Looking back on the day (and night, and those small hours of the following morning) of our trial run, I can laugh. I can even find value in aspects of the day. But on that day, I was pissed. Really pissed.
Walter was so confident that the route he had chosen would take only “a few hours” to complete, we didn’t get started till sometime after lunch. We inflated our rafts on the shores of Six-Mile Lake in front of his house. Attaching a bike to the bow of a raft was a new thing for us, but after some fumbling we finally got them secured – though I remained a little uncertain as to how secured. We donned our fishing waders and we each climbed into our one-man transports. And then we began paddling along the lakeshore toward the Newhalen River. At this point, I was feeling surprisingly confident. Our Alpacka rafts had clever tie-downs and comfortable seats. The bikes seemed secure. The paddling was more comfortable that I thought it would be. The sun was shining and the wind was calm.
As we began our float down the Newhalen, we could see fish finning in the clear-green water beneath our smoothly gliding rafts. Occasionally one would jump – handsome, broad-shouldered grayling and rainbow trout. The river moved gently, allowing me time to get used to navigating and maneuvering my little red watercraft. It was lovely.
As we neared a bend a little over an hour into our journey, we were met with the sight of a young blond grizzly who inquisitively checked us out from a sandy sloping beach and then dashed into thick vegetation and disappeared. Confident he had left the area and in need of a break to stretch and to empty our rafts of water that had trickled in from the paddles, we beached our boats. Walter called over to us as he passed by (he had lingered back a ways to get in a few casts) to make sure we were OK, but rather than stop and join us, he then proceeded downriver. As we climbed back into our rafts and resumed our journey, we no longer had our guide in sight. We didn’t know where the take-out point was. Walter himself had been uncertain, other than to go by directions someone had conveyed to him. We hoped he would be waiting up ahead to give us directions.
Still on the first leg of the run, the sun was already noticeably edging toward the horizon. The wind was beginning to pick up, as it often does in afternoons. It was coming straight at us, making it difficult to paddle our light little boats even with a modest river current pushing us. We decided we would make more progress if we got out and walked along the shoreline while towing our boats.
It was about this time that Jack, with Walter nowhere in sight and already having proven himself to be a questionable guide and traveling companion, suggested cutting our losses, turning around, and slogging back to Walter’s place. In retrospect, I should have agreed with him.
Walking downriver, we came to a big, arcing bend. Although we didn’t know where the take-out point was, we did know it was on the other side of the river. This would be as good as any place to cross. As we paddled, we noticed that there was a large, shoal island near the opposite shore. Should we go left or right of the island? We weighed our options as the sun continued its golden descent. Both of us were frustrated at this point. It was now apparent that we had set out too late in the day and that in his tentative grasp of our route that Walter had significantly miscalculated the mileage we’d be covering. Although it was late May, ice was still forming on puddles in the early hours each morning. With only a few snacks and a water filtration kit but no tent and no change of dry clothing, we were not prepared to spend a freezing night in the wilderness. Left or right was a guess. We chose left.
As we neared the island, the wind pushed against us. We noticed a black bear foraging on the beach across a narrow channel separating the island from shore – a reminder that, relying on Walter’s side arm, we weren’t carrying bear spray. Paddling into a steady headwind, I was struggling, each stroke seeming to get me nowhere. As I finally neared the island, I thought I had come to a place shallow enough to step out of the raft. I eased my left leg over the gunwale, my foot searching for solid bottom while I still held onto the raft and the bike with my hands so they wouldn’t tip. Of course, I lost my balance and fell in. And of course, the water was deeper than I’d anticipated. So I swamped my waders with icy water.
Although I have been practicing “mindfulness” principles, this soaking did not facilitate a calm, thoughtful reaction on my part. Feeling essentially abandoned by our guide, unsure of where I was supposed to meet up with him and anticipating that we were in for a much, much longer trek than Walter had described, I was angry. As I pulled my loaded raft to shore, I surveyed the scene for the bear or other creatures. Way off in the distance, on the shore beyond the island, I detected movement. Walter. Calmly sitting with his deflated raft strapped to his bike, ready for the next leg of the journey, not even motioning to us. My blood was boiling. Had we opted to approach the island a little differently, we likely never would have seen him.
Upon reaching Walter, I let him know I was not happy. As our guide, it was imperative that he remain within hearing and visual range. Jack told him I had swamped. He looked at us slack-jawed and sheepishly offered a pair of dry socks, which I, of course, took. What I really expected was an apology and some sort of recognition from Walter that he needed to modify his behaviors. When none of that was forthcoming and he instead blew into explaining the next leg of our trek, I made up my mind that at the end of this trial run we’d be parting ways. As Jack and I headed back down the beach to pack up our rafts, out of Walter’s hearing range he again suggested we take a few cues from the obvious and simply walk back up the river to Nondalton. With wet clothing and evening fast approaching, I’m still not entirely sure why I vetoed this suggestion…
Stay tuned for Part III: Get out! Sweeper!