Going Alaskan

Back in ’77 at the waterfall camp on the fjord on Prince of Wales I was watching Silver salmon jump the falls on their way to the big lake. There were lots of Sockeye salmon jumping but they basically had to swim up the edges of the falls where the water ran in stair-step rapids. It was the big Silvers that impressed me. They would circle in the pool below until they got the courage to just jump the falls in one big jump. Seeing a two to three-foot long fish jump over ten feet is a sight to see. Some of the fish would make the jump only to miss the water at the top and land in the rocks. Those would be quickly eaten by the bears.

After watching this for a while I decided to see if I could hit any of the jumping Silvers with my 44 magnum. I stood at the edge of the falls with my gun in my hands. I emptied my gun. Of course I didn’t hit anything. I knew I wouldn’t.

I told this story to a bus driver in Denali a couple of years ago. A person on the bus asked me why I shot at the fish. I said, “Well, I didn’t have anything better to do.” The bus driver then said it was the best story he had ever heard that explained the Alaskan lifestyle.


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The practical joke

The village of Tanana is in central Alaska on the Yukon River. It consists of a modern airstrip, some homes, a medical center and a few roads. The longest road is about forty miles long, if I remember correctly, and it heads north to an abandoned radar base. It was built in the ’60s.

There are a few cars, trucks and motorcycles in the village. They are far outnumbered by snow machines.

In the summer of 1980 we were camped at the radar base for about a month. It consisted of several buildings, a dirt airstrip, an aircraft and vehicle hanger, and an ominous looking giant three-story tall steel rectangular radar dish pointing toward Russia. The base had been mothballed long ago. All of the windows were boarded-up and the doors were locked.

My camp consisted of a dozen people including a helicopter pilot and mechanic, a camp manager, cook, camp assistant, and the rest of us were geologists. I was the managing geologist.

Our tents were spread around the base and our cook and office tents were located in alcoves between wings of the central building. They faced a large flat paved area that included a volleyball court and a basketball court.

On our day off a young man on a motorcycle visited our camp in the afternoon. He and I and the helicopter mechanic started talking and the mechanic asked if he could ride the motorcycle down the little airstrip. The mechanic had been drinking a Fosters beer in one of those big beer cans. He placed the can on the ground and got on the bike. As soon as he rode around the corner toward the strip I grabbed the can and charged into the cook tent. I poured some salt and vinegar into the can and ran back outside and placed the can exactly where it had been.

When the mechanic returned he talked to the rider about the motorcycle and bent down to grab his beer. Just as put the can to his lips I calmly said, “You can’t believe how hard it was to pee in that little hole in the can.” The mechanic went bug-eyed as he contemplated the possibilities of the taste in his mouth and then like a geyser he spewed beer in all directions.

Then he dropped the can and started to chase me around the camp. He didn’t catch me. The rider and I laughed so hard we almost fell down.

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Canoe versus the killer whales

Jim and I were crossing a half mile wide bay in our canoe on our way back to camp. It was late afternoon and the water was calm and smooth. It wasn’t raining for a change. We were about a quarter mile from shore when the first whale appeared. We really should not have been that far from shore in an open canoe but we were in a hurry to get to camp so we cut across the bay.

I was in the back of the canoe and concentrating on steering when I noticed a small v-shaped ripple on the surface of the water. About fifteen to twenty feet to my right and moving forward was a small fin. As I watched the fin grow slowly until it was sticking six feet out of the water. By then it was in full view of Jim and two more whales had appeared, One was a calf that was sticking close to its mother. The whales were right on the surface and we could see the whales spout plumes of water and air from their blowholes.

I was watching the whales and I hadn’t noticed that Jim was standing in the front of the canoe. I did not know where he thought he was going. Now, when you are a quarter mile from shore and the sea water temperature is cold enough to kill you in ten minutes and you’re in the middle of a pod of killer whales, standing up in a canoe is not recommended. Jim never made mistakes like this. It was perhaps the only life-threatening thing I ever saw Jim do. I yelled “Sit down” as loud as I could and he slowly sat down so as not to throw-off our balance. He had regained his composure.

We watched as the whales continued toward shore until they disappeared. Then we continued ‘home.’ All in a day’s work.

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Climbing Mount Ritter

The ‘life in the balance’ piece reminded me of another time when I almost killed myself.

When I was sixteen I climbed Mount Ritter in the Sierra Nevada Range in California with a friend. Man were we stupid!. Here is a link to a photo of Mt. Ritter. It had taken a week to hike across the range. We decided to climb the mountain on a ‘day off.’ We were accompanied by a roughly fifty year old guy who also didn’t know what he was dong.

I wasn’t a geologist at sixteen but I thought that the mountain was mostly made of volcanic rock. Not really very good climbing rock from my perspective.

From our camp on a lake at the base of the mountain the climb was easy. On the east side we had to climb along a glacial arret and across a glacier cirque. We rested on a little ledge overlooking the glaciers below.

Nestled between two facing cliffs was a little flat area. On that flat area was a giant boulder about three feet high and six feet long. Like many glacial boulders it was rounded. It had been left there thousands of years earlier by a retreating glacier. It sat there on the edge of the cliff through the recorded history of man.

