I was fortunate to spend an evening and a morning in Denali Park this week with Polly. We didn’t have a permit, so were only allowed to drive into the parking area two or three miles short of Savage River (normally you can park at Savage River, but the lot is currently closed). Being industrious and ready for exercise after a long drive, we hit the road afoot Tuesday evening. Our efforts were well rewarded when I spotted antlers swinging in the brush: caribou. Next morning, I made the same walk alone (Polly prefers sleep over watching me take pictures). I was lucky enough to find and photograph the same caribou bull. I had the animal all to myself because everyone else was flying by in cars and tour buses, not stopping to look closely. No one ever knew we were there.
My photography assistant stands on the Denali Park road overlooking Savage River (she would rather be hiking).
Blueberries are almost ripe. Still a lot of green ones. I would give picking at least another week.
I spotted antlers swinging in the brush on Tuesday evening. Turned out to be a large caribou bull. We watched him for a while before heading back down the road.
That evening I encountered this little porcupette while taking a landscape shot along the Denali Park road.
The hills of Denali. I hated to leave that evening, but promised to return first thing next morning.
Next morning, I found a half-grown leveret (baby snowshoe hare) pausing among a bouquet of wildflowers in a parking pull-off along the Denali Park road. It seemed a good omen for the day.
Sure enough! Found the bull caribou that morning bedded along the Savage River. I watched him until he got up and, in a stroke of divine luck, started feeding in my direction.
“Can I help you?” Seriously, he was simply trying to eat. Did I have to bother him with pictures?
One more goofy look, and I left him to his breakfast.
Springtime in Southcentral Alaska means breeding season for spruce grouse.
Male spruce grouse, identified easily by their black- and white-trimmed throats and chests topped with scarlet eye combs, get dandied up in April and May to court hens. Although they’re not formal lekers, males can often be found concentrated in relatively small areas during breeding season. One can often be seen defending a territory within easy sight of other males doing the same.
Hens are drawn by males that put on displays that include flying into trees and landing briefly before thundering to the ground with their bodies in a vertical position. The behavior seems to be a form of drumming.
Once hens appear, males strut, fan their tails, and raise their eye combs to get attention. Males become very aggressive this time of year, and defensive of their territories. They will sometimes try to chase humans and have been known to beat hikers’ faces with their wings!
Although the photo illustration is not the usual full-frame bird close-up, this blog post may be of interest to people from the northern United States, Canada, and Alaska who’ve been seeing – and hearing – a lot of common snipe lately. The picture captures a snipe diving from the cloudy sky near Anchorage, Alaska, this morning to create the “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” sounds – or winnowing – frequently heard now around Alaska’s lakes, streams, and marshy areas.
As a kid growing up in Alaska I used to assume the birds made the sound through their mouths. But as I grew older and watched more closely, I realized the snipe actually fly up high at a steep angle before pointing downward and diving. As they dive, their wings flap rapidly, pushing air through the stiff outer tail feathers and creating the winnowing sound.
They perform this aerial dance and make that distinctive music each spring as part of their breeding rituals.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a fictional story told by a young Alaska Native man, a Gwich’in Athabscan named Tommy Andrew. Tommy is a fictional character sketched by me – a real-life, white-guy writer and longtime Alaskan. As currently presented, Tommy Andrew has little formal education. He is, however, “woods smart” and highly educated about life in the subarctic wilderness. Be assured that, despite the colloquial and inconsistent English, sparse Athabascan, and phonetic presentation he’s provided with here, Tommy Andrew is nobody’s fool.
As you read, imagine Tommy’s voice as husky and soft, sort of a cross between an echo and a whisper. Also, as you begin reading, please know that “dinjik” is Athabascan for moose.
Finally, the writer is not an expert or authority on Athabascan culture, language, or history. The following story fragment is respectfully offered for entertainment only.
