Monday February 22
Snowing 20 above
I open my eyes and wake to the sound of Ken stoking life back into the coals from last nights fire. It’s pre-dawn and this is almost the same waking routine that I’ve had since arriving. Well…there was that one exception. Around day six or seven, following a long day on the line, and capped off with a marathon of skinning until midnight, jet lag and exhaustion met with me in a cozy bunk. My eyes literally never opened until 10 the next morning!
I’m never sure of the time here. There's two reasons for this: One, is because of the sun. I can tell you when I got here it would get to be daylight around 9 AM and dark around 5 PM. But that’s not entirely accurate anymore. This time of year we’re gaining around twelve minutes of sunlight during each twenty-four hour period. Secondly, I don’t know the time because I haven’t seen a clock since I got here. When unpacking on the first evening, I proudly told Ken “I wont be needing these for a while”, and then proceeded to shove my phone and my wallet deep into my bag. At home I never wear a watch, and I've got my phone in my hand more than enough to keep track of the time. So far I think I’ve asked Ken the time once or twice, but it’s really been of non-interest to me. For the most part we eat when we’re hungry, we run around while it’s daylight, and we sleep when we’re tired. Usually Ken wakes (what he says is 5 AM) when the cabin has started to cool off, and builds a fire. I wake hearing him stirring, and when the cabin warms I’ll crawl out of my sleeping bag and heed the call of nature. After the fire and the "honey bucket" have both been tended to, we both usually make our way back to our respective bunks and doze until the day gets some light to it.
This morning, after returning to my bunk, I’m doing less dozing and more daydreaming. This will, in all probability, be my last morning waking here at the cabin. This has been an experience I’ll never forget. It’s a trip I’ve dreamed of since I learned that Alaska existed. I couldn’t have asked to spend it with a better guy. Laying here I replay each day of the trip, and cant help but start snickering at many of the humorous occurrences. I have to mind I don’t start laughing out loud. It wouldn’t do to wake Ken now. According to him this time of the morning may be the best sleep of the night for him. He says I snore like a freight train. I do acknowledge my wife may have elbowed me once or twice in the past for said offense, but Ken reports that his wife has never complained that he snores. I feel sorry for the Ol’Blister, she must be near deaf.
Daylight arrives and we both roust ourselves out of our bunks, Ken seems to be no worse for wear after my morning giggle fit. I think it’s a good thing we’re both well rested. We’ve got quite a few traps to pull and miles to cover, and the snow is falling at a pretty good clip. We don’t waste much time this morning, Ken starts the coffee and breakfast while I get my gear packed up. We’ve got a lot to do before afternoon. Curly will be arriving about 3 PM to fly me out to his lodge. He’s offered to put me up for the night before flying me to Sleetmute the following day. It’s bittersweet to think of leaving here, but I know my time is up and Curly’s offer includes doing some “sightseeing” flying on the way to his lodge where unlimited hot water, a cozy bed, and hot food awaits. It’s almost like going on another adventure in itself, so that helps to ease my leaving.
We strike out across the river first, pulling the line as we go. This, as you may remember, is the line that has been so productive. This is also the line my gulo came from. Our sets have been empty all the way up to the double 330 wolverine buckets. Ken makes me turn away as we get to them, saying we’ll check them on the way out. I do as I’m told even though the temptation to snatch a peek is overwhelming. We get to the last sets of the line and see that we’ve taken another nice marten. This one is caught in the 330 wolverine bucket where my gulo came from. We collect the catch, pull the sets, and return the way we came. As we arrive at the double bucket sets I’m surprised to see we haven’t caught anything. This line has been our most productive, and to have this small of a yield does not bode well for the two remaining lines we have to check. In addition to the marten, this line does have one other surprise to dish out before I leave. Overflow. While taking the machine across the creek to retrieve the bucket sets, the Elan bogs down and the water starts flowing from under the snow. Ken looks back over his shoulder to tell me to unhook the sled, but he has to yell, I’m not on the sled anymore, I’ve already bailed off and decided to run back to Anchorage for help. Ken steps off the Elan and I see the water is less than ankle deep, I see I’ll be getting my feet wet(pun intended)on my first Alaskan overflow adventure. Ken is kind enough to lend me a hand the whole way through the process. By “lend a hand” I mean he points out where to shovel the snow under the machine. This is just shallow over flow so it’s short work to build a pad under the Elan and Ken hops on and runs the machine up the bank. I follow dragging the sled through the slush. I can see where overflow could be a real pain, but this short stretch wasn’t bad. If I had to grade this I figure Ken would deserve an A (he’s got experience at this) and I would get a C+ (for not continuing to run away).
