There was not much room for gear. A rod tube or two and small day pack each, plus the 5-gallon survival bucket, shotgun and a waterproof boat-bag. De Haviland Beavers are meant to get folks from remote point A to an even more remote point B with a well-planned just-enough. Unnecessary shit is exactly that and burns precious fuel. Add capricious weather and where you want to go and where you actually put down can be two vastly different stories. The former might be what you’ve pinned your hopes on, but the latter gets the pilot back to homebase in one piece and likely keeps you from having to spend a long, miserable night relying on that survival bucket and shotgun.
The prop whined to life. I sat in one of the four jump-seats in the back, headphones on, as the pilot unlooped the ropes from the cleats on the dock, pushed off and climbed in. With only six seats including the pilot and co-pilot, everybody had a window and not much to hold onto if oh shit entered the equation. A few adjustments and flipped-switches and we nosed southeast into the prevailing wind. I could feel the whole enchilada coming to a fevered pitch as we accelerated toward the end of the airport’s 1/4-mile bay. From my window, the billion crescents of reflected overcast light on the surface blurred by below and the grab-rope tied to the underside of the wing held at a waving 45-degree angle. I was surprised how soft everything felt as the plane hit its stride, pontoons now riding in the last half inch of water, and knew exactly the moment when the pilot would pull the yoke toward him to climb. Now, I said out-loud to no one but myself, a single muffled word I felt vibrate in my chest.
The plane left the water, rose and pitched west over the Mendenhall wetlands toward Admiralty Island under a forever-reaching low ceiling. Out over open water, I saw an Orca breach in the channel below. Commercial salmon boats were bathtub toys on slate-blue. A spruce blanket bristled softly over millions of miles of Tongass rainforest horizon, punctuated by the occasional bald or snow-covered peak. My thoughts turned to the possibility of two-foot dolly varden, fresh pinks, early silver salmon and brown bear. I thought about the constant balance of salmon and timber here – of life and livelihood, conservation and politics, new realities and old habits. I thought about my boys and their we’re definitely going there sometime, dad, right? dreams of hunting geese and catching salmon in Alaska. I thought about my own childhood dreams of seeing the wilderness that sprawled from the window my forehead now rested against. I thought about my life and how little I really understood about myself, in spite of how well I had thought I’d had my shit together. I thought about my marriage. I thought about the difference I could make in this world as a writer and lover of the outdoors, the difference I am making as a dad, and the immense amount of work I still need to do with both. I thought about how completely far away from everything I was and how rudderless that made me feel.
And then, as we descended into an unnamed bay framed by bleached stones and dark Sitka stumps that shouldered the rising tide, something let loose in my chest and I realized there was nothing that I was going to do – could do – to fix or understand my life right then other than to simply be where I was. I realized that I needed to be mindful of my own burden, the weight I carry around like so much unnecessary shit, burning all that precious fuel in the process, and possibly not being worth a damn to anyone or anything after it was all said and done. Like the plane, I only have so much room. Every day there was a small step toward quiet and simplicity. Both of which are tough to see in the moment. Harder still to hold onto when you’re a lifetime out of practice. But every day I was gifted these slow-waking epiphanies. Subtle reminders that it was OK to feel alone and rudderless because that’s what would teach me perseverance and the importance of paying attention to what’s right in front of me. The necessity and value of what is at-hand. It seems that for every journey I take and leave part of me behind, I bring home something far more meaningful, purposeful and easier to carry. I was in Alaska, and this moment, for the first time in my life. And that was exactly where I needed to be.
This is the third piece I’ve written since my trip to the Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is going to be in the next issue of the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and, with any luck, the other will be landing in a printed magazine that I’ll leave unnamed until I know for sure. Jumping the shark and all that, you know. Oh – and thanks to Tim O’Brien for writing the brilliant book that I pirated the title of for this post.