“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”

100_0739100_0720100_0734When I was child, my favorite book was “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” Every night before bed, I’d make my dad read it to me. I got so good that I could finish the sentences for him. To this day, I still remember it: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day. We’re not scared. Oh oh! Grass. Long, wavy, grass. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve gotta go through it!

In Alaska’s Brooks Range, the words came back to me, but with a few new twists. This was my version: “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a miserable day. I’m sure scared. Oh oh! Mountains. Towering, jagged, cold, rugged mountains. I can’t go over them. I can’t go under them. Darn it! I’ve gotta go through them.”

I’d tramped through tundra, waded through rushing glacial streams, and wrestled my way through willows, but July 30, 2014 was the pivotal day–the Continental Divide. And, there was only one way to get over: through Gilbeau Pass.

The sky was dark and daunting. We were walking high up in a gray mist, following caribou trails through snow fields and talus slopes lining a cliff edge. I refused to look down. One misstep and I would be over.

Behind me, my father teetered back and forth, trying to balance his 70-pound pack and a 10-pound shotgun that was lashed to the side of it. His march was that of an oversized penguin waddling up the slope. Compared to him, I looked like a mountain goat. But, no matter how many times I offered to carry the shotgun, no matter how many times Chris and Dave, our backpacking companions, offered, he refused. He’d brought it along, so he was determined to lug it. Plus, if we saw a bear, he wanted to be the one holding the gun. “No bear in his right mind would be up here,” I told him. He smirked, “No person in his right mind would be up here.”

Coming down from Gilbeau, I spent a lot of time skidding on loose rocks. When the ground leveled out, I was eager to put distance between me and the high mountains, and I drifted ahead of the group. As I rounded a turn, there in front of me was the huge, brown-haired, hump-backed form of a grizzly. Ursus Arctos Horribilis! I wanted to yell for my Dad and Chris and Dave, but the words wouldn’t come. I felt like I had just fallen into “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt.” “OH NO IT’S A BEAR!” Except this was the real thing. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I couldn’t bury my face in my dad’s chest and beg him to protect me. I couldn’t skip to the end, because this time I didn’t know the end. And, unlike the characters in my book who ran back to their house and hid, I had nowhere to go. My only escape was up the side of a mountain, but I knew I couldn’t outrun the bear.  Even Usain Bolt couldn’t outrun a bear.

Rather than chasing me up the mountain, however, the grizzly took one look at me, turned, and fled up the 60-degree slope, looking more like a prima ballerina than a 700-pound giant. I had just come face-to-face with my worst fear, the monster of my childhood nightmares, and what had it done? It ran. I never would have guessed.

100_0708100_0727

The Summer That Never Was

 

Brrr!
Brrr!

In previous blogs, I’ve written about a condition called “bush-eyes” in which I dreamed perpetually of food I could not have. On this trip, a three-week trek/paddle over Alaska’s Brooks Range and to the Arctic Ocean, I developed something I call “summer longing.”

On the second day of our adventure, I awoke to snow. It was July 26 and all around me I saw – snow! My hiking boots were frozen solid, my clothes, left in the corner of the tent, were cold and wet, and my water bottle had a layer of ice an inch thick. Had this been winter, I would have shrugged my shoulders. No big deal, just another day in the Arctic. But, this was supposed to be summer; yet, here I was buried in a 0-degree sleeping bag, wearing a winter hat, ski gloves, thick wool socks, and four layers of clothing. The Arctic cold scratched at the walls of the tent. As I unzipped the rain fly and stood looking at the icy mountains, I tucked the T-shirt I had set out to wear that day into my pack. In the following days, I would dig it out and hope that summer might come. But, day by day, that hope dwindled and I pushed my shirt farther down into the depths of my pack. By day 5, I realized that summer, despite my fervent wishes, would not come, and I contented myself with little fantasies — lying in the hammock, a cool dip in the spring-fed creek across from our house after a hard midday run, picking blackberries in our back field, and eating watermelon, fresh from the garden. I could not banish the cold, but for a few minutes every day, I could have a small slice of summer.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act

IMG_2116This year, 2014, marks the 50th Anniversary of The Wilderness Act, a landmark legislation that set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of land for preservation and established our current definition of wilderness. In honor of this, my dad and I will be embarking on our 3rd and final trip to the Arctic. Once again, we will be heading into Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. My dad and I, along with two friends, will be hiking over the Brooks Range to the mouth of the Hulahula River and then paddling our canoes north to the Arctic Ocean.

