“Nice Job Hazelwood!”
The boat was parked mid-stream. There was a 30′ long white skid mark on the bottom of the river where the boat’s hull had scraped along until we came to rest. My crew and I weren’t even close to floating anymore. The furrow plowed in the rocks by my poor boat reminded me of a perfect example of two lateral moraines. At that moment, as I knelt on the rear seat of a boat that was aground in the middle of nowhere, my thoughts drifted away. For a second, I was sitting in a dark lecture hall while a geology professor dryly talked of horns, aretes, and cirques. “Nice job Hazelwood!” roared through my little psychic respite, obviously Ansel was back on task busting my balls.
Captain Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood, formerly captain of the Exxon Valdez, would have been quite sympathetic if he had witnessed what had just happened. Both incidents were patently the fault of each craft’s pilot for not expecting the unexpected. The only difference was that I was stone cold sober and my super tanker driving counterpart was tanked. But he hadn’t had a petulant elephant seal with a camera in his boat goading him when he hit the rocks. “Lucky guy;” I thought to myself in momentary self-pity.
I didn’t want to turn around and face what I knew was coming. As I spun around I saw that the three shaken anglers in front of me were already cowering. Ansel was standing with his camera to his eye capturing my every movement. Seeing the fat guy with his Iowa State ball cap spun around on his head with his perfectly white dentist’s smile demonically glowing from under his camera lit a fire in my belly. He started to lower his camera fully intending to unleash a litany of cuss words upon me, my mother and my boat driving skills.
When you are a guide, particularly in Alaska, you are the boss. Your guests’ safety is the only thing that matters. The man who stood in the bow of “My” boat had gotten to me, that was my fault. There was going to be no more of Ansel driving “My” boat. I’d had enough and I was going to wring the narcissism out of him or wring his neck. In seconds I had a Camel lit and my sunglasses off so he could see how much anger was smoldering in my eyes. “Tom! Sit down and shut (I might have said “the fuck”, I don’t remember)up!”, I said somewhat sternly as I jumped into the ankle-deep water. A decisive calm overcame me as my wading boots charged the length of the boat faster than any bear had ever bluff charged me. The only difference was that this was no bluff and Tom was going to wish I was a bear by the time I was done with him. I just hoped that the smile I felt inside hadn’t crept onto my lips.
Apparently, I surprised him. The bully’s barrage of bile that he had mustered was clearly stuck in his throat. I was determined that those words would never make it past his pearly white implants. Arriving in front of him with a splash and a cloud of smoke I slipped on a dead sockeye tweaking my back a bit. For a second he stood scornfully staring down at me from inside the boat sneering gleefully at my near accident contemplating where this was going. “I said to sit down Tom. Do it now;” the menace in my tone combined with a smile confused him.
Now all eyes in the boat were on me, one pair was burning holes through my soul and the three others were watching wide-eyed for what was going to happen next. Later that day one of the other anglers told me how shocked he was when Tom sat down. Tom must have realized that he was no longer king when his butt hit the seat as his huge, ruddy face seemed to shrink as it turned a soft, featureless pink. I took a drag of my smoke and waited for the final death throes of the man’s ego. It was coming, these types never accepted the inevitable until you were standing on the bloated corpse of their ego.
I wondered how he got his overly-large hands into a patient’s mouth when he balled them into quivering fists. The fuse had been lit for the final explosion that I knew was coming. Maybe it was the smile under my mustache that been too much for Tom or maybe he was trying to mask his embarrassment, we will never know. But without warning, sort of, the large dentist was on his feet. His jowls were swinging side to side, the capillaries rupturing by the thousands as he desperately tried to save face by launching into his usurper. “You smug bastard!(this I do remember word for word) Wait until I tell your…;” is all he managed to get out before I cut him off.
“Tell my boss?”; I finished for him with a spiteful grin. He didn’t know it, but he was done. I sat down on the bow of the boat and watched the last of that year’s salmon spawning around the boat suddenly exhausted as they were. A breeze had kicked up again softly plucking the leaves from the cottonwoods and dropping them around the parked boat. My dangling feet were kicking in the water with a slow, deliberate joy. Without thinking I turned my head to the left to look up the creek and I was instantly alone in the Alaska that I loved.
A pair of minks were rummaging through the mottled red bodies that were strewn along the water’s edge less than 50 yards above us. They were skittering around the gravel bar like children looking for eggs on Easter morning. The minks were darting around the small rocks, more playing than looking for breakfast. I watched with a smile while the chocolate brown creatures bounced from dead fish to dead fish happily barking at one another.
