The soft light of dawn filled the tent, and Grey rolled over, looked into the face of the man next to him. Strong jaw covered in dark whiskers, a little dent in his chin, soft young mouth, lashes against his cheek. Grey smiled when he opened sleepy eyes. "Hey. You want some coffee?"
A quick shake of the head. "Thanks, I've got to go. We're supposed to go into the village this morning, talk to the elders." He hesitated, and his face looked suddenly shy. "Thanks for last night."
"Yeah, kid, it was great."
"Ben. My name is Ben."
Grey reached up, traced across the boy's forehead, over his nose and down across his soft mouth. "You've got pretty brown eyes, Ben."
That got him a quick smile, and he watched Ben scramble up, tug on his jeans and sweatshirt. He turned around before he ducked out of the door. "Thanks, Grey. You're a legend, man."
Grey gave him a little salute, watched his young butt when he bent over and wiggled out of the low door to the tent.
Grey Morisette was a legend with a camera, not in a sleeping bag. He lay back for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the tent, the smell of a sweaty clean boy, the pleasant stretch in his thighs from the climb yesterday. Ben split pretty fast, he thought. Maybe because you couldn't remember his name, dickhead.
He slipped his sheepskin boots on over his jeans, climbed out of the tent. There was a smoky drift from wood campfires on the cold air, the smell of coffeepots starting to bubble. He walked upriver to his favorite big spruce tree, took a leak, then went back to the tent and pulled out his camera. He hated not having a camera in his hand. He spent his life afraid the one perfect shot was going to happen right in front of him and he wouldn't have a camera ready to catch it.
The campsite was nestled among a stand of Sitka spruce near the headwaters of Bristol Bay, where the great rivers of Alaska came together and spilled out into the Bering Sea. They'd gathered to document the salmon run--maybe the last wild salmon in these waters, or any waters anywhere.
If Pebble built the open-pit mine they wanted, this land would be gone, poisoned beyond repair, the huge, open mine an ulcer that would never heal. The sulfuric acid they would use to leach the gold from the rock would spread into the groundwater like a cancer. So a group of activists, writers, and photographers had gathered here for the last week of summer to watch the salmon run. Grey knew that the young environmentalists had not given up. They talked in excited voices, eager as young pronghorns in spring, ready to save the world. They were going to start with Bristol Bay, and they didn't have any doubt they would win.
Grey didn't have any illusions about who was going to win this battle. He'd seen too many fights where enthusiasm, youth, and the unquantifiable value of nature were pitted against money. He just wanted to get it all down before it was gone, show the world what they had lost.
"You're sounding pretty cynical, old man." Maybe cynical, maybe realistic. The world was what it was.
He pulled off the cap, checked the lens, and lifted the camera. The soft morning light, little smoky campfires, and bright yellow tents dotted the ground like downed balloons; strong, eager, passionate boys and girls in jeans and messy hair spoke about what to do, making plans to save this little part of Alaska. This photo would be for him, Grey thought, to remember this trip, and all the trips like it.
Back at his campsite, he stowed the camera in its bag and put some sticks of spruce inside the little rock ring he'd made for his fire. He fed the fire with twigs and broken branches until it was bright and warm; then he filled up his coffeepot--an old percolator--with water and a couple of scoops of coffee. Once the water started to boil, the grounds would sink to the bottom. Grey would never argue the point with someone who was passionate about coffee, but he was convinced that campfire coffee, boiled in an old aluminum pot over a wood fire inside a ring of rocks, was the very best coffee in the world.
When the coffee was done, he set a pan of water on the fire grate so he could wash up, then took his camera, a monopod he could use as a walking stick, and the big insulated coffee cup and walked up the trail toward Dumpling Mountain. There was a spot he'd seen yesterday, a little turn of the Brooks River. He wanted to shoot it with the morning mist still rising off the water. The sockeye were already running, and this close to the Bering, they still had the gorgeous red and green coloring that came with the salty ocean waters. With the mist rising from the surface of the water and shadows from the great Sitka spruce on the riverbanks, the salmon looked like ghost fish swimming. The shot had been in his head for days.
