“Hello the cabin!” I holler to the wilderness cabin from the property line. Smoke curls from the log cabin chimney. I have set the ice hook and the sled dogs stare ahead at the cabin. It’s five minutes before a face appears out the door.
“Is that you Miles? Come on up and have some coffee” We are ninety miles from any road, and this is a trapline cabin along a remote river in interior Alaska.
For example it is extremely rude- even dangerous, to walk up to a wilderness occupied cabin and knock on the door as an announcement of your arrival. The sense of ‘personal space’ is different than in civilization. This would be similar to getting your face a few inches from someone else’s face with a smile saying “Hi” generating a response of “I don’t think so! Who the heck are you!” The property line is the equivalent of being two ft away in civilization. Bush folks are used to space. In the wild three people is a crowd, five might be the population of the valley. It is just good manners to stop at the property, line, or 100 ft or so away, and hail the cabin- in plain view so they can inspect you from the window. This allows those who are not used to visitors, or who have not seen anyone in a while to adjust to the idea, to get ready, to glance around and pick up a few things, to tie up the dog, put away the personal diary, make sure there are two clean coffee cups, hide the pot to piss in, get dressed, and other ‘stuff,’ that prepares a long unvisited cabin for company.
Also, when one lives remote the mind works different. There are bears, for example. An unexpected sound at the door may not register as something friendly from a fellow human. The first instinct might be, ‘bear at the door!’ It can sound the same, as bears often gently scratch, poke, push at a door while exploring it. The answer can be ‘Blam!’ from a gun. The bottom line might be that we may not need to understand why! It’s simply polite, it’s how it’s done, and anything else is out of line.
My friend and I ramble about the subject of ‘tourists,’ visits as we sip coffee.
“Yup Miles, in the old days cabins were left open for travelers to use, but folks don’t understand anymore how that was, there were rules. It was not just open to anyone for any reason!” I consider the possibility that folks were not even any more friendly in the old days, just ‘different.’ When you came upon an empty cabin with an unlocked door you could use it – if you followed the rules. It was not quite ‘free.’ You were expected to leave extra firewood, a note, leave extra cans of food if you had any, or in some way do an exchange, usually of services, if not goods. Folks helped each other out, but it may have been as much out of necessity and self-preservation as kindness. In earlier days folks depended on each other more, and this still holds true in some remote areas, and it can help modern visitors understand what to expect, what is acceptable behavior, what is ‘proper’ concerning using an empty cabin. In the old days, a visitor who did not behave correctly could be killed. It was acceptable to use an empty cabin overnight, maybe a few days, but not to move in, no to use up their supplies if this is not an emergency and you have a way to obtain your own supplies. Perpetually incompetent people were never welcome . Ideally you arrive with more supplies then you need and leave something behind by way of showing respect, paying your way.
It is ‘polite’ when passing through someone’s territory, to stop and pay tribute so to speak. In the old days there were tolls for the use of private roads. One big issue is the civilized person may not understand the sense of territory in the same way. It may be incomprehensible to someone who has no private space except the bathroom, how anyone can possibly consider 100 square miles ‘their turf.’ The entire white race did not understand as he invaded Indian country.
“Look around! Where is everyone? If it belongs to someone, why haven’t they made any improvements on the land they call theirs?” Yet to the Native, and to the bush person, the puzzle is how does one ‘improve’ upon nature, on the land as God created it? Isn’t it good enough as it is?
Yet civilization defines ownership as making alterations, such as roads land clearing, proof being this is how you get to own a homestead, ‘make improvements.’ I tell my friend,
“Ya had an issue on just this subject not long ago.” I had permission from the owner of a remote one room trap cabin to use the place as my trap camp since they were not around and had not been in it in twenty years or more. I’d give an update on things going on in the area, keep the place repaired. Dry it out when I was there with a wood fire and such. It was a useful cabin at the end of a 120-mile dog sled trail – about 200 dog trail miles from civilization.
“I depended on the supplies here after a week’s travel living out of the dog sled.” My friend understands, as he has lived the same way, so nods when I speak of the importance of every empty tin can, every outdated can of nuts. A rancid jar of peanut butter can be a luxury at the end of the trail. So, I press on with the story. “I had trails, cut firewood, and picked berries here in summer. I had a small garden on the river sandbar, set out fish nets in the places I learned produced fish for the sled dogs, had spots to go hunt ducks. I knew the area and utilized it, but nothing ‘showed.’ It never occurred to me to clear any land or ‘destroy the land,’ and call it an ‘improvement.’
I show up one winter at about thirty below. It is my first trip to the cabin after a weeks travel. There is a lock on the door and I cant get in. There is a pile of ‘my stuff’ out in the front as if it were so much garbage.” My friend whispers
“Dang!” I nod this is my sentiment as well.
“But it is not my property so what can I do, like from a legal standpoint? Turns out the owner sold the cabin without telling me. The new owner established their rights by tossing my stuff out and putting a lock on. When I contacted the new owner, the new owner turned out to be a very respected person in the city. His reply was:
“I bought it, so it’s mine. What do you mean you have rights to the area? You didn’t make any improvements” He had a map out and named the creek, named the dips in the shore where he hunted a duck once. As if it was all his discovery, and this is how he sees it. I see it as,
“Ok, he bought three acres of land and this is his, not the whole lake, trapline, fishing spots, duck blinds a mile away. Civilized folk discover that which has been occupied for thousands of years. Much is just a misunderstanding or different perspective or different set of standards. “We can fight and argue and be enemies, or we can try to be in the others shoes and see why they feel as they do.”
My friend and I agree it is wise when traveling through, to understand how those who live there think, if we expect to get along and have a good experience. So the bush person feels he has ‘rights’ not necessarily civilized ownership. Rights to trap fur, rights to fish, to pick berries to tie up a boat, to feed sled dogs, to pitch a camp in what is called his stomping grounds. It can be a huge area! Others are welcome to use the land too, as long as they are respectful of who was there first, and acknowledge that. This acknowledgement is stopping by to announce who you are, why you are here, how long you are staying. In the same way in civilization, you might get asked for ID, for similar reasons.
Many civilized people think this is an infringement and information that is private, not to be shared, wanting to hold their cards close. I explain to my friend who has not had experience in town.
“There is identify theft for example, folks who try to gather personal information in order to pretend they are you and access your reputation and money.” In the wild this is an incomprehensible concept. My friend is puzzled:
“No one can pretend they are us! How absurd! Ha!” Because we all know each other, or have friends in common. We could go a thousand miles and still, we could give the family name, and someone will say, “Ah yes I knew your father- you look like him” We cant hide well. It’s not possible to steal our identity. It is normal in the outback to say “Oh yes your mother is so and so and your family owned such and such and your child is married to so and so and related to this village, and that trapper went in business with so and so related by blood…. And on and on. In a sense it is a substitute for that ID in civilization, substitute for pedigree and who you know. So instead of offering up your drivers license for ID, you offer up ‘connections’ that can be verified. One good reason is, if there is trouble, and you are the suspect, those who you gave as reference are contacted and held responsible. In the same way a person says they have a degree from someplace, or work for the electric company. If there is an issue, your boss can be contacted., even to verify that yes, you are who you say you are. To not reply when asked is the equivalent of not showing your ID where required, saying you don’t have to and you have rights.
Ok fine we have rights, but it’s not how to get along. The only rights we have in civilization are the rights of the laws of the land if we followed them. In the wild the right’s are in the hands of those who own it, meaning those who live there, know it, and operate in the environment. Upsetting the controllers of the environment is like upsetting the police or local government. In a sense. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” As a tourist, you are a guest on someone else’s turf. We want to know who you are and why you are here. Bush folk are nice enough, just live by different rules. Sometimes scared and resentful of the civilized rules forced upon them.
Thus an appropriate way to get along when you greet a wild local is
“Hi I’m Miles, nice country you got here, I can see why you are here! I’m just passing through, on my way to visit the (name family or person) in (name the village)” . Or “Here fishing, hope to latch on to one big one to show my friends” Or “Working for (name a village person company) doing (name the reason- surveying- harvesting etc) and should be out of here (give an approximate time frame). Ideally followed by “Hey I got some extra (fish , matches, gas, bullets, -- useful bush stuff) can you use some?” Call it a toll fee. A polite way to acknowledge you are on someone else’s turf and wish to pay for the inconvenience and damage you are causing. In civilization it is like tipping the waiter, cab driver. Remember - someone other then you cut this trail in the wilds, maybe killed the man eating bear for you- tamed the wild so it is not really wild, it’s now habitable for visitors. You are using what is a big help to you that did not get paid for out of your taxes. Someone’s trapline trail, or access to homesteads etc., that someone brushes and keeps clear of logs etc. In civilization a city employee gets paid to plow the roads. In the wilds no one gets paid, beyond others who use the area chip in to help and tankful visitors show their thanks in some way.
“Yes Miles, so often visitors arrive and instead of offering anything they arrive with a need!” Need directions, need gas, need to burrow tools to fix the boat engine, need to know where the fish or the moose are. “Give me, give me!” I reply,
“ For sure if someone offers something instead of having a need, it sure helps!”
My friend wants to get caught up on the news, says,
“Hey, heard you had a friendly run in with The Pike Eater clan, As a White Man how did you pull that off, especially the Starr family!” I chuckle.
“Well I did not sneak by. I stopped to visit. I had my traditional sled dogs and not a machine, which they respected. I paid for some beaver carcasses for dog feed so they could make a little money. I offered a jar of local fresh honey as a gift. Before I told them what they already knew. “I’d like to pass through using your trapline trail, headed for Minchumina for mail, might like to come past a couple of times a winter if it is ok? I’ll see nothing and know nothing.”
My friend smiles because he knows why I added the last line. Because I am just passing through, not interested in trouble, and a lot of remote people have their own views on things like running stills, growing pot, hunting- trapping at convenient times instead of the civilized seasons, using local but illegal bait to trap, stuff like this.
“Like that gay couple over by….” I interrupt,
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Oh hey, I see you are reading that famous book, ‘Mad Trapper of Rat River,’ about that trapper that got shot after a long chase! What did you think of the beginning and how it all got started?” He sees my point right off.
“Yea Miles, Mounties go right up to the cabin door, then hammer on it, by way of announcing their presence. I’d have shot through the door if that happen to me!” I nod sagely without saying if I would or not, but many, maybe most remote people would, have the right to anyhow, it’s trespassing. “Same as if someone broke into some civilized home and hammered on your bedroom door.” It’s way beyond just not having manners and being rude!
“Got any mail going out?” I get up to leave. This is also polite, offering to pick up or bring out mail. If you are not known and trusted they may say no, but it is polite to ask. “Thanks for the coffee!” The dog team had a nice rest, and all dog are eager to go. “Hike!” I have several days of dog travel before I get to my homestead.