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photo of Kinyuksukvik by Dale Slaughter

PHOTOS BY DALE C SLAUGHTER. 

LEFT: LONE CARIBOU AT TOOLIK LAKE. RIGHT: KARGI AT KINYUKSUKVIK

  •  I meet Bob Gal; a Just So Story of the Arctic
  • By Georgeie Reynolds, PhD., Esq. etc.
  • March 2013

1978. "You should really go back up north to Lisburne and work for Bob Gal for a couple of weeks,” Harvey Shields advised me during the waning days of our 2nd field season in NRP-A. We were sitting around a blazo- can-cum-fireplace at Driftwood Creek, waiting for Buck Maxson to take us back to town (Kotzebue) before hopping a Wienie Bird back to Anchorage. I had the choice of another couple of weeks of work either in Sitka, with warmth and trees and housing, or up north, sleeping in my tent and freezing with a bunch of people of unsavory reputation.  But Harvey convinced me to go north and, indeed, I had fallen in love with tundra by then. 

 After a couple of days R and R in Anchortown,  Pete Bowers came to fetch me and Pat Fall from Harvey’s house on Rabbit Creek Road, which was not paved back then. We enjoyed our flt to Square Banks, guzzling liquor for an hour, and then had our gear and selves weighed before heading back out to the air field. The price of the Husky Oil charter flight was a case of beer each. Pat, an archaeologist longer than I had been, and decidedly more savvy, had bought a case of Oly. I, on the other hand, bought a case of Miller Lite, for which I would be teased unmercifully.

We hopped on the small plane and headed north. It was a warm and clear day in late August. The humming and droning of the engine soon had me fast asleep. I awakened as we descended into Bettles for a quick refueling and then flew over the beautiful Brooks Range and onto the Slope. Now, I had never landed on a gravel bar before and for a sec I thought we were going to crash as we dipped below the alder and willow trees that sprouted along the shores of Betty Lake. One steadying glance from Pete, and Pat and I knew things were OK.

Several fairly scruffy men ran out to meet us. “Beer’s here,” yelled Mr. Mike. “Weather day,” called a mustachioed guy with light blue eyes and a navy blue hunting cap on his head. The cap, by the way, had the cutest little white bow perched above the visor. I was later to learn this was Bob Gal. However, this was not the time for introductions. Pete, Bob, Mr. Mike, Randrew J Peterson, and Mike the chopper pilot quickly unloaded about eight cases of beer and hauled ass back to camp. 

Pat and I looked at each other. We grabbed our gear and headed up the slope after them. The pilot grabbed some of our stuff and another couple cases of beer and followed after securing the plane. The plane, for your information, was held together with duct tape, spittle and gum. 

A camp boss directed us to the women’s Atco unit.”Wow,” we thought, “a clean bed. I wonder when we’ll see this again?” We grabbed a quick meal in the mess hall, I believe it was roast beef with au jus that night, and headed over to a very large  wall tent (a party sized wall tent) where the archaeo folks were discussing the next phase of testing at the Lisburne site. At least we thought that’s what they would be doing. But, the beer had arrived; Bob had declared a state of emergency, and a good part of a case was already gone. 

Bob was sitting on a rolled up tarp and lightly leaning against the taught canvas wall with Mr Mike next to him. They were telling bullshit stories as far as I could  tell. “Oh yeah, then there was the time when we landed at No Luck Lake and Chuck farted as he dove into the tent to show us some artifacts, BELCH.” That was Bob.

Now I remembered, once in awhile in’ 77 and ‘78, Bob and Ed Hall would make surprise visits to our camps in a chopper. Once in awhile they’d reward us with a piece of pie or a letter from home. So haughty did they seem, that we began to call the great ones The Flying Douche Bag Brothers, alternately known as the Freres a la Sac de Douche Volant. So, here was one half of the Brothers sitting around in a wall tent getting tanked. 

At some point he realized there were two new people in the tent. “Where you girls from,” he asked. “Don’t you remember? Harvey sent us,” Pat said. Mike was outside taking leak at this instant, but he had already made contact, boasting of his prowess and leering at Pat and me like we were filet mignon. 

“You’ll like Betty Lake,” Bob finally said to us. It’s nice out there and if there’s an emergency, we can walk to Ivotuk and they’ll take us back to town, BELCH.” We had heard so much about Bob from Harvey and Chuck that summer on No Luck Lake. Harvey had painted him as a demi-god of archaeology. He knew everything (well, slightly less than John Cook) and was a great field person and confident leader.[1]

 Mr. Mike zipped his fly while walking back into the tent to join the festivities. Quite the raconteur he was, especially in the absence of Dr. Dale C Slaughter, who had happily stayed behind at the site with some food, dirty magazines, a shot gun, and the thought of peace and quiet. Dr. Dale still is the raconteur’s raconteur.

 “You know, we have jam sessions out there. Yeah, I play the banjer and Pete here plays the git-tar. Yessiree, boys and girls, we have a pretty good time out there in the boonies. “ We smiled at Mike and tried to act friendly. I was alarmingly still sober.

Bob began to talk about a recent chopper ride he’d had; a boondoggle of major sites in NPR-A in the company of higher ups, way far higher up than him. When he got to a place I’d never heard of, Awuna, he stopped mid sentence. He had hit the wall. “Awooo-oohnah,” he said, and that’s all she wrote. Bob was glassy eyed and did not appear to know where he was.  Pat turned to me and said, “So that’s Bob Gal!!”We rolled our eyes and hung our heads.

A little while later, Bob passed out, head on the tarp, legs splayed out into the center of the tent. Mr. Mike, good friend that he was, gently turned him over and put his head outside the tent flap, so that, if well, you know, he threw up, he wouldn’t choke and die. Mike covered him with an Army blanket and stumbled outside.

He didn’t come back in, so we figured the party was over. Pat and I made it back to our room before the others because we were not quite as polluted as everyone else. Getting back first and being rather furtive, we figured no one would discover which room we were in and we wouldn’t get bothered or puked on.

The next morning, I woke up with a slight hangover (not too bad as hangovers go) and drifted over to the mess hall. Our fearless leader was sitting at a table clutching a cup of black coffee and staring out into space. Timidly, I approached him and asked him how he was. His face gray, he said in a very small voice, “OK.” But, he looked like death warmed over to me.  

Nonetheless, a couple of hours later, we piled into the chopper and headed over to Betty Lake. Amazingly, no one “called Roy” on the trip. My great adventure at Lisburne had begun. It would be a great couple of weeks—full of discovery, adventure, wild creatures, love, hate, rain and snow. Bob was the most stable and level headed person there and guided us like true leaders do. But, get a drink in him, hoo boy![2]  

But this is not my favorite memory of ’78; this is. In mid-September we pulled out (no snickers, please), and flew up to Camp Lonely, a place that no longer exists. After a shower and a shave, we all met up with Bob who took us to a gin mill behind an unmarked door. I was lucky, I got a seat at the bar between Dr. Dale and Miss Pat. Bob ordered drinks all around. As  I lifted my glass of Scotch rocks to my lips, Bob came up behind me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “You’re one of the guys now.” That moment remains one of my proudest even to this day.

Thanks, Bob. Many kisses to you, Georgeie


[1] One day I will tell you how in ’79, Bob and Mr. Mike shot our tent with Tim and me in it. It just took one shot, and the tent collapsed around us. THANKS VERY MUCH, you douches!

[2] Well, boys and girls, this is the G rated prelude to the Lisburne story. Those of you who must know more will have to wait until certain people die or go senile before I pen the X-rated version. And I will! 

THE BLUE BANANAS, 1977

 We were bored. The helicopter was late. Who knew why? We had no way of communicating with it or with any human beings beyond the six of us.  It was toward the end of the summer. The tundra was turning red and the sun had begun to set behind the Brooks Range to the south for a couple of hours each day. Ice was forming on ponds and along stream banks. Yet, the day was fairly warm, probably in the 50s.  We’d packed up camp, waiting for the chopper to move us to our last camp before heading back to Umiat for the final round up, flying back to Squarebanks, and then home.

Teresa tilted her head to one side, hoping to catch the distant sound of a rotor in her upturned ear. No such luck. Marcia and I puffed on our cigarettes as nonchalantly as if we’d been home watching the boob tube. We chatted casually about the men in our lives, and not in our lives.

Brian read a comic book and thought about rolling a doobie. Terry sat cross legged on the ground where the cook tent had been, fixing a rip in her parka. She had sewn the parka from scratch before she came up to Alaska from Texas. She’d probably never even seen a parka before. But, like her, it was perfect. Va stared into space as she continued brushing her hair. She was quite unaware that she had been thus engaged for an hour. I knew she was thinking about Tim. They had found each other during their rotation in Umiat and were sorta, kinda in love/lust.

The chopper was only two hours late. No reason to worry yet. Bill could have gotten off to a late start for some reason. He could have run across a bear while trying to refuel on the Colville River sandbar and decided to hover instead of land.  We knew he’d come and bring us mail and food as well as our boss, Lovable Uncle Harvey, and our crew mate, Chuck, often called Up Chuck, well, just because.

Teresa jumped up, declaring, “I’m fucking bored! Let’s DO something.” We looked at her with jaundiced amusement. “What?, “ I wondered.  Teresa had a great idea, kind of based on the idea of cargo cults. If we each got out our sleeping bags and put them on over our heads, surely the chopper would come.

I upped the ante with a suggestion of my own. “If we take our walking sticks and put them inside our bags and then raise the whole thing up, we’ll be taller than anything on the horizon!” We did a run through, unrolling our bright blue hollofill bags (good to -20) and then running our sticks up inside. “OK, here goes,” I said. We hoisted the bags up in the air, then over our heads. With the walking sticks held up inside. We were about eight feet high. Brian kept his bag by his side to observe and comment. “Great, guys,” he said, “OK! No one will know what the hell that is. Now, start swaying back and forth, left, right, left, right. That’s it.” There were several giggles and chortles coming from the bags by this point. “Great, let’s eat something.”

While Terry raided the Pilot Bread and Tillamook cheese stash, Brian rolled a joint of Matanuska Thunderfuck. “Well, OK,” I thought, “I need this.” Brian lit the joint and passed it to Marcia who inhaled deeply and passed it on. No one “Bogarted” a joint on our crew, oh no!  I’d miss the Pilot Bread. One of the main ingredients is shortening, Crisco perhaps, which is great when you’re trying to pack on the calories during a ten mile hike. And Tillamook, ooh lala!  Even though the temperature was a tad cool, each orange piece still sweated, as such delicious and savory cheeses tend to do.

Our “picnic” was interrupted by the faint whine of a motor.  “Chopper!” Va yelled.  Lunch was shoved into mouths, doobies sucked back quickly and buck knives put back into sheathes. Now would come our moment of glory. We grabbed our sleeping bags and walking sticks, getting ready for the big show.  Soon, we spotted it way in the distance. “Now!” I yelled. 

In ten seconds, there were six eight-foot tall blue bananas swaying back and forth slowly against the reddening tundra and grey foothills. We were welcoming Bill and his cargo as we would a major god. Salvation was at hand! As he neared and chose a lower route hugging the low hills in the distance, Bill saw us. He came at us slowly, about 100 feet off the ground, raised the chopper up about 20 feet and then down. It was a form of greeting. It was like meeting an alien civilization for the first time. He raised up the chopper twice more and then softly, smoothly, and gently set ‘er down. We swayed back and forth a few more times and then instinctively bowed.

With the rotors shut off, we threw off our costumes and ran toward the chopper. Harvey and Chuck were laughing uncontrollably. Each had his camera out and it was fairly plain that they had documented the extravaganza. Bill, who had just opened the door and had his foot on the skid, just shook his head.  Bill had never been long on conversation and was terribly shy. I suppose he didn’t know what the proper response was-but he had said it with the chopper, and that was better than anything anyone could have said.

caption?

"Taking off from Gambell, St Lawrence Island, December 15, 2011: No village, no mountain, no visibility



FLYING IN ALASKA: PART I,  NOT SO SCARY TRIPS

March 4, 2012

Taking off from and landing at an airport in Alaska can be a thrilling experience. How thrilling depends on several variables including weather/visibility, size and age of the plane, condition of the passengers (asleep or not), condition of the pilot (drunk or not), length of the runway, runway material, absence of a runway, unexpected presence of wildlife on the runway, etc, etc.

Now I’ve flown into some strange places and had some close calls. I’ll share a few of the least scary ones with you as I describe my favorite runways, airstrips, and gravel bars.

Let’s start with the big towns. Anchorage and Fairbanks are “easy peasy” as the Brits say. Flying into Anchorage (ANC) aboard Alaska Airlines, Reeve Air Aleutian (R.I.P.), Mark Air (ditto), Delta, United, etc is usually smooth and the scenery spectacular.  Try to get a window seat so you can gawk at the snow-covered peaks and the ice floating in Knik Arm, especially when the moon is out-glorious.  If you come up Turnagain Arm from the south, you have the Sleeping Lady (Mt Susitna) to your left (West) and the Chugach Range on your right (East).  They are snowless but only briefly. Maybe they turn green in May, but by August, “termination dust”, as Anchorites call the first, high snows, inches down their slopes with each passing day.  Be brave and get a grip-come up in the winter and take in the moon reflecting light off the snow.  If Alaska is one thing in winter, it’s a Christmas card that delights the senses.