He set up on the riverbank, framed the shot, and waited until the early light and the salmon were perfect for the idea he had. He shot quickly, letting his intuitive mind take over. He would do the careful detail work back in the studio, but out on the river, he let his experience and intuition, his eyes and his hands, take over. What did they call it? He was in the zone.
He was unscrewing the camera from the monopod when he heard a splash upriver. He screwed the camera back into place. A bear would be much more interested in a river full of fish than in a photographer with a camera and a cup of coffee. He felt into his pocket for the little foghorn he always carried. He'd never actually used it to startle a bear, so it was untried technology. It made him feel better, though. He liked shooting the natural landscapes more than wildlife, but good photos of brown bears, jaws full of sockeye salmon, were always good for a sale. "Come on, baby," he said, watching the river through the camera. "Let's pay some bills."
It wasn't a bear, though. A young guy came splashing down the river, trying to run along the shallows, jumping from rock to rock. He was wearing jeans heavy with salt water and spray and a fire-engine-red waffle-weave Henley. Nice. Grey worked the camera. The kid had bright color in his cheeks and a headful of black curls that hadn't seen a comb yet this morning. He looked back over his shoulder; then he looked up at the riverbank, waved his arms, and shouted, "Are you crazy? Get me out of here! That fucking bear's gonna eat me!"
Grey couldn't help but laugh at the outrage on the kid's face, and he framed a shot. "Yeah, okay, I'm coming." Before he could move, though, a sockeye jumped out of the water. It was easily four feet long, shiny red, with an olive green head. Grey watched the kid start to fall backward, shock on his face, his arms thrown out, watched the giant sockeye leap against his chest like a long-lost lover. Then the kid was splashing backward into the river, the enormous salmon against his chest, and his arms reached up to wrap around the fish for just a moment.
Just like that, a second, no more, and there was something perfect and beautiful in the world. Grey put the lens cap on the camera, then scrambled down to the river to the rescue.
The kid was heavy, his clothes soaked with freezing water, and he was stuttering in shock. "First the bear, then I'm mugged by a salmon? How does that happen? I was just taking a leak!" He was shaking, his legs having a hard time holding him up.
Grey handed him his cup of coffee. "Drink some of this." He peeled out of his jacket, wrapped it around the kid's shoulders. "There's a little foghorn in the pocket. You pull it out and blow it if you see the bear." He stood up, unscrewed the camera from the monopod. "You've had an exciting morning! Let's get back to camp. You got some dry clothes?"
"Yeah. I'm with the law interns from Gonzaga. You know where the tent is?"
Grey shook his head.
"I'm Sal. Sal Sanchez. Thanks for pulling me out. But can I ask you something? Did you stop and take a picture of me? What the hell was that? That bear was coming, man!"
"I didn't see any bear, kid." Sal's lips were turning blue, and he looked like a half-drowned kitten with spiky wet fur and outrage on his face. "But I believe you! Anyway, I had the camera all set up. I just had to get a shot of that salmon kissing you on the lips."
Sal looked gloomy. "I may have to rethink my position vis-a-vis the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery."
Grey laughed at him. "Environmentalists aren't supposed to love everything they're trying to save, Sal. The wild places aren't required to be welcoming to people, you know?"
"No kidding." Sal trudged on, shivering, his boots making wet, squelching noises with every step. "So who are you?"
"Oh." He looked up. "Yeah, wow. I guess I can see why all the guys want to sleep with you."
Grey studied him for a moment, felt vaguely insulted. But there was nothing to say, and he needed to get the kid out of his wet clothes before the hypothermia got any worse. Out of his clothes for safety reasons only, he thought, and did not give in to the impulse to give Sal a slap upside the head.
Sal pointed him to a cluster of bright blue and yellow tents, and they were soon surrounded by an excited, chattering crowd of young law students. None of the future barristers could stop talking long enough to pull Sal into his tent and help him off with his wet clothes, though, and shove him into a sleeping bag. Grey looked over the crowd, and an older woman with a knitted cap pulled over her ears pushed forward, took Sal's arm. "Have any of you knuckleheads ever heard of hypothermia?"
"I've got some water warming up at my tent," Grey said. "I'll go get a hot water bottle if you can get the boy wonder into a sleeping bag."