Alongside the Road

View of the side of French Basin Road, Sula Montana

Outdoorsmen are comprised of memories of hunts, fishing trips, and trapline sagas. Sometimes the memory is enhanced by the adrenaline created from a near death experience while on the adventure. This explains why these memories are seared into an outdoorsman’s brain. The adventures are sometimes shared with other individuals the outdoorsman deems worthy enough to share his time with in the great outdoors. Other adventures are experienced alone the intense moments shared only with the wilderness. Some of these memories are captured with photos, almost all are shared with others verbally around a campfire, and the really special memories have a physical souvenir that reminds the outdoorsman of the adventure when they see the object.
This is why outdoorsmen have so many odds and ends lying around in their den, garage, or shed that people unfamiliar with the story view as useless junk. According to my wife, my dead animal room downstairs is filled with junk and to be fair, she’s right, most of it is junk. There’s a collection of moldy, sweat stained ball caps hanging by an old bootlace down the side of the window. The top one is a hunting cap I found in a tote of my father’s hunting clothes after he passed. The next is a hat given to me by a family friend that has also passed. Further down is a camouflage cap that is the only known surviving hat from the Sportsman’s Saloon in Conner, Montana. Below that one is my lucky hunting hat, the one I wore even after it started making my forehead break out in a rash, it was that lucky. The hats continue down the string but ultimately my wife is right, they are junk. A jar of tarnished empty cartridges graces the window ledge, more junk. However, to the outdoorsman, the objects represent memories, pieces of life, that remind them of who they are and the adventures they’ve had.
When an outdoorsman heads off into the Big Adventure, they leave behind all these odd souvenirs to tell the story of their life. Unfortunately, many of the outdoorsman’s heirs have no clue what these souvenirs represent and they are distributed based not on their sentimental value but on their real value. This means most of them end up in the trash, some go to Goodwill, and a few lucky pieces become family heirlooms. For the outdoorsman’s friends, who have shared in the adventures the souvenirs represent, it’s like seeing their departed friend torn apart in little pieces and scattered to the ends of the world.
At this point you might ask, what the heck are you talking about, so let me provide an example. Hanging on the side of my reloading bench from a sheetrock screw is a two-foot long, two-inch diameter cylindrical piece of black rubber. I found it along the Alaskan Railroad tracks near Saulich siding. That is an inside joke in itself as my father-in-law often claimed to have found things alongside the road. He might be asked, “Where did you get that 200 foot long hemp rope.” The answer, “I found it alongside the road.” He didn’t really find it alongside the road. It’s a joke that adds a little air of mystery as to how he acquired the object. The fact that I actually found this piece of rubber alongside the railroad tracks, which is sort of a road, makes it a fun memento.
I determined the length of rubber had fallen off the train, a bumper of some sorts between the railroad cars. I picked it up and carried it home not sure what I would do with it. At home, I parked my truck and carried the rubber down to my shed walking along the backyard fence. On impulse, I swung the rubber at the top of a fence post. The length of hard rubber has some weight to it and it picked up momentum as I swung it at the post. It struck, wiggling the post down to its permafrost footings. The length of rubber absorbed the impact and I barely felt the blow in my hand.
“Holy shit,” I thought, “smack a man in the head with this thing and you will cave it in.”
A new purpose for the length of rubber, other than taking up space in the shed, smashed into my head. This would make a great boonda stick. What is a boonda stick? It’s a stick used to hit a fish on the top of its head to calm it before you put it on a stringer. It’s also called a fish bonker, but the fish I catch prefer death by boonda.
Usually a boonda stick is procured about thirty seconds after you have landed a large fish and at that point just about anything becomes a boonda stick, a rock, a piece of driftwood, the handle to your rod, the back of a knife blade, or even the edge of the sole of your boot. When packing to go dipnetting I almost always forgot to pack a boonda stick.
