After several days of reconnaissance many miles downriver, we were trying to get back home. That meant going against the current in unprecedented conditions. A sudden summer heatwave had come on, and the southern Wrangells, parts of the Western St. Elias and the Eastern Chugach were releasing their entire winter snowpack in a matter of days. All of that water had just one place to go — the Copper River.
We were motoring up the swollen river when I felt a sudden pit in my stomach. Out of place against the vast waterscape surged an ominous looking object, and it was directly in the path of our Zodiac. It came into full view, and I realized it had been a tall and fully mature spruce tree. Pinecones and bright green needles sprouting from prolific branches, a thick trunk covered in healthy bark. The tree was still alive.
My partner, Steve, finessed the tiller, adjusting our course to safety. But time seemed to slow down as the tree swept by us in the deep, undulating water. I felt an odd mix of curiosity and sadness at its hundred-foot-long body, its gigantic limbs like arms reaching out for rescue.
Exiled from its home, the fate of the giant was obvious. The former matriarch of an interior Alaskan forest, ravaged by floodwaters and torn by the roots from its native soil, was now an old soul drifting toward a burial in the Pacific.
Little time for pondering, though. Through the silty spray and rain I could see what looked like a boiling cauldron ahead, the water heaving up and down in nauseating fashion. I clenched the grab lines on the bow and kneeled on the deck of the thrashing boat, fearing we'd be catapulted into the violent current.
And then we were in its midst, the Zodiac straining against the fierce current and a cacophony of angry water. The hull dived deep into the trough of a wave, the river was above our heads. We crested the next swell and the bottom dropped out from underneath us.
I looked back at Steve. His face told the story of the already epic ten-hour trip we'd taken up the overflowing river. Among 49 years of wrinkles and weathered skin, soaking wet and haggard, beamed a sly grin and bright blue eyes. I've known Steve for almost 25 years, but realized just then that his entire demeanor is the outward appearance of years of experience in the wild.
We crashed through another wave and it seemed more an ocean than a river that was flowing through these mountains. The set of rapids was at least a half mile wide, spanning the entire valley.
A product of his environment, Steve has worked for two decades in extreme places, in the most severe conditions imaginable. Some people have an incredible amount of hard-earned wilderness discernment, and some people just have good luck. Steve has both, which I can see in his face as we ride this wave train.
Run ragged but full of gumption, Steve focused intently on the river. The torrent was so loud I could barely hear the engine, even though Steve’s wrist torqued the throttle wide open, squeezing every bit of horsepower from that little motor.
Along the edge of the valley, we discovered a half-hidden slough and anchored the raft for the first time in many hours. We rested our minds and the motor and began to re-pack the raft. The pounding rapids had loosened every tie-down in the boat. When the work was done, the rain had stopped and sun started filling the valley bottom. Steve reached into the cooler and grabbed a couple of beers. He cracked one and handed it to me, saying, “Cheers buddy — here’s to dodging another bullet.”
We lit out again, making for the headwaters of this wild Alaskan river, and I began to feel the familiar wind in my face. As the scenery drifted past, I realized a primal force much greater than myself was at work. I was caught by the river. I wasn’t in control anymore. It felt good to let go again.
I’ve been on countless trips with Steve in the last season. He is a very capable partner, which makes the adventures that much more enjoyable.
As I write, it’s early winter in Alaska, but we did sneak in one final river trip last week. Conditions were unusually calm, and the air was clear and warm. Nature’s reprieve had me reflecting on the summer and fall hunting seasons, and also on the metaphor of time as a river. I looked back on my journey so far and felt the current, now gentle, sweeping me around the bends of the seasons.