Landing in Fairbanks (FAI) can also be a positive experience. No matter how cloudy it is, you will see Mt. McKinley (or at least the summit), North America’s highest mountain. Sit on the left side of the plane going north, and the right side going south. The approach to Fairbanks over Blair Lakes Bombing Range on Fort Wainwright is usually smooth and the pucker factor small, unless you think about the unexploded ordnance below should you crash. In the summer, the bombing range shines with water accumulating in ruts, both new and from the Gold Rush.  It would not be a good idea to be caught out in the flats in summer with your feet as your only transportation. The boreal forest covers the Interior and the rolling hills coming in to Fairbanks are soft and comforting in appearance.  You’ll see the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) on “the west ridge”, always above the ice fog in winter. It is the center of education and enlightenment in Alaska.

Anchorage and Fairbanks I consider safe. Juneau (JNU), not so much.  I hate flying in and out of Juneau.  And, unless you have a boat, it’s the only way to travel to the state capital.  Juneau has a fairly high pucker factor because it’s surrounded by mountains. To make matters more thrilling, Juneau is often fogged in. Alaska Airlines has special radar equipment that penetrates thick fog, but sometimes things screw up anyway. You may end up almost touching down and then climbing hard and fast to avoid the sheer mountain face in front of you, and then find yourself somewhere else-Sitka, Ketchikan, or even Anchorage.  Taking off from Juneau is also thrilling. It’s standard to take off to the south where there is a tad, but only a tad, more room between you and the mountains. The pilot will announce that the take off will be steep and then there will be an abrupt right turn as one reaches the altitude to avoid Chichagof and Baranof Islands, mountainous components of the Alexander Archipelago. Pucker factor, depending on visibility, ranges from three to seven, I’d say.

There have been several times when planes collided with the side of a mountain because the pilot thought the plane was over Juneau when it was actually several miles west—that means the plane hadn’t yet flown east over the Chichagof or Baranof—islands that shield Juneau and other places in the Alaskan Panhandle from the ferocious storms in the Gulf of Alaska.  And, when planes go down in Alaska, they are sometimes never found. Such was the case with Hale Boggs and Senator Nick Begich. They went down to the east of Juneau, somewhere near Mendenhall glacier, in October 1976. They’re still there.

Now, let’s jack up the fear factor a little, shall we--flying in the Aleutians. Similar to Juneau with poor visibility and many mountains (but also having several volcanoes), but add in short runways to your thrill of a lifetime experience. Dutch Harbor/Unalaska (DUT) is a personal favorite.  You fly in from the east. You have to because there is only one runway and it runs along the foot of Mount Ballyhoo. The mountain is dreadfully close when you fly in. I mean, it’s right there-right outside your window.  You can see the remains of a World War II forward camp on its slopes-individual pillboxes that appear ‘life size’ because, guess what, you’re that close! Pucker factor, again, is between three and seven.

Another Aleutian favorite is Attu (ATU), the last island before the Russian Komandorskis. Attu is far closer to Siberia than mainland Alaska.  If you ditch, odds are a Siberian Yupik speaking Eskimo’ll pick you up in a skin boat. Or, maybe he’s speaking Russian, who knows? What makes Attu special is the short runway, not on the water as at Dutch Harbor, but with more mountains, and, famously shitty weather.  I flew to Attu in 1992 with a group of WWII vets. We circled the “airstrip” three times before the pilot got a good enough view to land. After we finally landed, one of the vets got off the plan and kissed the ground. I actually visited Attu and Dutch several times because our agency was in charge (and still is) of cleaning up the remains of Quonset huts, toxic materials, concrete bunkers, etc, from WWII.  More on that another day. Pucker factor here is about four-ten, depending yet again on visibility and the knowledge that you can only divert to Shemya (not so far away) or mainland Russia.  I’ve never landed in Siberia, but I imagine their remote runways are not in such great shape.

Then, there’s landing in small planes on gravel bars.  In 1978, when I came up to work at Ivotuk (no airport code, no airport), along the Killik River, on the North Slope, we changed to a small plane in Fairbanks, flew on up in a 6-seater, refueling at Bettles (BTT), where the forest ends and the tundra begins, and home to the northernmost liquor store. We then proceeded to Betty Lake, where the crew was hanging out and engaging in a little “R & R.” Silly me-I thought there would be a landing strip! After all, Betty Lake was a fairly big exploratory drilling camp. Well, no such luck. We descended on a gloriously clear day as I scoured the scene for the strip without success. Then, in an instant we were gliding below the grasses, alders and willows that grow along the margins of streams in the high north and, boom, we were down on the gravel bar.  Wanting to be accepted by the gang, I never let on my incredulity that I would actually survive.  Pucker factor-only five because it was good weather, but it was also a surprise.

Cape Lisburne (LUR) has always been “fun” to experience.  The Cape is on the northern edge of a range of mountains that extend south, all the way to Kotzebue. If you’re lucky, you’ll stop to pick up passengers at Point Hope, an archaeologist’s fantasyland. Sites galore, lotsa great artifacts (that you should never touch, but leave alone), friendly people, and one “hotel.” Point Hope (PHO) is on a spit, so mountains aren’t a problem. But, once I was stuck there for four nights because the winds aloft were too turbulent for small planes. On the ground, it was warm and sunny. Who knew?

But I digress. After leaving Point Hope and flying over the Cape Krusenstern National Monument (another archaeological fantasy land), you fly over the DeLong Mountains, the westernmost slopes of the Brooks Range. When the mountains drop away and you can see the Chukchi Sea, odds are you will experience a huge down draft caused by the difference in pressure between mountains and sea. The strength of the pucker factor is directly correlated to the force of the down draft. Imagine measuring down draft force in terms of the Richter scale. AND, with the strong ones, not only is there a pucker factor, but a barf factor as well. When you finally set down on the huge-ass gravel strip, you are so god damned happy to be off the crappy little piece of tin called an airplane that you swear you’ll never leave, at least not until they run out of food or the cook runs amok.

I’ve also had the pleasure of flying into St. Lawrence Island from Nome (OME). Last time, it was just before Christmas 2010. I have never experienced such cold as flying into Gambell (GAM) and Savoonga (SVA).  Of course it was blowing snow and the visibility was zero. My face was stung by the wind and I was instantly turned into a popsicle, as was everyone else. The Siberian Yupik people living there gave us the honor of riding us into town on four-wheelers. On a four-wheeler, the wind feels like it’s blowing at about 60 mph. No pucker factor after landing, however, except for almost falling off a four-wheeler into a snow bank.  My fears only arose when we left the Island headed toward Nome. It was just getting light at 10 a.m., but you could hardly see your hand in front of your face.  No one seemed the least perturbed, Islander, Alaskan or Cheechako from the lower ’48. So I hopped on the plane, imagined the mountain to my right, the mountain that I couldn’t see and that so many planes had dived into, and said to myself, “Trust the plane; trust the pilot; trust his instincts.” Soon, I nodded off.

Ask any person in Alaska who has worked in “the field,” or anyone who lives in the Bush—all will have stories about the time they almost died at (fill in the blank).  Small plane stories are as common as bear stories and both become embellished as the years pass.  But, what I’m relating here is some of the GOOD experiences I had flying around the state.  My “I almost bought the farm at (fill in the blank)” stories will make you feel safe by comparison when you are sky diving, skiing, rappelling or zip lining, Me? I’ve had enough reflection on “the good times” this evening.

 

FLYING IN ALASKA: PART II, THE REALLY SCARY TRIPS

 

And now for the scary ones. My flight from Ladd Field on Fort Wainwright outside Fairbanks was frightening because it was my first time flying “beyond the pale” of the main towns.  The year was 1977. I was a tenderfoot of the lowest degree. I had just met my first crewmates the previous week and was trying to give the appearance that I’d been in the bush for years.  We walked out of the BLM headquarters, an aging concrete building from WWII, to meet our plane. About 40 of us were poured into an aging military DC-3, also dating from WWII, like everything else on North Post. There was no coffee, no meals, no restroom and no standard floor, walls or ceilings; just seats in the skeleton of the plane.  Well, I thought, no one else seems to mind, so I’ll just settle in for the ride.  We landed sometime later on a dirt airstrip at Umiat (UMT), a concentration of Quonset huts and the hub of scientific investigation on the North Slope. It TOO dated to WWII.  There was a ton of ‘ologists’ traveling to and fro, in search of dinosaurs, plants, soil, fossils, you name it. We were to fit in easily since we were ‘ologists’ also--the variety that searches for archaeological wonders. It was so foreign to me that I could not help but compare it to the cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie which I had just seen days before I flew to Alaska for the first time. And I had arrived in Umiat in an aged and rusty Millennium Falcon.  Pucker factor-ten, but only because it was my “first time.” On a clear day, it’s a relatively safe place to land, with mountains far to the south.

In 1979, I had the opportunity to fly up to Red Dog Mine RDG?), near Kivalina, after the field season was over at Ivotuk. Which one is farther north, I didn’t know. I CAN tell you that no trees inhabit either place.  The route you take begins in Anchorage and then to Kotzebue (OTZ), just north of the Arctic Circle. From there, you hop in a much smaller plane that seats roughly 10 people plus gear. I can’t tell you what kind of airplane it was because I was hung over, as were some others.  In fact, Buck Maxson, the pilot, turned around, looked at us and said, “The back row looks like it had a bad night.” I clutched my barf bag as Buck took off. Pete sat between me and Susan, who was already blowing lunch.  I shut my eyes and hoped for the best. When we landed on the dirt strip next to a creek, I immediately headed for the temporary housing set up for this early stage of exploration, unrolled my North Face sleeping bag (good to 20 below), and fell asleep.

But, that’s not the scary part. As I said, this was at the end of the field season. The tundra was bathed in reds and yellows. Frost had begun to form in the ponds because now the sun was setting behind the mountains for a little while every night. As a consequence, people in camp were packing feverishly for the long trip home to Los Anchorage or to the Lower 48.  The four of us-Susan, Tim, Pete and I—got into the plane, eager for a night of partying in Kotz and then home to various colleges and jobs.  Again, I was in the back row. The back row is a good place because you can look straight ahead and see through the front window of the plane. It is a bad place because that’s where you feel all the bumps.  As we adjusted our seat belts, a young guy asked if there was room on the flight. The pilot, who unfortunately was NOT Buck Maxson, said, “Why, sure.”  Then the guy pushes the biggest, heaviest tool chest up a ramp near the back of the plane. I didn’t know those red and silver tool chests came in “huge,” “huge” being waist high.  I didn’t think it was a good idea, but said nothing since the pilot was OK with it.

All buckled up, the plane, a deHavilland DH-2 Beaver, the quintessential Bush plane, started to taxi down the dirt strip. It rolled and it rolled, not seeming to pick up speed.  I could see the end of the strip quite clearly. Beyond were bushes and a hill. “Not good,” I thought again. The bushes grew larger and larger until that was all you could see in front of the plane.  Just before we were to hit, the pilot stepped on the gas, gunned the throttle for all he was worth, made a sharp turn to the left off of the strip and into thin air over the creek, and then made a sharp climb away from the surrounding hills. He managed to maneuver the plane so that it caught lift from the space between the creek and us. Pucker factor: 102.

We were all wide-eyed and green. You couldn’t really talk because the buzz of the plane was so loud, so we stared in disbelief at one another.  The pilot nonchalantly yelled back and asked if we wanted to fly “high” or “low.”  Nobody could speak after our near death experience, so the pilot settled in at a “comfortable cruising altitude” of 100 feet or so, and pulled out his Louis Lamour novel.  He flew us down the Noatak while reading his book, hardly taking notice of his surroundings; the epitome of calm.  It was as if he did this every day. For those of us ‘ologists’ on board, I can guarantee you not one of us has had another flight that terrifying. I would have heard about it.

In the mid-80s, we had a project to survey at Larsen Bay (KLN) on Kodiak Island. Kodiak (ADQ) is known for its mountains, its fog, and for having the largest bears in the world. Kodiak brownies are bigger than their counterparts on the mainland and even bigger than polar bears. Black bears are the size of a Kodiak brown’s lunch. We knew this as we hopped into the teeny ball of tin foil that passed as a plane. It may have been Cessna of some kind. It was a 4-seater with room for gear. We got there OK, again landing on a dirt strip, which I had now become used to.  Our stay in Kodiak was fraught with frustration and nerves.  We walked out to a nearby island, not noticing the tide coming in and having to be rescued by a local in a rowboat. He was probably thinking, “Dumb shits from Anchorage. They don’t know a fucking thing about the Bush.” Then the fish traps my friends had set had been “hacked into,” if that is the appropriate term, by an unseen brown bear.  When we discovered this and then had to spend the next half hour recovering them, we were quite nervous.  The beginning of a pucker ran through all of us.

But, the best was saved until last.  We hopped back on the same small plane and took off toward the end of an afternoon. We were ready to go back to Anchor town.  We never reached that “comfortable cruising altitude.”  The ceiling suddenly dropped to zero. You couldn’t see a fucking thing, with the exception of the tops of spruce trees sticking up out of the fog. Ahead of us—a solid grey wall. I was sitting behind and kitty-corner from the pilot. I didn’t like the look on his face. He had his map out, but that wasn’t worth a shit at the moment. No landmarks to be spotted, just the tops of fir trees in the fog. Once, he saw a break in the clouds and spiraled up to it. It vanished as soon as we got there. It was suddenly plain to me—the pilot had no idea where we were. Oh, Christ, I thought, as I put down an old copy of Readers’ Digest, the only material on board. I had been reading an article about quitting smoking, but thought to myself, “I’m not going to live that long.” I also took off my earphones. I had been listening to Handel’s Messiah, all about death and resurrection. “This won’t do,” I thought.

The pucker factor for all concerned was off the Richter scale. All of us had “that look” on our drained-of-all-color faces. I kept my eye on the pilot for some sign of reassurance. And then, quite suddenly, he found a hole in the clouds and spiraled up to it.  No good-the hole disappeared just as we reached it. Then, very cautiously, he went low. We were over one of the many fjords of Kodiak.  Of course, the pilot didn’t know which one, and the map again failed him. We saw a couple of fishing boats down below. The pilot got on the radio. I couldn’t hear him, but I could hear the boat: “If you have to ditch, we can pick you up.” Again, another bad sign. He began tipping his wings, first left, then right. He would lean so far over in his frantic search for a landing strip, that his head was touching the Plexiglas. Finally, he flew over a rocky beach maybe three times. There were odd pillars of rock sticking up out of the beach and I could feel the wheels turning in his head:  “If I’m really lucky, I can avoid the pinnacles and put us down.” He touched the wheels to the beach to test the firmness of the ground. Then he circled back and started his descent.  Across from me, Lizette was petrified, and Brian was green. “Have you ever landed on a gravel bar?” I asked Lizette. “No,” she said. “Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s a piece of cake.” It wasn’t a piece of cake, or a walk in the park, but we got down safely. The pilot opened the door. We fled as fast as we could and collectively dropped our jeans and peed.  Next, I lit a cigarette and sucked the smoke in as hard and fast as I could.

It began to snow. We made our way into an abandoned cabin and jumped up and down to stay warm.  After about an hour, the pilot went outside, assessed the situation and said that he was going to “take a chance” on Kodiak and that he needed a volunteer to go with him.  For a reason I’ll never fully understand, I volunteered.  I took phone numbers of significant others with me in case we actually DID make it to Kodiak. I would reassure the folks (although the pilot and the other two passengers were still out there) and rebook us on a later flight.  I hopped in the plane, and I believe I sat next to the pilot so I could really experience the flight.  We were back in 20 minutes. I called Brian’s wife, Lizette’s husband, and my own husband, Tim. I tried to summarize the experience to Tim. His only comment was, “Holy shit.” The pilot gassed up and went back out for the others while

 I waited around the PennAir terminal, smoking cigarettes. An hour later, they were back. It was a joyous reunion, even though we didn’t really like each other that much to begin with. We had been through an hour and a half of flying blind, over an hour on the ground in the snow, and we all knew how damned lucky we were to be in one piece.

 

FLYING IN ALASKA, PART III: HELICOPTERS AND FLOAT PLANES           

You can get around Alaska a lot of ways. Most destinations do NOT involve driving. Anchorage has the largest floatplane basin in the world and has more guys and gals with pilot’s licenses than any other state.  You’ve heard some scary stories about small planes, and I haven’t even mentioned the fatalities. Only one person I knew, Ruth, has been killed in a plane crash. She was flying a Herc into a mountain at King  Cove (KVC) on the Alaska Peninsula. In 2010, a person everyone knew and most loved, died in a crash near Dillingham (DLG). That was Senator Ted Stevens. 

But, I’ve never had a bad ride in a helicopter. A helicopter is the preferred mode of transportation on the Slope. They go more slowly than planes to, fly closer to the ground, and, if the engine quits, they can “auto-rotate” the rotors down to the ground if you have enough altitude (if not, you sink like a stone). No runway is needed. You can set down anywhere flat, or close to flat.

My first helicopter ride was in a Bell Jet Ranger in 1977. After arriving at the bustling faux community of Umiat, we ferried out into Howard Pass, into a place beyond phones, buildings, and footprints. When it was my turn to go, I stepped on the skid and slid into the back seat with a bunch of equipment—sleeping bags, food, tents, etc.  The tundra was a bright green. It was wet. The rain was gently misting. Visibility was pretty good. Bill, the pilot, was probably 60 then. He liked to play it safe so he followed the Colville, where we refueled, and then headed northwest into Howard Pass. On that trip, I saw my first moose. I was astounded. It wasn’t in a zoo. It was just “there.” The antlers were HUGE. Bill, being a rather nice guy, didn’t buzz the animal, so it just stood there chewing grass. Everything was new to me. I sat there in stunned silence looking out the window and drinking in as much as I could.

That same year, the other pilot, Art, took Virginia and me on a risky but oh so fun flight on our way into Umiat. It was a clear day. There were cotton ball clouds that punctuated the blue sky. Art suggested we fly over each cloud we encountered. A puffball appeared in front of us and Art pulled back on the throttle. We climbed up one side of the cloud and descended to our previous altitude on the other side. This Art did quite a few times. Each time, we clapped. 

Because these initial helicopter flights were so much fun, I never grew frightened of flying in one, even when Mike took the throttle from Betty Lake to Ivotuk. No, he doesn’t have a license. He was working on it, though.  Word to the wise, if you’re in a small chopper, try to sit up front with the pilot. Not only is the window Plexiglas, but the floor is ALSO Plexiglas—you can look straight down.  In the ‘90s, I once had the great fortune to be the only passenger in a Bell Jet Ranger flying from Prudhoe Bay/Deadhorse (SCC) to Fairbanks on a crystal clear day. We followed the Alyeska pipeline haul road, the Dalton Highway, south from the North Slope, past Atigun Pass/Galbraith Lake (GBH), into the spruce forest of the Interior that begins just south of Coldfoot (CXF), and landed three hours in Fairbanks.  I had run out of film.  It was just as well. You could not capture the vastness of the country, nor the wildlife, nor the many archaeological sites and Pipeline camps I’d heard about, on film. It was too wonderful to be caught by a camera.

No pucker factors in a chopper, just a mix of delight, awe and anticipation.

I’ve had two enjoyable rides in floatplanes in southeast Alaska. Floatplanes are the helicopters of “southeastern.”  The most popular floatplane is the DeHavilland Twin Otter, made in Canada. It can hold up to 10 people plus gear. I first flew one from Ketchikan to Admiralty Island. It was my first field trip for the Corps of Engineers, so it must have been 1984.  I was with a biologist and our mission was to check out the Cube Cove area.  I had never been in a floatplane before. It was decent weather, so it wasn’t too scary. The hardest part is getting on and off a floatplane because it’s bobbing in the water and you’re on land. I got the hang quickly and we taxied down a lake and were soon off. We landed without event.  The most amazing thing about that trip, other than the fact that the Corps doesn’t issue fire arms for bear protection, was that as we sat eating lunch on a bluff overlooking the cove, a barge pulled in. it was loaded with heavy equipment like bulldozers and trucks. Behind it came a barge with pre fab housing. We watched in stunned silence as bulldozers rolled off the first barge and blazed a trail inland. Trees fell the left and right. Critters scattered. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were witness to the beginning of Cube Cove, built by a logging company. I haven’t been back, but I’ll tell you what. In newer telephone directories of the panhandle, one and a half pages are devoted to the settlement. And it even has an airstrip with its own designation (CUW).

My other floatplane ride was also out of Ketchikan. The destination was Metlakatla (MTM) where we had to survey for toxic waste and WWII (yet again) material.  It was a nice flight. Calm, smooth. What makes this flight stand out to me was that it was my last trip on behalf of the Corps’ Alaska District. I was moving back east.  I had also just had back surgery and was really unsteady on my feet. And I hurt like a bastard. But, my colleague, Bill, was very supportive. He would help me navigate across lines of fuel soaked slippery rocks so I wouldn’t fall. Getting on and off the floatplane was not fun as one foot moved up and down with the plane and the other foot remained not so firmly planted on the ground, but I sucked it up and gingerly got off and then back on the plane a couple of days later with little difficulty.

Looking back on my floatplane adventures now, I realize that they bracketed my work at the Corps in Alaska. Cube Cove was my first fieldtrip, and Metlakatla the last.  Of course I hope to find myself on another floatplane in the future, but I don’t know yet its home base or its destination. And therein lies the anticipation and excitement.

 



 

PILOT BREAD MAKES THE WORLD GO 'ROUND

 

Pilot Bread is not exceptionally tasty. It lacks a savory aroma and a pleasing appearance.  Yet, in Alaska, it is a highly prized food. A home, especially in Bush Alaska, is a poor one that does not have several boxes of it.  So, what’s the deal?

Pilot bread is the nearest thing to freshly baked bread you’ll get in camp.  Each pilot bread, or pilot cracker, is a whitish disc, approximately 4” across, about 1/8” thick, and decorated with about 20 holes on the ‘top’ surface, presumably to let the crackers rise, just a little, while baking.

Its origins most likely lie with mariners and whalers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was found in the rations by both armies during the American Civil War. It was, at one time, simply called hardtack.  Today, Civil War re-enactors enjoy it beneath the sickeningly hot sky of several summer days in Gettysburg and Manassas.

The stuff has a long tradition in Alaska. It has been used by pilots of small planes and by captains of fishing boats, and features prominently in survival kits.  Alaska consumes most of the pilot bread made. The rest goes to Indian reservations in the lower ’48, to Oregon survivalists, to Japan, and, of course, to Hawai’i, where it is enjoyed with Spam. Indeed, Pilot Bread and Spam unite the 49th and 50th states.

Pilot bread has been made in primarily in only one place in the US, at the Famous Foods of Virginia bakery in Richmond, VA.  The bakery has been around since 1899. Prospectors, explorers, outdoors types and other sourdoughs have all brought the foodstuff with them to the Great Land.

The blue and white box with tasteful red trim features a jaunty sailor boy on the label that is a symbol of comfort all over Alaska. It is such a staple that when the rumor arose that FFV was going out of business, there was an outcry and downright panic. However, I am happy to report that while the box no longer says FFV, it is still the same good stuff. Interbake bought out FFV in 2005 and the Richmond bakery was closed.  There is a movement afoot to save the building and place it on the National Register of Historic Places while it still retains integrity—that’s a fancy word historic preservationists use that means that it can still tell a story and evoke memories, which it apparently does.

Pilot bread doesn’t spoil. There is nothing in it go rancid. You can keep it for years. I have never seen mold of any kind growing on it.  It has few ingredients, according to the box—flour, shortening, a small bit of a leavening agent, salt dextrose, modified corn starch, yeast, malted barley syrup, calcium proprionate (a preservative) and “artificial flavor.”  I would like to know, What kind of artificial flavor? To me, the wafers taste like Crisco. Sometimes, they break into pieces in your daypack, but it still tastes the same and is always crisp unless it’s been a hell of a rainy summer.

So, how do you eat pilot bread? With your fingers, of course. And you can put anything on top of it to jazz it up. In the field, we came up with all kinds of combinations yielding as much fat and protein as possible for a lunch during the middle of a ten-mile hike.

Tillamook cheese from Oregon is a favorite. It also has a long shelf life, even though on hot days, it will actually sweat. Peanut butter, preferably crunchy, is also tasty, especially when canned strawberry preserves are added.  For the meat eater there are Underwood devilled ham, roast beef (referred once too often as ‘roast beast’ by a colleague), and chicken spread. If you are lucky enough to be in a village along the Yukon, Kuskokwim, or other major river, you might get smoked salmon. Other tasty choices include canned tuna, canned smoked oysters and Velveeta.

After a long day’s work, you may want to fry some up in a skillet and serve it with wonderful Spam or with melted butter. Or, some prefer to crumble it to the extent it can be crumbled and put it in soup. If you have a sweet tooth, try melted butter with cocoa powder and sugar, or, in a village, Eskimo ice cream (fat + some ice + something sweet added to the mix). Follow Pilot Bread on Facebook for more tempting ideas.

One morning in 1977, while camped along the Aniak River, our crew of intrepid archaeologists attempted French toast.  We had powdered milk, freeze dried eggs and a plastic bottle of maple syrup. We poured a bunch of milk and eggs into a small mess kit bowl, mixed it up, broke up some pilot bread, put IT in, and left the concoction sitting there. After an hour, the still crisp pilot bread foretold of failure.  We next mashed the pilot bread into the milk and eggs until it was a gloppy, sorry cream of wheat-looking affair, threw it into a large frying pan with day-old bacon grease, set the Coleman on high, and served it with the maple syrup. It wasn’t bad!! It wasn’t French toast, pancakes, or anything else that appeared on a menu, but it was OK.

Fast forward. In my current life, I greet indigenous people from all over the country at our headquarters.  A couple of years ago, a delegation from the Kotzebue area came in. They weren’t especially happy with my agency. Luckily, I had just received the gift of a two-pound box of pilot bread from an Alaskan buddy. I brought the familiar box in, along with a big jar of Skippy extra crunchy peanut butter, a knife, enough coffee for all, and a roll of paper towels.   My bosses didn’t really ‘get it,’ but the meeting was a positive one, and as we talked about our issues, hearts and minds were brought together by our breaking pilot bread together.

June 19, 1977

Hypothermia

 

We were still at our first camp, at the base of Ihkhluk Mountain, along Rough Mountain Creek, when the group had its first big scare of the summer.  It was a cloudy, blowing, grey day.  It was damn cold, too.  Looking back on it, the month of June hovered around 45 degrees. It would snow on and off until the first week in July. 

Not only was it dreary at our camp, but the Mountain hovered over us, a huge frozen giant with patches of snow in its many crevasses. Wind whistled around the slopes, down to the flatter ground along side the stream, through our camp, and up the slopes of the unnamed peaks to the north.  We were tired.

We had hardly slept for the last two nights. The winds in the alders and willows, and in our tent flaps and guy wires, created horrible, whistling noises.  I slept so little that I managed to read several chapters of Michener’s The Source in my cozy Hollofil sleeping bag each night after reluctantly leaving the cook tent with its hot coffee and company.

The 19th was our last day at Ihkhluk.  I woke up to snow flurries, stormy clouds and, of course, wind.  After climbing into my jeans, flannel shirt, wool sweater, several pair of socks and Sorrells (the full felt liners kept your feet toasty) , I headed to the cook tent where Harvey, as usual, was frying up a can of bacon in preparation for making sourdough pancakes.

His sourdough had a history.  It had belonged to his major professor, Don Dumond, who had used it during the 50s and 60s while excavating site on the Alaska Peninsula. Where Don got it, Harvey didn’t remember.  We carefully listened as Harvey planned the day. Harvey and Marcia and I would walk due east along the riverbank for about 5 miles. Brian, Teresa and Virginia would take the high road along the high gravel terraces at the base of the Mountain, also to the east.

I grabbed a lunch of Pilot Bread, Tillamook cheese, chocolate bars and peanut butter. We filled our canteens with the wonderfully pure and icy cold water from the creek. Christ, I was cold already. I had with me a down vest and a rain suit—I cannot recommend rain gear more highly as relief against the wind and, therefore, the cold. I yanked on my monkey gloves and wool cap and was ready to “give it a go” as my cousins across the pond would say.

Marcia grabbed the  “double ought-six” shot gun, loaded with slugs and shot. We always carried the shotgun loaded with the safety on. Once, the safety came off when we were breaking trail through brush, but that’s another story.

The three of us kept a lively pace due to the cold and because Marcia had eyed a promising looking bare patch that was elevated slightly above the bank of Rough Mountain Creek.  Marcia and I talked about grad school while she puffed on a Marlboro and I tried to suck in as much smoke as I could from a More.

We were about 2 miles from camp when we reached the last in a series of bare patches of ground. Immediately, flakes appeared, glistening on the moist ground.  I had taken my pack off to get to my field book and pencil when I began to feel woozy.  Was the world spinning, or was it the incessant buffeting of the wind? I couldn’t tell. I walked like a drunkard over the site, eyes down, looking for flakes, tools, features, etc, and flagging them with "day glo" pink survey tape. 

I was in the middle of a reverie about becoming a famous Arctic archaeologist when I heard Harvey yell, “Georgeie!” I straightened up, expecting either a lecture or a command to run from a grizzly.  “What?” I yelled over the wind. “Are you alright? You’re stumbling around like you’re smashed. What’s wrong?”  I had no idea what Harvey was talking about. I managed to answer, “I’m fine, but I’m tired.” With that, I let out a yawn. 

“Shit,” Harvey said, “she’s hypothermic.” Marcia came over and stared quite closely at me. “She’s very pale, and God, her skin is so cold,” she said. “OK, I declare this a weather day,” Harvey said and pulled out the walkie talkie.  “You guys!” He yelled. “Hey, come in.” Brian answered, “Hey, why are you calling us now? See a bear?” “No, Georgeie is very, very cold. I think she’s hypothermic. Pack it in up there, we’re going back to camp.”

Harvey looked at me, assessing my condition. “OK, you gotta keep moving, so march back to camp. You go first and Marcia and I will follow you. We won’t let you out of our sight. Keep walking! Don’t even stop to pee.” I nodded my head and started walking west back up the creek.  I didn’t feel much like talking, but Harvey and Marcia insisted on asking me a bunch of stupid questions like, “What’s your boyfriend’s name? What’s he look like? What’s the first thing you’re gonna buy when you get back to town? What do you miss most out here?“ DC seemed very remote then and was but a distant memory, but I could tell them that I already missed Diet Coke.

I stumbled into camp, with Harvey and Marcia close behind. They pulled me into the cook tent where the other crew was already busy boiling water for coffee, cocoa and tea.  “Is she alright?” Brian asked Harvey. “Yeah, I think so, but we should get her in this sleeping bag and make her drink hot liquids. So sorry, she’s not that out of it that we need to strip her and us and lie in the sleeping bag together.” I giggled. I was still scared and damn cold but the fog was beginning to lift.

I was helped into the sleeping bag fully dressed except for shoes and was lain down carefully with a stuff sack for a pillow.  Five people sat cross-legged around me talking about the day. As usual, Marcia sat at the front of the tent so she could blow her cigarette smoke outside.  Soon I was handed a cup of cocoa that I apparently hung on to for too long because soon Harvey shouted, “Drink it!”

OK, OK, I drank it. Then I drank some coffee, then more cocoa. Finally feeling my toes again and relaxing in the sleeping bag, I sunk my head back onto the stuff sack and rested. How weird was this?  Here were 5 people I’d known less than 2 weeks who were very interested in me and bringing me back from the cold. They cracked jokes, made me join in the conversation, fed me some peanut M and Ms. I tried to follow the threads of the conversations, but was just too sleepy.  Often, one of them would look down at me reassuringly. Harvey proclaimed me OK, finally.

I continued laying around in the sleeping bag and listening to the gang engage in small talk and gossip about the anthro department at Fairbanks.  I couldn’t wait to meet some of these characters-others, maybe not.

All I knew was that I had been cared for. I had been the center of attention. I was given help even when I didn’t know I needed it. I was bonded with the crew, and they with me.  I felt calm, safe, and secure for one of the first times in my life.

TRUST YOUR EQUIPMENT

JUNE 1977

When I first arrived in Fairbanks, I was scared of just about everything that could possibly happen to me. This new world was a mystery, and mostly, not fun.  I felt out of place. I had practically no supplies with me and had to rely on the charity of others for extra clothes. I knew two people very slightly. Basically, I felt like a fish out of water; I felt lost; I felt like an idiot. 

I was joining a group of 30 or so archaeologists, each more qualified than I was. We’d be in the most remote parts of the state, out of contact with the outside world.  How the hell was I going to get through this?  One of my friends in DC had said to me, “You can stand anything for 3 months.” I now wondered if that was a line of crap. 

We were treated fairly well the first couple of days and learned lots of neat stuff about lichens and mosses, how to light a Primus stove, you name it. Two days of our orientation was spent at Fort Wainwright for “Arctic survival training.” Those three words sounded extremely ominous.

We were driven out to a remote and rocky part of the Post the second day where we were told our task was to rappel down a cliff.  I heard Harvey, one of the crew chiefs, ask one of the sergeants, “Why are we rappelling  down a cliff? There are no cliffs where we’re going!” The sergeant responded that it was all part of the program so we had to.

 I was suddenly very nervous. Rappel down a cliff? Me? I had never even climbed up a fence and down the other side before.  I was an urbanite!

A sergeant advised us on how to handle the rope: “We’ll give you leather gloves so you won’t skin your hands. Keep one hand in front and position the other hand at your butt where the harness is. Keep that hand in a fist and kind of ‘sit’ on it. So you’ll climb up here, we’ll harness you up, and you’ll push off. Got it?” Not really, I thought.

Then I heard something amazing. Harvey had decided not to go up the cliff and launch himself into space even if it made him look silly. “I’m not great with heights. I don’t feel safe doing this. So, I’m not doing it.” Every woman within earshot, including me, decided she wanted to be on Harvey’s crew because he was careful. He’d keep us safe.

I had to do it, however.  I had to prove myself, being the city slicker plucked from a future career in editing and proofreading in DC and plopped down in the Arctic as a fledgling archaeologist. 

I dutifully followed the others up the cliff, reaching the Corporal at the top. He had hooked someone up to a harness, Lynn, perhaps, but I was frozen with fear and don’t quite remember. He was telling her to lean back and push off. My anxiety increased. My hands were sweaty. Lynn, rather timidly, pushed her feet off the cliff face and started her descent. I couldn’t look because I was next!

With Lynn safely down the rock face, I was hooked up to the harness and handed a pair of gloves. “Sit back. Sit on your hand and lean back. Don’t worry-we do this all the time.  You won’t fall.  We’ve got you both up here and down below.”  I looked terror stricken. Then the corporal looked me in the eye and said to me something I shall never forget: “Trust your equipment.”   

That phrase had a calming effect. I leaned farther back and pushed off into space.  It was exhilarating! I was doing something I never had expected to do!  It was an amazing ‘flight,’ except that my pushing away with unequal weight on both feet took me at a diagonal rather than straight down.  But, the guys had it under control.  They talked me back into the middle of the rock face and soon I was on solid ground and oh, so proud.

“Trust your equipment,” is a phrase that I have conjured up many times over the years. Sometimes the challenge is physical, sometimes intellectual (who remembers his/her dissertation defense and is not a deer caught in the headlights?), sometimes emotional. I connect the emotion “fear” with this wonderful phrase the most.  I have been scared of bullies, of my bosses not liking my work, of going to the doctor or dentist, and really afraid of asking for help. When I get the jitters, I think of that phrase and pushing back from that cliff-but now the “equipment” is me.

HOW I GOT HOOKED ON ALASKA

The year was 1971. It was a miserably hot summer in DC, as most summers tend to be. I was working part-time at a pastry shop, downtown, eating napoleans and eclairs when the boss was occupied or out of the store. 

I was bored and hot. My mind wandered to the upcoming fall semester at GW. I thought I might take an upper level anthro course. I had enjoyed immensely the intro course I’d taken as a sophomore, especially the physical anthro part and the stuff on fossil ‘men’ (Lucy hadn’t been found yet).

I called the department and made an appointment to see the chair, Bob Humphrey. On a sweaty Tuesday, I found the town house the department occupied, opened the door, and a blast of cold air hit me. I was already in a happier place.  The secretary pointed me toward the back of the building when I told her I had an appointment with Dr. Humphrey.

I walked through a darkened room filled with a hodge-podge of floor-to-ceiling books and into the semi-circular rear room. It was a mess. Books falling out of bookcases, papers strewn hither and yon. A/C units in both windows straining at full blast. In the middle of the room was a desk overflowing with paper and on it an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. Behind the desk, puffing away, was a handsome man in his late 30s, or so I thought, with red hair, a beard and big blue eyes. He was sweating profusely.

When Dr. Humphrey stood up, he towered over me. He must have been at least 6’2”. To his left, I noticed, propped against the wall, an unusual and mysterious artifact of some kind. Dr. Humphrey, following my gaze, explained that it was a harpoon assemblage with all the trimmings, not that I knew the names for any of the component parts back then. “You’re Georgeie Reynolds?” he asked. I answered yes and at a loss for anything intelligent to say, I said something about the heat in DC.

“Well, take my Circumpolar course, it’ll keep your mind off the heat,” he said.  That sounded like fun so I said I would, we chatted for a few minutes and then I ventured out into the heat and back to work.

It was still hot the first weeks of class, but I knew relief was on the way. I enjoyed learning about the Yakuts of Siberia and the Inupiat of Alaska. Dr. Humphrey always stressed that up north the environment is fragile and life is uncertain. A room full of  students from New York, Pennsylva, New Jersey, and the odd Iowan diligently wrote down this proclamation every time he mentioned it.

It started to cool down in October. I rejoiced in the chill fall air and the promise of snow. One Tuesday, I ran up the stairs of Monroe Hall to class only to find someone filling in for Dr. Humphrey. It was Dr. Ralph Kepler Lewis (great name, huh?) who told us that Bob had suffered a collapsed lung and was recuperating for a few weeks. I was so disappointed. Of course, Dr. Humphrey smoked like a chimney and drank many a beer, as is the habit with archaeologists, so I suppose his body seized up on him one day and said “Enough!”

We had a few grad assistants to handle some of the lectures. One Thursday, one of the asistants dragged in the harpoon assemblage and, glancing at her notes, nervously named all the parts of this complicated piece of equipment-harpoon blade, head, foreshaft, shaft, ice pick, lanyard, float, etc, etc.  I found it fascinating.

The following week, Dr. Lewis returned and said Bob would be back in a couple of weeks.  I had missed him and wanted to stare into his baby blues again and watch him smoke his Marlboros in class (like several of us did).

Dr Lewis, or “Kep,” as he was called, said he was going to show us a movie called Nanook of the North. It had been made in the 30s by Robert Flaherty who had directed a couple of other ‘semi-staged’ documentaries elsewhere in the world.  Kep described the movie a bit and let us know that Nanook (Inupiat for polar bear) was the best hunter in the village and that he and his family, living way up in the high Canadian Arctic, had to eke out a living because you could never count on the caribou or the walrus or the seals to migrate along the same route at the same time for year to year. I wrote this down and settled in to watch the movie.  It was pretty neat, showing Nanook spearing seals and building an iglu.  The last scene showed the family enjoying a warm meal in an equally warm iglu made cozy by seal oil lamps.  When the movie ended, class ended and I set about my other business of the day.

That was a Tuesday. The next class was Thursday. I bounded up the stairs once again in anticipation of learning more about the Arctic and how people lived up there. Kep was leading the class again. He said, “One thing I forgot to tell you on Tuesday. Flaherty made friends with Nanook and his family-so much so that he decided to visit them the next year. So, he took the train as far north as he could, then went by car, then by dog sled. Finally he reached the last outpost of ‘civilization,’ a store that stocked up on staples like flour and kerosene and sugar and such. Flaherty asked the storekeeper where Nanook and his village were camped now.  The man looked at Flaherty woefully and said, ‘Nanook is dead. His family is dead. His whole village died of starvation. We had a rough spring.’”

You could have heard a pin drop, so unexpected was Kep’s footnote to the story of the director and his Inuit friend. No one said anything for what seemed to be a long time. “OK, now I’m going to talk about the Saami of Norway,” Kep was saying, but I was mesmerized. “they all died?”, I thought. “How is that possible?”

I finally “got it.” Life in the Arctic is harsh and cruel and unpredictable and fragile. I was hooked. I knew then that I would explore Alaska and find out these things for myself—and I have.
 

GOTTA HAVE THOSE HELLY HANSENS

 

The year was 1981. I was in Barrow along with 30 other archaeologists excavating the old village site of Utqiagvik. It was cold. It was windy. It rained. It sometimes snowed. Once in awhile, the sun shone, but not usually.

Trowel in hand, I was scraping down a wall in Mound 1, the lower half of me directly in the old house and protected from the wind. But the top half of me, hoo hah!  This was no light breeze-it was probably 15-20 mph and the air temp was in the 40s. I was frozen, even though I had on long underwear, a long sleeved T-shirt, long sleeved plaid shirt, a ski sweater, a down vest, jeans, and rain gear.

I don’t remember the brand name of the cheesy, crappy, cheap rain gear I had bought before coming north from SUNY Binghamton (affectionately known as “Bingo” to the grad students), but they sucked wind, literally.  That day, toward the middle of June, the goddamned things split along all their seams and they were stiff as boards. Tim, a “close friend,” who also had the same shitty raingear, became so pissed, he took his off, stood them up next to the lab, and snapped a photo. This was during a lull, of course.

I envied the sourdoughs with their Helly Hansens that would last forever. They separated the boys from the men. Helly’s were the brand of the cognoscenti in Alaska and other Arctic regions.  With our shoddy, shameful imitations, we were cold cheechakos.  But, I was better off than some. I was an “old hand” by now, hardened by several summers in the Last Frontier.  And I knew what I needed. First, I went searching in Staukpuk (Big Store), the precursor to Walmart, but I was out of luck.  So, I got on the horn and called Big Ray’s in Fairbanks. “Please,” my raingear fell apart!!! I need some Helly’s and so do some other dumb asses up here.

Big Ray’s, being a supplier to bush Alaska, had them on the plane to Barrow the next day. After a long, cold, wet day slogging around in the mud, we picked up our packages at the airport and I hurried backdirectly to my tent.

They were beautiful! A dark forest green they were and totally made out of rubber. And so thick!  The pants were huge. I could wear layer upon layer underneath them. They had a bib that fastened with suspenders front and back, proudly reading “HELLY HANSEN.” There were two inside loops so you could hang them up by the front or the back. ”How ingenious,” I thought. The jacket, also heavy rubber and forest green snapped down the front and had a hood to boot.  AND, the icing on the cake? The tag inside the jacket said “Made in Norway.”

I put the whole affair on. “Wow,” I thought, “I am so cool.”  I was cooler than any of the guys that still had inferior raingear, as well as the guys who had Hellys in their other available color—bright banana yellow.  I kinda looked like the fisherman on a can of tuna-you know the one I mean-he’s got a rain jacket on and stands at the tiller, steering his boat through a storm.  Of course, he has a nor’easter hat on, which I didn’t have, but no matter, I wasn’t here to catch tuna and stuff them into little cans. No, I was here to discover the distant past and look good doing it.

By the time the summer was over, I had found many treasures and made many discoveries. My Hellys smelled like the seal oil we found in the old iglus and they were covered with the mud that appeared as the pits and the houses thawed. They were a trophy and a talisman.

I’ve kept those Hellys for 30 years and had many adventures in them.

In the mid-90s, I was in Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians. I had just finished a grueling day of testing a site in the rain and wind and, as usual, I was covered in mud. I sauntered into the Unisea Hotel (known for its paper thin walls) to change and ran into a similarly dressed man. Same Hellys, same mud. He was drunk. Really drunk. He had poured himself into a chair in the lobby. He looked at me and told me his sad story. “My tooth hurts. The doc is here today, so I’m going to have him pull it cause it hurts real bad.  I’m scared of the dentist. Always have been. So, I’m drunk.” I wondered if the dentist would even look at him.  Then he eyed me from top to bottom and back again. “Say,” he asked, “What boat are you from?”

Then there was the time I lent my Hellys to Kathy, a litter mate from ’77, so she wouldn’t be washed away in the rain of Prince William Sound. Well, she liked them so much that she decided to personalize them-so I’d never forget she’d worn them. When I next put them on, I saw that under my initials I’d put on the inside of the jacket, she’d written “sucks.”  Alas, my initials, “GLR,” have faded, but you can still read “sucks.”

My Hellys are so old I’ve had to replace the suspenders.  The original ones lost all their spring, so to speak, but I’ve kept them because they have the original metal fasteners on them. The new ones-they’re probably 10 years old now-have plastic fasteners.  Sometime in the 90s, the side and crotch of the pants started to split. So, I did what any savvy Alaskan would do-I put a bunch of duct tape on the rips.

I noticed this year that the duct tape is losing its grip and needs to be replaced. Like most duct tape fans, I have a roll in the pantry.  So, when I am next invited to go into the bush and stand around in the wind and rain, shoot the shit, and do a little archaeology, I’ll have a bright new silver patch on the right side, and people will still think I’m cool.

June, 1977

Leaving Umiat for Parts Unknown

I had arrived in Umiat by DC-3 three days before our crew was to go into “the field.” During that time I had the chance to become acquainted with my colleagues and decide who I liked and who I didn’t like. Of course, they had the same opportunity to check me out. Virginia and I were the tenderfeet. Brand new gear, not broken in, not dirty, little knowledge of camping out, not wanting to pee outside, our first journey beyond the west coast. We were instant friends.

Everyone else had more field experience than we did. Long legged Terry had worked ump-ti-ump years surveying in Texas. She was used to the outdoors. She had even sewn her parka by hand. Chuck was short, chunky, verbose, but he had experience in the north and, I was to learn, a photographic memory for artifacts (damn him anyway). 

Marcia and I bonded immediately because, having girl talk back in Fairbanks, we realized that our fathers had both died when we were five. Instant bond through grief, uncertainty, a little less confidence, maybe, but far more determination to see it through. She also brought more clothes and toiletries than anyone else and smoked like me.

Brian and Teresa had already lived in Alaska for years-they may have been born there, I just don’t remember. They were so swell, they brought their own tent and a great stash of marijuana and rolling papers. Then, there was Lovable Uncle Harvey, our fearless leader and an old hand from the Pipeline days. He was gentle and soft spoken, but authoritative.  It was Harvey who would go out on the first trip with Terry to choose a campsite that would be near water, but not in it, relatively open to see critters in the distance and to be subject to the breeze to keep the bugs away.

As I listened to Harvey explain how to load a helicopter and feeling like a real fool, I noticed that all the guys on the crew had beards. In fact, all the guys on the project had beards.  This gave most of them an instant Alaskan ‘patina.’

My attention returned to Harvey, wearing a navy baseball cap, yellow raingear, Bean boots and, beneath that exoskeleton, jeans, a chamois shirt and at least three pairs of socks. He was explaining where to stow the sleeping bags and pads, and the daypacks, the tents and the food.  It would take four trips to get the eight of us out to Howard Pass.

Harvey and Terry climbed in with Bill, the grizzled  sourdough pilot from Tennessee. The rotors came to life. Faster and faster they spun until dirt flew and we had to turn away from the spectacle and hold on to our hats.  When it was safe to turn around again, the Jet Ranger (seats 5 in the most intimate way) was whirring away slowly and steadily. Chuck took off his hat and started to wave it. The rest of us followed suit.

We then returned to readying gear for the next flight. Let’s see. Harvey had taken one of the big tents to put up immediately upon landing. He’d also taken the cooking gear and a lot of the food. In the nooks and crannies he stuffed some of the soft sleeping bags and pads.  I lit up a More. Christ, I was going out on the next load. I was having an out of body experience, or perhaps quiet panic.

Marcia came over to me, smoking a Marlboro, and told me to put my hat back on.  She told me you can lose most of your body heat through your head. I quickly obeyed and was quite grateful. Not that it was really cold. The sun had been up the last month or so and there was not a cloud in the sky.  In Fairbanks, we had been taught that weather in the Arctic is highly unpredictable and can change on you like that.  And that’s why it’s ALWAYS a relief when a chopper returns-without a means of communication between Umiat and Bill, Harvey and Terry, you didn’t know if they’d run into rain, ditched, or run out of gas.

So, I was very relieved to hear the whirr over the noise of the generator as the Jet Ranger grew larger and larger in the sky. Bill set her down, dirt and some unsecured day packs flying.  He shut her down and began to refuel. Bill said it was OK to start loading up. I grabbed a box with preserves, Tillamook Cheese, Pilot crackers, Kim wipes, etc, and put them on the back seat. More sleeping bags and tents were shoved on the floor. Gunny sacks were stowed in the rear compartments by the tail. And last but not least, Bill placed the one other cook tent on one of the skids and tied it down with bungee cord. He did the same thing on the other side for balance, although I don’t quite remember what else was strapped to the other skid.

It was time to go. Bill invited Virginia up front and I sat in the little remaining space in the back seat, pretty much surrounded by supplies of some kind.  The rotors roared to life, we rose up about 10 feet and hovered. The folks that had been standing around were all faced away from us their shirts and rain jackets rippling in the wind. 

I remember feeling calm. I remembered what the soldier at Fort Wainwright said: “Trust your equipment.” Well, OK, I thought, and took in the sites below and ahead of me.  Most amazing was the fact the floor back to the back seat was clear plexiglass. I could look down and see grass and lichens whizzing by. Virginia and I had headsets, of course, but who could talk? We gazed out at the bright green tundra that stretched forever, dotted by braided streams and marshy ponds.  It went on forever, and I mean forever.

To my left in the distance was the tranquil, although cold looking, Brooks Range, a series of impressive purple-black mountains worn down to smooth summits and dotted with snow. They were large, impassive, inscrutable.  And there was no sign that any human had ever seen this exact vista before us – except for Harvey and Terry. 

I spotted my first moose then, standing in a pond, eating the surrounding vegetation. I had never in my life expected to see an animal in its natural surroundings, free, untroubled, just ‘being.’  The whirr of the rotors startled him and he looked up at us giving us a good look at his giant nose and impressive rack. Virginia looked back at me, eyes wide with surprise. Mine were open wider.

We followed the Colville River for awhile and then turned south into Howard Pass. The mountains loomed closer and slightly forbidding. The sky had gone grey and it was softly raining. I was not thrilled to be out in the middle of nowhere with no place to get in out of the weather. There was, after all, no sign of habitation anywhere.

About an hour and a half later, a large dark green object appeared on the horizon. The cook tent-a happy sight, indeed. After Harvey and Terry had put up the tent. They stashed the gear in it and then themselves.  We saw them emerge from the tent, stand up and start to wave.

Bill set the Jet Ranger down and slowed, but did not stop, the rotors. This would need to be a quick turnaround to get the next two people, Marcia and Chuck as I recall, and come back.  We quickly unloaded the chopper, mindful not to go towards the rear and the tail rotor. As Bill lifted off, we fell on the gear to keep it from flying away. Harvey welcomed us with a big smile: “How do you like your new home?”  I have no recollection of what Virginia and I might have said in response. Perhaps we ‘squeaked’ something totally off the wall, I have no idea.

Harvey got us erecting the three tents that had come with us.  Might as well pitch tents and get camp going.  As I said, it had begun to rain and now it was raining a bit more heavily. The temperature had taken a nose dive.  Harvey advised us to put on a few layers of clothing. I ripped through my gunny sack, finding my down vest and LL Bean sweater. Virginia rummaged around for warm clothes, including fingerless gloves (to better pick up artifacts with) and a wool cap. 

We crawled into the cook tent where Terry was tending the Prius stove.  Water was finally boiling, so we sat in the tent drinking our choice of beverages: tea, hot Tang or instant coffee. I went with the java, not having developed a taste for tea and Tang mixed together-but I would come to love it.  We broke out a box of Pilot bread and a jar of peanut butter and began to compare notes and talk about the summer. I really had nothing to share. My sole field experience was south of London. I lived in a house with a family and was given a ride to the Roman villa every day. AND, I’d walk up the street at lunch break and buy a shandy. Mighty good.

This day, on this first day ‘of the rest of my life,’ the shandy and the villa seemed very remote and I savored my Nescafe.  It would be tough and scary, but I already knew it was the best decision I’d ever made.  The rain beat against the tent flap, but that ceased worrying me. I was with people who would take care of me. I decided to let the summer unfold ahead of me.

 

My "fob" and my "watch"

SIMPLE GIFTS

 May 2011

When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you can become bored really fast, or you can find certain mundane things way interesting—things you’d never give a second thought to at home.  You tend to whittle with your Swiss Army knife a lot, or restack boxes of pilot bread in the cook tent on weather days. You become impatient when the guy in the next tent is slow to finishing the Michener novel that YOU want to read.   You clean the shotgun – again. You take long naps, lulled to sleep by the steady beat of the rain.  You crawl outside to the cook tent to see who might be around to chat with.  On long evenings when the sun doesn’t set, you might go outside play a little banjo and guitar while sitting on a 5-gallon tank of Blazo and let the light wind blow through your hair so you look kind of sexy even though you haven’t taken a shower in a month. 

I acquired two precious gifts during lulls in activity. The first is a collection of items on a “fob” of sorts. The fob itself is string—the kind of string you use to delineate squares in an archeological site or to hang a plumb bob from. On the string are attached multiple items given to me by Randy (well, we called him Randrew) at Ivotuk in 1978, while we were digging the Lisburne site. I had a bunch of things in my jeans pockets that were always getting mislaid and put in the wrong pocket or left behind in my tent.  One evening during our after dinner “social hour” in the cook tent, Randrew noticed I was digging into my various pockets one night and took out a long piece of string and said, “Why don’t we put those things all on one piece of string so you don’t lose ‘em?” He said this with his flat Minnesota accent while a Winston hung from his lips. So, I emptied my pockets of all the stuff I had in them and put them on the “dining room” table.

I had a metal fire starter from the previous summer when I worked with Harvey. That went on it. Then Randrew took my plastic pencil sharpener and added that. Next, my bear whistle was attached, then my 10X hand lens to study artifacts with (I also used it to magnify my fingernails to admire the  dirt) . The piece de resistance? A single ‘serving’ of toilet paper, wrapped in heavy duty cardboard from the vintage military C-rations supply of food and incidentals that we never used. “Wow,” I thought, “This is beginning to be really something.” But that wasn’t all-I knew that something was missing, so I dug deeper into a pocket and found my P-38 can opener, also from the C-rats supply.  The can opener, not to be confused with the famous P-38 fighter airplane from World War II, was great. I used it all the time, even though it was right handed and I’m a lefty. 

Then Randrew, in a grand gesture of friendship, unfastened the zipper pull from his down vest and put it on my “fob of treasures.” It was, and still is, quite handsome—a fluffy looking goose sitting on the word “COMFY.”  I was very pleased with the entire creation. I immediately strung it off my belt loop and wore it constantly.

Today, it is a shadow of its former self. The plastic end of the fire starter broke one day when I was walking through the brush and caused the fire starter to get lost. The toilet paper fell off the next day that it rained and turned to mush. I regret that I don’t know when I lost the hand lens, which, by far was the most valuable item on the fob. I still have the whistle, P-38, pencil sharpener, and “COMFY” zipper pull. 

I also have a pocket watch, sans hands, with a bullet hole through it and attached to a leather thong. The watch belonged to Tim. He had it hanging from a belt loop by the thong.  It had only cost him five dollars, so it’s of little surprise that it broke not soon after we arrived back at Ivotuk in 1979. He cursed for quite a little while when the ticking stopped and no amount of winding would start it up.  Of course, since I had a crush on Tim, I asked for the watch. He looked at me like I was nuts, and handed the watch over.

One evening after dinner, I was listening to Mr. Mike bull shit about his days on the Alyeska pipeline, turning the watch over and over in my hands. He looked at it and said, “Georgeie, I can make that watch into a real keepsake. I’m going to shoot the fucker right in the middle.” Tim, Susan, Pete and I looked at him like he was nuts (which he tended to be) and someone, Pete, I think, told him he was full of shit and he couldn’t do it.

We all went outside into the late evening sunlight. Mr. Mike grabbed a wooden stake from the supply tent, went a little distance away from the tents, and pushed the stake into the ground.  He then hung the watch by its fob from the top of the stake, came back to where we were standing, knelt down and said, “Yup, I’m gonna shoot that sucker and give you something to talk about.” He aimed, then slowly pulled back the trigger. I held my ears. KABLAMM!!!  He then calmly walked over to the stake pulled it out of the ground with the watch still attached to it and came back to show us the evidence of his great skill.

The damn thing had a hole clean through it right below the center and above the “6.” The hands were blown off, leaving an odd prize for some future archaeologist or ground squirrel to find. Mike presented the watch to me. “There,” he said,  “for your children’s children’s children.” “Wow,” I said. I looked at the watch lovingly, as did the others, then stuck it in my pocket, delighted with my new possession.  “I must be the only person in the world to have such a wondrous keepsake,” I thought.

I proudly display both the watch and the fob in my home today, almost 35 years later. I treasure these items and the memories they bring back. They are junk to everyone else, but I suppose we all have belongings like these-intensely personal and nostalgic. When I am cremated I hope to have these gifts placed in my box to accompany my mortal remains into the afterlife.  How can a person pass into the great beyond without her P-38, broken watch and a bear whistle?

 

MR MIKE MURDERS A GROUND SQUIRREL 30 JAN 2011


Ground squirrels are the northern version of the prairie dog—they sit up on their haunches with their little paws held in front of them and sniff the breeze with their cute little whiskers.  Sometimes they switch or twitch their little tails and make an adorable squeaking sound that has given them the name ‘sik-sik’ by the Eskimo. 

They hang around camp and, at first,  are shy and curious.  After a few days of smelling canned bacon and that old standby, mac and cheese made with powdered milk and Tillamook cheddar, they grow a tad bolder. Pretty soon, when it’s your turn to make breakfast, you notice a quiet rustling near the front or side flap of the cook tent. 

Then, one day, there’s a hole in a box of oatmeal and a little pile of ground squirrel turds on the stack of freeze-dried food cartons you use as a seat.  It’s at this point that they cease being cute.  You stand up and begin to swear as the backside of the newly-fat waddling rodent retreats into the wilderness.

Then, someone vows to do something. In our case, near the Killik River, that summer of ‘79, Mr. Mike had had it. Now Mr. Mike is a bone fide, genuine, Arctic he-man with forearms the size of small trees and a reddish beard so masculine, I would routinely become lightheaded when he lumbered over to see what fun I might have found in my square.

Mr. Mike also liked to shoot things. It was just something he did. He once even shot my pocket watch (but that’s a story for another day). Bear, caribou, wolverine,  ptarmigan, ducks, fox, and the odd mutt fled when he cocked the trigger on his shotgun.

That day, the ground squirrel had left a trail of saltine crumbs beginning on the plywood board that was our dining table and continued on the ground and out the door.  Mike muttered words to the effect that the next crumb would be its last. He stormed over to the supply tent and grabbed the nearest firearm available-a 30-6 shotgun.  It was loaded with shot, or at least I think it was. It could well have been a slug.

I was smoking a cigarette outside in the warm sunshine when I heard the pump primed and then “KA-BLAMMMM!” “Jesus Christ,” I muttered. Susan and Pete peered out of their tent, rather like ground squirrels themselves and, near the creek, Tim wiped, zipped up his Carhartts and practically flew up the hill.

“That’ll fix the little bastard,” Mike was saying as he wiped his neck with his bandanna , as if he had just exerted himself greatly. The five of us were now looking up in the air and in the distance for signs of the sik-sik. Had he hit it?  Where did it go?

Then we heard the soft sound of rain on the breezeway between the  two big tents. “Huh?” we asked, collectively. Christ, it was raining sik-sik parts. Mike had emulsified the little critter. It had been at ground zero at Hiroshima. The parts flew up in the air, and now they were being carried back to earth on a gentle breeze.

The carnage was fairly gross. The breezeway was yellow. The bits were red.  One bit was large enough that part of a paw could be identified. The small particles hit the tarp and began sliding down toward the edges and then drip on the ground.  Pete took matters into his own hands.  In an instance of vigilante justice, he grabbed a roll of paper towels from the cook tent and thrust them toward Mike while yanking the shotgun away. “You dumb shit, what made you think you could point the shotgun in this direction? Boys and girls, a moment of silence for the sik-sik that didn’t know what the fuck happened to him.”

Mike shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about not having to worry about god damn ground squirrels again. As he wiped the offal from the flyway, his mind drifted to his camp at Grayling Lake. He would spend September there and kill many fun things. He smiled, and then started to whistle.

WHY I LIKE WM. SPEAR

January 2011

 

I once met William Spear at his shop in Juneau.  I had loved his enameled pins for a very long time and when I found myself in Juneau where he lives and works I had to stop in and examine his collection—no doubt, more goodies were available at his store than elsewhere. 

Much to my surprise, he was there chatting up customers and having a good time. Now, I had seen his photo and short bio in a book called I’d Trade my old Skidoo for You” by Nan Elliot. He is one of 20 ‘famous’ Alaskans profiled in this book, but I will tell you this: he is even better looking in person than he is in black and white.  His hair is that wonderful shade of white that oozes vitality instead of age.  The silver tones in his hair fit his youngish face with the blazing blue eyes to a T.  Some would say he is charismatic in appearance. I just lust after him.  He has a pleasant voice and friendly manner. Of course, not being a grownup yet (I was in my 30s) I was too shy to talk to him. What would have come out of my mouth would have been a cross between Ralph Kramden (habada habada habada) and Fred Flintstone (yabba yabba do). So, I drooled over his pins, paid him, and left. I probably said something cheesy like, “Jeez, I’ve always loved your pins!” 

He has a website—look for his link on my “links” page, or, to save you the trouble, it’s www.wmspear.com.  OK? It doesn’t get easier than that.  He doesn’t have an official bio, but here, in his own words, is how he describes himself:


"Okay, okay. age: in the 30 to 50 area. Depends who you ask. Birthday is January 2. Don't forget to send me a present. Formative years in Nebraska which is why I am so honest and hardworking. High School at Shattuck school in Faribault Minnesota . Georgetown School of Foreign Service same as Clinton, who was apparently too busy not inhaling to pay attention...considering forming an alumni group to have his degree revoked. What say you Hoyas? Tended bar at Clyde's there in DeeCee.

Law school at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln). Have lived in Alaska since graduation. "Professional career" follows that of Alaska culminating in being Chairman of the Board of what might have been the largest venture capital bank in the world at the time. A predictable political train wreck. A book describes me at the time as "a dreamer" as if that was some sort of pejorative. Decided I was no good at politics which ultimately depend on 1) appearances rather than reality and 2) compromise which is a euphemism for mediocrity. Went to Italy for a while to think this over. Came back and gave up the practice of law when it changed from being helpful in making people useful and productive into an insidious parasitic cancer eating our society alive.

Haven't ever had any formal training, but have always drawn and painted. Became fascinated with the pins because I felt that the ancient art of enameling was being debased by a bunch of yahoos sending a picture cut out of a newspaper to China and having pins made for their fast food franchises. Felt that if the pins were designed as pins, with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium in mind, and putting a bit more effort into the quality, they could be very wonderful items at a reasonable price. I was right. They were and are. The pins became something of an obsession, a general requirement for both art and enterprise. I would do pins as "little paintings" and sell them out of my pocket in bars. Eventually got some other more well known artists involved and sold to real art museums, but, CONTEMPORARY ART was a little slow, and I went on to other subjects, like natural history and have since become more or less encyclopedic. Hope you like 'em.”

