Danger is part of life. People ask me all the time if I get scared “out there”. People want to hear harrowing stories of how I almost got swallowed by the river or eaten by a bear I suppose. Both situations have come up in varying degrees but it doesn’t seem like a really big deal to me. Everyone has danger lurking behind their door, on the road in your car, coming into contact with weirdos in public places, chemicals and cancer, and there are plenty of hazardous work situations. Over the last ten years I have grown accustomed to the dangers in the woods enough to consider the dangers of living around lots of other people more intimidating at times.
I’ve been back in town for a month now, which means I’ve finally settled in to life here again but not so settled that I don’t remember well how I was feeling when I got back to town this year. It’s a hard adjustment every year but especially this year, before Tyler was here with us. Being without Tyler for the 1st few weeks in town meant that our primary protector was gone. I know this sounds a bit dramatic but I mean it. I’m not the type to lock a door, or even take the keys out of one of our jalopie cars out at our house,…unless Tyler is gone, that changes everything. Weirdos are more frightening than bears. I locked the door at night, put a gun in close range and tied a dog close to the door before going to bed at night. It’s a terrible feeling not trusting other human beings. I don’t act crazy like that if Tyler is around but I turned into a full blown Momma bear without him. You wouldn’t want to sneak around here at night because I’m dangerous after I den up for the night. On the night of St. Patrick’s Day some locals started doing some drunken target practice and fireworks, the pop pop pop of the fireworks made me think of the winters mass shooting events I had heard about on the radio. Another factor keeping me up at night was the light pollution from Fairbanks lighting up the sky at night. To me, the light pollution was like an unwanted visitor shining a light in my window all night long. I laid in bed at night next to my precious baby and worried about people. I never lay in bed in our cabin in the woods and worry like that about bears.
The roads around town were really icy in March. I was nervous to start driving again. When a person is traveling in the woods there are definitely danger factors but figuratively speaking, your hands are on the wheel and there is no one else driving. On icy roads I had to trust other drivers and oncoming traffic, something completely out of my control. On the roads you aren’t always in charge of your own fate.
Another worry of mine in town is germs. Out in the woods all winter we aren’t exposed to the germs flying around town all winter and we don’t build up an immune system for them. If there are some bugs going around in the spring we usually get them and they do a number on us. Last spring when we got back to town I was at the end of my pregnancy. I got the flu and then a week before my due date I got a cold that sent me into contractions whenever I went into a coughing fit. This spring I’ve been vigilant about germs when I’m in town running errands. I take my grocery cart right over to the purell wipe station before shopping and again on my way out. I keep the baby on my back and discourage anyone from grabbing her hands to say hello. It’s crazy how many people feel entitled to touch a baby without asking permission. I managed to keep us healthy until we had company come for a weekend. Friends that had 4 kids came to visit and as soon as they opened the door the 4 year old with a river of snot flowing from his nose to his mouth promptly pulled a pacifier from his mouth and jammed it into Sydney’s. You can avoid strangers kids if they’re sick but not someone that drove 7 hours to see you. We are all sick now and I guess the up shot is that we are building our immune system up.
All this is not to say there is no danger in life in the woods. There is, just a different brand. Something I’ve noticed about people is that people mostly have a fear of the unknown. Most people don’t know what it would be like to live a life in the wilderness so they are under the assumption that there is much to fear. On the other hand I love that Alaska is still a special place of mystery and excitement in peoples imaginations. Just knowing that such wilderness still exists is good for the human mind. Wilderness is worth more than any other resource in the world to me.
Though we don’t live in the ice ages our lives out there still edge on the overall idea of survival. We could fall in the river, either fishing in the fall or fall through the ice traveling in the winter. We could be mauled by a moose or bear during rut and hunting season or if we are very unfortunate an unlikely winter bear starving and desperate. We could succumb to the slip of an ax, an accident felling trees in the woods, we could lose ourselves traveling in a blizzard. We could get sick and weak with no one to help us or keep us warm. 250 miles from the nearest hospital we are still living life on the edge. Survival depends on being careful, making calculated plans and being alert. The drama in our lives is often related to whether or not the fishing is good or the game is plentiful or scarce. Weather or not the weather brings us snow in time to travel with the dog team cross country in order to trap and make our living. There are many accidents that can happen traveling with a dog team; breaking up dog fights, setting conibear traps, falling on the stob of a tree, or getting caught by the hook or brake. Funny all the dangers fears and worries never come close to the fear I now experience as a protective parent.
I’m not going to lie, I have a healthy fear of bears. Perhaps unhealthy at times. Tyler is very handy with a gun, knows how to act fast and stays steady in dangerous encounters with bears. If I am with Tyler out in the woods I have no fear and life is a playground. Ask me to walk along the river by myself during fishing season and I will start shaking at the knees. Though I always carry a gun, I know how to shoot and I have pretty good aim, I cave under pressure. I freeze up like a terrified, mindless rabbit. Not a very good quality for a bush lady, I know. Motherhood has changed my mind a bit. With instincts to protect my young I feel more steady in the mind. Motherhood can turn a woman into a warrior I believe, though my courage hasn’t yet been tested. Though most bears are healthy and have a healthy reaction to run off when they smell or see people there are a few that are willing to cause trouble. I might not have such a fear of bears if I didn’t have first hand experience of getting charged by one at close range. One fall during our moose hunt we were walking downriver among the willows with nothing but moose on the mind. When we emerged from a willow thicket into a clearing on a gravel bar we looked around and off to our right was a grizzly slinking out from the willows like a cat on a mouse. As soon as it was apparent to the bear that his stalking had been discovered, he charged us. He was shot dead only 20 yards from where we stood. Who knows, he might have been bluffing and would have stopped before he got to us but you can’t know and that’s not a risk we would be willing to take. Another story that comes to mind is our friend Edna’s account of a winter bear that came into the yard and began to kill her dog. She shot the bear from her doorway. These high adrenaline encounters aren’t that common, but they happen and that is enough to keep me on edge living in bear country. We have the advantage of firearms but bears are the most savvy predators in Alaska.
