categories: Cocktail Hour
At the Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge one of the many things I was aware of was that I wasn’t strictly speaking in the wilderness. The electric grid had reached the place somehow, wires on poles climbing the hills behind the campus, boats and floatplanes moored in the tide basin, Homer only a half-hour away by water. Contrails of Europe flights in the sky above us. Not that I was complaining—it’s an extraordinary place, beautiful, alive, alluring, even pretty wild, but no wilderness. And in Homer I was aware of the reach of the oil economy—the gorgeous auditorium wherein keynote speaker Michael Cunningham read his fiction, for example, this rich theatre built into the gorgeous Homer high school, built with the mandated assistance of some small portion of oil royalties—the stuff most states give away or go beyond giving away to offer insane subsidies (note to self—call Maine governor Baldacci and suggest royalties be included in all wind-power contracts: school funding, solved).
BP was one of the sponsors of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference—somewhat indirectly, through a cultural fund again sponsored by royalties (while meanwhile, Alaskans all get a check each year, a share in the oil bounty—many, I learned, immediately donate whatever amount to environmental groups)(the fund sponsors things like the Coal Classic Golf Tournament, maybe soon the Gross Polluter Fashion Show). Carol Swartz, the redoubtable conference director, apparently felt no qualms about noting her sadness about the Gulf disaster in her opening remarks, however. And the Gulf was the subject of a lot of conversation during my Alaskan sojourn, a lot of it comparison talk about what had happened in the Exxon Valdez spill—how Exxon disappeared after the story died in the news, how they’d co-opted everyone in sight and called it a spill response, how they’d slipped out of promised payments, how the clean-up exacerbated the ecological nightmares, how it was all still going on: no new tanker rules in place, regulations loosened rather than tightened in national legislation that pretended to be about controls but in fact just opened more gushers of public funds to the private companies that wrote the laws before handing them over in final drafts to their legislative peeps for assured votes.
Including a cap of $75,000,000 on oil company liability on future spills. Say, an inevitable one in the Gulf of Mexico. BP and the oil industry had learned a lot from the Valdez nightmare—not about cleaning up after themselves, or applying preventions, but about the proper PR response, and the proper way to dispense cash: get ’em to sign waivers so they can’t sue later. Hire everyone in sight short-term so they won’t be back long-term, including scientists, politicians, local boats, the entire minimum-wage workforce, and journalists, of course. And keep any refuseniks away. Decry regulation, via subsidiary businesses, such as media. Even blame regulation, ditto, even though all regulation has been dismantled. Go for it! Blame the Sierra Club! And, unless you own him, blame the President of the United States, whoever he might be.
And above all be shocked: No one could ever have foreseen this! (Though, of course, dissenting voices had foreseen all of it, right to the hundred-millionth barrel.)
And step up the drilling, baby, by all means.
On Last Chance Gulch, the main street of Helena, Montana, 1990, I found a long cloth case in the stuffed bottom drawer of a large dresser—oh, one of the many great junk shops in that gold-rush town. Inside was a three-piece bamboo fly rod in poor condition, all the wrapping unwound and the guides missing or loose. The cork butt had been eaten by something, altogether a pretty sorry affair, but real bamboo, split cane, they call it, a hexagonal barrel built by gluing six wedge-shaped and tapered wands together, all by hand. For two dollars I bought it, value considerable, the real thing. Juliet and I were living in Dearborn, which was not a town but a kind of loose settlement strung along the Dearborn River—we’d rented one of the quirky houses along the way for, I don’t know, 50 bucks a month, this the grad-school summer before we got married and moved back there for a year, one of the dog-days escapes from New York City I wrote about in my first book, Summers with Juliet, which is a memoir of nature, really (bug me for a signed copy—I’m easy).
I bought new guides at the fly shop and ordered a new butt, bought a can of spar varnish somewhere, and sandpaper sheets down to finest, also 00 steel wool, very fine. And I sat by the Dearborn River and worked on that rod for a little each afternoon till I had it like new, like, say, 1926. Last gesture was to date it 1990 with a rapidograph pen and sign it. Oh—and I wrote a line from Robert Lowell, about seven inches of poetry for luck: “Wallowing in this bloody sty / I cast for fish that caught my eye.” (Not very auspicious, as I read it now…).
