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Monday, September 12, 2011

Up North 3

Chapter 3


A Trip to the Store

   I got an early start the next morning. I hated to go off and leave all my stuff at the cabin without even a door to protect it. I hadn’t seen another person in over a month that I had been there but everything I owned other than the canoe and my pistol were there. I wasn’t used to the way the way the back woods of Alaska worked back then. Since that time I have learned to semi trust people that lived in the bush. I’ve had people stay at my cabin while I was gone and have never found any thing missing. Not only that but I have had any of the supplies they might have used either replaced at the time or at least no later than their next trip down the river. But on that trip I just wasn’t sure.

   I did pretty well that first day. It was hard paddling against the current but I was able to make decent time. I was even able to paddle through one set of rapids but as darkness started closing in I had still made it less than ten miles. I do believe I could have walked to town quicker that forcing that canoe up the river I just wouldn’t have been able to carry near as much stuff back. I found a little back water that would make a nice camp and pulled in before it got to dark to see. I hadn’t thought too much about what to bring on the trip as I was trying to keep the canoe as empty as I could so I’d be able to haul more stuff back. I really wasn’t looking forward to too many trips to town. I gathered some wood for the night, threw my sleeping bag down and decided to wander around for a bit. One thing I almost always carried with me was a plastic gold pan and I thought I try a couple of pans to see if I could find any color. I was walking along looking for a spot to sample a pan when I spotted something that was even better than gold. Right up next to a large boulder was a salmon. I didn’t even know enough about Alaska to even know what kind it was I just knew it was a big fish and I was hungry. I lay everything down and crawled out on the boulder so I was looking straight down and to my surprise there were at least four of them just hanging there in the water. I had no idea if this was going to work or not but I eased my hands down in the water just to the rear of them. Now, this was a little different than noodleing down home. For one thing, it might have been spring but that river was cold! It was like sticking your hands into ice water. The feeling started going away in my hands, my fingers were tingling and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep them in the water very long. For another thing the fish were right out in the open. I’ve caught catfish back home this way, in slow moving warm rivers where I could take all the time I needed. Down home you slip your hand slowly up the side of the fish and grab him with both hands right behind the gills. I didn’t think that was going to work with salmon but I was desperate. The first one I tried that with did one flick of the tail and was gone. Now I had to hold my hands in the water waiting to see if the others were going to take off. My hands were starting to feel like ice cubes by then and I knew I had to make my move quick. I moved my hand up and over the next in line. I figured I’d take a chance and grab straight down at him. I had to scoot halfway out on the boulder in order to get a good shot at him. I held on as long as I could then grab down at him. I had him! I had gotten a good grip across his back and had a finger in each gill. The next part took me half a second to realize what was happening. As I lunged down to grab him all my attention was on that fish. I guess I should have paid a little more attention to my belly. As I grabbed him I had slide forward just a little past the point of no return. Instead of me pulling him up to me, I was going down to him. Let me tell you, if you think that water was cold from just sticking your hands in it you have no idea what it left like to dive head first into it.

   I’m not sure how I did it but when I finally got my head back above the water I still had a hold of that fish. I was real lucky to be in that back water instead f out in the main channel. I was able to get my feet under me still hugging that fish and make my way back to shore. By the time I got back to the camp and to the fire I could not help but laughing. Now I finally knew how Stanley had felt during all the time he had fell into the cold water when we were kids. I built the fire up like a fourth of July picnic party stripped of buck naked again and hung my cloths out to dry. I still had to clean the fish and stake him out to roast before I could climb into my sleeping bag and try to get warm. That was a really great supper that night although I’m not sure I’d want to pay the price again. Throughout the night every time the fire burned down I’d wake up and every time I had to build the fire back up so my cloths would dry. It was not really an enjoyable night.

