By ANDREW CREMATA
“Nature is complete because it does not serve itself.” – Lao Tzu
During mid-July in Skagway I frequently feel a strong urge to run away. This feeling is accompanied by this simple question…
“What is the point?”
I had this feeling many years ago when I was beating my head against a wall in Florida. I would go to work so that I could afford a car to drive to work. I sat in traffic, semi-dazed in the rippling heat that floated above the highway like angry apparitions. Sometimes my lane would come to an end, and the drivers in the adjacent lane would do everything in their power to prevent me from transitioning smoothly toward their space.
If I sped up, so too would they – unwilling to concede any ground, even if it meant going out of their way to prevent it. Those drivers didn’t care about the 12 feet of asphalt I was attempting to traverse – they were only trying to purge their own hatred for life by dumping it on to someone else, even if the satisfaction of spreading frustration offered little in the way of fulfillment.
Here in Skagway, the streets are full, the lines are long, and there is a host of minor inconveniences that pile up and create stress. We all work hard for the almighty dollar, often so focused on acquiring it that we have little time for anything but tourist’s questions and navigating the maze of Broadway until the sun hangs heavy over Parson’s Peak. No wonder the bars are always full.
Another day… Then another… Until someone you work with says, “Wow! You can really tell we’re starting to lose daylight!” and you come to the grim realization that summer will be over before it barely began, underscoring the fact that winter is a whole lot longer.
Nothing will fill you with a sense of dread quite like the feeling of apathy missed with pointlessness. And it is in this state of mind that I often shrug away the weariness of the week and force myself to drive into those northern mountains in search of large fish.
For the last couple weeks, the trout have been invisible. From Portage to Tagish, I’ve tried everything from spinners to bait, but I haven’t even felt the slightest tap on the end of my rod that would indicate a trout was interested. I have a theory as to why the trout aren’t biting, and it has to do with all of the rain we’ve been getting, but only the fish know for sure. One thing I do know for a fact is that when the fish aren’t biting, all you’re left with are your thoughts.
Have you ever seen photos from the Gold Rush? Black and white pictures of bearded men dressed in suits and hats all crammed into the street with one another like modern tourists on a Wednesday afternoon?
When I look at these photos I am instantly drawn to the mountains in the background. It’s more curiosity than anything else, because I try to find small differences between the way they looked then compared to how they look today. I closely inspect the height of the tree line and the shapes of the mountain ridges for minor changes or signs of erosion, but what I usually find is that there is little perceptible difference between our mountains from 1898 and those same mountains today.
Comparatively, the Skagway in those photos is barely recognizable and all of the men are dead.
While casting into mint green waters with the random harmony of rushing stream water all around, I recently came to a realization that I was fishing in the same place that I first fished after coming to Skagway. In my memory it looked the same as it did 18 years ago, but I’m sure more than a few of the rocks have been worn smoother by the endless flow of water falling toward the Lynn Canal.
The world around us is constantly being shaped by small, imperceptible changes, even though we’re barely around long enough to notice. While that may seem a little morbid, I am glad that the ground we walk on isn’t constantly in flux – I’ve had enough experience with earthquakes, flooding, and landslides this year to last me for a few years.
On a recent jaunt to Canada in a futile search for trout, I stopped to check out the post-downpour condition of one of my favorite fishing spots, even though it was too windy to fish. The road travelling down the mountain toward the water quickly transforms from smooth-packed gravel and dirt to medium-sized river rock, which makes the car roll and bounce in a comical and jarring way.
The rocky part of the road is old creek bed, but over time its flow has shifted to the north – until now. The recent heavy rains caused a large dirt cliff face to suddenly give way. When it sloughed off it created a natural damn in the creek and diverted the flow of water back over the road, completely washing it away. Now the creek’s terminus enters the lake in two separate spots, and I’ve been preoccupied devising plans on exactly how I’m going to target trout from this brand new spot.
Just a dozen or so millennia ago, Skagway was nestled cozily under a few thousand feet of solid ice. Slowly but surely, that ice carved away our perfect little valley, leaving it hospitable for everyone from monochrome men dressed in tailored suits to Technicolor tourists stuffed into synthetic wool fleeces emblazoned with images of wild wolves and “Alaska!” boldly embroidered above the breast.
We’ve come a long way.
But somewhere along the shore of a nearby isolated lake, deep-purple monkhood jewels quiver in the wind between clusters of undulating foxtail. Those flowers will bloom and the petals will fall within the span of a few weeks. Within the lake are trout that reach an age that rivals that of man, denizens of watery depths forged by great upheavals of earth and unfathomable moving mountains of ancient ice.
There is no good reason to avoid seeking out those places while you can, because the realization of your own place within this marvelous tapestry is the point. And when the trout aren’t biting, that’s good enough for me.
Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings soon at the News Depot and elsewhere.