Growing Up Alaska: Never Late

Growing up, we had a pretty regular schedule. We got up, had chores, at breakfast, went to school and so on. Rarely did it change and my mother never set an alarm clock.

She woke up at the same time nearly every day and got our day started. When you could smell the coffee on the stove, you knew it was time to get going. And this went like clockwork until the one day it had to be.

About once a year our school would do a field trip. Almost all of our trips were overnight since it was 128 miles just to get Fairbanks alone. This particular trip was going to be traveling to Healy to visit the Usibelli coal mine which no one was particular excited about except the fact that we were leaving Central.

I was awakened by my mother yelling and dishes crashing. A check of my watch told me it was 7:29 and my bus was picking me up 7:50. Since the plan was to get up at our normal time, 6:30 am, it meant I had no time to do my chores or finish packing.

With my mom yelling, I flung myself out of bed and scrambled to grab my bag and shove the last of my things in it. My dad came to check that I was in fact up and told me he would take care of my chores.

Running headlong into the kitchen, I grabbed the eggs and toast my mom had whipped together, then ran to brush my teeth while still trying to button up my shirt. With my mouth full of toothpaste, I heard the bus horn blare. The bus driver was a minute early, but she wouldn’t wait, especially on a long day for her like this.

“Go! Go! Go!” my mother yelled at me as she placed a large paper bag with my lunch into my arms as I ran by. I tossed my toothbrush into the sink, since I already had one packed, and sprinted for the door, cup of water in hand to rinse out my mouth.

The bus horn blared again and she rolled down the hill to get a better view of my house. I slammed down the nearly empty cup of water on the railing before jumping from the porch and running for the bus, only slowing to spit out the water I was rinsing my mouth out.

Out of breath, I launched myself onto the bus that began rolling even before I took my normal seat. I was the first to be picked up, so no one saw my frantic dash except the bus driver.

In the mirror I could see toothpaste around my mouth and noticed I’d forgotten to brush my hair. I cleaned up and rebuttoned my crooked shirt before we reached the next stop, which was thankfully over ten minutes away.

I stored away my bag and lunch under my seat, excited to being going on a trip.

Once everyone was on the bus and we were heading to Fairbanks, students began pulling out their lunches and snacks to start the traditional trading of foods.

I pulled out my bag, expecting my usual sandwich and chips, only to find a smorgasbord of items that my mom had frantically gathered from the pantry. A can of chili (no can opener), a sleeve of saltines, a half eaten jar of peanut butter (no utensils), an apple, 3 pieces of sliced homemade bread, a can of Pepsi, a juice box, half a bag of Fritos (my dad’s), a can of Vienna sausages, a small block of cheddar cheese, two paper towels and a slab of homemade caribou jerky that our neighbor had given us nearly a year ago.

Needless to say, I had very little in the way of trade value, but luckily, through my classmates, I was able to make lunch and one friend took pity on me and shared her Oreos.

It turned out to be a great field trip, but we have never let my mother live down that one time she woke up late.

Growing Up Alaska: In a Flash

Central, Alaska, yes, that is the name of the community that I grew up in, is located in, well, central Alaska, though that is not how it gots its name. This is all irrelevant to the story so we will table that for another time.

What is important to know is that Central is very small and we did not always have a public school. If the enrollment at our school (K-12) dropped below 10, they shut down the school. That meant that there were times that we did our schooling through the State of Alaska Correspondence School located in Juneau.

It was during one of these years that I was taking a class on Alaskan animals. My class involved a lot of field work where I had to count populations of certain animals, study environmental impacts, both in the habitat and human impacts, and so on. Mind you that this was 8th grade.

The current project gave me a list of animals to find. If I checked them off, I got 1 point, took a picture of their footprints I got 2 points, and points varied for photos of different animals on the list. I’d already gotten enough points to get an A, but I wanted to make sure I had more than enough for an A+.

I set out on my snowmachine to get a picture of one of three animals left on my list. Each were worth between 8-10 points and I knew of an area where I might spot two of them, though past searches hadn’t bore any sightings.

I was looking for a lynx or a silver fox, and I knew that there were some up near Ketchum Rocks, a few miles from my house. I drove up as the sun made its slow plunge below the horizon as this is often the best time to spot these two animals as they come out to hunt.

I spent three hours searching and though I spotted a couple of lynx in the distance, I’d never been close enough to take a picture.

Taking the long way home, I hoped that I might spot on of the animals as they crossed some wide open spaces along well traveled game trails. I drove slowly as it was now completely dark and scanned the darkness of eye shine from my headlamp.

