EXCLUSIVE: SERIALIZED TRUE ADVENTURE FOR MUST READ ALASKA READERS
(Editor’s note: Must Read Alaska presents a Fathers Day special for readers, and we’re getting a jump on it with Chapter 1, Part 1 of Alaska Raw by Bob Lacher, in serial format over the next several days. You can get a copy of the book through the link below. Check back for more sections of Chapter 1, which will take us about seven or eight posts to complete. Enjoy this introduction and the beginning of Chapter 1, followed by an earlier MRAK review of the book.)
INTRODUCTION BY THE AUTHOR
Living in a way you can be certain that every decision and every move holds urgency and purpose…is being alone at 30 below zero and looking out over a blowing snow scape where the horizon has disappeared and the dimming light is replaced by a shifting, fluid cruelty of whiteness, where you cannot tell where the earth ends and the sky begins and, right then…you feed yourself into it.
It’s a spiritual place of such enormous wonder and intensity because you can’t be sure how things will go. And it is because nothing is certain, that so much more is possible.
I have spent much of my life flying and hunting in some of Alaska’s most remote parts, and in some of the most brutal conditions it could serve up. Hunting for many of us is cultural. When I was a young boy it was more than that. Hunting was connected by a straight line to eating and therefore it was important to become good at it.
My motivation in writing about these experiences was to share a place and time that few of us will ever get exposed to or can even imagine. Alaska is unique by virtue of its extremes of topography, of climate and often…its people.
Growing up in Alaska was a world removed from the pedestrian-proofed, asphalt-framed cities that too many of us blindly suffer. Urban life, as it has evolved, brings with it a dullness of routine that acts on some of us as a slow poison.
This is a book about cutting your own trail. It is my antidote.
I have always believed that if you surround yourself with familiar accoutrements, and you retreat into a cluster of the likeminded, and on the weekends you do what they do, and you read what they read, and you chant when they chant, and you nod in agreement when they nod…something of you has vanished. We all get but a single stab at this thing. If we are fortunate, we find a few precious moments of pure authenticity.
I’d rather beat 7,000 feet on a snowmobile trying to plot a route through glacier crevasses, or pioneering a crude landing strip high on the spine of a foreboding mountain so I can hike a peak that’s never had a man’s boot on it. To understand some of this book, it helps to understand that for a few of us, happiness comes from the uneasiness of the unknown rather than the comfort of the familiar. This is a book about living those rare moments of authenticity.
It’s a book about how small we really are, with stories laced with the sharp edges of risk and unknowable external influences. For a good part of my life that has been my oxygen and I want to share some of it with you now.
CHAPTER 1 PART 1 – THE FIRST ALEUTIAN – UNIMAK ISLAND (2004)
As my father trailed behind me just a couple of paces, I noticed when I glanced behind to check his progress that his head was down and it looked as though he was trying to neatly trace my footsteps as we picked our way across the heavily undulating tundra. There was a small herd of caribou about 1,000 yards distant and one of the several bulls was big. Of all the possible thoughts I could have had during that moment of a final stalk, of tactics, strategy, stealth and focus, my mind instead went to a much earlier time when I was a small boy of ten or twelve, moose hunting with my father.
I remembered practicing being as quiet as possible, by shadowing his exact boot print as I set each foot down right where he had, staring at little else beyond his tall legs filling my field of view. I mimicked how he picked a spot to land his foot and then moved ahead carefully, softly. I would do anything to avoid earning a scowl from him by mis-stepping and snapping a twig, or crunching some dry leaves, or just heel striking too loudly, at which time my father would stop, turn his head backward to me, and give me “the look”. Of course he never really needed to give me the look, my teeth being gritted in self disgust the instant the offending sound came off my boot…holding my breath…as though that would reel back in something of the sound, or cause him to notice it less.
Those times when I had been sloppy and committed the noisy deed, I cringed inside and just waited for his legs to stop moving, his head to pivot backward and down to me, his message delivered once again, loud and clear, with one strained rogue eyebrow and scrunching of crow’s feet framing his eyes. But back then a mistake was a big deal as it may have meant a missed opportunity that was connected to how well we would eat that winter. He was a serious man on a serious mission. I did the best I could, always looking for his approval.
As we stalked the caribou this time, the significance of this role reversal was hard to avoid. My father was trying hard to follow exactly where I had made trail, not so much to maintain stealth in this case, as the Aleutian wind was blowing off the ocean at a steady 40 MPH masking every bit of our noise – but simply for his own security. His 70-year-old body sensing that if I stepped there, he could too, and without the risk of an unrecognized hole or rolling an ankle off an unstable wad of tundra. It was tough walking that day, but wherever I led he followed.