– Ken Marsh
When Gwich’in catch dinjik, it is our custom to roast the nose in a campfire. The young boys make a fire near the kill while the men skin dinjik and cut up his meat. We do not skin the nose. The fire does that. We lay the nose on the coals and the hair singes off. It flies in the wind and fall soft, like snow, over the river. Gwinoh’ii!
My people are Nantsaii, which means “first on the land.” There are many Nantsaii. In our village we are Ihshaa Dinjii, The River People. The river flows by our village and provides things we need. We catch salmon and jackfish; those fish feed us, and our dogs. In summer, the season of light, the river carries our boats. In the season of darkness, gweedhaa, the ice comes and the river carries our sno-gos and sleds.
In the season of darkness, the elders tell us younger people stories. These are passed down through the generations. My uncle, Ephrem Peter, sometime tells a story about curiosity. Uncle is dinjii nazhan – a shaman – and the wisest man I know. He says curiosity is good, but you must treat it as you would a young bear – with caution. Here is the story:
Many years ago one of the River People, a man named Frankie Dementoff, say he never feel no curiosity. He was an elder and a good hunter. He said he know everything he need and questions only waste his time. One gweedhaa Frankie travel way beyond the big mountain range to the north. He go long, long way. He want to trade with Yupiks up there who were rich with oil of seal and whale. Back then, most Athabascan distrust Eskimos almost as much as they distrust white men. But Frankie, he say the oil would be good for lamps and curing hides in the dark season.
In those days, the people travel over snow by dogsled, and one night Frankie Dementoff camp on open tundra in his sled, covered with a moose hide. He was sleeping when his dogs start barking, but Frankie ignored them. He was not curious and want to sleep. The barking got loud and then, one dog at a time, got quieter until no dogs barked. Frankie, he was pleased because it was quiet and he start to go to sleep. But that changed when something tear through that moose hide over his face. Gwinah’ii! It was a white bear!
I bet Frankie Dementoff scream when he see that.
The bear bit Frankie’s head in its jaws and pull him out of the sled and shake him, hard. Frankie passed out and when he woke up later he could see the white bear standing in the moonlight eating one of the dogs. Frankie Dementoff’s rifle was nearby in the sled, so he crawl over there and pick ’er up. The white bear heard him and it attacked, but Frankie was a good hunter and shot that bear dead.
Frankie Dementoff did not come home to the River People until early the next summer. His face was scarred and he was missing one eye that had become a raw pit that wept all the time. He wore a white bear skin vest, but after that he never went hunting again.
That was a long time ago. Uncle said the story was passed down by generations of River People and now he tell it to the young boys so that they will be wiser than Frankie Dementoff. It is good to be curious, Uncle says. Sometimes it can save your life.
Look, Gwinoh’ii! That dinjik nose is peeling in the coals. The young boys are poking it with green willow sticks. Soon it will be time to eat.
“In order to subsist this early man had to dedicate himself wholly to hunting. Hunting was, then, the first occupation, man’s first work and craft.”
– Jose Ortega yGasset, Meditations on Hunting
The photograph was, at first glance, startling. It featured bright, sticky blood smeared on the brown cheeks and forehead of an 8- or 9-year-old boy. A rack of reindeer antlers, fuzzy with summer velvet, rested on the tundra nearby while in the background a treeless horizon that could have been the Oshetna country, Anaktuvuk Pass, or the hills surrounding the Kobuk River met a cold, white sky.
But it wasn’t Alaska. Looking on was a group of leather-faced men with wrinkles flowing in wakes from the corners of their eyes. All Natives of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula according to the accompanying magazine story, the men were smiling. A caption indicated the dabbing of blood was a cultural rite, a baptism that honored a young Kamchatka Native boy’s bond to the tundra, the reindeer, and the circular path that brings everything together.
In the distinctive way photographs have of stopping time and distilling emotion, I’m envisioning the image of another young boy, standing waif-like in torn pants on a Nelchina River gravel bar, gripping a small rack of velvet-covered caribou antlers. Once tacked to a wall above my office desk, but long since lost, the photograph was a monochrome, relic of an era. Still, it provided the necessary detail – willows in the background, a ribbon of river running through the upper quarter. Your heart filled in the dimensional gaps: color, temperature, the gurgling stream, etc.
