My timing may not have been the best. I’d arrived just as a bevy of tour operators, in a carefully orchestrated display of mass confusion, were attempting to herd their clients toward a gallery of brightly colored rafts, sprawled along each side of the launch. It didn’t look like an easy task, as many of their passengers, especially the older children, were still texting, wandering as they did, oblivious to the calls to load up.
Despite my best efforts, I had come at the peak of morning traffic, finding myself a part of the assorted hubbub. I was just one of many sport fishers preparing their various watercraft, some taking up valuable real estate, furiously pumping rafts in the middle of the parking lot, intruding on the edge of the launch. Others were urgently unleashing their drift boats, barely leaving room to pass.
What with shooting for an early start, all the preparation, trying to remember every piece of fishing and safety gear, and now waiting in line, nerves can become slightly frayed … the exact opposite of what I have come here seeking.
I’ve floated the river enough to know this too shall pass. Before very long, I will begin to relax and withdraw completely from this as well as all of life’s little frustrations, and perhaps, as the day progresses, I may even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of something special. It’s why, I believe, so many of us return here time and again; not only for the chance to fish, to get some exercise, and to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends, but also in the hopes of experiencing something out of the ordinary.
If fortunate, we may even stumble upon that which borders upon the sublime. I’m not referring to the occasional bear sighting or that special vista that causes us to stop in repose, though these instances can certainly provide the inspiration to trigger that even deeper sense of wonder I’m talking about.
No, what I hope to encounter are those all too brief moments of clarity, that strange sense of awareness, where everything— this world and our place within it — seemingly merge and come into focus. It’s that space out of time, that revelation that poets refer to as a privileged moment or theologians call an epiphany. A fleeting priceless gift that for me reveals itself only within nature’s realm. It’s a feeling I believe most of us who spend time in the outdoors experience, though we may not always have adequate words to describe it.
As I sit now and watch, it’s something I also hope the children at the boat launch, waiting with their families to climb aboard their rafts for their tour, will maybe catch a glimpse of as well. I have my doubts, seeing many of them (and even some their parents) with earbuds plugged into the sides of their heads, or pounding out a rhythm with their thumbs, tied to someplace distant, eyes cast downward, seemingly unaware of the enormity of all that surrounds them. I hope when they get underway they will disconnect from whatever they are honed into, that the music they are listening to, as powerful a gift as music is, will not take the place of the precious song of the river.
Yet, in a few moments it is no longer any of my concern, as we are underway ourselves. There is an instant sense of relief as we pull out into the current, even the slightest residual stress carried away with each oar-stroke. And by the time we reach our first gravel bar, the morning’s minor annoyances have completely vanished, whisked aloft on the cool morning breeze and deposited, like the emerging rays of the sun, onto this sprawling landscape. But even a panorama as inspiring as this, with its jagged snow-capped spires and towering spruce, can easily become lost or ignored in the face of life’s daily travails. Our basic commitments, so many of which are tied to our electronic devices, in turn tying us to them, take precedence. But if we don’t occasionally leave them behind to venture out in this capacity—solely for the purpose of indulging our outdoor passions, completely enveloping ourselves in the natural world, giving it our full attention, we risk becoming immune to its grave and subtle power, even taking it for granted, or worse, becoming entirely oblivious to it.
Even in our hurry to get here, the rush to our favorite fishing hole and in the excitement to wet a line, we can become so intent on the act itself that it’s possible to lose sight of why we have come. Nevertheless, at that initial spot, as I christen my first fly, I also take a moment to look around, noticing a shallow pool and the small cloud of newly hatched gnats suspended above it. And beneath them, within the shadows of the pool, a corresponding cyclone of fresh salmon fry swirl, future generations feasting upon the insects with abandon, gaining sustenance within this oasis of new life.
It’s a momentary world, one I would never have acknowledged if not for being out here, making it a part of my own. I never expected it to come this fast, but here it is. Suddenly I am aware of my place, not only amidst that pool but for an instant I also see myself as a component of this beguiling glacier-carved terrain. It is an ancient world, formed during the last ice age, in contrast making my life appear suddenly as brief and tenuous as those insects or those newborn hatchlings. Yet, it is at moments like these that one realizes how truly miraculous it is to be a part of this world in its entirety, no matter how extensive or fleeting our time may be.
As I begin to emerge from this ever so brief epiphany, I find myself immediately drawn back to those kids with their earbuds. They are my concern. I sincerely hope they experience at least some inkling of this, not only the recognition of all that is unique and their place among it, but also the essence of that which is larger than themselves, embodied within the natural world, far from the internet and Pokeman Go.
Our relationship with nature is an important one, and must be fostered, perhaps today more than ever. As our population approaches 8 billion and we face the very real threats of climate change, habitat loss, and ocean acidification, it becomes a connection ever more vital to nurture, for it is only that which we love and are tied to that we tend to protect. On the other hand, what we view as alien, as foreign, often tends to be disregarded, to be looked upon with indifference, even malevolence. We then become more willing to give it up, to give in to the forces that wish to do it harm or destroy it, or at the very worst we become complicit, knowingly or unknowingly joining those forces.
So, we must continue to acknowledge that innate call of the natural world, to seek out that feeling of communion and kinship with it, and encourage it within our children. It is only then we will begin to espouse an ethic of caring for that which lies beyond our own species, that which seems separate from us but which is inextricably tied to our wellbeing. We must seek that feeling, whatever it is, wherever it is: a mystery, perhaps, better left a mystery, left pure, and left for all of us to discover as we get underway and share yet another day on the river.
Dave Atcheson’s latest book, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas,” will be released in paperback this month. He is also the author of the guidebook “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula,” and National Geographic’s “Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond. For more info: www.daveatcheson.com.
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