The Wild Charley River (part I)
FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Interior Alaska is a regular column on the San Juan Update written by Steve Ulvi…
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…)