In a rush of rising up from a dark and heavy depth, I return into consciousness and awake. I am in a sparsely furnished apartment. I am living here, happily, within a complex of other apartments exactly like mine. All the apartments are filled with people just like me. I can’t quite tell where this place is. There aren’t any windows to offer clues to the natural world. I leave my apartment and travel down a narrow hallway. The hallway doesn’t seem to end. I realize now, with a touch of discovery and disappointment that I am dreaming. As I turn a corner, I catch a breeze in the air and the sound of a golden-throated sparrow brings me up higher yet into consciousness and I awake all over again. Am I here now in the real world or is this the dream?
The day is already underway as I look out my window through a green dapple of birch leaves from the big tree that brushes my bedroom window. I shake off the odd physical sensation from my strange dream. I look out over the river, sparkling in early sunlight, washing a kind of golden glow over my bedroom. All of our flat-bottomed fishing boats are gliding back down the slough in front of the lodge to the boat dock, filled with fishermen who’ve been out early in the morning trying their luck for Alaska salmon.
This place is called Riversong Lodge and it sits on the banks of the Yentna River at the juncture of another river called Lake Creek. Lake Creek is a famous Alaska fishing river. The river called Lake Creek is about fifty miles in length. People fly in to the headwater lake, Chelatna Lake, to take float-fishing trips down the scenic and adventurous river.
I jump up and swing into action. It’s the same comforting routine every day: coffee on early, then the generator, then music, then the smell of breakfast cooking. I set the table for breakfast - placemat and charger down, napkin next, fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right. The juice glasses are polished and placed above the knife. Juice glasses are set at a slight angle to the right of the water glass. The kitchen is humming now with anticipation of the meal service – plates are stacked neatly on the big wooden table and are ready to be filled. Pots are simmering on the stove. Today’s breakfast, smoked salmon frittata, is being served with tiny bouquets of Sweet Woodruff flowers from the garden. We made the morning bread ourselves with semolina flour flown in from town. Classical music fills the lodge. It’s classical music in the morning, bluegrass in the afternoon, jazz in the evening. We choreograph our lives to music here. I arrange wildflowers in each of the seven flower vases on each of the seven guest tables. I am particular about these things, the little things, and I enjoy this moment when everything is ready, just before the guests spill in to the lodge, noisily recounting the excitement of the morning.
On the small teak telephone desk next to the front door is VHF, a “very high frequency” radio we use to communicate with airplanes flying overhead. I hear the crackle of a transmission and then Curtis calling to us:
That’s the way pilots call to each other – first identify who you are calling and then you are. I respond, “96Uniform – Riversong Lodge”.
“Get your medical bag. I am going to stop in to pick you up.”
His voice is calm and clear but serious – no singsong quips like he usually makes. Today he is all business. Curtis is forty years old but he still looks like a teenager. He was the person who first flew Carl and me to Lake Creek to start our new life on the river, a long time ago now.
I get our medical bag down from above the rafters over the dining room. The bag is filled with bandages and saline. Some state officials gave it to us in case there were any emergencies in our area. I check to make sure I have pliers. Needle-nose pliers are the most helpful to remove barbed fishhooks that have become embedded in skin from a bad cast of the fishing rod. Hook removal is my most requested skill but Carl actually performs it the best. You take a piece of fishing line and slide it down along the hook between it and the hooked person’s flesh. Then you grab the part of the hook extruding from the skin with pliers and pull on both in opposite directions. The tension creates airspace for the barb to slide through the flesh without catching, and – whoosh. The barbed hook slips out of the skin seemingly miraculously and the nervous fisherman smiles and sighs.
I walk down the path from the main lodge to the boat dock. We have 15 boats neatly lined up in the water, all tied to the dock. I commandeer a guide to drive me across the slough to the gravel bar and wait on the riverside for Curtis to land his airplane. The gravel bar is blossoming now, having spent much of the summer under water when the river was high. But now the water is low and dwarf fireweed blooms are pushing up through the horse-grass and sand, scattering splashes of purple color across the pebbled landscape. Old giant spruce and birch trees that have eroded and tumbled into the river lie on the gravel bar like old bones. In the summer sun, the trees sprout leaves, not yet accepting the fact that they are already dead.
