Another Trip of a Lifetime

mark on a snowmobile with the Alaskan sunrise behind him

Arrived in Bethel for my annual moose hunt. Doug had texted me on Saturday. He said weather looks good to go soon, so come out Monday or Tuesday. I got mileage tickets for Monday, and started packing.

After going out several times, I knew what I needed – parka and snow pants. Long underwear and some cotton and polypro turtlenecks. Caribou pack boots. Fleece face mask and fur trapper hat. Underwear and socks. Rifle and shells. Ready to go.

I arrived mid-day. Doug said it was like I never left. Val got down the air mattress, removed her sewing machine and quilt table, and set my bed up in her sewing room. We put the crab I bought when I was in Craig into the freezer, along with some halibut from last summer. Then we sat down and drank coffee and got caught up.

Two of their good friends, who themselves were best friends – a thirty something Malaysian woman doctor and a thirty something woman from Tuntatuliak – came over for crab dinner that night. I steamed the crab. It was the only cooking I was allowed to do all week.

Pat called and said Wednesday was the day. So we got things ready to go on Tuesday. I helped Doug figure out how to add some coolant to his brand new machine. We had to take the reservoir off to get to it. Doug made musk ox roast for dinner. A real Bethel treat.

We met the others at 6 am the next morning. Pat’s buddy from Palmer and his 9 year old son were on one snow go. Pat, Louise, Val, Doug and I were each on our own. So 6 machines in all. We headed north to the Yukon in the dark. The trail was very rough. Adequate snow cover, but many berms had blown across the trail from the wind. You could see them only from the shadow they made in your headlight. It was hard to tell their size in the dark. I am already a slow snow machine rider, and this slowed me down even more.

Dawn was about 730, and it was ahead and off to right of our center heading north. Blazing red orange skyline. Stunning.

When the sun got up over the horizon, it made travel  a little better, as the berms were easier to see coming. I was 5th in line, with Val in front of me and Doug bringing up the rear for security.  The other three were many times out of my sight. Val was in and out of sight.

When we were almost to the Yukon River, I’d lost sight of Val. We dropped down to a slough about 200 yards long that led to the river. About half way down the slough, the trail split around a small line of trees – one trail to the left and one to the right. I judged the track on the right trail was fresher, so I took it. It led me through a small line of trees, then down the bank and I was on the frozen Yukon.

When I dropped down, I saw a snowmobile racing away with a sled behind, apparently from the left track trail. I was a bit confused, as Val and I had no sleds. I sped to catch up, then the rider turned and came back. It was Louise. She said she thought she saw Val waving on the bank. Doug caught up to us, and we headed back.

Val was, indeed, waving from the bank. Where the trail split and I took the right track, the first 4 riders had gone left. Where the slough choked down to a narrow trail that led to the river, there was overflow. This is were water bleeds above the hard river ice, and in this case, it semi froze again, with a layer of ice over the water, and snow on top of the ice. The first 3 riders had sped across and made it fine, but had broke through the overflow ice. When Val followed, even though she had seen the overflow and had “floored it”, one of her skis got below the overflow ice layer and stopped her. Then her machine sunk a couple feet in the overflow water til it settled on the hard ice below that. The water came up to her foot rails. She was able to walk across the overflow ice to the bank and not get wet. When she walked out to the main river, she went through a few spots in the snow along the bank to water that over her boots and got just a little wet. But she was okay.

Doug, Louise and I walked over to see the sled in the water, then returned to our machines and went around the way Doug and I had gone and got on the bank above Val’s sled. Doug and Louise got out their rope alongs (come alongs that use rope instead of wire). Doug chopped around Val’s sled to get her sunk ski free, then got one end of the rope tied to Val’s sled and the other end tied to my sled on top of the bank.  I cranked and cranked on the lever and eventually we got the sled up out of the hole of water. Then I tied the rope to the back of my sled and sped off a short distance and pulled Val’s sled up the bank. Her sled started right up, and after an hour or so from when she went in, we were back in business. It was now a sunny, beautiful lower Yukon River day in the high 20’s.

