He surprised me on my birthday by shipping me a new backpack. It was the wrong pack, it was a Bucklick Creek freighter pack. Sure it had the padded shoulder straps and the comfy waist belt, the little chest strap to keep the shoulder straps from slipping off your shoulders. It also had an enormous shelf on the bottom of the pack. It was clearly not the pack all the cool kids would be using when they went hunting. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have a new backpack. I was just starting out in my career and any gift of hunting equipment helped both in the field and with my bank account. I resolved to use the shit out of the backpack and when I had demolished it by sheer use, I would buy the exact backpack frame I wanted.
I used that pack a lot. The pack’s large shelf, complete with adjustable straps, made tying anything to the pack, including a 17 gallon Rubbermaid tote, quick and easy. Once when taking down my trapline I had the tote strapped on backpack and at each set, I just picked up the trap and tossed it over my shoulder into the tote. One too many traps landed in the tote and a shoulder strap came apart at a seam. I improvised with some jumpcord and made it home. The internet was new to me but I managed to find the Bucklick Creek web page and sent them a disgruntled email. Bucklick Creek shipped me a brand new harness for the pack, for free. You don’t get better customer service than that.
That shoulder strap tore again in another year, but by then I had learn that I could fix that problem with some strong thread and glue easier than getting a new harness. The aluminum pins in the frame stretched and a couple sheared off. I replaced them with heavier stronger nails. I looped rope between the bottom of the frame and the shelf to keep quarters of meat from slipping down between the frame and the shelf.
It took a few years but eventually the pack won me over and I realized I had the best damn pack frame ever. Now when trudging along with it on my back I try to calculate the number of miles I’ve carried it and the average weight it held. The number of moose quarters packed out to the four wheeler trail, this many days walking the trapline and carrying bait and traps, a handful of treks out five miles from the Haul Road to hunt caribou on the North Slope and so on.
I especially liked it when I went dipnetting at Chitna where Alaskan residents are allowed to use a hoop net to catch 30 red salmon. The fishing is done is a steep canyon and hauling the awkward load of fish up from the riverbank to the old railroad grade above the river is tiresome. But not for my pack and me. I would strapped a tall kitchen trashcan to the pack and dump in around ten fish then make an easy climb up to the road.
One time at Chitna I ran into a guy I knew from work, let’s call him James. James worked in a different office than me and I didn’t know him that well but enough to know he wasn’t much of an outdoorsman and a bit of a goofball and by goofball, I mean dumbass. When he told me how him and his friend had trouble hauling up a couple of fish to the road, I showed him my backpack and trashcan. It was the wrong thing to do, as James immediately wanted to borrow my backpack. I had already caught my limit of salmon and was leaving and James said he would bring the pack to me at work the next week. I was hesitant to leave my trusty pack in the hands of James who seemed a little careless to me. I warned him that I would need the pack next weekend as I was going hunting for Caribou up north. I tried to impress upon James that despite it looks, it was my only backpack and I would need it back quickly. James promised to drive the backpack over to my office first thing next week if he could borrow it.
Monday passed by and no call or sign of James at the office. I fretted all Monday evening just knowing the dumbass had probably left my pack laying on the rocks by the Copper River or let it fly out of the back of his truck on the drive back to Fairbanks. By Tuesday afternoon I couldn’t take it anymore, I called James to see what he had done to my backpack.
“Oh yeah, hey about that,” he started.
A large knot formed in my gut and I knew my instinct not to loan the pack to James had been correct.
“So my buddy took a load of fish up to the truck, man that backpack works great by the way, and when he came back he left it by the edge of the river to load up more fish.”
Why the hell would he leave it by the edge of the river? Doesn’t he know about the waves created by boats running downstream rising up and washing things away?
“He went to get a candy bar from his pack and slipped on the rocks and accidently kicked your pack into the river.”
Yep, exactly what I thought would happen. I wanted to reach through the phone and grab James by the throat. “So you lost my pack in the river?” I asked trying to not sound mad or like I was too upset, after all it’s just a backpack.
“Well the trashcan was still strapped to it and it had some air trapped in it so it was just floating upside down in the eddy by the shore.”
I saw a tiny ray of hope, “So you were able to grab it?”
“Well, it was too far away from shore so we tried to snag it with our nets but it kept moving around and we missed it.”
Holy shit, the dumbass had a chance to save my pack but was too inept with a dipnet to snag a floating backpack. How did he ever manage to catch any salmon?
After a pause James continued on, “Finally it moved out of reach of our poles, it got sucked out of the eddy, and then a large river boil sucked it under.”
I tried not to be upset with James. This was my fault for loaning the pack to him. I knew he was a dumbass and had left my pack with him anyway. “Well that’s too bad,” I eked out.
After some more silence on the phone James continued. “Yeah it was under the water for like five minutes then it popped back up at the start of the eddy and came back by us again.”
“So you were able grab it?” I asked too quickly.
I could hear James shaking his head through the phone. “Nope, it would come back by us, just on the edge of the eddy, too far for us to reach. It just kept going around that way. I think one time it must have been underwater for at least a half hour, but each time it came by we tried to get it with our nets but we just couldn’t get it.”
That was it, the best backpack ever lost because I had loaned it out to an idiot.
James spoke again. “But then these guys in a boat saw us trying to catch the pack and came over in their boat to get it, yeah they just motored right up to it and grabbed it.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A miracle had happened, finally someone with a brain had rescued my backpack.
Then James spoke again. “I think they must have grabbed the garbage can and they had to tug on it real hard because it was like vacuum locked to the water or something. Anyway, they pulled the trashcan free of the pack. So we got your trashcan back.”
I fell into despair again. They got my trashcan back, big whoop, I could buy another trashcan like it for 10 bucks at Fred Meyer. My backpack had been a one of a kind, it was irreplaceable and James wants me to be happy he saved my trashcan. “Well at least that’s something. So my pack must have dropped like a rock without the trashcan tied to it?”
I could hear James’s intake of breath as he prepared to respond. This was it, this is where he tells me my backpack is being washed down the Copper River and out to sea. “Well, it dropped out of sight, but then the water boiled and pushed the pack right on top of the water and one of the guys in the boat grabbed it.”
What? My backpack had been saved. “My backpack is ok?” I gasped into the phone
Silence followed as James waited five minutes before answering. “Sure, it’s here at work in the back of my pickup.”
I thanked James, told him there was no need for him to bring the pack to my office as I had an errand to run over on his side of town, and drove straight to my backpack. I put my backpack, the best backpack ever into the passenger seat of my truck. Funny thing though, when I pulled it out of James’s truck the trashcan was attached to the frame. Hmm, James must have re-strapped the garbage can to the pack to carry out the last of his fish. Right? Or, had he made up the whole damn story to tweak me for hesitating to loan him the pack. I decided I didn’t care. I love stories and it was a damn good one.