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Fall 2008, Volume 25.1

Essay

 

Mike FreemanPhoto of Mike Freeman.

Interplay—The Need for Wilderness


Mike Freeman lives in Alaska, where he works in fish and wildlife research. He received his Master’s in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 2000. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Transfer, The Massachusetts Review, Snowy Egret, and The Connecticut Review.

 

If you’re new to it, April in Alaska surprises everyone. It surprised me too. Like other places it’s a month of great awakening. If buds are still locked in their branches and snow’s still common, other signs appear marking winter’s dissolution. Light, for one, finally overtakes the dark. In the rain forests of Southeast Alaska the dismal seven-hour days are a memory by April, and with the increasing light the winter wrens perk up, scolding high in the dripping spruce boughs for the first time in months. The first thrushes and warblers arrive as well. Ducks, too, are back, rafting up in the estuaries by the hundreds and thousands, feeding and resting before completing the last leg north. And the hooligan come in. Every nook of the natural world seems to have a phenomenon or two that only people familiar with the land know about. On the Northwest coasts, hooligan—soft, smelt-like fish—pour into the rivers in numberless formations, a crucial event. Animals all winter scrape by on the sparity of the land and the scraps of wolf-kills, when suddenly an endless line of easily-caught, oil-laden fish return to the waterways.

A few years ago I didn’t know much about hooligan, or anything else in the area. I’d spent a couple summers in Alaska but had only lived there a full year when I had a week between jobs the first spring. It was early April, and I decided to paddle out of the little town where I live, initially on an extended estuary, then fifteen miles or so up a river into the foothills of a considerable mountain chain. I didn’t know how far I’d get, but gave myself the full week to see how it went.

I’d bought a canoe the previous fall, designed, it seems, for going upstream. The air was crisp but the paddling warm. Clouds spit occasional rain but overall things were pleasant. The initial leg was simple, a five mile creek downstream to the estuary. Half way down I ran into the first hooligan, moving in great hordes, slow but steady, pressing upstream to spawn. Eagles were everywhere, dotted in the towering spruce. After a winter of semi-dormancy, the hooligan had restored them. Kingfishers, too, chatted and darted among the lower alders, and ravens—intelligent, weird in the old way—communicated their strange language from the trees and air.

Steering the canoe along the stream’s lazy turns, my eyes rested on the metallic fish. As individuals they struggled mightily. As a group they were unstoppable. Scores of corpses, stiff and pale, gathered in gentle eddies along the bottom. Others, near death, swirled here and there in dazed circles. In the main, though, the juggernaut was unfazed.

Over on the bank, yards away, something huffed. I looked up. Having forgotten where I was I half-excepted to see a horse. I didn’t. A brown bear, lithe and worn from hibernation, sped across the open bank toward the brush. I’d seen them before, but never so close and never so well. For a few strides every muscle was visible, throbbing and huge beneath thick flesh and thicker fur. I understood then why they tell you not to run. Like the birds, it too had come down for the hooligan.

When I got to the estuary the tide had just turned, carrying me along the wide water paralleling the shore. A spare, dark spit blocked the ocean, but the acoustics of the gentle breakers outside crept over the bar. By now I was miles from town. I’d been alone in the woods countless times, but this was different. Behind me, westward, lay the village, three hours by canoe, while yards to the south rolled the Pacific. To the north and east was river and forest, peopleless for two hundred miles or more.

 

Even with a tide, paddling a canoe takes time. Still, stroke after stroke, you plod along, marking progress. Beyond a long island where the river split a smaller creek joined the estuary. About here the tide stopped and I started pushing against current. This area is known as the Flats, a long series of ever-changing sandbars and shifting channels. The land and water track on such a plane as to make mirages common, where what’s sand and what’s water is indistinguishable even at close distances. Without the occlusion of the tide the hooligan were noticeable again, and in far greater numbers than before. Every stroke of the paddle knocked a couple dozen out of formation, opening a space until they recovered. Birds were here, too. Pintails, scaup, teal, mallards—all these gathered in mixed flocks. They never let me close, having from Alaska to Mexico and back to Alaska learned that my kind hunts their kind with startling vigor.

