Growing Up Alaska: Halloween at 30 Below

By the end of October we’d have snow on the ground, it was getting dark early and it was often cold in Central, Alaska. Halloween was also made interesting that there were few kids and everyone was spread out over a large area making trick-or-treating difficult. So, we often met at one of the local businesses or school for Halloween fun.

Another challenge was costumes. Since we didn’t have a regular store available, the closest costumes were in Fairbanks, and back then, they didn’t start putting out Halloween stuff until the month of October, of by which time, most families had done their fall/winter shopping. Which meant we had to create most of our costumes.

The biggest challenge was not figuring out which cool creature of the night to be, but how to make a costume that could be worn over all your winter gear. It was pointless to show up only to have your awesome costume covered up.

And not only did it have to go over your snow gear, but also had to fit when you changed out of your snow gear. Otherwise, the cool, fearsome werewolf suddenly turned into a sagging creature that looked more like it was melting than menacing.

This limited your choices and you wanted to make sure that no two people dressed up as the same thing. Like the one year that three people showed up as a mummy which was always a classic since it was so easy to put together, but was a challenge to change from your snow gear.

But I always had fond memories of going home with bags of candy, being spooked by the shadows and the harvest moon, of hiding my candy so my brothers didn’t eat it and imagining what I might be the next year.

Growing Up Alaska: Hovering

Growing up in the interior of Alaska in the 1980s, most people didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. There were no phones or television and everyone knew everyone.

To cope with these conditions, people learned little tricks that helped them get by. Chop ice in a lake or stream to get water. Bath using towels. Use mirrors to amplify lantern light. And probably the most important skill, you learned to hover when using the outhouse. Whether it was summer and it stank or winter and it was frozen, you didn’t let your derriere go near the hole.

Down the road from us lived a young man named Fred. Fred was engaged to a woman that he had met when he went back home in the Lower 48. They carried on a long distance relationship and despite being a city girl, she was excited to join him in rural Alaska to begin their life together.

She flew to Fairbanks, which was the closest city to Central, where they got married and he put her up in an apartment while he finished upgrading his small cabin to give her some creature comforts. My dad spent many days down there helping him build and add on to his cabin.

They added a small claw footed bathtub on the far side of the wood stove so she would have a place to bath. They built a gravity water system so she could have “running” water. Counters and cabinets and curtains were all installed. The only thing he couldn’t do was indoor plumbing.

Across the little creek by his cabin stood a small outhouse. He had toyed with ideas of heating it with a small stove, but ruled out the efficiency of that since potty breaks could not always be scheduled.

He toyed with making a heated seat out of electric socks, but the D batteries were in the way and they ran out quickly. He even considered making a portable seat that could be kept warm in the cabin and carried with you, but that didn’t really work since it grew cold by the time you reached the outhouse and installed it so it didn’t slide around.

In the end, he decided to create a cushy seat with fabric that wouldn’t feel too cold and would warm up quickly when you sat on it. Of course, there were other issues, but he felt this was the best solution he had on hand. For really cold nights, he would use a honey bucket, but that was never a great option in such a small space.

After school, my brothers and I headed down to Fred’s place to help put the final touches on things since his bride was showing up that evening in a bush plane. It was mostly cleaning up the construction and securing the last few things.

Fred was so excited that he was barely any help at all. He was mostly putting up pictures and decorations to make the place look more homey.

The temperature had plummeted to about 20 degrees shortly after the sun had set and was now 15 below zero. Fred was worried the plane wouldn’t fly in this cold, but we prepared anyways.

I was sweeping the sawdust off the small porch and clearing the snow off the steps when Fred headed out to the outhouse with a hammer and a picture he decided needed to be hung in there.

Some time passed, maybe 15 minutes, when dad stuck his head out the door and asked if I’d seen Fred. I pointed in the direction of the outhouse and dad told me to go check on Fred.

I grabbed a lantern and headed down to the creek. It was only a few feet wide, but when the temperature drops suddenly, it can crack and cause overflow, so I proceeded carefully. As I got closer, I heard a banging coming from the outhouse and was relieved to think Fred was just having difficulties putting up his picture.

Only the banging continued and he yelled for help and I soon discovered he was having much different difficulties. I ran up to the outhouse and called for him. He stopped pounding, but wouldn’t open the locked door.

“Go get your dad,” he told me, “and tell him to bring hot water.”

