Close encounter

In 1980 I worked on an Arco Oil and Gas Company funded natural resource resource assessment of the entire state of Alaska. Anaconda Copper Company was owned by Arco, the company that found the gigantic Prudhoe Bay oil field and built the Alaska pipeline. The fact is Arco did not really want to own Anaconda but the US government in its wisdom had been discouraging oil companies from investing in oil and encouraging them to make investments outside of oil and gas. So Arco bought Anaconda.

The minerals assessment was sort of an afterthought. Arco was evaluating the oil potential of Alaskan Indian lands and minerals were thrown in at the last minute as part of the negotiations. Our Uranium division was mobilized in a few months to explore the entire state. Realistically it was highly unlikely that a uranium mine would have been economic in Alaska because of the low uranium price and the remoteness of Alaska.

Uranium only likes certain geologic environments and my objective was to search those areas with the most potential. I chose the granitic terranes because granite-associated uranium deposits are high-grade deposits that at least had some potential of being economic. One of my focus areas was the Zane Hills in the western part of the state.

In this part of Alaska the landscape is pretty barren. On a good day you can see Russia and Sarah Palin’s house. There is nothing to obscure your view. The trees can be a few inches high and look like grass. Dogwoods with their bright white flowers are less than an inch high.

My helicopter pilot dropped me off fifty miles from our camp. I spent the morning looking for things of interest and taking soil samples as I hiked west up a gentle hill and into the wind. When I got to the top I took off my daypack and unpacked my lunch. I sat on the hillside looking west and ate my lunch leaning against my pack with my legs stretched out and crossed in front of me. I was enjoying the last of the autumn warmth on September’s first day. Two boulders were ahead of me. A large one about forty meters away and a smaller one sixty meters down the hill.

After a few minutes I saw the smaller more distant boulder move. I focused on the grizzly that was where I wanted to go. Thinking quickly, I packed my stuff up and decided to try to scare it away. I took my always dependable Smith and Wesson model 29 44 magnum out of my shoulder holster and raised the gun in front of me into the air. An instant after I fired a shot the large boulder that was closer to me jumped up and looked straight at me with its giant paws hanging in front of her.

I was shaking but I still had my wits about me. I put my gun away and grabbed my radio. The bear started running toward me. At that exact second my helicopter pilot appeared from behind me over my right shoulder at ten feet off the ground doing about fifty knots. I couldn’t hear him coming from such a low altitude. The bear came to dead stop as the pilot turned the chopper on its nose between me and the bear.

The pilot didn’t see the bear. He was just trying to sneak up on me for fun. He saved my life. Chalk another one up to luck.


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In 1977 there was a different dimension to entertainment in the wild. Cell phones, ipods, DVD players and satellite¬† dishes didn’t exist. We didn’t have shortwave and our two-way radio never worked. Our only contact with the outside world was the bush pilot we saw once every week to ten days and the radio. AM radio was usually available from Ketchikan in the evening. Sometimes we could get another station from someplace in Canada. We often played cribbage or darts to pass the time.

After a few weeks our supervisor came to visit and direct our work. He was a forty-ish dark haired and athletic man. One evening he challenged me to a game of darts. I said, “Fine, since I’ve been here a while I’ll throw left-handed just to make it fair.” He said, “You go first” and I did.

My first shot struck the dartboard exactly in the very center of the bullseye. Exactly in the center. I laughed. Our boss took his shot. My second left-handed shot struck exactly in the back end of the dart I threw on my first shot. Exactly. The funny thing is, I never threw a dart left-handed before in my life.

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Another little Alaska bear story

Hiking over a hill between two little bays I followed the tracks of a large black bear. The game trail was heavily forested with Sitka Spruce, Western Red Cedar and Alder. Thick brush and ferns and some Devil’s Club covered everything. As always the best path was along the little streams.

I walked slowly so as not to surprise the bear in the thick brush. At one point I was so close that I stopped and knelt on one knee to watch water trickle into one of his back foot tracks. I slowed down and took a moment to make sure my rifle was clean and loaded. It was always loaded. I always checked anyway.

There is a common tale that you can smell a bear from a distance. At least in the wild that does not seem to be true.

In the late afternoon I emerged from the forest where the little stream and game trail entered the ocean. The stream had steep sides. One side had a cliff about twenty feet above the water and I chose that side to look for the bear.

Below me the bear was in the water swimming for his dinner. I spoke softly to him and asked what he was doing as if he would answer. He pretended not to know I was there and slowly swam to the shoreline. After shaking the water off like a dog, he stopped and looked my direction. It is that moment that is always most dangerous. Seeing that I was above him he slowly turned and walked into the brush. Then when he could no longer see me he ran a few yards. I lost track of him but knew he had not gone far.

After waiting a few minutes I fired my rifle in the air to encourage him to move along. He did and I climbed down the cliff and walked along the shoreline until my partner came with the canoe to take me back to camp.

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Chased by a bear

The objective on this day was to sample stream sediments for chemical analysis. All of the streams are frequented by bears when the salmon are running, and salmon of various species run at different times all summer. Prince of Wales Island has the world’s largest black bears. Six hundred pounds of determination.

Jim and I were working together on this day. Our traverse took us up one stream and down another to end at our starting point on the fjord. I was looking at the rocks and taking the samples. Jim was my guard watching the stream banks and looking ahead.

Toward the end of the day, we were going down a V-shaped stream. I was concentrating on my work and not paying attention to what was in front of me. A couple of times I noticed that Jim was lagging behind me. He was laughing at me as I walked down the stream oblivious to my surroundings. I wasn’t amused.

I ducked under a large blown-down tree that crossed the stream and proceeded down stream. Jim was no place to be found. I looked back to see him standing on the tree. He was looking straight ahead. I turned and looked down-stream to see a log jam. On the left side of the entangled logs and sticks was a little opening. Out of the opening popped the little head of a young bear cub. It looked at me and then carefully backed down the hole.

Then from the other side mama bear reached up with her ‘arms’ through the hole in the logs and parted them. Then she climbed through the hole and stood up on my side of the log jam. She was B-I-G. I watched without moving, holding my ground. Jim and I had been having a debate about whether the bears had white stars on their chests. I can safely say that they do.

The bear without hesitation jumped forward and began to run toward me. I watched as she began to run like a dog bringing her back feet forward though her front feet. In two seconds she moved twenty five yards closing the distance between us. I moved under the fallen tree that Jim had been standing on. By now he had decided to run. However, I had the rifle so he didn’t run far. Not looking back I decided to climb up the side of the stream into some giant ferns. Jim followed.

After reaching the top of the embankment I turned and brought my rifle to my shoulder. The bear did not follow us up the stream bank. When she could no longer see us she decided to go back to her cub.

Moments later I found that I had stuck the rifle barrel into mud when I ran up the embankment. It had at least six inches of mud in the barrel. If I had fired the rifle at the bear I would have blown my face off. I was lucky that day.

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On the step

We dropped off one of the other crews on our way back to camp after a fourth of July celebration in Ketchikan. The camp was on a very small lake east of our camp in Cholmondeley Sound. It was easy to land the de Havilland Beaver in the little round lake. The water was as smooth as glass. Taking off was another story entirely.

After a few minutes unloading supplies we were on our way. I sat in the copilot’s seat. The pilot started the big radial engine which was built about the time I was born, and started a broad turn around the lake at slow speed. The pilot said the lake wasn’t really long enough to take off. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and raised my eyebrow.

As the plane picked up speed it lifted up on the water until only the bottom of the floats were skimming along the water. That’s called being on the step. Going about fifty miles and hour we started going around the lake in circles. Several circles. It is amazing how easily that big Beaver can turn on the water.

The bush pilot looked over at me a said, “Well, I guess we either get enough nerve to fly this plane outta here or we can just keep going around in circles.” Then he pointed the airplane at the lowest hill on the edge of the lake and pulled the throttle back all the way. The old radial engine roared with confidence.

Liftoff happened pretty quickly but still the giant Sitka Spruce at the edge of the lake were coming at us pretty fast. It didn’t look like the plane was going to clear the trees. Then at the last second the pilot leaned over and yanked a lever on the floor that dumped the flaps. We cleared the trees by at least five feet.

I looked over at the pilot, nudged his shoulder with my fist, and said, “@sshole.” He didn’t say anything back. Just the corner of his mouth was curling up.

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Outfitting our camps in Ketchikan

I am going to try to put these posts in some kind of chronological order. I don’t seem to be able to re-order them after I post them. Chronological order seems to be a little easier to follow.

We were hired by a mining company right out of graduate school to explore for base metals. Three of us came Washington and one from Oregon. I don’t know where the other two came from.

We arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska on the first week of June, 1977. Ketchikan is the largest town south of Juneau on the panhandle separating the Pacific from British Columbia. A string of islands protects the coast from the Pacific. Ships of all kinds travel the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau and Glacier Bay. This is Southeast Alaska.

The islands are covered with Sitka Spruce. These trees are so large that you can’t put your arms half-way around them. The first limbs up their trunks are sometimes twenty feet up in the air. All these forests have grown in the last few thousand years since the end of the last ice age. During the ice age the islands were covered with glaciers that carved out all of the beautiful mountains and fjords that you can see everywhere.

Of course now it doesn’t snow so much, it just rains… a lot. Hence the massive conifer forests that stretch out as far as you can see.

On a break from outfitting our camps we visited the local visitors’ center where they displayed a long board standing straight up in the air with a horizontal mark on it reading 147 inches at, not surprisingly, 147 inches off the ground. A sign said it represented the twelve feet three inches of rain Ketchikan received on average each year. That’s a lot of rain.

Our two man camps were the kind of thing one would imagine sour doughs living in during the Klondike gold rush about 75 years before. Camp consisted ten foot square canvas tents, no tent poles, some plastic tarps, cheep little iron wood stoves, pots and pans, cots, sleeping bags, water-proof rain gear, a canoe, tools, and food.

The most fun we had during the outfitting was watching the women watch us getting our stuff at the local supermarket. They knew who we were and what we were about to do and they watched us like we were not all coming back. We would depend on these women to supply us for the next three months.

All of our camp and supplies could fit into a de Havilland Beaver, the plane that opened Alaska and Northern Canada.

De Havilland Beaver float plane.

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Time slips by. A moment here, a moment there, and then its gone. These writings are for all the lost moments. They are for the my children and anyone else who wishes to read them.

Life goes by and you tell no one what you’ve done, or what it is you really wanted to do. I am one of the lucky ones – I got to do the things I wanted to do at a young age. Many wait to do that in retirement. I had my adventures early in life.

When I was four I found a rock under our house and put it on the kitchen table. I told my mother that it was coal. I had never seen coal before. I tell people that was my first experience in exploration geology.

Growing up in California in the ’50s and ’60s I was exposed to fantastic adventures on television. From Daniel Boone, whom one of my ancestors knew, to Jacques Cousteau, to Star Trek we were inundated with frontier adventure. It is not surprising that I set out to explore the world.

For me a normal life wasn’t good enough. Like some people hundreds of years ago my life was all about frontier adventure. It is what made me feel alive. I wanted to go where no one had gone before and be able to say with confidence that no one will go there again. It was a life of discovery that is not common. It ended before I was thirty.

Here are my stories.

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