It was around here that I heard—then saw—the first seal. A deep-throated splash sounded behind me. I turned and looked, seeing nothing but a widening swirl. A few strokes later and they were all around, a couple dozen or more. As with the other predators the hooligan are a great boon to them. They follow the multitudes into the river mouths, then up toward the shallows, by turns gorging themselves and hauling out in great pods upon the sandbars. I’d paddled into a frenzy. Several came close to the boat, their enormous, curious black eyes regarding everything before them. As each surfaced it let out a loud breath, like a pipe bursting under pressure. They did this repeatedly, bobbing in a staggered circle around the boat, making an odd staccato. After a while, though, they lost interest. I kept paddling, and soon the last of them was behind me.

 

There’s a vitality to mirage light. The horizon seems blurred, jittering slightly in varied textures. For a moment, a quarter mile past the seals, I thought the Flats were covered in snow. Acres were blanched in quivering whites. I hadn’t, though, noticed the sound. Seagulls, thousands of them, stood on the sandy banks or floated together in the coursing water, squealing away, each taking what must have been their first easy meal in months. I was a few hundred yards from the main body. A ragged line—much closer—led up to it. The first of these took off, then another, then many more in succession. Soon the whole group spooked, several thousand birds lifting at once, making great fuss and commotion. After the initial confusion, though, a decisive direction was chosen directly at me. For a moment the explosion of such energy after miles of quietude left me motionless. As they drew nearer, however, I could see what would happen. My raincoat was draped over the canoe yoke, and I rushed to put it on as the first gulls flew over. I pulled the hood over my head, knelt on the bottom, then tucked my bare hands into my body. Like a summer squall, the first drops hit sporadically but hard, followed by the deluge. All I could do was hunch down. For thirty seconds the droppings hit my back and the boat indiscriminately, and the absurdity of it, indignity even, caught me and I broke out laughing, still curled into myself. When the popping on the water stopped I looked up. The birds were over the spit by then. I beached the boat, still smiling, and gave everything a thorough scrub-down—my gear, my jacket, the boat—then paddled the remainder of the estuary before turning north toward the mountains, somewhere miles ahead through the shifting fogs.

 

I camped twice on the way up. In a canoe you make about a mile an hour upstream. With twelve hours of daylight that gave me nine hours comfortable traveling time. The first night, with the light just starting to fade, I pitched the tent on a high bank covered in willow and alder in a crescent-shaped clearing barely bigger than the tent itself. Next I gathered wood. Fires aren’t always possible in a rain forest, but it hadn’t come down hard lately, and if you look for dead branches on the still-living trees enough dry wood can be found. I’d brought enough food, but with the hooligan there for the taking I decided to conserve. Wading in, I plucked a dozen or so from the cold river. On the opposite bank a mink loped beneath the dangling brush, slipping into the current and coming out with a fish of its own. Otter tracks covered the sandbars around me, their scaly scat left among the clumsy foot-prints. On one bar a larger set of prints—a brown bear’s—blotted out those of the otters.

Hooligan smoke well but other than that are quite bland, even mealy. Still, you never seem to eat much when camping, and if nothing else the oil was welcome. I hung the other food and some gear in one of the few spruce along the lower river, pulled the canoe on the bank, then cracked a book by the dying fire. All day in a canoe wears you down, though, and I didn’t last long. When I rose a beaver startled in the river below, slapping its tail against the water before diving down. I wondered if anything else out there heeded the warning. I went to the tent, put a loaded shotgun by my side, then slipped inside the sleeping bag. Outside I heard nothing. It’s rare nowadays to fall asleep in total silence. I woke many hours later, with the first, steely glow of day gloaming through the tent.