I scurried back to the cabin and burst through the door, relaying the directions Fred had given me. Dad snatched the coffee pot off the stove and I led him back to the outhouse.

Fred had opened the door and was just sitting there. In my head, I had imagined he had fallen through the hole, though that didn’t explain the need for hot water.

“I’m stuck,” Fred exclaimed.

Dad offered to pull him up, but discovered that Fred was more frozen than stuck. When building the seat for the outhouse, he’d made sure to build extra supports and in doing so, had used some large headed 20 pennyweight nails. He had not installed the seat yet, so when he sat down, his warm, moist skin instantly froze to the nails that were exposed to air underneath. He’d hoped his body heat would free him, but it was too cold for that.

The hot water, which was quickly cooling, had done enough to free Fred and my dad and oldest brother helped him hobble back to cabin. They laid him over the end of the bed and inspected his injuries; 3 dark purple dots across both butt cheeks.

Then the plane buzzed us to let us know they had made it.

I drove my snow machine up to the airstrip and met the pilot with the young lady who was surprised that her husband hadn’t come to meet her. I helped the pilot prep his plane to be parked, then took the young lady home.

I helped carry her bags up the front steps and when we were both at the top, I opened the door so we could enter quickly. Every lantern was on high as we entered and the young lady broke out in a grin as she saw her husband who was trying to sit up on the bed.

My dad walked over and greeted her and handed her a small jar of ointment and congratulated her on her marriage. We left quickly and returned the next day to check up on them.

Fred was bound up for a couple of days. He could walk around stiffly, but couldn’t sit down. We had them over for dinner and he had to lay on the floor to eat.

They only lasted a couple of months that winter before Fred had to bring her back to civilization. It was too cold and rough, though I give her credit as she came out the next summer and tried another winter.

And she learned that even with a cozy seat, to hover when you use the outhouse.

Growing Up Alaska: No Backing Out

My older brother Clint had gotten a job in Juneau and was looking to get his stuff from Anchorage to there. The thing about Juneau, there is only two ways to get there, boat and plane. To move all his stuff, that meant the most efficient method was ferry.

Clint couldn’t drive into Canada because he’d received a DUI for sitting in the parking lot in the middle of winter with his car running for warmth while he waited for a cab. It was dumb, but it was the law and this prevented him from entering Canada by vehicle.

So when I agreed to drive his stuff down, the plan was for me to drive his U-Haul to the ferry terminal just south of Anchorage and take the ferry to Juneau. Only, this turned out to cost thousands of dollars and the plan changed for me to drive through Canada to Haines where it was a few hour ferry ride to Juneau.

We packed all of Clint’s belongings into a 26 foot U-Haul truck along with loading his car up onto a trailer to be towed behind the truck. This added nearly another 20 feet to the length.

And I got to do this trip in early October when most of the businesses along the Alcan Highway closed down for the winter and temperatures could plummet to minus 40.

From Anchorage to Haines it was about a 15 hour drive, but driving this truck, I expected it would take me closer to 18, so I decided to stop in Haines Junction which would make for a 13-14 hour day. The border was not always open at night and I figured I could cross in the morning and make it with plenty of time to catch the 2 pm ferry.

The trip went smoothly with only minor issues. It was a good thing I planned to stop in Haines Junction, because the gas station was closed and the pump was having difficulties reading my card. I made an early start and made it to Haines in time to get breakfast and watch some football at a local diner.

I called my brother and told him that the trip had gone well with no real issues. I was just waiting for the ferry and would see him that night.

I drove down to the ferry terminal and got waved into line. After checking in, I was told that since I was so long, they wanted me to load first. I was fine with that and didn’t think of anything as one of the workers began to explain the loading procedure. The turned me around and said that I would need to back onto the ferry.

Backing up has never been my favorite thing to do, especially with a trailer in an unfamiliar vehicle of enormous size. I was grateful that I would be able to back on first and could use the whole ferry ramp which was just over two car’s wide.

What all of them failed to mention to me was made extremely clear as the ferry pulled in was that the ferry was not loading straight on, but was loading from the side. Down a one lane ramp. With flimsy rails.

And to make matters worse, the other side of the ferry, which was narrower than the entire length of the U-Haul and trailer, was open and the only thing between me and the ocean was a fabric mesh fence.

Oh, and one more thing. I had to make a blind 90 degree turn at the bottom.