On the Copper River, a determined Alaskan resident can dipnet for salmon using a landing net with a very long pole to catch sockeye and king salmon out of the Copper River in a personal use fishery. The Copper River narrows as it enters a canyon creating fast current, boils, and strong eddies in the silty water. The salmon take advantage of an eddy’s upstream current to avoid fighting the fast current in the main channel. The dipnetter then uses the long pole on his landing net to place the hoop into the eddy, the upstream current keeping the net upstream waiting for the salmon to swim into the net.
The dipnetter can also sweep for salmon, this requires much more work but if done in the right spot results in more salmon caught in less time. The best place to sweep is at the end of a large eddy, where you pull your hoop through the downstream current at the point of the eddy fast enough to keep the net upstream of the hoop. The point of the eddy is usually a place with precarious footing requiring the dipnetter to tie their body off to a tree or risk being a victim of the Copper River. Every other year you hear about someone drowning while dipnetting. The water is cold, deep, and the current so fast, I used to joke that tying in wasn’t to save your life, just make it easier for your friends to find your body, so your wife could collect the life insurance. Sweeping is grueling work that leaves your hands sore for weeks afterwards. If the dipnetter sweeps correctly, the salmon leaving the eddy at its furthest point upstream swim into the net. The limit on salmon varies but is usually around thirty. Subduing, cleaning, and hauling thirty salmon up the mountain to the trail above can only be described as work.
When packing to go dipnetting the outdoorsman takes anything that will make the trip easier. Bug dope, jump cord for stringers, rope to tie in with, beer, little cans of margaritas, snickers bars, drinking water, kitchen shears, headache reliever, nets and poles, extra beer, dipnetting permit, sleeping bag, coolers of ice, fillet knife, pocket knife, Leatherman, first aid kit, backpack with attached garbage can, emergency beer, a peanut butter sandwich, and an extra five gallons of gas are always packed. Somehow a boonda stick is overlooked until you feel the first thud of a salmon swimming into your net and you yank it out of the turbulent Copper River flip flopping around inside the net almost impossible to get a grip on and transfer to your stringer. That’s when you search for anything within arm’s reach that can be used to give the fish that funny feeling. A sharp blow to the back of the head and the fish will give one last shiver and can then be strung carefully onto your jump cord stringer.
Once I packed a hickory handle from a 22-ounce framing hammer as my boonda stick. It worked but often with the fish squirming around in the net I would miss my target connecting with the rock under the fish sending the funny feeling up my arm instead of down the salmon’s spine. By the time you’ve wrestled your limit of eight to ten pound fish out of your net, you get tired of missing the fish and stinging your arm. The more tired you get the more you miss the fish.
The solid rubber pipe looked like a great way to dispatch fish and if I missed, keep my arm from getting jarred. I drilled a small hole in one end of the rubber pipe, looped some cheap jump cord through it to help keep it from slipping out of my hand, and tucked it into my pack for my upcoming dipnetting trip.
It was the best boonda stick ever. I easily subdued salmon after salmon before pulling them from the net with no fear of damage to the net or to my arm. After that, I always remembered to bring my perfect boonda stick dipnetting.
Now that I live in Montana I don’t have much use for a boonda stick and have gone back to the more traditional method of using improvised boonda sticks. That chunk of rubber, as I mentioned, hangs down the side of my reloading bench and I doubt anyone else who lives in the house knows what it means to me.
It represents the hard work it takes to claim 30 salmon from the Copper River, the comradery of those I shared that work with, and the satisfaction I got from eating those salmon fillets all the long winter. It’s a tangible reminder of those days spent on the river with the wind blowing dust into my eyes, drinking coffee to stay awake, sweeping the point of an eddy off Suicide Rock, my friend on the ledge above me dropping a fresh beer down when I needed a break, and the laughs we shared.
If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, that chunk of rubber will probably get tossed into the junk pile by my family. I hope it falls out of the truck on the way to the dump and comes to rest alongside the road.

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