 

That day was a travel day. I figured if I had a shot at getting near the mountains I needed a lot of miles before nightfall. The canoe was loaded before full light. I hadn’t had much experience paddling up a river, but the logic is simple. Running water is mostly a continuum of pools and riffles. Riffles are usually shallow and better to walk through, while most pools have an eddy of some sort, either reversing or neutralizing the current. It doesn’t take long to find the easiest routes, and after a while the rhythm of walking and paddling, paddling and walking, becomes ruminative, making the labor nearly involuntary.

I scared a moose around one bend who’d been crossing the stream on a shallow gravel bar. It panicked, wheeling around and angling upstream to the other bank. The water deepened here and in a few strides it was in over its head, swimming. I stopped mid-river, alternating the paddle from side to side to keep the boat steady. The moose had picked a place too steep to climb, and after a few frantic attempts slipped clumsily into the current where it regained traction in the gravel. Standing, it assessed me for a minute or more before recovering its composure. I was in deep water myself and didn’t worry. It began moving in the unrhythmic, lumbering strides of its breed, then crossed on the original route, ascending the bank in a crash of brush and motion. I paddled forward and got out to walk over the bar where the creature had crossed.

Clouds had thickened over the day, and instead of rain a thick, oatmealish snow came down. It clung to everything in the boat and, as it melted, filled the bottom with slush and water, spoiling the ballast. Every half mile or so I pulled ashore, emptying the gear and turning over the canoe. That night I camped in a thick spruce grove, where the heavy trees trap enough heat to leave the ground wet but clear. I didn’t attempt a fire, spending most of the dwindling daylight stringing tarps and stowing gear in such a way as to keep everything dry. Sleep came easily, and I again woke at first light.

By dawn, five inches of new snow had covered the gravel bars and open banks, adding to the old patches that in places remained three feet deep. After loading the canoe I took a moment and looked in the pool at my feet, noticing something I hadn’t the previous day. The hooligan were gone. Downstream somewhere, in the prolonged reveries common to solitude and physical exertion, I’d paddled above their range. Looking up, I found something else. I’d gone much farther than I thought. The clouds had broken slightly during the night, and between strips of fog I saw mountains larger and much closer than expected. By mid-day I’d made it, not to the mountains themselves—mostly barren and packed in year-round snow—but to the foothills, which if not large are lush with timber and other life.

 

Like all rivers this one changes character closer to its source. The grade is steeper and the water shallower. The land in Southeast Alaska is also rapidly expanding, as the glacial till of its many rivers spills out into the ocean ton after ton, adding to the beaches. The further inland you go, then, the older the land, a fact reflected in the vegetation. Here, upriver, spruce dominated the banks, marking the ground’s older age. There’s not much soil for them to root into, and as such they’re highly susceptible to wind and floods. Log jams dotted the river on the way up. Some were simple, merely popping the canoe over a single timber, while others were more detailed, involving unloading everything and portaging through the snow and brush. Throughout the morning the clouds broke up as well, leaving blue sky, sunlight, and the increasingly larger mountains that loomed ahead.

Up here choices were necessary. Smaller streams and branches make large rivers what they are, and several similar-sized creeks conjoined at varying spots, forcing decisions. There are maps of this area, good ones, but not so detailed to delineate every tributary. As I picked my way I wondered how many people had made these same choices. Starting a century ago natives probably made them all the time. More recently, the area has received less traffic. Cartographers and biologists have made forays in here, but not in earnest for a couple decades or more, and every couple years or so a bear hunter will head up this way on a day trip. Other than that, it’s clean. I picked what I thought were the straightest routes to the hills, realizing now that no one really knew where I was nor cared what decisions I made.

The last stream was little more than a hop-across affair, opening up from spruce forest to an enormous, willow-laden muskeg abutting the foothills. It looked like beaver country, and it was. Dams new and old clogged the creek, along with the many rivulets feeding it. Beavers are the great woodland providers wherever they go. The ponds attract every resident organism, who come to feed either on the thick vegetation or upon other creatures. Pulling the canoe over one dam—a jumble of whittled willow limbs and mortared mud—a great canine print remained in a faded patch of snow. A wolf had been here.

