I ease the raft into the shallow water, climb out and pull it onto the sandbar at the river’s edge. This is the place. I unload the float bags, slide the oars out of their locks and grab the spare. Using a short length of rope, I arrange the three oars into a tripod by tying their handles together and stand them up with their blades in the sand.
I take off my fishing vest and bury my nose in its fabric. The essence of this place returns in one deep breath—the river, the woods, campfire smoke, fish blood. I place the vest atop the tripod. A camp’s gotta have a flag, even if it’s only for a short while. The empty vest, faded pale by the Alaskan summer sun and worn thin by countless bushwhacks through dense alder woods and deep stream crossings, hangs limp like a banner of surrender.
I drag the ice chest out of the raft, grab a beer, and take a long, deep pull of the cold liquid. It’s nearly midnight and the sun is edging beneath the Sleeping Lady, framing the mountain with golden light. Earlier this evening I had drifted over deep emerald pools and imagined them to be planets from an ancient galaxy. Now I watch the river disappear beneath distant walls of ferns that bend toward the water like a green archway. The wind freshens and my vest flaps noisily against the oars as if to remind me why I returned to this place. The air fills with the sticky-sweet smell of new cottonwood leaves. In the water I see the glint of silver as a Chinook salmon darts past on its final pilgrimage.
I rise to gather wood and make the fire. It’s been a dry summer and the driftwood catches easily, red sparks shoot skyward, and soon the larger logs are ablaze. I walk to the tripod and reach for my fishing vest. With its pockets torn and the zipper gone, it is beyond salvaging. I edge closer to the fire, drop the vest into the center and watch orange flames claw through the fabric like hungry animals.
For many summers my younger brother Gerry and I camped on this sandbar. And on each trip the fishing vest—tackle box and talisman—was key to our fishing success. As it became tattered, my brother feared I would replace it but I assured him that, as long as our arms ached from catching salmon, the vest would be with us. We both admired its utility: the wool squares that anchored brilliantly hued salmon flies; the middle pockets bulging with lures, hooks, beads, colored yarn, sinkers; and the lower pouches holding pliers, knife, line, bug dope, bandages, stringer, and food. The vest carried all that the two of us needed on this river.
Ger and I would laugh as the late evening sun played on our faces. Next to the fire we sipped whiskey and river water, told stories from our childhood, and when the brief night settled over us, the river’s gentle rhythm carried us to sleep.
Now my brother is gone—taken too soon—when we still had salmon to catch and stories to share. I watch as the fire fades and grows dark. I take the bailing bucket from the raft, scoop the vest’s ashes from the embers, and empty the pail into the river. On the water’s surface the ashes swirl and linger for a moment before drifting away to a place where memories dwell in the clear, cold depths.
Joe Nolting recently moved to Bellingham, WA, after living 35 years in Alaska. He is planning a pilgrimage to Alaska’s Lake Creek to honor his brother Gerry who died unexpectedly October 8, 2012. Gerry was a lead attorney in representing fishermen and fish processors who were harmed by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He worked unceasingly on the case from 1989-2006.