The Wild Charley River (part I)

Posted August 20, 2020 at 2:14 pm by

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

Ulvi in 84 banding on Charley R Cliff - Contributed photo

 The plane lift­ed off the state run­way in Eagle on dense morn­ing air on anoth­er blue­bird July day. The drowsy sprawl of town and sweep of the Yukon Riv­er reced­ed under the right wing as we climbed with the steady snarl of the 300-horse engine.  The faint odor of avgas dis­si­pat­ed once the engine was throt­tled back and the plane trimmed for cruise.  We ban­tered and caught up a bit through head­sets as the very famil­iar land­scape scrolled under us. 

Mark was an astute and rea­son­able local, the own­er of a gen­er­al store and fly­ing ser­vice.  He made good mon­ey char­ter­ing for the local­ly dis­liked Park Ser­vice, but dis­agreed with staffing lev­els and some man­age­ment activ­i­ties.  That con­flict­ed him.  We enjoyed friend­ly needling and talk­ing over wildlife man­age­ment issues. 

Thrum­ming over rum­pled forest­ed drainages, waters mer­cu­r­ial in the ear­ly sun, he casu­al­ly flew his work­horse brown on yel­low Cess­na 185; the ‘bum­ble­bee’.   For me it was a famil­iar seat, yet always stirred me, as I would soon be stand­ing in the wild.  Once again, we were ful­ly loaded with an inflat­able raft and gear for a week long, eighty-mile riv­er descent of the wild Charley Riv­er to its con­flu­ence with the broad silty Yukon Riv­er.  There would be climb­ing into nest ledges that had been locat­ed with deter­mi­na­tion on a float a month ear­li­er, to band endan­gered Pere­grine Fal­con chicks.   They would begin fledg­ing in a few weeks, learn­ing unpar­al­leled feath­ered mas­tery of the air.

A long crenu­lat­ed line of cumu­lous, like a bat­tle line of Roy­al British Navy 74’s hull down under full can­vas to the south, promised thun­der­storms as atmos­pher­ic insta­bil­i­ty built in the heat.  In the dis­tant Black Riv­er coun­try there was a gauzy smear of wild­fire smoke.  The island of light grey dior­ite peaks at Dia­mond Fork were snow­less and love­ly on the drainage divide we aimed for.  I asked Mark to drop to 1,000 feet, which he hap­pi­ly did with my stom­ach in free fall for a few moments.  Laugh­ing, I point­ed to a band of white Dall sheep ewes and lambs trans­fixed on a grey scree slope, star­ing as we slid through the alpine pass well beneath them. 

Off the left­wing a few hun­dred cari­bou grouped on an open hog­back ridge antic­i­pat­ing a breeze for relief from insect tor­ment.  Blood-suck­ing black flies and mos­qui­tos as well as par­a­sitic war­ble and bot flies.   These large hairy flies harass cari­bou to lay eggs that hatch and then bur­row under the skin for the win­ter, slow­ly migrat­ing up to the vic­tims back.  Skin­ning a win­ter cari­bou expos­es them by the dozens. Some native kids snack on them like fat­ty gum­my bears.  But even more vile, the ‘nose bots’ excrete live lar­vae near nos­trils, to crawl into the warmth and grow into lar­val clus­ters at the back of the throat.   Even­tu­al­ly, the par­a­sitized deer sneeze the inch-long grubs onto the spring ground, to hatch as buzzing botflies.

We flew smooth­ly down Cop­per Creek see­ing moose in ponds and a blonde griz­zly sow with two cubs.   She lunged across a braid­ed sec­tion of creek, look­ing over her shoul­der at us, to bash into a thick wil­low belt, cubs in tow.  We banked up the Charley itself over the ‘boul­der drop’ on my side so that I could scope out the water lev­el at a tell-tale spot.  Soon after, as I scanned the riv­er, Mark moved his seat up and bled speed and alti­tude.  His reas­sur­ing habit of soft­ly whistling on final was a clear sig­nal that he was done chat­ting as he lined up on the prim­i­tive cob­ble strip, flanked by tall wil­lows, and pulled full flaps.

He cut pow­er just as we cleared the last thick­et of tall wil­lows at 40 mph.  I invol­un­tar­i­ly held my breath.  With a big load it was aero­dy­nam­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble to do any­thing but land.  We dropped hard to bounce 10 feet and sail 50 feet more, down again on the big donut tires. The moment we touched again, Mark glued the jud­der­ing machine to the cob­ble hard on the brakes and we slowed up rapid­ly.  Wings rock­ing, we eased up near the old sheep guide’s cab­in to slow taxi to the upper end of the 900-foot strip.  Mark sighed and asked me “which land­ing did you like best?” in his grin­ning, self-effac­ing man­ner and slight Boston burr.

