The unfurled flowers that once decorated, the chain of rolling "muskegs" alongside the river were gone! Instead, across the swampy shores marched the twilight millions of grass blades; in metallic gray, steel blue, gleaming gold, brash bronze, tin, rust and frosted green. Dueling clumps of contrasting colored blades cluttered the rolling lumpy fields. Here and there a lone yellow stalk stood above the fray like an ashen spear. It was autumn in Southeast Alaska, but here up the glittering Stikine River the warm Canadian wind rushing down river still ruled the landscape. Five mile downstream where the cold jade-green waters of the Gulf of Alaska surged upstream with the tide, the reign of the warm winds was not so secure and three foot chop upon the waters of eastern Sumner Straits indicated the battle line.
Here, upstream the silty waters of the Stikine calmly rambled and meandered across the wide valley beneath the high peaks of the Alaska Coastal Range, freshly dusted with new snow. The 16ft Lund with a drivers console on the port side raced by a tidal sandbar where seals had warmed themselves in the sun the afternoon before.
“Maeve, did your husband ever tell you about the best job in the world? He says the story has saved his life twice.”
The breeze coming across the bow carried bursts of Roxanne’s words to their grandsons sitting behind them. Maeve’s sharp oval eyes, swapped a knowing glance with Roxanne. They’d both heard snatches of the same conversation coming from the boys something about “-flipped the zodiac”. Her husband taught her years ago that she could hear all sorts of things if the kids didn’t think she was listening and she didn’t interrupt.
“I only remember the once that it saved his life.” Roxanne explained rotely, as she turned to face her sister and hence better hear the stories the boys in the back of the skiff swapped. A few strands of her sun-streaked red hair escaped the coarse braids she’d wrapped around her head like a halo. “We left Flagstaff headed west in that burnt orange Chevy of his. Around Quartzite, the road races through some hilly country.” Her ringless hand rises and falls in a wavy motion, which neither woman looks at. “It was a new two lane black top with wide shoulders. Your husband started telling the story. His dad was a big fan of Coors and he decided to put his money where his mouth was and bought shares in the company. Anytime they were anywhere near Golden they took the tour. “
“- the falls…two feet high“
“Now your husband and his brother were little kids being dragged along by the hand, bored to tears with the adult lectures given on the tour. But something caught their eye. There was a guy on the production floor sitting in a chair doing nothing but staring at bottles of beers as they passed a sheet of well lit paper. There were no labels on the bottles yet. Well, they knew exactly what this was about; a mouse had recently been found in a Pepsi bottle. It was all over the news, so apparently Coors was taking no chances. As the boys discussed this they noticed the worker glance at a bottle coming down the line. He’d spotted something! He kept watching the other bottles as they passed but also kept track of where that one bottle was as it approached his station. He leaned forward. He’d spotted something in the bottle! He snatched it from the production line as it tried to pass, popped the cap off and took a swig!”
Maeve laughed her diabolically laugh as she had every time she’d ever heard this story. They both listened quietly to the joking youths in the back talk about emptying their pockets and taking off their boots before they tried it.
“So, your husband is telling me and Stan this tale as he drives us through the hilly country outside Quartzite. At one point he looks up and sees two semis in the opposite lanes headed side by side down the hill. Not wanting to deal with gusts of wind and flying gravel they’d be producing, he signaled moved into the right hand lane and kept talking. Eventually, he returned to our originally lane and finished the story with his usual flourish. Neither Stan nor I laughed. He asks us what was wrong? I exclaimed “We could have died!” He had no clue what I was talking about. He said the semis were in the east bound lanes, what was the big deal? I pointed out that it was a two lane road and that one of them was coming at us down hill head on. He’d signaled, dodged a reflector at 60mph, and moved to the shoulder without ever missing a beat in his story.”
By now the boys were leaning forward to hear.
“If he hadn’t been busy telling the Story of the Best Job in the World, he would have freaked out, hit the brakes and we all would have died!”
“What? What! Grandma, tell that again.” erupted from the back of the little boat, but they’d arrived at their destination.
