Douglas H. Chadwick
Heart of Winter 2011
Hey. Just launched onto the Wolf River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. I’m riding a small kayak, slaloming between boulders. The flow is newborn and narrow here, fresh out of Wolf Lake. Boundless ranks of mountains behind me, day after day of untamed valleys and incoming tributaries ahead; there’s no way this isn’t going to be good. Moose eye my progress. Grizzly tracks cluster near a set of rapids. Ah, the bears must have been after the big, tapered shapes that flash by under my hull: spawning king, or Chinook, salmon with flanks red as last night’s campfire coals.
The Wolf is a far source of the Yukon River. From the Bering Sea, these fish have been swimming upstream for nearly 2,000 miles. Two waterfalls straddle their home stretch – not cascades but sudden, towering drops. My only options are to portage or be smithereened, but while the river explodes, shaking the bedrock, the kings climb straight up and over. It’s what four to five slippery feet of muscle and high-energy oils and salmon compulsions are designed to do. That doesn’t make it any less miraculous.
First water, then Life on Earth. Cells are sloshy with protoplasm, roots sip, hearts pump blood. About 114 of my 190 pounds are H2O – 55 quarts worth. I’d survive three weeks without eating but little more than three days without fresh water. So give me a paddle and an endless flow of this lovely, constantly changing stuff that absorbs and reflects the world around it and, at the same time, dissolves, transports, deposits, then carves the topography anew and animates it with creatures. Hand me a face mask and drop me in an eddy to look around. At the very least, let me quench my thirst.