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1. Sand bar landing
2. Christmas Party at Hobo's
3. Different Foods
4. Marshall Alaska
5. Living in Galena Alaska
6. Hunting in Marshall Alaska
7. Hunting in the area of Galena Alaska
8. Fall hunting on the rivers
9. Living in Koyukuk Alaska
10. Bright lights seen north of Tanana
11. Koyukuk stories I was told
12. Flying stories from Alaska
13. Running a trap line part one
14. Running a trap line part two
15. Wall tent camping in the winter
1. It must have been about mid October of 1972 that I , while living in Koyukuk Alaska decided to fly down to Nulato for some reason lost to me now. I landed on the runway located on the hill just up stream from the village and walked down town. Went first down to Hilderbrands Store run by Eddie and his family. While in the store visiting with Eddie and some of his customers he asked me if I would be willing to fly down toward Kaltag and look for a missing boat load of people, two women and three men. They had departed from Nulato the previous day and had not made it to Kaltag as they should have been able to do. Now during the night the ice had started running in the Yukon River and was quite heavy in front of Nulato as we looked out. So we got in Eddie’s truck and headed back up to the runway. Eddie offered to fill my fuel tanks but I had about ½ tanks and wanted to stay light in weight. My Super Cub was a tandem two seater and was set up with large tires for landing on rough surfaces.
I took off from Nulato and leveled off to fly along the west bank of the river on my way to Kaltag. It is somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 miles between the two villages so for about the first half hour of flying I saw nothing but moving ice in the river. Then up ahead on a sand bar located out in the river I saw the smoke of a campfire. Power was reduced, flaps dropped and altitude was reduced to about 100 feet off the water. As I went over the sand bar I counted the five people and saw that they had pulled their boat up on the down river end of the bar. Ice was running heavy on both sides of the bar so there was no way for them to get to the west bank of the river. I made another low pass and they got the idea that I wanted to land beside them. So as I circled the area they moved the drift wood out of the way, cut some willows down. I judged the bar to be about 500 feet in length. Way shorter than what Piper had listed the Super Cub as needing for a landing or take off but I knew from previous experience that if I did everything just right that 500 feet would be enough. The first pass I made to land I realized when I was on short final that I was too high and wouldn’t have room to land and to stop short of the river at the far end. So it was full power, carb heat off and climbing for altitude to circle around and try again. This time I got my pattern altitude down to about 20 feet off the water as I wanted to touch down on the first 25 feet of the sand bar. This time I planted the wheels and dumped the flaps, stood on the brakes , keeping the power up higher than normal to prevent nosing over. As I looked out the windshield the water kept getting closer and closer and the decision to go around again was past gone, I was committed to landing and getting it stopped. When I finally quit bouncing from the rough terrain and got stopped I had less than 20 feet remaining of the sand bar. I taxied back to where the people were, shut off the engine, forced myself to relax enough to quit shaking and got out to visit with the folks.
They explained that indeed the ice had gotten too heavy for them to boat as it would have crushed their wooden craft. We had a great lunch of hot tea and half dried/half baked salmon and pilot crackers. Food never tasted better to me. We discussed their situation and one of the men, an older very knowledgeable man said that he thought the ice would let up enough in a couple of days to let them proceed by boat. If not he thought the ice would freeze enough for them to walk to shore and walk on to Kaltag. About a 15 mile walk. But they were concerned with having the women with them. With just the three of them they had enough food to stay on the sand bar for a couple of weeks if need be. So it was decided that I would take the women with me in the plane. The landing had been pushing the limits so far that I wasn’t willing to make a second try at landing there unless it was an absolute emergency. We made arrangements that I would check on the men in several days to see if they were still there or not. If they were still there I would make a second trip and drop supplies to them,
So I loaded the two women, both full grown and then some, into the back seat of the Cub. They were protesting that they wanted me to come back for the second one. Their English was about as bad as my koyukon but we managed to get it settled that we were all going together at one time. When I had landed and checked over my plane for any damage I found that the tires were wet as was the belly of the plane meaning I had actually touched down in the water and hydroplaned onto the sand bar. Didn’t want to do this on take off. Finally I could wait no longer as it was getting dark. Loaded up I taxied to the north end of the bar and just about had the tail wheel in the water. Standing on the brakes I brought the power up to full and started rolling. As I felt the plane getting lighter at about 40 miles per hour I pulled on the flaps and forced the plane into the air. We continued flying about 3 feet off the ground in what is know as ground effect until I could get the air speed up, then slowly started climbing as I milked off the flaps until they were retracted and I realized we had it made. To this day I don’t like to think about what would have happened if that engine had missed one time. Both the women in the back were sure they were going to die and were talking as fast in Athabascan Koyukon as they could. This and their being Catholics and repeating the rosary over and over again very loudly had been somewhat un-nerving to say the least. After dropping the women off in Kaltag, I headed back home to Koyukuk, giving Eddie a call on the VHF radio as I passed Nulato to let him know the outcome. Two days later Eddie called Koyukuk on the radio to let me know that the three men had made it safely home in their boat.
A few days before the annual Christmas party
was to be held at Hobo’s, the phone rang at our house and it was Eddie Pitka.
“Lets all go to the Christmas party this Friday night, OK?” So I told him it
sounded fun and my wife and I would meet him and his wife, Laura, there at 7:00.
Now Hobo’s is a local watering hole located in Galena Alaska and is known locally as the Bucket of Blood as it tends to get somewhat rowdy at times. The year was 1969, my first year as school principal at Galena. Eddie and Laura were originally from Koyukuk, 35 miles down river, and had moved to Galena when Eddie got a job with the State of Alaska on the airport maintenance crew. Galena Airport was a joint use facility with the State owning and maintaining the airport with a military base presence. The Air Force kept four F4E Phantom fighter jets stationed there along with approximately 250 personnel to support the 4 airplanes. The runway was maintained down to black asphalt all winter, snow was never allowed to accumulate on it.
Hobo’s was at that time owned by a guy by the name of Frank Bensen. Frank had been a restaurant supply salesman that stopped by to sell his wares to the then owner and ended up buying the place. Hobo’s was the only private bar that I am aware of between Fairbanks and Nome and had a large clientele of customers, military, FAA employees from the flight service station located in Galena, local civilians working in Galena and people just passing through. The Galena lodge was just up the street a block or so.
Hobo’s was without a doubt the roughest, filthiest, pest hole on the Yukon river. This, not with standing, it could be a lot of fun at times. It was quite common for the locals to bring their own glasses to drink out of as the sanitation left much to be desired. Most weekends there would be a band of sorts, normally a make up group of some locals and some military. Two or three times a year on the average, the base commander would put Hobo’s off limits for military personal due to problems that arose from time to time. Normally fights that would break out in the bar were the reason. With three distinct racial groups normally in the bar, someone would take offense at something said and it was off to the fights.
The airport in Galena is now named for Eddie Pitka and I like to check the weather camera there, in part, just to see his name on the web site. One of those Alaska characters that are larger than life itself.
Hobo (Frank Bensen) was a very charitable man and each Christmas that he owned the bar he would host a charity event to raise money for the children of Galena and he raised lots of money. This was the event that Eddie had invited us to attend with them.
Eddie Pitka was the first man I met when we moved to Galena. We arrived in Galena aboard a Wien plane and walked over to the school, which was not far. The next morning I was walking around town and a pickup truck stopped and the guy inside yelled for me to get in. This was how I met Eddie and my life was never the same thereafter. Eddie was one of those people that never met a stranger, would give you the shirt off his back and was extremely outgoing, personality wise. He was ten or so years older than I was. We spent the day going around town meeting people and getting me acquainted with the place. There was no one around town or on the base that Eddie didn’t know. He took me over to his house, on base, for lunch, to meet his family.
So the Friday night arrived to attend the charity event at Hobo’s. When we arrived it was packed with people, most well on the way toward a major hangover the next morning. Eddie spotted us and waved us over to the table where he and Laura and another couple were setting. The evening went along splendidly and everyone was quite mellow and having fun. Not a single fight that night that I saw. Eddie got up from the table and walked across the room. After a few minutes he came back and handed me a ticket stub that had been torn in half. I inquired of Eddie as to what the stub was for and he said he had bought two chances on the midnight raffle and put my name on one ticket and his on the other. I noticed he was very vague as to what the raffle prize consisted of that evening. He told me it was the biggest money raiser of the evening and for me to just set tight.
At the appointed hour of midnight, Hobo climbed upon the bar and announced the time had arrived for the drawing. He then had three young women, that I had never seen in Galena, join him on the bar. All of a sudden it started to dawn on me what was being raffled off that evening. The lucky (?) ticket holder got his pick of spending the night with his choice of any of the three sporting women that worked in a group of back rooms at the bar. Each of the gals made a short comment about why she should be the one picked. With a great deal of fan fare the lucky ticket was drawn from the box and the winner announced, a GI from the base. I have never before or since wished and prayed so hard “not” to win something. Eddie was having the time of his life with my discomfort level. Both our wives were just livid at Eddie for his doing this. We stayed for a couple of more hours and headed back to our apartment. A most memorable pre Christmas party that I will never forget.
Having been raised in a somewhat rural area of southern Oklahoma, I had just assumed that all people every where ate the same foods that we did. Just considered it normal to have fried eggs with either fried bacon, fried ham, fried chicken or fried port chops for breakfast. Sometimes for a change up Mom would cook up a skillet full of scrambled eggs and calf brains. Put a blob of catsup on them and you had a meal fit for an Okie along with two or three pieces of toast dripping of butter. After a good hardy meal like these you were ready to work on fences, chase cows or haul hay, whatever needed to be done. I have since found out many folks have never eaten brains and eggs or pickled pigs feet or tails or many of the other foods we ate in that part of the country.
When I first moved to Alaska on a permanent basis in 1964, living in Nome, the majority of foods I ate were not that different from anywhere else. However as I got to know more people that considered themselves to be Alaska Natives, I learned there were many different foods to be eaten in Alaska. Tried a small bite of walrus in some soup one day and felt very brave and adventuresome.
The following year I moved to the village of Marshall which was located on the Yukon River just north of Bethel. Marshal was one of the most traditional villages along this stretch of the river. As I got to know the Wien agent/postmaster, Don Hunter and his family I was introduced to many new foods, most surprisingly good. Just not what I was used to or ever figured I could eat. One of my favorites was what is known as Eskimo Ice Cream. In Marshall it was made with boiled pike fish, lard, sugar and whatever kind of berries you had available. Wild blue berries were the best. Zena Hunter, Don’s wife, invited me to join them for breakfast several times a week. The fare was always the same, toast made from homemade bread, scrambled eggs and either pickled herring or salmon with coffee strong enough to crawl out of a cup. She was an outstanding cook and could create magic on that wood burning cook stove of hers.
In the fall I noticed that after lunch the students would come back to school with a very different smell on their persons. Talking to the school custodian, Maurice Tegunalaka, better know as Maurice T in town as no one but he could pronounce his last name, I found out the kids were going home for lunch and eating stinky heads as they were known. This was a process of preserving salmon that had been used forever by the locals. In the summer when the salmon runs were in progress, the salmon would be filleted, with the meat smoked and dried on racks and the heads would be placed in a hole dug in the river bank just above the high water mark. The hole was lined with a certain kind of grass and them the heads were placed in the hole to be covered with more grass and then a layer of 6 to 10 inches of sand. This was let set and ferment for several months and prior to freeze up the heads would be removed and stored in wooden empty butter kegs. The kids were going down to the river and sticking their hands through the sand and pulling out a head for lunch. Just a matter of rinsing it off in the river and you had a good snack. Maurice took me down to the river where his family had such a stash of heads. It was outstanding to eat. Had somewhat the taste of salmon with a hint of aged cheese flavor. He gave me several to take home for later. The process had to be done just right or people got sick and died from eating the heads, I guess from salmonella poisoning.
