The train pulls away from the station and follows the river up the terraced valley into a gorge in the Alaska Range. After it passes out of sight, I look at the wide gravel flats below the depot where the Nenana broadens into braided channels. The wind is picking up. Clouds move down the slopes, throwing shadows across the gravel bars. As the river comes from under a shadow into hard daylight, I can just make out the silty turbulence in each channel, the gray pulsing of arteries flowing north into the Tanana, the Yukon, emptying into an Asian sea.
The baggageman had set my pack at the end of the platform. Shouldering it, I walk from the depot, pass the Healy Hotel and head down the road out of town. A dog begins to bark, the only sound except for the wind. My thoughts are on another time.
We were new to the country then, and to each other. With five acres staked out on Panguingue Creek, she and I cut trees that first summer. We peeled their bark and began to fashion a house from the forest. But the cabin took too many summers to complete. When it was done and the door was hung, we had forgotten why we had ever started. Closing the door on the cabin and that life, we quit the country. That was three years ago. It's strange to be back on this road, alone, wondering what remains of that cabin or if it, like our vision, collapsed from the weight of deep snows.
On the highway from Healy, a small coal-mining town some 100 miles southwest of Fairbanks, a young couple stop and place me among their baggage in an already overloaded van. We head north, cresting frost heaves in the pavement as we go.
"In a decade all this will be developed," the driver says with a sweep of his hand along the horizon. "Car washes and trailer parks."
"That's what's happened to Boulder," his wife adds, handing me a beef jerky. "That's why we've come here."
Through the window I can see that nothing has changed: mountains and river and the small breaks in the trees where someone made a start and gave up.
We stop at the turnoff to the Stampede Trail, a mining road running parallel to the outer mountains of the Alaska Range. "Good luck with the fishing," the driver calls as they pull away.
I start walking. The weather has been dry, and the surface of the road is hard, white dust. Among the dwarf willow and blueberry bushes at the side of the road, I spot survey markers. They foretell change. If the state improves the road, anyone will be able to drive a station wag- on and trailer as far as Eight Mile Lake or perhaps even the Savage River. I prefer the road as it is: deeply rutted and entirely washed out in the low sections.
The road dips, and I head off it, following a trail along a ridge crest. The crest affords a glimpse of Panguingue Creek, a thin ribbon glinting sunlight through the canopy of yellow scrub willows that line its banks. The trail descends a razorback ridge, a hand-over-hand, tree-grabbing slide to the valley floor.
Bushwhacking through alders, I can only hear the creek. Then I see it again. I cross it on a rock shelf where a feeder creek joins the main flow. In a small pool below the confluence, grayling hold themselves against the current, the large fish centering themselves among the fry. As I move along the bank, a rock tilts under my weight,' and the grayling scatter like quicksilver.
On this side of the creek the trail is overgrown with willows. From the pack I pull out a revolver, bundled in a wool shirt to keep it from chafing my back. Loading the chambers, I slip the gun into my black leather holster and thread the holster onto my belt.
I do not like entering a willow thicket. In such close quarters, with branches closing behind you as you walk, there is no room to maneuver.
On the moist, sandy ground is a small compost heap resembling crushed leaves and blueberries. The revolver, which had once felt heavy in my hand, now seems insubstantial. I need no one to tell me all the tired bear stories, the maulings and mutilations, the half-fables and outright lies. I tell them to myself.
The spoor, however, is cold. The animal probably left it a day or two ago. But I can't shake the extra baggage I've brought with me to this valley—fear. In a quaking voice I begin to sing, pitifully out of key, as birds will sing to define territory, to define my swath as I traverse the willow and, at last, emerge into the comparatively open spruce forest of the south slope.
The cabin is set back from the creek, on a rise above the flood plain. Coming upon it suddenly in a clearing of birch, I am startled by the ax casually propped against the door, the neat pile of firewood under the eave. I call out. But that's my ax. There's no one here. The door is latched shut just as I had left it three years before.
I push open the door, and sunlight gleams off bits of broken glass on the floor. A chair lies on its side amid the debris. A bear, most likely, broke in through the front window, sampled the furniture and departed. Otherwise, nothing at all has changed. A magazine my wife had brought along to read three summers ago lies spread open on the table alongside a list of provisions never purchased. I slip out of the pack harness and lay the holstered revolver on the table. Strangely, I feel intrusive here, as though I am sifting through the effects of people I don't know. The cabin offers few artifacts from which to deduce much about the lives of its builders. The overriding question is: Why did they leave?
Near the end of the first summer, we had felled and peeled and hauled to this site all the logs for the cabin. I recall a photograph my wife took that showed me astride a jam of cabin logs, a doltish grin on my face, happier than I had ever been in my life. We should have finished the cabin then, but we didn't. Climbing out of the valley in the fall, we left the cabin walls holding up nothing but sky.
