Adapted from Miles ‘book 1,’ Going Wild.
By Miles Martin © 11/20/21
The year is 1973. The Alaska Trappers association has just formed, the Iditarod is just getting started. There are no terms coined yet called ‘survivalist,’ ‘preppers,’ even the word ‘conservation,’ is not part of normal conversation. Mountain Man is a known group of outdoor types. If you want to bug out, be self-sufficient, go off grid, or be a homesteader, it is a good idea to know how to catch wild game, even fur, as you may need to keep warm, without depending on civilization. How to trap for food, make a simple living for basic supplies, is worth hearing and knowing something about…
The years of Ron Long’s presence as a fur buyer in Fairbanks are historical. Many now old timers I meet as a greenhorn from the city, with the big dream of being an Alaska Trapper mountain man. I’ve been out on the Yukon River here for a few months now. The pipeline haul road is just crossing the Yukon. I’m trapping near the Ray River. I walk out to Livengood in spring, about 50 miles after being alone all winter. This is what I have to say about my first fur and experiences…
All the books tell me the sets I’m making to catch fur should work. All I have is drawings to go by. The main animal that should be here, I read, is the ‘Marten.’ This is a lot like the Russian Sable, and since Alaska is only 50 miles from Russia, it could be the same animal. I think I recognize the tracks from the pictures, but have no sense of ‘size.’ Something is wrong with what I understand, but I do not know what. The animals are just not stepping into my traps. Hours are spent going over books, and going out to try some new idea, with enthusiasm and optimism.
“I’ve finally figured it out!” But I have not! Once again I go back to design the ‘perfect set.’ Yet so far, the animals are smarter than I am. My civilized concern had been being careful not to over harvest, take Nature out of her delicate balance. Considering what devastating monsters humans are, how innocent animals are.
I’m out on the trail trying a new trap set out. I am explaining it to my conscience. I talk to myself a lot, since I am not used to being so alone. If I tie this fish-bait to a piece of string, then hang the bait from a tree branch so it hangs invitingly just out of reach, I can put the trap right under it. Right where the Marten will have to stand to look up at it longingly! This is so ingenious and devious, I almost feel sorry for the poor sucker.
Next day, bright and early (more like dark, and early), at 5:00 am, I eagerly go out to check the set. This is what it’s all about. This is how I’m going to make my living; what I dreamed about all my life.
A Marten had visited. The bait is gone. The Marten didn’t bother going under the fish. He realized he couldn’t quite reach it. He wasn’t stupid, so wasn’t going to look longingly from underneath. He went up the tree, out on the branch, pulled the string up, ate the fish in the tree, climbed down, then laughed at me. Every day my diary is filled with a new idea, optimism, followed by failure.
Diary Nov. 16: I’m running three lines, 10 miles each. All 25 traps are out now. Still haven’t caught anything, and it’s been a month.
It is now time for ‘plan z,’ but I’m unsure what that plan is. A red ribbon is used to mark the spot where a trap goes, in case the trail blows in. I think I’m being clever, with the red ribbon idea. I do not know everyone uses red surveyor tape to mark things in the woods. I learn to check for traps at the set with a stick, or with my fingers curled up in the mitten, after pinching my fingers enough times. Each day that I go out, I think this will be the day I catch my first fur.
“Where is the darn trap?” I find the chain under the snow and pull on it. No fur. Snowshoes are put back on and it’s off to the next set. Traps jingle in a canvas pack on my back that I made from an old tarp. Frozen fish for bait is in a separate compartment. Military green down filled pants and parka keep me warm. My fox hat has the tail still on it. This is a hat I tanned and made from my first fox in Canada. Military surplus mukluks and mitts keep hands and feet warm. With the ‘snowshoe shuffle,’ I waddle down the trail (it’s like walking like a duck).
Dig—dig—dig. Wish. Dig—dig. Pause. Dig... but no fur. Hope. But no. Move on to the next set.
“Here comes the hardy Mountain Man checking on his traps in the Alaska wilderness; But wait, what is wrong with this picture. Hark! Do I hear this mountain man speaking of not catching his first fur yet?”
“This is no time to get funny on me!” I’m crestfallen. Next set. Dig—dig (this is getting old) Wish, dig. Snow flies. Tug pull. A tuff of fur! Dig—pull—dig. “Here she be! Our first fur!” Holding it up, so proud. But wait…
It’s so little. I frown.