I slowly lined up my approach and the guy who was supposed to be guiding me disappeared since I was as wide as the ramp and my mirrors were tucked in so I could squeeze on. He appeared in front of me and guided me from the front, so I was backing down an inclined ramp by paying attention to the guy in front of me as he took direction from the guy at the bottom.

I was blind and felt like throwing up and I prayed the brakes didn’t give out or the engine stalled.

Amazingly, I made it on my first attempt. My guide told me that they had loaded me a half an hour early expecting it to take me that long. It felt like a half an hour, but only a few minutes had passed.

I had actually backed the trailer onto the loading ramp which made me realize that when we reached Juneau, we were going to exit out of the side again.

Sure enough we did. The tidal change in many parts of Alaska can be over 20 feet, so it was low tide in Juneau when we arrived and the ramp was very steep. I was the last one off, so the ramp was also slick from all the other drivers go up it in the rain.

Since there was a 90 degree turn at the bottom, it meant I couldn’t make a run for it, so I had to ease my way up the slippery ramp, again praying the engine wouldn’t stall and that I would keep traction.

The tires slipped a couple of times, but once I got the trailer straight, the ascent went more smoothly than I anticipated.

After dropping the truck off at my brother’s place, I told him he wasn’t allowed to move anymore and if he did, he was hiring movers.

Growing Up Alaska: Sleeping in the Dog House

For a few years I raised and trained sled dogs. Most of my dogs belonged to other mushers who’s kennels were too large for them to adequately run and train all their dogs. I typically got the cast offs or those born out of season so they were too old or too young to train with the other litters.

It was fun and I learned a lot about dogs and myself. It took a lot of work and discipline just to take care of my little more than a dozen dogs. Feeding, care, running and training them sometimes meant multiple runs a day before or after school and sometimes even to school.

We kept the dogs on a lot across the creek from our house so they were close enough to keep an eye on, but far enough away that the barking and the howling wouldn’t keep my mom awake. The window of my bedroom faced that way, so if they did make a racket, I could see if anything was bothering them.

We’d had a moose in the area and it was coming into the area to feed off the trees that grew along the creek. It usually skirted the dogs, but it would set them off and we were worried that it might try to stomp on the dogs, so I had to be extra wary.

It was early morning, around 2, when the dogs started barking and growling. Fearing the moose, I quickly grabbed my flashlight and headed out to check on my team. I didn’t spot the moose, but something in the woods on the far side of the lot had the team riled up.

There were a lot of wild animals that it could be, but after a brief search, I didn’t find anything. I went around and pet each dog to calm them down despite the fact that the wind was blowing and it was about zero and all I was wearing was my long johns, boots and a jacket.

I hurried back across the footbridge and clambered along the porch until I reached the door. Locked. Puzzled I tried again, then went and tried the front door. Locked.

Figuring someone must be up and not wanting to wake everyone, I lightly knocked on the door.


I tried again and again, nothing.

Knowing my dad wouldn’t have locked the door, I figured it had to be one of my brothers playing a prank on me. I tried to make snowballs to throw at their windows, but the snow was too dry and they never made it, so I threw small sticks.

After a couple of solid hits on both windows, neither brother got up.

The wind was cutting through my clothes and I could tell my legs were growing numb, along with my hands who could no longer hold the flashlight. I pounded on the door and still, no one woke up!

Both my mom and my dad were light sleepers and I was sure that one of them would have gotten up.

The wind raced up my back and I knew I was in trouble. I needed to get out of the wind first and then get warm.

I stomped back across the creek to the dog yard. Selecting a bail of straw, I marched over to Lady, my lead dog’s house. I put the extra straw down, unchained two of my dogs and brought them, along with lady into the doghouse. I had designed my dog houses to be slightly submerged into the ground and were made out of old loader tires. I partitioned them off so that four dogs shared warm in the tire but were still apart.

Knocking down one partition, I curled along the inside of the dog house and had one dog on each side and one at my feet. Out of the wind and from the heat of the dogs, I warmed up and fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke up and fed the dogs before heading back across the creek. I discovered that one of my brothers had woken up shortly after I’d gone out to check on the dogs and found the back door open. Thinking the wind had blown it open, which it did if it wasn’t latched properly, he’d locked it and gone back to bed.

My mother was upset that I should have woken someone and after showing them the piles of sticks in the snow around their windows, my mother was appalled that no one had heard. “You could’ve died!” she said over and over as she made breakfast.

