After stripping off our waders, deflating our rafts and securing our gear to the racks on our bikes and in our panniers, we had before us a ride of a few miles up a dirt road and then down an ATV trail to a place on the Tazimina River where we would again launch our rafts. Seeing how late it was, we questioned whether this was the best route. Walter assured us it would be. “The bike ride is just a few miles and that shouldn’t be any problem, and then the float down the river will be pretty easy,” he said.
Following the shoreline of the Newhalen River, we pushed our bikes a short distance over wet, soft sand imprinted with numerous moose tracks probably made by a cow and her babies. We reached the gravel-and-dirt haul road and fairly effortlessly rode the few miles to the ATV trail. The road cut through open country, and as we climbed a gently sloping hill we had a sweeping view of tundra and kettle ponds and the white spruce forest in the river valley below. However, upon reaching the ATV trail we could see that it was going to be too deeply rutted to ride with loaded bikes. So we got off and pushed. No big deal as we were still making good time.
Disconcerting, though, was our observation that Walter was trying to figure out where we would depart the trail in order to bushwhack through the dense tangle of alder, willow and spruce between the trail and the river. Bushwhack? Walter hadn’t previously mentioned anything about dragging, pushing and carrying loaded bikes through overgrown thickets and over fallen timber. As we pushed through this boreal jungle, whippy alders and grabby spruce bows tugged at every buttonhole, shoelace, and bicycle spoke.
The brush was so thick that I lost sight of Walter – a fit, ex-marine several years younger than me – who still was not grasping basic concepts such as staying within visual sight and effectively communicating. On a couple of occasions he charged so far ahead he couldn’t hear me when I called out, leaving us to guess at whether or not he had actually found a trail to the river, whether we should stay put and wait for him to yet again backtrack, or whether to attempt to follow. Twice the bushwhacking ended at what turned out to be the shallow, swampy, mosquito-infested, remnants of old beaver ponds. As Walter consulted his GPS, the sun continued its descent.
By the time we made it to flowing water I was hungry and thirsty. We stopped for a snack on a gravel bank and then inflated our rafts and strapped our bikes back onto the bows. I was wet, cold and nearing exhaustion. We still had to float an indeterminate distance down this river and then paddle nearly a mile back across the lake. I refused to look at my watch. I was worried how late it might be – among other things.
Walter had been ignoring my terse admonitions to keep us in sight. Now we needed to float a river in the near dark, vigilant for boulders, logs and trees fallen across the river known as “sweepers.” There is probably nothing more dangerous on these rivers than a large tree down across swift current, particularly if the nearby banks are steep. Sweepers occasionally trap and drown rafters. As we began our float, the sky beamed the brilliant oranges and pinks of sunset, dramatically silhouetting the spruce forest stretching before us against the colors of the sky. The water was cold and clear and in places beautifully caught the day’s last light.
Bald eagles, silent sentinels, were perched in trees along the river, watching. A cow moose and her twin calves crashed off into the forest as our rafts approached. And everywhere that the water was deep enough, fish began to surface and roll and even jump. These were the largest trout and grayling I’d ever seen, and the numbers were amazing. I had my fly-rod with me, and it would have been fantastic to fish there. It was too bad I couldn’t enjoy it. I was too cold, too tired, and too worried. These are the kinds of conditions where mistakes are made. Bad ones. Sometimes even fatal ones.
From his position in the lead, Walter began calling out directions in the gathering darkness. “Go to the left! Downed log!” Jack would relay the directions back to me, and I’d repeat to confirm that I’d heard. As the sun sunk below the trees, everything turned to a dim monochrome. I could barely make out the shoreline. Wondering how far off the mouth of the river might be, I was trying to find a working rhythm to take my mind off my tiring shoulders and back.
Suddenly, Walter’s urgent shouting pierced my thoughts.
“Sweeper! Get out!”
There was no mistaking the serious tone in Jack’s voice as he repeated the message, which I’d already heard loud and clear. In the dimming light, I could just make out Jack immediately veering to his left toward the bank, and although I tried my damnedest to do the same, my raft felt sluggish and unresponsive. I dug in hard with my paddle. Was it the raft? Had I lost strength? Jack made it to shore just before the sweeper. My heart flew into my throat as I felt my raft picking up speed with the current. “I can’t get to shore!” I cried out.
While Walter, apparently in a state of confusion, stood doing nothing, Jack had already anticipated my call for assistance and was striding up the bank with his paddle in hand. I could see the sweeper, a huge downed spruce, its branches ominously combing the river’s full force of swift, cold water between two steep banks. I fought back a vision of getting pulled under that tree. But Jack was there. He stretched to extend his paddle to me and told me to grab it. I quickly set down my own paddle, grabbed his and hung on as he pulled me safely to shore.
With the river disappearing into thick vegetation beyond the sweeper, we now needed to portage. Rivers in this part of the world are often braided. Back upriver a ways, a channel had forked off to our left. It was possible we’d be able to pick up this fork and float it till it rejoined the main stem. Ever mindful of bears and of equally dangerous moose mamas with their young, we stayed together as we scouted. Fortunately, we found the channel a relatively easy 100-yard hike away. We carried our gear to the new put-in and within a short float rejoined the Tazimina’s main flow. From there, it was a straightforward float to Six Mile Lake.
Meanwhile, although it was late May, ice was still forming on puddles in the early hours of the morning; temperatures had dropped into the low 30’s. I was heartened to see the distant, twinkling glow of lights in Nondalton. The winds were light, but even the very gentle current made paddling a chore as we headed across and slightly up the lake. In the darkness, I couldn’t tell if I was making headway. Jack assured me we that we were gradually reeling in the far shore line. “Find a light and focus on that,” he advised. Having a specific focal point helped. As we reached shore, my arms were throbbing, my body was shivering and my teeth were chattering.
We wearily dragged our bikes and rafts up to the house. Inside Walter’s warm house, I gratefully changed into dry clothes. By the time we had mugs of hot cocoa spiked with bourbon in our hands, it was after three AM.
When I got up later that day, I made a phone call to arrange for a flight to Homer. Two days later, back on “the mainland” with a blank slate and months ahead of us, we had an opportunity to create a new plan for another epic summer in Alaska.
The end. But stay tuned for coming posts about great food, wildlife photography and Alaska travel!