ALASKA IN FEBRUARY is an immersion in white, a glacial veil cut with basalt mountain peaks and ink strokes of black spruce on barren taiga. To be awake here in thirty below is to suspect you’re one step from leaving this world for the next. I’ve come here from Outside (as they call the Lower 48) to visit an old forester, to see what he's doing way up here, beyond the world, but still in it.
He picks me up at Anchorage International and informs me that he wants to pick up a new couch on the drive home. We stop in Wasilla, load the leather couch into the pick-up and we're off.
"Damnit!" he exclaims after ten miles with a horrified look toward the rearview.
I glance in the side mirror to see the couch flipping over itself into the snowy berm, propelled by massive gusts of wind.
"Just like a tumbleweed!," I exclaim. It rolls a few more times before lodging firmly in the snow.
We turn back, park, and hop out into 50 mile per hour winds. A couple pulls over to help. Four of us hoist the couch back into the truck bed.
"I thought it was heavy enough to stay put. Guess not, with this wind." Bryan pulls out the tie downs and straps the renegade couch in place.
I first met Bryan in 2008, on the first day of my job as a public educator on grizzly bears in southeast Idaho. He was charged with monitoring the wildlife and habitat of nearly 700,000-acres of National Forest. A trapper-biologist in his early fifties, he had worked for the USFS since the late 1970s and could be dropped in the middle of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest with a spoon and a roll of duct tape and would make it out alive, probably weighing more than he did previously. He could track anything from a pine marten to a wolf for miles or days on end.
Over the years, he watched all the big endangered species cases debated first-hand -- wolves, grizzlies, wolverines -- but he was never on center stage giving soliloquies on the Plight of the Carnivores. He taught me how to talk about bears in a way that didn’t turn them into bloodthirsty baby killers or stuffed animals. On day one, he gave me a lecture on how to frame the issue for the public.
“Don’t you ever say you love or hate bears. I don’t love them, I don’t hate them. I view them as an important piece of the ecosystem, just as important as every other part. If I ever hear you say either of those things when talking to the general public, I’ll use you as grizzly trap bait. You got that?”
I didn’t doubt it. At one point during the season he plucked a dying weasel off the side of the road, brought the bleeding and wheezing mass into the truck cab and pressed his packer boot on its chest to quickly put it out of its misery.
He's fought fires in flame-engulfed canyons, surviving for days on grouse hunted with pulaskis. He's made snowshoes from scratch and driven mule teams across the Continental Divide. Bryan knows things about the natural world that few people know and you have to listen carefully if you want to hear what he's got to say about things with teeth and claws and a range as big as some states. His views are made of pure instinct and if you want to find Bryan, you have to track him down like an elusive specimen. Retiring to Alaska just in time for winter. Who else would do such a godforsaken thing?
We snowshoe from his cabin to the banks of the Copper River, our tracks weaving with those of moose. They sneak around the house, draw a ring of tracks and then vanish into the forest, letting the humans know they're being watched, or protected. No telling which. We haven’t been able to spot one in daylight.
We stand at the edge of the Copper, its frozen surface a salty white slate. Clouds shift in slow rolls, like the underbelly of a churning wave. The light remains flat and dull today. During my stay, the sky is blue-bird clear or filled with thick, effervescent clouds swirling in a vortex of gray, pink and faded yellow. The Copper River marks the western boundary of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park. Without snowmobiles, helicopter, or the will to ski or snowshoe in for days, the park is more or less inaccessible for winter.
In summer and fall, the forester tells me, he will come to the river daily, if he feels like it, and catch dinner -- coho, sockeye or Chinook salmon. Or maybe he'll apply for a fish wheel permit. Alaskan subsistence laws allow state residents to harvest salmon using traditional wooden fish wheels or dip nets. A lone coyote trots upstream on the ice, approaching us. When he's fifty yards out, the forester calls out a series of yelps. The coyote turns his nose to us, trying catch a scent. The wind blows in our favor, upstream. The forester calls again. The coyote stands still for some minutes, trying to decide with his ears or his gut if the call is one of his own or a trickster. He guesses right and continues on his trot.
The roads around here reveal little evidence of human life; people live tucked off the road. Most houses are modulars outfitted with wood stoves, hastily thrown up as temporary, affordable fixtures or as government projects or during energy booms, when everyone worked on the North Slope. Abandoned cars and heavy machinery from various decades speckle the shoulders off the highway, covered in snow drifts, bumpers and side-view mirrors poking out.
"Should we call and report that one?," I ask, looking at a newer Chevy pick-up that's flipped upside down and has not settled long enough to be covered in snow.
"No, that's been there a few days," the forester says. "They'll get it if they want it."
The main crossroad villages are boarded up until the tourist season. Only essential services are open, such as a gas station and grocery store, in which bags of potato chips sell for $7.99. "Shipping costs," a clerk explains when he catches me taking a photo of a box of frozen corn dogs priced at $16.99.
We buy tickets at the register and place bets on the Nenana Ice Classic. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, copper miners placed a tripod on the frozen surface of the Nenana River. They placed bets on when the ice would crack and move the tripod. Whomever guessed the exact month, day, hour and minute won the pool. We're gonna win big, the whole pot, $333,000, with bets on late April and early May.
We stop by a lone lodge somewhere between Glennallen and Valdez and surprise the owner upon walking through the door. He jumps up from watching television, two Teacup Yorkies tumbling to the floor from his lap.
"Are you here to drink or eat?," he asks us with a thick Russian accent. Drink, we tell him.
He turns on the bar lights and hops to it.
I hold a Lilliputian Yorkie in my lap as the Russian pours whiskey. The wood stove hums in a corner. Bottles of vodka labeled with Cyrillic script line the shelves. Rusted Alaska license plates and photos of burly trappers holding massive wolverines adorn the walls. He tells us of hunting ptarmigan and grouse outside Moscow when he was a boy. Guns were hard to come by, so they used champagne bottles to punch holes in the snow. In the bottom of each depression, they sprinkled bread crumbs. The birds came to feed and got stuck, unable to spread their wings. The hunters came along and plucked the fowl like dandelions.
We drive north on the Tok Cutoff to the village of Chistochina, in search of mukluks. Posty's Sinona Creek Trading carries everything from canned corn to Athabascan crafts sewn by local elders, including mukluks and moccasins. Variations of mukluks are used by Arctic tribes from Alaska to Greenland. Some are crafted with reindeer hide and others with seal skin; some beaded and others covered entirely in fur. No matter the fashion, the universal goal is simple: warmth. Hunters relied on the shoes to not only protect them from frostbite, but to be lightweight and silent while tracking prey over snow and ice for days. I mull the selection while the forester and clerk talk about upcoming sled dog races and choose a pair made from bright-patterned canvas and tanned deer hide, lined with white fleece. I'll wear them until they fall off my feet.
What about the Northern Lights?, I ask. The NOAA 30-Minute Aurora Forecast rates at 3 from midnight to 1:00 AM. A visibility rating of 4 or 5 is usually the minimum for catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. A 9, combined with clear skies, assures a vivid display. A 3 is far from a guarantee of seeing them, but we give it a try.
We head out at midnight and wait for Earth to turn. After some forty minutes, a slight swell of white illumination flickers above the black tree silhouettes. The planet rotates; the light approaches. Pulses of of white flash and vanish low on the horizon, like a ship that might draw closer but never does, like the explosions of a distant battle unfolding in some place even further flung than where we stand.