This caribou hunt was especially memorable for me for many reasons. It has some twists, turns and diversions as you will see. It begins with a plan to hunt Unimak caribou in late September. Frank, one of my hunting partners, was along with me on a trip I had planned specifically for my father. Frank owns and flies a Maul, a four place aircraft. I would be making the trip in a Super Cub which seats two. Both aircraft are high performance “Bush”planes and both can carry big loads of fuel and gear.
Our destination was the first island on the Aleutian Chain, called Unimak, a trip that is 750 miles from my home in South Central Alaska. To give an idea of the scope of this flight, it is 100 miles less than Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, or about the same as Orlando to Washington DC, or from the California/Oregon border all the way to Mexico. It’s no small undertaking in a small aircraft. There are no Jiffy Marts on the way to Unimak.
There are a couple of places to ditch for the night, if you really wanted to, and fuel can be had at the villages of Iliamna and King Salmon near the halfway point. Our trip could not be made straight line, at least not made safely, since it would take us over too much ocean with no place to land in the event of problems. The route was a familiar one that I had flown on other hunting trips many times before…two hours gets you through the jaw-dropping peaks tightly lining Lake Clark Pass and down the lake’s glorious, deep aquamarine blue length. Swing the compass left slightly and continue towards Lake Iliamna where the towering mountains begin to diminish and melt into the rolling tundra. From there it’s onward to the small and isolated aboriginal villages of Iguigig and Nondalton.
The next enclave coming into view through the windscreen is King Salmon, the usual place for a piss break after three and a half hours in the skinny, thinly padded Super Cub seat. That’s a good time to check the oil and look for nuts and bolts that rattled themselves off the airframe. King Salmon is home to the twenty-five dollar ham- burger, a bargain that cheerfully sinks in as you take on a load of seven-dollar-a-gallon aviation fuel. Our two aircraft held over 130 gallons in the four wings so to fill them up there you better have a pocket full of Ben Franklins and no aversion to shedding them as though they were cappuccino change. Food and fuel at this midpoint can run a cool $1,000.
Things were going well. We had a 20 MPH headwind coming through Lake Clark Pass that changed to a stiffer 30 MPH westerly crosswind as we lifted off from King Salmon with fat tanks of gas and better legs. The head wind slowed everything down and added another hour to the plan but it was a steady, predictable wind you just put your shoulder into, dial up a little more throttle and settle in for the grind.
It was much better than the thrill-ride blows that can come in from either the Pacific or the Bering side of this forbidding stretch of volcanic coastline that stretches nearly to Russia. The type of wind that can be experienced on “The Chain” requires serious skill from the pilot to keep the airplane top side up.
Dad was riding shotgun in Frank’s plane, a more comfortable and spacious bird than the Cub. This gave me more room to pack camping gear for the three of us. Lifting off from King Salmon I always prefer to track more west than the direct plotted route south/southwest. I want to get to that awesome Western Alaska coastline as soon as possible and begin one of my all-time favorite pastimes, beach combing for dead things.
Departing King Salmon we angled over the barren tundra for 20 minutes to the coastline, met it, and then turned more southerly. We dropped down on the deck and flew low along the breaking waves of the Bering Sea. Nowhere else on earth can you fly along a black sand beach for 400 miles at 75 feet off the water, scouting for dead walrus ivory and whale bones. The pilot’s entire journey down the Alaska Peninsula can be hugely stressful in different places. It’s not for everybody. The passes are often wracked by high wind; the ceilings are most often low and spitting rain. Fog to the ground can have you flying by braille, looking for the worm holes to advance a half mile at a time.
We had some of all of that. But when you hit the coast just past King Salmon, the pall of continuous mental heavy lifting usually eases somewhat. Nearly the entire 400 mile coast is your runway, if you had to put it down, or if you simply wanted to stop the clock for a while and take in a trek. Land anywhere, eat, drink, rest, listen to the breakers crashing, fill your lungs with the salt air and decomposing kelp and sea grass, watch the birds, the pods of seals or observe huddles of walrus.
You have arrived at one of the most breathtaking marine environments anywhere in the world, and you have hundreds of miles of it all to yourself, and I do mean all to yourself. You will see no one else.
You are as infinitely mobile as an eagle and your full accommodations for camping are all packed tightly in the back seat and the trunk. The sense of freedom and discovery is off-the-charts.
That day our two aircraft were flying paired up fairly close, slipping down the beach, lazy as she goes, two notches of flaps to dirty up the slipstream, throttled back to 55 percent power, the tail a bit low and dragging through air, bumping along in an easy chair with wings and without a worry in the world. We flew past Pilot Point and on to Port Heiden.
Large pods of seals speckled the sandbars surrounded by endless crisp white breakers as far as the eye could reach. I brought the airplane up a few hundred feet to give the seals a break from the propeller noise we were about to greet them with. The seals noticed us but just rolled on their sides in the sand unbothered.
To be continued on June 6…