The willow islands were not far away, and we soon found Pat butchering a moose. His friend’s son had shot his first moose, and they had seen over a dozen others. Louise and Val went one direction, and Doug and I in the other, looking for moose. This was my fourth trip to this hunting spot. I’d got at least one moose every time, and I figured it was again, just a matter of time before we’d see moose. Yet we didn’t see any.  Pat sent us off to where I’d caught a moose last year. When we were about to get to that trail, we saw the girls heading that way already, so we doubled back along the Yukon side of the island, and then started back up and onto the same island again. We’d passed a narly spot without incident the first time through, but when I tried to cut through the spot this time, I got caught up in it and tipped over onto the snow onto my back, with the snow go sunk and tipped at a 45 degree angle. I put my feet onto the sled to push it back upright, thinking this was a simple spill. When I pushed against the sled, I sunk through the snow and into a couple feet of water. Although we were on top of island, we had an “overflow” situation, with a layer of water covered over with a thin layer of ice with snow on top. I tried to get myself upright, and the harder I tried, the more I wallowed. I was on my back, and couldn’t get my feet under me and wasn’t able to grab my sled or a willow to pull myself up off my back. I was turtled. My gun on it’s sling on my back in the slush wasn’t helping, either. Doug tried to help me in my flailing, but he had no where to go and not get wet, either. I was wet up to my elbows and knees and some of my back when I finally got one hand on the snow machine handle, another on a willow, and pulled myself up so I could stand. But I was standing in water up to my knees, which flooded my pack boots. The felt liners wicked up the water like a sponge. Now I was worried about frostbite. I tried to get to dry ground, but every step was another post hole into the water. I was feeling all of 60 years old now. But adrenaline is a magic tonic. Although wet, I knew I had to get out of the water. I kept post holing until I finally got up on Doug’s sled, as Doug had climbed over to my sled when he was trying to help me get out of the water. Doug weighs alot less than I do, and he wasn’t breaking through, so he didn’t get wet.

He threw me over my back pack from the box on the back of my sled. I knew I had dry socks in the pack, but how was I going to keep my feet from freezing in the wet felt liners of the pack boots on the 4 hour ride home. Then I saw it: the hand and toe warmers Val had made me throw in my pack when we were packing for the trip!  I’d forgotten all about them. We found some plastic bags between us. I put on the dry socks, put the plastic bags over my socks, then put several activated warmer packs in each bag around my foot.

I slipped my feet back into the wet boots, and hoped for the best. Shit, I didn’t want to freeze my feet. We got my sled out by rope alonging it out with Doug’s sled as an anchor, then got back together with the others. Everyone was ready to go home, it seemed. No one had seen any more moose. I wasn’t sure if it was for me or not, but I didn’t have a choice- I needed to get going.

We headed back in the wonderful sunshine. I kept wiggling my toes every minute. At first they seemed to be getting colder. But an hour into the trip, I realized the warmers were kicking in. I was gonna make it, I thought.

We traveled back in the same formation as we’d come over. The front runners would wait for us bringing up the rear every hour or so, but as soon as we caught up, it seemed like everyone was eager to get home and we didn’t dally long. I was worried the warmers would wear off, and so kept monitoring the feeling and comfort of my feet.

It was a bigger relief than normal to see the windmill of Bethel and know we were close to home. When we got to the house, Val directed me to get right into the shower. Best shower ever.

Warm now, and refreshed, we went over to Pat and Louise’s for dinner. They had a feast of moose burgers, moose hot dogs, and best of all, my first taste of fresh moose heart from the day’s harvest. The moose heart was like the finest beef. Oh, it was good. I will not forget to take the heart if I get another moose.  With bellies full, it was the end of what they said is now called a “Type 2 Fun” day. No, I didn’t get a moose for the first time, but had an eventful day and learned to be better prepared for the next time we go.

Pat mentioned at dinner that the only realistic day to go according to the weather forecast was the next day. I knew in my mind that if Doug said we were going, I would go and gut it out. But I also knew I wasn’t going to encourage the notion. Crap, that trail was rough and I was not looking forward to another 8 hours on it, moose or no moose. When we got back to Doug and Val’s, as soon as Doug remarked that he wasn’t really sure he would be ready to turn around and go at 6 am the next morning, I couldn’t second the opinion fast enough, and both of us sort of let out a collective sigh of relief.  Doug knew even though I might not get another day to go over hunting, that that was okay with me, and I was relieved Doug didn’t think he had to perhaps do something he didn’t feel up for to meet my expectations. Problem solved!  I now knew that moose weren’t necessarily a sure thing every trip, but the lasting memory was the important harvest on this trip.

