Even before leading John McPhee down the Salmon River Pat Pourchot landed

first_imgPat Pourchot rafting an Alaskan river in the 1970s. (Photo: Pat Pourchot)John McPhee’s book Coming into the Country starts with a river trip: six men, nine days- floating nearly the entire length of the Salmon river in Northwest Alaska. The 26 year old leading the trip was Pat Pourchot, a recent Alaska transplant who had the job of a lifetime with the Interior Department.Listen nowAs Pourchot tells it, fresh out of college, he lucked into one of the best jobs in the world. In 1972, he was working for the now long gone federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in Colorado. His boss needed five people willing to relocate to Alaska. The job? Floating and researching rivers across the state to see if they would qualify for wild and scenic status in the national park system.“I had wanted to go to Alaska since I was a little kid and I couldn’t raise my hand fast enough and got off the plane here in the spring of 1972 and basically never left,” Pourchot said.The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had passed the year before as part of the effort in Congress to make way for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. Besides establishing 12 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, the law called for studying wilderness areas in the state for national designation as refuges and parks.That’s where Pourchot came in. He had almost no experience in a kayak or canoe. But he was part of the team charged with “inspecting” more than two dozen remote rivers across the state.“And we were looking for…I think the words were ‘remarkably outstanding values’,” Pourchot said.By 1975, when John McPhee showed up in Alaska, Pourchot was a skilled paddler, with three summers of river running experience behind him. McPhee had a good friend, John Kauffman, who was a colleague of Pourchot’s at the Interior Department and he convinced the writer to come to Alaska for a story. Pourchot had never heard of the New Yorker magazine and didn’t have any idea who John McPhee was.But on the trip, McPhee quickly gained Pourchot’s respect. Pourchot said he asked intricate questions about the landscape and animals and probed the men for their opinions on wilderness and conservation.Pourchot said McPhee was continually, but not furiously, taking notes on their answers, “especially in the evening around the campfire he’d be taking notes, lunch breaks he’d be taking notes.”When The New Yorker article was published in May 1977, Pourchot marveled at the way McPhee unraveled the story of their nine day adventure. The trip started near the headwaters of the Salmon, where the river was barely more than a foot deep.McPhee wrote, “I was not disappointed the Salmon was low. In a lifetime of descending rivers, this was the clearest and the wildest river. Walking it in places made it come slow, and that was a dividend in itself.”In one especially vivid section, McPhee described an epic battle between Pourchot and a giant chum salmon. Pourchot said reading the story now brings him back to that day on the river, “I think John McPhee’s accuracy is impeccable. I think he just really captures things so entertainingly and accurately.”When Coming into the Country was published in December, 1977, it quickly became a bestseller. Pourchot said McPhee’s book doesn’t explicitly make the case for conservation. But it brought the remote wilds of Alaska into focus for readers.John McPhee with chum salmon on the Salmon River in Alaska. (Photo: Pat Pourchot, U.S. Dept. of Interior)“What it did was raise a nation’s consciousness about Alaska and the stakes,” Pourchot said. “And what should the role of conservation be on our public lands in Alaska. I think that’s where undoubtedly it had an effect.”In 1980, the Salmon River was included in the national wild and scenic river system, along with two dozen other rivers Pourchot’s team floated.After his brush with McPhee, Pourchot worked as a congressional staffer, state lawmaker and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner, to name a few of his many public service jobs.He’s now retired, but he hasn’t stopped exploring. Pourchot says he leads a small group of “aging buddies” on river trips in Alaska every summer.“It’s been kind of a pleasant surprise that most of the places I’ve revisited are largely the same,” Pourchot said. “You can go out to Gates of the Arctic or Beaver Creek in Yukon flats Wildlife Refuge and have an experience that’s very similar to the experience we had in the 70s.”And when he’s off the river he still hears from people who’ve just read Coming into the Country and want to know if he’s the same Pat Pourchot who led John McPhee on the Salmon more than 40 years ago.last_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *