I set out for our rendezvous spot, the Lower Skilak Lake Campground, at six thirty in the morning. The cabin I’d booked to wait out the frigid, rainy night appeared close on the map, but the scale of Alaska is always misleading. When we arrived, the weather was so dismal that I felt more like a soldier resigned to marching than an eager fisherman on one of Alaska’s most famed rivers. Hank sniffed around eagerly, unfazed by the rain and hot on the trail of some bear or moose smells from the night before.
Our boat guide, Andrew, greeted us eagerly. It was seven forty. I was ten minutes late and not glad about it, but he was glad to see us and had the subdued cheery nature of every man who is paid to help visitors catch fish. We loaded up the boat and I surveyed the skies and my equipment grimly. Nothing I own, and certainly nothing I packed, could keep a man warm or dry in conditions like this.
“That’s a nice Land Cruiser. What year is it?”
“It’s an ’89.”
“Oh, of course. I’ve got an ‘85 in my driveway. You want it?”
I looked over at his new Toyota Tundra pickup truck with a bit of longing and laughed
“The last thing I need is another one.”
“YEEE-TIII cooler!” He remarked with the type of almost-whistle that all country folk do when the first person rolls into town with some newfangled car or gadget. “How do you like that thing? They want me to be an ambassador for them but I don’t ever use coolers and I don’t really like selling stuff.”
“It is truly amazing, it keeps my food cold until I can get to the next motel or gas station that sells ice. Even in Utah, I could leave it for a few days and my yogurt didn’t spoil.” I felt self-conscious and lame at the contents of and demands I place on my overbuilt ice chest.
“Pink bike huh? You got a wife or a girlfriend with you?”
“No, they’re both mine. Road and mountain bikes.”
And just like that, we were in the boat and ready to power across the glacier-formed Skilak Lake and into the spot where the Kenai River resumes and fabled trout tempt the angler at every riffle and eddy. Then, in his official cheeriness, Andrew asked for the number off my fishing license. I stammered and realized I hadn’t printed one off, let alone confirmed I paid for one for that day. I said I’d be back and awkwardly waddled back towards the parking lot in my waders, seeking enough cell service to scroll through my email. The rain drops pelted my phone screen and clicked buttons at random like an annoying older brother might over a younger sibling’s shoulder, and I struggled to maintain enough connectivity to make any progress. After five minutes that felt an eternity, I returned and read him the number of my newly-purchased license. Then we set out somewhat silently, him sizing me up as the lone customer in his three-person boat, with dog. I futilely clung to a tiny, warm spot somewhere tucked deep in my soul, between my navel and my spine. It fought righteously against the wind and our forward progress. We were planning a nine-hour float, and I was already doing the fraction-math that a marathoner does as they hit the physical wall around mile 20. We had been in the boat for all of seven minutes.
I surveyed my surroundings and tried to admire the staggering beauty and scale of Alaska, weather and all. It is a foreboding place that teems with life, one which seems to have dozens of rivers as large as the Mississippi and endless, connected State and National forests larger than Rhode Island or perhaps some much bigger state. The water beneath us had the characteristic turquoise of glacier-fed streams, though at a volume that was mind-bending. The current was swift, but the water so deep as to render it still to the onlooker. We finally reached our first promising fishing spot, and I was stunned by how nondescript it looked from above. Nothing that I knew about trout fishing would apply on the Kenai. I made a handful of roll casts, realizing with horror that this was the type of fly fishing that I care for the least: a lengthy and complex rig with a strike indicator on top and a passive fly swinging beneath, so that the fisherman does little but manage the line in hopes of offering a convincing drift to the picky and smart trout feasting on buffets of salmon eggs and carcasses beneath. I felt despondent and I felt the sleeves of my base layer already soaking through with water. After twenty minutes of no strikes, Andrew offered from the back of the boat, “I’m going to move us into that shallow spot and set up a different rig for you to try.”
I nodded. We pulled into the shallows, and the dizzying pace of the water just beyond the barrier island gave me something to focus on.