At the end of the gravel bar is a nest of Arctic terns. I walk along the shore of the sand bar, my tennis shoes dodging the river splashing along the edge of the sand, to see the birds more closely. They fly all the way to the tip of South America in the winter and work their way back to this very gravel bar every spring. If I go too near their nests, the birds will screech and attack and dive-bomb my head, like a scene right out of the movie, only the terns never really hurt me – they just like to startle. It’s a comfort to see them return every year. I am oddly proud that these terns select this place to build their nests and have their young. Each winter, I worry they won’t return.
Curtis doesn’t land but a man I don’t know in a tiny little airplane called a Super Cub splashes onto the water in front of me. He idles his engine and navigates his rudders to beach up onto the sandbar. He is taking me to the scene of an accident. It’s an airplane crash and the crash is nearby. Curtis’ airplane is too big for the little lake we need to land on.
I climb in behind the man and we taxi out onto the river. We bob along the current, sparkling in the sun, just like the terns do, and for a moment the energy of the river intoxicates me – the breeze, the colors, the birds shrieking and swooping along the shoreline, my homey, comforting lodge on the banks of the river with its small plume of smoke wafting skyward from the woodstove. It all seems so, well, harmonious, this place where I live.
We pop off the river and bank sharply to the south. The pilot turns his plane around in nearly a complete circle as he gains altitude and heads northward up Lake Creek. There must be a hundred shades of green down below us – the trees, the grass, and the mossy valley vegetative floor. Through the green lies the swath of steel blue from the river - cold mountain water tumbling and rushing towards the sea. We fly a short distance to a tiny little lake on the western side of Lake Creek. We see the airplane, crumpled like a toy, sticking out of the water on the shore’s edge. The nose of the airplane has been driven straight into the ground and the tail is sticking up in the air. It’s a heart-stopping sight. There isn’t any evidence of previous human activity on the lake before today, before this violent action that came without warning. It’s still possible here in Alaska to be the first ones to have set foot on a place, for hundreds of years or perhaps ever. The lake is silent as we skim over the water’s surface looking for rocks or obstructions that might impede our landing. We pass by several times.
We land our little plane and I take a deep breath. I can’t remember anything about nursing. I can’t remember how to remove a fishhook. I climb out of the plane with my stupid little bag filled with Band-Aids and a pliers and head to the crash site. The pilot stays behind. He is fiddling, delaying, something about his radio. My shoes slurp in the wet mud and I sink down into the muck as I approach the wreckage. It was a mistake not to have changed my shoes to rubber boots, I think. The little toy plane stuck in the ground at such an odd angle is a DeHavilland Beaver, a six-passenger bush plane that is ubiquitous in the Alaska backcountry. It holds nearly two thousand pounds of gear and weighs over five thousand pounds when loaded. It flies about 150 miles per hour and carries hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel. This particular airplane is familiar. It’s painted dark green. The pilot and his girlfriend had come to our lodge to have dinner just a few days ago. I climb onto the wing and unlatch the door. Inside is a sea of wires and luggage and rafting gear jumbled together.
I am shouting down into the airplane. All around me is nothing but the quietness of the lake. A few birds scatter as I begin to make noise and toss out bits of cargo from the plane. Deep beneath the hundreds of pounds of freight, I hear a muffled voice calling for help. There is someone alive in the airplane. There is someone still alive.
I jump down from the plane and run to the pilot in the Super Cub. I tell him they are alive and he radios in to the search and rescue crew that we have survivors. They wouldn’t come before they knew there were survivors – recovery is a different department. The Rescue Command Center finally launches a helicopter. It will take them more than an hour to get to us.
I talk to the muffled voice buried below the cargo, reassuring him, asking him to keep talking to us. We extract the luggage strewn on top of him and throw it down off the wing we are standing on. Out comes clean white tennis shoes, a Ziploc bag full of beef jerky, a broken suitcase full of once-neatly packed clothes, games, some booze. This was a group of buddies going on a fishing trip – a trip of a lifetime. They were going on a raft trip down Lake Creek. Perhaps they had seen the terns’ nest and my lodge with the smoke rising from the woodstove. Perhaps they wondered about us as they flew overhead, who we were, lucky enough to live here on such a good fishing river. They must have been excited this morning, finally the culmination of months of anticipation, buddies in the office planning a fishing trip to Alaska. Going to catch the big one. Going to sit by the campfire and look at the stars. Going to enjoy the quiet away from city life. Going to find camaraderie and bonding. I look down into the airplane and see the back of two heads. One is facedown in the toxic mix of water and fuel that has seeped up through the fuselage. His head is bobbing in the water as we shift our weight. The other is calling to us. His voice is already weak and raspy. We are standing above him, looking down, trying to figure out how to get him out of his seat.