Suddenly, up ahead, just at the edge of my headlight, I spotted something lope across the trail and into a small stand of young spruce trees. I slowed and for a brief moment I caught the eye shine up in the trees.

I stopped at the tracks and spotted the tracks of a huge lynx. A quick flash of my light revealed that the lynx was about 12 feet up in the tree, so I hoped off my snowmachine and moved to one side in hopes of getting a good picture.

I swept my light across the trees once again to make sure the lynx hadn’t leapt down while I’d gotten into position. My ears were still thrumming from the sound of the snowmachine, so I knew it could probably crash through the trees and I wouldn’t hear it.

I brought my small camera up and just as I was taking the picture, I noticed that the world had gone strangely quiet. The thrumming of the snowmachine was gone, but I really didn’t think anything of it as it suddenly spooled up again.


The flash illuminated the trees and its occupant. Then it was black. And my heart stopped.

Stamped onto my retinas was the image of not a lynx, but a wolverine. And the snowmachine noise was it growling.

My heart jumped and my body did the same as I nearly walked on snow. I clambered onto my snowmachine and started it without looking back, sure the wolverine was about to pounce and shred me to death.

I drove a few hundred yards down the trail before I stopped and gulped air, trying to slow my heart rate.

A couple of days later I sent in my animal report along with the film from my camera having never spotted a lynx or a silver fox. And to make matters worse, a wolverine wasn’t even on the list, though I did tell my teacher of the encounter hoping for some extra points.

A month later I got back my work with an A+ and the photos. As it turns out, the photo was a blur of white and black, though the eyes of the animal were clear. My teacher loved my encounter story so much that he said he couldn’t help but give me A+ even though the wolverine wasn’t on our list.

And in case you are wondering, a lynx track looks very much like a wolverine track with two tell tale differences, with a wolverine, you can often spot the fifth toe and they are accompanied by claw marks. The lynx, like most cats retract them when walking.

Growing Up Alaska: Paper Wasps

A constant problem near the Hot Springs pool during the summer were the paper wasps. While paper wasps are highly aggressive, they tend to steer clear of people unless you mess with their nest.

Since many of these nests were built under the eaves in the buildings around the pool, inevitably, pool goers, often young or drunk, would find it quite humorous to splash water on them. This in turn lead to people screaming in the pool as hordes of wasps would descend on them.

So, the manager of the resort put a bounty on wasp nests. Any wasp nest removed could earn you money, depending on the size or if the complete nest was removed. The rewards often included ice cold soda, so finding and pulling down nests became a past time.

Now, mind you, I was only six at the time, but me and my friend, Scott, watched the older kids do it, and we were determined to get in on the action. The older kids would have a bucket of water ready and try to cause the nest to fall into the bucket where they tossed a wet towel in and around it causing it to fully submerge and drown the wasps.

They were met with a sting or two, but after a week of getting all the easy nests, the excitement for them had kind of worn off. But Scott and I were just getting started.

We found a new nest that was about the size of a baseball and successfully knocked it down. It bounced off of our pail and landed on the ground and we ran as the hive swarmed out. We waited a while for the wasps to settle down and leave before we tossed a wet towel on it and carried it to the manager.

He gave us each a quarter and gave us a root beer to split. We were rich! And more money just hung there waiting to get collected.

We developed a tactic of hitting the nests and running until we dislodged a nest, but most were too high for us to reach with a stick. We managed to get a couple over the next few days, much to our mothers’ disapproval.

We also discovered that the manager would pay more for bigger hives, so when we came around the corner of the pool house and saw a nest that was bigger than a basketball, we knew we’d hit the jackpot. There was only one problem, the nest was 20 feet up under the eave.

We tried throwing rocks at it, but our little arms had little strength and even less aim. We tried building a slingshot, but the rubber band that we used snapped and hurt us. We even found a longer pole, but even at eight feet in length, we were well short of the nest.

But we were determined and I came up with a plan. They were redoing the bar, so they had tall wooden stools set outside at tables on the other side of pool. I figured that if one us stood on the stool while the other person held it (safety first, right?) we would be tall enough to whack the nest down.

Looking back, I know that there was no way that adding another 3 -4 feet to our elevation wouldn’t have closed the 8-9 foot gap, but hey, I was six and it was brilliant!

We never got to try it out, because I was halfway around the pool, dragging the stool, when I heard Scott yelling and he came running around the corner. It took me a moment to register what was happening as he emerged from the shadow of the building, only the shadow came with him!