After the varnish had hardened some I tried it out in the Dearborn—it was a six-weight and very whippy compared to my graphite rod. I didn’t catch a fish, and then after that it just seemed too good and too cool to use. I put it back in its cloth case, meaning to take it out and hang it on a wall wherever we ended up (which turned out to be Maine), maybe pull it out for special fishing trips.
Like my recent one to Katmai National Park, in Alaska. But the real reason I brought it was this: the old bamboo was a three-piece and fit in my doomed duffel, which my old Cortland 6-weight did not. First morning at Brooks Lodge Camp I sat on a log on the beach with my feet in wet pebbles and pumice balls and bear prints and pieced the rod together, strung a new weight-forward floating line onto the familiar and very basic and beloved Cortland reel, fished the line through the guides I’d so lovingly whipped and tied and varnished, read that odd line of poetry: What bloody sty had I been referring to? Lowell had meant his life, I think. Or just life in general. How could I just accept that kind of darkness? Must have been about being in my thirties….
And I waggled the pole a little, felt that silken bamboo give and thrust, like the rod was still a blade of grass, gorgeous, pulled at the line to feel the pole bend, pulled at it as if a fish were on, and SNAP! The tip piece broke. Shattered, really, a lot of stiff fibers spraying in all directions. Shit. If I may quote myself precisely.
Bamboo poles always came with an extra tip, though, and so I put that on and felt all was well and pulled at the line to feel the pole bend, pulled at it as if a fish were on, and SNAP!
I don’t know. I didn’t cry or anything. Actually seemed kind of fitting.
Because I’ve more or less put fishing behind me. Catch and release seems so kind of … silly? Pulling fish out of the water, torture and torment, then putting them back. Silly and cruel. I love to fish for a meal, don’t get me wrong (a striped bass on a 9-weight? Wow), then the application of skill is real. But for good reason catch and hold’s not allowed in many of the good places now—certainly not on the Brooks River, where a cleaned fish or the remains of a fish fire or anything fishy at all can attract bears, who may become dangerous if they start associating food with people, and where—the stream is only one mile long—a catch-and-take would doubtless clean out the fishery as it has cleaned out fisheries worldwide.
Love to fish, find it cruel.
Love all the gear, feel silly wearing it.
Scylla and Charybdis, rock and a hard place.
My answer in late decades has been not to fish. Birding is equally satisfying, at least to me, and more humane: you just look at your animals (unlike Audubon, who based his great paintings on birds he’d shot with his trusty .22 rifle), and surely binoculars count as gear. I certainly wore them on the Brooks River: Yellowlegs and white-crowned sparrows, red-breasted mergansers and baldpate ducks, Wilson’s warblers and brown creepers, bald eagles and ospreys, the bird life very little different from Maine’s, in fact.
Fish much bigger.
Rich Chiappone took the loss of my rod much more seriously than I did (by the way—here’s something he’s written—poignant, grief and fishing). Bob Bundy loaned me one of his. Bob’s a lawyer, once the district attorney for Nome, if I’ve got it right, now in successful private-firm practice in Anchorage, winding toward retirement, a civil litigator active in environmental law, among other things. He gave me fishing advice, gave me flies, pointed out great fishing holes and then—toughened negotiator—shooed me away so he could fish them alone.
Bill Rice loaned me a pair of these clever magnifying spectacles that clipped to the visor of my cap, the cap with the bear pin on it. (He’s retired from lawyering, has made a second career of guidebooks and other writing and photography.)(He and Bob Bundy ended up in Alaska on a fellowship together after law school in California and had never looked back, maintaining their friendship all these years in endless adventures, many among bears.)(He and Bundy once camped among scores of them—another river at salmon time—and listened from their raddled tents as young males battled for dominance). (Once a photograph he took of Rich was used in an advertisement and Rich got a modeling royalty, perhaps less fraught than the oil kind)(Campfire stories)(We never lit a fire)(The sunsets were enough).
My first walk to the river was with Bill and his wife, Deb Caldera (great name for volcano country!), something like a quarter mile along a path through the woods just off the beach. In the park, bears have right of way in all situations. The beach is a situation, all right, narrow and popular among man and beast. Deb always checked the beach before we walked the path, always thought about the bears, always had an escape route in mind, none of the cavalier insouciance of the men. She’s a nurse and knows from avoiding accidents. She found me a spare can of bear spray (like a small fire extinguisher, but full of capstan, made from hot peppers—I never got close to trying it, though others had plenty of stories…). She’s only started fishing relatively recently, but what a cast she can throw….
Bill and Deb and I found the others in our group, Jim Vanmoorleghen and Jack Duggan, and left me with them. Not really on purpose, but the river takes you this way and that, upstream and down. Jim is a meat man from Omaha, Nebraska, where a steak is a steak and where he and Jack went to high school together, 1960s. We had Nebraska in common, Jim and I, and also neoprene waders. Jim’s were trim and deep brown and fairly current, and he’s trim too, still the dancer he was back then, Flamenco for the high school Spanish club. Something he probably wouldn’t tell you about right off the bat.
My waders were bright bilious green with mouse stains—fit me like a wet suit on a bear, too tight everywhere. Jack, who is another lawyer (and now an “assistant judge” as he simplified his work for me), took me aside and made an offer of his extra pair of light-weight waders.
These generous people!
Have I mentioned the food they prepared?
Bill Rice’s jerked pork?
Fishing with brown bears—called grizzlies elsewhere—is fascinating stuff, very exciting, more scary in anticipation than in fact. You’re all focus and fascination on the river, intent on the birds or the fishing, then suddenly you hear someone shout (you never hear the bears), or you get a feeling, or simply remember to look around, and there, right there behind you where there was nothing only moments before: bear. My first bear this trip was a younger blond animal—Bill and Deb guessed sow—who ambled up on the bank of the stream directly across from our attenuated little group later on the first day. Deb has a great eye for bears, and it’s she who called out. I didn’t feel particularly threatened—the bear’s attention was all toward the forest, where perhaps another bear lurked. Also, we were on the opposite shore, a knot of us observing every bearish gesture and offering theories about what should be done. Leave, is what should be done. Generally speaking. In the end, we marched overland to the next bend downriver.
Later, after lunch and a nap back at camp, I was fishing by the bear platform, a little stairway and overlook near the mouth of the river. People come from all over the world to see the bears, which gather in late June for the salmon run they know is coming. Katmai’s the famous park with the waterfall, have I mentioned that? Bears grabbing salmon as they kick past, bears leaning precariously over the rocks for meals. Anyway, a group of viewers started forming up there and then more, and slowly I realized they were pointing their cameras over my head. At first I’d had the delusion that they were watching me fish. But no, turn and look, and here came a huge dark creature, a boar marching up behind me, no amble in its gate. I tried not to hurry, just looked big and calm and moved on across the water as my friends had told me to do, reeling my line quickly. The bear crossed, too. The river was nothing to him. He paused in the middle, stood, gave the air a sniff. I crossed back under the eyes of all the folks gathered on the lookout. No one shouted anything to me, no warning, no advice, nothing. Maybe they all hoped for a photo, a little video: this is the guy I told you about, being carried off!
At least I wasn’t alone.
Next day I was out late, near dinnertime, and working my way downstream, campward, when I saw across the weeds on a gravel bar someone in a comical, fuzzy hat—these perfect round ears poking up, haha. Which image resolved into yet another bear. Who stood up and had a long look at me. No other person was around. I choked with sudden fear, backed away, stumbling upstream till I was well further than the fifty yards the ranger had recommended as a minimum. Much scarier alone. No one to be brave for. No real experience. Which way was the creature going to go? I climbed the cut bank and watched. Up there, the woods are crossed in webs by bear paths, trees slashed by claws. At least there was no fear of darkness falling! Just hungry. I was. The bear below was staying put, eating grasses. I didn’t want to walk through the unfamiliar woods. So I plotted a course along a path I had used earlier, clambered down the loose bank and started across the river, which is a little deep right there. Battling the current, I forgot to check ahead, half-way across realized that a pair of smaller bears was ambling along the very path I’d aimed for.
