A Story Colder Than Vladimir Putin’s Black Heart

It was May in the year of our lord, nineteen hundred and eighty eight, and I was in the last frontier, the land of the midnight sun.

Alaska.

I found myself with some time off from my duties defending the northwest from those Commie Russian savages across the bearing straits. Along with a few friends I decided to take a little fishing trip on the Chena River. The Chena runs near Fairbanks, Alaska and, like all rivers in the area, is glacier-fed. In the middle of July it never really gets more than 45 degrees and in May, when the ice is still ringing the banks, it is cold enough to make your hand go numb if submerged for more than a few seconds.

Remember that for later.

The Arctic Graying is one of North America’s most beautiful game fish. It loves quick running, cold, clear streams in Canada and Alaska. It used to be plentiful in Michigan and as late as the 1920’s Grayling were found in the lower peninsula as far south as the Muskegon River. But alas, those days are long gone and now the best Arctic Grayling fishing is in our 50th State. The Grayling has a huge dorsal fin that isn’t rigid like most game fish, but is rather flexible. It folds over the fish’s back and it’s dark color contrasts well with the rainbow of iridescent colors on the rest of Mr. Graying’s body. It is a wonder of nature.

My friends and I decided our best bet was to pursue these fish in a small offshoot of the Chena River called Piledriver Slough. Your guess is as good as mine as to the origins of the name, but I have my theories. I think it so aptly named because by the time you fight the Alaska wilderness to reach the slough, you feel as if you have been administered a signature “Piledriver” by that 80’s wrestling Icon Paul “Mr. Number Wonderful” Orndorff (Google it, Kids.  We’ll wait).

We had done quite a bit of pack-in fishing in the years I spent in Alaska and it all pretty much followed the same routine. We would find a nice sized river on the map and decide if it was adequate to fish. We would then drive one of our vehicles as close to the river as we could and park it. Loaded down with all the gear we would need for a few nights in an Alaskan wilderness, we would hike until we found a suitable site next to the river. Usually the suitability of the site was in direct correlation to how far we had traveled and how tired we were. This meant that sometimes we would stumble (literally, not figuratively) upon a wide clearing next to the river strewn with boulders and knife-sharp rocks that was on a 30 degree angle and declare it the “perfect spot”.

On this particular trip it was decided that we would take my truck. Every self-respecting outdoorsman owns a truck. It is the code of the wilderness. My “truck” just happened to be a 1987 Toyota Tercel four door compact. We drove my “truck” on the main highway for about 45 miles until we came to what the map called a “secondary road”. This consisted of two small tracks angling away from the highway and into the dense wilderness. Only a fool would attempt to traverse an Alaskan “secondary road” without a 4X4 truck or SUV with substantial ground clearance. Only the insane would try it in a two-wheel drive Toyota compact loaded down with four grown (if not totally matured) men and four days worth of camping supplies.

Three hours and about 20 miles later, my Toyota came to the end of the two-track. Branches protruded from underneath the remaining windshield wiper and I had obtained a new pinstripe that started right in front of the passenger door and zig-zagged to about the gas cap. We had reached the proverbial “End Of The Road”.

We all piled out of my “truck” and prepared for our extensive hike to the stretch of the slough we had decided to fish. Many of you may have had occasion to read “Backpacker” magazine, or seen television shows featuring pack-in hunting or fishing. The star of the show/article usually has the best gear money can buy. He usually has a super lightweight pack with padding everywhere, camelback hydration system, and a featherweight tent and sleeping bag. With us, not so much.

We generally obtained all of our backpacking and camping gear from our post central issue facility. Our tents consisted of shelter halves. Each soldier is issued a half and when put together they form a tent for two. This resulted in our camping and fishing trips requiring an even number of participants. This also meant I did have to use the math I learned in school for practical purposes. I guess I owe you an apology, Mr. Morrow. The shelter halves were also made of very thick, very heavy canvass so it pretty much took two guys to carry one tent, anyway.

That brings us to our backpacks. The army called them A.L.I.C.E. packs, the acronym escaping me at this time. We called them Rucksacks, or rucks. Well, we called them rucks for the first 10 miles, then our names for them changed to more colorful terms that, if uttered around children, will get your picture on the Michigan Sex Offenders Registry.

We “rucked up” and started our hike in the general direction of water. This was not the hike most people familiar with the “lower 48″ are accustomed to. These trails were not forged from the wilderness by some State Parks Service. They were usually the result of moose or other game using the same track to get to water. They weren’t faint trails that required a machete to traverse, but they were by no means improved trails. We hiked for about six miles, the curses we directed at our rucksacks keeping the bears and other wild animals safely at bay.

Eventually we broke from the trees and came upon a clearing next to our objective, the majestic Piledriver Slough. It was a pretty good campsite, with only a few golf ball sized rocks and only a little standing water. After six miles of hiking it seemed about as nice as any campsite at any KOA in America. We pitched our tents (insert gay camp joke here), got a fire going and ate our “appropriated” Army rations while we game-planned the fishing for the next morning. We went to bed that night with dreams of Arctic Grayling floating in our heads and 12 Gauge shotguns an arms length away. (Being Grizzly bear country we all carried 12 gauge shotguns with shortened, “sawed off” barrels. I probably could have skipped that part in the story but, hell, it was pretty cool and made us all feel like bad asses.

