Wednesday, September 10, 2014


The rotting joist from the greenhouse deck was eight feet long. The bed of the Dodge is six feet.

I failed to do the math and stood there, burning. Big Red's rear window was on the seat. A pile of diamonds.

The cost of replacing that window, and with it the spiderweb windshield, is more than the truck is worth. Totaled.

Take a deep breath. Shrug off habit and look at it this way: Everything ends, even though steel and glass seem forever.

It's Big Red's time. Thank you for being the official truck of Lawns by Ned and for all those 10-hour rides to Eagle, your back end skiddering the gravel turns. Thanks for allowing Drew and Clara and John and of course the healing Dr. BJ to feel your power. You will now make the yard a bit more classy as I drape a tarp over your cab.

Another thought: this is a time of endings.

Rocky was a surprise. The sharp endurance athlete with a worn out heart, the man who pulled you close and talked softly, intimately. I felt for his lovely wife and his girls and regretted not traveling by foot from Nabesna to McCarthy with him that time. Though I still don't want to use my raft as a blanket.

Mowry's article about Rocky was one of his best, which is saying something. Last week, Mowry wrote his farewell column. After 25 years of getting all the quotes in his outdoor adventure stories. His leaving the newspaper was inevitable. Tim was searching for the exit ramp years ago, but the disappearance of his byline is still a jolt.

 Tim Mowry

One of Tim's last stories was about a smiling bear named Rob who died packrafting a glacial river in the Wrangell Mountains. In my mind's eye, I can see Rob bulldozing his way up Peregrine Pass, his heavy sled plowing behind. 

Rob Kehrer

On that trip, he was paired with Andy, who stepped into stuff sack baggies and then his three-pin bindings. To keep water out.

"Andy looks like a Transformer," Rob said, a smile creasing his brown face. "I wish he would change into a trail groomer."

 Dave Cramer and Andy Sterns

Andy hasn't grinned much since hearing of Rob's death. This is not the normal state of things. Andy regrets not sharing a tent with Rob on that last trip together, but maybe the bear preferred it that way. He wasn't supposed to die at 44.

And now Archana, sweet Archana. 

Dave Klein and Archana Bali (1978 - 2014)

She was one of those people who draws you from the other side of the room with her smile. Delicate, tough, smiling Archana. Fiancee Martin said she was the brightest flame hed ever seen. Youre my best friend, shed tell Anna. 

It's too painful for words.

The loss of these beautiful people, yet I end up thinking most of Poops, known to some as Molly.

I scheduled her death at 4:30 on a Wednesday. The sunny hours before, she fetched a long birch stem in the Chena River, her black head ferrying. She rolled in the grass on top of the stick, the picture of contentment.

You wouldn't know something was wrong until you saw the limp and the waterproof tape around her right paw.

Mark had removed a lump there twice before, buying us years of happy fetches, the greeting ritual of burrowing of a black nose into women's groins and the story of how she got that lovely white spot on her head, from a woman with a rock.

I was Poops's advocate, dragging a six-year-old over frigid trail by headlamp because you owe your dog a walk every day. I vetoed couch replacement because it meant keeping Poops off the new one.

Poops's death was merciful and quick, with, after a day on her favorite patch of lawn, only a few minutes of trembling. This was after what seemed a fun life of freedom, maintained even after she dropped a long way in the family hierarchy.

Selfishly, I didn't want a memory of a three-legged dog hobbling through her creaky years. In a rare life circumstance, I had the responsibility and means to end a life when I judged the time was right.

My green-eyed tennis-playing mother developed Alzheimer's in her 60s. One day as I held her elbow on a walk from the nursing home, she stopped me.

"Kill me."

I pretended not to hear. Did she really just say that?

I wanted so to help Mom. I could not. I didn't feel capable to respond to her reasonable request. She died a few years later after much suffering that made her five children wince every time we visited the nursing home.

I failed Mom. But I had a chance not to fail my dog. I miss Poops's velvet ears, the earthy smell of her forehead. Barking from her kennel when we got home, mouthing a stuffed moose when we laced our running shoes.

The guilt is there -- she looked so happy on her last day -- but that also indicates I didn't wait too long. Her ending was perhaps as good as they get. 

Thats little consolation when we look at her empty dish. There's no perfect goodbye. We just know there will be one.

Friday, August 1, 2014

My best essay from the Coal Creek Writer's Workshop

My essay-writing perch

Assignment 1, Coal Creek Writer’s Workshop

Gretel Erhlich gives us our assignment as we find spots on the bank of the Yukon:
“You are here alone. South of here has for some reason become unlivable. What’s it like?”

Here, on the Yukon again. The gentle monster flows by with a gurgle, like an Elder carrying on its back the splashes of its feeder creeks.

Alone, the time I’ve craved, knowing that now it will be too much, this silence once bottled in Alaska but now available everywhere down there. Be careful what you wish for, right? Fuck that.

