There was a strange, uncanny feeling every time we ran up the river in the fog before the sun had come over the ridge. As the sled roared upstream it would startle the large, lurking shadows that prowled the towering ramparts of grass that lined the riverbank. Almost silently, the bears would scatter into the greasy mist that filled the gaps in the grass. I seldom noticed the bears anymore, unless one was crossing the river blocking my intended course. Bears were a hazard of the job, not as much of one as the guests secretly wished, but they still were an unpredictably dangerous pain in the neck.
There wasn’t one angler that came through the lodge that didn’t privately wish for some Londonesque bear-in-the-wilderness encounter. There wasn’t one fishing guide who guided in Katmai that had been there for more than a couple of years who didn’t wish the bears would magically disappear. But the fishermen loved fishing with the big furry death machines, often forgetting that a bear 50 yards away could be chewing on his or her brain before they finished peeing themselves. Good guests and the best guides never forgot this fact.
“Bears, I hate bears”
But exciting bear stories are better advertising than 100 stories about giant Rainbow trout. That’s why in any given year there are a lot more hair-raising bear tales told by returning fishermen at country club bars across the U.S. then have actually occurred since Alaska became a state. To me they were a big pain in the ass, sort of like the mouthy co-worker at the water cooler. The only difference between them is two things; claws and jaws. If you ask me to choose between the two, I will still take a bear 10-to-1 over the mouthy co-worker. That’s one reason I guess I ended up in Alaska.
Each meandering bend in the creek that my boat went around was undiscovered territory to my passengers. To me, the sweeping turns were the only thing that kept my mind in the boat. The first years of running up the creek I would count how many times the occupants would raise their Gore-Tex clad arms to point at a bear or a duck or the occasional wolf. By the time one of my passengers had pointed at whatever was being pointed at, the other passengers had already seen the creature. If they hadn’t then it was probably too bad for them. There was no way that my boat would ever slow down for a little sightseeing.
I had learned the golden rule of driving a jet boat the hard way. On one of my first days on the creek there was a blowhard fisherman from Des Moines onboard. He fancied himself as more a staffer from National Geographic than a dentist from Des Moines and he had $25,000 worth of camera gear to prove this to himself. When I had taken his lunch order the night before he was holding court at the little bar in the lodge. He barely acknowledged me as he awed his sycophants with stories of his other heroic trips that he had taken to Alaska over the years. It was obvious that he had brought his own entourage made up of acquaintances, not friends.
After waiting for five minutes and multiple glares in my direction that conveyed, “You’re the help, you can wait.” I had had enough of this guy already and I hadn’t even taken him fishing yet. Wedging myself between him and his peanut gallery I finally got his lunch order for the next day with one instruction; “ I want to take lots of pictures. Fishing is secondary to me, so make sure there are lots of bears around.” Turning around to head to the glass of Scotch that waited for me in my cabin, I thought to myself; “Well, that should be easy. I wonder how his friends feel about this?”
The next morning went exactly as I had dreamt it would the previous night. There, of course, was the 100 extra pounds of Ansel’s(I had started calling him that in disdain, he loved it of course) camera crap that I had to load into and out of the floatplane. Each time the pilot and I moved any of his gear he would tell us to be careful. By the time we got all of his crap loaded into the boat I had already had enough of him and it wasn’t 7 AM yet.
He was the largest in my group of four anglers. He insisted on sitting up front so he could have a good perch to shoot away with his camera, even after I told him to “move his ass” to the center of the sled. I explained to him, far more patiently then I wanted to, that him sitting in the middle would let the boat get up on plane with less power. His buddies loved this. The guy who was sitting in the middle of my boat got up to move to Ansel’s chosen spot. “I am staying here. Deal with it;” he growled through an irritated smile.
That was the exact moment I screwed up. I should have told him to plant his large behind where I told him or the boat wasn’t going move until he did. This is what I should have done. Instead, I pushed the boat out and jumped over the gunnel in one movement, turning the key to the engine as my left foot hit the floor. Ansel started to say something about how he was the customer as the engine blared to life. What I heard was; “Blah blah, blah, I am trying to be the big dog to show off for my buddies. Blah, blah, blah.”
The Evinrude screaming to life saved me. He realized that I couldn’t hear him anymore. I was happy as hell when he swiveled around and start snapping pictures of scared bears’ backsides as we plowed by them in the mist. Those must be some quality shots I thought. Then I turned the throttle handle even farther away from me, much higher than was normal to get the sled up on plane. All because of the fat guy up in the bow with a small camera store’s worth of gear riding shotgun, the boat was going to burn twice the gas.
Using the extra gas didn’t bother me, I wasn’t paying for it, but having to keep the boat’s speed half again faster than normal did. The water was thin up higher, only three or four inches deep where the boat had to go. The bears compounded the problem by knocking wads of tree roots and lumps of grass knocked into the ever-narrowing channels almost daily. The extra speed required to keep the boat with Ansel and his buddies up on plane gave me a lot less time to make evasive course adjustments. I figured my time to react was now half of what it was typically.
The big guy was a happy camper as the boat churned up river. There were bears aplenty chomping away on the rotting corpses of spawned out sockeye for him to shoot. His camera would only leave his eye after we passed each breakfasting bear. He would then turn around and yell over the straining engine to his buddies; “Boy, that was a good shot!” All I could see was the back of their heads going up and down in unison as they nodded their agreement. Each time he turned around they nodded less and less until they finally quit altogether. If I could have read their minds, I am guessing they were thinking about what they could have possibly done to deserve having to spend five more days with the fat guy in the front of the boat.
Ansel finally figured out that no one cared to hear about his soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize-winning photos and stopped turning around. The boat and I settled into a smooth harmony as it almost drove itself around the arcing bends in the lower river. My three other passengers had pulled their raincoat hoods over their heads and zipped them up as high as the zipper would go to buffet the wind and mist that battered them. They were doing better than the average turtle imitations that I saw almost on a daily basis. I smiled for the first time since we started up river. Opening my waterproof cigarette box that hung on a piece of backing around my neck with my right hand as my left hand moved the tiller handle to the left, my mind wandered to thoughts of home. The boat slid around the bend in the river as I lit the smoke. Today was going to last forever, I thought to myself. In reality, it was going to last longer than forever, I just didn’t know this yet.