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Wild Men, Wild AlaskaFinding What Lies Beyond the Limits
By Rocky McElveen
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 Rocky McElveen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Call of the Wild
My mother was known by her friends as a "fishing and hunting widow." That's because my missionary/pastor father loved to hunt and fish in the Deep South, where we lived. Mom had rarely been out of the Deep South-rarely out of Mississippi, for that matter. So when Dad announced that he had experienced "God's call" to Alaska-and that he was taking her, his three sons, and his toddler daughter to live there-she just stared at him, wide-eyed.
As we were leaving for Alaska in our 1957 Chevy Nomad station wagon, Mom wondered whether it was the "call of the Lord" or just the "call of the wild," because no matter where we lived, whenever Dad prayed about God providing for the family, it meant we needed to grab our hunting rifles and fishing poles. I'll never forget Dad's favorite missionary prayer after we arrived in Alaska: "Dear Lord, You are great and powerful. This is a tough land, but in it You have created salmon, moose, and caribou. We ask that You make a place for them ... right next to my mashed potatoes!"
From Mississippi to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula is close to five thousand miles by road. And the year 1957 was long before hordes of tourists made the summer trek to Alaska. We traveled over rough roads-gravel roads, dirt roads, icy roads, and then the Alaskan-Canadian Highway.
During World War II, Japan invaded Alaska and was occupying some of the Aleutian Islands. The Alaska Highway project was launched to move defense supplies from the U.S. mainland to Alaska. The construction of the sixteen-hundred-mile-long Alaska Highway began at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and would terminate in Anchorage. From Seattle to Dawson Creek, British Columbia is roughly seven hundred miles of primitive road, making the trip from Seattle to Anchorage over twenty-three hundred miles of unmapped wilderness travel. The construction of the "Alcan" was heralded as a near-impossible engineering feat. Many likened it to the building of the Panama Canal. That's because the engineers had so many challenges. One was the soft, marshy tundra. Solid ground had to be found before the road's surface could be laid. Another challenge was the permafrost (permanently frozen ground a few feet below the tundra). It wreaked havoc when dug through, because it would turn into mud and acres of water. To combat this, tons of sand were required to insulate the roadbed.
There was much praise for the soldiers who completed the Alcan in just eight months and twelve days. Ill-housed, often living in tents, with insufficient clothing and bland food, they worked twenty-hour days through a punishing winter. Temperatures hovered at -40°F for weeks at a time, with a record low of -79°F. The road, originally called the Alaskan-Canadian Highway, quickly adopted the shortened name: Alcan Highway. Today this road, known as the Alcan, still provides the only land route to Alaska.
Those who traveled the Alcan in the early years remember the road as a seemingly endless series of switchbacks continuing for miles at a time. That's because, mainly, the road was constructed using "sight engineering" (taking whatever route looked good to the eye) because of a lack of surveys, equipment, and experience. The result is that the Alcan is one of the most crooked roads ever built! (A potential benefit was, if a long army supply convoy ever came under air attack, the trucks presumably couldn't be taken out with one direct line of fire, as would be the case if the road were straight.)
Commemorating the frustration every Alcan traveler has felt, army sergeant Troy Hise wrote:
The Alaska Highway
Winding in and winding out Fills my mind with serious doubt As to whether "the lout" Who planned this route Was going to hell, or coming out!
After World War II, funds to maintain the Alcan were not available. It was no longer considered a defensive necessity for the United States or for Canada. By 1957 the road had seen twelve years of neglect. Rain, snow, ice, spring thaws, and frost heaves left the road a continuous string of potholes and washouts. It was a major trial even for the brave of heart. And in the 1950s, the only four-wheel-drive vehicles were either army supplied or homebuilt, neither of which applied to our station wagon. As the miles twisted by, we couldn't help but notice the crosses placed at near-regular intervals, much like those on the old wagon train trail from Kansas to Oregon. And like the scouts along that trail, we tried to find the best path through mud or washed-out roadways. On that forlorn stretch of road, travelers had to rely on one another. Other travelers would need assistance in pushing or towing their vehicles when stuck or broken down, and we received the same from them.
There is an old story about a poor preacher who breaks down on the highway and is bargaining with the mechanic about the cost of repairs. He says, "I can't afford these repairs. I am just a poor preacher." The mechanic replies, "Yeah, I know. I heard you last Sunday." Well, Dad was a fine preacher, but we were dirt-poor. We couldn't afford anything. While other travelers were looking for a motel as the sun was setting, Dad was spying out a camping spot by a river or stream where we could pitch our tent and he could fish for our supper. We had a slab of salt pork wrapped in canvas, a Coleman stove, blankets, and an old army-issue canvas tent that leaked anywhere it was touched-but we never missed a meal on that long trip.
