The next morning Martin flew four of us down to the Alaska Peninsula to hunt ducks and geese. "Even though it's only 50 minutes away by plane," he said, "it's a completely different country. Probably the best game area left in North America. Barren-ground caribou, brown bear, wolves, wolverine, moose, ptarmigan and more ducks and geese than you could believe existed." Crossing Bristol Bay, an arm of the Bering Sea just south of Dillingham, we could see Mount Katmai shining off to the left, and ahead the snow-covered Peninsula range. From the mountains to the sea the land lay flat and grassy, broken everywhere by sloughs and ponds and mud flats. "A few thousand years ago the mountains and the glaciers ran right down into the sea," Martin said. "All this flat land has been reclaimed from the sea. The wave action piles up sand and silt and holds it there, then piles up more. Look—caribou!"
A dozen gray shapes stalked in file across the ridged muskegs. Martin dived down to 200 feet for a better view. The lead bull had a huge rack. "A non-resident can only hunt here with a guide," Martin said, "and a fully outfitted hunt would run about $3,000. If you wanted to add a grizzly to the caribou, it would be a $6,000 tab." The farther down the peninsula we flew, the more caribou we saw. It would be tough hunting, though, hiking the muskegs and skirting the mucky sloughs.
The hunting shanty that would be home base for the next two days stood lonely and austere on a point of land just south of the town of Egegik. A few miles to the north, the Bering Sea was busy building more land with its long, roiling rollers. To the east, an icy inlet footed the distant mountains. Duck and geese by the thousand dotted the water, huge rafts of them feeding right beside the cabin. They flushed as we landed and the sky was black with birds. The weather was lowering, gunmetal clouds scudding under the push of a gusty wind. Fine weather for ducks, as they say.
Martin left us in the care of a lean, bearded Texan named Bryan Hatch, 32. The best that could be said for the cabin was that it kept out the wind; the worst was that the stove didn't work. But there sure were plenty of ducks. Walking out the cabin door, I hadn't taken four steps when a wedge of widgeons came angling in from my right. I dropped the leader but missed my second shot. Soon the guns were popping all around. We hunkered in the high grass at the end of a point, trying to drop our birds over land, if possible, or at least not too far out in the gumbo-bottomed water. Widgeon, pintail, mallard, green-wing teal and lesser Canada geese swirled and rose and settled back in, only to fly at the next gunshot. Don Sullivan got bogged in the mud again, second day in a row, and fell face forward, emerging like The Heap and smelling like a septic tank. The trick to crossing the soft spots, we soon learned, was to move fast with a quick, bowlegged trot, keeping the toes pointed downward. If you stopped for even a few seconds, you were hopelessly mired. Hatch was the master bog-trotter, moving so fast and light-footed that one could imagine him walking on water.
Toward dusk, hunting the flats east of the cabin, we crossed the path of a band of caribou. The bull and his harem passed not 200 yards from us. As the bull paused to look at us, the last light caught the wide, palmate spread of his antlers and turned them to pewter. Then the band spooked and moved out, jogging with that long-legged, rocking-horse gait that looks so awkward but in reality is the only way to travel this country. Checking out their tracks, we saw how the long, wide, two-toed hooves spread on the soft ground, enabling an animal that weighs 500 pounds to cover ground in which a small man would sink.
A few belts of bourbon, a dinner of chili and home-baked bread, and we bunked in for the night. The next day dawned on bluebird weather—not a cloud in the sky and a thin skim of ice on the slough edges. It was a better day for dozing in the tall grass than for bird shooting. At one point, a red fox trotted past a lie where three of us lay in ambush. He was already in his winter pelage—fur so thick that his legs seemed stunted and the tips of his ears barely peaked over the rich red pelt. "Probably looking to pick up some of our cripples," said Hatch.
Owls hunted the flats at dawn and dusk. In the still air, one could actually feel the slow pulse of the surf miles away; the combined voices of a few hundred thousand geese and ducks surged every now and then to a racket that would put a Latin American soccer crowd to shame. All day strings of geese—mainly lesser Canadas and snows—yelped across the sky, usually well out of range. Ducks, flying in small squabbling families from pond to pond, offered more shots, but if they were moving on the wind, it was difficult to give them enough lead. Stilts, yellowlegs and jacksnipe whistled past, breaking and darting at the sight of the gunners below them. In the clear, cold air, the sunset transmuted the distant glaciers into rivers of molten gold. By the time Bill Martin returned for us the following morning, the cabin had become home. It would be easy to live a whole life in that marshland and never get bored.
Heading back to the Tikchik country, we overflew thousands of emperor geese—a small, gray goose that for the most part restricts its migration to Alaska, though a few winter as far south as northern California. Hair seals thronged the offshore reefs, and sea otters bobbed in clusters beyond the surf line, playing and fishing. Nearly extinct at the turn of the century, they have come back strongly under strict protection. A dead whale adorned the beach north of Pilot Point, its carcass wreathed by gulls who had already nearly flensed it to the bone. More caribou. Many more caribou. "And this is only a shadow of what the country was like 10 years ago." said Martin.
At the lodge, Lew Little was all smiles. The big rainbows were back in the rapids across from the point. He had taken a 10�-pound "trophy" the afternoon before. Back to the water!
Of all the motives for fishing—from simple hunger to the more complex desire for trophies—perhaps the most laudable is that which drives men to strange new waters in pursuit of strange new fish. It was that sort of compulsion, next morning, that planted Charlie Cook hip deep in the ice water of Gechiak Lake, far to the southwest of the lodge, and kept him squinting for hours on end into a sleet-edged breeze while his purple fingers worked the fly rod. Even if the largest brown bear in Alaska had walked up behind him, it's doubtful that Cook would have noticed. The metronome of his fly-rod would keep right on ticking, the sinking line snicking out again and again over the dropoff beyond the gravel bar that marks the inlet of Gechiak. Such was the strength of his compulsion.