As a child I had many adventures with my mother; she is an extraordinary woman who has always enjoyed doing extraordinary things. One of the most memorable experiences of my life was when we camped out in the outback of Alaska one summer…
It was the summer of my thirteenth year, when my mother called and asked me to join her and her boyfriend Chuck, in Alaska. I had been living in Los Angeles with my father, who quickly agreed to the trip and even paid my airfare to Anchorage. After arriving in Anchorage, I was greeted by my mother and Chuck at the airport. We then drove close to three-hundred miles in an open-topped, 1947 Willy’s Jeep, to a place called Copper Center. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Willy’s Jeeps. But they are not very comfortable vehicles, and this one had a top speed of about 50 miles per hour.
Copper Center was little more than a post-office and motel, situated near the great Klutina River, which was fed by Klutina Lake, a glacial lake about 25 miles upstream of Copper Center. There were few vehicles that could make the trip up that treacherous road, and even fewer people who went there to go camping. For the most part, we were alone in the vast wilderness of the Sub-Arctic.
We camped in our tipi which we had brought from New Mexico, near the mouth of Klutina Lake on the far side of the river, which the local trappers referred to as “The Bear Side”. Kodiak bears are known to reach 12 feet in height and are considered to be quite dangerous; they favored the far side of the river for two reasons: First, wild cranberries grew there in abundance, and second, there were many “salmon streams” on the far side of the river, feeding the lake. Bears just love salmon and berries.
One day, a local trapper named “Junior” passed through the valley in his riverboat. Mother invited him to spend the night in our camp, but he refused, “I’m afraid of Bears,” he explained, and showed me where he was missing a rather large chunk of his midsection from a bear attack that had happened some years before. Needless to say, everyone in the Alaskan outback is heavily armed.
An eagle lived in the treetops on the south side of the valley, and kept watch over all that happened in that magical place. The wolves on the ridge-tops sang melancholy songs in the Alaskan night, which was little more than a long twilight. The North Star was almost directly overhead and the moon and the stars revolved about it in a great circle. There was a something unreal and dreamlike about this place, and the beauty of the untouched wilderness was hard to describe.
Although we had a good deal of food like potatoes, rice, beans, flour, and sugar, we subsisted mostly from the fish we caught out of the river, which were easy to catch. Although it was the most delicious fresh trout I have ever tasted, after several weeks of eating fish I became hungry for some other type of meat.
One day while gathering berries behind our camp I was surprised by a large porcupine, which fearlessly came waddling through the forest. Being armed with a .22 caliber rifle and hungry for red meat, I shot the porcupine and brought it to my mother who promptly turned it into stew. The meat was tough and nearly impossible to chew, however the broth from the stew was delicious and we all enjoyed it very much. Eventually I sent a letter to my father and enclosed some porcupine quills…a dark stain of porcupine blood on the paper was circled with an arrow pointing to it, and captioned as “porcupine blood.”
Some days later, Chuck brought down an old, deaf moose-cow, who had wandered into the shallow water near our camp and stood munching the lush grass that grew there. I remember bringing the steaming liver back to camp in a large dishpan which my mother quickly fried up with some butter and salt…this was the first and the last time that I enjoyed eating liver. We made jerky out of much of the meat, but buried most of it in the permafrost on the hill behind our camp. In Alaska, if you dig down about three feet, the ground is frozen solid year-round. After a couple of days, the dogs alerted us to an animal up on the hill, but would not leave the camp to investigate. After we were sure the creature was gone, we went up the hill to see what had happened: A bear had taken its share of our moose-meat.
Close to the end of the summer, it appeared that my mother and Chuck weren’t getting along very well. She wanted to leave the camp and return to civilization, but chuck didn’t want to let us take the jeep. My mother and I took our sleeping bags, a pistol, and a rifle, and hiked the twenty-six miles back to Copper Center. After reaching the highway exhausted from our eleven hour walk, we hitch-hiked back to Anchorage and then flew back to the lower forty-eight.
Looking back at my experiences in Alaska, I have sometimes wondered if these things ever really happened. The enigmatic Alaskan twilight made it all seem like a dream, but dream or not, that Alaskan summer is one of my greatest memories.