Alaska Just Ahead
It would take several lifetimes to experience all Alaska has to offer. It is so vast that it makes the middle of nowhere look crowded. Alaskan sourdoughs (people who have lived in Alaska more than a year) like to remind Texans that if they divided Alaska in half, Texas would move down to the third-largest state.
Wildlife is abundant and incredible. There are huge Alaskan coastal brown bears, mean seven-foot black bears, man-eating grizzlies, mammoth polar bears, wicked wolves, fearless wolverines-and backstabbing ex-spouses. There are hundreds of species of birds, exotic plants, and tenacious tundra. The terrain is so rugged in places that it has never been fully surveyed except by air. Alaska also boasts extremes in weather, and the temperature range can be nearly 180 degrees. There is more rainfall and snow in Alaska than in almost any inhabited area in the world. Alaska has 586,000 square miles of majestic beauty, over three million lakes, and more active glaciers than any other region on the globe.
But there are few people and fewer roads-no connecting roads in the western half of the state, only the empty promises of dirt trails leading a few miles out from villages to nowhere. And Alaska is truly a "poisoned paradise." It can thrill you and it can kill you. If the cold, the ice, the grizzlies, the wild seas, the mountains, the loneliness, the wolves, the prices, the snow, the sourdoughs, or the five thousand earthquakes per year don't kill you, the 586 billion bat-sized mosquitoes will! All I mean to say is, this is untamed country.
We finally ended up in a small homemade log cabin in Cooper's Landing, a rural village on Kenai Lake, population ninety-nine-counting the dogs. There were a few Alaskan natives, but most of the people came from other places, especially from the "Lower 48," to get away.
There is a religion in Alaska, and it goes something like this: "Leave me alone!" When we arrived, Alaska was, and still is, filled with quite a collection of loners, people who don't look kindly on interference of any kind, each with his or her own set of quirks. And everyone carries a gun. So in 1957 no one wanted a missionary knocking, asking them to go to church. (That was probably why they carried guns!)
One of our quirky neighbors (a "neighbor" in Alaska is anyone within twenty miles) would eat only meat, and he especially loved venison. He had no dental or personal hygiene, so his gums became blue and very swollen, and one by one his teeth began to rot and fall out. He became very depressed and despondent and would not even let our concerned missionary mother visit him in his cabin.
Weeks later, my older brother, Greg, and I encountered him while we were hunting. We were ten and twelve at the time. When he grinned at us, we were amazed to see that he now had rows of teeth in his mouth. I asked him how in the world he suddenly had teeth. "Simple," he said. "I shot a small male deer and pulled his teeth with my pliers and stuck 'em up here in my bleedin' gums. Hurt like the dickens, but they took root! Now I can chew as good as anything."
My brother and I stood stock-still on that snowy trail, staring in amazement. Then my brother asked, "Do you ever have any problems with the teeth?"
Our neighbor winked, shot us another big sourdough grin, and said, "Yeah, I now have BUCK teeth!"
When we got back to the cabin, Mom and Dad listened intently to our fascinating story.
We didn't see the twinkle in their eyes.
The Guide Bug
Since we had nothing, surviving off the land was a matter of necessity. Mom dug a garden in the nearly frozen soil during the short summer season and grew vegetables. We scraped for bullets and hooks, then hunted and fished for meat. We tried to stay warm by layering used clothing sent by concerned relatives. (It was so cold that we lined the seat in our outhouse with Styrofoam or old magazines so our butts wouldn't freeze when we sat down.) After a hunt, we'd carry the bulky, unevenly cut, bloody moose quarters on our backs through barely passable backwoods, using light backpacks not designed for large game, tied haphazardly and hanging much too low. Moose blood, mingled with our own sweat, trickled down our necks and bodies and onto our clothes as we staggered through muskeg, a boggy area with decayed leaves and peat moss. Black flies, moose flies, and mosquitoes attacked and bit mercilessly. Bears and wolves, never very far away, smelled blood in the air. The raw meat was unbearably heavy, but carrying a rifle along with the packs, which often weighed as much as we did-or more-was not optional. Sometimes we would trip and fall forward, the full force of the meat driving our faces brutally into the ground. It hurt desperately, and it was almost impossible to get up by ourselves if we were packing alone. But somehow we got through these hunting trips. Dad's way of hunting wasn't pretty, but I was learning how to survive through grime, grit, and guts.
