RUNYAN JOURNALS: SPRING CAMP

Contemplating, while driving dogs in the warmth of spring, the pastel subdued sun of winter, now yellow and prominent, the absurd notion that one could live a subsistence life—and survive—was proposed by my trapping partner, Freddie Jordan.Only Freddie had the vision, the knowledge, and the worldview which would permit such an irresponsible suggestion. It never occurred to Freddie, or was part of his rationalization, to argue that he had the time that spring, or his work schedule had a convenient spring window.Spring camp on Fish Lake was simply, and exactly, what fit into Freddie’s plan. His manner was so convincing, and logic so unassailable, that there was soon a group of us that felt the same way. We were all going to Freddie’s camp on Fish Lake to spend the spring.Practically speaking, Spring Camp on Fish Lake begins with a little preplanning and some low level organization between the parties that nearly includes, but just barely avoids, making lists. The main thing is, list or not,—somebody has to remember to bring a net, very important.Everything else is a matter of personal responsibility. Shot gun and shells, a few traps, a 22 rifle and shells, basic food like tea, rice, onions, potatoes, sailor bread crackers, butter—in its essentials, enough food to last at least a month, with a heavy dependence on Freddie’s assertion that we would have fish to fry and geese and muskrat to roast over a fire. For insurance, I brought smoked king salmon strips, and dried fillets of smoked chum salmon. With tea and crackers, anybody can survive on dried salmon.The timetable is fairly critical, in fact, crucial. As the spring sun melts the snow and exposes long stretches of wind swept tundra, it also starts the annual thaw of Hay Slough, which is an important part of the trail from the Yukon River to Fish Lake. Although the geese begin to arrive in numbers about the 22nd or 23rd of April, it’s prudent if you are in camp by at least the 15th, or a couple of days later if you like to push it.Here’s the problem. The snow melts off the surface of sloughs, leaving a shiny mirror of ice that hardens at night. This is perfect for traveling by dog team, but the variables are, well, variable. If it’s too warm, the melting water turns the remaining snow into a bottomless pit of slush. With a heavy freight sled, that means you are traveling at an agonizingly slow pace. Worse, if the slough ice stays frozen to the bottom, the deluge of melting water flows over the anchored ice from bank to bank, making travel almost impossible except to go overland, crashing through brush and overgrown willows. The best is to make two trips and do them before the predictable spring thaw. The first load is to transfer tents, sleeping bag, most of your food and camp gear, and a canoe, or in my case a canvas kayak, to Freddie’s selected campsite on a little rise of birch-covered high ground overlooking Fish Creek. The second and last load is to transport all the essential items, including a shotgun and 22 rifle. The last trip is as much dried salmon, or maybe all that you have left, of dog food, at the last moment so at least you’ll be there when the black bear comes for inspection. Even with a big load, and a lucky easy-pulling trail, there won’t be enough dog food to last the spring. You have to count on Freddie. If you could afford to ship kibbled dry dog food from Rolla, Missouri to Fish Lake, you probably wouldn’t be in a position to spend the spring on Fish Lake.A little digression on the subject of glare ice in the spring, when Hay slough is blue with deep ice bounded by thickets of willows. A cross section of Hay Slough would demonstrate that the ice is gently arched, a smooth curve, with the crown in the middle of the slough, created by some predictable physical laws (it must be predictable, it happens every year). The natural instinct of even the most well behaved leader, struggling to find traction on the crown of the glare ice, is to bolt for better footing on the margin of the slough, and at the same time tangling the team and sled in a pathetic ball in the willows. A twelve-dog team is a disaster. But this is the last trip to Fish Lake, so every one of the 24 dogs you own is in harness pulling the gigantically overloaded freight sled of split salmon to Freddie’s Camp on Fish Creek. But the ice is perfect, the co-efficient of friction is ZERO, and the sled glides effortlessly. Fortunately, Freddie and I have trapped lynx up in the Rapids in the winter, the chute of treacherous Yukon water made famous by Jack London. Here the wind funnels off the rounded hills of the Yukon and accelerates through the canyon removing snow and polishing the ice. About mid-way through this uninviting stretch of constant wind, sheltered in a stand of trees on the South Bank, resides NC Frank, named for his occasional employment at the NC Northern Commercial store. NC Frank has the fastest traveling glare ice sled dogs in the world. They know precisely the shortest way to travel to the NC store, and they know precisely the most abbreviated trail back to NC Frank’s camp. Over the years, NC Frank has developed an extraordinary team of glare ice dogs, which have developed the stiff legged gait and musculature to travel on glare ice, even bucking the quartering wind, and travel in a straight line from point to point across the miles long bend of the Yukon. Rarely have the dogs been asked to pull conventionally—their specialty is speed at the trot. NC Frank, who is not a big talker, also admits that his team, the fastest traveling glare ice dogs in the world, lope at full speed at the end of the trip to his camp. Because of NC Frank and his dogs, our teams were “shown the way” on the glare ice to the Rapids, resisting the temptation to bolt for the shore splay legged and slipping, and now they understand the methodical and patient approach necessary for traveling on glare ice. The leaders stay glued to the middle of Hay Slough on the “hump” and the team dogs follow dutifully in file. This is a thing of beauty, to travel behind a big team on glare ice in the spring. Only the constant scratch of the brake which steadies the sled from fish tailing, interrupts the peaceful ambience of occasional chirping, the caw of a raven. Near the long string of lakes that comprise the Fish Lake flood plain, the trail jumps off the slough and portages from lake to lake. Push ups, the vegetative pile of underwater plants used by muskrat to build feeding stations that extend away from their bank den during the winter, are now exposed after snow melts on the glare of the lakes. These are resting stations and air holes for the muskrat that forage away from the den. Freddie will be taking mental note of this spring’s muskrat population.Fish Lake and the surrounding flood plain of interconnected lakes are confusingly flat, and sloughs and languid creeks that