River of a Thousand Tongues
from the forthcoming book of the same title
The Kanektok flows east from the low hills strong and swift. It is
met by low country that rises only a few feet above the Bering Sea,
offering no valleys to guide the water. In confusion, the river pushes its
current tongues across the tundra and through the tangles of willow and
alder, seeking, always seeking, a new and truer way to the scapeless shores
of the icy sea. Searching now this way and now that through this low
country, the river loses its unity. Here it becomes a river of a thousand
Each current carves its own unique channel, each tongue develops
its own unique characteristic, each offers its own unique fishing. The men
who fish the river have called these places by names like Rainbow Express,
Upper and Lower Sod Hut, The Cutoff, and Favorite Pool, each name a
recollection of memories unique to those who have fished there.
One channel, winding lazily through the tundra proffers a place of
quiet currents where salmon can rest on their single-minded journey from
the sea. They've used this place since it was formed, unknown years past,
each new generation of fish somehow feeling the cadence established by
those gone before.
We waded carefully, there, so as not to spook the salmon in the
shallow water. We watched, too, for the restless ones finning at the
surface or porposing at the current edges. To these fish we cast our
flies, three-inch-long, silvery imitations of smelt or herring. We pulled
the flies slowly and watched closely for the line to draw tight. And then
came the moment, just after the hook was set, when neither fish nor fisher
knew precisely what was to follow.
But the salmon would quickly recover from its confusion and rush
headlong into the main currents of the river, often bursting from the
surface in its haste to be free. The fisher had to counter quickly or lose
the advantage of surprise. With rod bowed to the breaking point and reel
chattering its protests, the fish would be slowly tired. When it could at
last be grasped, the salmon would be quickly unhooked and released.
We caught a small one and its size was just right for us four. The
silvery flanks covered flesh of the orangest hue. Flesh that slid from the
backbone with the deft strokes of a guide's filet knife. Flesh that stayed
firm as it broiled over the coals of alder wood.
And after our meal, we lay on our backs on river- sorted pebbles
and watched the clouds march in from their birthing place over the icy sea.
The soft rays of the weak arctic sun touched our cheeks. The wind rasped
over the gravel, bearing the fragrance of willows and the musk of tundra.
We heard the racous squabbling of gulls and the haunting pipe of the
curlew. And, then, as we drifted into that semiconscious state just before
sleep, we heard the river's song.
At first as thin as the wind and as distant as our cares, it called
to us in plaintive tones. And as we strained to hear, it grew and
possessed our senses. It sang of fishes coming in from the sea through a
thousand cycles of the years. Of seals and killer whales and bone-tipped
spears. Of days of mucklucked men whose boots were made of salmon skin.
In its song were tears and joy. And anger, too, at abuse by men--both now
It wove a net around our hearts and minds as it sang to us that
day. Sang to us as it had to men since time began. Like the ancient
sirens of Ulysses, it called to each in a different way, as if it knew our
minds, as if it were a river of a thousand tongues.
The haunting song of the river pulled us back from the brink of
sleep. Back to our rods, back to the wind-swept gravel bars, back to the
sweeping flats and jangling riffles, back to our search for salmonid
We moved along the river in the jet boat, searching for other
places of promise. A swift channel emerged from between shrub-cluttered
banks, and the guide deftly swept the boat across the main current and into
its mouth. We roared along between banks that pressed ever tighter, and
suddenly, there against the shore, in the lee of a fallen tree, we spotted
the sockeye. Perhaps a trout held there amidst the bright red fish,
searching for eggs that dribbled from the overly gravid females.
The boat crunched to a stop on an upstream gravel bar, and we waded
down toward the salmon, the swift currents tugging at our legs, washing the
gravel from beneath our feet, threatening us at every moment. But with the
first cast, we knew this risky business was a worthwhile one. The big
leopard rainbow burst from the water in a long plunging leap and stripped
the reel to its core. In the heavy flow, the fish could bend the
eight-weight rod to almost intolerable limits. But flesh tires, and the
fish was eventually landed. There at the edge of the gravel it was
photographed; a record of its rosy reds, watery greens, silvers, and whites
all shot through with the elongate spots unique to this strain of trout.