Our big vacation (pronounced Hunting and Fishing Trip) each year was to the Tangle Lakes off Denali Highway near Mount Denali, known outside of Alaska as Mount McKinley. For a while we used the same tent we had used on the Alcan Highway. Later a church gave Dad an ancient little camper in place of speaking fees. Wow, what comfort! Well, for Mom, Dad, and our sister at least. My brothers and I slept in the leaky tent. We fished for grayling and huge lake trout and hunted for caribou. We ate blueberries, moss berries, and cranberries; swam and washed in cold remote lakes; and fished from dawn till dark to get some of our winter meat supply. Repellent was expensive, hard to find on the road, and therefore a rarity. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums ate us alive.
Dad taught us the nuances of fishing streams and lakes. My brothers listened carefully, but I had different ideas. There is room for creativity in almost any adventure. I would walk out into the middle of the stream in my leaky hip boots, throw directly upriver, and reel like crazy. I caught a ton of fish, and no one could believe it, but actually, landing them was the hard part in the fast current!
Even though these trips were in the heart of grizzly and wild-game country, Dad encouraged us to take small pup tents and hike as far into the hills and tundra as we dared and camp overnight by ourselves. My older brother went with me, and Dad allowed us to experience the real Alaska. We ate rhubarb, berries, and wild onions or cooked fish to stave off hunger. We also learned about special Alaskan herbs. This was an Alaskan gourmet guide school in progress. We were wild boys with big guns, but we still shivered at night in our tattered cotton sleeping bags when we heard the wolves howl over a kill. I was becoming addicted to living on the edge at a young age.
Our "luxurious" camper finally broke down for good. Dad had to leave his cherished camper at a nearby decrepit lodge owned by an old, grizzled hunting guide named Butcher. He was a big, rough man with a bushy, scraggly beard-the classic Alaskan sourdough-who thought the four major food groups were moose, caribou, beer, and squaw candy (which is salmon jerky). He often bragged about his "Alaskan seven-course meal," which was a six-pack and a can of Spam.
Butcher called himself a "master guide." But back then, a "master guide" was someone who could convince two people to hunt or fish with him. When Butcher told my dad that he needed to move the camper, they negotiated, and Dad swapped the camper for a hunting trip to the backwoods of Alaska. I was about to experience my first guided hunting trip.
At the time, Butcher was guiding some members of a famous family. I thought they were the richest people I had ever met. They paid a thousand dollars each to hunt. I was so impressed with their camp: big, comfortable whitewall tents; animals being caped, cut up, and packed; food cooked and served to all of us. Hunting to me had always been unplanned, inhumane, barbaric work, with long, heavy packs, messy carcasses, and cold, damp sleeping conditions-practically torture. But this was a different world, a world I instantly loved. That day I caught the guide bug, an adventure bug without a cure.
There was no trekking through frigid swamps here. My dad and I left camp and were hauled in a "weasel," a converted military, all-terrain, tanklike vehicle. Butcher had installed a winch attached to a metal arm that would swing to load heavy items. He could easily winch the animals up on the weasel and pack them out. We drove back in the wilderness about eight miles from a dirt road over streams, swamps, alders, and small hills. I marveled at how easily we were able to travel over almost impassable land. The trip took about two hours. I kept thinking about how long it would have taken to walk or if it even would have been possible.
Killing a moose is like getting a year's worth of gift certificates at your favorite butcher shop, and our family needed the meat to survive. At the start of our hunt, we positioned ourselves on a hill overlooking a clearing. Nothing was happening, so Dad and I both fell fast asleep.
I was awakened shortly by a strange sensation. Suddenly I saw-less than fifty yards away-a big bull moose with huge antlers! My heart was racing. I gently eased over to Dad, who was on his back, and crawled on top of him. He opened his eyes and looked at me, quite startled. Our eyes were less than an inch apart. I could hardly speak but managed in a sputtered whisper, "Moose, Daddy! Moose, Daddy! Moose!"
"Where, Rocky? Where?" he whispered back.
I carefully pointed and tried to whisper, "There, Daddy. There, Daddy, there!" Can I shoot 'im, Daddy? Can I? Can I?"
Dad hesitated, then finally whispered, "All right, Rocky. Just don't gut shoot him."
I took my WWII vintage .303 rifle and blew that big moose down with one shot-right in the middle of his guts!
When we got to the animal, Dad looked at the gut-shot moose. He stood motionless for a moment, and my heart froze. He cut his eyes at me, and I stared back. I noticed a small grin begin to creep into his face, and he muttered, "Nice shot, Rocky." We both burst out laughing. What a great moment and what a gift. The antlers measured fifty-three inches, making it my second moose of this size during my teenage years.
Excerpted from Wild Men, Wild Alaska by Rocky McElveen Copyright © 2007 by Rocky McElveen. Excerpted by permission.
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