Scott had used the pole like a javelin and tossed it straight up at the hive. It had lodged itself into the hive and hung there for a moment before bringing over half the hive down with it. The hive, impaled on the pole, slid down the pole that Scott had tried to catch. The hive had then exploded as it struck Scott who had at the last moment tried unsuccessfully to throw the pole away.

I turned to run and tripped over the stool which clattered to ground as Scott hurdled it before scaling the wall to the pool and diving in. The swarm buzzed over me and continued their pursuit of the hive destroyer.

I got up and chased after Scott who was screaming in the pool as he ducked under and tried to swim away. The pool was littered with hundreds of dead or drowning wasps, but just like in the cartoons, the swarm followed the shadow of Scott underwater. When he came to the surface, the dive bombed him, stinging him relentlessly.

Some bystanders screamed and swam away, but a few swam towards the swarm and began splashing at it until the wasps, what few were left, flew away.

One of the men, grabbed Scott who was still thrashing in the water. They drug him from the pool and rushed him inside the resort.

Scott was a mess. He’d been stung over a hundred times and there were still stingers in his flesh. One woman from the hotel picked the stingers from his puffed up skin while his mother tried to comfort him and put some sort of lotion on him to help with the pain.

Within an hour, he was loaded onto a small bush plane with his mother to be taken to the hospital in Fairbanks. He was struggling to breath and they weren’t sure if he would make it.

Thankfully he did, though he had to carry and epipen with him afterwards.

To add insult to injury, literally, we never got to collect the bounty on the big hive and were forbidden from messing with them anymore. They brought in a specialist who helped get rid of all the hives and left decoys behind because wasps are very territorial with each other and if they see another nest, they will look elsewhere.

Growing Up Alaska: Drowning

As I have mentioned in previous postings, growing up, I worked on a mine in one of the more dangerous positions; manning the sluice box.

My family was working a narrow valley on the North Fork of Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. The width of the valley not only concentrated the pay dirt, it also lent itself to smaller operations.

We’d set up a modified sluice box that would work well in such places as it didn’t take a lot of room but still ran a good amount of dirt each hour. It was stacked with a feeder mouth at the top that pushed the dirt over punch plate that allowed the dirt to drop to the single sluice run that ran perpendicular to the plant. Gravity helped move the rocks down a steep steel chute and into the settling pond below.

Where the rocks piled up, the water was only about 6 feet deep, but it dropped off quickly to twice that depth. The loader operator would have to move the big rocks every three or four dumps into the mouth.

I stood perched on a catwalk up near the mouth and regulated the flow of the water, helped push along any rocks that didn’t immediately slide down, and monitored both the sluice run and the pump. So much water sprayed around that even on a full sunny day, I didn’t always know.

We were about 7 hours into a 12 hour run. The job is very monotonous and the only change for me was when the pump would shut down and I would have to wave off the next load and run down to refuel it. I’d refueled the pump about an hour before and it should run the rest of the shift, or at least close to it.

I was cleaning up the mouth after a load of bigger material was dumped in. It had a lot of clay in it which caused it to stick together and I was doing my best to break it up as the clay was a good indicator of gold.

As I was pulling on an oblong rock with a special pry bar that had a hook welded onto it, my grip on the rock slipped and I slid backwards to keep my balance. Instinctively, I released the pry bar and grabbed for the railing.

Only I missed.

In that split second, as time slowed down, I realized that my rubber boots had slid off the edge and I was falling between the catwalk and the lower rail. My hands had clutched empty air and I fell, catching my armpit on the catwalk which sent me spinning and landing awkwardly on the steep dirt that lead to the rocks and settling pond below.

I managed to hit the rocks feet first, absorbing most of the impact, before somersaulting onto the pile. I lay there for a moment, dazed and dizzy. I couldn’t help but laugh as I groaned, checking to see what hurt the most and finding out if I’d broken anything.

Then I heard it.

Above me, the dirt had washed free and the rocks started their way down the chute to where I lay. There was no time to get up or run, so I did the only thing I could do, I rolled off the pile and into the water.

As I hit the muddy water of the settling pond with more of a gurgle than a splash, I heard the rocks smash into one another with the ear shattering sounds of a shotgun.

I am a pretty good swimmer since we had an Olympic sized pool at the Hot Springs that I swam in at least twice a week during the winter. I kicked for shore, the closest of which was the spit the pump sat on.

I kicked as hard as I could and could feel myself going under. My rubber boots had filled with water and they pulled me down like anchors. I frantically tried to kick them off and keep my head above water, but neither was successful.

I lunged to the surface, gasping and sputtering, muddy water coating my face and eyes. I splashed and blindly lunged for land, but knew I was no where near.

I went under.