Back in camp that night, our meal finished and the wood stove
clicking from the heat, we recounted the surprisingly difficult times we
had had with the struggles of these lovely fish. In the repeating, the
memories grew stronger, as did the all consuming desire to on the morrow
find another place of such lovely, tireless fish. Gradually the talk
waned, the cups were no longer sought with eagerness, the eyelids grew
heavy. And then we dreamed.
The rain woke us. Pattering down on the canvas roof and dripping
from the eves. Cool air frosted our breath. But then the guide came and
fired the wood burner. Hot tea filled our cups, and soon our eagerness for
the new day forced us from the close warmth of the down bags. Over the
pile clothes went wool and down and water-tight jackets.
Wind forced the rain against our faces and under the edges of a
loose jacket hood; clouds raked across the land. But though the weather
was harsh to us, the river kept its promise and yielded up its fishes in
arm-tiring frequency. Fingers made stiff by wind and rain fumbled with the
reel handle or dropped a fly. No one complained. We were warm and dry,
well-fed, and doing what we had dreamed of.
On this day that spoke more of duck marshes than trout waters we
found the dolly vardens and char. They held along the edges of gravel bars
where the river slid over at a smooth, quick pace. A scarlet egg fly
possessed them. They came one after the other to the steel and yarn sham.
With an almost endless strength they twisted the water about themselves,
forcing the angler to struggle as much as they.
The dolly vardens mirrored the midday arctic sky: pale blues
touched with small, cloud-like points of white and orange. The char
reflected the brilliance of the evening sun: flaming orange splashed along
their sides under a back of deep blue-green.
As we sat and talked around the evening meal, the clouds moved on,
and the sun warmed our canvas house. Looking out we saw a river of gold
washing past the camp. Though tired from the long day of searching for
trout and content from finding, we felt the pull of the river's call. The
camp pools were generous that evening, and our night cap was served in
chromium-bright flanks, rosy red sides, or skin of palest blue.
There were grayling in the river. too. And we found them with
on-demand regularity. Not large fish, they performed best on light rods,
flashing their irridescent sides and sail-like dorsals as they struggled.
Thus it was that the days slipped passed. Each a series of
searching casts and fish well fought. Each a bit different. Each
promising to be the best, trying to outdo the sharp, clear memories of
yesterdays. And each day the river sang to us its song.
And then our days along the river were gone. We did not mourn
their passing; rather, we reveled in the still lingering excitement of this
wild place and its eager fish. We took with us memories that will always
burn bright. To relive those days, we have only to pause and look at the
pale evening sky or smell of the cleaness of the air after a storm. The
river has found our heart of hearts.
Some day, I've promised myself, I'll go back. And after a shore
lunch of salmon, I'll lie on a bar of river-sorted pebbles and look up at
the clouds as they march in from their birthing place over the icy sea.
I'll close my eyes and feel on my cheek the touch of the weak arctic sun.
I'll smell of the land; the pure, sweet air scented with the fragrance of
willows and the musk of tundra. I'll open my hearing and dwell on the
sounds, the racous noise of quarrelsome gulls, the rasp of wind over the
stones, the haunting pipe of the curlew. And then, as I drift into that
semiconscious state just before sleep comes, I'll hear again the siren song
of this river of a thousand tongues.
Alaskan fishing has a way of getting into one's blood, and in my
years of adventures in the Alaskan wilds, I've worn every style of wading
shoe that we make at Weinbrenner. I've worn them all because Alaskan
waters offer such a good testing ground for the various designs that we've
developed over the years. I fish hard when I'm there, often putting in 14
hours of walking, wading, and drifting in search of the next big fish. And
the shoes had better keep up. I've never been disappointed. When I'm on a
back-country expedition, I take along the Ultimate Travellers. When I'm
staying at lodge and jet boating from place to place, I use the Ultimate
SCS to give me good grip on both the boat deck and the river bottom. When
fishing gravel botton rivers like the Kulik or Kanektok I grab my trusted
old friends, The Ultimate. When pursuing big bows in ledge-rock pools on
the Morraine I like the Studded Ultimates. The vastness of Alaska requires
flexibility in angling tactics, flies, and wading gear, and Weinbrenner
makes shoes to fit all those needs.