She then tried to ground my brother for locking me out, but dad pointed out that it wasn’t done on purpose and no one was to blame. To calm her down, dad took the blame and suggested that they hide a key in his workshop in case of emergencies.

This seemed to placate her and I could see a twinkle in my dad’s eye. When she went upstairs to change, dad chuckled and leaned across the table and said, “Next time, use the keys hanging in my workshop.”

I placed my forehead on the table to keep from showing my embarrassment of forgetting about the keys as dad continued, “And go take a shower. You smell like a dog.”

Growing Up Alaska: Cinnamon Lasagna

Growing up in Central, Alaska meant that when we went shopping, we purchased everything in bulk. It also meant that early on my mother taught her boys how to cook. Every meal we made had to feed at least 6, though we often made extra as it was not uncommon to have someone show up in time for dinner.

Along with baking bread weekly, we were assigned one dinner a month that we had to plan for and prepare. That meant we picked out a night and when we went shopping, we were responsible for making sure the ingredients were on the list.

My parents had driven to Fairbanks to pick up a few things without us kids and it was my older brother Clint’s turn to cook. He is actually quite a good cook and on this night, he was ambitiously tackling a homemade lasagna. He planned out the meal and spent all afternoon preparing it.

Clint was finishing up the meat sauce and decided it needed more seasoning (I’m not sure which as I was not in the kitchen at that moment). The seasoning were located over the stove and he reached up to get down the one he wanted. Instead, the cinnamon flipped over and he tried to catch it before it landed in the sauce.

It hit the rim of the pan and the lid popped off and the cinnamon landed in the sauce. He plucked it out as he streamed a series of words that he wouldn’t have said if mom and dad were home.

Sinking into the boiling sauce was a pile of cinnamon that he tried to scoop out. He was sure he got most of it and added more tomato sauce, garlic and pepper in an effort to mask what he missed. Tasting his sauce, he was pretty confident that he had succeeded.

I went out to do my chores before mom and dad got home and the lasagna went into the oven. About an hour later, I came in to the wonderful smell of baked lasagna, and cinnamon. Lots and lots of cinnamon.

Clint fretted over the lasagna and even scooped a bit out of the corner, but it was too hot to really tell if it tasted of cinnamon. But the look on his face assured it was a disaster.

Our parents returned home shortly and we unloaded the truck. Clint had set the table with a salad, garlic bread and plated lasagna in an effort to mask the smell. My mom picked up the smell immediately and much to my dad’s disappointment, the smell of cinnamon did not signal dessert.

We tried to eat the dinner, Clint bravely shoveling mouthfuls into his mouth. But after some gagging and funny looks, mom through together a quick goulash and Clint has never lived down his Cinnamon Lasagna.

Growing Up Alaska: Grease Monkey

Family is an interesting concept when you grow up in a small community. I fell at that perfect age that I was never really “close” with my oldest brother since I was too young to be any fun and was was the “baby” for far too long. But even without being “close,” we were family and were often the only other kids around. We have always shared something deeper than blood; we shared experiences.

This story is one of them.

I hadn’t been able to go home for Christmas. Well, technically, I was home, it was my family that had moved, but that is for another story. I had, however, managed to get some time off just after New Year’s to fly out to make it home to surprise my mother for her birthday.

Living in Anchorage, I was excited to go see my parent’s new place in New Mexico. I’d packed my things and busied myself to await my red eye flight. I’d just finished dinner when I got a phone call from my second oldest brother.

“What are you doing?”

“Waiting to go to the airport. Did you make it through Canada yet?” (He was moving from Fairbanks)

There was a pause and then he said, “No. I need your help. We can’t cross the border.”

“Into the U.S.?” I asked, confused.

“No, we are stuck in Alaska. I need you to help us drive across the border.”

This time I left a long pause. My flight was leaving in just a few hours. “Let me see if I can get a flight to Fairbanks.”

“We are at the border,” my brother replied. “I’m on my way. I’ll be there in an hour.”

It was nearly a seven hour drive in good conditions from the border to Anchorage and I would find out later that, since this was before the advent of readily available cell phones, my brother had called me at every stop along the way, hoping to catch me before I left.

I spent the next 45 minutes repacking my gear and rearranging my flight. I’d only planned to take off for 8 days and knew that the drive would take a minimum of 4 days.