Later in Kotzebue, some friends gave me a similar food called stinker flipper which was done the same way but seal flippers were used instead.
While living in Marshall I was invited along on several village hunts for caribou. This involved traveling many miles north of the village and took several days to make the round trip. There was an insect larvae that lived under the hides of some of the caribou and most of my hunting buddies considered them to be a good snack. I only could get a couple of them down but they were quite good, very sweet. I do prefer that my food not move though when I am eating it.
Some of my favorite ways of fixing salmon, I learned from different rural cooks. Half dried, then baked in the way they do it in Koyukuk is so good it makes my mouth water just to think about it.
After living in Nome for a year, I decided it wasn’t the Alaska I had come north to see and experience. So after submitting an application for employment to the State Operated School system and reviewing the jobs offered, we accepted positions at Marshall, located north of Bethel on the north bank of the Yukon River. The Yukon at this point is approximately from ½ to 1 mile wide depending on where you are exactly. Marshall is also known as Fortuna Ledge, the actual name of the post office located there. In the gold mining days there was a small gold strike about ten miles upstream from the village. Gene Tetnick, the local trading post owner still had some claims in the area and worked them during the summer time taking out enough gold to keep him going back. There are some photos on our web site showing Marshall and how it was located on the north side of a slough, a part of the Yukon River, known locally as Poltee Slough. It gave the village protection from any storms that blew in from the south or southwest. Because of its closeness to the ocean, Marshall got lots of snow during the winter time. The large snow fall along with the winter winds caused drifts in town of over 20 feet in places. By spring the custodian and kids would spend some time after a wind storm to dig out the school out house.
The route to Marshall was to fly from Anchorage to Bethel and spend the night at Tony’s Tundra Shack. ( a combination bar, pool hall and lodge/restaurant) After a night at Tony’s you were ready to get out of town. Wien Consolidated Airlines was the operator of the mail plane which also carried passengers. During the summer months Wien served Marshall with a Grumman Goose airplane. This was a twin engine amphibious plane that would land on the Yukon River in front of the village and the post master, Don Hunter, would come out in his kicker boat to get and drop off out going mail plus get any passengers off. In the fall time Wien would land on the village airstrip up on the hill. It was marginal at best, soft and muddy at times. There really was no equipment in the village to maintain the runway. Once the river froze over and it normally froze smooth in the slough in front of the village, Wien would switch over to a turbine powered Pilatus Porter airplane on wheel skis. The weekly arrival of the mail plane was a festive occasion in the village for which every one turned out to meet the plane. If the weather prohibited the plane landing then it could be a couple of weeks without mail. The population of Marshall was about 90 people, the large majority of them identifying themselves ethnically as being Yupiks. (meaning the people) The majority were Russian Orthodox by religion and consequently many of the older folks in the village were bilingual, speaking Yupik and Russian. Only a few of the younger people were comfortable speaking in English. Don Hunter had a great command of both English and Yupik.
Snow machines were just coming on the market. Don had one of the old rigid metal track Arctic Cats and I bought a Polaris with a rubber track from Sheppard Brothers store in Mountain Village, a ways on down river. This sno go with its 10 horse power engine amazed people as it would go in deep snow and pull a heavy sled load. This was when you could get it started with the pull rope. Maurice T, the school custodian and close friend of mine, was a mechanical genius. He loved to take stuff apart just to see how it worked. One day he took the school furnace apart, every last screw came out of it and then he put it back together and it worked fine. On one boat trip he lost the propeller off his kicker boat and spent a couple of days with a knife and a piece of drift wood whittlings a new prop for the boat that got him the 75 miles or so back home.
When I asked Maurice who could I get to build me a boat for the next summer, he volunteered to build one for me. His first ever and it turned out to be a fine boat. However there was no boat lumber in the village so we radioed Sheppards and they had what we needed. So over Christmas vacation, Maurice and I put his big freight sled on the back of the sno go and headed down the frozen Yukon for Mountain Village. We camped out one night and made it to Mountain Village the next night staying with some people that Maurice knew. Then we bought the needed boat supplies, plywood 12 ft. long and all the lumber and hardware he would need. The trip back was much slower and we ended up camping out two nights on the way back to Marshall. At this time most of the residents of Marshall lived in half dug out log cabins. One old man, Old Tom, told me through an interpreter that in the old days before the missionaries arrived, the people lived underground and buried their dead above the ground. He said the Yupiks hadn’t been warm since the change.
The boat Maurice T. built for me out of marine plywood and spruce lumber.
Slough running was always a favorite for me. On several occasions I ended up in the bow of the boat due to hitting something underwater, log or sand bar. Never went completely over the bow of the boat into the water though. LOL
The following summer Maurice suggested that I fish with him and his family up river from Marshall. We were fishing commercially for king salmon and for the other smaller species for eating fish to dry and for dog fish for the dog teams to eat the next winter. We had a good summer and then for awhile moved our camps down closer to the mouth of the Yukon and fished for a cannery located in Snotty Slough, not far from Kotlik. It was run by Arnold Akers, a friend of Don Hunter. Arnold was the person that had put up the pickled fish we had been eating the previous winter. He would send Don and Zena a 500 pound tierce of fish every fall on the last barge.
The Yukon is almost a mile wide at Marshall.
We dried and smoked king salmon for eating fish. Great to have the next winter.
Maurice and I ran a winter trap line together that year catching mink, marten and some fox. The route was about 80 to 100 miles round trip. Maurice taught me how to set a trap, bait it and empty it without getting bit. Maurice would run it during the week when I was in school and I would run it on the weekends. The following year Maurice bought himself a sno go and got rid of most of his dog team. I learned a lot from that man in the year I lived in Marshall.
During the winter I kept a net under the ice catching shee fish, white fish and lush fish. Here I am with a shee fish.
Galena was a good place to live in the late 60s and 70s for a person that enjoyed the outdoors. It was established by the military during the second world war as a mid point between Fairbanks and Nome. This was the route the Russian and American pilots took on delivering planes as part of the Lend Lease Act where the US supplied aircraft to the Soviet Army in our joint fight against Germany. Koyukuk and Bishop Rock were the two closest native villages to Galena and up river was Louden and Ruby. Galena was located in a low swampy area that flooded on a regular basis. Native people would have never located a village is such a poor place to live. The military presence continued up until about 5 years ago. It was part of the early warning system of the Air Force. The air field was and is owned by the State of Alaska so it is a joint use facility. About 1973 or 74 the FAA pulled their flight service station out of Galena and transferred all of their personnel out except for a few maintenance people.
The Interior area where Galena is located was the home of the First Americans that considered themselves to be Koyukon Athabascans. Koyukons had been a nomadic group of people until the arrival of the Europeans. They would only come to town for special occasions such as in the fall to sell furs and buy supplies and then head back out to winter camp. As time went along and schools were established, more and more of the Koyukon people started remaining in the towns and villages on a more permanent basis. The coastal people, the Eskimos, had always lived in villages as their food supplies came to them for the most part. Fish migrations, seals, walrus,whales, etc. The Koyukons had to have a large area of land as they depended on larger animals such as moose and caribou and fish in the summer time.
I arrived in Galena in the fall of 1969 to be the principal of the K-8 school located there. It had been operated for many years by the Bureau of Indian Affairs but in 69 was turned over to the State Operated School System, the organization that I worked for until it’s demise in 1976. The civilian population of Galena was about 300 people and then the Air Force had about the same number of troops there to support the four F4E Phantom fighter jets stationed there. About 7 miles east, up a gravel road, was the early warning radar sight known as Champion Air Force Station. In the general area there were a number of the early warning sites, Cow Creek to the south, Indian Mountain to the north, Tanana to the east, halfway to Fairbanks. All the military personnel were there without their spouses as it was considered remote duty and they did a 12 month rotation. Many of the military personal had volunteered to do multiple tours at Galena. Some loved the place and others couldn’t wait to get out of there.. In Galena there were a number of residents that had retired with the AF and stayed on to work at the base as civilians.
It was very interesting as a pilot to share a runway with the fighter jets, as well as with the commercial aircraft arriving daily from Fairbanks and the military supply planes. The first year I was in Galena I purchased a Cessna 170B from a dealer in Fairbanks and started flying the bush. Didn’t keep the 170 too long before I sold it to an FAA employee that was transferred to Tanana. That summer an FAA employee asked me if I would fly out to Wyoming and ferry back a Piper PA 20 for him. Sure, was my answer, having no idea what a PA 20 even looked like. It is a short coupled, short wing with very narrow landing gear and a tail dragger. So off to Wyoming I went and when I saw the PA 20 I wasn’t convinced it would even fly. But for some reason, better judgment took hold of me and I hired an instructor to check me out in the plane. This took a couple of hours and I was ready to head back to Alaska. It was a fun trip for the most part, just head north to Montana and cross over into Canada. Then find the Alaska Highway and follow it to Fairbanks. The trip, due to bad weather, actually ended up taking longer that we usually figured it took to drive it in a car. Sure learned a lot on that trip, mainly that I wasn’t as good a pilot as I had previously thought but somehow I made it home. By the time I got to Galena with the plane, I had grown to like the old gal. When the owner that I was ferrying it up for saw it, he asked if I would be interested in buying it and I did. Flew it for about a year, it was a good ski plane and did a nice job but then the love of my life appeared on the scene. A 1968 Piper PA 18-150, Super Cub, with only 600 hours on it total. It was love at first sight and every bush pilot knew the 18s were the ultimate in a bush airplane. They were a two seater, one seat behind the other. It was powered by a 150 HP Lycoming engine with a fixed pitch prop. I changed the prop to a Borer one that gave it better take off performance. When I would push the plane to it’s limits it would get off the ground in less than 200 ft and be flying grossed out. A few years later I sold the Cub and ended up buying a Champion 7GCB which was another 150 HP tail dragger.
Patricia had a Cessna 150 in which she learned to fly and roamed around Interior Alaska with it. Because it was metal covered instead of fabric like my Cub, it was much warmer in the cold weather. Plus she had long range fuel tanks that gave her about a 10 hour flying range.
We used the planes like we do a motorhome or car today. Especially in the springtime, we would spend most Saturdays and Sundays flying around the state visiting with friends and stopping in villages to meet new people. At times we would run into Fairbanks or to Anchorage for the weekends, once the days got longer in the spring.
The last plane we owned was a Piper Warrior. It was a low wing, 4 passenger and easy to fly. Because it was a tri cycle gear and a low wing it wasn’t good for the rough field, sand bar landing I did with the tail draggers. As soon as the river froze and a good layer of snow covered everything I would take the wheels off my taildragger planes and put on the skis. Then the entire world seemed to be a landing strip but it was not as it seemed at times. Often the snow on a lake would be covering a layer of water, known as over flow in the north and you don’t want to land in the stuff. You can get stuck real fast. At times the willows were taller than they appeared from the air and it was common to tear the underneath side of the wing fabric on them. Then out came the duct tape and you hoped it held till you got home or to somewhere you could stitch and dope the tear to fix it.
We set up a wall tent about 15 miles west of Galena and kept it up for the winter. On some weekends we would fire up the sno gos and head down to spend a couple of days. The tent had a wood stove in it and was very comfortable, most of the time. There was a table, cots and chairs in it. Generally we would get it all set up using our river boat to haul everything down there. Great fun to wake up and realize it was well below zero degrees in the tent and work to get a fire going with out having to leave the nice warm down sleeping bag. Didn’t take long for the tent to warm up and then it was coffee and breakfast time, followed by a days sno machining in the area. By late October Bear Creek was frozen enough for travel on it by sno gos, sometimes it was still a little rubbery but never fell through the ice.