Suddenly without any contemplation, they were racing towards an old raven that had been trying to ignore the mischievous duo. The poor old bird was trying to pluck the eyes out of a still flopping salmon when they started their berserk sprint over the rocks towards him. Instantly annoyed at the little furry balls of torment that he saw zooming towards him, the raven waited until the last second to take to the air. The sounds of the three heavy, frustrated wing-beats rolled across the salmon cemetery that lifted the angry bird into the air. As he fled into the sky, the blackbird squawked shrill curses at the fearless little carnivores from above. Ignoring their castigation from above, they started to fight over his dying fish.
Time To Go Fishing
“Tell him Tom;” my measured words still sounded threatening but had a slight tone of reconciliation. “You won’t win and might even end up back in Anchorage a few days early.”
“Bull. I’m going to have your job;” the indignant man was still trying to save face.
“So let me get this straight. I am going to get fired because you wouldn’t do what I told you to do? Then you totally screwed the pooch by putting all 300 lbs…”
“275;” he interrupted sheepishly.
“Whatever, all 275 lbs. of your body onto the bow without thinking what it would do. You are lucky no one got hurt or any of the rods got broken;” I was going into full scolding mode now. “That was one of the dumbest moves ever. Even a person who had never been in a jet boat wouldn’t pull a dumbass maneuver like you did. Now the impeller is full of rocks and we will be lucky to get back to the airplane;” this was a little lie but he was looking like a beaten puppy by now and I was tasting blood. “From here on out you will do exactly what I say or I will turn the boat around. That is if I can fix it. Do you want to be the reason that we sat all day with the bears and mosquitos at the pickup spot waiting for the plane?” His face was pallid by now, his head hanging low as he tried to avoid looking me or the others in the face.
“Ok, everybody out of the boat;” I had said what needed to be said. Tom’s three buddies were having a ball, mostly at Tom’s expense. They had videoed everything, managing to get most of what I said recorded without me noticing. I told them to wade up to the gravel bar where I had seen the minks playing. Tom’s three cohorts were obviously feeling freed of some invisible shackles. They started to racing towards the little rocky beach like joyous little children. Their splashing threw enough water into the air to cause a little rainbow to magically drift over the top of their happy group with Tom brooding along behind.
The water was deep enough to let the boat float after I had gotten my crew out. Slowly I walked up the middle of the creek pulling the boat behind me zig-zagging from deep spot to deep spot. After going about 30 yards the creek got deep enough that I could head straight to my guys who were now sitting on the rocks passing a very shiny flask around. The only sound I could hear as I slogged through the increasingly swifter current was their laughter. One of the guys slapped Tom on the back and pointed at me as I made my way towards them. After a couple of minutes, I drug the boat up onto the gravel next to the men who were basking in the fall sun by now and sat on the bow. The men were content for the moment so I took a little break. I poured myself some coffee from the thermos in my pack and grabbed a cookie. Sitting quite comfortably on the boat’s bow with a cookie in one hand and coffee in the other I quietly said; “Bear.”
Even Tom thought that it was funny that I made them jump. Break time was over for me, so it was over for them. I reached behind me and grabbed their fly rods, putting them together as I sat in the sun drinking coffee. There weren’t very many spawning salmon left, but there were quite a few dead and dying ones. Figuring that there weren’t a ton of eggs left churning around for the Rainbows and Char to eat I changed the spools on their rods to sink tips. Then I tied articulated leeches onto their leaders and told them to go fishing while I worked on the motor. Tom was still pouting and refused to go until I reminded him that he was going to do whatever I told him or we were done for the day.
The four guys had never swung a wet fly in their lives. I told them to space out on the run about 20 yards apart not watching what they were doing as I started to pull the pump on the motor apart. As I loosened the first bolt I told them to cast their lines perpendicular to the current, of course, two of the four didn’t understand what I had told them. The bolts were out of the boot that held the jet pump before they had figured out what I was trying to get them to do. “Just cast across the current mend once upstream and then let the fly swing in the current. Twitch it as it swings and don’t set the hook until you feel like you have hooked a stick that has floated by. At the end of the swing lift your tip and then drop it quickly; ” I finished talking as the last bolt came loose from the pump cover. My group of fishermen figuring out the “hang down” was the least of my worries at that very moment.
Part IV Soon!