I could see the stress and relief in my brother’s eyes. They had tried to make it across the border for several days, but complications with my oldest brother’s ID was preventing him from driving into Canada.

We stayed only as long as it took to find a place in my brother’s packed car for my bag. Then we were heading for the border.

Early the next morning, we were driving into Canada with my older brother’s car and my oldest brother’s truck hauling a horse trailer. The temperature had plunged to minus 40 and colder.

With the combined drop in temperature and the overloaded horse trailer, we hit trouble almost immediately. Bearings on the trailer would overheat and then when we stopped to repair them, they would freeze.

Luckily we were able to find a shop that had the same kind of bearings, so over the next 800 miles, we ended up with an assembly line of the passenger repacking and greasing the bearings. It typically took about 15 minutes a bearing inside of a soda flat on my lap and if we were lucky, we could get about 90 minutes to two hours before we had to stop and change them out.

We almost had it down to a pit crew speeds by the time we made it to Edmonton and turned south and on to warmer temps.

We only stopped once. I sprung for a room as we all needed a shower and some rest. We called mom and wished her a happy birthday.

It took us five days to drive nearly 3500 miles to New Mexico. I’d missed my mom’s birthday and over half of my vacation was spent in the cab of a truck in freezing cold temps packing bearings, but that was what it means to be family.

Growing Up Alaska: Strawberry Patch

Many people come to Alaska for many different reasons. Many have come for adventure and gold, and some have come just to be away from it all. And many times, when the adventure is over or the gold is gone, the things people leave behind are forgotten and left to reclaimed by nature.

I have always enjoyed setting off through the woods only to find an old cabin, an abandoned vehicle where there is no obvious trail, or even an old piece of mining equipment. Often these things had been abandoned so long ago that they were rusting out or collapsing, but you never knew what kind of treasures you might find.

One such place that I found was an old cabin that had completely collapsed in on itself so long ago that the only way you knew it was there was the depression it left behind and the few artifacts that poked out like broken window glass. There was no obvious trail that lead to it and no obvious reason it was there. It was too far out of the valley to be a mining cabin and too far up the mountain to be for trapping, so that likely meant it was a cabin of someone who just wanted to get away from it all. This location would have given them quite the view of the Yukon Valley with a few trees cleared below.

I’d been following a little mountain stream that had branched off. Well, it didn’t so much branch off, but the little ridge above oozed out water that trickled in small waterfalls from the moss overhanging the rocks. Naturally, I climbed up to investigate.

On top of the ridge, surrounded by poplar and birch trees, nestled a little clear pond that was only a few feet wide and about fifteen feet long. The sun was at just the right angle that it tinged the surface of the pond in a brilliant gold color that was shadowed by the quaking leaves.

It was so calm and idealic that it washed peace over me. And then, as if out of a dream, I noticed the ground around the pond was covered in the largest red strawberries I’d ever seen. This both puzzled me and surprised me.

There are wild strawberries in Alaska, but the mountain variety in the Interior are usually small and get about thumb sized or a little bigger depending on the climate, but some of these were huge, palm sized berries!

I picked a berry that was juicy even as I picked it up and took a bite from it. It was so cool and super sweet; almost too sweet. I sampled water from the pool and found it was sweet too, a clear sign of naturally occurring calcium from the spring at the far end of the pool.

While there is limestone about a hundred miles to the west of this area, it was more scattered and sparse in this area, though this part of the valley that I grew up in had many strange anomalies.

Investigating the area, I found other plants that seemed out of place until I stumbled upon the remains of the cabin. From this, I was able to surmise that there had once been a garden in a clearing and likely these strawberries had been planted and now grew wild around the pond.

I filled a large Ziploc bag with berries and took them home, often visiting for many years to collect these amazing hidden gems. People often asked me where I found them and I would smile and tell them, “In the mountains.”

I was able to do some research and found there was a man who’d lived up the mountains from the mid 1930s to the early 60s who was said to have had a garden and would come down and sell them to the Hot Springs Resort. He later helped them plant their own gardens later and was buried at the cemetery there. No one knew exactly where his cabin was and it was guessed on a map.

The local historian who ran our mining museum agreed that I was likely right in assuming that this was the right cabin and had made plans to visit it to document it, but that never happened since the climb was difficult and the ridge was isolated, perfect for someone who wanted to be alone.

Now I grow strawberries in my garden and when I pick them and eat them, I think of that mountain spring and wonder if strawberries are still growing there.