Before heading out, I’d like to leave you with a little history on the Wilderness Act and its connection to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What was to become the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was the inspiration for the Wilderness Act. The northeastern region of Alaska was regarded as one of North America’s last great wildernesses. But it was unprotected.  Olaus Murie, a native Alaskan and director of the Wilderness Society, recognized the necessity of preserving this land. Accompanied by his wife, Mardy, he led a summer-long biological expedition into the heart of the region, in the hopes of obtaining scientific evidence to support his campaign to protect it.

He was awestruck by the areas wildness.  In the foothills of the Brooks Range he discovered thousands of free-roaming caribou, wolves, grizzly bear, and Dall sheep.

Emboldened by their experience, the Muries roamed Washington D.C., lobbying Congressmen, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Thanks to the Murie’s efforts, the Arctic Refuge was established in 1960. Four years later, the Muries celebrated another victory, the creation of the 1964 Wilderness Act.  While campaigning for the creation of the Arctic Refuge, Olaus Murie was working with his Wilderness Society partner, Howard Zahniser, to craft a bill that would protect wild lands across the country.  Murie understood that few people would have the privilege of traveling to Alaska. What they needed was the opportunity to interact with nature in their own backyards and experience it’s physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits.

Today, Murie’s dream is a reality. The Wilderness Act has set aside over 109 million acres of recreational land in over 25 states.

Growing up, I dreamed of going to Alaska, but the places that I loved, where I hiked, camped, canoed, hunted, and fished were close to home. Tomorrow, I will be traveling to the largest wilderness refuge in North America, but it was those formative childhood trips with my family that instilled in me a love of the outdoors.

Au Naturel

What I’ve found about my adventures in the Arctic is that they make the most amusing party stories. People are endlessly interested in Alaska, full of questions and curiosity. But, there is one subject, despite their interest, I refuse to talk about: the bathroom ritual.

It just so happened that on one particular occasion, it came up, at the dinner table, of all places. An effusive woman in her 60s said that she would gladly give up material comforts and live in the wilderness if it weren’t for the “bathroom situation”. Then, she leaned across the table, and asked, “Now tell me, what was the bathroom situation like? Did your little tushy simply freeze? Was there indoor plumbing or an outhouse? Or did you go au naturel?”

I almost choked on my pasta, struggling not to laugh. I tried to imagine this woman with her diamonds and pearl necklace and bright red lipstick, squatting in the snow to do her business.

Then I remembered what it was really like: crouching to pee in the woods behind the cabin at 2:00 A.M. while the wolves howled in the distance; baring my butt at 35 below and trying to balance it between two spruce poles, shaped like an inverted triangle, hanging over a 4-foot hole of human excrement. “Au naturel…” the woman called it. What I wanted to say was, “Does a bear sh*t in the woods!?”

But, that is not how a young woman at a dinner party responds. So, instead I laughed and put on my most ladylike smile. “The bathroom situation,” I say.  “It’s what you could call…” I thought for a second. “Rustic. Yes, very rustic.”

Arctic Eats

The Korths' Meat RackIMG_2049People always ask me what I ate in Alaska. In summer, it was Arctic grayling and berries. This winter, it was meat, meat, and more meat.

I came face to face with this fact on our first day in the bush. My dad and I had brought in provisions, and Heimo and I were transporting them back to the cabin. Heimo was driving the snowmachine (in Alaska, it’s called a snowmachine or a snow-go) and pulling me in a sled. As we were hurtled down the path, I turned to catch a glimpse of the cabin, and almost collided with the giant foreleg of a moose. Next to the foreleg was a frozen slab of mountain goat hanging from the meat rack, two shoulders, a mid-section and foreleg of something I couldn’t quite identify, and a caribou head sitting on top of the woodpile. I didn’t know it yet, but that meat represented the Korths’ winter food supply and our supper for the next three weeks.

We’d brought in fresh fruit and veggies, but they lasted no longer than it took to burn an armful of logs in the woodstove. Heimo went through the lettuce like a binging brontosaurus.