“How come it’s so little? This is what Mountain men lived and died for?” We both look at the fur. It must be a Marten. But it could be a sewer rat, no, smaller than a sewer rat. Not much bigger than a baseball, all curled up and frozen. “Where’s all the excitement? The ‘close encounters of the third kind?’ Entries in the diary that speak of one day having no time to skin all the furs? This really sucks.” If you weren’t so stupid and young, you’d think this was hard work!
“What’s this ‘you’ stuff, huh? What happened to ‘We?’ I notice you do that when something goes wrong. Anyway, what other kind of job can a young, healthy, smart guy find where he gets to work 7 days a week, 10 hours a day without a day off, no vacation, pension, security…”
Don’t forget, a whole month without pay!
“Oh yes, did I forget to add that?”
So this is how I occupy my hours on the trail, talking to myself.
“It keeps us sane!” We both laugh. It’s not so much the gold, as the looking for it!
“Sounds so noble when Robert Service writes it, doesn’t it? Do you think he might have been full of doo doo?” We look at the marten again as we snowshoe home. It takes a full day to skin it from instructions in the book. I have to make a stretcher for it too, also from book drawings; by bending a willow stick. I’m beginning to think being a Mountain Man isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
But does he give up!? “No!” Did Joe meek give up after being mauled by the bear? Didn’t he crawl 200 miles on his hands and knees to the fort? Can we do any less!
I know now why it took so long to catch my first fur. I had no idea how small he was. My sets were all wrong, having made them for a bigger animal! I have to file the triggers, make them have a lighter touch, and set them closer to the bait. All the sets get drastically changed and I start catching Marten regularly. One problem is solved, but it seems 5 more are always popping up. My equipment starts to fail me. When the temperature drops below zero, problems show up with the stove. It is made of thin tin, which can be all right, but this stove has the wood feed from the front. Most stoves I had seen like this had the feed from the top, and now I see why. The salesman had talked me into this one. When the stove gets hot, it warps. The door no longer fits the frame, and leaks air. This means the fire can’t be controlled. The fire roars too hot, burns up the wood, then goes out after about 3 hours maximum. With a top feed tin lid, the bad fit would not suck air across the flames. I never get more than 3 hours of sleep at a time the rest of the winter. Because the stove gets hot, the hinges to the door overheat and break. Bailing wire fixes it, but it doesn’t line up even ‘close’ now. It surprises me that products can be made and sold that do not work, can’t possibly work. Anyone who ever used a stove wouldn’t design one like this.
Some idiot who doesn’t ever have to use it designed it. This begins a general distrust of depending on products, believing salesman, believing what I read about products, or that ‘the way it’s done’ is best. Don’t forget Depending on warranties!
At the same time my stove goes bonkers, the seams of my clothes rip out. Almost all my clothes have to be re-sewn. Anything made of ‘plastic’ shatters in the cold, like handles of tools and buckets. Fire starters sold to campers, don’t start, chemicals don’t chemical. So many things turn out to be a ‘joke,’ sold with pictures of people going out in the wilderness with confidence, endorsed by rugged individuals. The reality is a bunch of hooey.
Someone needs to write the truth! What happened to pride in the American product! If I am to die out here, is it to be because products I depend on failed me? Will I be making a pile of all this crap and leaving a note behind for society to see?
“It wasn’t the cold, it wasn’t starvation. It wasn’t bears. It was a hundred American products that failed me!”
Many years later I realize good products can be had, for ten times the price, from reputable companies I must discover, as they do not advertise. Products real mountain climbers depend on. Even later in life, I can recognize what works and make it, or find it at garage or estate sales ‘cheap.’ I even buy good equipment I do not need right now if the price is good, because hen when I need it I have it, so I am not in a bind having to get it new. If an item in a store says, “For survival use!” This means “We hope you never need to use it! It might work one time, maybe.”
Another store bought shirt seam gives out.
“Ho ho! Fooled again! Those slippery con men!” Where’s my warranty card! I want my money back! My conscience says indignantly. We both think this is hilarious. We, of course, can’t get in to town to say anything to anyone, so warranties are pretty useless. In the middle of laughing, I’m feeding the stove again. Just as I load it, the legs fall off. We both pause, and then burst out laughing. Like a three stooges skit, I shuffle off for the fix it tools. Tra la la la... I scuttle back. My conscience has been studying the job while I was gone, but I, the master, take over when I get back.
“Bailing wire!” I demand with a hand out.
Bailing wire! My conscience echoes, like a surgeon’s assistant.
“Pliers!”. Hand out again.
The legs are back on. “Masterful job, sir!” With a curt nod, I acknowledge the compliment and remove my surgical gloves. The crowd observing in the bleachers roars. I nod to the right- nod to the left.