I only fell through the ice one time. Another guy and I were moose hunting on our sno gos and were traveling down a frozen creek. We came upon some moose tracks so we stopped to check them out to see how old they were. As I stepped off my machine, I commented to the other guy that I was hearing a strange noise. About three steps in front of my machine, I went down rapidly. Sticking my arms out I was able to stop my self from going completely under water. I had stepped off into a black fish hole that had gotten covered over by fresh show and hadn’t re-frozen. For some reason black fish will somehow cause the ice to melt away and give them access to the air I guess. Black fish are very oily and the native people used to dry them and use them for candles. Lucky for me the ice on the edge of the hole was strong and it was cold enough that I could climb out and crawl back to my machine. The temperature was about –30 degrees F. which was good as the water froze instantly on the outside of my clothes and didn’t soak in like it would have done if it was warmer. However this did end this hunting trip as we got our machines turned around and headed back to Galena.
On many of the hunting trips we would come across many old wrecked military aircraft. Mostly ones the Russian pilots didn’t make it back to their country with. Most were just like they were when they crashed. Still had the guns, etc. in them. Most were badly torn up and deteriorated by this time. We inquired of the Air Force and they had no interest in the old planes as they knew where most of them were located.
One fall I decided to build a log cabin a few miles east of Galena. This was to take the place of the tent at Bear Creek. Made it 12 ft. wide and 16 ft. long out of local logs. Turned out to be a good weekend retreat or just a place to play Daniel Boone. After I moved to Koyukuk, a village about 35 miles west of Galena , we would sometimes come back to Galena and spend the weekends at the cabin. This was back in the good old days when you could build and use land that no one else was using. Didn’t ever get ownership or anything, just could use it.
The Yukon River is a major highway for travel., by boats in the summer time and by snow machines or dog teams in the winter. Only during freeze up in the fall and break up in the summer is it not useable. Once the river freezes in the fall people start making trails through the rough ice for travel. All the villages in the area are connected by river trails used extensively by everyone. Most winters there would be long stretches of trail that were as smooth as any super highway. Some years it froze rough and caused slow travel. But when it was smooth speeds similar to highway speeds were possible. One year I put over 5,000 miles on my Ski Doo snow machine.
In the summer time it was a boaters highway, especially in the spring time when the water level was high you could go places you couldn’t get to later in the summer. One summer I was approached, by some folks operating a mine up toward Ruby, to haul supplies for their crew. .The job consisted of meeting the Wien plane, getting the supplies, trucking them down to the river to the boats and heading to the mine. There were enough supplies that it took two 24 ft. river boats to carry the load. I got one of the guys that worked at the school to take his boat and haul half. The first trip was a hunt and look operation to find the mine. We knew where the creek was that flowed into the Yukon just down stream from Ruby but we didn’t know how far up the creek it was or even if the creek was passable for our heavily loaded boats. The first trip required frequent stops to use the chain saws to cut trees that had fallen over the creek. As we went farther south on the creek it got narrower and narrower to the point we couldn’t turn the boats around. As we were just about ready to quit, there was the mine and some very happy guys to see us as they were just about out of food. After the first trip it would take us about 8 to 10 hours to make the round trip. Each trip consumed about 75 gallons of gasoline but the mine paid well and we made some money that summer plus had a great time.
Toward the end of our hauling we noticed on the way in to the mine, a terrible stench of rotting meat. On the way back we decided to stop and see what it was. About 50 feet back in the willows was a dead brown bear. From the tracks on the ground it was apparent that the bear had gone after a moose calf and the mother moose had killed the bear with her hooves. No way of knowing if she was badly hurt or not. They had destroyed all the willows in a large area so the fight had gone on for some time. When we got back to Galena we stopped over at the club on base for a refreshment or two and was telling the story to some of the military personnel in there. They got a map and had us draw on it where the bear was located as they wanted to get the teeth and claws from it. We warned them that it was really rotten and they wouldn’t want to get too close to it. However, later we heard from some of the other troops that they had gotten the teeth and the claws and were still throwing up when they got back to base. One of the base sergeants made them hose off and take a bath outside the barracks before he would allow them to go to their rooms.
All in all, Galena was a great place to live and work for three years.
Growing up in rural southern Oklahoma, hunting was just another part of life for me. No one else in my immediate family liked to hunt but I was out for every open season. As a kid there weren’t deer in our area, east of Wynnewood, but good small game hunting, i.e. birds, rabbits, squirrels, etc. were available.
So when I moved to Nome in 1964, I was somewhat disappointed to find that coastal region was not good hunting territory at all. While fishing was available some distance from town, without a car I had to hitch a ride out to the Nome River or Anvil creek area to fish. By the end of that school year I was ready to move on to the more rustic Alaska of my dreams. Ending up the next year on the lower Yukon River, in the village of Marshall, answered that need to “rough” it.
Just after the first snow fall, Don Hunter, the postmaster, invited me to go along on a Saturday moose hunt with him and two other men, Old Tom and Alou Coffee. Alou was about my age(23) and built like a fork lift. He is the only man I have ever seen pick up a full 55 gallon drum of gasoline and place it into a river boat. Old Tom was the oldest man in the village and a very skilled hunter and tracker. We took two snow machines and two sleds with us that day. After we got to the location, about 5 bends in the river below Marshall (20 miles give or take) we cut across the moose tracks and changed over to snow shoes. (my first experience with them) to follow the tracks. After an hour or so we came to an area where the moose had done a lot of wandering around eating willows so we split up, Don and Alou going one way and Old Tom and myself another. We snow shoed from an hour or so and stopped to take a break. It was at this point that I came to realize that neither Old Tom or myself spoke a common language. I spoke only English and he spoke both Russian and Yupik. After a days walking through the willows we called it quits and headed back to Marshall.
Toward the first part of December we again went to the same area hunting but this time we took our camping gear to stay all weekend. Old Tom had an old trapping cabin that we stayed in at night. The second day the bottom dropped out of the thermometer hitting about –45 degrees F. In the morning, my thermometer I had with me, showed it to be –20F in the cabin. One of the men inched his way over to the stove, still in his sleeping bag, and got a fire started. Soon the cabin was toasty warm and after breakfast we ventured outside to find it to be –52F. Dangerously cold if you weren’t careful. We fired up the gasoline blow torches and using a section of stove pipe and a piece of tarp were able to finally get both snow machines started. After a few hours hunting, it was decided by the group that it was too cold to be out and we should head back to Marshall. On the way back to the cabin to pick up our gear we had to stop several times to build a fire and warm up. A couple of the men ended up with frost bite from this trip and still no moose.
A couple of weeks later, Maurice T. the school custodian and good friend, suggested we change over to hunting caribou. He said he knew just where a herd was and the two of us should scout it out. Early the next Saturday morning found the two of us headed north by snow machine. The trip north was slow going as we had to make a new trail through much of the area. How Maurice knew where we were going was beyond me but he did. About 4:00 that afternoon we reached the area where he had last seen the caribou herd. We parked the snow machine and walked the last mile or so over the hard packed snow. There wasn’t a tree for at least 20 miles here in the mountains where we were. Climbing a snow covered ridge, we got on our bellies and eased up to look into the valley beyond. Nothing, absolutely nothing to be seen but more snow and mountains. Maurice’s only comment was that this is where they were the last time he had seen them. Upon further questioning it was determined that it had been 5 or 6 years since he had been there. One of those cultural difference that I came to enjoy.
We got the snow machine and returned to the valley, finding thousands of tracks headed east. The following weekend, seven of us from the village, pilled onto 3 snow machines pulling freight sleds and headed back to where Maurice thought the herd had gone. Sure enough he was correct. It was a cold snowy day when we saw the herd in a long narrow valley. Old Tom, as the senior man, made the decision on how to proceed. Four of us walked down into the valley, dug holes in the snow leaving only our heads exposed. The other three men on the snow machines circled around to the far side of the herd and started them moving toward us. I could just see someone having to write my mother and tell her that her youngest son had been trampled to death in a caribou stampede. When the caribou got to within about 50 feet of us we raised up and started shooting. Old Tom called a halt to the shooting when he felt we had killed enough caribou for the village. We got enough so that each family would get about 3 caribou. It was quite dark when we finished picking up the animals. They had to be stacked up to keep them from freezing to quickly. A couple of the men drove back south about 20 or 30 miles to some trees and got fire wood. The caribou were stacked around the camp fire for heat and light to see to skin and cut them up. As soon as the three sleds were loaded, it was decided that 4 of us would take them back to Marshall, about 100-150 miles south of us, and the other three men would stay at the site and finish processing the meat. Plus they would protect it from wolves or wolverines or any other meat eating animals.
After a long slow night and most of next day we pulled into Marshall with the meat. It was placed on a tarp in the unheated community center for storage. The following day Maurice took my snow machine back north, as it being Monday I had school to teach, along with the other two machines to get the rest of the meat, skins and the three men that stayed over night.
That Wednesday night there was a town get together at the community center. Everyone was there or so it seemed. This had been the first successful caribou hunt in about 5 years so people were excited. I was fascinated by how organized and how tradition spelled out how to handle the distribution of meat and skins. Old Tom, as the lead hunter started out the evening with a speech, in Yupik of course. Don Hunter told me at one point Old Tom was thanking me for my part in the hunt along with the other men. Nothing was wasted, the most tender cuts of meat were given out to the old people and on down the line. Every family ended up with about 3 animals, though it varied, based on the number of people in the family. I only took one hind quarter and some ribs. The skins were like finding buried treasure. Caribou hair is hollow and is the best insulating fur available for clothing or sleeping bags. Later that winter it was good to see people wearing their new caribou skin garments, I felt good knowing that I had a small part in the hunt.
After moving to Galena in the fall of 1969, it was only a few weeks until I acquired an airplane, a Cessna 170B. For getting a lay of the land and seeing where the larger animals congregated an airplane was great. This was in the years before the State of Alaska outlawed hunting the same day a person had been airborne. Every fall, a week or two before school started, several of my friends and our spouses would head out on a hunting trip in our riverboats. After the first time I offered to help a friend pack out a moose from where he shot it in a swampy area, from then on they had to be either standing on a sand bar in the river or no more than 50 feet back from the river bank. Moose are extremely large animals and after gutting, skinning and cutting them up, you normally will end up with over a thousand pounds of moose to transport back home. Nothing was wasted, even the heads were hauled back home and given to some of the older people to make moose head soup and other meals from it.
Up until about 1980 in the hunting area around Galena and Koyukuk and north of there, the limit was two moose or either sex, with a season lasting from mid August till the end of February. So the plan was to get one moose in late August and another later in the winter. Moose meat is very dry (very little fat) but very good to eat. We normally mixed ground beef tallow with any of our ground moose to improve the taste and to make it stick together better for burgers, etc. Black bear season was open year round as they were so plentiful in that area. Caribou had a season during the winter but most of them were considerable ways north of the Galena area. However one winter they did come to within about 20 miles to the east of Galena which delighted all the local citizens that liked to hunt and eat caribou.
A typical fall hunting trip would be to take two or more boats, loaded with a weeks supply of gasoline, of food, camping gear, tarps to wrap any meat to keep it dry from the rain and anything else we thought we might need. Most years we would go down the Yukon to the Village of Koyukuk and head up the Koyukuk River toward the village of Huslia. There were two areas up that way that were our favorites. One was up the Kateel River which flowed into the Koyukuk about 50 miles north of the village of Koyukuk and the other was a region known as Three Day Slough. The slough got its name from the old days when it was said that it took a man three days to paddle a canoe from one end to the other.