Taken on different continents more than a quarter century apart, the two photographs overlapped in an impressionistic sort of way. Rather than two boys of different cultures, they revealed children bound by tradition. You could look into the faces of both boys and sense similar auras of security, innocence, warmth. The presence of blood, the racks, the deaths of beasts, were outshone by a radiance that declared: This is who we are.
I’m marching back in time, my feet crunching into the pregnant gravel of a Nelchina River bar. Beside my small, pigeon-toed boot prints are the tracks of caribou (each cloven impression a neatly broken heart), accompanied by the larger, longer, more linear tread of moose; the padded, canine signature of wolves; and in the mud at the water’s edge, the clawed, helter-skelter meandering of a grizzly.
From the time I was 5 years old I followed the men of family and a group of close friends into the Nelchina wilderness each August to hunt caribou. Not unlike the Kamchatka people, we hunted for meat to feed our families. Much of what is important to me today is rooted in that place and to those times, where willows glowed in yellow bursts, and autumn air hung humid and cold, fragrant with the river’s scent (a sweet, earthy blend of wild grasses and damp soil). The country was a place where passions bloomed.
In my earlier years I served a kind of apprenticeship, providing camp meat by catching graying with a bamboo fly rod featuring a wildly flared tip. Later I graduated on to a .410 shotgun and white-winged ptarmigan – tundra chickens. Ultimately, I became a big-game hunter.
Your mind is a sponge when you’re 6, 8, 12 years old. You remember things that adults might think trivial. But symbolically, the livery flavor of ptarmigan fried in flour and butter or the image of a ridgeline bristling with a forest of silhouetted antlers become a part of you.
Along the way you learn things only hunters know that can’t be explained, but must be felt. Ancient, primal emotions intrinsic to men and wolves develop and grow tangible. You discover the peerless freedom of the hunt surging in the grip of wood and cold steel or howling in the wind of a high pass. You’re introduced to basic realities of success and failure, life and death.
With time the fundamental lessons of hunting grow more complex. You discover hunting is as convoluted as humanity itself: There is subsistence, there is recreation and, rarely, the good of it is destroyed by dark elements like greed or bloodlust. Somewhere within this tangle of character and natural instinct, where innocence and knowledge mingle, we define ourselves – as a species and as individuals.
Most of my time these days is spent far from the Nelchina River country and its caribou. Even so, it’s encouraging to know that the land and its animals live on and that hunting there remains a priceless, ageless option. That’s because hunting is a birthright, something that can never really be taken away. The Kamchatka people would agree, as would their Alaska Native cousins, my Anglo ancestors and, if they could speak, so would wolves.
Back on the Nelchina River, my uncle showed me how to fashion a whistle by cutting a willow with a jackknife and carefully slipping the bark. Another man taught me how to skin a caribou without slashing my knuckles by gripping the hide like so. And when, at age 11, I killed my first caribou, the men smiled and patted my shoulders and generally treated me as an equal. I’ve since known no greater honor.
That, truly, is why the photograph of that scene on the Kamchatka Peninsula made me pause. It made me realize that some things about us change little with time. Or geography. And if, in the 1960s, baptisms along the Nelchina River were subtler than those on the Kamchatka Peninsula, they were no less important.
Today I drive an automobile that burns gasoline and live in a house that has permanently displaced wildlife habitat. Indeed, if you traced everything I do, you would find my existence somehow comes at the expense of other creatures. So whether or not I hunt this fall (as I plan to do), I still have blood on my hands, and coursing through my heart. We all do.
A bird of another feather dropped in at the mallard pond the other evening. The common merganser hen landed on the small bit of open water, got mouthy with the locals, then winged off again, into the sunset.
Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game.