I tried again to free my feet, but the boots were stuck. I splashed around and one hand broke the surface and I lunged again. I barely broke the surface and inhaled almost as much water as I did air.

My chest burned as I sank again. I looked up and saw that it was a sunny day, though the sun was a yellowish smudge in the water. I tired to swim towards it, but my hands didn’t break the surface.

I choked out precious air, trying my best to move towards shore, but in my panic, I was no longer sure which way that was. The pressure in my ears were getting strong, so I knew I was getting close to the bottom, so once I felt it, I pushed off, but hardly moved at all.

My head began to hurt as I gasped out the last of my air and stared up at the murky sun. Then I took in a gulp of water, setting my lungs on fire and realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to get out.

In that moment, the pain numbed and things began to calm. All I could think about was how mad my mom was going to be at my dad for letting me die. The pain it would cause my family.

Then it all went red and faded into black.

I woke up trapped over the 8 inch hose that ran from the pump to the sluice box and I was aware that someone was yelling at me from far off though I couldn’t hear them over the pump.

I spat out water and mud seeped from my nose. I tried to get up, but pain erupted across my body as I spasmed and coughed up more murky water. It was then that I realized that the voice was not far off, but the loader operator that worked for us was nearly to me.

And the pump was off.

I shook the cobwebs from my head and wiped the mud from my nose. It came back red as I was bleeding. I rolled over and sat up. The world spun and I still struggled to hear and see clearly.

“Where’s your boot,” was the first thing that I heard.

I looked down and saw that my left boot had come off. I also noticed that I was somehow in the middle of the ten foot wide spit that was 3 feet out of the water and laying across the hose so that my gut and sternum were pressed down.

As it turns out, the pump had mysteriously stopped. The loader operator had come to check because he’d seen the water had been off for a few minutes and thought I might be struggling to restart it. Only it wasn’t out of fuel and started easily.

To this day I do not know what happened between the time I blacked out and I woke up.

And I never found the boot.

Growing Up Alaska: The Race

Field trips for a rural school are a little different. Anytime we traveled, it was for more than a day since it was over 125 miles to the nearest city, Fairbanks.

When I was about 9, my school traveled by plane to Arctic Village. Arctic Village is even farther north than Central with no road access, but we were invited there as part of their pilot program for Native Cultural Studies.

We were there for a week which culminated in a festive party which included traditional foods and games. The game I was most interested in was the dog sled race.

I hadn’t driven dogs before. I had seen the mushers in my community along with the teams that came through my backyard during the Yukon Quest. I’d always wanted to run dogs, and this was going to be my chance.

They ran the races in heats by age level. My age level got just one dog to run a short 2 mile course out to the airport and back. After a few pointers from the mushers, 7 of us lined up for a sprint style start.

The race started with two dogs getting into a fight off the line and as we settled onto the trail, I was in fourth. I hung on for dear life as the sled flew and my heart raced. The wind whipped around me and I could hear it whistling in my ears.

It wasn’t long before we overtook the next team and moved into third. I wasn’t really guiding the sled, but hanging on for the ride. I could tell my dog was enjoying this as much as myself, if not more.

I could see the other two teams ahead of me and at first I wasn’t closing the distance. I tried to jump off and run like I’d seen mushers do and nearly fell. We were going way to fast and I drug along behind for a second before getting up onto one of the runners.

When I looked up, the other two teams were gone. I was puzzled for a moment before I saw the orange marker that showed the trail was turning left. I froze as I tried to remember the call to make the dog turn right, but she already knew and we flew around the corner.

The sled skidded around and luckily didn’t flip as we turned onto a narrower and bumpier trail. I tried to spot the other teams, but was jostled about so much I had to focus so as to not fall off the sled.

It was a short distance before the trail turned right up a short incline and onto the airstrip. My dog turned and we shot up onto the airstrip where we had to turn right again and sprint down the taxi way.

I could see one team ahead of us and we were closing in. The second team had failed to turn and must have run across most of the width of the runway before turning back to trail, so halfway down the side of the airstrip I moved into second.

By the time we reached the end of the runway, my dog was in a long stride, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily as we came up on the left of the lead team. We turned off of the runway and onto the road to sprint for the finish line.

It was still a ways, and as we turned onto the road, my sled went wide and I lost ground. The other boy was pumping one leg and with each stride I could see he was bobbing a little faster.

So I followed suit and quickly found a rhythm that let me pull up alongside. He jumped off his sled and began running, which I have to admit I found impressive after my near fall, but my dog had a longer stride and we soon passed him.

His dog slowed to a trot as we passed and I could hear the boy yelling for him to go faster, to no avail.

