June 17, 9:02 P.M., Camp II — This afternoon, I shot down the Tsichu River with hurtling speed. The season began far easier than I dared hope.
I define the beginning of the season as that moment when I believe I can finally move, when the season leaves the realm of fantasy to enter the world of the five senses. Maybe it’s the first dip of the paddle in the water, but it’s probably more an internal moment than any symbolic physical act.
The day before yesterday, I thought I faced a definite eight miles of portage and uncertainty after that. The guide from Ross River I spoke to in January had said I could get at least four miles into the Northwest Territories from the North Canol Road. Had I known I could only go two miles by truck, I would have chosen another trip. In actual distance, I portaged less than a mile and didn’t need to do that because I could have put the canoe in the water at the washed-out bridge where vehicular traffic stopped. I try not to think about the mistake and the wasted energy. I can’t let recriminations clutter my awareness.
At several places, the short section of the Tsichu River I paddled this afternoon narrowed to four feet. One sharp turn followed another. Often the river almost doubled back on itself in oxbows, a surprise because I usually associate oxbows with soft lowland valleys or coastal areas where the course of the river changes from season to season. I haven’t seen such defined eddies in years. In many of the narrows, the stacked water piled over the gunwales into the open cockpit near the seat. The bow and stern covers turned back much more. Once a rock grabbed the hull, but by this point in my life, I have overcome the instinct to lean away from the rock. In these fast breaking collisions, where the canoe sweeps into the rock from the side, I lean into the rock, and often the quick shift in the balance point gives the canoe the draft to allow her to escape.
Another man, more worldly, might have taught himself to appreciate the pas de deux in a classical ballet, or maybe he would know what it felt like to control the right woman in the tango. For me, the closest I would come, would be to maneuver a blunt utility canoe with my hips in wild water.
The water in the upper Tsichu River must come mostly from snowmelt. At this level, the river requires constant attention. I would like to linger in this alpine country and allow the Tsichu to fall to a safer level. I won’t because I suspect that when she drops a couple of inches, it will not become a sedate, easily paddled little stream, but will instead disappear into a dead stream bed, demanding more dragging than paddling. By mid-summer or even earlier, once the snowmelt moves through, the Tsichu will probably be impassable. I envision this change from whitewater torrent to an impassable barrier of rocks coming almost overnight and without warning.
I ate a little oatmeal this morning and later the remnants of the peanut butter left from Ross River. Fishing produced nothing. After the failed attempt to catch fish, I sat next to a pond just a little ways out of sight of the Tsichu where I had seen scaup earlier. These blue-billed diving ducks, about the size of a mallard, come in two types: the greater and the lesser. One has a greenish tint to its head, the other a purple tint. The shape of their heads varies slightly between the two species. Without perfect light and a close look with a good set of binoculars, the distinction eludes me. I cannot differentiate subtle distinctions in color in most light conditions. The flight pattern, movement on the surface of the water, and the manner and frequency of diving is identical for the two species.
I waited for half an hour, seeing only a few green-winged teal. These tiny, fast-flying ducks, not much bigger than quail, carried hardly enough meat to justify the expenditure of a rifle cartridge. They landed thirty-five yards out and stayed on the move with abrupt little unpredictable turns on the water. If eating a teal might not amount to a fair trade for the value of a rifle cartridge, missing one would be worse.
I returned to the tent and boiled up several of the cup-of-soup packets. Those make more of a hot drink than a meal, but for every meal I take from my supplies, a time will come later when I will have to go without.
After drinking the soup, I used my Audubon flower guide to identify the roseroot, an unmistakable and abundant flowering plant, and, even better, I can eat it. The name comes from the faint but unmistakable rose fragrance of the root when crushed. This fat little succulent, never more than a foot high, has tiny thick leaves with a single reddish-purple cluster of flat flowers at the top. I ate just a few. If I have no reaction to them tonight, in the morning I can have a huge pot of them. Knowing that there is plenty for the morning makes the night unimportant.
9:35 P.M. — The muscle pain from this morning and last night has disappeared.
— I learned much later that roseroot is an ancient folk remedy for fatigue, disease, and possibly depression. Sometimes my interest in plants brought on benefits I might not have been fully aware of at the time and my simple field guides didn’t cover. The way I used plants offered both benefits and risks I often wasn’t fully aware of. —
June 18, 8:30 A.M. — A few minutes ago, a beaver worked the point, about hundred and fifty yards upstream and on the opposite bank. He stood on his hind legs to bend the limber alders over to pull their twigs to his mouth.
11:04 A.M. — I leave Camp II. A late start, but I will have all the time needed to run all of the water I have the nerve for on this fast, little river.
11:35 A.M. — I bailed and sponged the water from the bottom of the canoe that poured in over the top of the gunwales in the last rapid. The whitewater pushes with a constant pressure. Even if it means taking forever to get anywhere, I intend to walk downstream and look before I move any farther. The water from the last rapid hit the cover hard enough to loosen the two front straps.