At home I, too, love my salads, but during the course of our 3 weeks in the bush, I became a carnivore. And not just a flesh eater, but a fat fanatic, a blubber lover. Back in Wisconsin, any sign of fat and I’d wrinkle my nose and pass it to my dad, dangling it from the tips of my fingers. But in Alaska, in the extreme cold, I craved it. “You gotta love that fat, eh?” Heimo would say as I grabbed the greasiest piece of snowshoe hare I could find. “There ain’t no room for skin and bones at 40 below. The only place you find that is in a pile of shit.”

Acquiring enough meat to last the winter is a major preoccupation for the Korths. They are always on the lookout for a wandering caribou or moose. But with enough meat hanging from the meat rack to last them until February, Heimo could afford to be picky.

We were hunting west of Mummuck Mountain when Heimo spotted moose tracks, a big bull. But, Heimo didn’t want a gamy, rutted-out old male. He wanted a young one, fat and tender. “We gotta get a caribou or a moose before you leave,” he said. “You’ll love the brains and tongue.”

I was happy to eat almost anything. But brains and tongue? That’s where I drew the line. So I was grateful, when we headed back to the cabin empty handed.

We’d been out for nine hours, and I hadn’t had a bite to eat since breakfast. As we rounded the final bend to the cabin, Heimo sniffed the air, and whooped. “Edna’s making speckle-belly,” he said. “Wait ‘til you taste it. There ain’t nothin’ better, especially compared to those Canada geese you got down in Wisconsin.”

I, too, caught the scent. It made my mouth water.

Edna was waiting for us outside with a big smile. “Speckle-belly,” she announced. “It’s almost ready.”

“I told you,” Heimo shouted. “I could smell it way up on the ridge.”

Thirty minutes later, Edna flopped a drumstick down on my plate. I went at it like a wolf to a caribou carcass, eating rib style, with a napkin bib, and a whole lotta smackin’ and finger lickin’. It was as delicious as Heimo said.

Over the course of next few weeks, I ate things I never thought I’d touch — seal, fish eyes, mountain goat, caribou organs (kidney, liver, and heart, my favorite), fat, gristle, and marrow. And, only once did my taste buds rebel.

On my Dad’s birthday, Edna prepared fried beaver tail. As I watched Heimo work on a marten fur, I could hear the beaver tail sizzling and popping in the frying pan. My dad had warned me that it would be the richest, fattiest food I had ever eaten. Twenty minutes later, I learned that he wasn’t kidding. It tasted like congealed bacon grease; it was the quadruple Big Mac of the bush. After just a few bites, my stomach felt as if I’d swallowed a can of Crisco, and I was feeling woozy.

Heimo and Edna had been watching me and laughing. When I passed the beaver tail to my dad, they laughed louder. “What’s the matter?” Heimo asked. “Don’t like it? Don’t worry, you still got moose brains and tongue to look forward to.”

The Arctic Icebox

38 belowGrittygal in front of the Arctic IceboxThey say that winter in the Arctic is a revelation. To that I would add the adjectives shocking, unkind and brutal. This winter, while my Dad and I spent 3 weeks in far northern Alaska, our home away from home was a 10 X 10, double-walled tent, called the Arctic Oven, surely a misnomer.  It didn’t take my dad and me long to re-name it the Arctic Icebox.

On our 3rd night in the bush, I woke to a chilled tent and a leaky wood stove sputtering smoke and creosote. It was 2:00 am, and I was cold, cranky, and coughing. For the third time that night, the fire had gone out, and unfortunately for me, it was my turn to rebuild it. On the other side of the tent my Dad was burrowed in his 20-below Arctic sleeping bag, snoring. Whining like a wolf pup, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, and grabbed a log, some paper, and thin-cut kindling. My hands were so cold they barely worked. I opened the door to the stove, and put in the log. Then, taking the kindling, I built a lean-to against the log, and stuffed paper underneath. I struck a match and held it to the paper, and then prayed for the kindling to catch. A minute later, I heard the sound of success, the reassuring pop and crackle of a freshly started fire. I opened the vents to give the fire air and waited until it was blazing. Then I added another log, triumphantly shut the vents until I could see only a sliver of light inside the stove, and nestled back into the depths of my sleeping bag.