The upper end of the strip had been par­tial­ly washed out by high­wa­ter so he revved the beast into a tail-lift­ing pow­er around and killed the engine.  Unbuck­ling, engine ping­ing, we stepped down to hear the rush of the riv­er and breathe it all in.  For me it was like a warm embrace from an old friend.  We unloaded gear to pile near the water.  Two oth­ers and their gear would com­plete the group.  Mark glanced at the sky and his wrist watch as he climbed back in,“should be back in three hours or so” he said with under­state­ment and a sidling grin. 

I knelt, turned my face and gripped my ball­cap, as he throt­tled up and accel­er­at­ed to quick­ly lift off and climb down canyon.   I watched for a few min­utes, alone again.  In a famil­iar rou­tine, the shot­gun was unsheathed, checked and dry fired a cou­ple of times, then crammed with slugs.  I walked over to the “gov­ern­ment cab­in” to see a new lock and a print­ed note PRIVATE PROPERTY!  STAY OUT!  PARK SERVICE GO TO HELL! that was guard­ed by a scold­ing red squir­rel.  No fresh bear sign around.

Sat­is­fied that I was alone, I tried to radio head­quar­ters but the near­est repeater was “stick­ing” again. I bus­ied myself and foot-pumped the self-bail­ing raft, assem­bled the alu­minum row­ing frame and oars, and rigged the boat.  A Com­mon Mer­ganser, long saw bill as point­er, trailed a string of look-alike chicks float­ing along the far shore.  This promised to be a great week.

In an instant I heard a deaf­en­ing whine and snapped around to see a pair of A‑10 Thun­der­bolt “Warthogs” explode out of a near side canyon, death­ly flat black, twin fuse­lage mount­ed jet pods, rock­et­ing in a mir­ror image turn up riv­er.  I made out the pilot’s hel­mets, the fear­some 30mm gatling gun under the blunt nose, as the mus­cu­lar tank killers hur­tled by at over 300 mph.  With­in fif­teen sec­onds they were gone. 

Mark had men­tioned that the Mil­i­tary Oper­at­ing Area was hot this day.  They had been below the agreed to min­i­mum alti­tude.  Pulse rate sta­bi­liz­ing, I then noticed jet trails high above in air refu­el­ing maneu­vers.  It was tough to resolve the roar of vio­lent tech­nol­o­gy with the sub­lime wild land­scape around me.  Which was the real “sound of free­dom”?

Mos­qui­to hordes had thinned, but were still swat-wor­thy.  I was pleased to have enough gin-clear water to some­what ease our pin-balling pas­sage through many rock gar­dens and chan­nel splits to come.  I staked my tent in the wil­lows and anchored it firm­ly for the brew­ing storm.   Slurp­ing cold water from my palm, I saw the plane long before hear­ing it as a yel­low speck turn­ing up the riv­er val­ley, beneath bil­low­ing cau­li­flower clouds.

After set­tling gear and tents, Barb and Jake want­ed to chug up the brushy slope to the ridge to see the WWII B‑24 crash site, take pho­tos and hur­ry back down.  From there Jake suc­cess­ful­ly made radio con­tact.  The cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry of that bomber crash in Decem­ber of 1944, dur­ing cold weath­er tests, would be high­light­ed when we stopped at the ruins of the cab­in that saved the life of the lone survivor. 

[The co-pilot, Lt. Leon Crane made his first-ever para­chute jump out the open bomb bay dur­ing a dis­ori­ent­ing, gyrat­ing plunge and the order to get out.  The flat-spin­ning war­bird fell from on high to slam into the snowy ridge and burn with two men on board.  Not a scrap of evi­dence as to the fate of the oth­er two crew mem­bers has ever been found. 

