Right now, there are a lot of people across the country shivering and digging out from another big snow storm and that has got me to reflecting on my years in Alaska.
A few evenings ago I was sitting in the sauna at the gym and thinking about what a wimp I’ve become, following that though to the time that Storytelling Saved My Life. Now this is a bit longer post than I usually share, but if you stick with me you’ll be glad you did because what I’ve got to say might just help save your life too.
I probably was getting a little light headed from the heat in the sauna when the words of Robert Service’s most famous poem, The Creamation of Sam McGee came to me…
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
And then came the unsettling realization that in the 43 years since I’d spent winters in the Yukon and Alaska, I’d become less the hardy northerner and more of Sam McGee. Maybe you had to learn the poem and remember that Sam exacted a promise that if he froze to death his pal would stuff him in the boiler of an old derelict paddle-wheeler. A promise made is a debt unpaid, and so Sam got his dying wish.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
The very first three weeks I spent in Fairbanks Alaska, the high, the high temperature was 40 below zero. If I remember correctly it hit minus 58 for a couple of days. Of course, I’ll admit it was always nice to be able to end a day in my own personal log cabin sauna at the close of those short days. It was heated by a wood fired Yukon Stove and there was nothing better than finishing up a session with a jump in the snow and then stand stark naked watching the aurora borealis dance in the black starry night. The day that I first arrived in Fairbanks was no stove oil for the heater in the house, so I stoked up the sauna and spent the night there. Not a steam boat furnace but mighty cozy nevertheless!
I’m usually a pretty social guy, but there are times I really like to have a sauna all to my lonesome. I admit that it’s not something I should be bragging about but I know how to clear out a crowded sauna pretty fast. I just keep pouring water on the hot rocks until it gets unbearably hot for everyone else. And the reason that I can tough it out is that I learned a little secret from an 85 year old Athabascan man that I met in the village steam bath on the Yukon that summer I’d kayaked the 2000 miles to the Bering Sea. That’s the trip I’d started with the Sam McGee Memorial Poetry reading on the marge of lake Lebarge. Meska Savage was his name and he taught me to stuff my nostrils and the lining of my mouth with the seed tufts from the Alaska Cotton plant to keep the mucus linings from drying out and singing up. Of course now I was taking shortcuts and using cotton balls from Walgreens.
What I really want to say here is that in the 12 years I lived in the north country, I learned a lot about taking care of myself in extreme conditions . I learned these things from Eskimos, Indians, Tlingit, Haidas, some of who were over 100 years old, and I learned from guides, hunters, trappers. miners, loggers, and fisherman. Navy seals might know a little more about survival skills than I do now, but not much.
I learned so much and so quickly that the prospect of spending a night out with wind chills below minus sixty held no more anxiety than flicking off one of those monstrous Alaska two pound mosquitoes you might have heard about and hopefully have never had to fend off. I came to Alaska as a Cheechako (that’s Alaskan for greenhorn) but after a couple of years, some of the old timers were already calling me Sourdough Bob. Heck, by the end of that first month I was already a full fledged member of the 5 mile 50 below club… you earned that distinction by walking the 5 miles to town from our little log cabin ghetto called called Wolf Run in 50 below .
But the the truth of the matter is that by the time I actually arrived in Alaska I was already pretty well prepared for the rugged life of the far north. I had been in training since 1955 when I was a seven years old.
Maybe you’re old enough to remember the Quaker Oats commercials from back in the mid fifties? 1955 to be exact. That’s when Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King started offering One Square Inch of the Yukon in their ads for Quaker Puffed Rice ( shot from cannons so they said)
I was 7 years old in 1955 and when I sent away for the deed to my very own first square inch of the Yukon, believe me, my destiny was set… there was NOTHING that was going to get in the way of my getting to the Yukon and Alaska. I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read about the land and the people, and became especially interested the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-tThe stampede that started in Skagway Alaska… and was made famous by Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush. In 1971 I made it to Skagway, then on to Lake LaBarge, and then the paddle to the Bering Sea. The following year, I met and heard the stories first hand from a number of old timers who actually prospected in ’98. I even got to meet a native american man who guided some of the boats through the infamous Whitehorse rapids.
But going back to 1955- I wasn’t just reading about the Yukon. As soon as the deed to my one square inch arrived. I began training for it, and preparing for my eventual arrival in that northern clime where I was now a land-owner. My grandfather Morris had a kosher butcher shop in East Boston and on one of our family trips that year, I asked him if I could see what it felt like in the big walk in freezer at the back of the shop. He didn’t see any harm in that. It was COLD in there with all those chickens and sides of kosher beef, but I toughed it out for a full five minutes. The next day I stayed for ten. Lucky for me, I could talk to my grandfather about things I didn’t necessarily want my parents to know about. I told him about my plan. We spent a whole week in Boston on that trip and by the time we headed back to New York, I could spend an hour in that freezer without even wearing a sweater.
Eventually there was no more hiding my motives. Over the years I kept coming back to that freezer and thickening up my blood. Lucky for me my father was a research scientist and he got interested in my “project.” I guess at that time in his career when he was trying to make a mark, he didn’t have a lot of compunctions against human experimentation. He got interested in how long I could stay in that deep freeze and he kept careful records. I went back and checked in my scrapbook before I started writing this. It was from Dad’s scientific training where I also got instruction and firm guidance in being very careful about reporting only the truth of things. That’s how come I can say that by the time I graduated high school I’d worked up t four days, 13 hours and 6 minutes exactly . I have to admit though that I did get some extra help from my grandmother. Every eight hours like clockwork she’d dash into the freezer with a hot bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup for me. Sometimes she even stayed in there with me for a couple of hours telling me stories of the old country and those cold Lithuanian winters. So maybe there were some genes working in my favor too.
So like I said, by the time I finally made it to Alaska I was ready for whatever old mother nature was ready to throw at me. I was ready for the cold, I was prepared for avalanches, for falling overboard in icy water, I was ready for moose, bear, wolves and I even knew how to handle myself if I was ever attacked by a flock of those those two pound mosquitoes that Alaska is so famous for.
But there was one thing that I WASN’T ready for and that was my own arrogance and stupidity and it damned near killed me. The only reason that I’m alive now and here to tell about it is that STORYTELLING SAVED MY LIFE.
I had to think hard about whether I’d write about this. It’s embarrassing and puts me in a bad light. But after I’d made it out alive, I told myself that if I could save even one other person’s life by this admission then it was incumbent on me and I had an obligation to tell about it. So here goes.
I’d become known to the old timers as Sourdough Bob, but I had another nickname too, my own personal private nickname. I called myself “One Match.”
I could, and I still can start a stove, fireplace or campfire with one match. I can do it in the damp, I can do it in the rain, I can do it if the wind is blowing forty miles an hour. I was so confident in my fire-starting skills, that on principle I never carried more than one match. Of course I kept it dry in my old Boy Scout double sealed, waterproof container. There was no sense taking chances.
I’ve mentioned how much I learned from hunters, trappers, fisherman, loggers and such. Of all the old timers I ever met, I learned the most from Poopdeck who I met when he was 78 and who passed away in Homer Alaska at 97 (still swimming in the town pool just a few months before the end). He’d done all those things and more. So naturally he knew a few things a young fellow like me ought to know. No one was less inclined to give advice when it wasn’t asked for or to push his own opinions on any one else. He must have got wind of that one match brag of mine though and so this one time he took the liberty of telling me,
“Bob,” he said, “I want you to remember this. When you camp be sure to take PLENTY of matches and keep them dry. This One Match business is a dangerous flibbery flabberty. And while I’m telling you what you didn’t ask for let me remind you of a couple of other things. Always… I mean always be careful, look around and pay close attention to where you pitch your camp. And when you set out on the trail ALWAYS let someone know where you’re going even if you’re only going out on a day trip. Alaska can be an unforgiving place when things turn bad.”
I guess I stopped listening after Poopdeck said… Plenty of Matches. I know you’re thinking, ah, that ‘s how he got in big trouble. But that wasn’t it. One Match means One Match. I know how to build a fire and I’ve never failed. It was the other two pieces of advice that I ignored that almost cost me my life.
At the time I’m talking about, The Day that Storytelling Saved My Life, it was a gorgeous late September morning. I should have stuck to my original plan and made sauerkraut that day. A darn moose had gotten into my cabbages and eaten every last one except for that puny one in the northwest corner of the garden that didn’t get as much sun. The moose had even eaten half of that one too but at least there was still about eighty or ninety pounds of it left give or take an ounce or two. (I did let my record keeping slip a little during that summer)
When I looked out my window and saw that the bay was as flat as a mirror, and checked the charts and saw that he tides were perfect, I thought, wow, this is a perfect day,
a great day to paddle across the bay and hike up to Grewink Glacier. I was so eager that I almost left without setting the mosquito traps. I baited them with a couple of puny thirty pound king salmon I’d kept on ice for just such purposes and launched my kayak and caught the outgoing tide.
