Saturday, August 10, 2013

Alaska Dreams

The sweet, fresh smell of the tundra -- powered by lichen, moss, and berries -- filled my nostrils and eased my mind as I lay near the shore of a nameless lake in the Katmai National Park awaiting a long overdue float plane. The plane was to take us back to the Naknek River Camp after an exhilarating day of fishing for char, chum, grayling and rainbows on Contact Creek. Had we been near the banks of the crystal clear waters of Contact rather than the murky waters of this small lake I wouldn't have minded the plane's tardiness at all. But Contact was an hour away, my body was worn out from the long hike out and there was no chance I'd pass the time fishing.

Thankfully the soft tundra served as a comforting cushion as I began to drift toward the edge of sleep. Memories of vast vistas, protective mother bears and powerful fish floated across my mind. Alaska overwhelms the senses. It is as close as I expect I will ever get to visiting another planet. While we have left many scars on her landscape and waters, here in this corner of Katmai there is only wildness. As far as the eye can see there is no sign of man's mark.

In Alaska one is constantly reminded of Aldo Leopold's observation that wilderness allows us to see the true complexity of "the land organism." Every cog and wheel of that complex organism can still be found here. The bald eagles that were nearly wiped out in the lower 48 dominate the skies here (and thankfully they can even know be seen amid the many scars of Steelhead Alley). Brown bears that are rare elsewhere carve innumerable trails through the tundra. And here the rainbow trout -- reduced to  being all-but a synthetic fish through much of the U.S. -- show off their many spots, bright red stripes and stainless steel sides with much-merited pride. They leap from the cold, clear water generating thousands of diamond drops that shimmer in the sun. And the sky goes on forever -- uninterrupted by either soot, smoke, wire or pole.

Alaska bores into the soul and returns in our sleep. Long after we lifted off from that lake -- and long after returning to the shores of Lake Erie -- the smell of lichen and berries return. My dreams are bathed in the soft pink light of a midnight sunset as a full moon rises over the Naknek. I am pulled awake by the sensation of a reel spinning in reverse as an imagined fly rod bounces in my hand.

Long ago -- of a similarly mystical (but now significantly altered) place -- Norman MacLean captured better than I ever will the feeling that I now carry with me: "Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-county rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it...I am haunted by waters."

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