Coloring Outside the Lines of my Imagination
I thoroughly enjoy the unexpected. If I knew exactly what I would find in a place, it would be less of an exploration. I guess that’s part of the reason I shy away from large, sanitized resorts and contrived places. Like and odd twist in a story or unpredictable plot, learning about a new place brings a sense of discovery to travel.
Just north of Anchorage is a large alluvial plain where runoff from the surrounding mountains makes its way south to the Cook Inlet. Vast and flat, this area is in constant change. What was once river is land marked with a crescent of younger vegetation. Trees topple from the banks in large swaths where the river rose and pushed them over, losing hold as soil was washed away. Miles of trees which could not outwait floods stand dead after their roots were drowned. Moss and brown needles still clinging to the evergreens, and the once leafy deciduous trees now white, gnarled hands reaching, tortured and arthritic, skyward. Dense undergrowth and bogs. And, most notably, rivers.
I come from the Western part of the United States, and my beliefs about rivers were formed by those I grew up with. Fly fishing and whitewater rafting have led me to spend a fair amount of time on and around them. Rivers behaved in certain ways, although powerful and demanding respect, they had a predictability I came to expect. Streams would start in the mountains, cascade down ravines, joining others to form rivers along the way, growing larger as gravity pulled the water back toward the sea. Over time, they cut through stone and washed away earth to create large canyons. Flooding changes rapids, moving boulders, and topples trees. Banks erode and eddies build them up again elsewhere. But, once combined, rivers do not break apart to form smaller streams. Although they shift about in the bottom of the canyon, they do not break through and flow miles outside of their course.
What I found in Alaska broke these notions. Almost all of the land in this plain was once river, is river, or will sometime be river. Much of what is not river is lake or bog. We took Greg’s boat in a full circle, up Little Lake Creek where it flowed out of Lake Creek, and back down Lake Creek to the Yentna. The Skwentna River upstream splits apart and rejoins, with braids flowing miles from the main channel. Waters made dangerous not from rapids caused by drops in the land, but by the river itself. Trees pulled in by the current and lodged mid-stream and shifting sandbars revealing themselves when the water level drops.
Our late summer visit was during the latter part of the salmon runs. On the smaller rivers where the water is clear, rather than the milky tan of glacier melt, piles of fish lay dead and dying along the banks and in pools of water. Algae covered bodies rock silently in the river bottom. Stink comes off maggoty fish carcasses strewn along gravel beds; mouths open and silent, eyes removed by seagulls. Bear tracks in the mud lead to fresher remains, stripped clean. Even so, a few bright silvers are still in the river, and will take a fly from time to time. The chum still put up a good fight when caught. Standing mid-thigh a few feet from shore, the smell fades. The crowds of fishermen have gone home, and we have the place to ourselves.
The long hours of daylight have created a burst of life with thick ferns and wildflowers crowding the river’s edge. Tall grass flattened where a bear stood over a pool hunting salmon resting in the calmer water. I marvel about the wildness of the place. The power of rivers without bounds and the pull of instinct bringing thousands of fish to return home and spawn at the end of life. And, this end of life coming full circle, just like the rivers, to bring life to this place.September 29, 2009- Update: I have posted several image galleries of this Alaska trip on the main Gill Adventures site: http://www.gilladventures.com/region-alaska.html
Image galleries of Alaska:
Yentna River, Skwentna River to Lake Creek
Skwenta River, Talachulitna to the Yentna
Talachulitna River, at the mouth "The Tal"
Lake Creek, near the mouth at the Yentna
Little Lake Creek at Hogie’s Cabin
Fish Lakes and Fish Lakes Creek
Trail Ridge Air Taxi