I could see the finish line. Just down this dip in the road and then rise up again and I would win!

I looked back and could see three teams along the road, but they were all well behind me. My dog had slowed her pace now that we had passed the others and it would be an easy trot across the finish line.

Then my dog slowed even more. Then she began running funny, her hind legs coming up into the air as she tried to sit down at the same time. I called for her to go, but she was soon squatting and I realized she was using the bathroom.

The second place team sprinted by and my dog tried to pursue them, but she was having a terrible time going to the bathroom.

Then the third place team sprinted by. My dog tried to run after them and I pushed the sled as best as I could to keep up, but my poor dog was still having issues.

I could hear the crowd cheering on the teams. I could hear them laughing at me and my dog. I had been so close.

The fourth place team approached and my dog finally finished and carried us across the line a few second before fourth place.

I felt embarrassed and angry at all the jeers and the pointing, but not so much for myself, but for my dog. She coward as I ran forward to grab her collar. Her ears down and tail tucked broke my heart and I loved on her.

And she vomited on my leg.

Despite being sick, and no one knowing, she had ran her heart out, not because she would get anything from it, but rather because she loved it. The musher who owned her apologized for giving me a sick dog, but I didn’t care. I would race again someday, not because I would get anything from it, but rather because I loved it.

Growing Up Alaska: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

As a kid growing up in a mining family I did all kinds of jobs on the mine. I ran heavy equipment, did clean ups and served as a Gopher. That is what my dad said when he told me to “Go for this…” or Go for that…” But the job I did most frequently was man the sluice box.

It doesn’t matter where you are on the mine, it is a dangerous place. We did what we could to keep us safe, but accidents always happen.

This particular summer I was working on a Pearson Box which had a loading area with punch plate, two side runs for fine material and a center run for large material. My job was to keep the water flow even and dirty. Clean water will remove the material and wash the gold down the box, so I had to keep a steady flow going while making sure the big material didn’t clog up the middle chute.

Working the sluice box was hard work and monotonous. Turn the flag for a dump, check the wash, pull the rocks, check the runs; then repeat. All the while, I have to deal with cold water spraying on me and the elements to my back that either made me on the verge of hypothermia or baking.

We’d purchased a larger loader that would help us move more material since we were also running a rocker box next to me which I didn’t have to pay much attention to it since it moved much slower than my box. The problem with the new loader is that had a lot more horsepower and was slabbing the bedrock which was jamming up my sluice runs.

These rocks could be up to four feet by three feet wide and up to a foot thick. My middle chute was only two and a half feet wide, so when one of these slabs ended up in my box, I would have to stand them up on their sides and roll them down the box. If they weren’t round, I would have to wrestle them onto the top of the middle chute and use pry bars to push them down to the end.

I had to do this quickly to keep a good flow of water and material down the side chutes where we caught most of the gold.

One day I got a large slab that was kind of in an almond shape. It was nearly five feet in length and was almost four feet at its widest. Luckily, it landed right in the middle of the loading area on it side, so I began moving it before the dirt washed away around it.

I got it into the middle chute, but because of its shape, it didn’t roll well, so I tried to pry it out to slide it down, but it was too heavy and oblong. I flipped it over the narrow end and the large end rolled easily and I got it about halfway down the chute when another rock got wedged under it.

I pried and prodded and even took a sledge hammer to it, but it didn’t want to move. I had one pry bar stuck on one side, propping up the rock, while I pried from the other. Rocks got wedged underneath and kept it upright, so I decided to cross over to other side and try prying from there.

The #1 rule when moving a rock like this is to never be below it. I was so frustrated that the rock was stuck, I ignored that run and crossed over below it using the jammed pry bar as a support as I crossed.

I heard it before I realized what was happening; dirt had slide down the loading chute sending a new pile of rocks down the middle chute. All that weight suddenly dislodged the slab and it rolled.

I tried to get out of the way, but fell backwards into the chute and it rolled down on my leg. Smaller rocks coursed around it and pelted me as the larger slab slowly rolled down, pinning my left leg just below the knee. I tried to slide back and when I did, the rock rolled even more and one of the pry bars worked free and came crashing down.

I covered my head and fell backwards into the chute as the pry bar clanged off the side of the chute before sliding away and off the end. Luckily the chute had protected me, but in the process, I had wedged myself in as I was pushed backwards down the chute a few feet.

The slab had also rolled and was now wedged agains my leg above the knee.

I struggled to pull free and the rock only rolled a little farther and I could feel it digging in and threatening to crush my leg. The slab had also turned crossways in the box stopping the flow of rocks and water which meant that all that pressure was building up with only my leg in the way.