Growing Up Alaska: Working the System

We didn’t always have the numbers for public school, so there were many times over my educational career that I was put onto the Centralized Correspondence School where I did all my work from home and mailed it off to Juneau. It was a great program; as long as you were motivated to learn.

I did kindergarten via CCS and my teacher in Juneau was Ms. Winters. I honestly don’t remember a lot, but as I jumped on and off the program through high school, I inevitably would end with Ms. Winters. I believe out of the six and a half years I was in program, I got her 5 times.

In sixth grade, as the year went on, I discovered her grading system for writing. She graded you off of what you were supposed to learn, but also on how well you improved.

Now, we did a lot of writing in CCS since we weren’t in front of a teacher. Tons of reports and writings were how they graded us, so when I went back to CCS for high school, you guessed it, I got Ms. Winters.

At the beginning of the year, she would have us write about our summer and usually some other report. I misspelled words, had run on and incomplete sentences. tense problems (though that wasn’t always on purpose), grammar issues, and so on. Then I would look over my curriculum and map out my year. Each unit I marked down a “goal” and made sure I made those corrections.

By the end of the year, I had made huge growth in writing which always secured me an A.

I repeated this process each year (though I was pulled for part of 11th grade) and each year showed great gains. I even entered contests and won some prizes. And each year, Ms. Winters would write comments about my growth.

During my senior year, my family had moved to Anchorage (thus my departure from the last quarter of 11th grade) and found the public school lacking. My mother wanted me to have a the social experience of school, but it wasn’t for me.

Ms. Winters had come to Anchorage for a conference and wanted to meet me, so we arranged it. She was amazed that we had been paired up so many times as that was not the norm.

As we sat and talked, she shared with me my latest work, which was my second to last report for her, and she commented on how proud she is of me each year making such strides in work. As she was talking, she began to falter as her husband tried to hide his smirk behind his coffee cup.

She narrowed her eyes and looked up at me, exclaiming, “You figured out how I grade!”

I went and got my journal and showed her my first draft of my beginning of the year report, the one before I made the “corrections” or “errors”. She stared at me for a moment and my mom began asking if I’d been cheating.

Then Ms. Winters laughed and shook her head, “No! He was just working my system! He probably did more work this way!”

We had a good laugh at that as I showed her my planner and work from years past. She promised to change her method, but I didn’t care, I was graduating anyways.

Ms. Winters had been a great teacher. I always remember the notes she would write on my papers that were always so encouraging and I try to bring that to my teaching today.

Growing Up Alaska: Trapping Class

One of the advantages of growing up in the middle of nowhere, the social norms were not always the same. One of the after school clubs that I attended was a course on trapping and caring for your furs. Done today in an urban setting, this would probably be met with as much red tape as red paint, but where I grew up, this was a way of life.

And if the fur trade wasn’t enough to get a club like this banned in most places, the fact that we brought guns to school would have caused clueless people to lose their minds. As it was, for the class, we had to show up to school early and were required to demonstrate the gun was unloaded before turning it in to the principal who locked it in his office.

After school, after the bus had left, we could check our guns back out, load up on our snow machines and drive to the edge of the school grounds where we reloaded the gun and checked in with the instructor.

Now, this wasn’t a class that just anyone could participate in. You had to have good grades, taken the marksman class and passed the arctic survival class. Even the rumor of misbehaving could get you kicked out.

We were all excited as this class occurred over a month. Twice a week we went out after school as a group and learned how to track animals and set traps. On the weekend, one of us would be chosen to check the traps with the instructor. Seeing that there were four of us, that meant we each had a weekend.

Now, I already had my own trapline and had for a few years already, but, like I said, this was going to be a fun class and I am always open to learning something new.

We sped through town, following our instructor before turning off the main trail to follow Crooked Creek. After we were a couple of miles out of town, we started on our trapline that was marked with special blue ribbons so people knew who ran it.

We’d stop and check traps, look at signs (prints, hair, broken branches, etc.) and practice building trap setups. Like the last two weeks, we had caught nothing, which was fine with me. Out instructor promised to bring in a couple of animals to practice skinning if we didn’t find anything soon.

We wrapped up and were heading home, zipping along the trails and having fun. The instructor left us as we reached the creek and turned to head to his home farther out of town.

We weren’t racing, but playing follow the leader. One person would make a path in fresh snow or turn down side paths and we all followed until, without saying anything, another would take the lead.