drain to the Tanana River wander serpentine and without apparent direction. Thickets of willows and birch obscure a good view of the surroundings. If the ice jams at the sand bars of Squaw Crossing, the Tanana River water will flood the plain, and the morass of lakes and tall marsh grass becomes more indecipherable and anonymous. “He was lost in the Fish Lake flats, and never returned,” would be a good title for a children’s horror book.Nevertheless, a familiarity develops and the secrets of Fish Lake are gradually revealed to the spring camper. The trail to Freddie’s camp is quite mysterious and intriguing. The trail crosses a long lake, disappears into a thicket of willows, like a door to a secret world, emerges on a short lake, then is enveloped by a steep walled key-hole of a slough made even narrower by the accumulation of snow on a straight walled drift of hundreds, maybe thousands of cubic yards of drifted snow. This wall will soon be pock marked with excavations, the storage area for fat arriving geese and bright green headed mallards.The camp is an outlaw’s lair, secret, hidden, perfect, wild, remote and removed from all encumbrances of the civilized world in a protected copse of white barked birch trees standing on a knob of high ground. It could be a pingo, that mounded novelty of the arctic, formed over a thousand years by hydrostatic pressures caused by freezing and thawing. Last summer’s luxuriant meadow grass is dry and brown and a perfect place to stretch a gang line to bed the dogs. Camp appears quickly, and just to prove that reading is a great pastime, I bring out a book of Alaska plants, which has an interesting chapter on wild edible plants, to include a wild tuber. This tuber has a resemblance to a plant discovered in a boggy area along the creek near our camp. Without really reading the entire section on this family of plants, I decide to nibble, barely crunch, on the specimen—to see if it’s edible when the rice and beans run out. What I discover is an instantly bitter revulsion, and spit out everything. Not thinking about it much I switch to other camp work. An hour later, however, I realize that we may have problems, and tell Freddie and his wife and sister, who were also at camp, that my stomach is turning inside out with pain. Therefore, I mix up some instant milk and look forward to a cool drink to settle my stomach. The milk is so overwhelmingly sweet that I can’t drink it and conclude that somehow the bottom of the cup must have been lacquered in sugar. I wash out the cup to make sure it’s clean. On a second try, I take a glass of just plain cold water and discover again that the water tastes strangely sweet. By this time I know instinctively I could be in really deep trouble and I just start walking up and down the edge of Fish Creek about a quarter mile down and a quarter mile up past camp. My goal is to keep moving and not lay down. By morning, ten hours and quite a few miles later, my stomach and dull headache are starting to ease, and, without over exaggerating, I am beginning to think I might live. After a nap, I read the section on these tubers again and note that the literature describes two types of tubers. One is all meat, like a turnip, but the other has vacuoles, or hollow spaces. It seems, after a close look, that I chewed on the one with vacuoles, which appears to be a poisonous hemlock. Like Slim Shady says in his video, “Don’t attempt to do this at home.” Also, read the directions. Although I can’t describe eating water hemlock, or cowbane, as the highlight of the trip, it was memorable.Freddie’s first priority at Fish Lake, which I share, is a reconnaissance of the area, particularly the shallow grassy southern margins of Fish Lake, which are now just beginning to thaw. The sun beats down on the flats, and amongst the old grass and deteriorating shore ice, the water is alive with swimming life. The first arrivals from the south to sample this revealed abundance will be the geese, most specifically, the white fronted geese.The dogs go anywhere, crashing through brush, skirting on ice, dragging the sled across tundra, and willing to jump from the shore across leads of open water to the ice. In a week, we will tie old blazo cans and kicker tanks inside the sled for flotation, and continue to test the rotting ice, an exhilarating adjunct to the thrill of mushing. Since no one knows, in this parade of man and animals, where we are going, a silent agreement is reached. We stop in the brush, turn over the sled, and never look back because we know the dogs are content after a winter’s hard work to wait patiently in the sun. We locate a formidable snow drift parallel to the beach and dig a blind with a shovel, a luxury we were sure to include in our gear, at the crest and preview the unending landscape and the silence. Around the top of the blind we place brush and meadow grass. In the distance, lilting in the heat waves rebounding from the ice and white drifts, are black dots dissolving in and out of an airborne formation. These are the spring harbingers from the south. Freddie places his brown hands to his mouth and begins to whistle. This is no ordinary whistle and since I have been with Freddie in wind, fifty below, overflow, and thin ice, I recognize that this sequence will be memorable, and I am witnessing in action a great woodsman. What is he saying to the geese, the dots on the horizon with out wings now looming larger? Could they hear his whistles on the horizon? Good to see you again how was your winter, come over and say hello? Freddie implores, exhorts, calls indifferently as if he has been distracted by a long time goose friend, concentrates, and then completes a final dramatic melody dedicated to all goosedom. The geese’s curiosity is piqued beyond all caution and the first flock of the spring fly low over our pit blind. A short time later a goose is roasting over a fire, tea is brewing in an old coffee can, and crackers are retrieved from the sled. A delicacy, the guts are wrapped around a willow stick and pop in the heat of the fire. Post Note: Everything is timing. For the next ten days our preoccupation is traveling by dog team and watching the geese and later arriving ducks. As the ice deteriorates, we prepare for the next window of opportunity—water flows out of the lake on the TOP of the anchored creek ice, and the first pike arrive at camp. The fish are so abundant that we are able feed dogs for the rest of the spring. When the anchor ice pops up off the muddy bottom a week later, it is impossible to set the net, and fishing will be over.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, S. and N. America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod. He now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997)is available from the author Contact Joe at deserthound@starband.net.

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