ALASKA ADVENTURE

The 'Last Frontier' will always be the last frontier. Given the opportunity, most Americans would opt to populate the planet Mars first. Think about it - Alaska was the 'First Frontier' 12,000+ years ago, when immigrants to North America came across the Bering land bridge from Asia. It is doubtful that the number of people living in Alaska has changed since those first arrivals!

I can understand why the promoters of Alaskan development used that romantic name 'Last Frontier' - it is an effort to attract people and to bring some measure of pride to the residents. But the truth is, ALASKA IS OUR SIBERIA ! The Russians have no romantic illusions about their forever last frontier - Siberia is were they banish people to political exile! While some people see living in this region a rewarding experience, certainly the majority of humanity sees it as a punishing experience - and I can attest to the fact that visiting there is an interesting experience.

I was invited to go on a Moose hunt in the fall of '99. My participation on the hunt was to be limited to 'Sherpa' (packer) - I was not going to shoot a Moose, only help haul out a few thousand pounds of carcass if we proved successful. The general area of my visit and the hunt was the Kenai Peninsula.

Growing up in Washington State, my family had been urging me to see Alaska since childhood. During those years my dad would tell me tales of his many adventures in Alaska - working in the mines and running commercial fishing boats. I especially enjoyed hearing about the time he worked on Kodiak Island protecting a dairy farm from marauding bears. My father and a couple of his brothers enjoyed modest financial success up there - my uncles help to build the Alaska Railroad. But one of my grandfathers didn't do so well. Before I was born my maternal grandfather froze to death in Alaska. He had a fox farm for the production of furs. With all that family encouragement, I naturally headed south to the Tropics as soon as I graduated from High School! Hey, I grew up with Pine trees - now I wanted Palm trees.

So forty years later, after putting lots of adventure behind me while traveling around the world in the tropic zones, I finally make the Alaskan pilgrimage. Two weeks was the allotted time for the trip. The hunt had only taken up a third of that time, so I had plenty of opportunities to take in the landscape and talk to the 'natives'.

As a Naturalist, the first thing I noticed was the lack of biodiversity. Sure, I knew that the closer you get to the poles, the less variety of life forms - but the reality of this (like most things) does not really sink in until you experience it. In many ways Alaska has a lot in common with deserts, and therefore has a very different ecology then the temperate zones in the lower 48 States. What may obscure this observation to a degree for some people is the large sizes (the plant life is an exception here) and accessibility of what they do have - what they lack in variety they make up for in big and plentiful mammals, fishes, and birds. A biologist's work is never simple, but this has to be the least challenging place I have ever visited to learn the names and relationships of the indigenous plants, animals, fish, etc.

It takes awhile to get the feel of a new place and to be able to put your observations into perspective. Sometimes that perspective requires but a short stay, sometimes a long stay, and sometimes it takes several visits. After a few days in Kenai I knew it wouldn't take any more visits to learn what I wanted to know about Alaska. The area has little to offer in variety of experience - or people for that matter. Which brings us to the fact that the size of the population is very static. Many of the young migrate to the 'lower 48' for 'satisfying work'. So a big percentage of the population are those who return to their roots when they are seniors and have retired from their jobs in the 'lower 48'. There is no state income tax, in fact it is quite the reverse. The state pays the residents a dividend from Alaska's oil revenues every year. But even with that incentive - there is no rush of new residents moving their families and pod storage units to Alaska!

What is interesting too is that Alaska has a lot in common with Key West, Florida. Physically, if you are headed North or South - these places are the end of the road for the motorist if you are going to remain in the United States, while getting as far from the 'Heartland' as possible. You find two types of people in both of these places - the natives and the 'escapees'. The 'escapees' would be called 'expats' (ex-patriots) in other corners of the globe, and, just like 'expats', they can be very 'colorful people' to engage in conversation. Most 'escapees' have never felt at ease with the overly regulated and routine in conventional America. By going to Key West or Alaska to live, they are trying to get just a tad beyond the pale of civilization without leaving their country. Some, like myself, like life with a certain amount of risk and the unpredictable to feel alive. And all of them like being close to nature. A friend of mine calls them The Loners, The Losers, and The Loonies (and he is probably including me in there too!). Just goes to show - there is a place for everyone in this country.