We were almost back to Central and I was in the back, having just led the last few minutes. The kid in the lead took us back and forth across the creek before going up the bank to a trail that split off through the woods.

We all drove similar snow machines that we owned, except the kid in front of me who was using his dad’s workhorse of a snow machine, an Arctic Cat Jag 3000. It was faster than our machines if opened up on a flat stretch, but was much heavier and wider so it didn’t handle as well in the deep snow.

I heard the crash before I saw it as I came over the bank. There, wedged between two large spruce trees was the Jag. The other two snow machines made it through, but the Jag was just a little too wide.

My friend had smashed into the handle bars and windscreen, messing them both up and coming away with a hurt shoulder and chest.

Our other two friends had heard the crash too and turned around and came back. We all sprung into action from our arctic survival first aid class and determined that our friend was not seriously injured or in dire need of first aid attention.

What he did cry about though, was that his dad was going to kill him for wrecking the snow machine. We tried to assure him that it wasn’t that bad as we straightened out the handle bar and tried to repair the windscreen.

The only thing we couldn’t figure out was how to free the snow machine. We lifted and pulled and jerked on, but nothing worked. We even tried to pull if free with another snow machine, only to pull the back bumper off!

This was met with wails from our friend who sat off to the side, holding his chest. This just proved to us that the only way we were going to free the snow machine was to cut down a tree.

We chose the one closest to the creek since it was already leaning a bit that way. We took turns whacking away at the tree until it started to fall. It went slowly at first, but once it moved over enough, we ran and let gravity do its thing. The tree tumbled down with a loud crack and crash as the trunk twisted itself off and the tree fell across the creek.

We went back to study our work, only to find that the tree had broken itself just above where the snow machine was wedged between the trees. While this did nothing to help free it, it did make it clear that the hull and the cowling had both been smashed in by a few inches on each side.

We’d been at this for over an hour and we were sure our families were going to start to worry. It would take a little longer for my family to worry as I lived nearly 8 miles away and it would be another 30-45 minutes before anyone began to wonder about me, but none of us were willing to leave our friend behind.

It was suggested that if we cut down the other tree, we might be able to free the machine, though none of us really thought it would, but knew we needed to do something. We decided to cut a wedge much lower on this side and prayed the tree wouldn’t twist and fall back onto the snow machine.

We were just about to tackle the second tree when we noticed that our friend that had wrecked his machine was gone. One of the boys spotted him walking up the trail and we took off in pursuit.

He’d decided that we would never get the snow machine free and he was just going to walk home. We assured him we could get his machine free, we just needed a little more time, but he was determined to go home, so one of the boys that lived close to him gave him a ride home.

It turned out that they did have to cut down the second tree to free the machine and our friend did get into trouble, but not nearly as bad as any of us thought. As it turned out, his dad had secretly let him use the machine knowing that his son would likely mess it up in some way. He’d expected a bent ski or blown engine, but the wedge worked. The cowling never would latch down properly again and the snow machine had a tendency to overheat, so he was able to convince his wife to spend money on a new machine.

And that machine became our friend’s machine. Until he blew the motor, but that is a different story altogether.

Growing Up Alaska: Turkey Shoot

As I grew up, one of the things that I was taught was how to handle a gun. I started off with a BB gun and moved my way up. It was essential for survival in the wilderness and gun safety and proficiency was important to my dad.

When we first moved to Central in the early 1980s, the community often came together to support one another through games and activities promoted by local businesses and community groups. One of those events was a turkey shoot.

I was intrigued when my dad asked me if I wanted to go, because I’d never hunted a turkey, mostly because they don’t live in Alaska. As it turns out, no turkeys were harmed during the turkey shoot; though two frozen ones were raffled off. Instead, it was a shooting competition divided up by caliber and age groups.

My age group was set up with .22 rifles or pistols. As I hadn’t ever had practice on a pistol, I stuck with my rifle and went against 7 other kids in the 8-11 year old range; I was only 9.

The first round had targets set up at 10 yards. You got 5 shots, four in the inner circle which was about 4 inches wide, advanced you to the next round where the target was pushed out another 5 yards.

Everyone passed the first round and one missed during the second round which really surprised me because they were all using scopes while I was using the stock iron sights that came with the rifle.

The next round they pushed the target to 25 yards and you only got three shots in which two had to hit the inner ring. I missed with my first shot as I tensed up and went wide, but nailed the next two.