2:52 P.M. — I find it past time for a pot of tea. I have one on. A good China Black will do much for the nerves.
3:04 P.M. — As I waited for the water to boil, I picked a pan of roseroots. I learned a few hours ago that picking potherbs is the kind of activity most suited to my personality.
I had my look at the water downstream, and I decided not to rush in to anything that heavy. If I could wait around in this high country for a while, and the water dropped several inches, the river would be safer. Passing too quickly, I would miss alpine wildflowers and birds I might never have another chance to see. In the half-hour of paddling today, I made a hundred quick decisions, all basic, but if I make decisions at that rate for the whole of the afternoon, it would only amount to a matter of time before I made a mistake of significance.
I vacillate, and I know it. A mistake in the moment can kill me. Just as surely, a mistake in overall planning, preparation, or rate of travel can turn just as deadly, and I understand that I base many of my decisions not on experience or instinct but pure guesswork.
The decision made to go no farther on the Tsichu today, I took a walk away from the river to the north. If I intend to stay in this country, I need fresh meat. On the walk down to check the rapids, I saw two caribou bulls on the opposite bank, but neither were close enough for a shot.
I walked for a time through the thick alder growth near the river, picking my way along overgrown and little used game trails when I could. Much of my progress came from pushing through heavy growth where no path existed. Faint traces sometimes disappeared into nothingness. As I rose in elevation from the little river, I rounded another impenetrable thicket and the trace I followed led me onto a wide dirt path. For the first time, I had a view of an open hillside. I had learned in my childhood not to burst into openings without looking long and hard. The meadow represented a place of danger, a place of unseen watchers. This time the looking reaped reward.
Three hundred yards from where I stood, something brown moved through the alder thicket on the high side of the meadow. The movement felt wrong for caribou. As likely as not, I had seen the last of that animal. Accepting this, I forced the rising excitement down. Best not to indulge speculation that is only speculation.
It reappeared, hump first, and I knew it for a grizzly.
With the wind in my face, I had a fair chance the bear hadn’t smelled me. The bear disappeared again and reappeared, this time out of the clearing and in the edge alders. It impressed me once more how an animal that large could hide so easily in the low alders. His line of travel should take him straight toward me, but when he faded back in the alders, my expectation of picking him up again disappeared.
I stood in the middle of the wide trail for what probably only amounted to seconds, thinking about what I had seen before he reappeared on the same open hill where I stood, and about a hundred yards away. He walked directly toward me, his intention to walk the well-used trail where I stood.
I needed to decide fast, and I decided to walk away from the path, moving in a direction leading back to the Tsichu, well upstream of where I left the canoe, trying to stay to open ground whenever I could. I had walked about seventy-five yards when I turned again for another look. I could still see the place I stood when I had first sighted him. He stood on his hind legs testing the wind exactly on the spot I had been standing when I first saw him. He had winded me.
I dropped to a sitting position, looped my rifle sling tight, and watched him through the aperture sight of my .35 Whelen. The front sight centered his chest. I had good bone-on-bone contact, elbows on knees. A lifetime of practicing formal position shooting should overcome my racing heart. The grizzly’s chest at this range showed a large enough target to allow any margin of error I needed. I wanted the meat. I felt as much as heard the tiny metallic click of the old Enfield-patterned safety of the Remington pushing forward. The light wind and the distance should cover this tiny sound. He looked straight at me.
I doubted his poor eyesight could pick me out of the background. I held for the correct center of the chest cavity shot. It would kill but not stop. After a shot, I would face the business of following him into the alders. If I held my shot to within the rather large margin of error, I would track the bear into the thick growth and find a crumpled, dead animal. If for any reason on this one occasion, I made a poor shot, he would wait in the thick alders and be on me before I could raise the rifle. My whitened bones would never be found.
I had other justifications for holding my fire. Any day now, the water from the main snowmelt could disappear, causing the bottom to drop out of the Tsichu. Processing an animal this large and getting the meat to the river would take several days. The country held caribou, and caribou meat tasted better than bear and required less fuel to cook because of the parasites in bear meat. The bear had more meat than a caribou, more than I needed. Grizzlies existed here in limited numbers and had more value to the habitat. Whether my lack of action showed a triumph of judgment or a failure of nerve, I will leave to the dancing flames of another evening by another campfire.
8:50 P.M. — Watching the steam come off the covered frying pan shows the wind to be all points. Tonight’s main course will be a pot of steamed roseroot and fireweed shoots mixed with margarine and salt. I couldn’t catch any fish, but I find a satisfaction in being able to make a meal of potherbs. It’s more than I deserve tonight. I can’t exactly explain this feeling of inadequacy and failure. I’m not sorry the bear lives. I had my reasons, but I have a fear. I fear that I’ll always have my reasons, and when the chance comes to live I
will always step back from the fray to watch. If that’s the kind of man I am, the coming days will prove too much for me.
(Lifted from the journals of my time on the Tsichu River.)