It was so calm I barely had to paddle… those enormous Kachemak Bay tides carried me past Bird Island and easily across the 5 miles to the roadless side of the bay.I saw the usual assortment of sea birds, dolphins and orca whales on the crossing. But watching those two baby grizzly bears skinny-dipping was a real treat. A lot of people have asked me about how I took the photo. The mama bear was nearby and she was the one who helped me out with that. It’s a little bit out of focus but it was a small camera and kind of hard for her to hold it still.
At Glacier Spit I beached the kayak and headed up the faint trail. It was a glorious day. Being early fall there was a veritable riot of berries. I feasted on blueberries,crowberries, and cranberries and saved some for the trip back to share with the bears. I watched eagles circle and soar, and as I followed the rush of glacier meltwater up to the source I delighted in the great swaths of late blooming fireweed still blanketing the meadows in magenta majesty.
After reaching Glacier lake I took a look at my watch and saw that I still had plenty of time to take a little nap and get down the trail and catch the outgoing tide for the trip back. I used the leading edge of the glacier as an alarm clock. On previous hikes there and with my careful record keeping I’d discovered that if I stood in exactly the right place facing a very particular place on the glacier, I could shout and perfectly figure how much time would elapse before the echo came back. I positioned myself for an hour and fifteen minute snooze- that would give me time to get back to the shore before the wind was likely to pick up- I shouted “ Time to get up Bob” towards the glacier and dropped off to sleep. Climate change deniers… you are wrong! Because after this was all over I realized that the glacier had receded a foot or two, throwing off my calculations. The echo wake up call didn’t come back for an hour and twenty minutes and that five minutes that I overslept might have made all the difference.
I tried to make up those five minutes racing down the trail, But by the time I got back to the beach, the calm bay had just turned into a churning, whitecapped fury, pushed by 40mph winds. It wouldn’t matter how strong the outgoing tide was running… there was no way I was going to make it back across the bay that day. I’d have to spend the night in the woods and wait for the predictable calm in the morning. But I wasn’t worried one bit.
I’ve always said, you’d have to be a fool to starve to death living by Kachemak Bay. Food was not going to be a problem. Besides the abundance of berries, at low tide you could pry loose more mussels in 5 minutes than you could eat in 5 weeks. Have you ever tasted a mussel freshly harvested and steamed open over an open fire? Food was not going to be a problem.
Shelter was no problem either. I hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag… but I had my big buck knife and I went right to work cutting spruce boughs and making a nice tight little lean- to.Then I hollowed out a fire pit, and gathered enough tinder, kindling and logs to keep a roaring fire going all night. And all it took was One Match to get it going! I was feeling kind of proud of myself.
Food… no problem .Shelter… no problem. Fire …no problem…I even had my evening’s entertainment, a well weathered copy of Jack London’s short stories in the back pocket of my Carthart Jeans. I loved Jack London’s stories ever since I’d read Call of the Wild and White Fang and To Build a Fire, all in one weekend I spent in Grandpa’s freezer.
Thanks for staying with me this far. You’ll be glad you did, because this is where I’m getting to the details of How Storytelling Saved My Life and remember I’m only sharing this with you because it might help you out of jam some day. Have you ever read to Build a Fire? If so, you might start thinking about how it ends with the hero freezing to death.
As darkness came on.here I was, snug as a bug an and twice as smug…One Match had done it again… the fire was roaring and my belly was full.. I’d steamed the mussels with seaweed and and ate a perfectly cooked Dolly Varden trout I’d plucked from the stream with my bare hands just before the sun went down. You can’t eat better than that at Ivar’s Acres of Clams….and that’s the best seafood restaurant in SEattle! Don’t miss Ivar’s if you have a chance.
After dinner the bay was still churning,the wind was still blowing, the temperature had dropped below 32, but it didn’t matter. the fire was throwing plenty of heat and I soon drifted off to sleep. I must have been thinking about the mosquito traps back home. I was in the middle of a dream about getting drained dry by one of those suckers when I woke for a moment, shook off the dread…looked around and to my surprise it was snowing! Kind of early for Kachemak Bay but not really all that unusual for September. Big heavy flakes of wet snow had drifted down and covering the ground about two or three inches. But no problem… the fire was going strong, so I went back to my dream.
It was just when I was being carried off by two of those mosquitoes and one of them was saying, “Let’s eat him now so the big ones don’t take him away and eat him first” when I was startled out of the dream by that fateful crack. It almost sounded like the report of a high powered rifle, followed by something that sounded like more like a groan… and then a snap! Then then came the avalanche!
Yes it’s true. Just like in Jake London’s Story , where the hero built his fire too close to a pine tree,and the weight of the snow, cracked a branch and an avalanche of snowed slid off and put out his fire and would soon put out his life. My fire was cold out- buried in a food of snow that had slid off the Sitka Spruce I was camped under.
