We convene at the boathouse after breakfast. It’s raining. Not a heavy rain, just a constant flinging of light drops. Because the Kenai River is the progeny of glacier and sun, we’ve dressed warmly. I’m wearing long johns under quick-dry pants; four layers up top—silk camisole, wool undershirt, fleece zip-up, and rain jacket. And now we’re going to add another layer. We mill and bump as the helpers distribute mismatched overalls, rain jackets, and boots—all in thick formless rubber, and smelling of dirty hair and armpits. Hands push through sleeves, feet cram into tall boots; bend forward to swing suspenders over shoulders. We’re all so horrifyingly unfashionable that I don’t want to look at anybody. Our hiking boots are packed away; we’re told that we’ll be reunited with them at the end of our journey.
Three hoods hang from the back of my neck. I pull each one over my head. There are two Velcro wristbands on each wrist, and I pull them tight so the water won’t get in. More than anything, I don’t want to get wet and cold.
An awkward bunch, we troop to the river, where we receive instruction on how to get in. There are three rafts, each holding six passengers and a guide. One by one, we press into the calf-high water, sit on the fat pontoon, and swing our legs over and around. And we’re on our way.
It stops raining; hoods come off.
Our guide starts talking as soon as we’re on the river. She has a squeaky voice, which is going to make me crazy. From the beginning of this trip to the end, we find out more about this twenty-something woman than we want to know. While she yammers ceaselessly, I ponder how some people love to tell strangers their inner thoughts, their plans. Is this good or bad? Preserve some mystery, I want to tell her.
While the river’s broad and fast moving, the white water we encounter is no more risky than a mild amusement park ride, though splashes are involved. And even wearing all these layers, the water seeps in. I was diligent in closing off my wrists, yet my wool and fleece layers are soaked to the elbows within the first half hour. I remove my sopping knit gloves and stuff them into a lifejacket pocket. Then I try to keep my hands warm by curling them into my breasts beneath the lifejacket, but it doesn’t help.
The rain starts up again. Three hoods for one head. The drawstrings of the outer two hoods are tight beneath my chin. The snaps at my throat are closed. And still my hair, neck, back, and chest get soaked.
How are my fellow travelers doing? Dawn and Ronnie are rocking along on the back pontoons, most proximate victims of the verbal onslaught from our guide. Dawn looks uncomfortable. She tends to get sick when she’s on the water. I ask her if she’s okay, and she says she’s fine, but she’s speaking through closed teeth because her jaws are so tense.
David sits across from me. He looks content, not nearly as cold as I am. His glasses are covered with droplets. Laura is next to me. She’s gifted when it comes to spotting eagles and their nests. Though she’s shivering, her eyes twinkle. From this vantage, we’re surrounded by an impenetrable wall of green, broken by crags of granite, which she seems to find exhilarating. Her husband, Adam, is across from her. Happy to bob along, he’s playing with thoughts inside his head. Every once in a while he’ll emit a “heh, heh, heh.”
If it weren’t for the cold I’d be enjoying this. The pace is pleasant. The scenery is spectacular. The air is pure. Eagles are perched in the branches of the trees. Periodically they take flight, claiming the sky. Their whistle is dainty; incongruous with their wingspan and majestic demeanor.
“Are you cold?” I ask Laura.
“I’m freezing,” she tells me. “My feet are soaked.”
At least my feet are dry. At this point the rain goes from slight to torrential. The spots on David’s glasses become waterfalls.
We round a bend and come upon a fishing tour. Twenty people, dressed in the same ugly gear we’re wearing, standing out in the water, poles and nets at the ready. Though they’re right on top of each other, they’re having luck. There’s a reason why they’re all in the same pool—this is where the spawning salmon gather. After that, until we reach Skilak Lake, we’re never out of sight of fishermen scooping their salmon.
After a while our rafts come to bank on a rocky beach. The guides leap out, set up a table and a tent to keep the rain out, then spread an impressive picnic of salmon, salad, bread, several gourmet cheeses.
The rain has let up a bit, but the sky still drips.
“Ladies to the right, gentlemen to the left,” one of the guides announces. And that’s the way we find out that if we need to pee, which we all do on account of our reactive bladders, we must seek a private place in the wet Alaskan woods.
One by one we wander in our designated directions. As I squat between two trees, my cold butt exposed, I worry about Alaska. I understand that these areas we’re visiting are remote and that infrastructure is impossible and destructive to the environment. But we’ve seen a hundred people fishing. Our raft group transports twenty-one; but we’re not the only rafts on the river. And even if these tours don’t happen daily, they must happen several times a week. So it’s conceivable that, during an average week during the summer, between eight hundred and a thousand people are peeing along the shores of the Kenai River. This can’t be good.
And next, a rant. There is a couple traveling with their children. The mother moves her two kids to the front of the line. Then she hovers with them over the salmon, meat and cheese plate, bread choices, encouraging them in their decisions, reminding them of past experiences and preferences, discussing the nutrient content of every item. The mother is aware that she’s holding us up, that more than a dozen people are standing in the rain waiting for her to move her children along. She smiles at us, not in apology, but as an invitation for us to identify with her in the intrinsic difficulties and joys to be found in motherhood. And I am deeply offended. David and I traveled all over the world with our children, and never once did we make them feel that their needs were more important than the needs of others, or that they deserved special treatment simply because they were small. Rant over.
We hang in klatches while we munch. The women shiver while the men manfully claim that they’re comfortable. We reboard the rafts for more of the same. Ninety minutes later the river opens on to Skilak Lake, which is reputed to be serene and lovely, but on this day is rough, with white caps higher than the sides of the raft. We must cross this hazardous obstacle in order to get to our next destination, Kenai Back Country Lodge. An hour of up-and-down drenching hell. Icy water coming at us from below, from the sides, from above. David, at the front, is soaked. The fierce waves attack him as though they harbor hatred.
David is a good sport, always. Not so, me. I’m stewing in misery. After we arrive at the opposite shore, ragged and beaten by the elements, we are told to drop our gear on the beach. We’re handed our boots—my hands are too cold to tie them—and directed to the central hall and dining room, where we’re given an introduction to the lodge.
The guides are upbeat, proud of this remote location, expecting us to be impressed by the amenities they work so hard to maintain. Using jolly voices, they tell us that, wet as we are, the lodge has no drying facilities. And no plumbing in the cabins, either, so if we need to use the restroom in the night we’ll need hiking boots and a flashlight. Also, there is no electricity in the rooms. And the walls of the cabins are canvas, not real walls at all.
This is all very upsetting. I approach the sideboard, pour a glass of Merlot, and retreat to our quasi-cab, where I change into dry clothes and give myself a lecture about living in the moment and handling difficult situations. It doesn’t do the trick. The warmest clothes I brought with me are dripping and we’re going to be in this cold place for two days. David calmly unpacks and changes, silently tolerating my grumbles. I return to the main hall, pour more wine, return to the canvas cabin, and sulk for another forty-five minutes. By dinnertime I’ve mellowed a bit, so at least now I can sit around a table and be civil. The food is delicious, but I’m too exhausted to care. Everybody else had the same day I did, but they seem to have recovered quicker, adjusted better than I have. Maybe after a night’s sleep . . .