Growing up in rural Alaska, the chances to meet girls was slim, so when a new one showed up, the boys would undoubtably try to impress them. Looking back, I don’t recall it ever working.
The winter that I turned 14, one of my friends had some cousins come to visit. This was fortunate for two reasons: one, they had a daughter about my same age and two, it meant I had one less boy to contend with since they were cousins.
It also happened around that same time that the Forty-Mile Caribou heard was passing through not far from town. The herd had once been in the 100s of thousands, but due to overhunting and a surge in the wolf population, the herd had dwindled and had actually split into two groups, this one being around 800. The state had put a ban on hunting them, so few people really paid attention to them.
The herd was crossing over a pass near my house into the Yukon Valley and my friend’s cousin wanted to see them. She, my friend and I rode snow machines up the trail until we found them.
A few were in the lead and they came up slowly through the pass. The snow machines had sent them running, so we shut them down and found a rock out cropping to sit and dangle our legs.
Most of the caribou stayed far away from us, but just as we were about to leave, the main body of the herd crested the ridge and squeezed through the pass. The spread from side to side and the stopped paying an attention to us.
We talked quietly, amazed by the sight. My friend joked that we should ride the caribou back to my house and his cousin laughed and said that would be cool.
Yes, you’re right. What happened next was foolish.
The caribou were so close that we could have kicked some if we weren’t worried about causing them to stampede. In fact, on large cow had chosen that moment to look for some lichen or grass near the base of the rocks that we were sitting on.
My adolescent male brain kicked in and I swung my leg out hopped down onto the cow. I expected her to collapse under my weight or scoot away, but she did neither. Instead, she locked her legs and I straddled her, my feet barely touching the ground.
Now, I’m not sure who was more surprised, but our shock wore off at about the same time. I turned to wave triumphantly at my friend’s cousin and the caribou decided she didn’t want me on her back.
Surprisingly, with more speed and strength than I would have imagined, the caribou bolted ahead with me on her back! Two large strides and somehow I didn’t fall off.
And just as suddenly, she lowered her head and stopped. I cartwheeled over her head and landed hard on a pile of rocks barely covered with snow.
Pain and adrenaline coursed through my body at the same time. I knew I needed to get up and out of the way because I was sure the herd was spooked and I was going to be trampled.
I rolled onto my knees and watched as the caribou trotted off to rejoin the herd. My friend came running to ask if I was okay and I looked up to see my friend’s cousin standing on top of the rocks covering her mouth. She could’ve been amazed, but was more likely covering a laugh as I brushed off the snow and limped back up the slope to her.
I sat on my snow machine as the bulk of the herd finished going through the pass and descended into the valley below. The adrenaline stopped and the pain increased and I suddenly dreaded the seven mile ride home on some very bumpy trail.
That night I looked in the mirror and my lower back was one big bruise from where I’d landed on the rocks. My ego was also bruised and I never got a chance to talk to my friend’s cousin again to find out if I’d impressed her.
I hope you enjoyed this story and will come back next Friday for another tale of Growing Up Alaska.