When the motor on his boat catches fire eighty miles up a remote Alaska river, the speaker in “The Fire Extinguisher” is forced to see the experience through the eyes of an accompanying Swedish doctor. To protect their privacy, I changed the names of those in the boat.
Infatuation with an Alaskan nurse drew a young doctor named Lars away from his ordered life in Sweden to bush Alaska. The nurse, Carol, had met the doctor the previous winter at a Swedish medical conference where his superior knowledge of local language, culture, and landscape had defined their budding relationship. Calm in a place that could not surprise him, Lars had charmed. During a series of expensive long-distance phone conversations, they had planned his summer visit to Carol’s home in Bethel. He arrived with a war surplus rifle, a wilderness survival kit, and a set of thirty-year-old topographical maps of the Kuskokwim River.
In Bethel, Lars had to accept Carol’s superior knowledge of all things local. He must have struggled with the village’s primitive sewer and water system, his new role as a member of a racial minority in Yup’ik country, and the lack of decent coffee shops.
Several days after he had deplaned at the Bethel airport, Lars helped load Carol’s sixteen-foot river skiff with gear and the twenty-four gallons of boat gas needed to reach Aniak, a village over one hundred and thirty miles upriver. Lars, who had never driven a river skiff, couldn’t object when Carol grabbed the tiller of her thirty-five-horse motor and nosed them into the Kuskokwim current. He sat in the middle seat, where he served as ballast. Referring often to the maps in his lap, Lars shouted out directions. Carol ignored what little of the advice she could hear over the outboard. She knew from experience that the river had altered its course many times since publication of the maps.
Fear of sloughs gripped Lars on the trip. He yelled, “No, Carol!” every time she pointed the skiff into a shortcut provided by one of those side channels. Perhaps Lars’s English-Swedish dictionary defined “slough” as a branch of the River Styx. Ignoring Lars’s misleading directions, often shouted in a pedantic voice while she steered her fast-moving skiff around sandbars or partially submerged logs, wore on Carol. It turned the trip upriver from Bethel into a living hell instead of the romantic ride she had planned with Lars during the previous winter’s phone calls. She didn’t recognize the bossy man in her boat who showed so little trust in her navigational skills.
An hour before sunset on a clear and warm August day, I left the log house that Susan and I shared near the village jail and drove our yellow Yamaha three-wheeled ATV onto the thirty-foot-high dike. The gravel and dirt barrier surrounded Aniak like an earthen fortification to keep water and river ice out of the village during the annual spring floods. My trailer bounced behind the ATV on the dike trail, its slat sides rattling when it hit one of the many potholes.
I stopped where I could see a fish wheel secured to a mid-current gravel bar downriver from the village. Its two opposing wooden and hardware-wire baskets rotated in and out of the river on a wooden axle. The push of current on the submerged basket forced the other one forward until it too dipped into the water. Late afternoon light flashed on a silver-bright salmon lifted from the river by a rising basket. Just below the wheel, a sixteen-foot metal skiff moved upriver carrying a hunched-over man waving about his arms while the woman driving the boat looked away. Carol and Lars had arrived.
Carol, who said she needed to stretch her legs, walked to our cabin. Lars agreed to ride back with me on the ATV. A clean-shaven, six-foot tall guy with blue eyes and brown hair, he dressed like a foreigner with some local knowledge: yet-to-be-washed Carhartt canvas pants (a bush Alaska gold standard), hi-tech Swedish raincoat, and waterproof cap with earflaps. Lars watched me, a slump-shouldered guy who smelled of insect repellant and fish slime, load the trailer. I sported department store jeans (frayed cuffs, legs black from grease, fish slime, and soot), one of the Aniak Halfbreeds sweatshirts that the high school kids sold to raise money, and a new “Markair” ball cap that I had saved for this special occasion.
Lars slid behind me on the ATV’s banana-shaped seat and we bounced home the long way. Carol and Susan were drinking tea when we walked into our cabin. Carol’s face was already fading from windburn red to a healthy cream color. We ate Louisiana-style-blackened silver salmon with Chinese cabbage from our garden and Susan’s pie for dessert. Lars had little appetite for the salmon. The next morning we loaded my 16-foot Starcraft skiff for a trip to the archeological dig site at Kwigiumpainukamiut (Kwig Dig) to show Lars some more of the river and visit friends who worked at the site.
