It's dark still as you wind up the hill in the predawn of late fall. The Coastal Redwoods diminish as you gain in elevation, giving way to the mixed woods of birch, oak, madrone and manzanita. The leaves have started to turn color as you ascend the last ridge and drop down the other side. You get the first glimpse of the river far below you. The Trinity cuts through the valley, black and mysterious in the dim light. Steelhead have come back home, and your heart leaps at the thought of bringing one to hand. Standing there, perched above the river off the road with the sun still buried behind the mountains, you feel that you are truly home.
You fish the river, enjoying the slow and measured pace of swinging your fly through a familiar run. The trees tower overhead, filtering the crisp fall light as it cuts through the timber and finds the river, dappled and golden. Leaves fall quietly on the water through the warm October air while you work your way down to the best part of the run, the bucket. You should be focused now but your mind wanders away from you, back to the Peninsula, to the desolation of tundra and the sweet smell of Labrador tea.
When I first spoke to Rus on the phone he was blunt.
So you wanna be a guide in Alaska huh?
That's how it began. I wouldn't meet the man who would become my boss until several months down the road. As I stepped off of a helicopter in the middle of f*cking nowhere, the thought going through my head, what have I got myself into this time, I finally meet the big man in the flesh and shake his hand. The helicopter winds up, lifts off and disappears into the vast open country of South-Western Alaska. Now it's just me and these two strange dudes surrounded by a sea of wilderness. The next several days are pure grunt work. Putting up tents, digging holes in frozen ground and getting a crash course in Alaska bush etiquette while trying to acclimate to twenty hours of sunlight. It's exhausting and thrilling all at once.
Then we go fishing. Rus takes me and Chris (Tahoe) across the open expanse of tundra that separates our camp from the creek we will guide on. It's a march over the spongy uneven terrain to get to the water. I've never seen anything quite like it before. The ground looks like coral. It's covered in succulents and mosses with occasional flushes of flowers. Monks Hood, Chocolate lilies and Labrador tea. The latter is an evergreen shrub that grows everywhere on the open tundra. It resembles rosemary, and its scent is intoxicating. Stunted spruce try to make a stand but look conspicuously alone in the vast desolation that seems to stretch on for untold miles in every direction. We come to the river at a place where it makes a wide sweeping bend. It's small water by Alaskan standards, but anywhere else and you would call it a medium sized river. We walk upstream, with Rus pointing out important landmarks and describing the different sections, or beats of the creek.
There are well worn game trails that traverse the ground we cover. We follow them up river for what seems like miles, finally dropping down through thick stands of willow and alder to the creek. We fish, and the fishing is out of this world. Chris and I, both having never fished the water before know that we should try various methods to see what works. But we don't do that. We tie on mice, and don't take them off.
We fish down river, covering miles of water as we go. Leapfrogging one another on a day that is the perfect combination of pleasant warm weather with slightly overcast skies. Every inch of water that seems like it could hold a fish does. It is fantastic. The trout are so eager to eat the mouse that they miss it on the first, second and sometimes third attempt. We stop for lunch on a bank with head high grass and Chris spots a Grizzly traversing a ridge opposite us. The animal stands as high as a horse with 10 times the mass. I cannot believe its size. It makes the hill look small. We fish until late afternoon before heading back across the open tundra towards camp, the aromatic scent of Labrador tea swirling around our heads like smoke from a campfire. Later, I realize that it was probably the best day of fishing I've had in my life.
Once we start receiving clients the weeks all seem to blur together. Different species of fish make an appearance with every new week. Rainbows give way to Dolly Varden. Chum Salmon give way to Chinook. The bears come for the salmon and with each passing day encounters become more and more commonplace. By the fourth week the days are already noticeably shorter compared to when I first arrived. The three of us fish one more time together. We shoot down to the mouth of our creek in the sled, Chris at the tiller, the sun harsh and brilliant as evening sets in over Bristol Bay far to the west. To the east dark clouds mount an assault on Katmai and the snow peaked volcanic range that towers over the landscape disappears under a veil of thunderheads.
The next day we say farewell to our last group and begin to break down camp. I lift off from the gravel bar in the late afternoon and wave down to the two minute figures who stand below, waving back up at the bird as it banks hard over the camp that I called home for the last month. Back to King Salmon; to running water, cable tv, beer on tap, and doorways. The first half of the program is over, but the real show is yet to begin.
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