arctic char. I sat back in the rear of the canoe and casted to the bank from an inclined position, lazy like the river. My line stopped and I thought I'd snagged a submerged tree trunk when I saw a huge tail flap into the air-fish on! I scrambled up and began the fight in earnest, trying to gain line on the beast as the canoe picked up speed. The clever behemoth was using the current to his hook-nosed advantage and it became apparent to my Dad and I that we'd have to pull over or we'd be pulled downstream forever. My Dad paddled for the nearest gravel bar and I hopped out, hoping we hadn't stopped too soon and I could find a way to slow the big fish down. I remember the line started to make this humming twangy sound as the big Chinook stretched it near the breaking point, my Dad standing helplessly next to the big fish in knee deep water with our pathetically small landing net. Finally I backed up the gravel bar until the fish ran out of water to swim in and my Dad pounced on it, wrestling the flopping behemoth up onto the pebbly shore.
We took pictures and measurements. 36lbs and 42 inches long if I remember correctly. I wanted to keep it but my Dad reasoned that we would be boarding the plane later that day and we were far from any freezer or cooler. I didn't realize then that trophies don't always have to be killed and mounted. The satisfaction I have now, knowing that big fish reproduced, outweighs any meal it would have provided us.
We arrived at a windswept tract of tin roof shacks named "Togiak". A "dry" (apparently you don't mix Eskimos and alcohol) village with a population of less than 100. The most distinct memory I have of that remote village was of two Eskimo children playing catch with a grapefruit sized boulder, occasionally clunking it off each others' heads and having the time of their lives. Maybe not much to do in that village for children too small to fish? Probably one of only a half-dozen sunny days they would enjoy that season; and to think that my Dad and I picked this exact week for our vacation over two years in advance. Sometimes you just get lucky.

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