Slowly, the rock and I would inch down the box, the slab no longer rolling but sliding along under the pressure of tons of rocks behind it. This was going to end badly. The rock would either roll and crush me or push me off the end for a fifteen foot fall onto a pile of rock with tons more rocks cascading down on me.

Then I heard them.

My dad had been driving out to the pit and had seen me fall. At the same time, the loader operator feeding the box had decided to come and check on me since it had been a couple of minutes since I turned the flag for a new dump. The mechanic riding with my dad had run to shut off the pump while the other two came down to free me.

It took both of them to lift the rock off of me and we were all surprised that I was able to get up from that. I was cold and numb, but otherwise okay.

I was supposed to end my shift in a half an hour anyways, so my dad sent me back to camp while they shoveled out the box.

My leg was numb and my back hurt, so I took a hot shower and after dinner, went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I crawled out of bed and fell face first onto the floor.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. My left leg had swollen so much that my sweats were tight. Despite the lack of pain, the receptors in my brain told me I was hurt and I nearly passed out.

I pulled myself to the trailer door and after flailing to get it open, I called for help. Dad found me and got me back into bed before calling for help.

Terry, one of our operators and a trained physical therapists, came to check on me. We iced down my back and the swelling went away before I was taken to see a doctor. X-rays revealed I had compressed three of my vertebrae in my lower back.

I didn’t work the sluice for the last two weeks of the season and for the next few months would often wake up with my legs tingling or numb, though that eventually stopped.

I was lucky that day.

Growing Up Alaska: 23 Bears

When I was 16, I spent a summer in Olga Bay on Kodiak Island, home of the Kodiak Brown Bear. I worked on a survey team and we had many adventures and misadventures over the summer.

This story takes place on July 4th. We’d already been in Olga Bay for 5 weeks with a little over 2 weeks worth of food, so we were tired and hungry and living off of the land. But that is another story.

On this day, we’d tried to finish up the main survey by placing the corner posts in hopes of finding our way back to the civilization that through a series of events, we’d been cut off from. It took us sixteen hours to finish the survey which found us on a ledge on the side of a mountain.

Below us, the tide was coming back in and we had a long trek back to the boat. The other issue is that between us and the boat was a large stretch of grass and brush and bears who’d come to feed on the incoming salmon. The grass and brush were so high that you could easily run into a bear before you saw him.

We decided to divide into two groups. My boss and another 16 year old, Sam, would hike down the mountain and head for the boat while we guided them by hand held radio. From our vantage point, we could see the bears pretty well and would hopefully be able to steer them around them safely. Then they would take the boat down the coast to a place were Mike and I could climb down and go through a narrow stretch of brush far from the creek teeming with fish.

This also meant I had to carry all of the big equipment and the pack frame so Mike could carry the gun and listen to the radio.

Amazingly, we guided them through the grass and brush safely to the boat. Along the way, I was able to count out 23 different brown bears heading to or fishing along the creek.

Once we saw them push the boat off the beach, Mike and I headed down the steep mountain side. My pack and boots made it a difficult trip as I slid down the slope in many places because of the long grass. I had to use my shovel to help slow me and keep me from tumbling head first.

Exhausted, we reached the brush between us and the beach and began making our way through it. With all the gear it was tough and Mike didn’t help much when he let go of limbs and they smacked me in the face or the thighs.

We cleared the brush to not find the beach as we’d expected, but another patch of tall grass and more brush beyond that.

We repeated the process only to find another grassy area and more brush beyond that. Only we could hear the ocean now over the din of mosquitos and gnats that threatened to eat us alive.

Then I smelt it, the pungent smell of bear. I couldn’t tell how close it was, but I knew which direction it was, to our left and somewhere in the grass. We stumbled onto a well worn path devoid of grass from the hundreds of paws pf bears that had ambled by on their way to fish.

This gave us a start and we didn’t hang around to see if the smell got any closer and plunged headlong into the grass and brush beyond.

The trip had already taken at least twice as long as we’d expected and this batch of alders was tight and thick. I often had to stop and let down the pack frame and lift it through the knot of trees or untangle it from the branches. This only slowed us down and with each snap of a limb, Mike’s eyes got big as he was sure a bear was tracking us.

So it should’ve been no surprise when the radio on his backpack growled and squawked, he let out a scream and bolted through the brush leaving me behind.

I yelled after him, but he didn’t look back and I was pretty certain who wouldn’t hear me over the waves anyhow. So, after considering leaving the gear behind, I methodically made my way through the brush, shuffling gear forward before going back and getting the rest.