Then there are the moose. Not a predator but dangerous none the less. Once when we first moved to Alaska I went jogging in Hope, Alaska during calving season. I was a cheechako with no respect for what a moose could do to you if you weren’t aware of your surroundings. I was jogging with my dog on a retractable leash and listing to music blaring on my headphones when the next thing I knew there was a great primitive bellow and a hoof sweeping in front of my face from about a foot away. I screeched and ran in the opposite direction. I was lucky the moose had spared me a kick to the head. It was such a nightmare of a close call to brain damage that I have been very alert and respectful of the moose ever since that moment. Bull moose can be dangerous during the fall rut. They are convinced that any thrashing around in the woods is a competing male and will come charging out in an aggressive rage. They are so caught up in the competitive nature of the rut that they will act before they see or think. One fall Tyler got our moose this way while we were merely on a pleasure walk. We were traveling down a dried out slough along the river looking at rocks and chatting when there came a thrashing through the woods . The animal coming out towards us seemed like such a monster that we thought it was a grizzly but when that bull emerged from the dense thicket it wasn’t pausing to consider what kind of animal we were, it just kept on coming and Tyler got him. Unfortunately that was 4 miles downriver and we didn’t have a motor boat at the time. That was the hardest moose we ever had to pack home.
The river is friend and a foe. It will feed you and it will also try to eat you. For a long time Tyler and I got by using a 13 ft john boat with no motor for setting and checking our salmon nets. The boat had been cut into 5 sections and flown out to the cabin in the 80’s. The 5 sections of the boat were then spliced back together with plywood, silicone and bolts. It leaked a bit but it served it’s purpose. Eventually we put a 20 horse honda on it. The first fall we got the honda Tyler was set on “breaking it in”, running the motor at varying degrees of intensity. We were tooling around on the river one day and getting close to home Tyler sped up and sitting in the front of the boat I suddenly heard a cracking sound come from the plywood holding the bow onto the rest of the boat. It made me real nervous and I sat on the bow to help hold it in place and asked Tyler to please slow down, things were starting to squeak and crack up front. He was annoyed and thought it was in my head and I was just nervous on the river. Damn women can be such nags can’t we. The next day we took the boat upriver to check our salmon nets and we had a big load to bring home. It was going to take 2 loads to get them back to the cabin. Tyler dropped me off on our gravel bar and I started hauling fish up while he went back for the other load. I finished moving all of the fish and he still wasn’t home. I started to get worried but tried to calm my fears. He could have spotted something interesting to investigate, he could be having some problem with the new motor and it will just take him a little longer to get back to me, I told myself. Finally 2 months pregnant and emotional I realized Tyler was definitely in some kind of trouble and was in need of help. I started walking back to the cabin trying to stay sharp and not succumb to panic. I was developing a mental list of supplies I would pack along in a bag to go looking for him: ax, blanket, fire starter, rope, a snack, a dog to help find him, the satellite phone. Just as I was out of site of the river the dogs started howling and I stopped to listen. When they’re howl came to a close I heard an answer to their call coming from across the river. It was Tyler trying to get my attention. I ran back out to the gravel bar so happy he was alive, honestly. I ran out to the edge of the river and we began calling back and forth trying to make a plan. He had decided to take advantage of his nagging wife not being in the boat and get up to speed with the new motor, suddenly the bow section of the boat snapped off and water came rushing into the boat as he surged forward. The boat was under water in seconds and Tyler was swimming for shore in the icy water. In the cold Alaskan water you have about 10 seconds to get to safety before you start to lose control of your motor skills. Tyler was swimming for his life. By the time he ran back downriver across the river from me he was exhausted and extremely cold. There weren’t a lot of choices in getting him back to our side of the river. He could swim or I could line pull a canoe from our cabin out to the river and line it up river a bit to paddle across and pick him up. It would take me a while to get the canoe to him so we decided to try having him swim across. I tied a floating piece of driftwood to a rope and did a few practice throws into the water to try to give him help if he got into trouble. He went a ways upriver to give himself time when he was getting swept by the river. He jumped in and quickly turned around and went back to shore. The river was too wide, he didn’t think he could make it in time. I ran back for the canoe. It took me another hour to get to him where he was jogging up and down the river. We headed back to the cabin stoked up the wood stove and held each other under the blankets thankful to be together again. A moment of intense gratitude and love.
Then there was the time when I accidentally fired the new pistol on a bear hunt or the time the 5 horse motor we had on a canoe cavitated, died and we almost got sucked into a drift wood pile in the middle of the river, oh yeah, and then that time I almost broke my femur ski towing behind the dog sled through thick woods…..but accidents do happen everywhere.