Swedish doctors had cured Susan of cancer discovered while she studied at Biskops Arnö Folkhögskolans near Stockholm. Swedish friends had taken care of her as she recovered from the chemotherapy. Susan’s Swedish foster parents had served us lutefisk with potatoes with white sauce on Christmas Eve. The goodwill I felt for Sweden and its people because of the kindness showed to her made me want to treat this Swedish doctor to a special sampling of Kuskokwim life. But Lar’s passive response to everything we showed him during his visit made it hard to shrug off the lack of trust he showed after we had a little motor problem fifty miles up the Aniak River.
As we loaded my skiff for the Kwig dig trip, silver salmon hovered in the lee of fish-cleaning rafts that were anchored just off the beach. Through a hole in the center of the raft, the owners had dropped netted silvers into a submerged wire cage. The imprisoned attracted rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char. A village kid fishing with a willow stick, string, and a twenty-five cent hook pulled out game fish larger than Lars had ever seen on his home waters. He started to assemble his high-end graphite fishing rod until I stopped him. On the Aniak beach, adults never competed with the kids for trout or dollies.
After stowing the gear, including the padded case containing Lars’s rifle, I slid all but the skiff’s bow into the river and boarded. Hershey, our chocolate-brown American water spaniel, followed. Lars and Carol, again friends after twelve hours on dry land, took the middle seat. Susan tossed in the anchor, pushed the skiff into the river, and sat in front. The current grabbed and pushed us down river until I slipped the old Evinrude twenty-five-horse outboard into gear and pointed the bow into the current. Even with its heavy load, the skiff rose up on step as if lifted by strong hands and skimmed over flat water toward the Yup’ik village of Chauthbaluk.
Hershey leaned on Susan in the front seat and pointed his nose upriver. Wind created by the skiff’s passage pinned back his long, curl-coated ears. Lars stared at the white spruce forest that lined the eastern bank, broken only by thinly spaced cabins and Mr. Nelson’s homespun sawmill. I watched the river ahead for drift logs, looking sometimes at the willow thickets that lined the western shore. The Russian Mountains rose above the willows like giant eroded molars.
Ten miles up river we passed Chauthbaluk, where ripe low bush colored the southern slopes of the Russians. Susan, Carol, and I might have been picking blues if we weren’t entertaining Lars. The Swede seemed relaxed on the ride to the dig. He never took out his maps and only gestured once with his hand and that to point out a grey wolf trotting along the beach above Chauthbaluk. I didn’t stop or slow down so he could photograph the animal. The noise of the Evinrude prevented me from telling Lars that wild things on the river take cover when a skiff drops off step.
When the Kilbuk Mountains started to reduce our view of blue sky I spotted the fishwheel of a man I call Mori. I could tell from the still-bright color of the fishwheel’s wooden frame that the one-armed septuagenarian had built it after the ice went out.
Mori and his wife lived without neighbors in a cabin on the Kuskokwim’s eastern bank. A leather harness secured the stump of his left arm to his chest. During a winter cold snap, the arm had become trapped in the wheel suspension of his snowmachine when it flipped. In danger of freezing to death, he had chopped his arm off with his firewood ax to free himself. The loss of an arm didn’t prevent him from emptying his fishwheel or cutting and cold-smoking a winter’s worth of salmon.
We didn’t stop for tea with Mori but beached the boat on the western shore where Mary, an archeologist and her artist-helper, Terry, worked on excavating Kwigiumpainukamiut, an old village site. They lived in a large tent set up between the beach and bumpy terrain dotted with birch trees. The ruins of a sod house hid inside each bump. Mary promised to show us her excavations the next morning.
Between the boat and Mary’s tent, a line of brown bear tracks led through the most promising place to set up our tents. Each paw’s five spear-like claws pointed upriver. Mary told us not to worry. The grizzly hadn’t been around for a week. After studying the bear’s tracks for a few more seconds she advised us, with a little laugh in her voice, not to keep food in our tents.
Susan and I set up our tent far away from the bear trail. Carol and Lars put theirs on the other side of a low rise from it. We all returned to the beach and built a driftwood fire for cooking. Lars, who had not smiled since he saw the bear tracks, watched the Alaskans roast Polish sausages on thin willow spears. We talked, paying more attention to stories than our sausages, which charred before we rescued them. Lars used the heat reflecting off a careful arrangement of rocks to give his meat a golden-brown glow.
Sunset was still a couple of hours away when Lars left for his tent. We talked until the sound of a rifle shot interrupted the conversation. On the river, gunshots didn’t raise worry unless grouped in threes—the universal signal for distress. After the shot’s echo died, we resumed our storytelling.
Carol eventually went to check on Lars. In minutes she returned.