Inventory: Bug dope until it runs out. Some MREs stashed in Slaven’s by a fire crew. Enough clothes to keep the bugs off but I’ll need more. An endless supply of freshwater from Coal Creek and an axe to chop a hole come winter. Three lighters and seven books of matches. Cabins with good roofs and wood stoves. Three rolls of toilet paper. Powdered pancake mix. Seven Clif bars. A canoe. Shotgun. Seven slugs and three popper shells.

What I see from the South Bank: One half mile of smooth brown water, hills bluing with smoke. The occasional bite of spruce and green willow in the air. Nostalgic.

Too many memories in this place. Should have escaped somewhere else. Her handwriting in the logbook, sudden as a bee sting. Forgot she had been here. Her cursive, so perfect.

“I wonder if I will ever visit here again?”

That’s a no, Tammy. And I don’t know how you died.

But that trip comes back to me now. Landing on the airstrip in the dense 40 below air, the chilly ride to Slaven’s on snowmachine, gathering river ice in sleds to melt on the barrel stove. For mushers and their dogs. A good place to see them, halfway on a thousand-mile journey.

Walking to the bank of Coal Creek in our Apocalypse bibs and parkas. Falling into a pillow of snow to watch the aurora flame the northern sky.

There was magic in that trip, and in the dormer at Circle Hot Springs after. I told her we’d have beautiful kids, one of my bolder lines. But it was true.

She had those lovely children with someone else. Many times, though, I conjured her when alone. She smelled of apricot shampoo and was as passionate as she was voiceless in a crowd. She gave me that ink portrait of her face, staring as if pissed at me. I couldn’t take it with me when life changed. Tacked it to the ceiling of the outhouse. A sin, really. But I didn’t know what else to do.

Tammy’s ghost will be among the more pleasant here before I join the billions now stinking to the south, as they return to dirt.

We all knew it was coming. Too much pressure on the system. I thought it was impossible. The Earth is large and resilient. Self healing.

This one, the Big One, leads to the greatest theological question: God, why did we like to fuck so much?

That’s a head scratcher. The alder flycatcher that should be here got wiped out with the dripping trees in central America. The flute of the Swainson’s thrush silenced when mid-America went dry. I don’t know if the salmon are still shooting though this chocolate water, but they might extend my lifespan a few weeks.

How to catch them, though? A net in an eddy. But I’ll have to make one. Maybe some rope at Coal Creek Camp.

The baby raven screams across the river. Of course, they are here. And breeding. They are probably expanding their range now, delighted at the fallen meat.

And signs of others — the wolf tracks pressed into mud, river willows torn by moose. That’s the thought that brings a feeling closest to joy. When I drop from skinniness or the Remington, they will be it.

These bees and dragonflies and fucking mosquitoes and beetles, beetles, beetles. The few large mammals adapted to deep Interior cold and the ability to survive on a bushel of frozen twigs each dark day. The smart ones, the insects, who wait out years in suspended animation, to spring up when conditions are better.

It’s poetic that Earth’s renewal after shedding its most destructive species will start when I end here. Jimmy Carter knew. Idiots gave him so much shit for the truisms he had the balls to speak. No. 1 — A man wants to fuck every woman he sees. Two — There’s value we can’t fathom in wilderness, so while I’ve got the keys I’m park-ifying Alaska. Deal with it.

So, Jimmy, you were, in the end, right. It doesn’t make any difference now, with me alone here on the Yukon. I’ve got my death sentence, as I guess I always had, and will finally get to try the subsistence lifestyle.

But there’s a reason the Han were nomadic, and I don’t have their skills. The moose flies of summer will have my flesh to slice, and maybe a slam-dunk caribou will fall to the shotgun. But the subarctic winter is not designed for a creature adapted to the tropics. There will be no more milk from Washington cows or avocados from California. Maybe I can use the seed stock from that kid’s greenhouse at Coal Creek if I make it another summer. But I should have acquired some of those skills — gardening, stalking animals — I so admired.

However long it takes, this will be a fitting place to breath the last of this air free of man vapors. If given the choice in that former world, I might have chosen to have the ravens pick my carcass clean here, on the grassy bluff in front of Slaven’s, near the birch trees in love, wrapping themselves around one another as if they are afraid to let go.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Coal Creek writer's workshop

A return to Coal Creek, where I was a park ranger 20 years ago. Coal Creek Camp was there as a home to miners who operated a giant dredge that ate seven square miles of valley for three tons of gold. Shut down in the 70s, the dredge and the camp are now part of Yukon Charley Rivers National Preserve. And site of a recent three-day writer's workshop led by Gretel Erhlich and put on by UAF Summer Sessions.

Chicken. Eight hours into the 12-hour journey from Fairbanks to Eagle.

Finally got to play ball on the grass airstrip in Eagle. Families in Eagle Village for July 4th started a game at 10 p.m. A kid invited me in. No balls went in the Yukon. Played till 2.

Eagle classics

Have invested many minutes here.

