Memories of the Wild North

crunchy copyOnce, when I was living deep in the Alaskan wilderness, early spring had rolled around. In those parts all that meant was there was daylight again. Temperatures could still drop to below -30F and there was still deep snow and the lakes and brooks were still frozen over. But because I lived in the wilderness, I had a permit for subsistence hunting and I needed to bag a caribou or two. I had heard rumors that a herd had been sighted about thirty miles north of my cabin, in a region called the Alphabet Hills.

The Alphabet Hills would have been called mountains in many places–between 1000 and 3000 feet high, but they were were rolling and a fit man could simply walk up one in a half hour or so.

The country was stark wilderness of treacherous tundra, frozen wetlands and intermittent hills with scattered taiga woods. Deep snow meant slow going if you weren’t on a dog sled or Skidoo. It was thousands of square miles without a soul or shelter or a cabin.

I preferred to travel in such wild regions with a partner in case a Skidoo broke down, but there was no one available, so I went it alone. I attached a sled to my Skidoo and packed it with some extra fuel and a couple days rations and a pack and snowshoes. I took, as usual, my Ruger Mark II .338 Win Mag and my S&W M29 .44 Mag as a backup. I left my cabin around 4:00 a.m. heading north to be in the Alphabets early with the rising sun.

It was difficult country and after 4 hours of pushing it hard, I covered the thirty miles. I stopped at a hill overlooking a vast expanse of tundra where I knew both muskoxen and caribou herds moved. I was exhausted but no time to rest The hill was too steep for my Skidoo, so I climbed on foot to near the summit and settled in, glassing out the valley with a Russian military surplus 20-50mm monocular.

I had barely been there an hour when I heard two other snow machines in the distance. That was weird as this was such a remote place, but it happens and I paid them no mind. I could see them from my high vantage, and from the ground they spotted my Skidoo, a bright yellow Tundra II, and turned toward it. They pulled up right by it and started walking around it. They couldn’t see me as I was on top of the hill, about a 1000 feet over them, and I was in white camo, with rocks and shrubs around me. One got on his machine and pulled up in front of my Skidoo. It was obvious what they were planning: they were going to hitch my Skidoo to theirs and drive off with it. Theft of ATVs and Skidoos is common in Alaska. In the bush, joyriding means stealing someone’s machine, riding it around for a while, then dropping it off where the ice is thin and letting it sink in a lake. I couldn’t let that happen. All my gear was down there, including my snowshoes. Hiking out on foot would have taken days in the rough terrain and deep snow. And I’d likely not survive the extreme cold without my gear. I knew I’d have to shoot them if they started tying my machine to theirs–it was a strange but very true matter of self defense. One got a rope from his machine and started toward mine and I jacked a round into my bolt action rifle and rested it on a boulder for stability. The day was dead calm and the distinct clack-clickety-clack of the rifle’s action carried across the snow.

They both looked up and stopped, which undoubtedly saved their lives. I don’t think they could see me but they started jumping up and down and waving their arms. Acting as if they were in distress. It was a game, I knew, but I called down, “What do you want?” My voice carried easily through the dead calm air.

One cried up, “Can you help us?” They were carrying on like kids caught in the cookie jar, so I cautiously went down the hill, holding my rifle and partially unzipping my coat for access to my .44 in case the situation grew really nasty. I hoped it wouldn’t, but who could tell what would happen. This deep in the wilderness, things happened. And I kept thinking, Great, now I have to climb all the way to the top of that hill again once these idiots move on.

At the bottom, standing about 20 yards from them, I asked again, “What do you want?”

One said, “Oh, dude, we’re from Anchorage. We’re just cruising around. We saw your machine and thought maybe it was broken down, so we thought we’d tow it out to a station and leave it there for you.”

“Yeah, sure. What do you want?” I repeated.

There was a pause, then one said, “Um . . . What’s out here?”

What’s out here! First they try to steal my machine and leave me high and dry to die? Now they’re going to fake being lost tourists in need of directions? I admit it; I was doubly pissed. I was about to say, About ten thousand miles of wilderness, asshole, but I had a sudden evil thought.

I smiled and took on a sudden friendly, naive demeanor. A frozen stream was about a hundred yards away. I pointed to it. “Hey, no problem! Anyone can get lost in a place like this. See that stream?”

“Uh huh.”

“Get on it and go left. Follow it till it widens out at a lake. There’s a Native village over there. They have legal gambling and cheap hookers. It’s a kind of fly in resort, but you can get to it from here easy. Might take you a few hours, though.”

“Awesome!” they cried, forgetting whatever they thought to pull with me and jumped on their machines and took off north following the frozen stream.

Half an hour later as I again reached the top of the hill from which I would continue the caribou hunt, I could still hear them following the stream north.  I never saw those guys again. I have no idea where in the hell I sent them, either.

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