Some other similarities of note - Alaska rests on a sheath of ice (tundra), and Florida rests on a sheath of ancient coral. They both have plenty of mosquitoes and fishermen - and too many retirees.

On the Anchorage shuttle flight over Cook Inlet to Kenai, they announce that your life vest is under your seat. This must be a PR thing for the tourists - it would be impossible to survive but a few short minutes in that icy sea, certainly not long enough for any kind of rescue.

Having spent several years living on islands, some quite small, I can recognize the behavior people in isolation have in common. As to how they are dealing with isolation in Kenai? There seems to be more churches on street corners then bars or gas stations combined. In places like this, socializing centers on churches and bars, and with a sizable Native American population, some of those buildings would be missionary churches. But the religious influence must not be too strong - looking at the daily police reports in the local paper I got the impression that there was a lot of abuse going on - drugs, alcohol, wife beating, etc. Not everyone was attending church at every opportunity or retiring to their pottery shed and their ivory carving to deal with their boredom or while away the long dark winters.

Twenty five years ago on one of my visits to the Mosquito Coast in Honduras, I met an American 'Chicle Pilot' (carries raw chicle out of the bush for making chewing gum) who had lived 10 years in the region. I asked about what changes in native behavior have been brought about by the presence of so many missionaries along the coast, and he replied; "There are no changes in their behavior - but now, thanks to the missionaries, the natives are able to experience 'guilt' for their behavior". Paradise lost!

The people in Kenai are complaining that wealthy sportsmen from the 'lower 48' are buying up the most desirable properties on the Kenai Peninsula for their summer playgrounds. The oil companies are laying off employees. The Native Americans want more rights to the natural resources at the expense of non-native residents. The dominate tree species (Spruce) is being wiped out by a pesky species of beetle. Is there trouble in this 'Northern Paradise'? Ha! The casual visitor is seldom aware of the underside of 'Paradise'.

So if you just want to go see beautiful scenery and magnificent wildlife - they got it. If you love raw, primitive places with far horizons and a certain element of danger (and don't forget about all those volcanoes, earthquakes, and tidal waves that threaten the area too) then you will not be disappointed.

This brings me to the experience of the hunt on Lake Tustumena. I've been an outdoors man my whole life and followed game trails throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Alaskan wilderness has game trails made by such big animals you could almost track by vehicle - certainly by horseback anyway. And that is why so many of the trails are like deep trenches - they use horses a lot. They use boats a great deal too, because of the lack of roads. I was told there would never be a good road system in Alaska because the permafrost keeps pushing boulders up through the road's asphalt.

The Lake was cold, milky and rough. We sped across the long distance by aluminum boat from the outlet side to an area at the East end next to the glacier coming off the Kenai Mountains. Except for the occasional buzz of the sightseeing planes, we felt absolutely immersed in primeval wilderness. The 'untouched by the hand of man' type of place that does your soul so much good. An old rustic cabin beside the lake, maintained by the Park Service, was 'camp'.

On the first day out we tracked along the moraine below the glacier, about a 1/4 mile from the creek that emptied out of the glacier. There was Salmon still making the spawning run in that creek - so lots of bears in the area. Now having had my run-ins with bruins in the Pacific Northwest before, I had some trepidations about this trip before leaving Miami. I knew this hunt would take place in an area where three species of bear live - like in 'this is where bears hunt for food'! So before leaving home I turned to my trusty computer to search the Internet for information on the Alaskan bears. The Alaskan Black Bears get bigger then the ones in the 'lower 48', the Grizzles had a dangerous reputation, and the Browns! The Brown Bears are the largest and most dangerous predator in North America! At 10 feet plus in length, 1,000 pounds plus in weight, and a speed that can bring down a quarter horse - I was not brought on this trip to just help pack out the Moose, I was here to guard the kill and the hunter from a possible attack by a furry Buick with fangs and claws!

