Absolute Perfection

The jet skiff skimmed up the Ambler River, my guilt fading with each bend. I’d sworn to myself to stay glued to home, attending to a pile of now-or-next-year chores. But here I was, heading out into the country instead. The day had started with the same grungy, rain-spattered weather that had defined the past month; but by afternoon the clouds had dissolved into a blue sprawl of sky, colors glowing, the breeze sighing of summer—the best day of the whole damn fall. As a bonus, the hordes of mosquitoes and gnats that had plagued us had evaporated. So, what to do—spend this afternoon patching and painting a storage shed desperate for it five years ago, or take a river run somewhere? Not much of a decision. The shed was good at waiting, after all. 

Soon as I’d decided to duck out, I knew where I was going—up the Ambler, by far the best bang for the gas and time I had—10 gallons and six hours before starlight. No exact destination: just a fishing rod, cameras, and chain saw, and a yearning to see what the country was up to. At the very least, I’d score a few grayling and cut a boatload of dry spruce on the way home. At most, who knew? Just getting out into the day was enough.  

Nick’s first Dolly of the day.

I’d long ago lost track of the trips I’d made up the Ambler’s 80-mile course—from spur-of-the-moment jaunts to expeditions along the spine of the Kobuk-Noatak divide. Each bend flickered with memories. Here was the cut bank where I was charged by a bull muskox and my camera got stomped; Minnie Gray and I had climbed the flank of Bear Mountain three decades ago to gather birch bark; farther upstream, a white wolf had bounded through shallows, wreathed in backlit spray…just a few of hundreds of instants spread over half a lifetime. Rivers and people are bound to change, etched by gravity and time. But many of the bends seemed as I’d always known them—perhaps because we’d aged together. And here I was, faring out once more, on the current that had helped carve the channel of my life. 

I felt all that without thinking, immersed in details of the moment. I glanced at my gauges and tapped the throttle forward, listening for the motor’s sweet spot, the late September sun resting its hand on my shoulder. After two bouts of high water this fall, both flirting with flood stage, the Ambler was settling within its banks, clear enough to spy grayling and whitefish darting away from my passing shadow, low enough for me to recognize the riffles and current breaks that guided my way. Jetboating—driving a rig based on the same principle as a jet ski, but larger, tougher, and utilitarian—involves running shallow to avoid as much current as possible and to cut corners between bends tight as you can—all in the name of saving distance and time, and also gas (14 bucks a gallon this past fall). Too shallow, or clip the wrong boulder, and bad things can happen fast. Learning this river source to mouth, one bend and rock at a time, had taken me decades; and I couldn’t think of much I’d rather do than roam its course and hone the craft of going. 

Bluffs, gravel bars, and tributary mouths scrolled past: the Miluet and Redstone, a handful of smaller creeks. Above the Redstone, a third or more of its flow gone and tannin-stained sloughs behind, the river became a liquid atmosphere. I began to scan for the ghosting forms of sea-run Dolly Varden char, known to the Inupiaq as simply “trout.” Rare compared to most other fish of the upper Kobuk, they’re prized for their rich, orange flesh; their iridescent beauty; and by anglers for their line-peeling fights. I knew from years past that the next 20 miles held a scattering of Dollies; if a guy got lucky he might find a pod of a dozen or more, the largest thick-shouldered and a yard long. At this time of year, they’d be holding near deeper, spring-fed runs where they’d spend the winter dreaming under the ice. I hoped for a few to grace the freezer and share with friends but that was up to the river.     

I rounded a sharp bend into a swimming bull moose off the port bow—so close that I had to swerve and give way. Motor at idle, I groped for my camera with one hand, slipping back so I wouldn’t interrupt his crossing any more than I already had. As he got legs under him and surged out of the water, flashing a sidelong, testosterone-fueled glare, I fired off a series of exposures—nothing great as it turned out, but worth a try. And in a season where sightings had been few, this was my very first chance at anything bigger than a beaver. 

Three miles later, another bull sunned on a gravel bar and, like his buddy downstream, was in the over-bold throes of the rut. I cut my engine, coasted shoreward and watched. As I grunted my feeble imitation of a lovesick cow he tossed his head, stalked toward me, then reconsidered the romantic possibilities. I watched as he faded into the willows, then shoved off. 

The second rutting moose glares from the willows.

Two bends up, I knew I was on a roll. A remarkably fearless bald eagle perched in an overhanging spruce, rubbernecking as I slid beneath it; and ahead, a cluster of ravens and several more eagles—a sure sign that at least a few late-run chum salmon were still around. Though far from a major spawning stream, this stretch of the Ambler does host small annual runs. I slowed and switched to full alert for salmon-scrounging bears and stepped up my downward search, too.

And there they were: not grizzlies, but a mob of fish shimmying away from the boat—a school of spawning whitefish, a few worn-looking salmon shadowed by egg-gorged grayling, and several large shapes I couldn’t identify at a glance. Maybe, I thought, and looped toward shore.  Rod in hand, I waited, crouching, giving everyone time to settle down. My first cast was met with a hard strike—a good fish, but it didn’t feel like a trout. Instead, a chunky pike burned away line and came in grudgingly. Then several more of the same, followed by a series of magnum, catch-and-release grayling. I cast farther, let my spoon settle deep, and WHAM, an unmistakable silver-blue shape catapulted through the surface: a prime Dolly! After a long back-and-forth fight, I skidded up the seven-pound beauty; and on the next cast, its twin slammed my lure, followed by a half dozen smaller but solid trout with a few giant grayling mixed in.

Slanted shadows reminded me—time to go. Just downstream of my good fishing spot I swung in at a high bank where I’d spotted a cluster of dead standing spruce. Working with the saw in the gathering twilight, I knocked down, limbed, and cut a couple dozen six-foot lengths and loaded up several weeks’ worth of firewood; along with the sackful of trout and pike, enough subsistence swag to complete the beat-down of my stay-at-home domestic conscience. See, I was working!  

I headed homeward with the current at my back, the deepening sky reflected in the river’s winding path. You could say this wasn’t much of a trip, compared to many others—no breakdowns, storms, charging beasts, or other white-knuckle drama, no huge distances or rock-studded shallows to surmount. Just a day, alone with the river. Perfect: that’s how I’ll remember it, whenever it is that I close my eyes.   


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