When I was fifteen, the last year that we ran our gold mine, we were operating on Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. We were reaching the end of our last season, of which we were unaware of, and my uncle Jim came to visit.
Harrison Creek sits in a narrow valley with a one lane road that snaked up the north side of the creek to the only other mining camp of two old men who had already given up for the year. The upper end of the creek was above the tree line and the low bush blueberries painted the tundra in a swath of red and purples.
And most importantly, this attracted both bears and caribou.
Everyday, uncle Jim would drive this old Jeep up the valley in search of something to shoot. The Jeep was outfitted for driving off road with massive mud tires and a low transmission that barely allowed it to reach 40mph wide out. He loved driving it and we could hear him coming from a mile a way, especially in that narrow valley, and I wondered how he ever saw any animals.
But he did. They would often be up on the ridges and seemingly oblivious to the noisy Jeep. A small part of the Fortymile caribou herd had come up the next valley over and my uncle was excited about to very promising bulls that he hoped would linger in the area until the season opened in a few days.
Uncle Jim loved hunting, but a series of accidents meant he couldn’t get around well, so he needed something close to the road to hunt as there was no way he was going to be climbing those steep, slippery slopes.
The morning of hunting season arrived and my uncle was as giddy as a school child. It was cold and frost had covered the grass, so we bundled up and climbed into the Jeep. My little brother was only six and this was going to be his first “hunt,” so we sat in the back of the Jeep, me holding the rifles, while my dad and uncle sat up front.
The Jeep didn’t have a cover on it, so the wind chilled my ears causing me to flip up the collar on my jean jacket as my uncle drove a little faster than comfortable for the narrow road.
We parked at the upper end of the valley while my uncle and dad scanned the hillsides for caribou. We spotted a couple of cows high up on a ridge, but we didn’t spot either of the bulls my uncle had spotted the day before. So we sat for nearly an hour, hoping they would show up, before we decided to head back to camp since my dad and I had to work.
We drove back much more slowly as my uncle was keeping an eye out for caribou. We reached a section of road that was extremely narrow and cut into the mountainside with the creek dropping off below on the other. I hated this part of the road since there was no room for error, so I focused on the mountain ridge above me in hopes of spotting a caribou.
The road was bumpy here and my brother and I got jostled back and forth. I ducked to keep my head from hitting the roll cage and the small willow trees that grew over the road from the creek below. We were picking up speed, though we were coasting, when a branch smacked me behind the ear and I turned to yell for my uncle to slow down.
Do you ever have those moments when the world slows down as your brain tries to figure out what’s wrong? I mean, it knows something is wrong, but you don’t really comprehend it or believe it?
I watched as my uncle held onto the steering wheel of the Jeep, only it wasn’t in front of him, it was between him and my dad who was pushing it back to my uncle. They were yelling, but it was all a jumble and hard to hear over the Jeep and the sound of the wind whipping by as we continued to pick up speed.
The next couple of moments, which seemed to be at least a minute, was a scene from a Laurel and Hardy sketch as my uncle yelled and waved the steering wheel around, my dad with one hand on it and trying to get my uncle to put it back in place as the turn in the road ahead quickly approached.
“Jump!” my dad yelled and the world snapped back in to motion.
Sadly, this was not the first time I would have jumped from a moving vehicle, but in one motion I grabbed my little brother and tossed him screaming onto the embankment where he landed on the springy tundra. Then I tossed the guns up there as well before planting my foot on the edge of the Jeep and jumped as well.
The embankment made a quick height change and I didn’t clear the edge, so my feet struck the loose dirt and I twisted my ankle as I rolled and grabbed for the brush and the tundra in an effort to keep from sliding down the embankment.
I partially failed and landed on my butt and slid part of the way down the bank as I watched in horror as my dad and uncle continued down the road. My dad couldn’t easily jump clear because of the trees and the drop-off to the creek and my uncle wouldn’t be to jump because of his condition and the embankment.
They were still pushing the steering wheel back and forth when I saw my dad take the steering wheel from my uncle who seemed to be looking for a way to jump. The Jeep’s tires caught the embankment and it started up before jumping back down into the road and appeared to be heading over the side and down into the creek.
Then it suddenly jerked back towards the embankment before the brake lights came on and the Jeep jerked back to the right before coming to a stop.
I checked on my little brother who was crying, more out of fear than any bumps or bruises, though he did skin his knee. I helped him down to the road before returning to the Jeep, limping on my twisted ankle.
My dad was searching the floorboards for the nut that had come off of the steering wheel and my uncle was laughing and holding up a pair of vice grips that he had clamped onto the steering column in an attempt to steer the Jeep, or in the least, to keep it from veering right when he applied the brakes. The vice grips had been used on the instrument panel to keep it from vibrating since one of the screws had been stripped.
My dad found the nut and they used the vice grips to reattach the nut. I loaded my little brother into the back, along with the guns and decided to walk back since I had to go start the pump for the wash plant anyways so we could start mining.
Now, every time I see a Jeep, I think about that comedic scene of my dad refusing to take the steering wheel from my uncle and wonder how I ever survived my childhood.
One thought on “Growing Up Alaska: Who’s Driving”
That last sentence…Yeah. (I’m impressed that you got your brother out right away. Not so sure about saving the guns before saving yourself, but that’s very Alaskan.)