On a four-hour ride downriver from Eagle to Slaven's cabin and Coal Creek, Park Service seasonals Michael, left, from Jersey, and 19-year-old Andrew. Felt a bond with these dudes, who pack all their summer food in coolers and take them downriver. This includes Chicken-in-a-Can, packed in gelotin.

On the way, a good view of the oil shale fire above the Tatonduk River. One of the only fires going this wet summer. Even God can't put it out.

Met some new friends in Slaven's cabin.

Near Slaven's, workshop participant Maria Berger, Fairbanks, finally meets river traveler Maria Berger, Fairbanks.

More river travelers at Slaven's. Katsumi, 3, and Porter, 5, of Portland, OR. Like all brothers, they like to cross their streams of pee.

The boys leave Slaven's with dad Jason, Yoshi and Andy, headed for Richard Smith cabin downriver.

The Yukon near Slaven's was where Jean perched for our first writing assignment: Gretel said to imagine the world is somehow unlivable to the south, and you are here now. Start writing.

Gretel reading in Slaven's Roadhouse. Loved her assignments. Love her.

Really love my buddy Pat Sanders, giggling at left, who was rangering 20 years ago and let me live at her Trapper's Cabin for free. And very much like Ed, the driver, and of course ultracompetent teenager Andrew.

Coal Creek Camp. Twenty years ago, I had a feeling here. I should write.

And bike. On the upper road to Coal Creek from Slaven's. Bikes are freedom machines.

At the final group read-off: Laurie, Maria, Lloyd the cook, Jean and Monica.

Best wildlife sighting: on the Taylor Highway

Best tow truck driver: Mike from Tok, here solving a problem that blocked the road for hours on the ride home. Mike once gave us a ride from outside Chicken to Tok as he hauled our broken Honda Civic in for a $900 repair. After a $900 tow. Don't break down at the Walker Fork. Or drive off the Taylor Highway.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Lonely, Alaska

My guide/trailbreaker/chef/leader Ben Jones had some tasks on his lake-sampling trip that took us near Lonely Point, Alaska. We made a quick run to the end of the tundra, the beginning of the Arctic Ocean and a Cold War fortress, now deserted.

Lonely was born in 1957, when the U.S. constructed dozens of Distant Early Warning radar sites from the Aleutians to northern Canada. They were spaced about 60 miles apart on the northern coast of North America.

In this one skinny building under the radome, a few dozen guys pulled long shifts staring at radar screens, hoping they didn't see green blips coming over the sea ice. The DEWline sites were set up as a trip wire connected to the White House. If Russian Bear bombers heavy with nukes were heading for Chicago, these guys would see it first.

Happily the guys were just bored. Lonely is now abandoned except for a pair of resident ravens that roost beneath the cold tin roof of an old hangar. Their squawks and glunks made the place seem even more eerie, and Lonely has a high baseline level of spook.

While there, Ben installed a weather camera on the old control tower. He aims it to a repeater on the tundra that sends a signal back to the Ben Jones cabin at Teshekpuk Lake, from where I'm writing this post.

"Just go explore the place," he said to me while he worked. "Use your headlamp to check out the old living quarters."

He added one thing: "Oh, and if you see a polar bear, rev up your snowmachine to scare it away."

And so I slid down a drift and entered the creepy/cool complex.

The former post office.

Someone's dorm room. With kitchen/radar/bar/bathrooms all in one building, guys didn't have to go outside.

Further incentive not to venture into the cold wind: White bears with a meat-only diet live on the sea ice, which is a few hundred yards from Lonely.

Contractors from Wainwright won the bid to dismantle/clean Lonely this summer and next.

Walking through the long corridor, imagining airmen and civilians calling their wives and girlfriends on the 60s-era phones covered with frost, I headed for the light at the far end of the tunnel-like structure. 

When I got close to the light, this image fired every fear cell in my body:

I had seen these rounded tracks before once, near Shishmaref. In this moment, I was terrified. For a few seconds that felt like hours, I could not move. The crumbs of snow told me the polar bear tracks were fresh.

That exit would not do. Not breathing, I retreated the 100-yard length of the building, for the first time seeing polar bear tracks I had missed before. Shit. Thoughts of meeting a white bear in this tunnel upped the insane fright level.

I winced at the squeaks of my boots with each frantic step out of there. I emerged near my snowmachine like a freaked ground squirrel and climbed aboard to its relative safety. I fired the engine. then rode a wide lap around the complex looking for polar bear tracks leading in. I found none. Could a bear be denning in the house-size snowdrift at the terror exit? Probably not, but Ben and I never ventured to that snowdrift to find out.

I stared at the old living quarters for 10 minutes to the Lonely soundtrack of wind and a heavy power cable gonging against a metal light post.

I was happy to return to the other human at the site. Ben installed another camera on one of these pilings that the Arctic Ocean is eating. While I held screws for him, my head swiveled like a radar dish. No white bears. Just a visit from three snow buntings that few over the sea ice toward the North Pole.

Goodbye Lonely.