In the early 70s this area was thick with moose and black bears. While flying one day I counted over 50 moose on one small island, Million Dollar Island, about 10 miles north of Koyukuk. This was sort of a combination trip, part hunting trip, part camping trip and a celebration acknowledging the end of summer and the beginning of winter just around the corner.
Depending on where we decided to camp and hunt it could be anywhere from two days travel or more to get back home to Galena. We would just look around the first few days and not shoot anything because once you shot something then it was time to head home. So most years, the day before we needed to head home we would spend the day seriously hunting. Rarely did we not each get our moose that day. If you didn’t get one that day you could usually count on seeing one on the trip back down river to the Yukon. From the time you shoot a moose count on about 5 or 6 hours to get it cleaned, skinned, cut up and in the boat. With two men working on a moose it will go somewhat faster.
We didn’t care much for the bear meat so rarely would I shoot one to take home. I started my Alaska hunting career shooting a lever action Savage which I had borrowed but it was too small a caliber in my opinion, then I went with a 30-06, then a 264 Winchester mag, then to a 300 Winchester mag, and finally ended up shooting a 375 H & H ( a gun know for killing on one end and crippling on the other end) It was the best all around caliber for hunting large game in Alaska that I found. You didn’t have to worry about running into a brown bear and being under gunned. I never hunted brown bears because they were not good to eat and this was always my hunting philosophy, If I couldn’t eat it then I didn’t shoot it unless I thought it was going to eat me which never happened.
On most of these trips Patricia and the other spouses would spend several days picking berries, especially the high bush cranberries which she would use to make a delicious meat sauce. Blue berries were picked and frozen for eating later in the winter.
The trips up river were always slower than the trip home even carrying the moose meat in the boat. On the outbound trip we had to carry enough gasoline to make the round trip plus the 50 to 100 gallons we would burn running around the area while there. So it wasn’t too unusual for us to take about 300 gallons of gasoline (weighing just over 2,000 pounds) with us on the trip. Most of the time we carried three different pitch propellers with us, one for the trip up, one to use for running around after we had unloaded the boats at our camp site and one to use coming home. The boats we used were all flat bottomed plywood boats built in Galena by Sidney Huntington, a master boat builder. The boats generally were 24 feet long and were built out of ½ inch plywood on the bottom and 3/8 inch on the sides leading to a boat that two men could pick up empty and carry or turn it over if you hit a snag in the river and had to patch a hole in the boat. It was a rare trip that one of us didn’t put a hole in one of the boats and have to stop for emergency repairs. It was a matter of emptying the boat, removing the outboard engine and flipping the boat over on a sand bar to patch it with fiberglass and a product called Marine Tex which is a two part epoxy product.
Fall hunting trips were always something I looked forward to a great deal. However once I accepted the position of school superintendent with the district the trips stopped as the month of August was too busy for me to take off work. (so much for getting promoted, I guess) In 1976 when I accepted the superintendents position we move to Tanana where the district office was located. The only other moose I shot was one standing on the banks of the Tanana River about 20 miles up stream from Nenana. We were out on a family picnic with Pat’s sister and her family when the moose stepped out onto the river bank and ended up going back home with us.
In the fall of 1972 I moved from Galena on down river to the village of Koyukuk. Koyukuk is a small village, approximately 90 residents, located at the confluence of the Koyukuk River with the Yukon River. At that time the village didn’t have running water or public electricity. Some people had private generators as did the school. The village is roughly 325 miles west of Fairbanks. In many ways it reminds me much of the village of Marshall, many miles down river, by being the most traditional village in that immediate area of the state. Up river is Galena, heavily influenced by the US Air Force base located there and down river was the larger village of Nulato which for a long time had been effected, first, by the Russian trading post and then by the Catholic Church mission and school. Koyukuk had not been so influenced by outside influences in 1972.
Jobs were hard to come by in Koyukuk, as in most villages, so a number of people had moved to the Galena area to wage work at the AF base or at the state run airport. So in Koyukuk you had a higher population of older men and women that were beyond the wage working age. These seniors were and are the keepers of the traditions. The traditions that have made it possible for them and their ancestors to have lived very good lives in one of the worlds harshest climates. I loved to set for hours and listen to the old stories that were told by them. Because I didn’t speak Koyukon, most would tell the stories in English or someone would translate them for me either at the time or later. A number of the seniors spoke both English and Koyukon very well. They made me envious of their abilities. I always enjoyed the “hooclannie”(sp), Athabascan for scary, stories, that is till sometimes later when I was out traveling late at night by myself and my dog team or snow machine. I was seeing and hearing things behind every tree and bush. The stories I liked the best were about the mystical creatures called the “woodsmen.”, the equivalent of an abominable snowman. They have a stare that can pull you to them and you can’t control it. One evening I walked down to the air strip to check my tie down ropes as it getting windy. It was just about dark but I saw something moving down at the far end of the runway, just in the edge of the trees. To this day I can still picture the strange creature I saw standing there, long shaggy fur just beginning to turn his back on me to head into the woods. Somehow I had walked over half way down the runway without realizing it. The only thing I could figure is he got me close enough to realize I was an ugly man and not an attractive young woman. Several people in the village that I relayed the story to agreed with me. Never again did I automatically assume something I didn’t understand was just an old untrue fable. I am to this day a true believer in Woodsmen and their existence.
There were only a few jobs available in the village. At the school there were four jobs normally filled by local people, a state job to maintain the runway at the airfield, and the one at the post office/general store.
In the early days, just after the turn of the century, this village was known as Koyukuk Station. At that time it had one of the largest trading posts in the interior of the state. It was run by Dominic Vernetti and his wife Ella for many years. Dominic had passed away before I moved there so I never knew him. Ella Vernetti was the post master and owned/operated the trading post/general store. It was in a large two story log building setting on the river bank with a large warehouse building in behind the store. The store and post office occupied the front of the building and Ella’s home was in the back part which she shared with her daughter, Mary Celia. In the early years of the Vernetti Trading post it had a liquor store, the only one in this area, with Dominic’s death Ella chose not to keep the liquor license. At one time Ella told me that there were large fuel storage tanks located in Koyukuk. The larger barges that ran up and down the Yukon all summer would drop off fuel at Koyukuk which would then be pumped into smaller barges and smaller tugs such s the Taku Chief would push these up the Koyukuk River to the villages of Huslia, Hughes and the mining camp at Hogatza. Some years when the water in the river was high enough the small barges would make it all the way to the village of Allakaket/Alatna. In the early days of the 1900’s Dominic ran a large “store” boat up and down the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers selling and trading merchandize for furs. Beaver pelts were the main fur caught and traded. To buy a rifle a person had to stack beaver pelts up till they were as tall as the gun. Same to buy a can of coffee, etc. Sometimes, Ella told me, that their store and home would have beaver pelts stacked from floor to ceiling with barely room to walk through either. Then the game warden would stop by and put a seal on each skin making it ready to sell. Most were shipped to Seattle. People that had been in spring camp would come into Koyukuk Station to sell their furs and see family and friends. Most people would try to make it to town prior to spring breakup on the river. Then after breakup it was off to summer fish camp to put up a years supply of salmon. Most Koyukuk families had fish camps up the Yukon, many in the general area of Bishop Rock.
The river bank has since eroded back enough to take the store building and any other buildings that were close to the bank. There was just room for a foot path between the arctic entry and the steep bank down to the river.
Every thing at Vernetti’s store was put on the “book.” Once a month I would take my check book down to the store and pay off my book. I remember one month that I started the month with 33 cents in my pocket and ended up at the end of the month with the same 33 cents, no place other than the store to spend money in the village. Many times the village was in short supply of folding money. Postal money orders were used instead, never filled out but traded around like money. Some were so worn out they were barely readable. On several trips when I went in to Fairbanks, Ella had me bring back cash for her to use in her store. We had reached an agreement with Ella to buy her store the last year we lived in Koyukuk. All details had been worked out including the price and financing. One day that last spring, she came up to our apartment at the school and told me that she wouldn’t be able to sell me the store. I assumed that her daughters or grandkids wanted to buy it instead but Ella said “no, I heard the owl call my name yesterday.” This is a Koyukon belief that just prior to your death, you will hear an owl call your name, doing so in the Koyukon language. I told Ella that I was very saddened to hear that and not because I wouldn’t be able to buy the store. Within a couple of weeks her heart problems got worse and she had to go to town for surgery. She never came back to the village as she died shortly after the surgery took place. Ella was a wonderful person and someone I am proud to have had as a friend.
We enjoyed teaching in Koyukuk very much due to the people. They were strong supporters of the school and education. The school was also served somewhat as the community center. Movies were shown once or twice a week, meetings were held there and other functions. The years we were there it was a two teacher school with 47 students in grades K to 8. For high school, the students left the village to attend a boarding school somewhere, sometimes in Alaska and sometimes outside.
Each summer we had our boat and airplane fuel sent down from Nenana on the Yutana Barge Lines. It would arrive in 55 gallon steel drums and we would ship the empty ones back from the previous year. If we ran out during the winter it meant hauling a drum at a time on a sled behind the snow machine from Galena. It was very expensive to do it this way. Not the hauling part of it but to purchase the fuel in Galena was the cost. Freight that arrived in the winter time came by airplanes and was off loaded at the air field and was hauled to where it belonged by either dog teams or snow machines. The summer barge off loaded the supplies and it took a great deal of physical labor to roll the fuel drums and hand carry much of the other stuff. There were no cars or trucks in the village when we were there. Later several people bought three and four wheelers, which helped greatly in hauling.
The general store in Koyukuk kept a good supply of the basic food stuffs. Anything else had to be ordered and flown in from Fairbanks.
Just a few miles below Koyukuk was the area known as Last Chance. Koyukuk had a history of flooding in the spring or early summer time. At one time it was decided to move the village down to the last chance area. The Women’s Club building was taken apart, log by log and floated down to Last Chance but as it turned out only one family moved to the new site. This was Leo Kriska’s family. He opened a liquor store here so this may be where the area got its name as this was the last chance to buy alcoholic beverages on the Yukon River. The Kriska family maintained two houses with one in the village. They had school age children so during the week they lived in the village and on weekends lived at Last Chance. They had a daughter named Selene and we named our youngest daughter after her.
Fall hunting was good on the river. Most years the week or two before school started found us with several boat loads of friends up stream on the Koyukuk River hunting moose, bears and doing some fishing and berry picking. This river is a clear water stream where as the Yukon is the color of mud. Some of the feeder streams to the Koyukuk, such as the Kateel are crystal clear and good grayling fishing. Many sand bars on the Koyukuk, a number of them I managed to hit with my boat running at night or in heavy rain or just not paying attention to where I was going. (Pat would agree with the last part) There were also snags, old trees stuck in the bottom and sticking up just waiting to tear the bottom out of a boat, sweepers , fallen trees leaning out over the water and many other hazards. Most of the river boats like ours were long, narrow and made very light weight out of marine plywood. My boat had been built by Sidney Huntington of Galena, a master carpenter and boat builder. The boat was about 24 feet long, flat bottomed and weighed less than 200 pounds being built of ½ inch plywood on the bottom and 3/8 inch plywood on the sides. Sidney’s boats were works of art. Two people could turn it over when need be. Any time I put a hole in the boat from a snag or a rock, it was just a matter of making it to a sand bar and seeing how far up on it you could drive the boat. Then empty all your stuff out of it, remove the outboard motor and then flip it over to dry it out and patch the damage with a quick setting epoxy and fiberglass. Sometimes it might take a day or so to get it patched and back in the water. But with all the camping gear it was seldom seen as a major problem. Plus the sand bars were the best, most bug free area in which to camp anyway.
