Part II of a 3 part piece. Part I
They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it's calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.
From "The Call of the Wild" by Robert Service, 1907
A sharp breath would result in a snack.
If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to look like a pansy in front of Sam, I’d be running my butt back to the boat. But even Sam is impressed: “I’ve seen them worse but this is pretty good. Let’s get out of here.” We’re standing on the verge of a meadow, several miles up Twin Slough. Twin Slough is a stream about 18 miles east of the town of Ruby on the Yukon River. The water of the slough is dark with tannins, leached out of a small part of the vast sub-tundra wetlands that make up much of the Yukon River Valley.
Like the mother river, Twin Slough winds its way through graceful ox-bows and switch-backs. As we retreated from the Yukon, the banks had gradually fallen back, the land softening and flattening, the trees fading from spruce and aspen to “Alaskan willow” and alder and even, perhaps, a tamarack or two. We passed a field of high-bush blueberries. The banks were dotted here and there with arctic poppy, lupine, monk’s hood, even some joe-pye weed. After 6 miles or so, the slough ended. It didn’t reduce to a trickle or fade into a network of runs and rills—it simply ended in a small pond in the middle of grassy wetland. “Moosey,” Sam rightly said: it is perfect moose habitat.
And where there are moose, there are bear. Early in spring Sam took a black bear on the bank by a broad curve in the slough. We had eaten some of him last night and it was damn good: flavorful and rich without being gamey. “He was a spring bear, too,” Sam marveled. The bear had been relatively thin and, perhaps, a little unwary or over-hungry from his long hibernation. But the meat had been good, and would hold the Clarks – Sam and Tamara – until fall, when moose season officially opens.
Black bear are not a favored species in Alaska. Everyone is entitled to take three of them. Sam and Tamara are entitled to six between them. Moose, on the other hand, are a different matter. There is both a season and a limit. Taking a cow is prohibited. Often, even in taking a bull the “trophy value,” that is, the antlers, must be destroyed. This is to discourage trophy hunting. Deep in the interior, however, there are few wardens watching. Sam is scrupulous. A conscientious subsistence hunter, he holds his fire on bears with cubs—at least early in the fall. A winter without meat is not a welcome option. But not everyone is so punctilious with their bullets—be the game bear, moose, or anything else.
We have nosed the boat into the bank of the slough and followed a game trail through a narrow break of trees and under-story to put eyes on a meadow, betrayed from the slough by open sky where dark forest should have been. Meadows, ponds and potholes off the slough like this are fine places to find game—to see or to hunt—and Sam wanted to check it out. No big animals in the meadow today, but plenty of mosquitoes. We head back to the boat.
It is getting late for dinner, though it is as light as mid-afternoon. The sky is grey, undecided. Perhaps it will rain, perhaps not. Interior Alaska gets little rain, though the ground is as wet as a sponge—12 to 15 inches per year. Though it has been spitting at us all day, it won’t amount to much in the end. Sam puts the boat “on step,” that is, on plane: gathering enough speed so that the shallow “v” of the hull no longer plows through the water but skims across the surface like a perpetually skipped stone.
We wind our way down the slough toward the Yukon, the Kokrine Hills playing hide-and-seek behind the trees. The banks of Twin Slough gradually rise from low berms to abrupt cuts and the flora show more spruce. Their needle-like profiles don’t “cone” like a dunce-cap, but shoot straight up like narrow silos. On one bank, a tree leans at a crazy angle over the slough, its roots grasping desperately, patiently, at the silty soil of riverbank. Its equilateral reflection is a perfect copy on the glassy surface of the slough until we race by, headed to the cabin for a late dinner.
We have seen two pairs of moose, both a cow with a calf. Two, maybe three red-tailed hawks. Three trumpeter swans, the pair with 5 cygnets in tow. Two pacific loons, a family of Shoveller ducks (Micione for the Cajuns in the audience), and a tree-full of what I think are probably white-wing crossbills that burst into the air as we and the hawk that was pacing us passed their roost. The crossbills are having quite a summer: A bumper crop of cones in the spruce hangs like bunches of grapes all along the river.
An owl swooped, ghost-like across our path, too quick for eyes to pick its traits and pin its ethereal glide to earth by naming it.
The shoveller ducks swam away as we slid up to them on the way in. First casually, then with increasing urgency until suddenly the ducklings dove to the bottom and the adults took off in front of us. Behind, hiding beneath the surface, the babies clung by their bills to the roots of grasses or stray sticks. Ahead, the adults led us warily on, landing from time to time then flying, drawing us away from their offspring.
At the mouth of the slough, where it joins the Yukon behind an island, a narrow channel communicates with the main river. Accordingly, Sam slowed the four-stroke Honda and made his course deliberately. As we idled through the turns and made our way into the river, the strong tea color of the slough mixed into the coffee-with-cream glacial till of the Yukon in a gradually vanishing rivulet.
Sam, though he might not wish me to say it, has deep tenderness for Jackson. Jackson hurt his back in the traces of the sled a winter or so ago, pulling at the head of the team. Pride and want made him beg for the harness again, but it was beyond him. There is a small peal of guilt that rings softly in Sam's voice when he talks of Jackson—you can see he feels fault. “That dog has done enough work,” he says. “That dog has done more for me than you could ever ask.”
Jackson, for his part, has as his birthright a dog’s sublime forgiveness for his master. And Tamara and Sam stand by their workers—neurotic Dillon, barking at every new face; Red Dog, policing the dog run; Daisy, shedding now and sitting in a divan of fur—as any devoted leader would look after his men. They have nearly 30 dogs in their charge, including one or two who, like Jackson, are more pets than employees.
Dogs are no longer necessary for Alaskan winter travel. Snow machines are faster, and they eat less. But many people, both native and setters from outside, keep and mush sled dogs. Every summer, the Tanana Chiefs Council (with a little help from Bob Barker!) sends around a team of veterinary students to administer rabies vaccine to the dogs of the Yukon. They pay a visit while I’m there, complimenting Tamara on the cleanliness of the dog-yard and the health of the dogs. The truth is that dogs have been mere workers in Alaska for generations. Competitive mushers and wilderness guides have a strong interest in the health of their animals, but as snow machines have supplanted dogs as a means of transportation, poverty and neglect have made it hard on many animals.
The dog run.
Larry on poop patrol. Keeping the dog run neat is a shared daily task.