And now Poopdeck’s advice came back to me loud and clear now. “Bob…be real careful about picking your campsite. I’ll admit to a brief moment of panic. But I got right into action. I remembered seeing a big hollow log I’d seen not far from the campsite when I’d been foraging for firewood. It wasn’t going to be the Hilton, it wasn’t even Motel 6, but it was a place I could get out of the cold, get out of the damp breeze, warm myself with my own body heat and at least survive the rest of the night.
I know what your probably thinking- that there was bear in that hollow log. No there was not bear. I’m not that foolhardy. ’d rattled a stick in there first just to be sure. t was vacant and exactly the right size… just big enough around for me to squeeze into, and long enough to leave me about a foot on either end. I crawled into that life-saver with a strange mixture of emotions; feeling stupid for my cheeckako mistake, yet proud of my sourdough resourcefulness. And then exhausted from the long day, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When I woke up the sun was already high in the sky. The storm had passed and it was a gorgeous Indian Summer DayI looked out from the head end of my abode and could see steam rising from the beach rocks… the snow had melted… all of it….the birds were singing in delight… and I could see the Bay… calm and inviting for my return paddle. It was STILL Paradise!
Until that is, I tried to get out of the log. And that’s when I discovered that I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t move backward. I’ve never really been able to explain this scientifically. It has something to do with temperature and expansion and contraction… but somehow because of the rapid cooling then warming of that hollow log, the ‘hollow’ had shrunk, and the log had had filled in the spaces. Just enough to trap me in a wooden prison. I’d been in plenty of claustrophobic situations before, during my cave exploring days, and I’d learned that you could always wiggle a bit…change the orientation of a hand or arm, leg or foot and pry oneself loose. This time though all such efforts were in vain. I mean I was Stuck, capital S Stuck. I wasn’t going anywhere.
And then…I remembered that last piece of Poopdeck’s advice. Always tell someone where you are going. That’s when the fear and dread really hit me. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, nobody would be looking for me. I was well off the beaten track… the chances were almost nil that I would be found before I died from lack of water, or hypothermia or just plain being scared to death.
I now had plenty of time to think about just how foolish I’d been before I finally expired. Yes, the One Match thing along with a lot of my other wilderness bragging was just so much flibberty flabberty after all. After awhile though the panic, and the disgust with myself subsided and a strange kind of peace and acceptence washed over me.
It’s true what they say about being close to death.Some of you may have experienced this yourselves. Your whole life runs like a movie before your eyes or in your mind. In this case. I started reviewing my life and adding it up… Of course I thought about all my loved ones, and friends so far away and out of reach and that made me sad. But an interesting thing was happening. The more I reflected on my life, the better I felt about it. I’d been a good person. A great friend. A hard worker. Kind to strangers and animals. I thought about all the good I’d done for other people… and the more I thought about it… the more I came to realize and appreciate that I had lived a truly exemplary life!
Just when I was feeling so good about myself, I remembered something I shouldn’t have forgot. There’s always two sides to every story. I needed to also take stock of my shortcomings. And so thought, and thought and thought. I thought about it for a good hour and twenty three minutes ( I did record that in my log later)
But as hard as I tried, I simply could not find another side of the story.I could not think of one thing, not one single shortcoming… not one.. As much as II wracked my brain, in the end I had to admit. I had truly lived a truly flawless and exemplary life. And I might have expired right there and then in blissful reverie if a deeply buried memory hadn’t bubbled up. I WASN”T perfect… I remembered ONE lapse. It all came back to me.
It was only one time… just once… but one time. I ‘d been telling a story and I had stretched the truth. I was in New York and telling some friends i that I had hitched all the way from Alaska on the back of one of those 747 sized mosquitoes…. and the fact was that it wasn’t true. That mosquito had only made it to St. Louis before it tuckered out and broke into that blood bank and left me stranded on Route 66. I’d actually taken a greyhound the rest of the way back East.
Yes… it was only one time. But the fact of the matter was that I had stretched the truth. I was NOT that completely exemplary person I’d just made peace with.
And folks at that very moment when I came to grips with that awful realization …it made me feel small… so small… so small…
that I shrunk a full notch and that was just enough to be able to wiggle out of that log… grab a ride on the back of a passing killer whale, get back home- skin that mosquito that had blundered into my trap… sell the fur… and by myself the lap top computer I’m writing this from today.
So you see, that’s how Storytelling Saved My Life. I hope you’ll never have to stretch the truth but if you just don’t have any choice, it just might save your’s sometime too. I know my dad would be proud of me about how careful I was with the truth in sharing this account with you. I’ve never forgot what he told me. “ Son, you be careful and never and I mean never, let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.”