The school where we taught was down on the river bank with a great view looking to the east. We had a pair of diesel generators to provide electricity and a well for domestic water. The water well was so high in iron that it was non drinkable. It was plumbed into the kitchen sink and into the bath tub. For drinking water we had a large barrel that set net to the oil burning cook stove, just like a wood burning stove but it burned stove oil and was on all the time. The school custodian, Roger Dayton, would cut the ice from the river and haul it to the school and put it in the barrel to melt. Then we dipped it out to use. It was excellent drinking water, soft and as good as you would find anywhere. The well water was so orange in color that it would stain your hair or nails from bathing in it. For a toilet we had a “honey bucket” system, which consisted of essentially a 5 gallon bucket placed in a box with a toilet lid on the top. When it got full you carried it out and dumped it in the out house. Not good but still better in my opinion than a visit to an out house at 40 degrees or more below zero. It could get cold there, the coldest I saw on a thermostat that I considered accurate was 76 degrees below zero. The fuel oil for our generators wouldn’t flow through a 2 inch pipeline at that temperature. Luckily it only stayed that cold for a day or so.
After I moved into the position of district superintendent and moved to Nenana we obtained the building funds from the state to replace the old school with one built farther back from the river. The state also put in an electric system, AVEC, and a public laundry/shower facility for the village residents to use.
Lots of good memories of Koyukuk and we still hear from people in that area, generally by the Internet. When all the villages received TV through the Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNet) it made major social changes in all the village where I visited. Whereas setting outside in the evening visiting had been the traditional way to spend a nice summer evening, after TV everyone was inside watching the tube. Not good or bad, just different.
One major problem then as it is now is the cost of transportation for goods and services, as well as for people. All other areas of the state have government subsidized transportation, be it the south east ferry system, the road system of the interior railbelt area but not the bush. Since the vast majority of all state revenues come from the bush in the form of extractive taxes on the oil, timber, mining and fishing industries, it has always appalled me that so little of the money is returned to the rural areas of the state in the form of government services. It almost appears that state services and subsidized transportation are tied to the general ethnic makeup of the citizens of a particular area. Enough of my soap boxing.
Strange things seen in the frozen north.
It was in the year of 1974 that I was living in Tanana, which is located on the Yukon River just below the confluence of it and the Tanana River. The village of Tanana had about 300 people at that time. There was an FAA Flight Service Station and staff located there as well as an Indian Health Service Hospital with staff. This is also the year I met Jack Gustafson there in Tanana .
It was in the late fall of that year that Alfred came to me at work and asked if I wanted to go with him that night to haul home a broken down snow machine. His wife and another woman, Barbie, had been out the previous day on their snow machines about 50 miles north of town. Barbie’s machine had broken a boggie wheel and Alfred thought we could put it on a sled and return it to Tanana that night. Since it was fall it was dark early in the day. Now dark really isn’t too dark in the Interior of Alaska in winter, especially if it is a clear night as the moon light will make it quite light. Not enough to read a paper but enough light to walk around without a flashlight.
This was on a Friday night so about 5:00 PM we loaded both our sleds and headed north. Barbie had decided she wanted to go back with us and see if we could fix the wheel so that she could drive it back with us.
As you head north of Tanana, you don’t have to go too many miles before you start running out of the forest that banks the rivers. So before long we were out on the tundra following the trail that the women had used to come home the day before. It was close to 9:00 PM by the time we got to the broken down snow machine. The stars were out, the northern lights were dancing throughout the night sky. It was probably close to zero degrees that night but was a windless night. There were a couple of spruce trees close to us and Alfred suggested we start a campfire before we started working on the boggie wheel. We started the fire, heated a kettle of snow water, made tea and were enjoying smoked dry salmon and pilot crackers.
All of a sudden the sky started to get lighter. Alfred, Barbie and I looked at each other with that what the heck is going on look. There was no sound, just the light getting brighter and brighter. Soon it was directly over us and as far as we could see was lit up like some giant spot light had been illuminated. Alfred, who was born and raised in Tanana and as skookum as they come, was concerned. He suggested we go over to the spruce tree and get under it, which we did. After 15 or 20 minutes the light started moving off toward the east and soon it was night time again. Alfred decided to move our campfire over under the spruce tree as I went back to work on the snow machine. It was a beautiful sight to see the tree with the illumination of the campfire under it. Alfred was gathering more wood for the fire when we looked over at the tree and it was on fire. This was a spruce that was about 40 feet tall. With the ground covered with snow and no other near by trees we weren’t worried that it would spread. As we finished up fixing the wheel assembly, the tree fire was burning its self out.
We fired up the plumber's blow torch, heated Barbie’s snow machine so that it would start and loaded our gear and headed back to Tanana. We got in there early on Saturday without any more adventure. Alfred told me that he had never seen anything like we had witnessed the night before. It left me somewhat spooked to be out late at night far from the village for some time to come.
Up the Koyukuk River on the east bank, about half way to Huslia there is a place known locally as Old Toby’s Cabin. I never knew him but did know his son, Young Toby also known as Steven Toby. Old Toby lived in this cabin for many years, hunting, fishing and trapping out of that area. As the story was told to me, Old Toby, in the early days before people had rifles was one of the best bear hunters in memory. When I heard this it peaked my interest, especially the part about hunting bears without a gun. Old Toby was the master of spear hunting for bears it was told to me. He would find a small straight tree for the shaft of the spear and then fashion a spear tip for it, ending up with a spear about 8 or 10 feel long with a shaft of 2 to 3 inches in diameter. He would then find a bear trail where there were signs of recent bear travel and he would dig a small hole in the ground, much like the hole used by pole vaulters to plant their poles prior to jumping. He would then wait beside the trail until the bear would come down it at which time he would stand in the trail and get the bear to charge him. Toby would place the butt of the spear in the hole and aim the spear point at the bear’s chest. The bear would run onto the spear trying to attack Toby and at the last moment Toby would throw himself to the side so the bear wouldn’t land on him or be able to maul him before it died. I can’t imagine the amount of courage it took to do this and how a person learned to do it correctly the first time. This would be one of those situations where you only got one “oops”, much like aircraft carrier landings.
In the Athabascan culture as in the Hispanic, seniors are given a title of respect. In the Spanish culture the title is Dona for women and Don for men, attached to the person’s first name. The same is true of the Koyukon cultures and the terms of Grandma or Grandmother are used with a woman’s first name. Grandfather is used less frequently with older men but is used.
I heard this story from Grandma Sally Pilot in Koyukuk one evening when I was sitting in Ella’s living room at the store. Ella translated the story for me since I was the only person there that only spoke one language, English. All the other people in the room were bilingual.
When Sally was a young woman she made a boat trip to the village of Ruby which was about 85 to 100 miles up the Yukon River. Up beyond Galena and Old Louden was the mining camp of Ruby. This was Sally’s first trip to Ruby and then first time she had been around many white people. She was walking down main street and was beginning to feel hungry, not knowing anyone in Ruby she walked along and came to a large white canvas wall tent where she could see a long table set up with several men eating. On the table were bowls of food so she went in and set down and helped herself to food and coffee. After she finished she stood up and headed for the door of the tent when the proprietor of the restaurant stopped her and requested payment for her meal. This was a new concept to her as no Athabascan would ever charge someone to eat at their table whether they knew them or not. The Koyukon way is if you have food, you share it with others. Anyway Sally didn’t have any money and didn’t speak very much English so the owner soon became frustrated and pushed her out the door. She stayed a few days and caught a boat back down river to Koyukuk. Didn’t get the impression that she cared much for the Ruby mining camp.
While living in Koyukuk I got intrigued with dog teams and mentioned this to some friends one night. Not a good thing to do at all for the next week or so people would stop by our apartment and bring me sled dogs as a gift. It would have been very impolite to not accept the dogs so soon I had about a dozen of them. I bought a small sled with about a six foot basket and a friend showed me how to make a tow line and sew harnesses. A bit of advice: Always be suspicious of people bringing gifts especially sled dog gifts. I think people went though their dog yards and culled out every bum dog they had and gave them to me. It took a few months to realize that I was going to have to invest some serious money in dogs if I expected to have a decent team. Made a trip down to Nulato and bought a good lead dog and a pair of swing dogs for about a thousand dollars. Then I picked up a pair of wheel dogs in Huslia, some team dogs in Koyukuk and Galena and soon I was moving down the trail, even getting to where I wanted to go at times. After school Pat and I would hitch up the team in the dark and head out for a run of a few hours. This is one of the most peaceful ways to travel at times that I know. In the moonlight all you hear is the hissing of the sled runners on the snow, the dogs breathing and the padding of their paws on the snow. I always wore a head light on my head to be able to check out the trail where it would cut through the woods because sometimes a tree would fall across the trail and be high enough that the dogs could run under but it would wipe out the sled and driver. People have been killed in similar situations. We would get back to the school apartment and while I was putting the dogs up and feeding them Pat would go in and fix supper for us. Many times I would start the dog food cooking, dried salmon and dry dog food generally, just before we took off. By the time we got back the wood fire would be out, the fish cooked and cooled enough for the dogs to eat and drink. At one time we had 29 running dogs plus puppies in our yard. These were some of the most vicious animals I have ever been around, especially to each other but sometimes toward people. Most of the village mushers that I knew carried a firearm with them most of the time when they traveled alone.
One late winter evening after Pat and I had retired for the night I hear my dog yard going crazy. We at times had problems with foxes and other small animals coming into town or someone having a dog get off his dog chain and wandering around town. So I got dressed and grabbed a flashlight and headed out to my dog yard. It was easy to located the problem as all my dogs were facing the same direction with their fur bristled up, snarling and growling. In my flashlight beam about 20 yards away stood a large dog, one that I wasn’t familiar with as all the Koyukuk dogs were the smaller racing breeds. I walked out toward the new dog, yelling at him as I went. When I go about 25 feet from him he turned and took off to the north and went around the church building. I yelled at my dogs to shut up, which they did and I went back to bed. The next morning I was telling my friend and the school’s custodian, Roger Dayton, what I had seen the night before. He said no one in town had a dog like I described so we went over by the church to look at the tracks left the night before. Roger turned to me with a big grin on his face and told me I had run a wolf off not a dog. I had never seen a grown wolf up close before so I vowed to be somewhat more careful in the future as to what I yelled at. Roger thought the wolf had come to the dog yard looking for something to eat, either dog food or a dog or two.
During the 70s and 80s many of the other bush teachers we knew, were also pilots. At that time a good used airplane was just slightly more expensive than was a new car. Insurance wasn’t a big cost either but I bet it would have been if the companies knew what we did with our airplanes, landing on sand bars, frozen lakes and rivers, etc. Many times in the spring of the year the word would get out to most of the area teacher pilots, of a get together at one of the villages. Everyone would show up and spend the weekend. In those days few of the group had children so it was easy to pick up and go somewhere.
In particular I remember one weekend we gathered in Huslia and decided to fly north as a squadron to visit villages in the Kobuk Valley area, this being the villages of Ambler, Kobuk, Shungnak, and a couple of others. I believe there were five or six planes in the group and about ten people in all. We landed in one of the villages, parked the planes and walked up to the school. When the teachers opened the door, all they could do was stare at us. We finally asked if we could come in and did so only to have the couple set and do nothing but stare at the ten of us. They might, just possibly, have had a case of spring fever, real bad. We soon departed and visited several other places before returning to Huslia and some of us went on home that night.