Crane stood knee deep in snow, shrouds and chute lying light­ly on the low shrubs, in sharply cold air col­lect­ing him­self and hol­ler­ing.  Crane had no gloves when he hasti­ly jumped out.  There was noth­ing to see but roil­ing black smoke above him in an immense white silence.   The riv­er below was lined by tall brush that was thick­ly furred with open water hoar­frost, stark­ly beau­ti­ful in bet­ter cir­cum­stances.  He siwash camped for days in the larg­er spruce by the frozen riv­er, burned by the cold, squint­ing up at the ridge crest imag­in­ing his mates stum­bling toward him in the blue bright­ness.  Blink­ing, he then saw noth­ing, again and again.  His attempts to sleep dur­ing twen­ty hours of dark, rolled up in his para­chute by a sput­ter­ing fire, his mind spin­ning, were tortuous. 

After days of grow­ing despair, he knew that there would be no res­cue.   The next day he post-holed through the dry snow, car­ry­ing his chute down­stream, the only log­i­cal direc­tion on the unknown small riv­er.  Inter­minable days in minus 40 F cold with no signs of humankind.  How­ev­er, fate is a fick­le thing even in extrem­is.  By pure chance, slog­ging on the main chan­nel, he noticed a cab­in, shroud­ed by snow.  It was a trapper’s cab­in unlocked, with kin­dling and wood­stove wait­ing.  When his fin­gers thawed, his eyes took in the stocked shelves and equip­ment, a cal­en­dar map and a cat­a­logue mail label solved the mys­tery as to where he was in the vast Inte­ri­or region. 

After a reck­less for­ay the next day, blind­ed by hope of find­ing peo­ple, he near­ly suc­cumbed to the dead­ly cold in a stag­ger­ing retreat back on his own trail.  He spent weeks recov­er­ing his strength and wits.  Rig­ging up a lit­tle sled, haul­ing bor­rowed gear and cradling a .22 rifle, he made his way to the Yukon Riv­er, to human con­tact after over 6 weeks of lone­ly anguish].

By evening, down­drafts just about blew out the small camp­fire as Jake cleaned din­ner pots and bowls and stuffed all the food in plas­tic bear bar­rels.   I was glad to have him along as an expe­ri­enced sea­son­al riv­er ranger.   Barb, a neo­phyte riv­er floater and a his­tor­i­cal intern from Port­land State, hasti­ly fold­ed her notat­ed topo maps to help with plac­ing larg­er rocks on our tarped gear and bob­bing raft.  She sheep­ish­ly told me that she had warm clothes but had left her sleep­ing bag behind.

Half frozen drops began to pelt us like spent bird­shot as we hur­ried to our sep­a­rate tents.  As usu­al I took the shot­gun and set­tled in to write notes and read as gusty down­drafts and heavy hail ham­mered us lead­ing to a cou­ple of hours of thun­der and flash­ing bolts.  In lulls I could just hear my two com­pan­ions, for whom I was respon­si­ble, talk­ing and laugh­ing between their close tents.

A cloud­less sky and fresh­ened air greet­ed us as we emerged from our nylon shel­ters.  Barb required some cajol­ing to get her mov­ing.  Jake was already pack­ing dry bags, but took a moment to set a cup of sweet­ened cof­fee at her tent door.  Spin­ning away from shore after oat­meal and lots of cof­fee on a crys­talline morn­ing, we were water-born, final­ly free from the con­straints of land. 

Cliff swal­lows swirled, chit­ter­ing over a deep green pool, seem­ing cheer­ful.  A dark gold­en eagle soared with ease on high.  As the cur­rent picked up on the bend, the wreck of a gull-wing Stin­son, radi­al engine and fuse­lage bat­tered by decades of spring ice and floods, lay in the wil­lows in anonymity. 

With pur­pose­ful bounc­ing and spin­ning and pow­er­ing around large boul­ders we stayed left to final­ly slide into the pool below the boul­der drop with­out get­ting wet.  We have been stuck there, up to our waists, tug­ging the raft to bet­ter water to floun­der back aboard.  The stand­ing wave at the foot of the drop dur­ing high water once drowned an unfor­tu­nate canoeist wear­ing hip waders.

Look­ing up at the exposed near­ly ver­ti­cal face, I was relieved that no one was home in that eyrie. Hang­ing on a rope with lit­tle foot­ing at a high ledge on ‘Boul­der Drop Face’ the year before was for­ev­er seared in my brain as the large, dark female fal­con cork-screwed down the rock face to strike my hel­met and back­pack in full scream.  Repeatedly.