By Ken Marsh
Forty fathoms beneath the charter boat T. Rex, in the murky depths of Montague Strait, the cargo pilot’s short, stubby saltwater rod seemed suddenly possessed. It bucked and wrenched and bent perilously over the gunwale. The veins in his forearms swelled, sweat beaded on his brow.
Framed by the cabin door, the skipper smiled broadly, his lower lip fat with a double dip of snuff. “Don’t rest your rod on the rail,” the skipper coached. “Lift up, keep pressure on the fish.”
The cargo pilot, taking a day off from his job in Anchorage, strained to lift his rod. The rod writhed. He grunted. And then his line fell curiously slack.
“I think it’s gone,” he said.
By the tone of his voice, it was hard to tell whether he was disappointed or relieved.
The skipper spat over the side.
“He’s still there. Reel, reel!”
The cargo pilot lifted the rod and gave the reel a couple of cranks. Then the rod tip shot abruptly down, forcing him to stop reeling and hang on.
“Take advantage of it when (the fish) lets up,” the skipper said.
After that, the cargo pilot got into the rhythm of the battle: Pull up, up on the rod, then lower the tip and reel fast. Repeat. That is how a saltwater angler gains on a strong fish. Pump and grind, pump and grind. Three feet … of line … at a time.
Ten minutes and 235 feet of line later, as the cargo pilot strained against the bouncing rod, the white bottom-side of a halibut flashed below the boat. The skipper snatched his heavy gaff from its holder and, leaning dangerously over the side, hooked the fish by the jaw.
At that instant, a new fight was on. The halibut thrashed, splashing saltwater onto the deck and pounding its tail against the side of the boat. The skipper hung on, like a bull rider on a crazed Brahma. Then, with the grace of a seasoned professional, he hauled the fish smartly over the side and onto the deck.
A couple of thumps between the eyes with an aluminum baseball bat and the fish fell still.
“Forty pounds,” the skipper announced matter-of-factly.
The cargo pilot beamed. He’d only been fishing 20 minutes. The day had just begun.
Halibut are heavyweights. Where trout are creatures of poetry and color, halibut are big, broad, mud-colored lugs with close-set eyes situated frog-like on the tops of their flat, fat heads. They fight with impressive strength on the far end of a line and their delicately flavored white fillets are the fare of high-end restaurants. Halibut in Alaska waters grow huge — the state sportfishing record stands at 459 pounds — and are rightly considered big game.
We stalk them by boat, often traveling miles out to sea, armed with rods thick and flexible as flagpoles, and harpoons with detachable heads tied to buoys (a la Jaws). Big halibut brought to the surface may be struck with the harpoons or shot with .44 Magnums or .410 shotguns. The fish spend their lives lying flat on the sea bottom; to reach them, you may need five pounds of solid lead. A steel hook large and stout enough to hang a 130-pound moose haunch is required to hold them. For bait you might use a herring the size of trout caught and released in Prince William Sound streams. Or you might use a three-pound pink salmon.
A few minutes after catching the first halibut of the day, the cargo pilot caught his second fish — a 45-pounder.
“That’s the best I’ve ever done,” he announced. His limit secured, he sat down to relax and enjoy the late-morning sunshine.
One by one, fish came to the baits of the other four T. Rex anglers. One man from Minneapolis was experiencing his first Alaska fishing trip. When he hooked and brought to the boat a 35-pound halibut — considered small in local waters — the skipper asked if he wanted to keep it. Still holding his rod, the angler turned to his mates:
“I catch my first halibut and this guy asks if I want to keep it!” He laughed, then turned back to the skipper and said, “Hell yes I want to keep it.”
The angler, whose biggest fish prior to that were walleyes pulled from his Minnesota lakes, later rounded out his halibut limit with a fish that weighed close to 50 pounds. Joining the cargo pilot, he sat down and looked over the flat-calm seas. To the north, the jagged peaks of a nearby island were silhouetted against warm blue skies. Here and there a salmon leaped. Puffins paddled by.
“You know what surprises me,” the angler said, “is that we’re not surrounded by other boats. I thought there would be other boats, but I haven’t seen another one all day.”