“I think that big eclipse is starting right around now,” I offered.
“What eclipse?” he asked me.
“Oh, there’s a big one happening down in the Lower 48 right now. Lots of places are going to get a couple of minutes of total darkness like somebody turned the lights out. Everyone else will see those crazy moon-shadows over the sun.”
“Oh, weird. Haven’t heard about it.” He continued tinkering with the thin leader and a different sized and colored bead, which was meant to imitate a different species’ salmon egg. My fingers could barely move at all.
I am always uncomfortable with the arrangement of fishing with a guide. It involves them doing lots of things I could do myself, and robs me of one of my favorite elements of fishing, which is trying to figure out a body of water for myself—where to fish and with what flies and which presentation techniques work best. Then again, the Kenai River is so large and the woods so thick that it is all but inaccessible without a boat. And in Alaska, it is worth paying to have a fishing buddy who is slower than you. So, I sat and shivered while he tied on a new fly. I let Hank climb out of the boat and he promptly found some dead salmon on the shore to roll in and lick.
We set back out into the current and maintained our rapid, steady drift as I slammed the spots I was told to with drift after drift of artificial salmon egg. My mind splintered into dozens of pieces. I thought of the eclipse, of the totality that so many people were experiencing, of how at some previous point in my life I’d believed that I would be heading south from Alaska already and would very likely get to watch the momentous occasion from a rural spot somewhere in Idaho or Oregon. I wished we could see even the tiniest fraction of it from our boat in the Kenai River, but the sky was so thick with rainclouds that if somebody told me the sun no longer existed, I would believe them. I thought about how wet my undershirt was getting and genuinely wondered if I’d have to cut the day short. I thought about how vast and wild Alaska is, and that in spite of that fact we’d already seen two other boats of fisherman on the same river as us and the clock had yet to reach half past eight. I wondered about Andrew, who was an unsettling balance of silent and cordial, and exuded toughness in everything he did.
I looked deeply inward to find a good reason to be on the river, and I felt frigid and dramatically unprepared for the weather. Finally, there was a hard strike at the drifting egg pattern that I managed to meet with a solid hook set in spite of my low core temperature which was slowing my thoughts and reaction times alike. The fish used the substantial current to its advantage and fought much harder and bigger than its size suggested it could. Surviving in Alaska requires a different composition, which is as true of fish as it is of humans. When the fight played out, I netted my first ever Dolly Varden, a char species in the same strange Salmonid family as lake trout and brook trout. Finding another rare sub-arctic fish species rendered the suffering momentarily worthwhile and pushed the lunar pilgrimage happening to our far south well out of my mind.
After its release, I could tell Andrew felt relieved. He had called me the night before to confirm we were “still on for tomorrow,” which struck me as a veiled attempt to temper expectations, or perhaps offer me one final out in the face of the horrendous weather before us. Less than an hour into the actual fishing, we’d already avoided the dreaded skunk. A wave of levity washed over the boat.
Ever the man of few words, he noted, “Well, now we know what they’re eating.”
This is classic fisherman speak. Fish are just as varied and picky as humans, and while one Dolly Varden might find a size 7 King Salmon egg appealing, its Rainbow Trout neighbor one rock over might think the eggs all look unappetizing and wait for an unconvincing flesh fly before deciding he’d rather like to try his chances. Man can, will, and often does spend entire days psychoanalyzing the fickle tastes of fish. There is somehow more definitive promise in a halfhearted tug than in all the spoken words in the world.
He used his sturdy arms to row the boat against the massive current and put us in position for another good drift over the sandbar. It was eerie to watch the subsurface swiftly move from deep blue to visible sand and rock before rapidly melting back into the unknowable glacial blue. Hank let out a strange yawning moan, followed by a few more, then shook vigorously for dramatic effect.
“I think he’s getting pretty cold. That makes two of us,” I confessed. It was difficult to admit weakness in the bow of Andrew’s boat.