Finally, as I shoved my shovel through a tangle of limbs, it disappeared as it fell over the bank and crashed onto the rocky beach below. I hefted the pack and found a clearer patch of brush to push my through and thankfully emerged to the fresh breeze of ocean air.

The boat was drifting on the swells a few feet up the beach where I’d tossed the shovel through. Sam was retrieving my shovel and I spotted Mike lying in the boat with his foot propped up on a pontoon having apparently run off the edge and fell onto the rocks and severely sprained his ankle, if not broken it.

Even from that distance and over the sound of the crashing waves and boat engine, I could hear our boss berating him for leaving me behind.

Sam helped me lug the gear into the boat and I climbed in. Sam gave me the last of his smoked salmon and some water which I gratefully ate.

As we motored out into the bay, we spotted many more bears roaming the beaches and the embankments, some curious to the sound of the boat.

Despite the bumpy ride and the cold spray, I passed out and slept nearly the entire six mile ride back to where we called camp.

Growing Up Alaska: The Fourth

In the interior of Alaska, the summers can get stifling hot. It is hard for people to believe that 80+ temperatures are not uncommon and if the weather conditions are just right, it can reach a hundred.

This summer had been one that the weather conditions were just right. In the days leading up to the Fourth of July, the thermometer increased in increments until it rested pretty solidly at 95º. And since the sun is up for nearly 23 hours and there was no wind, the nights didn’t cool down that much.

In Central, Fourth of July is celebrated with a parade and a follow up community barbecue. Members of the 4H Club, of which I was one, often walked at the front of the parade carrying flags. This year I carried the Alaskan Flag.

The temperature rose as the sun beat down and the wind refused to blow. It was so hot that even the pesky mosquitos stuck to what little shade they could find under the shriveled, drought plagued trees.

The parade route was about a mile long and there was no shade. My friend carrying the 4H flag nearly passed out and one of the other kids had to finish the parade in his place. I too felt wobbly at times, but one of our other friends not in the parade ended up walking alongside with her water bottle and would squirt water into our mouth and over our heads before running off to get more.

Officially, the temperature reached 99º, but in the sun, it topped 120º and one guy was even partially successful in frying an egg on the road.

Crooked Creek which runs through the middle of Central became the hang out spot as people waded into the chilly creek that stayed around 40º, though slow moving water and pools were much warmer.

Sun baked and exhausted, I climbed into bed with only a sheet. My window was open, hoping for a cross breeze, but there was not wind outside and I found no relief inside.

No one in Central has air conditioning, we build our houses for the cold, so we all sweated and cursed the heat until, if we were lucky, we passed out.

I finally did and I slept in fits, imagining the snows of winter and building snowmen. So it was no surprise that when I woke up early in the morning, freeing, I was sure I was still dreaming. This was only reaffirmed by the big flakes of snow streaming past my window.

I closed my eyes and willed myself to warm up, or in the least, wake up. After a few minutes of shivering, I rolled over and closed my window since I didn’t need to freeze in my sleep.

I finally convinced myself that I wasn’t dreaming and got up. It was still warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly, but it was in fact, snowing. In July. Less than 12 hours from being a 100º!

It stopped spitting snow about thirty minutes after it started and the sky cleared up by mid morning with the temperature getting up into the low 80s.

The weather news channel we received on our one t.v. station reported on the phenomenon and explained that winds from the Bering Sea had been pushing up the Yukon Valley trapping the hot air there like a convection oven. As the lower level of air heated, it slowly pushed against the upper layer of air until it reached a point that it could escape over the mountains. This formed a siphoning effect that pulled a large amount of air out which was replaced by air from the north that pulled down the cold Arctic air.

This allowed for a short window of great moisture, cold air, and snow on the Fifth of July.

Growing Up Alaska: Timber

We heated our house with firewood, and since it was a big house, that meant a lot of firewood. On an average, in mild weather (20º above average) we would go through a cord of wood every two weeks. The colder it got, the more wood we would use, at the coldest time (-40º) we could go through more than a cord of wood in a week.

To understand that volume, one cord of wood is measured 4x8x4 feet. That is two standard size pickup beds of stacked wood. All of that needed to be cut, hauled, chopped and stacked.

We would collect some wood over the summer between mining and running errands. Dad would often cut a tree and limb it, leaving it laying out to dry. This wasn’t for normal use, but would be collected in the fall and stored for shortages or extremely cold weather when we needed dry wood to burn hotter.

That meant that most of the winter, one of our activities was to collect wood. Some people who cut firewood would clear cut an area, but dad was always selective. We would go into an area and cut down mature trees and leave others to be harvested years, if not decades down the road.

