Monday, July 21, 2014

Ramblings in a mental wilderness

A commercial last night showed a broad expanse of snow-covered tundra while the announcer said something like "observe this stretch of tundra and imagine the future. We see a new drill pad with wells pumping   ...."  I physically shuddered at that thought and turned it off.

Oddly juxtaposed in my mind was a story a friend of mine wrote about finding the skeleton of a missing man in the Alaska wild 30 years ago. His story is added at the bottom here and it was attached as a comment to a news site article that gave some of the history of people who have ventured into the wilderness never to return.  That story only guesses at the number who wandered into the wild without telling anybody they were going.  As the article says it could be dozens and it could  be hundreds.  There's a link below to the article.

My mind was kind of racing around and I recalled a stretch of tundra east of the village of Shaktoolik on the Bering Sea coast. It looked very much like the image in the commercial. One day during an Iditarod race I was staring at that white expanse trying to find the words to describe it. Barren tundra had been used to the point of cliché. An elderly man from the village walked up to me and asked what I was doing and I told him I was trying to find the words to describe what I was seeing.  All I saw was empty white, but he told me it was actually more swamp than tundra and he started pointing out where the river runs full of salmon in the summer and the slight rises where the arctic hares can be found in winter and another spot where edible birds gathered and about the caribou that occasionally showed up near the mountains on the eastern horizon. The nuances of shadows here and there accented the white and that land slowly came alive for me. He described a world full of life that I could not see, but he drove the word barren out of mind and I thanked him for sharing his knowledge.

Today I wonder in the centuries his people lived there how many of them wandered out into that wilderness and never came back. And then think across Alaska, the Arctic Slope. the Brooks Range of mountains rising from it to the south and the deep forests of the Interior stretching to the sea even farther to the south and opening onto more tundra to the southwest. A large portion of it is bordered by ocean along a coastline longer than the whole rest of the United States put together. There are lots of places to get lost.

White men only started coming to Alaska in the 1700s but archeology tells us the Natives lived here for at least 10.000 years before that. How many of them did the wilderness swallow even though they would have been so much more savvy about survival than those white men who came along later.

Trappers, gold miners, adventurers, how many wandered into the wilderness leaving no trace with only tentative connections to relatives in the Big Outside many of whom never learned what happened to Uncle Jack or a father or a son or a daughter.

Today it's mostly adventurers who take those steps off the roadways and disappear. But now they carry cell phones and GPS emergency locaters and have access to rescue by airplanes and helicopters and boats all over the state. Still now and then someone slips away, like the fellow Joe May and Harry Sutherland found thirty years ago, his bones mixed with those of two grizzlies, telling the story of a horrendous battle that neither bear nor man won. It can still happen today. As a matter of fact two adventurers are missing along the southern coast of Alaska right now.

But that wilderness and the danger it holds won't always be there if the visionaries like those who sponsored that advertisement have their way.  Drilling pads and strip mines and roads and dams and all kinds of possible developments have those people lusting after the land to take it over and make it like everywhere else, paying only required lip service to preservation and wilderness. And one day, maybe as soon as my grandson's time people will ask where it went. At times I wonder even now.

Given a choice of a horizon dotted with drilling pads or what at least looks like Arctic wasteland, I'll take the wasteland, the one described by that elder in Shaktoolik that a person can enter and never return from, one that is bustling with life if only we take the time to see it. 

Here's how my friend Joe May described his discovery:
Trapping shelter used by several people over several decades.
Photo is 30-35 years old.
Photo courtesy -- Joe May
"Thirty years ago, Harry Sutherland and I were prospecting a creek south of the Little Peters Hills. Gathering firewood for our evening camp I came upon bones lightly covered in moss. To kill time until bed time we dug the bones out and reassembled them like Tinker Toys. We ended with two grizzlies and one human. Later, in discussion with Cliff Hudson, the Talkeetna bush pilot, we surmised that we had found Jack Sneider, a trapper who had failed to make a rendezvous with Hudson near there years before. Jack obviously shot the bears but not before they got him. Today, a nearby lake is named for the man. Schneider had no close relatives so we left him where we found him. So...everyone who goes lost up here doesn't always stay that way. I like to think Harry and I gave Sneider a more proper send-off... twenty years after the fact, but better late than never.

"Jack Schneider's bones, those that haven't washed down the creek as a result of our disturbance, lie within a few feet of of the south bank of Bear Creek at the south toe of the Little Peters Hills.

"The photo is of cabin he left from to make the rendezvous with Cliff. The cabin is on the north side of Bear Creek.

"The cabin was originally built by a party of prospectors about 90 years ago. It was used as a line cabin by a former owner of the Fairview Inn (a famous historic bar in Talkeetna) and a trapping partner during the Depression in the 30's. Schneider refurbished and used it as a line cabin in the 50's. George Sanderlin (in the Talkeetna cemetery now) and I put a makeshift roof on it and used it as a trapping shelter in the 70's. Photo is 30/35 years old. I have Schneider’s frying pan around here somewhere … it still smells like fish."

Missing in Alaska without a trace by Craig Medred in the Alaska Dispatch News
Lost in the woods, a blog post

1 comment:

  1. Tim, you are one of Alaska's premier writers and more people should know it.


Interesting quotations

· " “Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway

When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Kurt Vonnegut

“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a cheque, if you cashed the cheque and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” Stephen King

The thing about ignornance is, you don't have to remain ignorant. — me again"

Never debate with someone who gets ink by the barrel" — George Hayes, former Alaska Attorney General who died recently

My dear Mr. Frost: two roads never diverge in a yellow wood. Three roads meet there. — @Shakespeareon Twitter

"The mark of a great shiphandler is never getting into situations that require great shiphandling," Adm. Ernest King, USN

Me: Does the restaurant have cute waitresses?

My friend Gail: All waitresses are cute when you're hungry.

I'm not a writer, but sometimes I push around words to see what happens. – Scott Berry

“The rivers of Alaska are strewn with the bones of men who made but one mistake” - Fred McGarry, a Nushagak Trapper

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

We are all immortal until the one day we are not. – me again

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio announcer

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Sister hits moose on way to visit sister who hit moose.

Man loses his testicles after attempting to smoke weed through a SCUBA tank

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve