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Table of Contents
Life on the houseboat. Sled dogs on the boat. Answer mail I have received after six months in the wild.
Review who my friends are. Trading sled dogs with Norman Vaughn. Meet Sally. First wilderness survey job.
Sally arrives, runs pups. Relationship, pregnant. Together on the homestead. Forced march out to civilization. Jury summons. Trapline war with rival trapper.
Trapline rival almost dies. Illegal moose problems. Consider moving with Sally. More Fish and Game issues. Selling my art through Crafty Tim. A child is born, trade the costs for art, through a midwife. New homestead. Neighbor issues. Adjusting to civilization issues. Another trapping season out alone.
Rifle stolen. Serious neighbor problems, death threats. Trip to look for mammoth ivory on the Yukon River.
Nenana with mammoth tusk. Neighbor growing pot, paranoid, orders Al John off the river. More land survey work at Bearpaw River.
Tanana State Fair selling art. Tape made for GEO Magazine. Gene orders me to move. Sally afraid for her life. Trip up the river to Kantishna.
Life with sled dogs on the trapline. Ski plane visit on the trapline, my dentist.
Helping out young trapper goes wrong. More survey work. Set up at Nenana Tripod Days selling art. Stranded with moose hunter.
Stolen rifle story ends. Homestead paperwork issues. More Gene problems. Trapping again with the dogs. Moose hunt with the sled dogs.
Gene tries to kill me, no arrest, no police help. Community vigilante meetings. Gene killed. I’m #1 suspect.
Buy house in Nenana. Sally gone. Back on the homestead. Kill moose with knife. Snow machine trapping. No more sled dogs. Break down walk 50 miles.
Old times compared to now. Aggressive rival trapper moves in. Snow machine trapping described. Previews of book four.
I am sitting in my houseboat on the Tanana River, pulled over for the night with the sled dogs tied up on the riverbank, at least 50 miles from the nearest village or road. It’s a day like most others ‘except.’ Except I got a copy of the GEO Magazine with my article in it. The Alaska Special. GEO in Europe I gather, is the equivalent of the US National Geographic. I see the picture of the Alaska Husky on the cover. Dated December of 1987. I’m seeing it for the first time in summer because this is the first I have picked up my mail in six months. Thumbing through it, I see I am near the middle, a big double page color picture of me – Marten fur hat on – frozen moose hind quarter, with snow in the background. Another huge color picture of my Kantishna River cabin. Ah, yes, the picture of me ice fishing and the picture of the tent set up in the wild. The photographer was right; he could edit out the garden fence. I smile to myself. “If people only knew the truth behind the news and the stories they read and believe!” The visit and the events took place in 1983, four years ago. I cannot read it because it is written in German, but do note that it is eight full pages about me.
The photographer, Jean Eric Pasquire, is one of the best in the world and had just won the World Press Photo Award for his pictures of the Pope. Jean spent over a week living with me alone in the wilds getting pictures. I remember his words:
“Yes Miles, I was John Lennon’s photographer for a while. I mean what I say when I tell you I am not sent out on dead end stories. GEO does not send a photographer to do uninteresting stories about unworthy people. John asked the same things as you – why me? – What is the big deal? What is the fuss about – it is all a sham. You Miles, like John Lennon, are one of the best in the world at what you do, and that’s why I’m here to record it.” Impressive words. However, words are cheap.
You told me once, hunters in the lower states have to wear red vests with numbers on them in order to legally hunt. How can that be true? Who would put up with that? Can the government really tell me how to dress? Order me to buy a uniform? Arrest us if we do not dress like a dandy? That seems impossible. It’s hard to sort fact from fiction.
Ice skates make only a slight sound on the ice as I move along faster than I could run with so little effort. Under overhang willows with snow, up a creek with grass as tall as I am, three feet on either side of me and on to the next lake and the next swamp. No human signs. No tracks in the snow on the edges except wild creatures. Mink and otter mostly, but a few lynx mixed in with the rabbit tracks. I do not set any traps this direction because it is a dead end when running the sled dogs. I’d have to backtrack all the way. I’d rather run the loop I am still working on. About 100 miles. Maybe four days to complete. Unsure how that would work if I am also getting to Nenana regularly. Maybe I will run a 50 mile loop this year. A day or two out, a day or two back. Into Nenana once a week. Thinking of this as I ice skate miles from home base. Here is a spot where a swan froze in the ice and fox have been feeding.
The entire cabin is up in five days. Inside can be 8 x 6 or so. Such a cabin may last 10 years, and can be easily replaced with another five days work, maybe in a different location since good trapping usually requires moving around a little, and not hitting any one spot hard for years at a time.
The plane circles low upon seeing me, and searches for a place to land. My trail passes through a meadow. A long stretch of short grassy dried up slough. Perfect for a ski plane to land. It allows the pilot to walk the dog trail to the cabin just ahead. When I see who it is, it is my dentist friend Dave!
“Dave how are you! I thought you might be Fish and Game!” he laughs as he puts his hand out to shake mine. We have talked before about governments and rules and such topics, the ability or inability of man to govern himself without a stick.
“Miles, I was pulling teeth this morning and wanted a break, so flew out to see if you are around. I saw your trail and followed it.” Dave has been my dentist for a lot of years now, and has become a friend. We trade my art work for his dental work. I get my teeth cleaned once a year or so. He looks my teeth over and lets me know if I have any upcoming problems with my teeth I need to know about. It amazes me that he can run my trapline looking for me. A trip that takes me four or five days with dogs, that takes him under an hour with a plane. It is amazing he can be pulling teeth, and on a lunch break, fly from Fairbanks out here to visit and get away. He has told me in the past it is a nice break to sit in a cabin by kerosene light watching me skin furs and talk about other things than teeth, then get back to work for the afternoon. “So Miles, how is the trapping going this season?”
“Sort of a joke really Miles” Jerry tells me, “it’s a false start. We stop, collect the teams, and restart further up the trail in Wasilla, where there is snow, no road crossings, and access to the trail all the way to Nome, 1,000 miles away.” I already know the race is based on the serum run when there was a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and no way to get the serum there. It was the days before planes. The serum was brought by train to Nenana, then trappers did relays and hauled the serum all the way to Nome.
I repeat the story a lot, it’s pretty exciting. Jerry was one of the first winners. He won the race in 1976
Sally asks about the snow machine I had written her about. It is hard to explain, and may add to a sense of me as a teller of tall tales. I have come to the conclusion that sometimes the old ways work better than the new ways. Progress is going backwards. But only for some situations and lifestyles. I have a snow machine, but it is wore out now and unreliable. I thought I could fix it and get it going good again. But no. I explain to Sally:
“Sled dogs are at their worse when you first get them usually, and get better with time as you find dogs that suit your needs, and you and they get used to each other. They rarely totally let you down. Maybe at first when you don’t know their limitations. Usually however, one or two dogs could get hurt, sick, or fail you, but I’m always able to limp home. It’s possible to begin dog mushing on a shoe string budget and have sort of reliable transportation that improves without outflow of money, as you have puppies and make your own sled and gear.” I’m not sure she is listening. It sounds like a song and dance. But I continue, “Snow machines are at their best the day you buy them, and it’s all downhill from there.
We take off like a bullet from a rifle. Sally seems pleased. But like that bullet, when we hit roughness there will be a collapse, a mushroom, a folding up, a slowing way down. Even a stop. Starting slow, like a steam roller, would be better. I watch the dogs and see the older ones will make it, and are already trying to slow the pace. The pups are young and resilient. But, after this trip they will not be pups anymore.
“Easy!” I yell. Spike, my dependable rock solid leader hears me and does his best to slow up the team. Thin ice ahead. We need to negotiate this, not go full steam ahead. “Thin ice,” I whisper to the dogs. I doubt the dogs know what this means, but I say it every time, the same way, same tone, so there is at least a chance some of the dogs connect the dots from one experience when I said that, to the next time I said the same thing. Or, I hope they understand my tone, if not the words. Or, simply pay attention more because I’m talking, and don’t talk without a reason. There is sometimes an uncanny communication going on, however it happens. “You might try the right Spike, but you are closer, it’s up to you.” Spike looks to the right first, as I suggest, then left, and chooses to go straight. Our very life is probably not in his paws. That would be an exaggeration. But we could go through the ice, get wet, get delayed, have a miserable time, if Spike screws this up. I’d have to stop, build a fire, sort things out, and it could cost us a day. We’d be wet, and a day without food. Been there. Done that.
The machine is on its side filled with snow. There is nothing to sit on so I am squatting in the snow at 20 below zero, in the dark with a flashlight in my teeth, so both hands can be free. Fingers are numb. The crescent wrench is not the correct tool for head bolts, and it is hard not to strip the square and make it round. With patience the head comes off. With patience the old rings come off. The new go on. An old tin can has been cut to put around the piston and rings and compress the rings so they slide down in the cylinder. There is good news that the cylinders seem okay and the rings seem only wore out. They should not be. So maybe there is some other problem, lack of oil, some abrasive in the cylinder?
But here in my trail are the tracks of a snow machine! “What the…?” Then I understand it is that dingbat kid who wants to share my trapline with me. Here is a trap he set. Fifty feet from a trap I set. He had told me last time he would stay off my trail, ‘maybe,’ but that he has his rights. And there is nothing I can do about it. Creative thought has to be given to what I can do about it. “These things have to be handled delicately,” says the wicked witch of the West -- from OZ.
When I get home I hear the kid cutting firewood across the slough at his homestead. Should we go talk to him? Naw. That didn’t work. We tried three times already. What’s the use of threats and having your bluff called? Why show your hand. Let him think I’m scared and backing down, letting him take my trapline and just wait. Let him weave his own rope used as the noose to hang himself.
I did not have to wait long. Next morning he goes up the slough and out my trapline trail. He does not know I am home. There is time. Firewood is needed and today is firewood gathering day. So, I head out the trapline trail the idiot went out. While cutting firewood, I happen to drop 200 trees across the trail behind me as I head home. The kid has a snow machine and the woods are thick. He depends on my trail. If my trail is not available he is screwed. I put the trail in. I can take the trail out. I am not obligated to keep a trail useable. I am ‘shocked’ if it turns out the kid is on the wrong side of the fallen firewood trees across the trail. Truly shocked and concerned. One needs to be careful out here in the wild. I was out cutting firewood and gosh golly was he out there? I hope he is okay. It might take- wow- three, four maybe five days for him to cut the trail open and get through? Think a person might die in that amount of time? Quite possibly. Guess we will find out huh? We practice what we will say in court if there is a problem that reaches civilization.