All that the American West once was, Alaska still is. Abounding with natural marvels and largely untouched by human ambition, it strikes the newcomer as a land of endless prospect, an impression vividly reinforced from the passenger seat of a low-flying Cessna 180. Rick Halford, a bush pilot and former Republican state legislator, is showing me a piece of Alaska tucked between national parks and other protected lands about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage: the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. Never was the term more meaningful. In every direction the dominant feature of the landscape, the element that binds everything together, is water. Within this 40,000-square-mile area are nine major rivers fed by dozens of tributaries that sometimes resemble stiff tree branches, sometimes sinuous arteries. Here are ponds so great in number and whimsical of shape they call to mind a crowded Joan Miró canvas stretching to the horizon. In more places than not, the water table lies near the surface, producing seeps and springs, continually recharging the spongelike tundra. This is a wet place indeed.