April 30, 2012
LITTLE BITS OF MEMORY
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I was fishing a beautiful pool below a waterfall on an unnamed river. I can’t tell you where it was because there are no named spots nearby – unless you’ve heard of Hepburn Island. See what I mean? Its coordinates are 67º48’N, 110º43’W. Just a few miles downstream, the river flows into Coronation Gulf, part of the fabled Northwest Passage. It’s a popular spawning river for Arctic char. We knew that because we’d been seeing bears for several days – mostly sows with cubs – and there were tracks everywhere in the mud beside the river.
Alex and I had hiked down to the falls after supper at our campsite about a mile upriver. While I worked the deep pool with high hopes and an alewife imitation, he fished right at the base of the falls, about one hundred yards away. A quiet, slightly overcast evening.
I heard Alex hoot at me, but couldn’t distinguish any words. I looked up and saw him waving and pointing. “Hmm,” I thought. “I think he wants he to turn around.”
Behind me and about eight feet away, the silty riverbank rose steeply about six feet, with thickets of willow bushes on top holding it in place. I turned around to look at it, and there was a great big boar grizzly standing on the edge of the bank, staring at me and waving his muzzle from side to side, trying to get a whiff of me. He didn’t seem sure what he was looking at.
Alex said later, “When you turned around and saw the bear, you swelled up just like a cat confronting a dog.” I don’t know about that, and I don’t know what I was feeling – it was more excitement than fear – but what I did was point my fly rod at him and say, “Hey! I’ve got a three-and-a-half-ounce rod here that might smart a bit before you get me. But if you’ll give me just a couple of minutes, I’ll be out of here, and you can have your fishing hole the rest of the night.”
He turned and walked heavily away; I could see the tops of the willows swaying as he pushed through them. I pointed vigorously toward camp, Alex nodded enthusiastically, and we hustled back across the tundra, looking over our shoulders every few steps.
I hope you’ll indulge me. I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s autobiography, in which he declines to record his life chronologically, but rather speaks (he used a stenographer) about whatever happens to interest him that day. And this morning I happened to be thinking of the rare moments that stick out in the memories of our long summer canoe trips.
Flying, I’ve heard it said, is 99% boredom and 1% sheer panic. I can’t say that paddling unexplored or rapid rivers is like that; there’s usually something new – previously undreamed of, or exciting – every few minutes. Still, some moments do stand out in memory.
We’d just made a somewhat arduous circuit of a lake still covered with ice in late July. We’d been able to paddle around its open perimeter, except for a few spots. Out on the rotting ice were dozens of Canadian geese and their goslings, keeping away from the foxes on the shore. One fox had managed to get out there, and chased fruitlessly about; the geese plopped into pools of open water whenever he came near them
We camped that evening just below the outlet of the lake. About midnight, I heard a couple of jet planes going over. But the sound didn’t go away. I stuck my head out into the bugs and saw that the ice was going out. Big floes were grounding and grinding in the shallow water at the outlet A little later, small bits of ice began to float past in a steady parade, tinkling like a Caribbean steel band. They were still passing in the morning when we set out,, sliding with us down toward the sea. I don’t suppose we’ll ever see anything like that again.
A couple of nights later, camped in a broad valley, we heard strange noises. They came from right in among the tents, and sounded like a big pig and a medium-sized pig. I was half-asleep and uninterested. “Anybody want to see what that is?” I asked loudly. Bob, ever the responsible one, peeked out of his tent. “It’s a big muskox and a little muskox.” We went back to sleep.
On another river, another year, we watched an immature golden eagle, huge and ungainly, trying to catch a goose for dinner. The geese ducked into the willows. He tried to land in among them. Big mistake; his wings caught on the bushes, and he wasn’t great on his feet. Last time we saw him, he was in an open space, waddling as fast as he could, with a gander chewing at his tail.
A mile farther downstream, I heard a loud squawking from the right bank, and looked just in time to see a big grayish-brown wolf climb out of the river and disappear into the brush with a goose in its jaws. The goose’s mate swam in circles and called disconsolately, hoping against hope, I guess, for its mate’s return. But somewhere nearby, a few wolf cubs would be briefly happy.
Memory has a way of magnifying and otherwise distorting what actually happened, so I’m glad I’ve jotted these moments somewhere in various journals. Al and I, for example, tend to get impatient at protracted scouting of approaching rapids, and sometimes get ourselves into a pickle. On the mighty Coppermine, I looked at a long, heavy bit of whitewater and shouted, “You think we can cross to the other side, Al?” Al nodded, and very shortly things got quite exciting. “Boy!” I said, “If the others follow us, they’re going to be really upset when they get here.” I was right!