“He’s ok. His gun went off when he was cleaning it. He will come back after he finishes sewing up a hole in the tent.”
After Lars rejoined us, we roasted marshmallows. Only our Swedish friend’s had the liquefied center and tan exterior of a gourmet roast. Ours caught fire thanks to inattention, but we ate the blackened sugar without complaint. As the fire burned out, Lars said, “Everything you eat is black.” Believing this to be a good-natured rebuke, we all laughed, ignoring the sour look on his face.
The next morning Carol looked rested but not Lars. Since neither complained about mosquito bites, something else must have interfered with his sleep. He did seem pleased to see the cheese, cucumber, and homemade Swedish-style bread that Susan set out for the morning’s frukost. I enjoyed my open-faced sandwich on a slice of bread that I had burned while trying to toast it over the fire.
After breakfast, Terry showed us the beautiful pencil sketches that she had made of a pair of grass socks. Mary said that they had last been worn over a hundred years ago. They looked like they could still warm feet inside sealskin boots. A few years before our visit to the Kwig Dig, grass had saved a man near Bethel. During a sixty-below blizzard, he had avoided hypothermia and frostbite by stuffing dried grass between his skin and soaked clothing after his snowmachine sank into an open lead of the river.
Lars showed little interest in Terry or Mary’s work. After mid-morning coffee, we said goodbye and headed downstream to Aniak. We planned to stock up on camp food in the village, refill empty gas tanks, and leave the next morning for a fishing trip up the Aniak River.
Because the twenty-five horse pushed us downriver at a good pace, I shrugged off my worry about how the old outboard seemed to struggle the day before after I changed gas cans just above Chauthbaluk. Lars looked over my shoulder at the skiff’s wake spreading out in an expanding “V.” If he was excited about the trip up the Aniak or frightened of what may happen up there, I could not tell. Maybe he was as tired of my company as I was of his. After he shot his tent, nothing I did or said seemed to interest him.
Lars could have felt fear. They have brown bears in remote parts of Sweden but Lars had never seen them or their tracks. Back home, he had never compared his prints to the ones left by a bear like he did at the Kwig dig. He might have relaxed if his guide demonstrated care, confidence, and skill. But, he was stuck with a local careless enough to let his food burn. He might have also resented the physician-like control I exercised over the boat like Carol had held on their ride up from Bethel.
Lars’s eyes flared when I cowboyed the skiff around a partially sunken spruce log that I spotted just before ramming it. We all had to hold on when the skiff rolled onto its port gunwale after I threw the tiller hard over. I hadn’t driven the skiff onto a gravel bar yet but the near misstep must have eliminated any remaining confidence Lars had in my boating skills.
A marine layer of clouds hung over Aniak while we loaded the skiff the next morning. As I found a place for his rifle, Lars said, “The Swedish military had trained me in the safe use of that weapon.” The words worried, rather than comforted me. Anyone could fire a rifle. The trick was to know when not to do it.
I never carried a long gun for defense, like Lars’s rifle, that could kill at distance. I didn’t want to be tempted by fear to fire at a curious bear that meant no harm. I didn’t want to face the fury of a wounded animal. Had the Swedish army training taught him such restraint?
The skiff strained to climb on step as we headed up the Kuskokwim to the mouth of the Aniak River. I blamed the extra gear and gas we carried. We turned into the stronger current of the Aniak River and crept by the Swede’s Place—an old blonde’s homestead now used by a newcomer to raise lettuce and New Zealand White rabbits. I maximized the gas flow and steered the skiff toward a cut bank where the faster current had gouged out a deep path through the river bottom. A large, “C” shaped gravel bar reached into the river from the opposite shore. The cut bank and gravel bar changed places at the next bend. Until we reached Brown Slough, I could avoid grounding by steering from cut to cut.
Twenty miles upriver, debris pushed into the Aniak by Brown Slough had formed an irregularly shaped, mid-stream gravel bar that was hard to read. My first trip up the river, I had bounced my stainless steel prop onto the gravel bar several times before watching an Aniak neighbor cross it using an invisible channel. After that, I had waited at each tricky point of the river until someone taught me by example how to navigate the hazard.
The current picked up after we passed Brown Slough. The skiff no longer out-ran the mosquitoes that flew into the boat when we passed near shore. It took three hours instead of the usual one to reach the Fish and Game salmon counting weir. We waved at the college students who tended it. Our slow speed allowed me to study the twin of my twenty-five-horse Evinrude outboard that lay on the beach in front of their camp.
