National Geographic : 1962 Mar
plastic-lined wooden tanks partly filled with water, so that they would not suffocate from their own great weight. Four members of our expedition were as ready as whale hunters could be: Charles Young, the Aquarium's senior tankman; W. Robert Moore of the National Geographic Society; Seward Johnson of Princeton, New Jersey; and I. Now all we had to do was find and catch the whales. For that we needed Charlie Wilson. Wilson is a wizard with small boats, and he is the only man I know with skill enough to net a beluga almost every time it comes with in casting range. Wilson and I had worked together on my two previous Alaska expedi tions, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had arranged for him to help us again. We met him at the town of Levelock after a day's stopover in Anchorage. I told Wilson that I hoped for three belugas, as insurance against mishaps on the flight back to New York. How long did he think it would take us to get them? Wilson frowned. "Not too long, I guess," he said. "Maybe three good days." I asked how the weather had been. "We've had only two stretches of good weather, about a day each, all summer long." Our hunting ground would be the Kvichak River and Bay, at the head of Bristol Bay on Alaska's southwest coast. Belugas swim up the Kvichak on its 13- to 24-foot flood tides among the highest in the world-to feed on the salmon, smelt, and herring. Traveling upstream, the whales follow the channels, but on the ebb they drift down close inshore. It was then that we hoped to spot them, driving them into the shallows and trapping them with large salmon nets. We had two outboard-powered skiffs to use as chase boats, just as the old whalers used their whaleboats for close-quarter work. The only difference was in the weapons: We carried nets instead of harpoons. High Hopes and Deep Mud When we set out in Wilson's 32-foot fishing boat Ann for our base at Copenhagen Creek, a tributary of the Kvichak, we ran into a third stretch of good weather. Across the sunlit sky, jaegers, gulls, and terns darted. Our hopes were high as we pulled up to the old riverbank cabin we had used on the earli er expeditions. Luckily it was still usable, and we found a temporary home for any belugas we might catch -a fresh-water pond cupped in the tundra nearby. As we neared the bank, Young jumped ashore - and immediately began to sink.