“Is your jacket not getting the job done?” He’d alternated between admiration and skepticism when he eyed me gearing up in the parking lot.
“I’m afraid not. I think it’s this outer shell—and it’s just letting the water soak through all the layers.”
“Well, let me see what I’ve got in my layer box.” He produced a bevy of tattered fleeces and a gloriously technical-looking rain shell. “It’s my wife’s so it’ll probably be pretty snug on you, but try that.”
I stripped down to my sopping undershirt and then donned every piece he offered. The blue and black checkered flannel he’d draped Hank in while I went to download a fishing license laid soggy and limp on the floor of the boat. “That flannel is probably the warmest thing in here, if it’s not too wet yet.”
We both climbed out of the boat to roll down our waders and pee. Hank found another salmon but obeyed when I called him off. I wondered where the bears were in light of how many massive flopping salmon there were along the shore. Another bonding moment complete, we climbed back in and pushed into the silent current once more.
After a few minutes of pathetic roll casting in the relentless rain, he broke the silence by uncharacteristically speaking first.
“So, what exactly made you pack up and drive all this way? Just kind of figuring out what matters?”
“Something like that. I was on one of those tracks that people end up on, following all the right steps, and just couldn’t get it to sit right. It looked good but it didn’t feel good. And I got hit by a car on my bike which really highlighted all of that. I had a lot of great things going but I kept on making the wrong choices.”
“Hit hit hit!”
I was staring at the raindrops cannonballing on the water’s surface. Andrew noted that I missed a fish with exasperation. I guffawed. “Yeah, I understand that.” He softened. “I was in a serious relationship with my college girlfriend. We’d been dating for almost six years, living in the suburbs outside of Pittsburgh, working towards making all of that permanent. Then we went to a career fair and I learned about an opportunity to teach at rural schools in Western Alaska. It changed my life. I moved out here a couple of months later. She just didn’t get it.”
“So you were a teacher then?”
“Yeah, I was an elementary school teacher. I did that for four years once I moved out West, too.”
Beneath his cap and burly beard, I saw something a bit different than I had before. He regarded me with a similar change; there was no longer a sense of transaction among us. When humans are driven towards the water, towards fish and flies and a lack of guarantees, it is the most hopeful thing they can do. Seeing fish does not mean you will catch them, even hooking one does not mean it will reach the net. So often the need to fish stems from a sense of loss. Of lost brothers in arms, of lost loves, of lost hope or faith, of lost trust in whatever one’s roots are planted. And casting a fly towards the water is a physical act of hope, of search, of restoration. So it was, sitting in the boat careening downstream towards the place where the Kenai meets the sea, whilst salmon resolutely marched towards their deaths below us. Beneath the frigid rain, physically miserable and morally wounded, we were defying all the odds and passing time optimistically.
The fish were hard to come by. I hooked into a few and missed a few more, but none that made it to the boat were particularly remarkable, save for the new species and disproportionate fights of fish who spend their whole lives swimming up a very powerful stream. I broke the silence with an easy sequitur.
“So, do you hunt, too?”
“Oh yeah! Pretty much every piece of meat my family eats. I get tags for everything. Caribou, bear, Dall’s sheep, moose.”
Even his touching moment of vulnerability did little to change my sense that Andrew is one of the most badass men left on this planet. I pried more out of him.
“A lot of the places we hunt, you aren’t allowed to drive. So I hike in or ride my mountain bike and pull my kids in this little trailer, it’s called a Burly, have you heard of it? When I get a caribou I just dress it out in the field and then strap the meat everywhere I can, the handlebars, the sides of the trailer, my backpack.”
I tried to picture this scene as we floated ever faster through a narrower and deeper stretch of the river. For the first time in a few hours, I realized that the eclipse was certainly well over and people were posting photos and Tweets and then sitting in traffic en route back to their normal lives. I squinted up towards where I thought the sun might be and got hit in the face with several large raindrops. We were witnessing our own version of totality out on the river that day. Andrew lives in a more or less constant state of eclipse, hiding in piney shadows stalking moose, at the helm of a drift boat in the Kenai River, behind a desk in the counseling office of his town’s high school. I chuckled almost-audibly as I recalled one of the first things he said when we got in the boat.