The river became braided. Sections of swampy birch forests displaced the white spruce woods that had dominated the downriver area. The outboard died while we rounded a bend. Veterans of successful Dan adventures that had been made interesting by equipment breakdowns, forgotten gear, or a wrong turn, Susan and Carol calmly watched the skiff drift downriver until trapped in the circular current of an eddy. The current carried it to a gravel bar where Susan hopped out and buried the flukes of our anchor into the gravel. Hershey, our dog with chocolate-colored fur, and even darker brown eyes, joined her, followed by Lars and Carol. When Lars spotted large brown bear tracks mixed among the giant goat-like tracks of a moose, he slid his rifle out of its case and reached for some bullets. After chambering a round, he reminded me that he had been trained by the military in Sweden to operate it.
Wanting coffee and a chance to think through the outboard motor problem, I started up our battered Coleman camp stove. After he patrolled the gravel bar, Lars watched me pump air into the stove’s gas tank. If worried by the tank’s chipped paint or the rust on the generator tube that fed aerated fuel into the stove burners, he did not say. Mosquitoes descended on us as we drank our afternoon coffee. We quickly finished and jumped into the boat. Susan and Carol sat in the front seat. Lars took the middle one after returning the rifle to its case. Hershey huddled at my feet.
Guessing that I had a fuel problem, I removed the engine cowling and used a quarter to loosen the screw that held in place a wire-mesh filter screen. Gas drained into the shallow well formed by the inch-high wall of the metal engine frame to which the cowling attached. I felt smug when I found several flecks of red paint stuck to the mesh filter screen.
I cleaned the screen, set it in place and hand-tightened the screw that secured it as mosquitoes crawled into my ears and eyes. After quickly clamping the cowling back on the motor, I squeezed a rubber bulb in the fuel line to replace the gas that had leaked out when I cleaned the screen. The engine sputtered but did not start so I squeezed the bulb several more times. When it still didn’t start, I squeezed repeatedly for a long time. In a few minutes, I would learn that I had not securely tightened the fuel filter screw. I would realize that raw gas had filled up the engine casing. Everyone in the boat would hear the explosion of gas vapor trapped inside the cowling. They would see the cowling fly into the air and watch me fish it out of the eddy. They would notice that flames encircled the engine block. I asked Carol whether she brought her fire extinguisher.
“Yes. Lars, give this to Dan.”
Lars squinted at a gauge on the white cylinder.
“Carol, did you inspect this fire extinguisher before the trip? I think it has been discharged.”
Lars held on to the extinguisher while he argued with Carol. Yellow and orange flames partied around the blue engine block. Black smoke rose from the flames as they melted the rubber coating on the engine’s electrical wires. The never-brave water spaniel whimpered at my feet. I grabbed a five-gallon bucket full of camp supplies, emptied it out, filled it with river water and doused the flames. That ended the threat of immolation but left us with oars as the only way to move the skiff.
Lars slipped his wallet in a sealable plastic bag, secured it in his waterproof duffle and said, “Don’t panic. I have been trained by the Swedish army in wilderness survival technique.” Without asking, he seated the oars and took the rower’s position. It was the wallet-into-the-bag maneuver, which conveyed his utter lack of faith in my abilities to guide us home, that finally got me. I wanted to kill him or leave him on the gravel bar where the mosquitoes could do the job.
Okay, he didn’t know that I had towed a four-cord raft of firewood logs down this channel last fall when low water increased the number of places to ground the skiff. He hadn’t spotted my motor’s twin resting on the beach near the Fish and Game weir. He didn’t know that our landlord had loaned the students the motor and they were probably trying to figure out a way to send it home.
Lars came from a country where the forests had long since lost mystery and its people expected fulfillment, not adventure in the woods. The yellow cross on Sweden’s sky blue flag could stand for safety. Swedes rarely poisoned themselves with wild mushrooms. A prudent Swedish outdoorsman would never enter the mouth of a wild, bear-infested river until a qualified mechanic had certified the integrity of his boat and motor.
To demonstrate my lack of concern, I cast for salmon and trout as the seven-mile-an-hour current carried us downriver. Susan and Carol pulled up their parka hoods against a suddenly intense rainstorm. Lars used the oars to ease the skiff away from sweepers and followed my hand signals to avoid gravel bars. I thought about taking over the oars when we approached the logjam. That barrier of uprooted spruce trees would have blocked the whole river if someone from the village hadn’t chainsawed a skiff-sized gap through it last spring. We needed to line up the axis of the skiff with the center of the gap and hold that line or the current would slam us sideways into the driftwood wall. Then we would flip or sink. Lars lined us up and we slipped through, surfing the arc of white water that poured through the gap.