I realize with horror that we will have to cut away the passenger sitting next to the survivor. The passenger is dead. I know this because I pick his head up out of the water and feel for a pulse along his neck. He isn’t breathing. We need the room to maneuver and to be able to lift the survivor out of the airplane. The Super Cub pilot climbs down and cuts away the dead man from his safety belt and pushes him under the water, down into the darkness out of sight. A pair of Oliver Peoples glasses bobs up to the surface as a reminder of what lies underneath us. Down below in the water are four more dead men, all still neatly strapped into their seats, facing downward into the dark. As we begin to move the survivor, he screams that his legs hurt. The seat in front of him has crushed them. His back hurts. I try to remember what I should do. I try to think about what I should anticipate. The water and fuel seepage is about an inch from his face. A slightly different tilt of the plane as it fell out of the sky, the random selection of seats as the group jostled and joked and loaded in to the airplane in the morning, an inch of difference, just an inch and he would have been under the water, too.
The helicopter lands, its rotor wash flattening the grass and whopping sounds echoing across the lake. The pilot lands surprisingly far away from the wreck – maybe he thinks the plane will blow up. It’s probably standard procedure. Four men in military uniforms climb out and run towards us. These men are just boys – they are just babies. How can they do this job every day? One boy is obviously a leader. He makes the decisions. He devises a scheme to lift the survivor out still strapped in the seat so that his back is supported. We all work at this. It is hard physical work. We work as a team to extract the back two-person seat of a DeHavilland Beaver out of an upside down aircraft with a person still attached to it. The survivor’s moans and screams become less coherent. He is starting to lose consciousness.
We pull the seat out somehow and carry it down to the ground onto the wet grass. We have disturbed the ground so much around the crash site, the solid ground is giving way to its fluid state. We sink in and drag ourselves up. Fuel is still soaking the ground. Luggage and cargo are scattered where we tossed them from the plane and I think to myself that I need to gather these things up for the families. I notice a plastic bag filled with cards and poker chips. Maybe that was the planned evening’s game around the campfire tonight, underneath the stars – a “life is good, doesn’t get better than this” moment. We put the survivor onto a backboard and strap him in. I start an IV and I take his vital signs. The survivor’s heart is racing. We all take a place around the backboard and lift him into the air to carry him to the helicopter. The board is heavy and walking is hard. The survivor isn’t talking any more.
At the hospital, the survivor is whisked away to surgery and I am put into an emergency room alcove. A nurse hands me some hospital scrubs to change into and tells me to take a shower. I am soaking wet with fuel and my legs are burning. I didn’t know standing in fuel could cause skin burns. Curtis comes to pick me up and I call the owner of the aircraft that crashed. Before I leave the hospital, I call the survivor’s wife. I’m the one to tell her the news.
We have a small house in Anchorage near downtown that we keep as a sort of reverse cabin in the woods. I love our little urban house. It’s quiet and private and the phone never rings here. It’s a respite from our full and busy lives in the wilderness. Curtis drops me off and I go into my bedroom and draw the blinds to make the room dark. I lie on my bed and put my face into the soft, clean pillow. As I sleep I dream the passenger strapped in next to the survivor isn’t dead after all. I have made a mistake and I have pushed him down into the water in error. In my dream, I see round Oliver Peoples glasses on the table, in the sink, on a windowsill. I wake up sweating, my legs are on fire and my head is pounding.
Some people come to Alaska and never see or know the beauty of the river where I live. They don’t see the sparkling light from the river dancing through the window in the morning. They don’t notice the dwarf fireweed blooming underfoot or understand the impossible miracle of an Arctic tern’s annual journey. This place, Alaska, doesn’t give up her secrets to just any visitor.
For a while, I’ll keep in touch with the survivor and his wife. She’ll stay at my little house in Anchorage while they wait for her husband to stabilize enough to move to a hospital in California. This will take weeks. The survivor’s family raises almonds in California and his parents send me boxes of almonds in appreciation. For a while, I hear snippets of how he is doing – not always so well. A little depression, some surgeries on his legs – survival is a process that takes time.
I pack up my little medical bag and fly back out to the lodge. I pick the back right seat in the airplane for good luck. As we land on the river, in the glittering sun. I see wood smoke rise from my lodge and waft lazily down the river. Overhead, the shadow of an airplane crosses over me and the Arctic terns swoop and cry.