By ANDREW CREMATA
Not too far north of Skagway is a line – a place where our tenuous stake in human civilization gives way to the pulsing energy of a great upheaval. Thousands of years ago, ice covered this landscape from lakebed to mountain peak, and the ground is still flexing in the aftermath, like a sponge expanding after being wrung with a clenched fist.
There are other remnants of this age, like the rocks that litter the shores of endless glacial lakes. They are jagged, not yet having been smoothed by wind and rain. They are loose, and in search of a place where their shape may settle into symmetry and be at peace.
I know a lot about those rocks. I’ve walked vast stretches of shoreline covered with everything from pebbles to boulders in search of fish; something my ankles may never forgive me for. But this comes with the territory when the commitment is made to cross that line into the realms of wild things. And what better place to fish than a lonesome beach where you never have to worry about another angler crossing your line.
While the many mountains and lakes and rivers that define this terrain may seem fully formed, this is a world in its infancy. Even this land’s living forms are still governed by the purest of instincts, uninhibited and without the fear of man that frequent encounters with two-legged aliens would inspire.
On my first spring Yukon outing, I noticed caribou tracks on a short stretch of gravel beach. A few days later I was back, and fresh tracks had replaced the old ones. I worked the shoreline, casting from the fringes of those hoof-prints into the clear water of the lake. I glanced over my shoulder, fully expecting to see a caribou, but the strand was devoid of life.
A few minutes later, I turned again. I was caught off guard by two caribou 150 feet away. One was a large male with developing antlers, the other a much smaller female. They edged forward while tilting their heads slightly to the side – guarded, yet inquisitive. Within that moment we were locked in a gaze, and I immediately understood the emotion their eyes conveyed.
It was the countenance belonging to a creature that daily walks a familiar path, and suddenly finds the corridor blocked by some wholly foreign thing adorned in colors unknown to the landscape’s palette. Forced to make a split-second decision on whether to continue along its chosen conduit and confront the strange creatures, or turn away and face some other unknown, it teeters on the brink of indecision.
We’ve all been similarly caught by surprise – stranded on the fulcrum between cautiousness and curiousness. And isn’t that the lure of the unknown? Somewhere between fear and exhilaration lies the urge to test boundaries, take another step, and explore the unseen fascination that lies hidden just beyond the next jetty.
The caribou chose to head into the woods, and I chose to press on. I worked about two miles of rocky beach before I came to a creek’s mouth too large to pass. Turning into the woods, I found a steep uphill path littered with moose droppings that led to a place where the stream was narrow enough to cross. When I found my way back to the shore, there was promising water – a mix of deep-blue and clear-green waves being pushed toward shore by the wind’s kiss.
I began working the area, casting and retrieving before taking 20 steps and trying again. There was at least a quarter of a mile to the next bend – plenty of time to stumble upon biting trout. Getting caught in this kind of rhythm makes it easy to get lost in thought, or the lack of it.
The first trout bent the rod before I felt a bite. It fought on the surface, repeatedly breaking water before making one last surge parallel to the shoreline. The second trout came five minutes later – smaller in size but stronger in spirit. After stunning and bleeding it, I laid it on the ground next to the first and took a moment to sit and rest.
After a day spent traversing teetering rocks, navigating narrow game trails, and forging random spring creeks, the lure of a warm home and a cold beer is hard to resist. Still, the thought of crossing that line back toward the noise and burden of the civilized world made me acutely aware of my surroundings.
A lone loon diving upon the open water of the lake called out longingly to some invisible partner. Spring songbirds trilled lightly against the rustling backbeat of newborn leaves. A ruffed grouse’s drumming pulsed from the thickness of the woods, like a gas-powered motor refusing to start. The silhouetted shape of a bald eagle soared silently against the stark-white backdrop of melting mountain snow.
The truth is, no words can define the frontier. You can paint a picture, or seek to uncover some deeper meaning behind its existence, but all such thoughts are nothing more than mere constructs of your own brain.
Some things simply exist. And yet that primeval world still resonates within you – like some vibrating note that harmonizes with the waves of your own internal melody.
Somewhere amidst the scale and scope of eons is a landscape in flux. When you consider your own miniscule place within this framework, you become acutely aware of the line you crossed to get here, and the one that awaits in the not-too-distant future. That is a line we all must cross, sooner or later.
Once that thought is reconciled within the context of personal existence, one truth trumps all others:
There is no good reason to avoid lingering the presence of biting trout.
Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September.