The river is going out. Big time. Sure, it’s been raining since we started out six days ago and 17 miles upriver, but only enough to ensure that everything we own is wet. A week of dripping tents, soggy sleeping bags and wrinkled fingers isn’t so bad when the river’s green.
But now, this is different. The gentle, misting rain we’ve grown accustomed to has transformed into a howling, spitting front that roared off the Pacific in the middle of the night. Not that I’d been sleeping anyway. Exhausted as I was, I had been in the grips of paranoid insomnia, fueled by the news we’d received the day before. Steve, a longtime friend and guide for one of the lodges, had steered his jet boat near enough to shout, “Saw a big sow griz in here yesterday, with a wounded paw… and cubs. I’d be careful.” At the time, we thought it was funny. A laughable guide tactic to keep us moving downstream, out of his prime water. And yet we’d known Steve for years. He wouldn’t try something that obvious. Would he? Something to ponder in a dark tent as the wind picked up and branches snapped in the distance.
In the morning, we bail out the raft and row across, knowing that we have at most a one-day window to fish. Visibility is limited to the river corridor, as ominous black clouds obscure the soaring granite walls and Windex-blue glaciers that loom somewhere overhead. Quarter-sized raindrops blast a foot of spray over the water, and I understand we are fishing the last hours of the year on this river. Desperation sets in. By the time the river drops back into shape, our permits will be long expired.
We hike upstream and spend the day fishing our way back to the raft. The weather, if anything, is getting worse. We laugh stupidly over lame jokes, yelling “It might be raining, but at least the wind’s picking up” and “I don’t think the really heavy stuff’s going to come down for a while.” Mostly, we cast with crazed intensity. The fishing is nothing short of magnificent. We are finding fish now in almost every run — explosive, flashing slabs of bright chrome pushing in from the sea on rising water. And still, the rain lashes at us. Time is running out in paradise.
In the dim, murky light of early evening, we are back at the raft, fishing the gravel bar across from camp. The river has lost its emerald green, tinged now with brown runoff and milky glacier melt. Tomorrow, it will be chocolate. As I work my way down into the sweet spot, something catches my eye across the river. A brief flicker of movement in the brush just upstream from our sadly drooping tent. I squint through the gloom and can just make out a large, dark mass moving quickly toward camp. It’s hard to be sure, but I could swear it’s limping.
This is serious. We need to row over there right now and deal with the situation while there’s still a last bit of daylight left. Make noise. Light the lantern. Get a fire going. Walking into camp after dark would be terrifying. A surge of fear grips my stomach.
Down in the tail-out, just above the break, a fish surfaces in a slow head-and-tail roll. The width of its back is breathtaking. I take two steps downstream, push my loop through the gale, and fire. The upstream wind makes the mend easy, and as my fly begins to swing, I just know he’s going to take. I just know it.