Hauling wood was a chore as we never cut right along the road either. That meant it had to be carried out in lengths of 4-6 feet, depending on the size. That wasn’t too big of a deal with me and my two older brothers, but being 4-6 years younger, I had to work twice as hard to keep up.

I was around 10 and we were falling birch trees along the Ketchum Creek Road and packing them out through waist deep snow. Once we had a path somewhat beaten down, it wasn’t so hard. Dad was selecting trees about a hundred feet off the road and once he had a couple of them cut and limbed, we started hauling.

It would usually take 3-4 trees to fill up the truck, but dad often cut 6-8 trees and we stacked the wood near the road for others or for one of us boys to come back on a snow machine and haul out.

We were nearly done loading the truck and dad was in the process of cutting these extra trees. I was carrying two medium size logs, about 5 feet in length, one on each shoulder. This meant that I had the logs pressed against the side of my head, pressing my hat into my ears and didn’t hear the call of warning.

The tree had twisted, and instead of falling perpendicular to the road, had fallen parallel and right along the path I was walking. I heard the swoosh of air as the limbs ripped through it and was just turning when the top of the fifty to sixty foot tree crashed down on me.

I had no time to react as the tree struck me about ten feet from the top and slammed me face first into the snow. The world went black and I am not sure if I was knocked out or how long I had been down before I realized I was pinned and started thrashing, trying to get up.

It was all in vain as not only had the tree pinned me, the two logs I was carrying had crossed over my the back of my head and pinned me further. I felt someone grab one of my legs and pull, but I didn’t budge. Then I felt one of the logs shift and one of my brothers pulling at the same time and I scrambled free.

I knelt in the snow and breathed while everyone asked if I was okay. We’d had many near misses, but this was the first time any of us had been hit by a tree. Amazingly, I came away with nothing more than a few bruises and a long scratch on my cheek.

By what I am certain was divine intervention, the tree had fallen squarely on me and as I fell forward, the two logs I had been carrying had driven into the snow and crossed, taking the brunt of the force from the tree and likely saving my life, or in the least, serious brain injury.

We were always safe when we did things because we knew that the closest hospital was over a hundred miles away, but accidents did happen. It would be nearly a month before dad let us collect wood while he was cutting. This made the process a lot longer which meant we got a lot colder, but we were safer.

Growing Up Alaska: Aloha

At the end of the mining season, my dad had travelled to Hawaii to help out my uncle who was running a construction company. He’d gotten hurt on the job and needed someone to step in and foreman the end of the job.

It was only supposed to be a month, but when my uncle fell during recovery and hurt himself again, dad thought it would be a good idea to come to Hawaii for the coldest part of the year. We winterized the house and planned to join him on January 17th, but the temperature plunged to -50º and when it gets that cold, things don’t move.

We knew that the airlines didn’t fly when it got to -40º because it was hard on the planes and the fuel would start to congeal, so we waited in Fairbanks, checking the weather and flight status. On January 19th, the forecast promised the temperature would get up to -36º and the airline said that we would be on standby.

They towed the jet into a hanger and loaded the luggage there and we waited for nearly two hours. We were all elated when the airport sign displayed a temperature of -39º, but we still hadn’t received a call to load.

As we approached the third hour, one of the gate attendants announced that we had gotten a green light to load the plane, but we were going to do a “quick” load. They lined us up by row from the back of the plane to the front and instructed people to quickly find a spot for any carryons. If they couldn’t find a place, to sit down and the flight attendant would come and get their stuff while we taxied and would find a place to store it.

The doors to the hanger opened and as they backed the plane out, the pilot was already starting the engines. As the jet approached the gate, the gate attendant had people start filing down the boarding bridge to start boarding as soon as the plane was close enough.

The bridge’s walls had ice crystals and we all shivered as the blast of cold air hit us, many of us dressed for a long flight and a warmer climate. Many people, most complete strangers, passed coats back and forth to those that didn’t have one.

The plane was loaded in record time, less than fifteen minutes, before we were pushed away and taxiing down the runway. Flight attendants scurried about putting people’s things away and we all cheered, despite being able to see our breath in the cabin, as we got the go ahead to take off.

The flight was long and it eventually warmed up and I slept. Seven and a half hours later, we touched down in Oahu where the captain announced that it was a balmy 63 degrees and raining. That meant it was over a hundred degree temperature change during that flight.

When we exited the airport in jeans and a t-shirt, I could not help but be amazed to see people greeting family wearing the same kinds of coats we’d been wearing less than 12 hours prior. I am sure we got a few stares too, but it was so nice to be warm.