We fol­lowed the tongue of flow when we could dis­cern it and oth­er­wise maneu­vered, spun the boat and shift­ed bod­ies to pull over shal­low rif­fles or between boul­ders in the drops between long lan­guid pools.   Jake was strong and capa­ble on the oars.  Barb didn’t get it yet and seemed to resent my instruc­tion.  We cov­ered ten miles of eyrie cliffs through­out the day.  I band­ed eight chicks with both the fed­er­al band and a col­ored alpha-numer­ic band on the oth­er leg, at three tra­di­tion­al sites with­out issue. In good light­ing, Jake and I man­aged to read a cou­ple of col­ored leg bands on perched adults using a pow­er­ful Cele­stron scope.

Sweaty climbs up the steep slopes, day packs bulging, led to ledges on rock out­crops often hun­dreds of feet above the water.  A lot was ‘rot­ten rock’ and unsta­ble.  Access some­times neces­si­tat­ed top rop­ing and rap­pelling down, but some were “walk-ins” much to my relief.  On hot days like these we tried to min­i­mize the time that both adult fal­cons cir­cled and screamed in agi­ta­tion once we were near chicks cow­er­ing in an eyrie scrape. 

Sin­gu­lar bluffs like ‘Boul­der Drop Face’, ‘Anasazi’, ‘Pere­grine Cave’, ‘Canoe Cab­in Creek’ led to the fore­bod­ing expanse of the weath­ered bone cliffs at Essie Creek in the canyon sec­tion.  As we worked our way, mys­ti­fied by rest­ing fal­cons unwill­ing to reveal their nest­ing sta­tus, neces­si­tat­ed hasty search­es for alter­nate ledges.  Fire­weed in full blos­som flowed down through black­ened trunks of birch on some slopes.

Sun­baked and tired, we rowed late to get to a pic­turesque spot on a deep green pool at the con­flu­ence of Cres­cent Creek, a major fork from the west.  As we neared our objec­tive, I smelled smoke and for a moment felt anx­ious that oth­er floaters were already camped there.  The nat­ur­al pow­er of the site and the full­ness of a suc­cess­ful day, buoyed our unload­ing and dis­per­sal to choose among many good tent sites.  We lit a small fire in the beach fire ring, dis­persed the rocks of two oth­er rings pick­ing up burned lit­ter, while pots heat­ed on the propane stove for a cheesy noo­dle con­coc­tion (Barb was veg­e­tar­i­an) and tea. 

Jake bor­rowed my gear to cast lures for grayling as I splashed a fin­ger of whiskey into a cup of water.  Barb sat smil­ing to her­self in the last slant of sun, while fill­ing in jour­nal notes and sketch­es of his­toric cab­in ruins we had sur­veyed.  I relaxed on the cool sand for a bit where cari­bou tracks thread­ed the beach.  Ravens grawked and chor­tled on the cliff over­look­ing us at a tra­di­tion­al stick nest site.  Bore­al chick­adees and ‘camp rob­bers’ flit­ted in the spruce boughs around our tents as a rau­cous Belt­ed king­fish­er flew up the oth­er bank to perch in a tree lean­ing over the water.  Com­i­cal­ly, he was all head, bill and atti­tude.  Smoke was def­i­nite­ly in the air on a dying upriv­er breeze, a small brown col­umn now vis­i­ble down riv­er.  Wildfire.

I was kneel­ing at the stove, reduc­ing the water to a sim­mer, when Barb shout­ed “A Bear!  Bear!” stand­ing and point­ing down­riv­er.  I heard the splash­ing as I saw the small dark griz­zly lung­ing across the riv­er out of the shad­ows to quick­ly reach our side, intent­ly focused on us.  I grabbed an extra pot and stick to bang and holler and stand large as the bear loped to close the dis­tance on the beach, brown pig eyes intent. 

Barb ener­get­i­cal­ly joined me bang­ing and shout­ing “Hey Bear!” as I stepped to the near spruce to grab the lean­ing shot­gun, jack­ing a round and prepar­ing to fire a warn­ing shot, as the young bru­in stopped and stood tall, con­fused and try­ing to find our scent.  Barb fran­ti­cal­ly shout­ed and now Jake joined in.  At thir­ty feet he was thumped with a rock and I fired into the air as he dropped to spin and run back down­riv­er into the brush.  The pas­sage of the bear showed in thrash­ing alder brush for a hun­dred yards.  Shak­ing and in tears Barb quick­ly turned to embrace Jake.   The pots on the stove bur­bled while I breathed out and my shoul­ders relaxed.  The dis­tinct odor of gun­pow­der lin­gered for a bit.

(to be continued…)






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Categories: Freezer Burned, Nature

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