Was I completely mad, or was the rest of the world. Driving back from Dawson City to Cottage Grove, Oregon after having spent two months in the wilderness, with drivers hugging my rear bumper at 70 mph, you'd think I'd be ready to integrate back into society, take a shower, sleep on a level surface without rocks sticking me in the back, maybe eat a descent meal, and start gaining back those 17 pounds I lost. But somewhere around Kamloops I had a revelation. I didn't want to go home to my life of drudgery, working, eating, sleeping, staying in one place too long, slipping into the doldrums of modernity. No, I wanted to go back to the wilderness. But I couldn't. I didn't have money to get there, and I had an aging dog to take care of. I had to enter the shit storm of work and haste, people running here, doing that, always in a freaking hurry. That was what I loathed most about going back home, the hasty lives everyone led, and the noise of motor traffic needling my brain. I've understood for a long time, since I was a child, that I needed wilderness to make me happy. But now, driving dead-eyed since leaving Dawson City, catatonic as hell, and thinking about traipsing along a remote stream in the Ogilvie Range somewhere, I needed, with absolute certainty, big wilderness to keep from going crazy.
Saturday, August 15, 2015
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
I paddled a twenty-dollar raft over a hundred miles down the Yukon River from Eagle to Circle, which I don't recommend. The raft material was almost paper thin. I stayed near shore as much as possible in case it popped suddenly and I went down fast. I put foam pads in my pack and bags and tied everything together in case the raft sprang a leak. I needed to keep my gear afloat. But when you're out in the middle of a river that's a mile across, you'll be lucky to get yourself out alive and make it to shore, even if you don't encounter sweeping currents or log jams at the moment. The Yukon was flowing at about four miles per hour, and with that much volume, it has a lot of power. Hell, the cold could cramp you up in a few minutes.
This photo taken by a friendly man, 65, kayaking solo for three weeks was nice enough to accompany me on my last day to Circle. Besides crossing twice to go hiking up the Nation River, It was the only time that I dared go out in the middle of the river. Oh yeah, my paddle broke and I had to tie a stick to it to use it.
All and all, it was a good adventure. Different and a lot more half ass than normal, but good. When I climbed up on the banks at Circle, I felt a little stupid for not bringing a better raft. But when you’re poor you always try to cut corners. This was the wrong corner to cut.
Monday, July 13, 2015
There are a number of insects in Alaska that bite or sting people. Mosquitoes of course. There are well over a trillion of them in the state. They can drive caribou to exhaustion. Sometimes on my treks I couldn’t tell if the pattering on my tent in the morning was rain or mosquitoes. After mosquitoes you have black flies, or sometimes called gnats. Unlike mosquitoes, they’ll burrow into my dogs’ wiry fur to get to their skin, often emerging later when they’re gorged on blood. Then you have tiny little insects with a nasty bit called no-see-ums, which can go through the mesh of some tents. During the heat of the day when the summer sun in really intense, horseflies will be out. They have two scissor-like apparatuses on their mouths that cut open your flesh to let blood ooze out. Then they lap it up. They have a really painful bite and can drive dogs to chomp their teeth repeatedly in the air. And of course you have yellow jackets, which often make nests in log piles or on the ground. They won’t sting you unless you disturb their nest, but once one does sting you have to get out of the area fast. I once saw a bald-face hornet kill a yellow jacket. And I once saw a dragon fly kill a hornet, by biting the back of its neck with its strong-toothed jaw until it was dead. Dragon flies are a person’s best friend in the backcountry of Alaska. They can kill and eat all the bugs I just described.They’ll often fly around a person picking off mosquitoes by the dozens. I used to like to sit along the Yukon River and shut my eyes and let the dragon flies buzz around me getting mosquitoes. They’re soothing. Perhaps the lower frequency of their wing beats, the knowledge that they won’t bite you, and will kill mosquitoes as fast as they come to them are reasons why. And dragon flies can eat a lot. Even my dogs are completely at ease when horseflies are flying around them, just inches from their heads sometimes. The dogs don’t do anything but sit there, like they would not do for mosquitoes or horseflies. The dogs don’t even move their eyes when a dragon fly is near.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
I bought this raft for twenty bucks at Walmart and ended up floating it one hundred miles down the Yukon River from Eagle to Circle with my seventy-pound bear dog, an Airedale terrier, riding between my legs. You don't need much to survive the summer in the Alaska backcountry, mainly patience and acceptance of the hardship and the time that goes by without the comforts and friends of home. And the abiltiy to tolerate the intense sun and mosquitoes. The little bastards always go for you temples and ankles. If you can handle that you can do it. You can usually catch enough fish and gather enough rosehips and berries to get you through. If you spend the days doing a little hiking the time seems to slide by faster and you get to see some country. Boy is there some wild country out there.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
The Nation River
I get shaky and scared as the bear trys to drive the moose upstream into shallow water. So I have to stop filming and hold my shotgun.