Pat’s sister, Wilma and her husband, Dale, lived and taught in Huslia for a number of years. Dale was also a pilot and spent a good amount of time in the air. One weekend two couples of their friends flew into Huslia with their two planes, making a total of three planes on the ground. The next morning, Saturday, one of the friends suggested they go out flying so that he could show them his new plane and set of skis he had just purchased. So the three pilots got into the one plane and took off. In the process of showing how his plane performed on skis, on a remote lake, the pilot managed to wreck the plane. No one got hurt but the plane was not flyable. Of course out there, no one was in radio contact range and there were no other pilots left in the village. So the wives sat at home worrying about the three and then on Sunday morning Norm Yeager, owner and pilot of Galena Air Service flew into Huslia to drop off a charter. He was in his Cessna 185, which was on skis also. Norm flew out in the general direction of where the wives thought their husbands had gone and after a few hours flying he found them, landed and picked them up. Parts were obtained in a few weeks and the plane was fixed enough to ferry it out to a mechanic for proper repairs. Dale told me all he could think about as they spent the winter night setting around a camp fire with no tent or sleeping bags was why did all of them go in the one plane?
On one Saturday Dale was out flying his Citabria on skis looking for a man that was reported to be overdue getting back from a hunting/trapping trip. Edwin Simon was an older man and very accomplished in the woods. So when he was late getting home his wife, Lydia, was concerned. The next day Dale flew out looking for him. After a few hours of flying he spotted someone on the ground. Landing, he found it was Edwin and that he was in very serious shape. He had fallen through the ice and gotten wet and wasn’t able to get a fire going to dry off. Dale loaded him in the plane and flew him back to Huslia. Later Edwin and Lydia presented Dale with a new beaver skin parka that she had been making for Edwin. Lydia was a very accomplished sewer and the parka was very attractive. Dale still has the parka in Bellingham and is in the process of sending it back to Chris Simon, Edwin’s grandson who is presently the school superintendent for the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, which is where I formerly worked.
Many of the teacher pilot stories are something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. One spring day, Sandy, a teacher in Alakaket, was getting ready to head down to their summer camp and decided it would be easier and faster to air drop many of their camping supplies out of the plane rather than making two boat trips to haul everything. So Sandy and his wife Stella stacked the back seat around her full of their camping gear, took off the door I assume, and headed out. Sandy had rolled their camping mattress up and tied a rope around it. When they got to the right spot Sandy yelled for Stella to throw out the mattress which she did, but it didn’t stay rolled up. It not only unrolled but wrapped itself around the plane’s rudder. Luckily before he lost total control of the plane the mattress blew off and landed some unknown spot. I think this ended the air drops for the camp and the rest of the stuff went by boat.
Several of the teachers that I knew that wanted to be pilots never were able to put it together and get either their license or finally just gave up trying to fly. A friend on mine by the name of Peter (last name to remain anonymous to protect the guilty) that taught in Nulato and then moved to Galena as principal and superintendent was one of these. Peter was extremely smart, athletic but flying just wasn’t his thing. As a student pilot he ran a solo flight to Manley Hot Springs to land. Now the strip at Manley can be a handful especially if any wind at all is blowing. On one end is a curvy slough and on the other end was a large (60+foot cotton wood tree) and behind the tree was the Manley Lodge. On the first trip to the strip Peter came in too fast over the slough and descending too quickly. He landed so hard that the wings flexed enough to cause sheets of paint to come off the wings and land on the grass. Luckily for him there was an aircraft maintenance shop there run by Cy Hetherington. Cy got the plane checked out and in a few weeks had it ready to go again. Someone flew Pete in to pick up his plane. The take off was uneventful but Peter decided he wanted to make a successful landing there so he circled the air strip and chose to come in over the Lodge and tall tree. Determined not to let his speed get too fast as he had the previous time, he went the other way and ran out of airspeed just over the cottonwood tree. His little yellow airplane was about 30 feet up in the tree when it came to rest. Someone got a rope up to Pete so that he could get down. As far as I know this was the last time Pete attempted to pilot a plane.
One of the most interesting features of flying a plane on skis is not having any brakes. Imagine driving your car without brakes and having to plan ahead as to when you could coast to a stop. Once in the air a ski equipped plane behaves like any other plane. Unless you break a safety cable and that is not something you even want to think about. One of the Nulato teachers, Don, had just gotten his license, bought a Citabria airplane on skis. In the winter time, back in the mid 70s the river ice was normally used as a runway for the village. It was much closer to town, and was kept smooth with the packed snow. Don kept his plane tied down off to the side of the strip. One Saturday morning dawned bright and clear in Nulato so Don decided to go flying. Earlier that morning a twin engine turbo prop MU-2 plane had come in to land. Some bureaucrats from somewhere I suspect. The MU-2 had parked across the runway from where Don was parked. Don cleaned the snow off his wings and tail, untied his tie down ropes, got in and hit the starter button. Nothing but some moaning and groaning as his battery was low, too low to start the cold engine. So Don decided to do it the old fashion way by hand propping it. He spun the prop without success, so he gave the throttle more gas and tried again. More gas and this time the engine fired running at a high RPM. Don was barely able to get out of the way before the spinning prop hit him and he lay in the snow watching his plane cross the runway and proceed to chew into the side of the half million dollar turbo prop setting there. This seemed to end Don’s flying career as I don’t ever remember seeing him pilot a plane again.
One of my first small airplane rides I took with a guy name Larry in the village of Marshall. Larry’s wife taught there with us that year. So in the spring Larry asked me if I wanted to go flying with him in his Stinson. Sounded good to me as I had seen him flying around the village before. As I got into the plane, on skis, with him I noticed in the back seat floor there was a box with a part of some kind in it. After we took off I asked him about the part and what it was. He told me it was one of the magnetos from his plane but told me not to worry as one was all we needed, even though I later learned the FAA requires both on an airplane engine to be in operating condition. Larry had a malfunction of the one mag so he removed it and made a cover plate to go over where he had removed the magneto. The trip was uneventful and I knew then and there I had to become a pilot. We spent the day fishing through the ice on a river 50 miles north of Marshall and caught lots of pike.
The next episode of Larry’s flying occurred one day when a float plane landed up at the area where I had my commercial fish camp. The plane landed on the Yukon and taxied up to the shore in front of my camp. Out stepped Larry. We had a bite of lunch and he said he had to be going. It was an older J-3 Cub that didn’t have an electrical system so to start the engine you had to hand prop it. So Larry untied the plane (major mistake), pushed off the bank and the river current caught and started moving them out from shore. Larry had the Cub door open and was standing on the right hand float trying to reach over the wing strut. There was no way he could get enough leverage to swing the prop fast enough to get the engine to fire. So he crawls under the strut and stands directly behind the prop. Prop, prop, prop, nothing so he goes back under the strut and gives the plane more throttle and back under the strut and swings the propeller again. This time success but the problem again was he had given the engine so much gas the plane started heading in a large circle with Larry standing on the one float, he was a big man. He was trying to get back under the wing strut without falling off into the water, the prop was throwing water back at him with all the wind it was generating. The Yukon River is about a mile wide at this point and Larry was rapidly approaching mid stream. As I last saw him he was just getting under the strut as the plane roared around the bend in the river. I had just climbed into my boat to go rescue him when I saw his plane rise above the trees and he circled back over my camp. One time I had asked Larry why he never flew his plane to Bethel but always worked on it himself. Don’t remember the excuse but I later found out he only had a students pilots license and had never finished the course he started many years ago. Without a private pilots license he also never had a float plane rating either. Just had taught himself to fly and stayed out of populated areas to avoid the FAA. There were several pilots in the Galena area also that didn’t have pilots licenses. Just took enough lessons to learn the basics of how to fly and off they went. There was an old saying among pilots that the FAA didn’t exist west of the Alaska Range of mountains and to a large degree that was true.
The years I lived in Galena and Koyukuk, 1969-1974, the FAA had a Flight Service Station located in Galena. Since this was a small community of pilots and FSS operators we all got to know each other and operated somewhat on a casual basis at times. We would often file a “round robin” flight plan with a notation of where we planed to be in general. Most of the area had identifiable places, such as names of lakes, bends in the river, etc. You might file that you planed to land 3 miles east of Coffee Can Lake, for instance, and would be back by 5 PM.
One evening I got a call at home from the FSS operator saying that a friend of mine, Don, had not come back in as filed. It was already dark and I knew Don had plenty of survival gear with him. There was no way I was going out in the dark searching for a plane. So the next morning as soon as it was light I took off and headed up to the area where he had file to land to so some hunting. After flying around checking the different lakes in the area I spotted his plane on a lake that had blown clear of snow and was a giant sheet of glazed ice. I landed and taxied over to where he was and got out. He had a fire going and was doing fine. As I got out of my plane I noticed that his lower blade of his propeller was somewhat “J” shaped. Turned out he had slid into a tree stump on the shore as he was trying to stop after landing. Don was a new pilot and had learned a valuable lesson, I thought.
We discussed the matter and decided to fly back to Galena to get some tools to remove the prop of which we did.
In a couple of hours we were back at his plane site and proceeded to remove the prop off his Piper PA 12 Super Cruiser. It had been my thought that we would tie down his plane where it was and he could send his propeller into Fairbanks and have it fixed in a week or so. But after we got it off the plane Don decided that we could straighten it enough to make it flyable again. I wasn’t in favor of the idea but I wasn’t the one that was going to be flying the plane. I held the good end of the prop and Don proceeded to pound on the J part with the back side of a single blade axe. It was going remarkably well until the last 4 inches of the prop broke off. Airplane propellers have to be balanced and 4 inches off one blade was not good. Anyway Don, always trying to save money one way or the other, decided to put it back on his plane and give it a try. He had started the catalytic engine heater earlier that day so it was ready to start. We got the plane pointed in the right direction to go directly to Galena, about an hour away.
Don’t know that I have ever seen an airplane shake quite so badly before. I stuck my head in the open door of his plane and the alcohol compass was unreadable due to the vibrations. I told Don in no uncertain terms that he needed to pull the prop off and we would take it with us in my plane but he wouldn’t hear of it. So I stepped aside and watched him take off and circle the lake. He had asked me to go first so that he could follow me. (no compass ) I took off and got Don on the radio and headed south. We were slow flying, (even more than normal in the two Piper planes) We made it to Galena, landed and taxied to parking. Don was still shaking when he got out of his plane as he had become concerned that the engine of his plane was about to come off. That really messes up the balance and makes them impossible to fly and control. Anyway he removed the prop and shipped it to town to be repaired. All in a day’s fun in the bush.
When I was younger, as with most young people, I felt I was invincible, had been born with bird blood and could fly anything that had wings, but alas I found out later in life none of the beliefs were completely true.