We all slept hard that night, and I was a little creaky getting up late the next morning. Thursday was the first of the games for the week of the NCAA basketball tournament. I watched games on my phone til the afternoon, when Doug proposed we go ptarmigan hunting, and away we went. We hunted within sight of town. It was a sunny day with light wind. There were lots of birds. I asked Doug how close I should get before stopping to shoot the .22, and he said I’d get a feel for it. At the beginning, I was shooting at over 50 yards I’d guess. I’d see the shots hitting short in the snow and then try to hold over high to adjust. I got a bird or two, but boy, did I miss alot. As the day went on, I found I was able to get closer before I shot, just like he said. When we had about 10 birds altogether, we headed home. As we cleaned the birds, I showed Doug a technique I’d learned long ago to clean grouse, and he was eager to learn. I’m not sure who taught it to me, but I suspect it was someone in college in Fairbanks. The bird is placed on its back, with it’s head away from you. You place one foot on each wing, your foot on the wing right where it meets the body. Then you pull very, very slowly upward with a leg in each of your hands until the breast separates from the rest for the carcass. It’s one of those things where once you get it, you get it. Doug made smoked Yukon sockeye salmon patties for dinner, and again, simple and excellent.

Day 5 was similar. I slept in, watched some basketball, then Doug said let’s go pull his trapline before he can’t get to it again if the snow melts. We headed out onto the Kuskokwim River and soon saw 2 cow/calf pairs of moose. Right out in the middle of the river, in front of town. I think there will be a winter hunt here next year, as the moose population is starting to boom on the Kusko like it already has on the Yukon. We headed upriver on good ice, but I was wary after the water on the Yukon so stayed well behind Doug in case he found overflow.

We crossed the Kusko and went a few miles upriver, then veered off to a feeder creek. As we weaved our way up, I saw what might be a beaver pond, and Doug pointed out some lynx tracks. Another hundred yards and Doug had stopped. He had a gleam in his eye, which for a Bue is like jumping up and down and screaming for the rest of us. He pointed under a tree. As I got up to him, and shut off my machine I saw it: a lynx. A very much alive lynx. Doug told me to go grab it by the scruff of the neck and we’d take care of it.  Like hell I would. This was the first lynx I’d seen up close. The only others I’d seen were along the Highway out of Haines at night along the road. The huge eyes for seeing at night. The thick coat of fur to keep warm. The big black hair tuft antennae on each ear. The huge padded snowshoe feet. A predator precisely adapted to this environment. Wow. Doug pulled the rest of his traps and his snares and we returned home.

Doug cooked the ptarmigan for dinner. He first boiled the ptarmigan until the meat fell off the bones of the breasts and legs. He stripped the meat off the bones, then added chicken stock and a little corn starch. This he served over mashed potatoes. Again, simple and delicious. This is the best tasting grouse or ptarmigan meal I’ve had.

Day 6 was more wind and snow with temps in the 30’s. We went ptarmigan hunting in the afternoon. The wind seemed to make the birds spooky, and when they flushed, they flew with the wind and went a pretty good distance before they landed again. We each got a bird, which Doug said was how many Marie wanted, and returned home in the sleet and wind. Dinner was muskox burgers and spaghetti noodles. Simple and delicious. We saw more snowshoe hares in the yard, and I though about how the hares, ptarmigan and lynx all had similar snowshoe feet to move in the snow.

We went over to the Fairbanks’ after dinner. I don’t know the exact lineage, but it’s the same Fairbanks family that Fairbanks, Alaska is named after.  Their daughter is a good friend of my niece from nursing school, and Doug and Val are like aunt and uncle to her kids. Really a treat to listen to stories of rural Alaskans and their families and life experiences.

I headed home the next day in a near blizzard. Another trip of a lifetime to Bethel. Somehow, not getting a moose this time made it even more of a story and memorable trip.


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