Salmon, too, who supply the bulk of nutrition to both plants and animals in this country, are greatly aided by beavers. Juveniles thrive in the ponds, with the deep, dark water offering fine refuge from predators while the nutrient-rich waters provide better than usual fodder. Spring time is smolting time for them, and clouds of thumb-long fish—their bodies rapidly changing in preparation for the ocean—darted to cover from time to time as I passed over. Mergansers, too—common and hooded—spooked at my approach. They were here for the gathering fish. As spring went on and the smolt began their migration the birds would follow, hounding them to the sea. The mountains, even though miles off, lorded over me now in bright sunlight and gleaming snow-pack. Nearer, only a few hundred yards away, the first spruce-covered hillocks lay. I paddled until the stream grew too narrow for the boat, then got out to find a camping spot. The sun was still high and there was time to find a good one.

After pulling the boat on the bank, I headed for the first elevation, more hummock than hill. The sun beat down on the muskeg and I could see much dry wood in the standing willow. The dams here were old and worn through, but they’d left strips of dead willow standing behind them which the sunlight now worked upon. I kept moving. As the ground gradually rose, the willow gave way to blueberry, then the first spruce. At the base of the hillock, nestled between two lichen-draped evergreens, a deep spring bubbled from the ground, the pumping water gently roiling the pool’s surface. It spilled over the back to form a substantial springlet running by my feet. I headed up the incline, passing through the spiny devil’s club and over windfalls. The top wasn’t more than a hundred yard climb.

The peak was actually three peaks, several soft summits split by gentle valleys. One of these was flat and soft and I cleared a little vegetation before returning to the boat for the gear. Humping it back, I strung tarps and pitched the tent, then made several trips up and down to the muskeg, each time carrying as much dead willow as I could. The high-pressure system that had brought the sun also dropped the temperature and it looked to be a chilly night.

 

A couple hours’ daylight remained after camp was set, and I walked the narrow stream I’d paddled up, where a bear trail made the bush-whacking tolerable. No bear tracks, though, were here, as most of the animals were either still denned-up or down near the river mouth chasing hooligan. Signs of them, however—old ones—were present.

Snow melts spottily at times. In places it was four feet deep, while in other patches the ground was bare—soft, soggy stretches of bank covered in moss and flattened grass. In these the remains of salmon from the previous fall were everywhere—jaw bones, gill plates, spinal columns, all strewn about like eroded fossils. The bears are here at that time, having followed the fish to their spawning grounds where salmon are simple to catch in the shallow, oxygen-rich riffles they need to lay eggs. Bears often only eat the brains, leaving the rest for the jays, mink, ravens, and other opportunists. By the end, only scattered bones remain, every year leaching their sea-borne particles to the burgeoning forest. Life now, though, was certainly more than remnant here. In the dark, tannic waters, fry and smolt moved beneath the overhangs at my approach, themselves beneficiaries of the nutrients the dying adults bequeath every season to the young of their kind. The little fish now at my feet would return one day to do the same. Out over the ocean, far away, the sun dropped quickly, merging with the horizon in a deep, uniform orange. I turned, walking the same trail back to camp.

The fire started easily. Wood rarely gets completely dry here, but this stuff was close. Through the spruce canopy stars sparkled in every gap. Other than the gentle crackling in the fire the woods were still, at least to my senses. I couldn’t see, hear, or smell a thing. That, though, didn’t mean much. Out there in blackness mink chased balls of smolt in the beaver ponds, while saw-whet owls and great-horneds kept their vigils for the hares and voles, who worked cautiously through the underbrush, sensing the greenery soon to come. Wolves, too, in packs or alone, hunted the foothills and muskegs, looking for everything from moose to mice. A weak column of smoke made its way skyward in the fire’s glow. I was a stranger in this place.

 

There was no need to move the next day. The camp was comfortable and more territory existed here than I could cover in a month. Besides, after the long days of paddling a respite sounded nice. I woke early to another clear, crisp morning, and after reviving the fire and having breakfast walked over to the adjacent summit and looked on the other side of the hill, where a long, narrow muskeg ran until ceding to a large mountain. The sun had ascended by now and was warming up the flat ground below. I put some lunch in a day pack, then picked my way downslope.

The muskeg took some doing. I’d left my waders in camp, happy to be in rubber boots after two days’ confinement. This side of the hill, though, had active beaver dams. With the brush and the deeper waters, then, I had to take a more careful route. Right along the mountains ran a wide, stony creek, and the signs of last year’s salmon were thicker than before. Bones lay atop bones in places, and the deep pits in the stream gravel showed where the fish had labored to construct a place for their eggs. Mink scat rested on several spots along the banks, and a large, matted pile of fish scales showed where otters had made a toilet months ago. Crossing on an ankle-deep bar I found a considerable bear trail on the other bank curving along with the contour of the mountains. Bears are known for stepping in the same spots year after year, generation after generation, and in several flat stretches the trail was marked by a dozen or more of these ancestral footfalls.

A mile or so down I picked the gentlest incline I could find and started climbing. These hills weren’t terribly large either, and I doubt this one rose a thousand feet. Thick blueberry and devil’s club, though, growing amongst many fallen spruce, slowed the climb. Dense and encompassing, the standing timber fractured the sun in thick shards that hit the mossy ground at all angles. A kinglet flock chipped in the needles high above. Several boulders, huge and out of place in a land with little bedrock, were strewn sporadically about the slope where the glaciers had dumped them. One of these, erect and narrow, had fissured atop the little mountain and stood at the peak like a rent steeple. When I reached it I could see the mountains now, clear and unobstructed.

 

We forget how much of the earth is unavailable to us, even the dry land. Before me was little more than rock and snow, stacked in violent elevation. Compared to the hump where I stood, the mostly nameless mountains behind it were sharp, jagged peaks, softened below by glacier-worn valleys. Timber was scarce. A few trees clung to the lower elevations but were dwarves compared to the ranging specimens I’d just walked through. The land, then, was too new, too austere, too beat-up by ice to support much life. In three different passes I could see glaciers rumpled up in the distance, still-to-the-eye but active all the same. Here, as in most of the world, they’re in full retreat. I’d looked at maps before I’d come out. These particular glaciers were probably in Canada. I sat against one of the rocks and rested, while a Steller’s Jay, agile and deft, regarded me from several branches, keeping silent as it hopped and fluttered to its various perches.

The lands that are so useful to us now—the Plains, much of the Northwest, the still-productive farmland of the mid-Atlantic—all at one time or another benefited from the shape-shifting power of ice. One day the stingy glacier and rock before me would as well settle into gentle fertility, but that was thousands of years off. The jay let out a cat’s mew, flicked its wings, then sailed downslope in the direction of the ice. I turned, picked my way back down the hill, walked the trail again, then crossed the muskeg back to camp. As the sun died I read a book atop the over-turned canoe, then went up the hill to rekindle the fire. The stars again peered through the spruce, and once more no creature made itself known. As in each of the nights sleep came soon and deep. The next morning I woke early and headed down river.

 

By the time the canoe was loaded, the sun—rising steadily behind the peaks—pushed more and more light over the land. The grass in the muskeg had crystallized over night, crunching beneath my feet as I worked to prepare the boat. When the vessel was in the creek, facing oceanward, I stopped to enjoy the silence. The mountains—a blackened outline not long ago—gained color and relief in the increasing light and soon the sun appeared, a thin ribbon of orange peering between two peaks. It’s impossible to say what makes such things. I know just enough of tectonics and friction and other principles to know how landscapes form, but what put it all in motion is beyond me, beyond everyone. The sun, rising steadily above the chain, was up now. All of it—the mountains, the glaciers, the ground beneath me—was moving all the time, but even if I stood there the rest of my life I’d never notice it. If a human being stood where I stood for the next thousand years, none of us together would notice it. Something, though, does, and it’s in this way that nature edifies us. If it doesn’t give us the answers, it puts us in direct contact with the questions. I stepped in the canoe, took my seat, and pushed off, taking my time over the next couple of days on the way back to town.

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