One Thanksgiving holiday, 1972 I believe it was, I was invited up to Huslia for dinner by Pat’s sister. This was the year before Pat and I got married so the arrangement was that I would stop in Galena and pick her up and we would continue on to Huslia. The weather was OK in our area for flying and the trip to Galena was as normal. However off to the east it was obvious a storm was moving our way but I hoped to make the trip before the weather closed in on us. Pat was waiting at the Galena airport as I arrived, got her situated in the back seat of my Super Cub, talked to my future brother in law as he was there to pick up another person and was taxing out as I came in. After we got tower clearance to take off and made a left climbing turn headed north I contacted Dale in his plane to check the weather as he was about 15 or 20 minutes ahead of us. He reported it was still good but the front was very close to him. It was about a 45 minute flight from Galena to Huslia and since I had my plane on skis I wasn’t too worried. (I should have been) thinking if it got too bad we would land on one of the many lakes and wait out the storm. I had flown the route enough to be fairly familiar with the lakes, rivers and mountains that I used for navigation check points. At about the half way point Dale radioed me that he was on final for the Huslia runway and it had started blowing and snowing there. About that time the storm hit us and the visibility went down hill in a hurry. We were flying about 200 feet off the ground with about a mile visibility, just barely maintaining VFR minimums. I was sure the storm had also moved in behind us so there was nothing to be gained by turning around and going back to Galena since we were only 15 or 20 minutes out of Huslia as I figured it. Soon we had the village in view and it was snowing real hard and blowing with strong gusts. Not good landing weather at all, especially in a plane like a Super Cub that wants to fly in a slight breeze rather than stay put on the ground. This was the old Huslia runway before they widened it, straightened it and took the hump out of the center. It was very narrow being lined with trees on both sides. Luckily for me Pat was very new to small plane flying at this time and didn’t realize what a predicament I had gotten us into. I lined up on the runway and cut my power, per normal landing methods, but quickly was blown off to the side of the runway. So it was full power and circle around again to make a second approach. This time I came in much faster to have better control of the plane but quickly realized I was being blown into the trees on the right wing side. So again full power and full left rudder to climb out somewhat sideways to the runway. The next time (actually the fourth or fifth attempt) I came in crowding the left side of the runway with the wing about ten feet from the tree line at almost cruise speed, once getting below the tree tops and staying close to the trees I was able to plant the plane on the ground just a ways off the normally used part of the field. It made a true believer of me of the old adage that any landing you walk away from is a good one. It also gave me something new to be thankful for that year. Later when Pat got her pilot’s license it became apparent to her how dangerous this trip had become by my idea of having to complete the flight. As I remember she mentioned it a few times to me later on. Having to complete a flight gets lots of pilots in trouble over their flying careers.
The runway at Koyukuk in the early 70s was just a dirt strip listed as being 1,200 ft. long. However anytime it was rainy or during spring breakup the last half (the west end) just became a mud bog. The remaining 600 feet was too short for the mail plane to land so the two years I lived in the village, on numerous occasions I would fly my Super Cub, which could work 600 feet with no problems if the pilot knew what he/she was doing, up to Galena and pick up the first class mail and movies for Koyukuk and take them back down. I would do this once or twice a week when the field was muddy.
Landing in Koyukuk consisted off making a straight in approach from the east, landing to the west, come over an island in the river with fairly tall trees on it and then descend quickly to land. The east end of the runway was actually the steep bank slope down to the Koyukuk River 15 feet below. The west end consisted of tall trees. To take off you always took off to the east so this field was one way in and one way out for the most part. Some pilots would circle around and come in from the west end at times if the wind was blowing and they were comfortable with this approach.
One day I had made plans to go into Fairbanks and had taken the day off work. I was going to catch the mail plane to Galena and then the Wien jet on to Fairbanks. I was on my way down from the school when I heard the mail plane land. At the time they were using a Cessna 207 to make the run from Galena to Nulato to Koyukuk and back to Galena. When I got to the field I recognized the pilot and noticed he was over at the side of the runway all bent over, throwing up. I went over to him to see if he was Ok or not. He said he had the flu and didn’t think he would be able to fly as he was concerned he might pass out. He looked terrible. He then got the bright idea for me to fly the plane while he rode in the co-pilot’s seat. I told him I had never flown a 207 before and this one was going to be a full load of people. He assured me that it was an easy plane to fly and he knew I flew a lot of hours in the area. So my youth get the best of me and I agreed. The five passengers were loaded into the plane and it settled to the ground at the tail skid. He assured me this was normal so he and I go in the front seats, me expecting this to put the nose wheel back on the ground. So then he says that when we get the engine running it will pull the nose down. (we were so over weight it makes me shutter to think of it now) I did find by having the engine running and ridding the brakes some the nose wheel would stay on the ground. I taxied down as far as I could toward the west end and turned around, flaps set for take off, trim set, prop set and everything shoved to the wall. We started accelerating, much slower than I was used to in my Super Cub, and were quickly running out of runway. We had long before passed the go/no go decision spot to be able to stop the plane before we ran off into the river. I do believe the wheels were still on the ground when I got to the edge of the river and launched out into the air. There was no way I was going to be able to make a straight out departure and clear the trees on the island so it was a hard left turn up the Koyukuk River flying about 15 feet off the water until the airspeed increased enough for the plane to climb. When I looked at the regular pilot sitting in the right seat, he looked like he had seen a ghost. Don’t know if it was from the flu or my flying that day. We went on to Galena and I landed and then caught the Wien plane to town. That was the day I began to suspect that perhaps I couldn’t fly anything that had wings after all. All is well that ends well, I guess.
One of the dangers of flying in Alaska is at times the poor visibility caused by smoke in the summer from forest fires and in the winter from snow storms, ice fog, etc. One of the problems run into by pilots is known as a whiteout. These whiteouts are normally caused by an overcast sky, snow and blowing snow or perhaps a nice ice fog. The danger comes from trying to land or take off in a whiteout condition, as it is impossible to use your normal senses of up and down. Like being in the center of a giant cotton ball is how one pilot described it to me. Most visual flight rule flying depends on seeing the horizon and using it to know when your wings are level or if the nose of the airplane is climbing or descending. In a whiteout these references are not available. The only way is to depend on your aircraft instruments to give you the information and instrument flying is not normally recommended two feet off the ground.
Also after a big snow storm and everything is covered in white, trying to land on a big frozen lake can be challenging even on a nice sunny day, as sunny as it gets in the winter time in Interior Alaska that is. Most of the time those of us that flew on skis and did lake and river landings tried to land over at the edge closer to a tree line or shoreline that could give you a certain amount of depth perception to allow the pilot to know how far off the surface he/she was and begin their flare for a safe landing. Many airplanes have suffered landing gear damage from either flying the plane into the ground at too high a speed or doing the flare too high in the air and dropping the last 20 or 30 feet to the landing surface. By staying close to the trees you can land by looking out the side windows and knowing how high in the air you were.
Another condition called over flow exists to trap ski planes at times. On shallow creeks and lakes that are spring fed, at times in late winter the creek or lake will freeze completely to the bottom so that any spring water that enters has to go on top. This water is so close to freezing that it doesn’t melt the snow layer, just saturates it making it very heavy and dense. In the spring time especially, when I wanted to land on a frozen lake, I would first make a low pass over the lake at just above landing speed. Still at flying speed I would slowly lower the plane until the skis were on the snow pushing down 4 to 6 inches. Then I would go to take off power and make a big circle and come back around again. This time I would be slow flying about ten feet to the side of my previous set of tracks in the snow. If they were still the same color as the surrounding snow then there was no indication of over flow so it was assumed to be safe to land. If the ski tracks were considerably darker in color than the snow beside the tracks then you knew there was over flow present and to not try to land.
Another problem was deep snow. As long as the plane was sliding all was fine but when it came to a stop, you might sink several feet into the snow. When this happened all there was to do was to break out the set of snow shoes and start stomping out the area in front of the plane for several hundred feet. After several hours this snow would set up enough to support the plane’s weight on take off. Sometime the plane would be supported on the skis by the snow but when the pilot and/or passengers stepped out it was up to the arm pits in snow. Often this was the time to crawl back up onto the skis and try to take off before the plane also sunk in the soft snow. Often times the center of large lakes were blown clear of snow and resembled a large ice rink. It became critical to land into the wind so as to have better directional control. Without brakes and at slow speeds, ski planes can be a handful to control. Can be a major problem if there are any obstacles on the frozen surface such as a beaver dam, old tree stumps, etc.
Ski flying to me is the most fun part of it all. The world becomes a giant landing strip for the most part. Places that are inaccessible in the summer time are just drop in places on skis in winter Alaska where we lived. I would guess that well over half of all my flying hours are in ski equipped airplanes.
Running a trap line
It was in the winter of ’65 (1965 that is) while I was living in the village of Marshall, located just north of Bethel on the Yukon River. Marshall was a village of about 90 people, most identifying themselves ethnically as being Yupiks. It was probably the most traditional village in that part of Alaska in those days. Most of the people made a living off the land, fishing, trapping, hunting, berry gathering, etc. My store bought parka from Eddie Bauer while warm made me stand out somewhat like a sore thumb. Most of the residents wore parkas, pants and boots locally made from skins. The most common skin for the parka was caribou with the fur on the inside. Caribou hair is hollow and was clipped to about ½ to ¾ of an inch long. The skin was tanned with urine from the oldest woman that the tanner had available. Pants were favored to be made from seal skins which had to be bought or traded for from one of the coastal villages. Boots, (muk Luks) were made two ways. For wearing in wetter weather seal skin or king salmon skin uppers were sewn onto soles make from a bearded seal (oogruk) or a young walrus. For dry cold winter wear boots were made of seal skin uppers and tanned smoked moose hide soles. Oogruk soles are very hard and the necessary curves are made by the woman doing the sewing by chewing on the sole until it was pliable and then molded to the foot shape.
So I ordered the necessary skins that I couldn’t buy locally. When it all arrived I had made arrangements with a local woman to sew my set of winter gear. After wearing it for awhile when out on the trail hunting or just snow shoeing messing around I decided what I needed to do was to start a trap line and catch some of my own fur instead of having to buy it all. After talking to several families in town I found one that would let me use their family trapping area. So I got a friend there in the village, Maurice T. to show me the things I needed to know to run a trap line. We set up the line in a big loop that was about 50 miles in distance. I ordered about 24 dozen traps, Maurice showed me how to season them by boiling them in water, after that only touching them with clean gloves on my hands.
Maurice thought I would have the best chance of catching mink so that is what we went after using frozen fish for the bait. Maurice would check the trap line using my Polaris snow machine during the week and I would run it on Saturdays. The first few trips Maurice would go with me and show me what to do and how to handle any fur we caught. Do believe a mink is one of the nastiest animals pound for pound that is on the earth.
Now off the big loop we made small loops, some only a mile long and some up to 5 or 6 miles long. We would park the snow machine, cover it with an old sleeping bag to try and keep it warm enough to start upon our return. Then, on would go the snow shoes and down the trail we would head. It took me some time to get used to walking on snow shoes and of course never got as good as Maurice T.
On one of the Saturdays when I was by myself, I parked the snow machine, covered it and headed down the trail to check my traps. This was one of the longer loops so I didn’t take my rifle with me, but left it on the snow machine. Most of the trap line was along the creek banks and around some of the lake shores. I had checked the one side of this lake and was headed over the frozen ice to the other side to check those traps.
For some reason, I guess that little voice in the back of my head, was cautioning me to be careful. I was several miles from the snow machine, the sun was out, and the temperature was about zero without any wind. But as I walked and checked traps I kept looking back behind me on the trail I had just come over. After crossing the lake the trail I was on started over a small hill to get to the creek drainage on the other side. As I reached the crest and sat down on some dead fall timber to rest, looking back over my trail on the far side of the lake I saw some movement. Getting my small telescope out of my pack I scanned the area of the movement. Then I saw it again and this time recognized it as a gray wolf. Soon it ventured out onto the frozen lake followed by the others in its pack. All told there were nine wolves strung out in a rough single file as they slowly trotted out on the lake surface following the same trail I had just come over. Oh, what I would have given for my rifle about then but it was still several miles away from my current position. I think by anyone’s definition I was a tenderfoot cheechako for sure. Only my second year in Alaska and here I was, unarmed, out in the forest with a pack of wolves on my back trail.
As I looked around my surroundings I noticed an old dead spruce tree with some good sized limbs down low to the ground. If the pack got too close and acted aggressive, I felt I could climb up eight or ten feet and be safe. From my vantage point on the hill top I watched the lead wolf, normally a female, trotting along with her nose to the trail. It should have been obviously to her that she was following a man and not some other animal. Most of the time the smell of a man will cause a wolf to head off a different direction, but not this female and her pack.
