Strong north winds scatter brown alder leaves over the barren tundra. They twirl and dance by my window, eddying out on the sill. Winter will soon sweep fingers of snow across the land. Accumulating flake by gentle flake amid dead grass and rock crevices before gale force winds drive and sculpt them into massive drifts against the hillsides. An ideal place to burrow into for winter hibernation if you’re a bear.
Caribou, resplendent in their white winter coats, start to herd up. For them, there is safety in numbers in the cold months to come.Moose abandon high alpine for low, willow-choked valleys. Their rut over, they disband and wander alone in search of winter feed.
Occasionally a ghostly white salmon, rotting from the inside out, swims listlessly up a stream. Spawned out and decomposing, thousands of dead fish litter the banks, their carcasses oozing nitrogen back into the ecosystem, creating the rich soil which feeds the food web of the Alaskan peninsula.
Spring bear hunts long over, fishing clients gone, and moose butchering complete. Another guiding season has come to a close. And, like the animals, we bid summer goodbye and make our winter preparations. We air dry plastic WeatherPort tent covers and stash the heavy steel frames. We unload Rubbermaid totes and scrub dirty camp dishes hastily thrown together when a bush plane arrived at the end of a hunt. There are fly rods in need of repair, waders with holes which are converted into skinning pants by lopping off the feet. We’ve butchered all the meat, packaged it, and shipped it to town. The garden has been turned, the mouse traps set, and out-buildings boarded up.
But as I labor to close my building, cleaning and organizing, my gaze keeps returning to the clutter on my desk. On it are empty brass rifle cases, matted trout flies, beads imitating trout eggs, a scope cover, knives, and my lucky wool hunting hat. These happy reminders of the past season are interrupting my work, carrying me back to a busy guiding season so long in coming, so rich in adventure, and so soon over.
Here are memories of warm May days hunting bears. A cacophony of bird songs, the hills alive with sounds of spring. Glassing mountaintops for bruins. Watching as young bears slide down snow slopes then climb back up and do it again. Gasping as an old boar chases down and kills a sow with cubs. It brings recollections of stalking bears with excited, alert clients, their nerves on end as we draw near from both the thrill and fear; the fear we won’t be successful only matched by the fear of hunting dangerous game in thick brush. I remember especially the joy shared with clients who respected the land, the weather, the game, the hunt, and our role in it.
By July the ancient cycle of season brought the annual return of salmon and anglers eager to catch them. The Land of the Midnight Sun means long hours of work to take advantage of summer’s abundance — fresh fish dinners, blueberry pies, a garden full of dark leafy greens, and turnips the size of my head. Each day we fly to a new gravel bar, land on a different beach, cast over new water. “Fish on!” Rods bend, lines stretch and sizzle, salmon thrash at the end of taut lines. Trout slam bead eggs and grayling slurp Morish Mouse flies off the surface.
Then comes September moose hunting. Willow thickets and alders. Grunting and raking my bucket lid to summon rutting bulls. Sweating hunters creeping clumsily toward sparring bulls too preoccupied to notice snapping twigs. Panicked maneuvering to clear a better shot. Moose “aroma” — a mix of autumn’s decomposing plants, bull urine, and bog water offset by the sweet smell of success. Snapping pictures, retelling the stalk, we skin, cape, and butcher. The massive animal takes hours to process and every ounce of muscle in me. Game bags full and strapped to a packer’s back, we hike miles to the nearest spot a bush plane can land.
To the untrained eye my desk appears just another cluttered mess, but those artifacts of brass and beads are so much more. They are my touchstones, reminders of clients’ beaming faces when their dreams became reality. Our bear hunters’ stories of stalking those massive, spectacular, dangerous animals. The look in a hunter’s eyes as he draws a bead on a 70-inch bull moose. The contagious, beaming smile of an angler when a 12-pound Dolly Varden launches out of the water at the end of her line. The shout of joy from an eight-year-old as he runs down the beach struggling to land his first silver salmon.
Memories like these stay my hand on the closing door. I sweep the cabin one last time, take a long look at those insignificant totems atop my desk, and take strength in the memories. They will fuel me through the long, cold winter as I plan and prepare for next season’s guiding adventures.
Alaska fishing and hunting guide Tia Shoemaker was raised in the Alaska wilderness in an off-grid cabin and taught not just how to forage, fish, and hunt, but how to fully appreciate it.