Sunday—I think it’s Sunday; days of the week don’t have much meaning out here, and neither does time of day, for that matter—finds us back on the George. At Grant’s we were informed that the best fishing is just above the weir, where the salmon are gated so they can be counted before continuing upstream. So after saying our goodbyes this morning we headed back downriver in search of salmon. Lou has one on the hook right now—a big one, it looks like.
We made it last night to James’ friend Grant Fairbanks’s place on the Holitna (sp?) River. He has 40 acres up here with a 30-year-old hexagonal log cabin and a new three-story house that he’s in the middle of building.
It’s a whole different lifestyle here than anything I’m used to. There’s no indoor plumbing and bathing is done from a basin, Japanese-style, after which you plunge into a one-man hot tub to get your body temperature up. Fortunately, it was quite balmy last night, so I was able to wash up and put on clean clothes. This was very necessary after three grimy days on the boat.
Our cigar supply has gotten dangerously low, and James has started looking furtively around like a junkie who knows that hard times are ahead. We’re down to our last box with three days to go, and a rationing program has been put into effect. We need to make sure James doesn’t get the DTs, because he’s driving the boat.
I spent quite a while yesterday afternoon rowing the boat while James and Willis fished. A very pleasant afternoon actually, though they didn’t catch much. Jimmy got one silver and Willis was shut out entirely. We drifted down the George River three times before heading back up the Kuskokwim.
We had a lovely interlude this afternoon in the town of Crooked Creek, a veritable metropolis nestled way out here in the middle of nowhere.
We had just stopped the boat and walked up to the local P.O. when from clear across the river came the sound of Johnny Cash singing “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow.” It’s a pretty wide river, too, so that must have been one powerful sound system. A friendly native lady told us that it belonged to her father’s cousin, an 80-something-year-old guy (exact age unknown) who liked his music loud. My kind of guy.
She also regaled us with tales of moose hunting, gave some advice as to the location of prime fishing spots, and was kind enough to tell us what happens after you die: You climb up a spiral and after 20 days, you’re halfway to the top; after 40 days, you’re all the way at the top; but it takes you a full year to get where you’re going. That’s if you were a good person. “If you were ugly,” she said, “it’s a lot harder.” This is why when somebody dies, the tribe memorializes them with three feasts, 20 days, 40 days, and one year later.
At one point she said, “When I go down to L.A., they expect me to have these pearls of wisdom dripping from my lips. I want to tell them, ‘We’re winging it just like you.’ ” I never did catch her name.
We made an effort to find one of the spots she recommended so Willis can fish for salmon. We’re not 100% sure we’re in the right place, and so far he hasn’t had any luck, but all is well.
The weather has been awesome—surprisingly warm but cool enough to make you glad to be in your tent. Finding a place to put the tent has been another matter. There’s such a profusion of life here that finding a clearing is next to impossible. Also, most of the riverbank is sloped, so we spent about an hour last night cruising for a suitable campsite. Once we did find one, much stomping of vegetation was necessary before we could set up. But in the end we were quite comfortable and for the second night in a row I slept like a goddamn log—no tossing and turning, no waking up in the middle of the night to piss.
On the downside, I appear to have lost my beloved black Thinsulate hat—acquired in Dover, England—in Aniak yesterday. But on the return upside I purchased a maroon knit hat in Crooked Creek, and I have a very positive feeling about this new hat.
James is cooking up beef burritos in the back of the boat, and maybe I should be helping him.
James, Willis, and I are on our second day on the Kuskokwim River as I begin writing in this very expensive [Moleskine] notebook that I purchased in Sea-Tac airport. Currently we are drifting down a channel in a cloud of gnats and mosquitoes as Willis flycasts off the bow. So far he has caught three medium-sized pike, each of which he has mercifully cut loose and returned to the water.
Lou and I arrived in Bethel [AK] at 7:15 yesterday morning on Johnny Cash Airlines Flight 41. I think it was Flight 41…in fact I’ve been in somewhat of a fog lately, after five exhausting days on the set of Homeworld X followed by a three-leg overnight plane trip. I met up with Lou in Seattle and we proceeded from there to Anchorage, where we spent six hours shivering in the freezing cold airport as we awaited our 6 AM flight. In fact that was the coldest I’ve been on this trip—too cold to sleep, so I arrived in Bethel in a severely depleted state. Since then I’ve been slowly catching up on my rest, but I can’t seem to set foot in the boat without nodding off.
I am viewing these pages through the mesh grid of my brand new mosquito-net-equipped hat, acquired at the CS store in lovely Aniak, Alaska. The mosquito situation is not too bad right now, but the gnats are numerous and bothersome, leading me to smoke two cigars over breakfast this morning. Which I rather enjoyed, actually, but it may not be the best idea to make a habit of it.
A small shower has sprung up at the moment, but things are very peaceful. Lou just snagged another pike, which stubbornly refused to let go of the fly and then clamped its mouth down on the line as Lou attempted to free it.
We left Bethel at about 4 PM yesterday in James’s new metal boat. A few hours upriver we found a suitable camp spot, then drank some scotch and feasted on chicken burritos. When we hit the sack around midnight it was still dusky outside, but I for one slept like a dead man. James complained in the morning of some intestinal distress and dehydration.
Lou just caught a nice big one. It put up a good fight and eventually James had to put on gloves and bring it into the boat with his hands. I refer you to the photo record for further documentation of this thrilling incident.
Speaking of thrilling incidents, there was an exciting moment earlier today when I took my first turn behind the wheel of the boat. I was nervous about this because said boat travels at a very high rate of speed and requires you to pay close attention to a) staying on the right course with the aid of the constantly shifting GPS map and b) watching out for floating logs and other dangers. I am a confident driver on land, but on the water I am out of my element.
Well, I had been at the controls for maybe a minute when James started frantically waving his hands and shouting over the deafening engine noise, “Stop the boat! Stop the boat!”
Unfortunately, not having been fully trained, I didn’t know how to stop the boat. So after spending a few seconds fruitlessly jabbing at the controls with my monkey fingers, I hastily vacated the pilot’s seat and James leapt into action.
Once we were safely stopped, I inquired as to how I had fucked up, but it turned out James had seen the anchor line start to feed into the water, which is A Dangerous Thing. After taking some time off to let my heart regain its normal rhythm, I did drive for a while later without incident.
Normally the picture du jour is one that I take, not one that I steal from the Associated Press (thank you, Louis Lanzano). But how about this poignant shot of bald, portly Boy George sweeping up trash under the watchful eye of New York City’s finest?