The 'bodyguard' role was confirmed that day when I was handed a Mossberg pump shotgun with five heavy lead slugs loaded in it and a Ruger 44 Magnum pistol. Enough firepower to stop any American car - and two Subarus. Still, I was not overly worried because I read on one authoritative web site that more people are killed in Alaska by dogs then by bears. I was keeping an eye out for dogs on this trip too!

I was given some other personal protection against the most aggressive predators in Alaska - mosquitoes (also known as 'The State Bird'). It was a mesh parka with elastic sleeves and rubber gloves, the pants are tucked into the boots. Unless the wind is blowing hard, or it is raining hard (frequent enough scenario in October) - the mosquitoes are on constant attack in clouds thick enough to choke you. On arrival to the lake I saw one poor fellow with hands swollen double in size after an allergic reaction to the bites of 'White Socks', one of the many varieties of pesky bitting flies found there. Later at camp, during an unprotected moment eating dinner, I saw some of the 'White Socks' bite my hands and I certainly feared for the worse. In reality I was more worried about the flies then the bears - hey, I had seen the devastating results of a mosquito attack! Fortunately nothing happened to me from the bug bites. Maybe I should donate my body to science. In the course of work and travel I have been stung and bitten by a very large variety of venomous insects, arachnids, marine invertebrates, snakes, fishes, and plants - so who knows what strange anti-bodies are flowing in my blood stream?

As we moved up through the Willows on the moraine, I suddenly heard the sounds that probably made cave men cower - the growling and snarling of Brown Bears fighting over a fishing hole. I remember feeling the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The hunter, Brad, had said earlier we might be in luck today because we were in an extra thick cloud of mosquitoes - a sure sign of big animals in the vicinity. Of course he was thinking about Moose. But no Moose is going to hang around with those bears making all that dinner time noise.

Everyday of the hunt we followed and crossed over fresh tracks of moose and bear. Checking the freshness of their droppings was one way to calculate their proximity. Now Moose droppings are boring compared to checking out bear 'scat'. Its the diet. Where as Moose just browse on shrubs, saplings and water weeds, - the bears eat a great variety of things, and it is evident in their scat. So depending on what their latest meal was, you get 'bear scat' with all types of colors and textures. Salmon produced pale grey, moose came out a little darker with some fur, and if they tried getting some vitamin 'c' in their diet the scat would be peppered with bright red wild cranberries. I kept hoping that I would not come across some bear scat with buttons or a zipper in it!

After a couple days we came to realize that most of the 'Trophy' sized Moose had moved out of the lake area. The bears in their feeding frenzy on the Salmon had scared the Moose away from the lake and up onto the Alpine benches, at the base of the nearby mountains. The Moose were relatively safe from hunters and bears up there. Too great a distance for a hunter to haul parts of a carcass on his back - running the gauntlet of bears when you got to the lower elevations. Using pack horses rented from an outfitter would be more productive. But the hunter - Brad, was too cheap to go that route. We would flush a moose by the lake or get nothing.

So the last day of the hunt we flushed a big one. But it wasn't a Moose. Walking out of a creek bed and back up onto the bank, about twenty feet away we saw what looked to me like a large brown rug moving quickly through the tall grass at about chest height. Brad immediately spun to bring his 300 Weatherby to his shoulder and clicked off the safety of his rifle. At the noise of the rifle's safety coming off (a quiet 'click') the giant animal stopped, then stood up to get a better look over the foliage and down on us small mortals. I was frozen to the spot, frozen in motion, this was it! The Brown Bear towered over us for a second and then dropped back to all fours in a dash for the forest. I still hadn't taken the safety off of the Mossberg. Some 'bodyguard' I turned out to be. The bear was frightened, I was frightened - but the bear had faster reflexes!

No Bulwinkle Burgers for this hunting party. We did not get a Moose, but we got lots of adventure, photos, mosquito bites, and great memories of our Alaska Adventure.

And I told my brother Brad (the hunter) not to expect me back soon!