In his poem “The River Now,” Washingtonian Richard Hugo writes about mankind’s connection to natural spaces. “This river points the way north to the blood,” he says, among a good deal of other profound things. “The blood still begs direction home.”
I think we all spend our lives trying to listen to this blood and follow the paths it traces. We might have a long list of locations we enjoy or would return to if given the chance, but when it comes to the places you find yourself gravitating to without knowing it, or considering as a place to spread your ashes someday, there are only a precious handful. These, I’ve come to realize, are the places Hugo writes about. These are home.
One such home for me is the Delta Clearwater River in the heart of interior Alaska. Known simply as “the Clearwater” to most, this is one of the best arctic grayling fisheries in Alaska (quite possibly the world), and I was approaching it at an easy 65 on a bright July day not long ago. Scott Murdock, a friend and fly-fishing mentor from Fairbanks, had invited me up for a weekend of grayling glory. As much as I like to think I know this river like the back of my hand, Scott knows it better.
I show up at the Clearwater State Recreation Site in Delta Junction around mid-morning. The river is only publicly accessible from this rec site, and facilities include a lovely campground from which walk-and-wade operations can be staged, as well as an improved boat ramp for anything from kayaks to jet boats. One of the most popular boating options is to launch here and float downriver to Clearwater Lake, an easy and serene day trip for most paddlers. Another option for motorized watercraft is to head upstream and seek out productive grayling haunts, which is exactly what Scott and I do.
Sphagnum moss, Labrador tea, and wild blueberries carpet the banks of the Clearwater as we pass, while pickets of black and white spruce lean and wave like pleasant neighbors. I could compare the water that flows here to something like vodka or skillfully distilled gin, but the fact is this river is clearer, purer, and more intoxicating. It seeps up from aquifers more or less in line with a fault between two major geological terranes, and it flows some 20-odd miles down to its terminus in the Tanana River. These springs, perhaps more than anything else, contribute to the river’s distinctiveness: They ensure a water temperature between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit whether it’s June or January.
Such spring-creeks are not unheard of in this region, but they are cherished like gold and the Clearwater is the biggest of them all. Among its other accolades, the Clearwater features a veritable cornucopia of insects: several varieties of mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, beetles, and ants, all of which invite trophy arctic grayling (18-plus inches) to enter the river en masse in early summer and remain to grow fat through October.
Owing to the quality of its gravel, the river also attracts coho salmon during their autumn spawning runs. The Clearwater represents the largest run of its kind in the entire Yukon River drainage (an area about the size of Pakistan). These fish enter the river like hundreds of red Corvettes, and the nutrients they provide through their eggs and decaying corpses give the river a critical boost before the hungry lapse of winter sets in. Despite opportunities for chromed cohos earlier in the season and closer to my home in Anchorage, I’m bound to follow my blood here in late September. Clearwater cohos have become a kind of seasonal clock for me; a measure by which summer ends and winter begins.
This home has its own daily clock, as well. By half past noon, Scott and I behold the fly-fisherman’s equivalent of Nirvana: a mayfly hatch. This happens every day on the Clearwater from May until October at pretty much the same time, although it’s been known to vary in intensity depending on weather. We stand there in the cold, chuckling water, threading our tippets through a mayfly imitation of Scott’s that achieves just the right profile, just the right shade of gray. Here the river points north, and my blood no longer begs direction home because it’s already there.
We will spend the next two days just like this, casting to huge, old grayling that rise by the hundreds, watching for moose as they wade emerald-green pools, and toasting good Scotch to the fact that this river exists, and that we do, too.