Two hours later, the cold crept back in. But this time, it was my father’s turn to do the dirty work. I curled up like a cat and snuggled down deeper into my bag while my dad muttered something about the “damn fire” and the “crappy sheet metal piece of **&%$@! that needed stove cement.”  Then I heard him shut the stove door and felt the icy tent slowly warm.

When I woke that morning, I was shivering. I could see my breath rise out of my sleeping bag in a cold cloud. The log that my dad had added before leaving the tent and letting me sleep was now smoldering in the stove, giving off little heat. My body was stiff and slow to respond, but I wrestled myself out of my bag, and dressed hurriedly by the light of my headlamp. Then I poked my head outside. The air was frigid, but Heimo and Edna’s cabin chimney was puffing smoke. I jumped out of the tent, closed the flap behind me, and made a mad dash. I darted in, almost banging my head on the low-cut door that Heimo had built small to contain the cabin’s heat on the coldest winter days.  “Good morning,” I mumbled, crouching as close to the big stove as I could without burning myself.

“Good morning, Ms. Aidan,” Heimo said.  “Thermometer says 38 below. How’d you sleep?”

“Long night,” I replied. My dad nodded his head in agreement.

“Bet you’re wishing it was summer,” Heimo laughed.

Could it be? In summer, while peeling cabin poles for hours on end, I had cursed the hot, sweaty sun and the hungry clouds of mosquitoes. But, given the choice, I would gladly choose mosquitoes and 24 hours of light over minus 38 degrees. In fact, I wanted nothing more than to den up like a hibernating grizzly and wait until the sun and warmth returned. Or, better yet, to call the trip off, fly home, forget the extreme cold, and say good-bye to the Arctic Icebox forever. But that wasn’t going to happen. I had 18 more days left.

Too much Winter

Rundown Mountain
Waning light. The sun officially sets on December 3rd.

There they were, two large duffels and one backpack, all packed to the point of bursting, a month’s worth of extreme cold weather gear that included snowshoes and pants, parkas, expedition suits, bunny boots (cold weather boots), gaiters, sleeping bags, gloves, mittens, bomber caps, hand warmers, foot warmers, fleece jackets, scarves, socks, long underwear, face masks, skis, and ski boots.  For the past two weeks my dad and I have packed, unpacked, whittled down, and repacked, ever mindful of Heimo’s story about poor ‘ol frozen Roy (Blog August 22nd: The Cold Here Can Kill Yah) and of Jack London’s warning. The Arctic, London said, could kill a man a thousand different ways.

My issue with the Arctic is the cold. Like my mom, I’m warm-blooded.  My father and two sisters can leave the house in the middle of winter in jeans and a sweater. But not me; I run cold. Opening the freezer to pull out a pint of ice cream makes me shiver. In winter, I dream of places like Costa Rica. The Arctic conjures images of pre-Perestroika Siberian penal colonies.

But, there’s hope. Thanks to the generosity of Clam Outdoors (Medina, Minnesota), and the Coleman Company, I at least have a chance of staying warm, even at 40 below. The key to survival, it seems, is to look like a human marshmallow. Fashion, my dad told me while we packed, “is not a consideration.”

During my summer trip, I had the luxury of a never-setting sun and temperatures in the 70s. My worries then were bugs, bears, and sunburn. But on this trip, my biggest fear will be frostbite. The temperatures will be 20-40 below. Instead of staying in the cabin we helped build over the summer, we will be sleeping in a double-walled tent with a little woodstove. Our days will be spent splitting wood, running the trapline with Heimo, ice fishing, and hunting moose, spruce grouse, and ptarmigan. When I’m not traipsing across the tundra, I will get a lesson in Arctic cooking from Heimo’s wife Edna who can turn porcupine, moose nose and caribou heart into mouth-watering meals. I’ll help her as best I can. If I get cold, I’ll huddle near the stove, soaking in its warmth.

Robert Frost, ever the Romantic, said that you can’t get too much winter in the winter. Obviously, Frost never set foot in the Arctic. If you ask me, minus 30 is too much winter. Then there’s the sun – or the lack of it. If the cold up here doesn’t get you, the darkness will — 24 hours of it.

Last summer, Heimo accused me of having bush eyes, of dreaming of food I couldn’t have. I wonder if there’s a winter equivalent. I bet there is. I know I’ll be dreaming of the sun on my back and 70 degrees.