In the parking lot of the Russian River Campground, the downpour pastes fallen leaves on the pavement in a mosaic of aspen, cottonwood, and birch. The campground is deserted, an impossibly rare event because in June and July, it’s elbow-to-elbow combat fishing. But it’s October, and the sockeye salmon are long spawned out, broken to bits of hooked jaws, bare ribs and mottled skin sloughing off their spines.
I am camping with my buddy Dan, plus my 14-year-old son, Zane, and his lifelong pal, Luke. The boys are littermates, born months apart and inseparable. Dan and I are coworkers, now at the river to prospect for rainbow trout. I wish the boys were wading the river with us, but they have other plans and no fishing aspirations. They’ll be running around the woods and burrowing into their sleeping bags with portable DVD players. It’s enough for me that they are here, my son with his best friend and me with mine.
The yoke of memory
I’ll admit my jealousy toward the boys because they have the advantage of living in the moment of freedom, without the yoke of memory or preconceived notions. This is the Russian River as it is now. Many times when I mention fishing the river, friends chime in with “It’s not like it used to be. Combat fishing at its worst.” They won’t go because of the burden of the past. I wonder if that is all they remember, the crowds, the traffic, the snags and tangles. As we walk to the river, I think, What a shame.
We have the benefit of visiting in the fall. The campground is ours alone. Dan and I have fished here for at least three decades, but we don’t saddle ourselves with the past. What’s the purpose of that?
Wind sweeps down the river, fostering a nip that bullies us into pulling our hats over our ears and zipping our jackets under our chins. Cottonwood leaves spin in the current.
We fish the stream, the water so low it is more gravel bar than river, our waders more to repel wind than water. Dan and I split up as we pick our way downstream. Dan’s dog, Buster, clomps along, sniffing everything that crosses his path. I toddle along my way, more interested in being out on one of Alaska’s most scenic—and accessible—streams, and marvel that we have it to ourselves. Shafts of grey winter light pierce the forest canopy amid the silence. In summer, gulls squawk, people shout “Fish on!” and children cry after they stumble and tumble into the water. Now, the atmosphere has an aura of impending winter, that this will be the final fishing trip of the season.
I wonder what the boys are up to but am happy knowing they are wandering the woods rather than the mall. I picture them traipsing down game trails, leaping logs, ducking under boughs, and conquering invisible adversaries.
Dan and I meet at the mouth where the Russian River flows into the Kenai River. He claims he hooked and released a rainbow. I had hooked a Dolly Varden. No act of superior fly-fishing, this was bad luck for the fish, for it had run into the fly and impaled its nose with the barb. We walk back to camp in the fading fall light, the fetid scent of decaying fish and leaves in the air.
Dinner and cigars
Dan has brought ribeye steaks for all of us, and we stoke a fire of birch logs and let it settle to a bed of coals. He lays the steaks on the grate; heat and smoke cloak them in outdoor cooking goodness. The boys are enthralled with Dan’s culinary skills. Weather, hunger, thirst, and adventure spark our appetites.
A five-minute snow squall passes overhead, the hard flakes ticking on dead leaves. The Russian River flows 200 yards below us, a comforting serenade. Night settles in, and we slouch in camp chairs before the fire, fat and sassy, flickering shadows and flares illuminating the trees. I produce cigars, and the boys say it might be fun to smoke one too. Dan and I think this would be one of those memorable moments when the boys believe they’ll get away with it, take a tiny step toward manhood, that mom will never find out. We think they’ll draw a few puffs, recoil in disgust, and toss them into the fire. No dice. They smoke them down to the glowing nub and we are impressed—at least for a while.
The coals blink out, and we retire to the RV. My son slouches at the dining table. His friend leans against the open door. They look at the other with glazed eyes, not saying much. Dan and I busy ourselves getting ready for bed. Without thinking, Luke rushes outside retching. My son follows. Dan and I look at each other, confused as to what has happened. The boys return to the RV, their bellies much relieved.
We sleep in the next morning. Dan and I pack our fishing gear and leave the river already planning a spring trip to fish the first sockeye run. We drive home under grey clouds and snow flurries, maybe the last campers of the year at the Russian River. Riding in the back of the RV are the innocent boys, their memory of the trip, in the glow of this moment, unblemished by anything they’ve yet seen in life.