Another Anecdote, Photo Gallery & Footnotes: "The Nature of Knowledge"

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Another Anecdote: Bear with Me

Director Robert Redford and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot paid such lavish, reverent attention to fly-fishing in A River Runs Through It that many people approached me about taking them on expeditions after the movie came out in fall 1992. Fishing in Alaska for world-renowned trophy halibut, trout, and salmon was already a popular tourist attraction, but the images the movie conjured of being one with nature while casting a reel stirred even more interest. The acclaimed film and Norman Maclean’s semiautobiographical 1976 novella of the same name upon which it is based elevate the worshipful recreation of fly-fishing into a metaphor about how to live well while also chronicling two brothers, one scholarly and the other rebellious, who as young men grapple with the expectations of their minister father in rural Montana in the early 1900s. As the elder brother narrates in the film, “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”

Fly-fishermen who hired the author ready their rods for salmon and trout and eat lunch along the Alagnak River in Alaska in fall 1992.

So it didn’t surprise me when a friend asked in 1992 if his 16-year-old son, an aspiring outdoorsman, could serve as my apprentice on a guided trip. I thought the best way to teach the teenager about the imperative of willingness and tenacity in conditions that can switch from idyllic to dire would be with five expert fishermen, longtime pals who had dreamed of a fly-fishing trip in remote Alaska. I planned for them a six-day float down the scenic Alagnak River, a federally designated wilderness area. Our jobs as guides entailed paddling the catarafts to secret fishing hotspots, tying special flies, keeping the clients well-fed, and helping them coexist with some of the more than 30,000 grizzly bears roaming the state that could consider them part of their dining menu and that made the limpid streams into a dining hall.

The apprentice proved a quick study. He readied gear in the morning, made opportune conversation about Alaskan wildlife throughout the day, and helped with cooking at dinner. I fell asleep the second night, in our campsite near the banks, eager to tell my friend that his boy was a natural.

We fished until dusk the next day and made a feast of some of the caught salmon, adding filet mignon and king crab that we had packed along as side dishes. Well-satisfied, we retired to our separate tents, except for my apprentice who had cleanup duty first. He knew the importance of washing everything thoroughly and stowing all food in a sack high in a tree away from camp, in case the aromas tempted hungry bears.

I was dreaming of home in the wee hours when I heard fabric shredding nearby. I grabbed my shotgun, unzipped my tent to peer out, and discovered that the apprentice’s tent had been toppled. In its place was a dim silhouette of a big four-legged creature slowly backing away from our camp towards the thick alder bushes surrounding our tent sites. I tried to make out what was in its mouth. The bounty was heavy enough that the predator had to drag it on the ground with such exertion that a trough was left in the sand. As my eyes adjusted, a dreadful picture emerged: a grizzly had slashed into my apprentice’s tent and pulled his sleeping bag out with him still in it, despite the dinner cleanup precautions he had taken.

I climbed out of my tent, screamed at the bear to get its attention, and fired a shot into the sky to scare it into dropping its newfound prize and run off. It looked up for a few seconds without releasing its catch and then continued the deliberate retreat in reverse. As my clients emerged from their tents, my attention was now divided between their safety and the bear. To make matters worse, I noticed there was no movement in the sleeping bag. I fired another warning shot, this one at the bear so that the blast of air would sweep across its brow. The bear dropped the bag, turned around, and fled into the bushes and off into the distance. I gave a fake chase for a few yards, yelling, to make sure it kept going.

The sleeping bag lay in a heap. As I began to formulate how to tell the apprentice’s parents of his demise, I carefully unzipped it, anticipating gory remains. But to my relief, joy, and disbelief, the apprentice, unharmed, sat up, rubbed his eyes, and scrutinized me as if I were an inconsiderate parent waking him up too early. He had slept through the attack!

His only comment was, “What is going on?” I told him how I just saved his life. He gazed around and, not seeing a bear, simply picked up his sleeping bag, restored the remnants of his tent, crawled back in, and soon began snoring.

The apprentice’s ability to keep calm under life-threatening duress proved the supposition in A River Runs Through It that all good things come by grace, which comes by art, which does not come easy. Though this was an experience we could have done without, it revealed a latent quality in his demeanor that no job application or formal interview would detect. I kept him on the payroll for future trips for many years.

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13 Goodreads, Inc. (2013). Hunter S. Thompson quotes.

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