I make the cabin habitable, slip the gun on and walk down to the creek in a pre-storm half-light to catch supper. Grayling are rising all down the sleek stretches of the stream, dimpling the surface. Sitting on the bank, I rig up a willow switch with monofilament and a hook dressed up to imitate a black gnat. Without weight or tapered line, casting presents a real problem. Standing on a slippery rock shelf, I lay the fly in midstream and let the current carry it under a willow overhang. A fish takes it, jumps once and is suddenly alive in my hand. I splash ashore, examining the grayling's silvered sides and high dorsal fin. A tap on its skull and the fish goes rigid.
Breathing on the fly to revive its hackles, I set the black gnat back on the stream. It drifts perfectly over a school offish, but there are no takers.
Short on tactics, I start downstream, walking one bank and then the other, tossing my fly into calm eddies behind the larger boulders, sometimes spooking a fish that torpedoes upstream through shallow water to new cover.
The second year, we returned to the cabin and picked up our tools as if there had been no intervening winter. Winter had made the difference, of course, and we found ourselves inventing excuses for side trips and excursions, sunny-day pleasures to cache away and warm the dark of the winter ahead. Soon the cabin was heavily mortgaged with day hikes and berry picking along the Stampede Trail. After a day hauling lumber for the floor, my wife just sat down among the wood shavings and said she was tired of it, tired of the work and of the mosquitoes, the taste of Velveeta and hardtack, but mostly tired of looking up at these valley walls knowing that beyond them the briefest of summers was slipping away. She proposed a trip to the ocean where the salmon were running. When we returned, sure enough, snow was falling.
The current carries the fly into a deep pocket beneath a fallen spruce. The line suddenly goes taut, the fish pulling it downstream into the tangled snags of submerged branches. Without a reel, I must walk back from the creek, pulling the fish up onto the rocky bank. Not the highest sport. The fish is not a grayling this time, but a Dolly Varden trout, really a char. It is a beautiful fish, richly mottled in orange, its underside pure gold. I sap it and then dip it back in the water to wash off the sand.
"But there's nothing to do here." Without her presence, I find myself propounding her arguments: the isolation, the suffocating quality of the woods. When the cabin was finished, nothing remained but to live here, and that was the hardest task of all. Pregnant at the end of that third summer, she was often sick to her stomach, waiting out the rains and overwhelming silence while I ran off to do anything but share the silence with her. We both knew the vision was fading, but I was stalling until she delivered a child. A child, I was certain, would moor us to the valley.
All down the creek fish appear to be rising, yet it is only the rain. As the light goes, the rain falls harder. Winding line around the willow switch, I pick up my fish and start upstream. A bear might be anywhere in the thicket. Lightning flashes, and I am running.
In midwinter, while we were living in Fairbanks, she went into labor, three months prematurely. The early morning drive to the hospital remains fixed in my mind. I talked as I drove, full of optimism she didn't share. At 7:30 a.m. my son was born and, nameless, died an hour later. Not much time by any measurement. A day later, driving back from the hospital, we said very little but understood that our next summer in the cabin would be our last.
The rain is falling all around, filling the woods with its din. The cabin looms ahead like an island. Once inside, I change clothes and fire up the airtight. The sheet-metal stove buckles loudly as the heat rises. Soon coffee water is boiling and the fish are frying up nicely in the big iron skillet. My hunger is unreasonable.
After supper I light a kerosene lamp. Rain drums steadily on the roof. There is nothing to do here. I say it over and over to myself, and the more I say it, the easier it is to accept. The cabin walls cannot keep out the forest because they are the forest. I never stood still long enough here to let the woods, the valley roll over me like a wave. Now they do. It is not a good feeling but it's kind of a relief.
Snuffing the flame, I curl up in my sleeping bag close to the stove and try to sleep. I alternately roast and shiver. The night is full of starts, awakenings in the dark, the screeching of owls and imagined bears stalking close by in the woods.
Waking once in the dark, I thought I could see the mountains through the south-facing window, but the night was moonless, too dark to see anything. One mountain, though, I saw clearly in my mind. It is the beginning of a ridge rising straight up from the Savage River that I climbed the last summer we were here. It was difficult, but the view improved as I gained elevation. I climbed to a cairn breaking out of the moss campion and could see to the north, among the brown hills, the narrow valley cut by Panguingue Creek. Holding onto the rock, I took the ashes of my firstborn out of a small box and, holding them in my hand, let the wind carry them like snow onto the bare slopes.
Morning breaks cool. The rain has stopped. Stiffly, I dress and begin the fire in the stove, placing water on the top for coffee. Blueberry pancakes are the order for breakfast.
Forgetting the gun, I walk slowly down toward the creek, gathering up berries in a tin plate as I go. The day is heart-breakingly beautiful, blue-washed sky, glistening drops of rain catching the sun on the willows, the creek running fast and full. The Outer Range is plainly visible, taluses dusted with the first fine snow of a new winter. The air is crisp enough that this snow will remain and lay beneath the strata of subsequent snows until next summer. Then the lengthening sunlight will peel off the snow, and this first covering will melt and run off the slopes into the watershed that feeds the Nenana and the Ta-nana and the Yukon and an ocean that covers the world.