In a world that concerns itself more than ever with the lives of others, in a digital ecosystem wrought with participatory, mimetic ‘engagement,’ finding someone in North America who knows nothing of the eclipse is rarer than finding an unpanned gold nugget left in Alaska’s creeks. Although perhaps not quite as rare as finding a trout that hadn’t seen a dozen or more artificial salmon eggs drift quickly by its nose that morning.
The river narrowed and we seemed to pass more boat launches, as it grew ever more crowded the further downstream we went. The rain and cold dampened sound and spirits alike, so it was a strangely silent type of crowd, congregated like ships in the night on a single stretch of water situated on an Alaskan peninsula that’s larger than several states. It snapped me out of my reverie and reminded me that this really is not my favorite type of fishing. Between the weather, the complicated rigs, and the crowds, it felt far more dutiful than peaceful. And yet, this is often when we dig the deepest and find the most hope, fair weather fandom be damned.
Just then, a riotous tug on my line.
I already had. We had switched to a massive flesh fly, in hopes that only large fish would be willing to try it. Andrew prefers quality to quantity, at least in my company, and I was inclined to agree on such a day and river. The previous two fish that I landed on the flesh pattern were small but admirably ambitious, perhaps hoping to take a bite instead of swallowing the whole thing, but whatever was on the other end of my line now was clearly capable of eating a larger bite of salmon than most humans would dare. The line soared outward as if I had a marlin hooked. The trout rocketed to the surface and did a tail dance. It was massive and cunning, using the current to its advantage and running in multiple directions so I had to be wise with my fight to prevent slack in the line.
Several nearby boats watched curiously as my reel sang a high-pitched stress song and my rod bent nearly in two. In light of the weather, my elation was dampened, as was my adrenaline. This was mostly good. It prevented over-exuberant motions that might snap the line, and it even prevented me from getting ahead of myself in the art of the fight, or even in the mindset that landing this once-in-a-lifetime fish was a foregone conclusion. These are the moments that make hours, even days, of discomfort utterly worthwhile. The fish fought and fought hard, causing me to laugh in awe and exclaim “Wow” and “Dang” repeatedly. My forearms trembled from tension after spending the previous five hours on the precipice of frostbite. I used my fingertips to slowly add a bit of resistance to the already-substantial drag the reel was exerting. I didn’t want to let the fish reach the main current yet again. He had pulled so much line out that it was getting truly difficult to manage all of it and keep up with his rapid movements.
Andrew paddled the boat towards a cove so there’d be one less directional force to work with. As he did, the fish changed direction, and just like that, the rod straightened. The fish was gone.
I was barely fazed by it. After such a long, trying day, it was hard to feel any additional negative feelings. There was a vague sense of loss, like a tongue prodding at the spot where wisdom teeth used to hide before their excision. But physical chilled numbness eventually seeps into the spirit, too. And so I stood, in motionless awe, as I reeled in dozens of yards of line. There was an almost-palpable sense of disappointment in the boat, though the rain prevented it from bridging the gap between Andrew in the captain’s seat and me standing in the bow.
“It’s going to take a while before it sinks in how badly I just fucked up.”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had that thought, I might have a cabin on a river in Arkansas by now.
Hank dropped his front paws off the side of the boat as he realized there was no longer any action to observe. The fishermen in the boat nearest us resumed fishing silently. Andrew tried to temper the reality in his typical understatement.
“That was a pretty good sized trout.”
There are two ways a fisherman responds to losing a massive fish. Dejection to the point of quitting for the day or a frenzied hope, as if that one fight proves that there are quite literally plenty of fish in the sea and you’ve cracked the secret code to catching all of them. Both outcomes breed fish stories, which are the lingua franca of every type of angler the world over.
“It’ll make for a good fish story at least,” I offered as a consolation to Hank and Andrew. Both made noises of acknowledgment.