For the next three days we had a fishing trip that most men only dream of. We had gone far enough into the woods that there was no fishing pressure and the fish had never seen artificial baits or flies. We caught hundreds of Arctic Grayling, keeping only the nicest few to cook over our open fire each night. It was the kind of trip that happens once in a lifetime if you have never lived in Alaska and only happens once every few weeks if you have.

As I awoke on the final morning of our trip, I felt a certain sadness that I would be leaving it all behind to go back to work. It made me feel a little depressed that I may have to wait three or four weeks to do it again. I put the thoughts behind me and got down to some serious fishin’. Thinking back, I believe my feeling that morning may have been a portent, an omen if you will, of events to conspire.

Three hours later I had come to the farthest part of the slough we had fished up to that point. The reason no one had gone farther was that our side of the slough had become impassable due to a giant raspberry thicket. None of us were as much scared of the raspberry thorns as we were of any bears that might have been residing in the thicket. The other shore of the slough was open and just a little further down was an overhanging bank that tantalized us with its possibility of monster Grayling.

The only means of crossing the slough was a small, moss-covered tree that had fallen across the stream. It was rickety, slippery and looked to even have a light sheen of ice covering it. This was May in Alaska and still got very cold at night. None of us had quite fostered enough courage to try the tree and reap the bounty of the “other side”.

As I casted intently to the same little holes I had been fishing into for days I kept glancing down at that small overhang on the other side. Eventually I swore I could hear the giant fish that just had to be there calling out to me.

“Brrrryyyyyaaaannn! Come on! You can cross that tree. I’m here Bryan. Waiting.  For you.” It whispered quietly.

The voice of a lover in the early morning hours never sounded so sweet.

“Brrryyyaaannn. Come to me. I want you to catch me. I need you to catch me. Please, you can cross that tree. It is young, but it is strong.”

I tried to ignore the siren song of this magnificent fish. Crossing that tree would be lunacy.

“Brrryyyaaann. Come to me. Come to me now. Don’t be a little biiiiiitch.”

That was just too much. I walked to the tree and put one boot on it to test its strength. It seemed strong enough. I didn’t notice my friends a few yards up the stream, looking at each other with concerned looks.

As I took my first tentative step on the tree, my friends came to my rescue, trying to stop the insanity.

“Don’t do it man!” One cried.

“If you fall in, you’ll be in serious trouble!” Another reasoned.

“Dude, there’s ice and moss on that tree! You don’t stand a chance!” The last one exclaimed.

“Biiiiiiitch!” Cried the fish.

Halfway across the tree I actually thought I would make it. I had gone carefully and smoothly. One step in front of the other. Slow and steady wins the race. In one step, however, I went from victory to tragedy. One tiny slip of the foot shifted my balance about 1/4 inch and that was all it took.

I didn’t go down without a fight. It’s important to me that you know that.  I shifted my weight back the other way, overcorrected like a first time driver in an ice storm and then overcompensated the other way. The result was a morbid dance of death three feet above the icy waters of Piledriver Slough. In the end it was all for naught. I fell from the tree and plunged into the icy water. As I entered the water I could have sworn I heard a scaly, insidious laugh coming from a small overhang a few yards down-river.

As soon as I hit the water, all the stories I had heard in first aid class about hypothermia came back in vivid color. I also noticed a few symptoms that we were not taught by our company medic:

Your testicles shrink to the size of raisins when they come in contact with water under 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

You do NOT have to be a messiah to walk on water.

Your motor functions and ability to speak will have quite a fierce competition to see who can desert you first. In the end it will be a photo finish.

I managed to get out of the water and clamber up the bank. Picture Rosie O’Donnell making out with Roseanne Barr. That is the only thing that comes close to producing the shiver that I experienced that day. And it wasn’t even really that close. I could actually feel the blood leaving my extremities and moving to my core where it was desperately needed. In all seriousness, I was in big trouble.

My buddies were there in seconds. While two of them frantically gathered wood for a fire, the other started peeling wet clothes from my body. I tried to make a smart ass remark about buying me dinner first but all that came out was a strangled, “Goo.”

In a few minutes the guys had wood piled up for a fire. One produced matches but they could not get the damp wood to light. Was this how I was destined to check out? Naked and surrounded by guys in the woods? My hypothermia-dulled mind reflected that the eulogy had better not mention this part.

My friend Brady finally remembered a little trick. He produced some Army issued mosquito repellent from his pack and doused the wood with it. As the match touched the repellant, it burst into a bright, hot flame that soon had the wood ablaze. Everyone was amazed until they all stopped, looked at their repellant-covered arms and moved away from the fire three or four steps.

Two hours later I had warmed up sufficiently to put on my fire-dried clothes and go back and break camp.

12 hours after that I was tucked into my barracks room bed, my outsides warming nicely from three blankets, my insides warming nicely from the hot chocolate/peppermint schnapps I had just downed. My friends were off telling anybody who would listen about the incident and getting quite a few laughs over it. I cut them a break on that. Something about saving my life and all. As I fell off to sleep I heard a small voice, which seemed to come from miles and miles away under about four feet of water whisper:

“Biiiiiiiiitch.”

In the end I got through the incident with only a debilitating case of bronchitis and a bad memory. I got off lucky considering.

Of course I still have the talking fish dreams but, then, don’t we all.

 

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