Two more kids dropped out and the target was pushed to 35 yards. With the target at this range, they moved to traditional paper targets with value rings. Top three scores advanced.

I put all three in the ring just outside of the bullseye which gave me a score of 12 out of 15 and put me into second against my best friend who scored 14. A girl took the third slot with a score of 10.

For the final round, they moved the target to 42 yards and set it up in front of a metal target that would sound if we hit it. A spotter with a scope watched the target and we each got one shot.

The girl had the lowest score so she went first. The metal target dinged and the spotter declared that she had hit the outside of the three point ring high and to the left.

I was next and all I had to do was set my shot inside of hers. However, with open sights, I couldn’t really see much of the target, let alone the tiny hole she put in it. I squatted into a crouch, calmed myself, took a deep breath, started to sight in as my dad had taught me, then exhaled half my breath, checked my alignment and fired.


“On the line. 4 & 5 left!” the spotter called.

I was elated! I’d clipped the edge of the bullseye, which was, in my opinion, a matter of luck. The competition had drawn over a small crowd of adults who applauded appreciatively since I’d made the shot without a scope.

My best friend waited for the range to be cleared and sprawled on the ground. His dad had given him a gun rest to brace his rifle against. The seconds passed by as everyone quieted and watched him shoot.


“On the line. 4 & 5 right!” the spotter called.

“Well! Who won?” someone asked.

The paper target was retrieved and measurements were taken, but no one could declare a winner. So we went for another round, this time at 50 yards.

Since I’d gone first last round, my friend went first this round. He sighted in and fired more quickly this time. His shot was followed by a ding and the spotter calling, “Mid 5, 11 o’clock.”

People cheered and patted my friend on the back. His shot was good and left me with less than an inch to beat him. That may sound like a lot when you think of a small caliber bullet, but at this distance, I couldn’t even distinguish the different rings with open sights.

I settled into my crouch and took a breath. I could hear everyone else holding their breath as well and I felt the pressure mounting. My gun began to sway and I was a hair from pulling the trigger when I stopped and stood up.

Standing meant I was more likely to sway, but I felt more comfortable like this. The angle to the target seemed more apparent, but the stress was getting to me. My dad walked over and leaned in close. I lowered my rifle and he said, “You don’t have to take the shot. I’m proud of you either way.”

I nodded and said, “I want to try.”

He nodded back and stepped away. I took a deep breath and held it. I loosely sighted in on the target, let out some air, aimed and pulled the trigger.


“Miss!” called the spotter. “We have a winner!”

I knew it was a long shot, but I felt the wind get sucked out me. How’d I miss? I’d heard the ding.

People began to congratulate my friend and I heard a couple of others ask the same question that was going through my mind.

“We heard the ding.”

“I didn’t see it hit the target,” the spotter defended. “Maybe he went wide and hit the metal target next to it.”

This seemed plausible since there were 4 metal targets spaced about 2 feet apart, but that would be a really wide shot. I was standing and I could sway more, but still.

I felt the sting of the loss hit the corners of my eyes and I took a couple of gulps of air to calm myself down. After all, I suddenly realized I had no idea what the prize was!

I was walking over to congratulate my friend on his win when one of the people who helped with the targets came running in, holding up the target in one hand and yelling. No one could hear him over the cheers of the crowd.

I shook my friends hand and we both began to laugh. “Great shot,” I told him over the crowd.

“You too!” he replied. “Too bad you went wide on the last shot.”

It was at that moment the spotter started yelling over the crowd and it took a moment for them to calm down.

“I was wrong,” he began as he held up the paper target, “Matt did hit the target!”

More confusion arose as the spotter pointed out his error. After the first shot, the shot was marked on the target with a red sharpie. On the edge towards the bullseye, the red mark was missing.

“Matt nearly put his shot through the same hole! His was closer to the bullseye! He wins!”

Men crowded around the spotter to look at the target. The flipped it over and inspected the exit and confirmed that my shot had passed through the tear of the previous shot.

People began pounding on my shoulder and my friend’s dad demanded another shot. Declared it a fluke. Said they couldn’t prove it. But the crowd drowned him out. They got into their truck and left, leaving behind his mother and sister.

I was awarded $40 in cash, a brick of .22 shells, a 20 gauge shotgun with a box of birdshot, and a scope which I never used.