Justin and I were moving slowly south, reluctant to relinquish the quiet of our time in the Arctic. Between the late summer snowstorm spent holed up in our truck in the Brooks Range and several days spent wandering along the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk river laughing over driftwood campfires, we glimpsed only a small handful of people from a distance as they raced one direction or the other along the Dalton Highway.
We relished the solitude. We relished the simplicity of concerning ourselves solely with the basics of life: warmth and weather and nourishment. We fell into the rhythm of the place, listening to the chalky river push around the rocks lining its bottom and watching the shadows move across Sukakpak Mountain’s massive marble peak as the days passed.
The last of August’s summer warmth fled the moment September arrived and we welcomed the signs of fall that greeted us everywhere. The alders and aspens and birches tucked in among the spruce were suddenly all golds and yellows. The blueberry and lingonberry turned deep garnet, the mountainsides and valleys rolling seas of fiery reds. Tessie’s fur thickened in the chill, but even so, we pulled out her down jacket so she could sleep alongside the fire in the sort of comfort to which she’d grown accustomed.
We gave up the Koyukuk only after poring over the map and choosing our next stop, hesitating a bit, but willing to justify the move with the promise of better fishing at the next camp.
Marion Creek was a ripple of turquoise against a golden backdrop and while its icy waters turned out to be fruitless for fishing, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to mind. But on we continued, inching our way southward on the advice of the ranger at Coldfoot who whispered his favorite fishing spot to us behind an upraised hand, confessing that he was only sharing because it was so late in the season and he’d be moving on himself soon.
We slept in a pull-off and woke to the brightest sunshine we’d seen in weeks. After tailgate coffee and more time looking over the map, we made our way to where the ranger had pointed us. We laughed as we pulled our waders on once more, cautiously hopeful that our carefully chosen flies would yield a catch or two, but ready to simply enjoy a sunny day on the river if not. We found the half-hidden path and followed it through the trees until reaching the bend the ranger promised. As we tied on our flies and debated elk hair caddis versus woolly bugger, the fish began to rise and we looked at each other in excitement.
Justin went off downstream and I inched in ankle deep, carelessly letting my fly dangle in the water as I finished organizing my person. I was startled when the rod I’d been holding loosely tucked into my arm suddenly bucked and I looked down to realize I’d caught my first fish in Alaska without so much as casting. Not exactly a “pro” move, but I giggled the entire time I slipped the hook so carefully from the little grayling’s mouth and watched as he zipped out of my hands into deeper water, a flash of dappled silver disappearing.
For the rest of the day, we lounged by that bend in the Jim River, pulling small arctic grayling out of the water every few minutes, never failing to feel a tiny rush when our line pulled tight.
It wasn’t “epic.” The fish were small and the fishing was easy and there were none of the elements of travail that make for a good war story. No harsh weather, no run-ins with bear or lion, no barely survived injury.
But we stood in the sunshine on a bend in a river in the heart of Alaska, thigh deep in water running cool and fast, and we whooped and hollered at our little fish, at each other, at the pure joy of being in a wild place far from beeping cell phones and roaring engines. We grew closer to each other. We grew closer to the land. We grew closer to the wild thing that lives inside us, so often leashed and tethered by the busy racket of our modern world.
Rivers have long spoken the secret language of my heart, their currents moving my soul right along with the rocks tumbling to smoothness along their silty bottoms. On that bright afternoon, sweet arctic grayling put their own hooks in me and I will bear an affection for those humble little fish for the rest of my days.
We always think that change must require great struggle. We believe that growth only happens as the result of pain and hardship. We assume that “adventure” only “counts” when it risks our very lives.
But sometimes it doesn’t have to be all of that. Sometimes to unlock our potential, we must unleash, we must untether, we must let go and breathe deep and easy.
Maybe we must stand in autumn sunshine, smiling until our cheeks ache.
There is information in our joy. Information in those moments that bring us to life.
And that information is just as valuable as that which is gleaned from those moments that bring us to our knees.
Surrender comes in many forms.
Sometimes it comes in the form of our chests breaking open wide to let in that sunshine, or feel that river water eddying behind our knees. Sometimes it comes in the form of noticing that the morning birdsong has returned in the spring or the last of the snow has melted away.
And sometimes it comes in the form of leaving a piece of ourselves behind, connected irrevocably to the ever changing currents and a few little fish in a quiet bend of a river named Jim.