   The cloths were finally dry be the time the next morning came along. I was still tired from the night before so I was a little slow getting started. I had a little piece of the left over salmon washed down with cold river water (I’d forgot to bring coffee) packed up my sleeping bag and what salmon I had left in my sack and headed up river again. I had only gone about five miles when I came to the next set of rapids. Now on this set on the way down I had to unload all my stuff and walk around the rapids. This time as tired as I was I figure I could paddle like hell between the first set of boulders up to some calm water then go like hell to reach the top. Sounded like a good idea at the time, does that sound like a familiar saying for some reason? I took off paddling as hard and fast as I could and made it through the first set of boulders to the calm water just beyond. I set there getting my breath back and planning the next move. I figured that if I went like crazy to the right of the next boulder I could make it to the calm water beyond and have a look at the last set. As soon as I got my wind back I took off digging in just as hard as I could. I was going up a slope of water that leaned my canoe back so far I couldn’t really see where I was headed. I had done this before on the Snake River and managed to climb a four foot water fall but for some reason no matter how hard I tried to turn to the right it just didn’t feel right. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I felt the bow of the canoe touch the rock. I had been pushed to the left but not quite enough to end up in the eddy behind the boulder. Thanks to my sleepy mind I ended up compounding the problem when I tried to dig the paddle in on the right and spin myself around. Instead of just slipping around the boulder I ended up turning completely across the current. Even know I had screwed up it was still a surprise when I flipped over. The water was just as cold as it had been the night before except no I was in the middle of the river. I tried to hang onto the canoe as we went back down the rapids but was knocked loose when we hit the first rock. I started fighting my way to the closest bank trying to keep my head above water. By the time I made it to the bank I was shaking so hard I wasn’t able to stand up and had to crawl up far enough to get out of the water. Now I had a real problem. It was turning out to be a pretty warm day but it wasn’t going to get warm enough or fast enough to do me much good. Once I was able to stand up I looked around for the canoe but wasn’t able to see it anywhere I really hoped it was somewhere close or at least on the same side of the river. I had to get a fire going and I needed to do it quick. At least I was smart enough to carry a fire starter in my pocket. A fire starter is just a small metal box with a thin piece of steel that fits over your hand, a piece of flint and a small bit of tender. At least there was plenty of firewood around and even though the tender might be wet there was more of that around and the flint and steel work wet or otherwise. I was having a real problem with the shaking as I gathered the stuff for the fire. I was trying to strip the inner bark off a cedar tree to use for tender and kept dropping half of it plus it was too hard to hold tight enough to get the small fibers off. I ended up laying it on a piece of driftwood and scrapping it enough to get a small pile even by doing it that way I cut my hands several time but at least they were too cold to feel it. It took me four times to gather a pile together. I was shaking so hard by then every time I tried to pile it up I just knock it back apart. Then came the fun part, trying to strike the flint with the steel. The steel fit across the fingers of your hand and across the palm. You would hole the flint in you other hand and strike it a glancing blow trying to knock a spark from the flint. I was having trouble just concentrating enough to get the steel to touch the flint. The first time I managed to strike a spark I just sat there and stared at it forgetting all about blowing on it or even trying to feed more wood to it. I don’t really remember how many times I tried to strike that spark before it dawned on me that there was smoke coming up. This time I got my face down close and blew on it enough to start a small flame I was afraid to pick it up because I might just shake it back apart.

   It took me most of an hour to finally get that fire going enough to put out any real heat. I was only able to drag a couple of pieces of wood to it without having to stop and rest. I really hated to leave it but as soon as I had it going well with enough wood stacked on it to build another cabin I had to go look for the canoe. Thankfully I found it on a gravel bar about half a mile down the river. I had already found the paddle which I was sure I would never find again. My sleeping bag and the rest of the gear was still tied to the front seat and even though it was a little damp I would still be able to use it. It took me another hour to drag it back to the fire which had burned down to coals by then. I kicked the fire over to a new spot and leaned my canoe over the warm ground. I drug the biggest log I could handle over to the fire, added some more wood, put my cloths back out to dry, again. Then I climbed under the canoe in the sleeping bag and didn’t know a thing until about noon the next day.

   The next day was almost a letdown since nothing happened. There was no falling in the river and after having done that two days in a row I just don’t know how I was going to stand not running around naked waiting for my cloths to dry. I was a little gun shy of the river though. I could carry the canoe and what little gear I had at the same time so I had walked up past the rapids. Once I to the calm water above them I was surprised to find myself a little reluctant to get in the canoe and back out on the water. Falling in might be funny after it’s all over but not while it’s happening. The problem was that the only way to get around where I was would be either water or walk. I already knew I would be able to walk to town faster than I could paddle but there was no way I was going to be able to supply myself for the winter on foot I needed the canoe. In the end it was a practical thought that got me going again. I was on the wrong side of the river and I had to use the canoe to get to the right side. For the rest of the way to town I did walk around every rapid no matter how small it was and I was very careful each time I was on the river. I spent one more night camped by the river. I could have traveled at night and made it to town but after the dunking the day before I was just plain give out. I up bright and early the next morning in a hurry to get to town finally I was so close I could almost smell the coffee cooking. I still took it easy crossing and was in town by ten that morning.