The tanned boys, dark-haired like their Grandmother Maeve, untied the scuffed red rubber zodiac tied behind the skiff all this time. Promising to be careful, they intended to paddle down the meandering northern anabranch of the Stikine called the Ketili. They would spend the afternoon drifting down the shallow, cottonwood lined stream to the hot tubs fishing for Dolly Vardon and wayward salmon to where the rest of the family would be. Their grandmother turned the skiff around and headed back down to Chief Shakes Hot Springs below the rapids in Chief Shakes Creek running from iceberg-laden deep, cold, Shake’s Lake beneath the edge of the coastal range ice fields.
“So let’s see, when they came back from Shakes Lake two days ago, instead of carrying the zodiac around the falls, they decided to go over them; flipping the zodiac and losing the cooler and two paddles.” Maeve said with a scowl growing across her glacial features. “I can’t believe how they retold that whole story without even noticing we were here.”
“Well, it’s like when we were girls. You were too young to remember.” Roxanne said using the code phrase to denote an event that her adopted sister Maeve wasn’t actually attending. “Our parents use to spell things at the table when they didn’t want us girls to understand what they were talking about. Eventually, I could spell, but I couldn’t figure out the word in time to understand the context. So as they spelled the words, our sister would listen to the story and I’d feed her the words, and then she’d recite the whole thing back to us. Our parents were so busy talking they never noticed what we were saying.” Roxanne nodded her coppery head back to the boys they’d just left at the head of the Ketili. “It worked fine for a long time. Then one night at dinner, they stopped talking just as our sister was reciting the conversation back to us. The looks on their faces. They thought she could spell at 4 years old!” Roxanne exclaimed with a shout to the sunny heavens above and the heavily forested canyon walls.
Both women hooted. Maeve weakly estimated she recalled that. This got them even giddier.
“What were our grandsons thinking?” Maeve asked with a grin still on her face and a “boys-will-be-boys shake of her head
“”Well, dearie” Roxanne began, “They thought the tide was high enough. They’d seen their fathers do it plenty of times. They figured 5 out of 10 times they would have made it. ” she explained.
“Their fathers, apparently know all about this? Do you think their mothers know?”
When Maeve and Roxanne arrived at the two red-cedar hot tubs, Roxanne’s step-daughters and granddaughters soaked in the upper screened-in tub safe from mosquitoes and notorious no-seeums. The men and younger boys wrestled around the lower tub out in the open, cropped, grassy field alongside Ketili Slough. The older boys’ mothers found out about them going over the rapids and their father’s discretion soon enough.
That night, after dinner at the family A-frame when the older kids played outside and the younger were in bed, the adults had a few words on the front deck.
“When were you going to tell us about this?” one of Roxanne’s step-daughters asked the men folk.
“We were going to have them tell their grandfather when he and your dad get here. The zodiac is company property.”
“When were you going to tell us?” asked another of the sisters with the emphasis on “us”.
Her husband replied that “It was their idea.” Trying to separate himself from his brother-in-laws.
“Come on girls. We’ve let those boys run skiffs up and down the river for two summers now.”
“Maybe that’s been a bad idea.”
“Who told you about this?”
One of the three sisters started to say “Mother, told us…”
“Aunt Roxanne, I appreciate we are talking about your grandsons, but…”
Maeve stepped between her offending son and Roxanne.
“I meant your mother.” his wife quickly explained as the younger generation feel silent under Maeve’s dark gaze.
The whole time, Roxanne looked at her step-daughters and sons-in-law with a bemused expression on her rosy features. A smiled sipped out of the firmly shut lips. She held herself, keeping her stout body still. Her laughing green eyes jumped from speaker to speaker. She held the satellite phone in her hand. Her only motion was to grab Maeve’s wrist when she’d stepped forward.
“Boys!” Roxanne called to the children. The older boys came running. She turned to her own sons and daughters-in-law. “Your sons are becoming quite the young men. You know, your father arrives tomorrow. Someone has to take the skiff across Sumner Strait to Mitkof Island and pick him and your Uncle Stan up. Your father thinks these young gentlemen are old enough to handle the trip. Don’t you?”
All around her, Roxanne saw jaws go slack, mouths fall open, and tense shoulders fall. She even heard a few sighs of relief exude from her loved ones. She beamed