|[a] Into the country|
William L. Howarth's introduction to The John McPhee Reader is in itself a remarkable primer on the nonfiction writing process, and the lead is just one element of it. On the other hand, no part of a piece of writing is as important—something John McPhee understands very well.
|[b] High country|
Paddling again, we move down long pools separated by white pitches, looking to see whatever might appear in the low hills, in the cottonwood, in the white and black spruce—and in the river, too. Its bed is as distinct as if the water were not there. Everywhere, in fleets, are the oval shapes of salmon. They have moved the gravel and made redds, spawning craters, feet in diameter. They ignore the boats, but at times, and without apparent reason, they turn and shoot downriver, as if they have felt panic and have lost their resolve to get on with their loving and their dying. Some, already dead, lie whitening, grotesque, on the bottom, their disassembling in the current. in a short time, not much will be left but the hooking jaws. Through the surface, meanwhile, the living salmon broach, freshen—making long, dolphinesque flight through the air—then fall to slap the water, to resume formation in the river, noses north, into the current. Looking over the side of the canoe is like staring down into a sky full of zeppelins.
A cloud, all black and silver, crosses the sun. I put on a wool shirt. In Alaska, where waters flow in many places without the questionable benefit of names, there are nineteen streams called Salmon—thirteen Salmon Creeks, six Salmon Rivers—of which this is one, the Salmon River of the Brooks range, is the most northern, its watershed wholly above the Arctic Circle. Rising in treeless alpine tundra, it falls south into the fringes of the boreal forest, the taiga, the upper limit of the Great North Woods. Tree lines tend to be digital here, fingering into protected valleys. Plants and animals are living on margin, in cycles that are always vulnerable to change. It is five o'clock in the afternoon. The cloud, moving on, reveals the sun again, and I take off the wool shirt. The sun as been up fourteen hours, and has hours to go before it sets. It seems to be rolling slowly down a slightly inclined plane. A tributary, the Kitlik, comes in from the northwest. It has formed with the Salmon River a raised, flat sand-and-gravel mesopotamia—a good enough campsite, and, as a glance will tell, a fishing site to exaggerate the requirements of dinner.
People from outside write and say to friends in Alaska that they want to come stay with them and fish. "Fine," says the return letter, "but you'll have to charter. Air charter." "No," says the next letter. "We just want to stay at your place and fish from there." Urban Alaskans shake their heads at such foolishness, and say, typically, "These people in the Lower Forty-eight, they don't understand."
Something in the general drift now has John Kauffmann on his feet and off to the river. He assembles his trout rod, threads its eyes. Six feet three, spare, he walks, in his determination, tilted forward, ten degrees from vertical, jaws clamped. He seems to be seeking reassurance from the river. He seems not so much to want to catch what may become the last grayling in Arctic Alaska as to certify that it is there. With his bamboo rod, his lofted line, he now describes long drape folds in the air above the river. His shirt is old and red. There are holes in his felt hat and strips of spare rawhide around its crown. He agitates the settled fly. Nothing. Again he waves the line. He drops its passenger on the edge of fast water at the far side of the pool. There is a vacuum-implosive sound, a touch of violence at the surface of the river. We cheer. For two minutes, we wait it out while Kauffmann plays his fish. Adroitly, gingerly, he brings it in. With care, he picks it up. He then looks at us as if he is about to throw his tin star in the dust at our feet. Shame—for triple-hooked lures, our nylon hawsers, our consequent stories of fished-out streams. He looks at his grayling. It is a twenty-five ounce midget, but it will grow. He seems to feel reassured. He removes the fly, which has scarcely nicked the fish's lips. He slips the grayling back to the stream.
Grayling are particularly fast swimmers. In Arctic Alaska, where small rivers like this one for the most parts freeze solid, grayling can move big distances rapidly to seek out safe deep holes for winter. They are veterans of runs for life. They are indices, too, of the qualities of a stream. They seek out fast, cold, clear water. So do trout, of course, but grayling have higher standards. Trout will settle for subperfect waters in which grayling will refuse to live.
Bear stories, for a time, traverse the campfire. John Kauffmann remembers when Ave Thayer, the refuge manager of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, surprised a grizzly one day and when the bear charged stood his ground. In a low voice, Thayer said, "Shoo!" The grizzly stopped short. The two faced each other ten feet apart, neither making a move. Thayer cautiously stepped backward. The grizzly slowly advanced. Thayer said "Shoo!" The grizzly stopped. Thayer walked backward, with no sudden starts. The grizzly followed. In such manner, Thayer walked backward about two hundred yards. Then the grizzly moved off a distance and walked parallel to him all the way—a mile or so—to his camp, where it lost interest and turned away.
Fedeler makes the point that grizzlies in general will avoid people and people should avoid them, by not foolishly getting in their way—by not, for example, pitching a tent on a bear trail. Once, not long ago, a writer visiting Alaska pitched his tent on a bear trail. A bear removed the writer from the tent, ate him, and left nothing much but the pencil.
"All right, that's enough!" decrees Pat Pourchot, official leader of the trip. "No more bear stories. It is never a good idea to tell bear stories at night. I've known people to wake up screaming in their sleeping bags."
As it happens, there is behind the tents a dray channel, a braid of the river when the river is in flood, and now a kind of corridor that comes through the woods and past the tents to the river. Tracks suggest that it is something of a trail. I am mildly nervous about that, but then I am mildly nervous about a lot of things. We get into the tents and zip them up. Mosquitoes, while not overwhelming, are much around. We slap a few inside and prepare for sleep. In moments, nearly everyone else is snoring. I look up through the mesh of the tent window past spruce boughs and into the sky. Twilight sky. The sun is down. It is falling nine minutes earlier per day. In three months, it will have ceased to rise. Now, though, in the dead of night, the sky is too bright for stars. I cannot quite read by the light at two.
 John McPhee, The John McPhee Reader [William L. Howard, ed] (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976), xiv.
 John McPhee, Coming into the Country (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976), 5-14. Legalities: approximately two percent of total text.
John McPhee. The John McPhee Reader [William L. Howarth, ed]. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976.
John McPhee. Coming into the Country. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976.