The Orvis Commitment
Paul Fersen, Senior Manager of Copywriters, The Orvis Company
I sat on the edge of the raft, watching the snags slip beneath us. There were thousands in the sixty miles of river, each of them clinging to twisted white bodies like the barbed wire of Verdun. Carcasses lined the shorelines like the aftermath of some apocalyptic battle.
The ceiling was low and the mountaintops disappeared above us as the ground disappeared below the Beaver, slipping effortlessly through the passes from Dillingham to Kukaktlim Lake. It seemed you could reach out and drag your fingers along the sides of the mountains like a child in a boat with his hand slipping through the water. I sat in the back so Coop, my ten-year old could ride in the front seat. He constantly turned back to me, that childish grin of wonder never leaving his face. Such fearlessness there is in youth. Nine cylinders of Pratt and Whitney precluded conversation but his face spoke volumes.
Glenn; Travis, his son and a fisheries biologist; and Julie, guide, cook and winter fund raiser stood waiting on the shore along with four rafts and enough food and equipment to fuel Stanley’s quest for Livingston. We would pay dearly in the next few hours for such luxury.
Along with Cooper and me were five men from Texas whose substantial discretionary income went partly toward pursuit of game and fish all over the world and partly toward sustaining those resources. True sportsmen they were and as it turned out honorable and worthy companions who Coop and I came to regard with great affection.
Coop is obsessed with fish. He will stand for hours over a bed of bream and catch them over and over again, never becoming sated. He now stood in the shallows of an Alaskan lake, surrounded by wilderness, stunned at the sight of hundreds of bright red sockeye before him. In seconds he was hooked to a big male and his fly line ripped the surface. By the time we moved the rafts to the river, he’d hooked four more. Our adventure was at hand.
I stood at the edge of the gravel bar, leaning against the raft, chest heaving, legs burning, dripping with sweat. The rain mattered little as no one would be dry that day.
“It’s worth it, “Glenn kept saying. “The reason this river is so pristine, this first ten miles keeps out the lightweights.”
“Four hundred pounds a bateau weighed – a grievous burden for the stoutest shoulders. The first carry was along a mountainside for three and a quarter miles… By the grace of God we ate well on this carry. The first pond was alive with salmon trout, pink fleshed and delicious, so eager for food that they came into shallow water to take a hook, four and five at a time struggling for bait.”
Yet at the same time I stood in a river much like Robert's Maine rivers, surrounded by salmon. Two hundred years ago, the upper reaches of the Kennebec must have been much like this, until civilization and its dams and pollution destroyed its salmon. Though Maine has long lost all but a ghost of her salmon runs, here was a river unchanged for eons with millions of sockeye thrashing past us on their annual journey toward their spawning lake, their huge red backs often exposed above water, grinding across gravel toward the next pool and a brief respite on their odyssey. Our first day the salmon we saw were almost home..
By mid-morning of the second day, the worst was behind us and the best lay ahead in the twists and turns of untouched water teeming with sockeye, kings, chum and pink salmon, with silvers to come in the lower reaches of the river. Behind these schools lay the rainbows, Dolly Varden and grayling, living off salmon flesh and salmon roe – a virtual conveyor belt of bacon and eggs. Hundreds of thousands of fish and no one to catch them but us.
Coop's obsession with fish was fueled by Travis, a young fisheries biologist born to the Alaskan bush and guiding on this trip. Coop became Travis's shadow and the questions flowed as endlessly as the river.
"The fish know this is their river by the smell. They even know which tributary and even which pool by the differences in the minerals. Every part of the river has a distinct difference in the water, at least to the salmon. They know exactly where they belong."
The night brought rest and spectacular meals, prepared by Julie, a professionally trained chef, who handles her boat and fishes with the best of them. Unquestionably attractive and in these environs startlingly so, her only nod to gender was a string of incongruous pearls. Waders and pearls: an enchanting combination. That she could conjure up scratch chocolate cakes in a Dutch oven, and had an ever-present bag of chocolate candy was all Coop cared to know.
On the fifth day, on a gravel bar having lunch, reality unceremoniously arrived – the faint drone of an engine, a jet boat moving up from the lower river, the first mechanical sound we had heard in a few days. It was then that we collectively understood the significance of the wild: the absence of man and his conveniences. Disappointed looks passed between us as though we'd been slapped.
The boat passed. It was a couple of guides from Bristol Bay on their day off headed upriver to fish, perhaps searching for what we had just lost. They stopped and talked to Travis, then continued upriver. The river quieted again. We continued downriver now painfully aware that we were nearing the end.
We fished from the rafts, drifting over pools, stopping intermittently at runs we knew would hold big rainbows; runs that concentrated the flesh and eggs flushing down from the countless dying salmon upriver.
An almost imperceptible motion in what was left of her tail pushed her the last few inches to the gravel. I knelt beside her and watched her gills move slowly until finally they stopped.
The following morning, Coop stood in the river searching for a rolling pink or silver. It was his last chance, the drone of the Beaver was faint in the distance. The tide was moving and the silvers moved with it, beginning their journey up the river, the last of the salmon to come home. I watched him cast here at the mouth of the river and realized he changed perceptibly in the past six days, exchanging a bit of the boy for a bit of the man. He looked taller. We were finishing our greatest adventure and perhaps one of our last as man and boy. Soon it would be man and man.
He stands at the mouth of his river, his ocean stretching out in front of him. His nets and predators, his long journeys, all lay before him. How extraordinary to be 10 and yet one never realizes it until 50. I have a father's faith that he will do something good on his journey, perhaps step up and work to save what's left.
I've already seen most of my nets, dodged most of my predators. My ocean is behind me and I now stand at the mouth of my river looking upstream.
Paul Fersen is a writer living in Dorset, Vermont and works for a venerable fly fishing company where he is on the conservation committee. The Conservation Fund is one of their valued affiliates. For more information on The Conservation Fund and their Southwest Alaskan Salmon Habitat Initiative, the largest land protection project of its kind, visit www.conservationfund.org