Voices from the river

Voices from the River: Success and sorrow on Willow Creek

By Eric Booton

I felt a slight hesitation as the group collectively chose to avert our former plans in order to float Willow Creek.

I had the thought but I didn’t dare say it out loud. Was this going to be another fishless story from Willow Creek? I can’t recall how many times, but it can’t be too far from double digits, that I have came home from Willow Creek skunked, questioning my skills as an angler and reassuring myself that the fish were simply elsewhere in the system.

Our trip down the river was off to a good start. It was a perfect, but rare, hot and sunny summer day in Alaska and it only took a couple of minutes for us to start spotting big, fire engine red chinook salmon preparing to spawn, which is generally a good omen for trout fishing.

I felt satisfied watching that first fish swim out of my fingertips and swim back to the safety of its log jam home. The day was already a success in my book.

The unwanted hiccup in our adventure came while I was around the corner and a few holes down from group. I saw my wife, Brittney, running over to me and yelling like something was wrong, but with the combination of moving water and imperfect hearing I only caught a string of muffled, indecipherable words.

As I approached our beloved raft, Sunny, the issue became obvious. Houston, we have a problem. This beautiful sunny day had just bit us in the ass. Sunny caught a bit too much sun and the expanding air in one of the chambers ruptured a seam.

This was new territory for all involved. We’ve patched waders. We’ve patched bicycle tubes and air mattresses. We’ve patched holes in ourselves… but none of us had patched a raft.

Photo by Ryan Astalos

Of course, we had the resources needed for a field patch, so we went for it. Two patches and three coats of hypalon later we learned how difficult it is to patch a seam…. it’s like putting a bandaid over a severed artery. Limping our way down the river was officially imminent and I expressed my thanks to the inflatable boat forefathers and their wisdom in designing boats with multiple air chambers.

With the rods put away for the day and a focus on floating our way out, priorities quickly changed. I found pleasure in enjoying the river activities that I imagine non-fish obsessed humans take joy in. I sat back with a cold drink in my hand and soaked up the Vitamin D rich sunshine in preparation for the dark winter ahead. I observed families of mergansers, zipping up and down the shoreline of the creek, momma bird in the lead and ducklings impressively keeping pace. I spotted fish simply because I could and marveled at the schools of pinks and chums, working their way through the current in chaotic unison. And by the end of the float, the fish I caught weren’t even the highlight of the float, enjoying a dunk in a nice hole to beat the heat took the cake.

Reflecting on this fresh state of mind, I am reminded about a good friend’s habit of slowing down, taking the time to enjoy the moment and not spending every second (just the overwhelming majority of them) with a line in the water and am thankful for having this much needed moment graciously provided for me. There are dozens of adages that come to mind, but I’ll create my own instead: a float on a lopsided and deflating raft is what you make it.

It turns out the raft may very well be headed to vessel graveyard, leaving us scratching our heads for the rest of the summer. Yet still, at the end of the day, I finally caught a fish on Willow Creek.

Eric Booton is the sportsmen’s outreach coordinator for TU’s Alaska Program.

By Chris Hunt.