We had a strange experience when we woke up this day: a sunrise. The usual gray clouds were gone and it was clear all around. It already felt warmer and, for the first time on the trip, we took off our long underwear. We planned to hike first and then float a little way.
First we had to get to the other side of the river. The mountain we wanted to climb was upstream and we wanted to minimize bushwhacking through the swampy lowlands. We broke camp and loaded the raft so that we would have all our stuff in one place. It was impossible to go up stream or straight across the river. We waded to the head of the island, pulling the raft. The current split at the island and was strong on both sides. We pulled the raft upstream as far as we could and then jumped in only to end up back at our campsite. We tried again. This time Nrom worked the raft toward the other side of the island while I tried to row out into the current. All of a sudden Norm was in the boat and we were bombing downstream. I said, "I didn't think you were getting in so soon!" Norm explained that he was worried that he couldn't hold the raft and realized that if we got separated it would be a tedious and wet project to reunite.
In any event we made it to the other side and finally found a slow eddy in the current and tied up on shore at what turned out to be an old campsite. We took a compass reading to the top of the hill and shoved off through the swamp. It was very thick and we tried to keep talking to alert any bears in the area. I asked Norm some questions about his early life and his answers seemed to keep the bears away.
An old beaver pond blocked our way; but the dam was strong enough to support our weight. We marveled at the perfectly clear water in the pond. Part of the explanation is that nothing is under "cultivation." No silt from plowed fields washes into streams and they are, therefore, perfectly clear. Before European man's arrival all of North America's streams were this way. Norm noted how far we had to come to find such clear water.
We came out of the forest and started climbing the hill in open tundra. Even though we were climbing, the tundra was spongy, like a bog. We found a few trails on the way up; probably made by caribou. None lead directly to the top and we never followed them for very long. We made the top and enjoyed the perfect weather. Here's how I described the view later that day:
We saw for miles in every direction. We saw where we had come from and we saw where we would float in a little while. To the southeast we saw the snow-capped Kuskokwim Mountains. We retraced our route through some low hills and valleys. The river was braided below us and we could follow its course. As we looked carefully, we saw ancient banks of the river with meanders similar to the ones that were being shaped by the river even now, but higher. It was easy to imagine the river meandering back and forth in the valley, continually changing its course and carrying away sediment all the time and slowly lowering the channel. It was a vast view. The river stretched to both horizons and tall, bare mountains rose up. In some directions it was flat tundra with hardly any trees and in others there were large stands of spruce trees.
"Shipp, there are bears on the other side of the river!!"
Looking upstream. We can see almost to where we camped the night before. The high mountains are the Kilbucks. Note all the braids in the river.
One of the best photographs of the trip. You may be able to see the old river banks and old meanders to the right of the river. Alaska is big!
Norm scans the 2381' Spein Mtn. to our west (we're at about 1188'). We climbed up from the river at 475'.
I try to absorb the vast amount of pristine space around me in all directions.
It began to cloud up a bit. We headed back to the raft, which thankfully was still tied up. We floated down about 7 miles of meanders, some swinging around 180 degrees. The trick is to quickly figure out which is the main current; sometimes there are only two, but we chose between 4 or 5 a few times.
We noticed that we were coming up on another climbable hill, perhaps the last. We began to look for a gravel bar on which to camp. We rejected several until we saw one that pointed directly toward some sunlit, snowcapped mountains. It had a good current on both sides and had lots of wood; the decision was made for us. We finally had a good system of holding the raft up with the oars, getting the campfire a certain distance from where we sat and holding the tarp up with one oar and a pole. We had seen very little wildlife this day; a couple of eagles and seagulls. But nothing else. I went out to gather firewood and noticed a large bear print. Our rule was not to camp where there were signs of bears; but it was late and everything was set up. We stayed but resolved to keep our guns close at hand.
Norm cooked his meal first and I made some macaroni and cheese. I was still hungry and heated up some black bean soup. I had put the whole package in a bag thinking that I would remember to cook only part of it. I'm not going to do that again because when you get out in the wild and deal with all sorts of things, you don't remember details like that. I liked the soup; but didn't feel like 4 serving of it. Norm was stuffed and I ended up putting it into the river. I decided that there would be no odors that way. My usual practice would have been to bury it; but the bear print had made me a little cautious.
I read some River Horse to Norm and came to a joke in the story and looked at him as if to say, "Get it?" Norm looked over at me and said, "Shipp, there are bears on the other side of the river!" There were two grizzly bear cubs. I said, "Where's their mother?" and grabbed my gun. But they were intent on looking for food along the river bank and were remarkably nimble as they walked over logs and sniffed in little eddies along the bank. They continued down river for a short distance and then disappeared into the woods. They were much lighter in color than the bears we had seen at Kisaralik Lake, which were a dark brown, almost black. These two were gold and very beautiful. They were about 20 yards away and probably didn't even see us.
We clicked into a higher state of vigilance and slept with our guns inside the tent. We sat up later than usual because it remained clear and we saw the unspoiled Alaskan stars for the first time. We got up before dawn to pee and were awed by them again. Orion was on the eastern horizon and we picked out the North Star, which is much lower in the sky than in Tennessee. Happily no bears appeared during the night.
A hurried shot of the two bears. They were much closer than they appear.
Below are two shots of the bear paw prints we saw at the campsite after we were set up.