After a decade living where conflict avoidance is a cultural mandate, I wanted to end the tension between Lars and myself after the skiff passed through the logjam gap. This meant allowing him to think that he had saved us. It meant admitting, if only to myself, that things could have gone very, very wrong. That should not have been difficult. When we lived on the river, things were often close to going very, very wrong. If we wanted to get mail during the thin ice times of spring or fall, we walked across weak ice carrying a canoe paddle to pull ourselves out of the water if we fell through. When we needed firewood or wanted fresh fish in the winter, I drove our old snowmachine upriver, even when the temperature hung at 40 below zero. If the snowmachine motor flooded I’d scrape carbon off the spark plug and tip the machine on its side so gas could drain out of the spark plug hole. It never occurred to me to stay home. If he lived in the village, Lars would never chance thin ice or leave town on a cranky snowmachine. Near avoidance of something going very, very wrong was a new experience for him.
I decided to ignore the tension and Lars as much as possible. The river widened after the logjam and offered no more obstacles until we reached the Fish and Game weir. Lars followed my directions and beached the skiff near the surplus twenty-five-horse Evinrude.
The weir tenders came out of their canvas wall tent to greet us. One was female and the faces of the males were covered with “I forgot my razor” beards. All were excited to see us. Maybe they spotted the homemade cookies that Susan held in her hand.
We sat on rocks around a fire circle, tea mugs in one hand and a cookie in the other. Hershey, who once ate most of a chocolate birthday cake, turned his begging eyes on me as I started on my second cookie.
After hearing our motor-on-fire-story, one of the students offered us the use of my landlord’s outboard. In minutes we lifted off the fire-damaged Evinrude and replaced it with the working one. It came to life after a few pulls of the starter rope. Lars, Carol, Susan, and I took seats in the boat. It was harder to convince Hershey to leave the friendly camp, where he hoped to filch from the weir tenders’ dinner. With the borrowed motor, we lifted up on step and rode the current toward Aniak.
As we droned down the river, I thought about Napaimute, an old gold mining town ten miles upriver from the Kwig Dig, then diminished to one house and a dock. The house, a white two-story with sash windows, sat back from the river on a low hill. Before it was disassembled for moving from a failing upriver gold town, Flat or maybe Iditarod, a person with a good hand had painted a number on every one of the tongue and groove boards that formed the walls. This simplified its reassembly at Napaimute. It was rare on the river to lavish such care on a building. People were more likely to build new or drag their old homes with them on spruce pole sleds. A house had to be well loved to justify the care shown the Napaimute home. In a remote land with harsh weather people could not afford to love a building. It is too bad I didn’t take Lars to Napaimute so he could have had coffee in the much-loved house. It would have given him an hour or two in a place of comfort during a visit when he was always on edge.
Lars sponged down the skiff after we unloaded it on the Aniak Beach. What would the guys down at The Lodge say about this? I wondered as the Swedish doctor washed away dog salmon slime and blood. Those guys, hunkered over coffee and a burger plate if they had the cash, spent their energy feeding their families and keeping them warm. To them, a clean boat must signal a weak salmon run, a busted motor, or a fisherman too broke to buy boat gas. It meant failure.
They grew up learning how to avoid the mistakes I made. An elder like Mori taught them how to maintain an outboard motor and find open river channels before they hit their first gravel bar. I came to the river ignorant but lucky. After buying a skiff, I had learned from my many mistakes and by watching the skilled locals. But, whenever an upriver-bound moose hunter rounded a corner eighty miles up the Aniak and saw me driving toward him, I always saw surprise and sometimes a little fear on his face.
Lars had a map on his lap the next day when he and Carol left Aniak. Susan and I watched from the beach. Before Carol’s skiff reached the downriver fish wheel, Lars shot his arm out like a policeman directing traffic. Susan said, “Let’s hope she doesn’t kill him before they reach Bethel.”
DAN BRANCH lives in Juneau, Alaska. Kestrel included one of his essays for their Fall 2015 issue. Others were recently published by Cardiff Review, Gravel, Metonym, Tahoma Literary Review, Punctuate, Stoneboat, Swamp Ape, Windmill, and Portland Magazine. In 2018 he graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program where he won the 2016 Jason Winger Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Featured image: Winslow Homer, “Camp Fire,” oil on canvas, 1880, Gift of Josephine Pomery Hendrick, in the name of Henry Keney Pomeroy, 1927, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.