Bill created a furor some time ago when I was living in Alaska by flying a state flag on the flagpole at his house. So, what’s so weird about that? The ground color was not blue, it was black, AND, his house is so near the governor’s house and the “SOB,” of state office building, that the governor AND the legislators could easily see it, as could all the turistas flooding into Juneau on ginormous cruise ships.

As an aside, I must tell you that getting into Juneau is tricky and all the locals have boats.  I would recommend the cruise ship or state ferry route. Why? Because you can’t drive to Juneau, capital or not, and forget flying! The airport is surrounded by mountains and it’s always foggy and rainy.

The approach is so steep the plane takes a dive in order to land, and then steps on the brakes so hard you get whip lash.  And leaving?  Hoo hah! In order to avoid the mountain to the south, the plane takes off so steeply that you think you’re going to the moon.  In fact, the pilot announces something like this: “Ladies and gents, I don’t want to crack up this fine jet on the peaks surrounding us, so we’re going to step on the gas, climb very, very steeply, and then make a quick and severe right hand turn. This way we’ll avoid the mountains to the south AND to the west. So, hang on!”


I have seen people cross themselves when taking off from Juneau. I used to carry a talisman—a stuffed animal—when I flew in Alaska. The smaller the plane, or the worse the airport, the tighter I clutched my little black cat, whom I called Petey.  Petey lost most of his ‘fur’ when flying in and out of Juneau or Dutch Harbor, or sometimes Sitka, depending on the weather.  I squeezed him very hard in these locations.

But I digress! Bill must have designed over 500 pins by now. He has special series of pins—bugs, airplanes, fishes (many kinds of salmon),  dinosaurs, birds, fruit, etc., but for me, the best pins are the limited edition Alaska pins.  He’ll do one for special occasions, like the Aniak break up festival. I saw a couple of guys wearing this one in Aniak, but I was too late—all were gone.  I have his “Café del Mundo” coffeehouse pin from Anchorage, and I see there is a “KBRW Barrow” pin shown on his website that I’ve never seen before. I bet it’s a goner.

My favorite pin, however, is a more ‘universal’ one. It’s a comet with the legend “Halley’s Comet Perhelion, 1984.” It goes well with his “rings of Saturn” pin.  I will take a pic of these as soon as I can find them. I don’t have a good camera, but you’ll get the idea.

Bill is on FB. If you friend him you’ll see him enjoying various activities such as hockey and get to know a little bit about him.  He’s fascinating with the kind of clever mind that I can kind of only imagine. 

Also, my friends, he is worth the flight. He’s worth the butt clenching, white knuckled approach to and departure from Juneau. The current and most recent governors certainly aren’t worth the trip and neither is the legislature. But Wm. Spear and the Mendenhall glacier make it worth your while to defy death (look at Bill’s skull pins—great!) and visit Juneau.

 

 

 

 

 

FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD 

October 16, 2010


It doesn’t matter if you’re out in the bush for a week, a month, or 6 months—you talk about food—constantly. 

Why?  Because you don’t get the food you get at home. No matter if you’re gobbling 3000 Kcals a day in the field, something is missing. Memories flood the brain with smells, tastes, and visions.  There’s the filet mignon you had the night before you left for the field. Then there’s beer or Coke, anything carbonated, really.  Real bread with real butter are a thing of the past. 

 The ghosts of repasts past haunt you as you chow down on your freeze dried beef Stroganoff powdered milk.

What, then, does the average field camp eat?  Let’s begin with the aforementioned freeze dried food.  Mountain House, the best at the time ands still a going concern, isis freeze-dried food masquerading as a candle light dinner. 

The Beef Stroganoff, IS kind of good, but it feeds maybe two people, not four, as advertised on the bag.    The ‘sour cream’ is convincing in its consistency and taste, as are the beef, mushrooms and gravy. Beef Stew and Beef Chili – not so much.  The Beef is, again, OK, but the vegetables-please! MH makes corn, peas and carrots, none of which rehydrate at all! They leave one’s body looking the same as when they entered.  If you ever have any doubt about what scat you’re looking at, if it contains bright yellow, green and orange, it’s human.  Ditto on the crunchy kidney beans.  No other creature will touch them.

For my second field season, Park Svc went all out and bought MH freeze-dried strawberries and banana chips.  You could eat an entire 48 ounce container of straight, but the banana chips and freeze-dried strawberries, yummy as they are, cause bloat, indigestion and lethargy. And you don’t want to end up with bloat and die upwind of your friends, just like that caribou carcass, not half a mile from camp….

There has always been the attempt to include ‘fresh’ food in the larder, along with freeze-dried. In Alaska, if you dig a cache in the permafrost, your stuff might last awhile, but it’s best to eat onions, potatoes and Tillamook cheddar cheese early in the summer. I must say, there were many times we’d save some Tillamook until later in the summer because of its wonderful tang, but a rind of blue mold must be cut off first. And, who knew cheese sweats? Not me.

Spices save the day.  You can dress up a camp dinner with curry powder, chili powder, onion powder or garlic powder—the more delicate canned spices like thyme or coriander-are simply overwhelmed by the gritty determination of MH dinners. 

Dessert?  Let’s see—canned apple sauce is a favorite.  That’s where you can really use cinnamon.  But mostly, since we walked 10 15 miles a day, the camp would delve into the candy rations—Snickers (my personal favorite), Baby Ruths, large bags of peanut M&Ms, 3 Muskateers, you name it.   After dinner drinks? Try coffee, tea or a combination of hot tang and tea. Dave M first introduced me to this in 1978, and I drink it still.

But let’s talk breakfast, the most important meal of the day. Freeze dried eggs could be scrambled but taste like styrofoam.  Like all freeze dried food, they have no fat, so the calories don’t stick to the ribs.  But breakfast was none the less a feast.  It was also the meal Harvey insisted on cooking for his crew in 1977.

We would wake up to the sound of canned bacon sizzling in a frying pan and the smell of fresh camp coffee—none of this instant nonsense. Harvey was very proud of his sour dough starter. It had begun life far before Harvey had been thought of. It was the sourdough that Don Dumond took into the field with his crews in the 50s and 60s.  it was delicious-tangy, chewy, and when fried in bacon grease and covered with real maple syrup, a real treat!

Lunch had to be packable in our day packs. The central core of a field lunch is Pilot Bread, made by FFV (First Families of Virginia and available nowhere near Virginia). Pilot bread is, I guess, the new Hard Tack. It’s virtually indestructible. You can’t even dunk it in coffee. It won’t crumble or get soft in the middle. You basically got three pieces of Pilot Bread and took along a hunk of Tillamook, tubes of peanut butter (Skippy extra chunky) and Sunny Jim preserves from Canada.

 Sometimes we’d drag a can or two of Underwood Deviled Ham or Roast Beef (called Roast Beast by Chuck—constantly!).  We each carried a full canteen that could be replenished with cold mountain water during the day.  Sunmaid raisins were a popular snack, as was gorp, made from M&Ms, raisins and granola. The midday meal was topped off with Carnation breakfast bars and additional chocolate, especially if it was a cold day.

Returning to camp at the end of a long day, you knew someone would already be boiling water for spaghetti maybe, or getting the freeze-dried food ready for human consumption.  If one of the guys got home early enough, fresh grayling would be caught and cooked in a frying pan with either Crisco or olive oil.  These juicy fish were so flavorful and delicate tasting that just simple salt and pepper turned them from good to great. 

On my birthday, July 7, 1977, I was treated to a grayling feast and a birthday cake made of Krusteaz pan cake mix, powdered mile, a lot of grease, and fresh blueberries.  It is the best birthday meal I have ever had. The purple mountains provided a backdrop like no other and the company was terrific.

BELOW: CARHARTTS, A LOVE STORY

Part of the huge collection of Carhartts at the Army Navy store on 4th Avenue, Anchorage

The famous Carhartt logo

Richard's very used pair of Carhartts-they practically stand up by themselves!

June 12, 2010

CARHARTTS


Cool guys wore Carharts in the field – biologists, archaeologists, airplane mechanics, surveyors, any style conscious Alaskan, really.  Carharts are like jeans, but they’re heavier in weight.  They’re a nice caramel color that I find quite appealing. The rivets are a wonderful contrasting gold color, as is the zipper.

However, most of the guys bought them not as a fashion statement, but for their durability.  Not only are they heavier, they also have triple-stitched seams and double front panels from mid-thigh down to below the knee. The double panels perform two functions-they’re an extra layer against the elements and they cushion your knees better while kneeling in your pit. An additional plus?  Because they’re made of heavyweight cotton duck, they keep the bugs out.  In fact, I have seen mosquitoes trying to pull their probisci out of the material in vain. Easy targets then, the mosquitoes. 

Another reason that people like wearing Carharts in the bush is the right side carpenter’s pocket for all your surveying stuff. You can’t quite fit a notebook in it, but a ruler, 10-meter tape, and mechanical pencils are easily accommodated. The notebook goes in one of the two back pockets. The other back pocket is for your can of snoose. 

Carharts are incredibly stiff when new. It takes more than a few washings to break down some of the stiffness.  There is another way to make them soft, however.  And that is this-go out into the boonies, get dirty and don’t wash them (or yourself) for the summer.  The aroma of a dirty body is not only another way to fend off bugs (the third is smoking), but also a way to deter bears from coming close. Just pray the wind doesn’t change and you’re downwind of the grizz.

After my first couple of summers on the North Slope of Alaska, I realized that if I, too, wore Carharts, I could be one of the in-crowd.   So, at the end of the field season, and having a couple of days in Fairbanks to kill, I went downtown to Big Rays to get suited up. I picked out the Carharts area immediately. There were pants,  pants lined with flannel, bib overalls, jackets and even baseball caps with the “C” for Carharts emblazoned on each item.  The logo on the pants is smartly displayed on the right rear pocket, right over your can of snoose. 

I tried on a pair in what I thought was my right size, an embarrassing 36.  They swam on me. I finally slipped into a 32.  I was very pleased with myself even though I knew I would take a 36 in any other pants.  But here’s the rub-the handle of the zipper is teeny. Teeny, tiny. You can hardly grasp it between thumb and forefinger. I wondered how the big guys with ham-fisted hands could even feel the thing.  Nonetheless, I was happy and gladly paid the twenty dollars or so that they cost. I also picked up extra monkey gloves and socks for the following season.

When I got back to Dave’s house, I put them on and showed them off, sashaying through Dave’s big living room like a model. He clapped and Grant whistled. I also added my own twist-I took my bandanna out of my day pack and passed it through one of the belt loops near the front of the Carharts. The red bandanna and the caramel colored Carharts were a classy, even tony, combination.  The only thing wrong with the pants was the stiffness. It would take me a year before they softened.  I’d also squat in them to stretch them out just so, to further break down the fibers.

A couple of years later, they were finally broken in. They were even beginning to wear thin in some places. They hugged my thighs where I wanted them to hug and bagged slightly toward the calfs and feet. I looked like a sourdough.  Importantly, I looked like I fit in with the Alaskan crowd with my great pants, Bean boots, red bandanna jauntily tied through the pants loop, fraying plaid shirt with a pack of cigs in the breast pocket, and a Peterbilt baseball cap.

I wish I could say I still had those pants and the blue jeans version I bought several years late, but they disintegrated.  But Carharts still live.  They’ve gone big! They have an awesome website. You can now get men’s pants in traditional, dungaree, relaxed, and loose fit! And there’s a woman’s section as well. You can buy Carhart accessories-work bags, socks, caps, gloves and belts. Most amazing is that you can click on “Carhart Europe.”  They’re sold in Munich and Prague and Rotterdam!

I’m relieved to know that Carharts are still in action and that the original pants are still for sale, although they cost more now. I’d get a pair here in DC, but it wouldn’t be the same. Next time I go to Fairbanks, I’ll find my way to Big Ray’s and buy me a pair.

June 12, 2010

MY FIRST DAYPACK

When I went to Alaska in 1977, I came with one backpack full of stuff. The concept of a smaller pack for day use was foreign to me. Apparently it was foreign to others on our expedition as well.  When our gear was inspected, most of us were found woefully unprepared, especially those of us from the east coast. I had only camped out once. That was in the early 60s as a Girl Scout. Actually, we slept in wall tents-I wouldn’t know how to pitch a tent if you paid me.

The lot of us caravanned from the University campus where we were staying to downtown Fairbanks (aka Squarebanks or Bareflanks) to Big Ray’s Army Navy, the mecca for work clothes in Interior Alaska and the Bush. You could buy rifles, knives, bug dope, hanks of rope, fishing rods, clothes, sleeping bags-anything.  Because I was so underequipped, I bought two plaid shirts, two pairs of jeans, an untold number of socks, a couple of bandannas, bungee cord (just in case) and my first day pack.

I selected the daypack carefully. I wanted something that wasn’t too big, because I didn’t want to carry a lot of heavy stuff, and something bright in case I got lost. My eyes fell on a smallish bright yellow pack with one main compartment and a handy zippered pocket on the back. It had nicely padded shoulder straps that were adjustable. It cost less than ten dollars in 1977. It was not the best quality and would probably cost about fifteen dollars in 2010.