Diary Middle of December: The sunlight is so dim there is little color to see. Everything now is in black and white. The temperature drops, and I’ve seen minus 30 below in the cabin—and 70 below outside. I’m not getting more than 3 hours of sleep at a time because of the stove. The quiet and great alone screams in my head. There is little to do now when I’m not trapping. The cheese whiz light is not enough to do any work by.
The ‘light’ referred to is a lantern I made from an empty ‘cheese whiz’ jar. There is a hole in the lid with string down in the diesel fuel. This is very smoky and has about as much light as a candle. The skylight is given up on. Snow drifts across it faster than I can clear it off. Anyhow, there is very little light down in this valley now. My candles had given out. I hadn’t realized how many hours of burning there would be, nor did I know how long a candle burns. I didn’t know anything about ‘lanterns,’ or assumed they put out about as much light as a candle.
Hey, if Abe Lincoln could live by candlelight and get all that studying done... could I do any less? Wouldn’t it be good enough for me? Well, now I know why Abe needed glasses! And was assassinated! Don’t forget that! The first time I light the diesel fuel in the ‘jar light,’ I said
“Gee whizz! Light!” just as the jar label said, so it became my ‘gee whiz light.’ (Or cheese whiz light). Light is not something the average town person dwells on. There is a switch, you flip it. There’s light. If it goes out for more than an hour or so a ‘National emergency’ is declared. I spent a lot of time thinking about ‘light.’ Where it comes from, and various ways to get some of it.
Diary date entries are meaningless now. I’ve lost track of time—do not even know for sure within a month what time it is. The moon is supposed to get full once a month, but whoever thinks about it, or depends on it, or checks it out. But maybe this will be a way to know when a month goes by. I yawn lazily between chapters in my book (one of the Tarzan books by Boroughs). I have to lean closer to the light to read, with the lantern only inches away from the words.
Hey, what’s that smell? I smell something burning too, so sniff the air. Maybe some trash on the stove. There is a sound like bacon frying. Hey our hair is on fire again! There is a lot of slapping my head and laughter. This becomes a common entry in my diary,
“Hair caught on fire again!” The light is not very transportable. If moved, the wick wants to fall down into the jar.
When the wick falls in the jar, the light goes out. It means finding the wick at the bottom of the jar through the fuel. Usually I have to empty the jar, first finding a container in the dark to put the fuel in. My fingers are wet from fuel, cold and numb, because the fuel is kept on the floor, and the floor is below freezing. With fingers that can’t feel I have to find the wick, and not drop it in the bark and dirt on the floor, or I will never find it till spring light. Once I have the wick, there is a tight fit getting it threaded through the hole in the lid. Often I have to put it in my mouth to get the wick to a ‘point,’ spitting the fuel out, sometimes several times, till it threads through. Finding the matches in the dark can be a project in itself. By the time it is all done, this is something I do not want to do again, so ‘the condition of the light’ where, and ‘how it is doing,’ becomes a fairly major concern. Even so, now and then I knock it over in the confined spaces, adding more diesel to the dirt on the floor.
Five gallons of rotten pee I’m tanning hides with falls over. How such a thing can happen involves a lot of understanding how life is, and could take a book to explain. I had to set the bucket on a box to get behind it to find something or other. Goods are stacked to the ceiling in cardboard boxes, on slanting pole shelves lashed with hide; uneven and rickety. I shrug my shoulders. There are a lot of things going on I doubt I can ever explain. Meanwhile, the place is smelling pretty ripe. There’s nothing to see. I simply accept being blind. I learn where everything is that I need, by feel. ‘Being involved in projects’ is a joke. Try ‘just staying alive.’
No, I do not consider it ‘hell.’ There is optimism for ‘next year.’ “Wait till I get a real lantern! More books to read! A watch!” They were all fairly simple, inexpensive things that I know will make life so much easier, and are easy to get. So I know all I have to do is ‘sit tight,’ survive this winter. There are a lot of positive things going on. The knife I created works. The soap I made, the leather I tanned, and made things out of all work. I learn how to trap and how to shoot. Most important of all I know I’ve got what it takes. I know I am not afraid of this, nor is there anything I will not accept. Many of the books I read are about primitive life, and now I understand a lot more about it. I can see ancient people with new insight, and it is a very positive thing to truly understand how it was 200 years ago.
For sure, accepting killing things, taking animals' meat and fur is a big part of understanding how life in the wilds can be. We do not always decide how being at one with nature will be.
I wrote 8 survival books, here is the link: Books by Miles on Amazon
Here is a video about my books: Miles books