(While the story is true up to this point the author perhaps gets somewhat creative with the truth after this point)
As I saw them getting closer to my side of the lake I thought, just for safety I should check out the tree and see how it looked from up there. It was about mid day, probably just after noon so I had several more hours of day light remaining. I broke off some of the smaller limbs that were in the way and started climbing. At about ten feet there was a limb that stuck out to the side of the main tree and this I decided would be my chair plus I had a good limb to use for a foot rest. I had been up in the tree for about ten or fifteen minutes when the wolves came into site below the trees. Thinking that a good yell would scare them and send them running, I let out one of my best bellows. It only brought them over to my location and soon all 9 were underneath my tree. Those yellow eyes were not friendly as they put their paws upon the tree trunk and made growling sounds. All my food was back with my rifle waiting for me to return. I did have a new can of snoose in my pocket so I put a big chew in my lip and thought. When ever one of the wolves would get too close I would let fly a big spit of tobacco juice, trying to hit one of the wolves. That too didn’t seem to impress them either.
Soon I saw the gray pack leader go over to two of the younger looking pack members and muzzled up to them as if talking to both. In a few minutes both of the young wolves headed back down the trail toward the lake at a full gallop. The remaining seven wolves made themselves comfortable surrounding my tree and some proceeded to take a nap.
I would guess I had been up in the tree for a couple of hours when I saw movement again on the lake trail. Now while I had always heard that wolves are the smartest of the northern animals I wasn’t prepared for what I soon saw. Both of the young wolves that had left were now returning, walking side by side on the trail with something in between them. It wasn’t until they got about 25 yards away that I recognized what they had between them. It was a live beaver they were dragging over toward my tree. I knew at this point I was in serious trouble.
To be continued.
Continuation of Running a trap line
As I sat perched about 12 feet up the old dead spruce tree, surrounded by the wolf pack, my life started flashing before my eyes. It didn’t take long for this to be over for as a 23 year old I hadn’t done much. The spruce tree was no more than 12 inches in diameter at the base so I was trying to calculate how long it would take for the beaver to chew enough of the tree away to cause it and me to fall to the ground. I tried to talk to the beaver and to reason with him as to how he shouldn’t be doing the dirty work for the wolves but the look he gave me made me understand that it was either him or me. I tried, to no avail, to point out to the beaver that when the wolves finished with me, he would be dessert on their menu.
As I sat on the dead limb, feeling the slight vibrations from the beaver chewing on the tree, I came to realize that to save myself was going to take a miracle. Since my yelling at the pack hadn’t scared them or my spitting at them was no more successful, I knew I had to somehow conjure up an idea that would scare them away long enough for me to escape back to my snow machine and rifle, which was no more than a mile or two from me.
I tried to remember everything I had ever heard about wolves and their behavior. Oh how I wished I had understood the Yupik language for I was sure one or more of the old men had related a story in the community steam bath on how to deal with the same situation in which I now found myself.
Recalling back to the old Jack London stories I had read when I was much younger, I knew that wolves were afraid of fire and this was how many of the old miners had saved themselves. So into my backpack I searched. Sure enough there was my container of waterproof matches and a hunting knife. With the knife I started making shavings from one of the dead limbs, other small limbs I broke off to use for kindling wood. Taking some twine from the pack I tied the kindling together with the shavings, struck a match to it and soon I had a small blaze going. Gently I lowered the burning bundle to the ground to a pile of dead wood that had fallen off the tree. Soon the twine burned into and I pulled it back up to tie on more kindling and continued to repeat the process.
The wolves had backed up about 25 feet from the fire and laid down. I realized it was now or never so I slung my back pack over my shoulders and started down the tree. There were several limbs on the ground that contained pitch knots that would make good torches Two of these I lit and grabbed several other to take with me on the trail. Every time I would take a step the wolf pack would do likewise. Walking down the trail toward my snow machine and safety, I had to walk somewhat side ways to keep the fire of the torches pointed at the pack. If I hadn’t had my hands full I am sure I would have been patting myself on the back for my clever escape from the tree.
After about a half mile I had to stop and light a couple of the new knots as the originals had just about burned out. In another half mile I knew I would have to cross a small dry lake that would give me a better look at the pack. There just ahead was the lake bed and as I hurried to the other side I stopped momentarily to give the pack a good look. Somehow I had miss counted, there were only 5 wolves in the pack following me. Where were the other two? As I looked at the pack I came to realize that the leader and one of the other older female wolves were not there. I was convinced that they hadn’t given up so the only answer was somehow they had gotten ahead of me and planned to ambush me before I got to the snow machine. Ah, wolves are clever creatures, yes they are.
I was still a half mile from the snow machine and was having to light my last two spruce knots for torches. I t would be touch and go to make it back to my sno go and rifle before I ran out of fire.
Then I remember a story that a couple of old women had told my wife when they invited her to go berry picking with them. She had asked if either of them had a rifle to protect against bears and was told that wasn’t necessary. She was told that bears are very polite and are easily embarrassed by women. Since underwear was a creation of the European culture, the older native women weren’t involved in the wearing of it. They told my wife that if a bear approached them they were all to face away from the bear, lift their dresses over their heads and bend over. Bears couldn’t handle being “mooned” by human females and would run away.
So I wondered if female wolves would have the same reaction to being “mooned” by a human male. As I walked on and knew I was no more than a quarter mile from my sno go, I could see that the pack was getting braver and that my torches were about to burn out.
Just then the two females came out of the trees ahead of me, effectively blocking the trail between me and safety. So I faced the pack and quickly dropped my seal skin pants and long underwear down below my knees and bent over giving the two older females a full shot of moon. Such a shriek I have never heard from any living thing before or since. Both wolves came charging down the trail directly at me and I knew my time had come but I kept my rear end facing the two. They were shrieking and yelping as loudly as they could. I stepped to the side of the trail and they tore past me at a full run, to be joined by the other five in full retreat headed down the back trail.
When they were gone I pulled up my clothing and at a rapid pace made it back to the sno go. Grabbing my rifle out of my scabbard, I slung it over my shoulder, started the engine and it was full throttle out of there. After several miles I pulled up for a stop and found I was shaking violently from my close escape. But I only rested for a few minutes before putting another 10 or so miles on the way back home. Finally I stopped to have tea and something to eat, not removing my rifle from my back until I pulled in behind the house back in Marshall. From that trip on I always carried a short barreled shotgun slung on the side of my back pack.
So goes life in the great white north.
Wall Tent Vacations
When I moved to Galena in the late summer of 1969, one of the first things I did was to find out where I could set up a wall tent for the winter. After talking to a number of people in town I found out which family had used the spot I had located 10 or 15 miles down the Yukon. I went to talk to the family and ask permission to use a small part of this area to set up my tent. When they understood that I wasn’t trying to permanently claim the land and would leave anytime they ask, they agreed to let me set up my tent.
I had purchased a wall tent in Fairbanks from Big Rays Surplus and had hauled it out in my airplane, a Cessna 170B. So in late September, before freeze up, I loaded the tent and my sheep herders stove and other supplies in my boat and headed down river to where Bear Creek runs into the Yukon. Now Bear creek is a very popular name for creeks in Alaska but this was my Bear Creek to use a part of for camping. Bear Creek for the most part is a clear water creek, somewhat stained by tannins as are most creeks in the area. It was slow moving and at the mouth was probably 50 to 75 feet wide. You could run a kicker boat up the Bear for several miles before it got too shallow.
It took me the better part of a weekend to get the tent, plywood floor, stove, etc. set up and ready to go. The Yukon was about 50 feet to the south of the tent and Bear Creek was about 20 feet to the west. That first evening there I caught the largest Shee fish I had ever hooked. Using a red and white Dardevil lure and casting into the eddy where the creek hit the muddy waters of the Yukon, I would get a hit about every third cast. One of the smaller fish stayed with me for supper that night. The next day before going back to Galena I cut about a ¼ cord of fire wood and stacked it off to the side of the tent.
The weather was getting cooler and we normally counted on the creeks being frozen enough to sno go on them by October 25. So it was a matter of waiting till the creeks froze over before I could make my next trip to the camp. On the next trip I went by myself again to spend the weekend. I departed Galena on my sno go heading north of town before cutting south on a trail running that direction. The trail crossed Bear Creek about 5 miles up from the mouth so I turned down the frozen creek and headed for the tent. The ice felt rubbery as I rode along at a good clip, once looking over my shoulder and I could see the ice going up and down in a wave like motion so I knew I couldn’t stop and I just hoped the sno go didn’t decide to stop on it’s own. Soon I got to within a mile or so of the creek mouth and cut up the bank to break trail through the willows the rest of the way. It was a great joy to see the tent still standing. This time of year in late October it was getting dark early in the afternoon so I wasted no time in brushing the snow off the tent and getting a fire going in the camp stove. Then I hauled the rest of my junk from the sled into the tent and was set for the weekend. The Coleman gas lamp was making it’s hissing sounds as it lit the inside of the tent. It was not long till the tent was warm and I had to cut the stove damper back to keep it from getting too hot inside. The bed was an old army surplus cot on which I had made an insulating mattress of dried grass covered with an old canvas tarp. With my Eddie Bauer goose down sleeping bag laid out on the cot, I was ready for a great weekend.
After supper was eaten and the dishes washed in melted snow water, I enjoyed a few drops of liquid refreshments, listening to the wood burning in the stove along with the hissing of the Coleman. After a while I got tired of listening to the Coleman, struck a match to a candle wick and turned off the gas lantern. It was quiet, much quieter than I was used to, so every once in a while I would step outside the tent just to look around and see if anything was sneaking up on me. Never spotted anything on any of my ventures outside the tent but I have come to realize over the years that at times my imagination can run somewhat wild on me.
I had heard enough stories about “woodsmen” and wild animal stories to keep my imagination running at full speed. One of prices a person pays for wanting to be alone it seems. The following year I had met a friend that would go camping with me and the following year Pat and I got married but we had moved from Galena to Koyukuk. The desire to go camping by myself had somehow disappeared by this time of my life.
The tent was up for about two years and I never had any problems with it. At times I could tell someone else had used it to stay over night but nothing was every missing and the burned firewood was always replaced. At this time and before, this was the way a remote cabin or tent was treated. Anyone was welcome to use it but you were expected to treat it like it was yours. Worked well and I am sorry to say by the time I moved from the bush to the city (Nenana) this was changing rapidly.
Very fond memories come to mind when I think about the wall tent set up at Bear Creek. In the fall time I would use it to fish for Shee fish, in the summer drop a net in the eddy for a few salmon and in the winter the ice fishing for pike was very good. A never ending supply of pike to take for making “aguatuk” or fish ice cream. A great food made with boiled pike fish, lard, sugar and blue berries, all blended together and formed into patties to be carried for trail food.
In the cold of winter it always pleasured me greatly as to how fast the tent would warm up and stay warm. By drinking three or four extra cups of tea before going to bed insured waking up during the night so that more wood could be put in the stove, in addition to getting rid of the tea I had rented. Normally if it was over -40F I would stay home and skip going to the tent on a weekend but if already there it was OK to set around and feed the stove. At those lower temperatures it was a couple of hour process to get the sno go to start and move, as my tent was too small to bring it inside to keep it warm. After finding and buying a small catalytic heater that was fueled by white gas (Blazo brand) it was much easier to light the heater the night before I wanted to move the sno go, put the heater under the cowling and cover the front of the sno go with an old sleeping bag. I only melted a couple of plastic sno go cowlings that I remember. Then after getting the engine to start it was just a matter of getting the track to move without burning up the drive belt.
When I moved to Koyukuk I gave the tent and stove to the family that had a traditional claim to this camp site that had allowed me to use it for those two great years.