A black wolf standing on the bank. There were two wolves who were following the bear, hoping for some leftovers. I was a bit afraid of them before I saw the bear, then I saw the bear on the mooses back and then I really was worried.
The Nation River, ten miles up from the Yukon River
The Nation River
Yukon River at mouth of Gleen Creek
I had a wild idea, insane really if you ask most people, but for me shit like this has become the norm. Buy a cheap PVC raft for twenty bucks, fly to Eagle, Alaska, paddle across the river with my dog Billie sitting between my legs, float down the Yukon River to the mouth of the Nation River, and leave the raft. Then hike up the Nation River and Kandik Rivers and head north until I hit the Porcupine River and somehow hike out to Old Crow Village or build a log raft and float down to Fort Yukon.
Well hell, I didn't make it that far. A bunch of little things kept going wrong right from the beginning, which eventually made me realize this trip was a bust and I had to turn around before I died. On the first day of hiking I threw out my back and couldn't walk for two days. I was almost fifty. I had too cheap of a raft, so floating out a small river over rocks would surely tear it to shreds. I had too much weight and too far to go and in terrain that was a lot brushier and rugged than I expected. And I couldn't wade the river at will like I had done with all the rivers in the Brooks Range years before. So I had to walk through the forest on many of the bends, and go around mountains when there were cliffs along the river. And I was too fat.
But the final blow that told me I had to turn around and make my way out before I got killed was a run in with a very aggressive grizzly bear trying to kill a moose. At one point I was hiding in my camp among the willows while this age old battle played out forty yards in front of me. I had a 410 shotgun with slugs cause some bastard on YouTube said you could kill a bear with one. But I told myself as I watched, half frozen with fear and half inspired by awe, that I was going to need a much bigger gun. My days of telling myself bear spray was enough to protect yourself against bears were over. I'm now a fan of the double barrel 12-guage.
I watched for twenty minutes as this bear tried to kill a moose in three feet of water while two wolves waited and watched from the bank, hoping for a meal too. The moose and wolves saw me right off but the bear was two amped to notice me. It was only a matter of time before he got too close and mistook me for food too. And I didn't want to go back in the woods and climb a tree and lose sight of this beast. Besides, don't believe what you read, this bear, there is no doubt in my mind, could climb any tree I could, and a hell of a lot faster. So finally I stepped out on the gravel bar in plain view and fired four times into the river. Huh, with those three inch slugs, it packed quite a punch. The moose saw me, the wolves sauntered off, but the bear remained focused on the moose, trying many angles to reach the moose in the river. Finally, when the bear was on my side of the river and moving my way, I yelled. HEY! Immediately the bear turned, saw me, and started charging my way, thinking I might be a smaller moose or something. Before, I had been lackadaisical and feeling a little sorry for myself for all my little problems in life and not paying attention. I hadn’t put on my survival face, not until now. I woke up; something deep and primordial in me came to the surface, like how humans always used to be when they survived in the wild. With adrenalin pumping, I was fully aware of everything: my shaky hands, my rapid heartbeat, the clear water, the mosquitoes, my gnawing hunger. I fired my gun into the river about ten feet to the right of the bear in hopes of stopping a charge before he got too close and I had to make a decision to roll into a ball and hope to hell he stopped like they tell you to do, or shoot center of mass to kill. With my breech loader, I’d only have time to load one more shot and then it would be decided, live another day or don’t. The bear heard the report of my gun and saw the splash of the slug impact, and transformed instantaneously. He became scared, fled into the woods, ran downstream a quarter of a mile, crossed the river, and ran into the hills and disappeared. I really screwed things up for him.
Anyway, I didn’t get much sleep that night, and Billie was just as scared as I was. She had stayed by the fire the entire time. Some bear dog. As morning came, my fear turned to sorrow. I was sorry I ruined a good meal for the bear and the two wolves. The moose looked old and likely to die in a year or two. I’m sure the bear and wolves were keyed into that. Animals are in tune with things that are really important; things that keep them alive. While my biggest concern up to that point was maybe I should get a cell phone when I got back. What a joke. My life was a joke when I’m disconnected from nature like that, not understanding what truly matters. And what matters is eating and staying alive and letting wild animals eat and stay alive as much as you can. As much as I can.
After that encounter, I hiked down the Nation River, floated a hundred miles in that shitty little raft, hoping every mile it wouldn’t pop, until I reached the village of Circle, where I flew home. Next time, I got to pay more attention, and not get in the way of some wild thing who is simply trying to survive. Their lives are hard enough already.