With no time to spare we stop at the cabin just long enough to unload the traps and marten, and then it’s on to the Northern line. The snow hasn’t let up much, but Ken says the cloud cover is not too thick or low to prevent Curly from flying. We continue with our plan to have everything pulled and be ready to leave by 3 PM. As we ride across the tundra and we near the hay set we made using a "straight from the box" MB550. We peer through the falling snow and spot movement. BINGO!! Interior Alaska’s first hay set has produced. It's a puff-ball of a red fox and he is tugging away at the grapple. Man what a pretty sight. I think we both had high hopes for this set, but had pretty much given it up for a loss. That UN-DYED, UN-MODIFIED, STRAIGHT FROM THE FACTORY BOX, MB-550 must have punched up through at least an inch and a half of frozen snow to make the perfect top of the pad catch. Incredible. I cant say enough about the perfect catch made by that MB.
At home I usually use a .22 cb for all my dispatch needs. Ken handed me a short piece of 1x1 slat to accomplish the task. A frisky fox, ten foot of cable on a grapple, and a two foot long stick. It made for an interesting video. I was just about at the point where a major league ball player would have been called "out"…twice, when I made good and the fox went nighty-night. Between fits of laughter Ken was pretty critical of me for breaking his “good stick”. When it was all over I had a beautiful male Alaskan red fox, and Ken had about a foot of “good stick” left.
In high spirits we continued on to the leaning pole where Ken had always wanted to set, but never had. If you remember this set had already produced a beautiful marten, and today it produced another. Marten number two for the day, and number eighteen for the trip was picture perfect.
We by-passed the “Gulo Gauntlet” and continued to the northernmost set on the line. This was a leaning pole foothold set that had not produced…until now. What appeared to be a monster male marten, number three for the day, and number nineteen of the trip was hanging there. We took a few minutes to enjoy the catch and talk of the great day we’d had so far.
We gathered our catch and turned back, returning to the “Gulo Gauntlet”, where we were surprised again to discover no fresh wolverine sign, and no catches had been made. I hope Ken is able to set this area heavily next season, we both know that there are wolverine (plural) there to be caught, we just ran out of time. There is also an extremely lucky marten still alive in there. The sign was obvious, he had visited nearly every set and jumped through most of the snares and never tripped a trap.
We reluctantly pulled the traps from Gulo Gauntlet, and turned to check the creek spur line. Our first set of the line was a wolverine bucket that contained marten number four for the day, and number twenty for the trip. What a catch of marten, considering we were not deliberately trying to hit them hard . I can think of a hundred locations that we didn’t set for them, yet we still took twenty in less than ten days with less than two dozen total marten sets.
We rounded the creek bend and approached the intersection that had been so heavily tracked up. Both of us were looking intently toward the ice hole, but as we parked the snow machine and walked to the set we both were disappointed it had not connected. We were hoping that the trail set directly above it, that had been blocked from our view, may have connected. As we turned the corner there lay a whopper otter perfectly caught in the ice hole 220. What a surprise! It was laying right there on top of the ice, it must have been in a slight depression keeping us from seeing it.
What a day! Four marten, a red fox, and an otter on our final check.
We return back to the cabin, where I hurriedly snap a few pictures and start preparing to leave. I take the hour or so I have left to remove the final drying marten from the boards and skin one of the ones caught today. I feel bad leaving Ken with that much fur to handle, but he laughs it off and says it will give him something to do until Curly flies him out in the next three or four days.
I’m just finishing the marten when we hear Curly arriving, right on schedule. We gather up my stuff and head down to the river. With the snow fall increasing we waste no time stowing my gear and saying our goodbyes. I cant thank Ken enough, or tell him just how much this has meant to me, I don’t want to get all mushy in front of Curly. As we begin to take off, Ken and I give a wave to each other. Through the snow and the blurry windshield, I cant tell if Ken’s turned away to hide his face from the wind of the prop, to hide his jubilant laughter at being rid of me, or to hide the tears of sorrow at my leaving. I tell myself it’s the tears.DAY 13 TO BE CONTINUED….