I had fallen into the pattern of seeing how many Camels I could smoke during the six-mile run upstream. Upon arriving at the end of the creek I would cut the motor just at the right time. The flat-bottomed johnboat would then coast gently into my parking spot making me look like the coolest guide ever.
There was always sudden hush when I killed the engine that was only broken by the bow easing into the slide marks on the gravel bar that I had left from the day before. For a few seconds you could hear the water slap the boat’s gunnels before the loud splash that I made as I bailed over the side. A smile would always find its way to my face about the same time the boat would grind to a stop on the small river rocks. Today I would have to remember to smile, I reminded myself of this as a new clump of grass in the water brought me out of my daydream.
The trip up the creek to the spot where the boat could go no further was progressing somewhat normally. Cigarette number two had been lit from the glowing cherry of cigarette number one just about the time the boat left the slow meandering corners of the lower end of the creek. The creek became a shallow freestone stream with a rocky bottom that raced to the lake below almost instantly. One second the boat was in 5 feet of slow, mercurial water but one sudden right-hand turn and I was driving through water that was almost invisible and ankle deep. On routine days this is the point where the boat driving got a little stressful but today I was instantly on edge as I navigated the boat through the first shallow spot.
Ansel had his camera clicking away, his large frame almost rocking out of the boat when I turned the boat. His most violent swaying was caused by me purposely squaring off the corners. A few minutes earlier I had almost put the large guy on the floor when I had to slam the tiller handle to the right to miss a new chunk of tree in the water. Both of his feet had flown into the air as he grabbed the edge of the boat to keep from ending up on his back. This moment of “guide joy” had caused his cohorts to laugh in creepy unison. One of the toadies even turned around and gave me a “thumbs up”. This was something that didn’t go unnoticed by Ansel and he responded by yelling at the offending angler over the engine; “Screw you!” From that moment forward I juked the boat randomly any chance that I could without Ansel figuring out what was going on. I stuck smoke number three between my smiling lips and looked east into the glare of rising sun. Its glare off of the water searing my retinas through my sunglasses as it burned its way into the morning.
Anyone who has ever driven a boat knows the sound of a straining motor. The continuous droning was a bit unnerving to me and I had tried to throttle down a bit. For a very brief second, I had barely eased back on the throttle. At the exact second that I slowed the fuel to the engine, there was the sound of popping popcorn. Instantly I went to full throttle causing the boat to jump forward as the bow broke the surface tension of the water. I relaxed a little as the metallic sound of gravel from the bottom of the creek being sucked into the jet pump was left behind. “Knock it off! I can’t focus;” Ansel snarled, jolting me from the silent self-congratulatory daydream.
At that moment, a couple of seagulls that had been quietly feasting on a dead salmon’s eyeballs were frightened by the combination of sounds from the motor and Ansel. They took to the air, circling back around about ten feet off of the water and on a course that would bring them over the boat. I secretly prayed that the birds would get scared just enough to dump a whole load of digested salmon parts on Ansel as we passed under them. Smoke number 3 fell from my lips when I mumbled; “Please God.” I then focused on the flying birds as I tried to steer the boat to the point where it would be directly underneath the sky rats.
Things happen very rapidly in jet boats. Bad things happen at the speed of light. There is no braking or ejection seat. If something goes bad, then you have to ride it out. More often than not, the boat accidents or incidents, if you prefer, are preventable brain farts on the part of the driver. However, there are times when certain inexplicable events transpire in our universe that are one time anomalies that would go unnoticed if happening one second sooner or earlier. When two of these unusual occurrences coincide in the time-space continuum then there is trouble. Double trouble, so to speak.
On that morning as the sun rose in southwest Alaska over some of the finest trout fishing waters in the world I had forgotten this rule of the universe. I had forgotten the vicious impact of this sudden, volatile convergence on small green jet boats. Particularly ones that are overloaded with fishing gear and jackasses. My lust for vengeance on the fat guy wrapped in Simms gear who sat like some pompous figurehead in the bow of the boat had become the reason that I existed. I was there to right a wrong, one that has been perpetrated on fishing guides around the world since there have been fish and people who hire people to help them catch fish.
The boat was going to cross perfectly under the flight path of the small flock of seagulls. My mind had raced ahead to what was going to happen when we were under them. I would yell, playing it off as a bored guide having fun. Startled by my unexpected scream, these overly large seagulls would, without warning, drop five gallons of digested, gooey white bird shit directly onto Ansel. I didn’t even care if they got me. Collateral damage is a sad fact of war and I had already accepted this as part of the final outcome.
Harmonic convergences happen to balance our existence within the realm that we inhabit. Fly fishing is one of the vehicles that a higher power has created to propagate change and introspection in those who think their shit doesn’t stink. In a matter of five seconds, Ansel and I were about to relearn the yin-yang that silently accompanies most anglers as they fish through life.
The boat was flying along on a long, wide stretch of the creek that was no deeper than the length of a #2 pencil. A breeze was blowing just enough to dislodge the golden leaves that clung to the creaking limbs on the cottonwoods that towered over the alders that lined the river’s edge. They fell and fluttered all around my us as our craft skimmed the water, charging on as if it were a lone Cossack in a Pasternak novel. It was one of those moments that I had at least once a day when I was guiding, as surreal as it was sublime. Fragments of time like this one made dealing with the likes of Ansel worth it all.
My daydream ended just as we crossed under the gulls. I was about to holler, hoping my screaming banshee imitation would literally scare the shit out of them. That is when the ruddy-faced tool for evil that sat in the bow of my boat did me one better than I could ever do to him. He decided to throw his large frame on its back the length of the small bow deck in front of him. The repercussions from his sudden desire to aim his camera straight upward at the bellies of the seagulls that were about to cross our boat’s path were as sudden as they were disastrous.
Ansel was one of those people who never thought about the consequences of any of his actions. He had skated through the first half of his life a bullying, self-entitled youth. The problem was that he was skating through the second half of his life exactly the same way he did the first half. So when he made his decisively emphatic movement forward I wasn’t too surprised. It was when he placed a boat cushion as far forward as he could and then turned to face me that my brain froze. The instant my brain processed what was about to occur, the banshee scream that was staging in my belly morphed instinctually into a desperately loud plea of; “Everyone hold on!”
Before the full mass of the fishing photographer finally came to rest in its new prone position on the bow deck. I knew what was about to happen and it did. The bow of the boat was immediately driven into the water by the weight of Ansel’s huge head and lard ass. This lead to the boat coming off plane, which in turn almost stopped the boat dead in the water. The rapid deceleration then launched me forward on to the backs of the three unfortunate fishermen who had been seated a second earlier on the bench seat in front of me. Khaki colored Gore-Tex was strewn about the boat like a truckload of Simms gear had just crashed. The only difference was that the Simms jackets and waders on the floor of the boat had men inside of them and I was sprawled across them.
On all outboard motors, there is a piece of stretchy plastic cord that is hooked to an emergency kill switch. The other end of the cord is supposed to be attached to the driver. In theory, this is to stop the engine from running if the captain is bounced overboard or is thrown away from the tiller handle. It is a very simple safety device that is almost effective 100% of the time at shutting the engine off. But it has to be used and I hadn’t clipped mine on that morning, I never did.
The problem was with the cord. It was so short that if I reached for anything or leaned forward to say something to a guest it would inevitably pull the safety clip, shutting down the motor. But as I laid across the groaning pile of older men I felt the boat grind across the rocks that lined the bottom of the creek. Frantically I squirmed around trying to get to my feet so I could get to the engine. As I wriggled around helplessly, the angry noise of popping and grinding of rocks being sucked through the grate and into the pump was getting louder with every second that passed.
Finally righting myself, I was able to shut the straining motor off. In the silence, there was only the sound of the water rushing around the green steel hull and that of seagulls as they flew away leaving their loud mocking cries behind. The boat had come to rest in about four inches of water smack dab in the middle of the stream. My knees were on the rear seat and I was facing downstream looking over the black cowling of the Evinrude. A few hundred yards below us was a sow with three little furballs standing on their hind legs watching and wondering what they had just witnessed. Even with what had just transpired the previous ten seconds before, the little bears put a smile on my face.