Just as we were about to continue our climb, I jumped up on the boulder to look over the edge of the cliff to the glacier far below. Glacial ice is not white. It is blue and gray. I remember taking my time to look. Then we were on our way.

Just as I jumped off the boulder and got ten feet away I heard the rock start to move – a grinding, crushing, unstoppable sound. I turned to see the rock I had just been standing on slowly rotate a quarter of a circle toward the cliff and cascade over the edge! I had been three seconds from death.

I watched the boulder crash down the mountain and then roll and slide down the glacier. I could still see it moving half a mile away. I took about five seconds to contemplate the possibilities and then went on my way.

It is the overlooked risk that kills. Did you know that most climbing related deaths in the northwest occur by downing while going to and from a climb?

I spent most of my scientific life questioning assumptions. Looking back, it’s not surprising that I did.

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Life in the balance

It’s the unexpected that kills you in the field. Jim and I were hiking up a mountain stream when we came to an impassable water fall. We decided to climb up one side. About twenty feet up the cliff I stuck my rock pick in the cliff face to get a better hold. The pick dislodged a boulder about two feet in diameter above my head. I struggled to hold the boulder in place. I envisioned myself falling off the cliff with the boulder following me. If the fall didn’t kill me the boulder would bash my head in. Or bash in my head. Whatever.

You don’t follow directly behind your partner when you’re climbing. If a rock is kicked lose it can change your life. That’s why climbers wear helmets.

Jim had picked a different path up the cliff and it turned out to be a better path. When he saw that I was in trouble he managed to scurry across the rock face and wedge his foot against the boulder. He had a much better position of leverage that I did. Jim showed me where the footholds were and I was able to move out from under the boulder. Jim’s simple selfless act saved my life.

I suppose the lessons learned here are obvious: pick your battles, don’t work alone, etc. You don’t have to always go straight ahead to make progress. The safest way is often the fastest way. I would learn that over and over.

You can’t be prepared for the unexpected. In a split second life turns from ordinary to life in the balance. Sometimes you get lucky.

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The six foot tall black bear

On the western side of Prince of Wales Island there is a long fjord where a glacier once lived. The fjord is very deep suggesting that sea level was significantly lower 10,000 years ago during the last ice age. We had many great adventures on and around this fjord.

We camped for a few weeks in a ten foot square cabin once used for fish counting. The cabin had bunk beds and a table built along one wall. It was located at the mouth of a small stream that drained a large lake. The stream had a ten foot tall waterfall right at its entrance into the fjord.

The lake was something of a puzzle. It appeared to be man-made. The outlet for the lake ran across a barrier of sediment. Either someone put it there or it was glacial in origin. Oddly, there were tree stumps beneath the water that were obviously cut. So some kind of human activity happened there. We just could not figure out what it was.

The hike from the cabin to the lake was about a mile. It was an easy hike along a well used bear trail. I say bear trail because there are no people there and few large animals other than bears.

On my first trek to the lake I tied a piece of orange flagging, a kind of plastic ribbon used by construction crews, around a tree to mark the trail I took. Like Hansel and Gretel I didn’t want to get lost. I tied it about five feet off the ground. On my way back to the cabin I found the flagging on the ground and three deep claw marks where the flagging used to be.

The next day on my way to the lake I decided to tie a piece of flagging six feet off the ground just to see what would happen. When I returned in the evening I again found the flagging on the ground and claw marks where the flagging used to be.

The following day I decided to tie the flagging as far up on the tree as I could reach. That’s about nine feet high. When I returned I found the flagging on the ground.

I never saw the bear. I never wanted to see it.

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Guns in the field

In ’76 a young geologist was working on a prospect on Prince of Wales Island. He was doing a magnetometer survey near his camp. Of course he wasn’t carrying anything magnetic as you might imagine. That included guns. He was defenseless.

His partner heard screaming from the camp and ran to help. A one hundred seventy pound black bear had attacked and killed the young man. He had tried to climb a tree but the bear pulled him down. His partner shot the bear.

Prince of Wales is noted for some of the largest black bears. They can reach 600 pounds. So for this young man to be killed by such a measly little bear was a reality check.

In ’77 another geologist working for the USGS was chased down by a grizzly. I’ve forgotten on what island it happened. The USGS did not allow its geologists to carry guns. Brilliant.

The bear attacked her from behind and held her down and began to eat her shoulders. She was able to get into her backpack and retrieve her radio. She called her helicopter pilot for help.

By the time the helicopter arrived her arms were gone. She survived. If she were armed with even a hand gun it could have saved her arms. If she had time enough to retrieve a radio she also could have retrieved a gun and put it in the mouth of the bear. The government was at fault for denying her the right to carry a gun.

Bears and people don’t mix.

Needless to say I carried a gun, sometimes two. I preferred a lever-action Marlin 444s rifle and a Smith and Wesson Model 29 44 magnum when in the field. The 444 shot a bullet almost half an inch in diameter and was dependable in all conditions.

I couldn’t hit a barn with the 44 magnum. Once I took a coffee can out to an air strip and tried to hit it at twenty paces. The trigger was so stiff that the gun would move in my hand as I squeezed off a round. It kicked so hard I suppose I was afraid of the recoil too. I emptied the gun without hitting the can once. I stopped practicing with the 44 but I carried it everywhere in a should holster. I had the trigger adjusted.

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