Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Up Mountain"

I don't usually share writing specific content on this blog, that stuff's on my other blog: 11 Days in Homer. But I had a "short" published on 49 Writers (a blog of/for Alaskan writers) and wanted to share the piece, since it's kind of nature/adventure/retrospective-ish.

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Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day Weekend North of the Arctic Circle

Gretchen and I no longer eat store bought meat, but I wouldn't call us vegetarians. Should we eat out (it's rare) we'll often get a meat entree. Should we eat dinner at a friend's house, we'll eat what's prepared. Since moving back from Arctic Village over two years ago, and since losing my job, we've become more economic, fiscally responsible eaters, so we just don't typically buy store bought meat. And really, I just prefer caribou and salmon. The salmon deficit was solved this summer when we harvested 16 reds from the Copper River. When I was a teacher in Arctic Village I was blessed with an endless supply of caribou. I had little time to leave my classroom and hunt, but the Gwich'in were generous people, and kept me stocked up with the delicious meat. The caribou deficit has not been solved yet. This weekend was my first attempt at hunting caribou north of the Brooks Range, over 400 miles from our home in Fairbanks.
the Hordes of late fall tourists that paid for a bus ride to see this epic sign
yeah, we did the tourist thing, but we're a whole lot cooler
Gretchen thinks she's on Wheel of Fortune

these young Dall Sheep were hanging-out just north of Atigun Pass

North of the Brooks Range--Alaska's farthest north mountain range--the land gently slopes across hills and tundra and tussocks and muskeg, eventually becoming marsh and arctic plain all the way to the polar ocean, the Arctic Ocean. It snows every month of the year. This summer, it snowed in July. We weren't surprised to see snow in the forecast for August and find the land covered in white after cresting Atigun Pass.

This linear man-made geometry bisects a remote landscape, the pipeline. At night it was ominous in the fog and reminded me of a split rail fence intentionally put-up to border a civil war battlefield in the lands where I grew up, historic Virginia, outside Olde Towne, Fredericksburg. 

We camped in the back of the Tundra. There are dozens and dozens of pull-offs along the northern reaches of the Dalton. This time of year nearly every pull-off is occupied by a truck, or an RV, or a camper, or a tent.
I'm a rifle hunter. I have to walk five miles either east or west of the highway in order to hunt. This is partially for safety's sake, but it's also out of fairness for the game. Only bowhunters can shoot from the shoulder of the highway.
So we walked five miles out, up and over several draws, through the tussocks. It sucked. Imagine going to your local McDonalds playland, then walk-in-place in the ballpit for 12 hours--that's what tussocks are like. Tussocks are like bowling ball shaped tundra with grass growing atop, surrounded by damp, often boot soaking, puddles.

this is what I came to kill


I didn't kill a caribou. The first day we chased, stalked (sort of) two caribou. We saw them at about mile 1.5 and mile 4, then didn't  come as far as 5 miles out. Our second day it blew rain and snow sideways all day. We hunkered in the back of the truck and enjoyed cocktails, all day. The third day we awoke to temps in the mid-20's and and a thick blanket of snow. Our boots were still damp from two days before. I didn't want to cross the Sag River without a canoe. Walking west of the Dalton had proved pointless, we slept in, read Jack London, then drove back to Fairbanks. I'll kill a caribou next time.