A few minutes later, the rain lightened and the directional glow of the sun emerged from through the flat gloom above us. The thrill of that fight and the slightly gentler weather meant that I was suddenly far less concerned with when we would be finished with our float. We pushed the boat into the bank and hopped into the knee-deep water to attempt a bit of wade fishing. Hank was elated to be out of the boat. He ran up and down the bank and waded out to his chest in the fifty three degree water, unfazed by it after so much time shivering in the boat. Hank and I both prefer this type of fishing, river bottom beneath our feet, working a small stretch of water intimately and stealthily instead of covering several miles in a less careful manner. For the first time all day, I got to watch Andrew fish. He was immediately lost in the moment, convicted in his belief that at any moment the biggest fish of the day may well find his offering enticing. I kept tabs on Hank and frequently whistled at him when I watched his snout tentatively grab a salmon carcass. I watched Andrew seem to drift into oblivion a few dozen yards upstream. Least of all, I watched my indicator. I was relatively certain no fish would take an egg pattern in the shallow, swift water after so many sloppy casts and line mends.
After a while, Andrew reached the same conclusion. We loaded back into the boat and he began to paddle with the current instead of against it. The river widened and a chocolate milk tributary poured silty, rain-swollen water into the heart of the glacial flow. He acknowledged that it wasn’t promising water. Then houses began to dot the banks of the Kenai, and I realized how startled I was upon re-entry to the world. In our boat, we were a celestial body in linear orbit through space and time. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was our galaxy, and every ripple and silvery flash of scales took on the weight of a supernova, worthy of all our awed concentration. After nine hours of not seeing a single building or automobile, it was surreal to come flying through the middle of a rural subdivision as the rain lightened and the water darkened. With such a rude awakening, I once again wondered about the eclipse. The outside world was forcing its way back into our own sacred space. Hank began to heave and cough, and I knew he had eaten more salmon than I thought. He threw up all over the front bench he was sitting on, and it spilled all over the entire stack of life vests neatly tethered to the side of his well-worn but pristine boat.
I did as all dog owners do in such a situation and first directed feigned, vocal frustration at my dog.
“Hank! Gross! You couldn’t have waited ten more minutes?”
Then Andrew joined in this social routine with a halfhearted chuckle and a wholehearted assurance.
“Aw, it’s ok. I’m sure he’s saving more for your drive to Seward.”
Hank sat in the bow seat, looking guilty but relieved, and I watched my fly drift one final time as I studied the bizarre mishmash of coastal and cabin architecture around us.
“You can go ahead and reel it in, that’s our takeout right up there.”
I brought in the fly and tried not to tally up the number of fish caught or lost that day. I tried to hide my palpable relief at the trip being over, at escaping the elements just before my body reached its breaking point.
We hurriedly, perfunctorily unloaded the boat. Andrew used his morning coffee mug to scoop some river water and poured it over the vomit that Hank left all over the front of his boat. I stripped out of my borrowed clothes and attempted to fit all of my heavy, waterlogged belongings in my arms so as to make one trip up to the truck which had been shuttled to our takeout spot. I dragged Hank along with me and he loaded into the Land Cruiser with perhaps the least objection he’d ever shown. He was soaked and freezing and glad to see dry land. My cold and swollen fingers struggled to unlace my boots and unbuckle my waders.
Andrew pulled up in his Tundra. He’d already loaded his boat onto his trailer. We both knew this was the business end of a relatively tough day. Fairweather clients would be undoubtedly disappointed by the outcome.
“You forgot this.” He hopped out and handed me my beanie, which I bought in Washington, D.C. on some previous road trip when I was ill-prepared for the frigid weather I faced. I was glad to have it even though it was wetter than Hank, and I thanked him profusely.
“I didn’t really notice that mountain bike before. Yeti huh. That thing is sweet!”
“I love it man, best bike I’ve ever owned.”
“Cool, cool. Anyway, have a good one. Definitely drive the Denali Highway when you head up that way.”