So I turned and made my way upstream. I made my way very quickly, more quickly than you’d think, just clomped into the woods and up to the second bear platform and from there kept walking, clear out to the dirt road and from there home to camp, late for dinner, exhilarated despite the poor fishing.
And that’s how it went for a week. Nightly drinks and hilarious conversation with my new friends, daily fishing, daily bears, daily talks with strangers and rangers alike, the subject always the same: fish and bears. Also Alaska, how did I like it? I loved it, of course. And Sarah Palin, more than once, profane talk: what did people think of her outside Alaska? I tried not to have plenty to say. Instate, it seemed, people of every political persuasion agreed that her quitting the governorship had hurt her. But some loved her still: “You really can see Russia from Alaska,” one woman told me. I couldn’t get myself to say that that hadn’t been the point, just conceded: you really can.
June 24, Rich and Lin and I got back on the Katmai Air floatplane and made it back to King Salmon. My duffel after a week in the woods had come completely to pieces, no bear necessary. Bundy saw me struggling to patch it with duct tape, ambled off, ambled back with a huge green duffel of his own, dreamy. These guys with their extra gear! I put some of my heavier clothes on the “free” shelf and jettisoned most souvenirs, got the bag down to 35 pounds, a miracle. But I’d forgotten something: I was wearing my soaked wading boots and my fishing vest. 50 pounds, once again. Our big Boeing had only 23 people on it, the flight attendant announced cheerfully. We could sit wherever we wanted, she said: All the traffic is one way when the salmon are in!
Coming into Anchorage, Rich pointed out the braided deltas of great, silty rivers. He also pointed out the drilling rigs in the bays they emptied into, hundreds of platforms in fairly shallow water. Their safety record is apparently pretty good. But Rich directed my to an essay by Nancy Lord about how beluga whales are no longer frequenting those waters.
My flight out wasn’t till 1:30 a.m. In a sparkling men’s room, no conservative senators in sight, I gave myself a sponge bath, applied emoluments, brushed my teeth, combed my hair (ha!), complete change of clothes, tossed that last ragged t-shirt, tossed the old pants I’d been wearing. I checked in. The kiosk screen offered me an upgrade to first-class. $79. Bags free, which meant it was actually $50. All the way to Newark. I pushed the YES button so hard the attendant came over. “Deal!” she said. “Economy must be overbooked.”
I had six hours, so I called JonBoy Nemo, a youngish musician friend who has moved from Farmington to Anchorage (originally for a teacher job, though all that has morphed into something more complicated, a kind of social work). He picked me up at the airport and we had dinner and of course a good talk: how could he meet a woman?
Bears, I replied. I’ve been fishing with bears!
I settled into my first-class seat, this cushy leather expanse with room to cross my legs and uncross them and stretch them, room to pitch my tent. I put my neck brace on and just leaned back, back, bedtime, bedtime, first class. The flight attendant, no spring chicken, suddenly leaned at me. “We have a celebrity,” she said.
“Jay-Z?” I said, funny guy.
“Sarah Palin,” she said. “We’re holding the plane.”
“Hold away,” I said, and then sat there entertaining dark thoughts, out-Lowelling Lowell, if you must know, this bloody sty. Also mulling things I might say if I got a chance, oil pulsing into the Gulf of Mexico: “Sarah, Sarah P! How’s that drilly-mavericky thing going for ya, huh?”
A big man took a seat across the aisle from me, very serious. He opened a book but he wasn’t reading it. No one offered him a drink. He gave me a long look, went back to not reading.
And then there she was—Sarah herself, on her way, as I would learn, to yet another controversial appearance (this one at California State University), also her daughter Willow. Making their way in, both glanced at me—this fried guy with a brace around his neck.
My overwhelming impression was that these were just people, people in expensive jeans. They sat in the row in front of the big guy, kitty-corner from yours truly. “Willow,” one of the attendants said, “Could you? Sarah, autograph?” And the princesses signed cocktail napkins.
And then we all slept.
My Alaska experience was complete.