Once we flew north to Umiat then out into the bush in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) way near the north coast of Alaska, our crew reconnoitered that first day to begin surveying and I learned what all got stuffed into a not-so-large daypack: rain gear, spare socks, huge honking stakes for marking archaeological sites, metal site markers to be wound around the stakes, my matches and cigs, a fire starter, 10-meter tape, notebook, trowel, file, extra sweater, topo map, canteen full of water, space blanket, extra pencils, my Buck knife, bug dope, some water proofing grease for my boots, and lunch.

Lunch?  I didn’t think I could fit another bloody thing in my pack, but I wanted to eat, so I rummaged through our food cache and selected Pilot bread (a kind of hard tack), some Tillamook cheese, peanut butter and jelly, devilled ham and a load of breakfast bars.  Actually the food was split among our party of three-Brian, Teresa and me. 

I hoisted my yellow daypack on my shoulders-not too bad, I thought, and lit a cigarette. Of course I had another pack in my breast pocket along with a Bic lighter. The cigs were an unhealthy indulgence, but the lighter could always come in handy as a fire starter if needed or to keep the end of a cord from fraying. 

But wait, there’s more! Someone had to carry the 50-meter tape and the shotgun. I quickly volunteered for the tape, not wanting anything to do with the shotgun. The double-ought six was a huge thundering thing. It was our collective experience that sometimes, going through brush, the shotgun would hang up on a bush and the safety would come undone. Plus, I had a phobia of loud noise. Firing it once back in Fairbanks the week before had been nothing short of traumatic.  Brian slung the shotgun over his right shoulder with no comment. Obviously, I was the newbie, and Teresa, who was his wife, was a tiny person. I don’t think she was even five feet tall.

I loved my daypack. I emblazoned my initials on it with a black magic marker one morning early in the field season. Because it was so cheap, it began to fall apart almost immediately.  Those with more experience than I had in coping with the great outdoors (everyone) told me not to worry. Anything could be fixed with dental floss and duct tape. 

Soon, my pack had a protective silver layer of duct tape across the bottom to fix a rip caused by my inexpert placement of my Buck knife inside without its sheathe.  My shoulder pads were attached to the yellow fabric with dental floss where the original black thread had pulled out.

Often, I would use it as a pillow in my tent while reading or during our lunch breaks in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, I would prop my feet up on it.  It was as useful as it was versatile.  It lasted about three summers, max.  After all the zippers jammed so that the contents routinely spilled out, I shit canned it when I got back to grad school in the fall.

I don’t remember my second daypack. Only the first. I can see the bilious shade of yellow to this day. It saw as much wear as I did those first few years in Alaska.

 March 2010

CAMP COFFEE

After relying on Folgers crystals for instant pep in the morning our first summer in the Brooks Range, Harvey, Pat and I decided that brewed coffee would be far superior.  Chuck really didn’t care one way or the other because he didn’t drink coffee. Chuck was odd in other ways, too. He was, and probably is, a Republican-  not the most popular ‘persuasion’ among archaeologists.

But, I digress.  Camp coffee became a ritual in the morning. You’d crawl out of your sleeping bag half dressed, if possible, quickly pull on your Carharts or wool pants,  grab your wool hat and down vest, step into your boots w/out lacing them up, unzip your tent flat, and go outside to pee. 

After that ritual, you piled into the cook tent with the others where Harvey was already cooking breakfast.  Sometimes, Harvey’s soft and soothing voice was what awoke me up. Sometimes it was the smell of bacon and the sound of the sizzle.

One burner of the Coleman was devoted to the bacon and then to the sourdough pancakes, cooked in the bacon grease. The other burner was devoted to coffee.  Ah, how wonderful to have real coffee instead of crystals. 

First you boiled the water, then dumped in the coffee.  We gathered around the Coleman watching the water darkening and the grounds rising and falling with the bubbling.  Then, when you really wanted and needed the “cuppajoe” right now, you threw in some cold water. The grounds quickly settled to the bottom of the pot, and then rose again.  You watched it for maybe 30 seconds, then took the pot off the flame, waited a few seconds and then delicately poured the thick dark steaming liquid into waiting cups. 

No matter how much was brewed-nothing was measured or timed-we drank it all because cold coffee is stale and bitter no matter where you are. Chuck concocted his own field drink of hot Tang with tea.  Not my choice, but either way, you have to get your caffeine in the morning. And, your grease! We had both in abundance every morning. 

Grease, camp coffee and a cigarette comprised my breakfast of champions-after that, I could face anything.

 CHEECHAKO

12/19/2009 - posted during the DC blizzard of 09

The letter said I’d been hired as a GS 7 archaeologist on the North Slope of Alaska.  I had been offered the job by the National Park Service, thanks to a chance meeting with people I had met at the American Anthropological Association meetings (AAAs) the fall before.

I had been minding my own business, waiting for a bus at the corner of Connecticut Av and R Sts in DC. My destination was a former college roommate’s house for a Saturday night party.  Also waiting for the bus was a tall, dark, handsome stranger of about my age (26) who began chatting me up. To make a long story somewhat shorter, he told me he was an anthropologist, currently living in Shishmaref, Alaska, in town to do some research at the Smithsonian Institution. I told him that I had just received my MA in anthro from George Washington University and that my major advisor was an Arctic specialist, Bob Humphrey.  Richard was half way through his PhD. work at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

We got on the bus and chatted so intently that we missed my stop. I don’t remember where we ended up having drinks, but, to cut to the heart of the matter, we were soon in my apartment.  Richard spent the night. I made him breakfast. He talked about Alaska. I was hooked.

We were inseparable for the next two weeks. He went off to do his research and I went off to work during the day, but we’d hook up and spend the night together either at my place or in his short-term apartment-just 2 blocks from where I lived.

I asked him to stay for the AAAs and he said sure.  There he introduced me to three people who were his friends in Fairbanks – Harvey, George and Ruth. Harvey and George worked for the Park Service. I’m not sure where Ruth worked-she eventually became a pilot and was killed when the Herc she was flying crashed into a mountain near Cold Bay in 1981. Harvey and George were obviously great friends, joking with each other constantly about their good fortune to be in DC in November instead of Fairbanks, or Squarebanks, or Bareflanks, as it is often called.  I met other Alaskans that week who were to form the cadre of my good friends in Alaska. Curt and Julie, who were about to be married, stayed on the floor in my apartment.  

Finally, it was time for the Alaskan crowd to go home.  I hugged my new friends goodbye and bid a tearful farewell to Richard. Harvey had mentioned a project on the North Slope the following summer, so I filled out an SF 171 at some point that winter and sent it in. I had forgotten all about it until that day in May of 1977 when I received the letter. The letter contained several enclosures describing conditions in northern Alaska. I thought to myself, “No one in his right mind would do this, even for money.” I’d be dropped off by helicopter with one other person in a remote area of the North Slope with one other person. We’d each have a back pack, walk about 10 miles a day and be picked up at some mythological “Point B” at the end of the summer. Suicide, I thought.  I glanced at the equipment list – included were “a good knife,” “boots, preferably Shoepacks,” and “rain gear, including rain pants.”  Added to these mysterious entries were socks of various weights, a bandanna, several sweaters, jeans, a down vest, a mess kit; the list went on and on.

Yet, I was intrigued. Alaska. Isn’t this what I had studied for? Hadn’t Bob Humphrey shown us Nanook of the North and hadn’t I sopped it up like a slice of bread sops up grease?  The thing about Nanook, I remembered, was that he had been a successful hunter and had fed his entire village that winter. Robert Flaherty, the director, became friends with Nanook and journeyed north into Canada to see him the following year, only to find that the entire village had perished. The wandering caribou had changed their route perhaps, or the seals were not as plentiful. You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom that day. Bob had lectured us about the fragility of life in the Arctic throughout the semester. I, the dutiful student from the NY suburbs, had copied this in my notes without comprehending what that meant.  The true meaning of fragility hit me in the class room that day and I was reminded of it as I reread the Park Service letter and as I tried on “Shoepacks” at Eddie Bauer on M St.

I tried to get into shape. I had never liked gym class in high school or college. I smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day. Yet, I started running around the block in the early evening. That was it! That’s all I could do. I contemplated giving up smoking briefly, then caved in to my nicotine addiction.

I was truly leaving DC, and probably for good. I’d come back for a couple of days the end of August, and then be off to Connecticut. It was a month of goodbyes, of sadness, of anticipation.  I cried a lot, smoked a lot and drank a lot. It was especially hard to leave my friends at US News, my college roommates, and my apartment on New Hampshire avenue, my retreat and sanity, a place I see in dreams to this very day.

I somehow got to Dulles airport – I have no recollection of who may have driven me. I do recall getting on the plane feeling very alone, then seeing, many hours later, the Alaska coastline from the air and noting that no roads connected the towns. Finally, I touched down in Fairbanks. I started saying “Hello” instead of “Goodbye.” I was ready for the adventure.

NO LUCK LAKE posted 11/09

 

The chopper carefully descended, then dropped the four of us off amid blowing wind and flying snow. It was mid-June 1978.  No Luck Lake seemed an unpromising place to begin a field season. However, there was an old NARL cabin there that had been used in years past. . NARL stands for Naval Arctic Research Lab, an organization founded during WWII that saw many experiments on man, beast and tundra.  Some of these experiments would be thought of today as dangerous at best, but that’s another story.

The NARL cabin was boarded up with a bear protection door – a piece of wood with long nails driven thru it so the business end would catch any grizzly (or polar bear?) as it tried to crash through it and disturb the tender morsels that slept within.  Once When Harvey and Chuck finally pried the door off, it came crashing down the dilapidated steps and landed on the tundra in front of the cabin, nails side up. Of course, as you might imagine, the nails were as rusty as hell. 

Pat and I, noses running, were busy behind the cabin digging a cache for our food. Our eyes wandered over to the lake, still covered with ice that was on the point of breaking up.  Through the snow we saw it – the fuselage of the old DC-3 that had crashed there in the early 50s.  Apparently, no one had died. Apparently, no one thought to clean up the mess either.  

When we broke into the cabin, finally, we knew we’d be safe and warm, at least for the first part of the summer.  There were four bunk beds and four of us. There was a kitchen area with no kitchen equipment, but a big flat surface to put the Coleman Stove on and heat up our wonderful freeze dried dinners of beef stroganoff or chili. We had eschewed the freeze dried vegetables we’d had last year; they left you the same way you gulped them down – intact and brightly colored, The corn was especially obnoxious for a number of reasons left unsaid. 

Later that summer as the snow melted around the shoreline, the four of us climbed down the bank and onto the old DC-3. The seats were still in place. They smelled really bad, but there was no mildew – it was too cold.  The nose had broken off and did not seem to be in the water – perhaps it was carted off for parts. We didn’t know, but it was likely that someone knew – maybe OJ Smith at Umiat or the Helmers, who had a large cabin near the mouth of the Colville. 

Troublesome was the gradual unveiling of a moose carcass next to the plane. As it got warmer and more snow melted, more of its sorry ass was visible. When the snow finally melted completely, around July 5, we could see that it was intact and bloated. Harvey said it had probably died last fall right before the first big snow. It hadn’t been ripped apart by bears, wolverines or wolves. And now, no creature would touch it because it was rotten. My big fear that first month was that the thing would rupture, spewing its insides around – and who knew how fast they’d be flying and how far they’d travel.  This was a new experience for us all. 

We stayed at the cabin for about a month, surveying the hills to the south of the lake and then making long forays east, west and north to barely vegetated exposed rock outcroppings that lay several miles away across tussock fields.  Tussocks are huge balls of grass that have grass growing out of them, kind of like a head of hair. In shape, they’re like Brussels sprouts, but bristly and of such a size (maybe a cow’s head, let’s say) that you couldn’t walk over them or between them. You had to kind of roll through them and avoid breaking/spraining/twisting your ankle, or, not so bad, but still obnoxious, disappearing up to your knees in ice-cold water that sometimes punctuated them.  Walking through a mile or two of tussocks put you in a crabby mood, and if the wind was down and the mosquitoes out, you felt so much the worse. 

The cabin was, therefore, heaven. One night while I was drinking a cup of hot Tang while cooking up a bowl of spaghetti, I looked out the back window to see an extremely large wolverine looking inside at us.  Jeezus, those things aren’t called Gulo gulo (glutton) for nothing. Wolverines have big teeth and plenty of them. I thought the animal was grinning, but he was just showing me his teeth. I told the others. Pat was so excited, she ran outside with her camera. Nothing I would have done, I assure you, especially since the sudden snow squall made visibility really bad. Harvey yelled after her, but Pat was undeterred. The three of us watched as she approached the thing. Luckily, it turned tail and slunk away. 

My thought went to the moose carcass. I knew that the wolverine would sniff it out and even if he didn’t devour the festering creature, he’d claw it enough that it would explode.  I never looked at it again; nor did the others. We simply went about our business of finding sites until it was time to push on to Storm Creek.