How a Fire Saved Bill Heavey’s Life in the Alaska Bush
_Marty Meierotto is an Alaskan trapper. He works in subzero temperatures. He operates dangerous machinery. He sleeps with a loaded...
_Marty Meierotto is an Alaskan trapper. He works in subzero temperatures. He operates dangerous machinery. He sleeps with a loaded revolver within arm’s reach. Survival isn’t a part of his job–it is his job. Just ask the author, a Lower 48 greenhorn, who joined Meierotto on his trapline last winter…only to get lost and nearly freeze to death after just three days in the bush.
The good news, I tell myself after verifying no broken bones in the fall, is this will make a really good story if you survive__. I’m trying to stay calm, trying to push down the bulge of dread rising in my stomach. I’m sitting in the snow, having bailed off a snow machine just after it lost traction and just before it left the trail, coming to rest on its side in a drift a good 5 feet below grade. It’s my second fall in 10 minutes, which confirms my suspicion that I missed a turn. Marty would never have put me on anything this steep and with this much sidehill. It’s 30 below zero, and I’m lost in the bush of eastern Alaska–a place that is pretty much all bush all the time. I’ve come here to spend some time with Marty Meierotto, a trapper who runs lines on about 900 square miles of public land, the location of which he would prefer I not identify too specifically. Not divulging our location isn’t a problem because all I really know is that it took us two hours to fly here from Fairbanks in a Super Cub, that we’re somewhere north of the Yukon River and south of the Porcupine River, and that the nearest other human is a trapper running lines some 40 miles distant. Actually, Marty doesn’t know if he’s around. The last time he saw him was eight years ago.
I pick myself up slowly and brush off the snow. Stepping off the trail, I posthole up to my knees and hike down to the machine in its drift. After the first fall, I used a stick to dig the machine out, shoved some spruce boughs under its track, and finally got it back on the trail again. I’ve stuck it good this time. Marty told me he likes these old -single-cylinder Ski-Doo Tundra IIs because they are the only snow machines small enough to fit disassembled in the back of his plane. Even so, I bet one weighs 400 pounds. I tug on the handlebars. It doesn’t move.
You’re not going anywhere for a while. I simultaneously accept this fact, and deny it. My mind, like my body, feels sluggish and foreign, as if it’s not mine at all but on loan from somebody else. I know this is a bad situation, but the sharp edge that the knowledge should carry simply isn’t there. This fact worries me, and yet I feel curiously detached from it. I decide to make a list of what I know:
It’s about 1 p.m. on January 30, not far below the Arctic Circle
The sun doesn’t really rise and set at this latitude and time of year. It just sort of rouses itself, wanders about the edges of the sky for a few hours, then goes away. But when night comes, as it will in about four hours, it will stay dark for 14 hours. That’s a long time to be outside.
I’m really tired_
_Being outside in this kind of cold, no matter how well dressed you are, strains your metabolism. Your thermostat isn’t wired for this. Even Marty, who has been trapping for 20 years, says he loses weight every time he goes to the bush. There’s something about the cold that makes you breathe through your mouth, and the air is so dry that even if you’re not sweating, you lose water fast. Thing is, despite the cold, I am sweating. I’ve been riding for four hours now. As a novice, I had no idea how physically demanding it is. In this kind of country, you ride standing up, the better to react to hidden bumps and holes. And you don’t really steer a snow machine anyway. As I’m finding out, the handlebars are just a purchase you push against while horsing the beast in the direction you want to go.
_Which is stupid. But I have a good reason for being stupid. Which is that I can’t keep up with Marty, who I’m starting to believe is an unusually hardy member of the species. This is our third day here. Yesterday, we rode out from his main cabin and followed a trapline about 30 miles up to one of four smaller cabins he has built at intervals along his lines. Marty rode twice that, checking traps on loops off the main trail. We came upon a lynx, an exotic, elegant cat–black ear tufts, snowshoe feet, long buff coat–sitting motionless with one paw in a No. 4 trap. It hardly reacted as Marty approached, dropped the choke wire over its head, and suddenly jerked it tight. The cat’s legs and claws scrabbled furiously for 30 or 40 seconds, and then it lay still. It was hard to watch, and Marty didn’t meet my eyes as he reset the trap–its bait of raw caribou hide still good for another set–and tossed the animal in the sled behind his snow machine. “Everything out here lives by killing something else,” he said, still not meeting my eyes, as he pulled the starter cord. We rode on.
Today we were returning by a different route so that Marty could check other lines and do other loops. Again, I couldn’t keep up. Already tired from yesterday, I suggested I make my way back to the main cabin ahead of him. He agreed, drew a simple map on a sheet of my notebook, made sure I had my expedition-weight gear strapped to the seat behind me, and told me to take it slow. Which is how I went off the trail. Slowly.
I have some survival supplies_
_I’m carrying a few chemical warmers, a couple of Kit Kat bars, two butane lighters, three paper towels for starting a fire, and a small pocketknife. Riding is such work that I’m only wearing a Cabela’s anorak and lightly insulated bibs over wool long johns. Thank God I also have the heavier duds, a Northern Outfitters parka and bibs. I’m sweating at the moment from the brief hike down to the machine. Sweat isn’t merely inconvenient here. It kills, freezing you fast once you stop and turning you into a Popsicle. I read somewhere how early polar explorers thought the Eskimos lazy, when in fact they simply understood the dangers of sweat. Even thinking feels strangely tiring. I stop for a moment, take a rest. But that doesn’t help, either. So I force myself to resume, to add to the list of things I know.
I’ll get a lot colder before I get warm_
_There are two reasons for this. Night is one. But more immediately troubling is the fact that in order to put on my expedition gear, I first have to take this stuff off. That means stripping to my long johns, removing my enormous mittens and even my boots. The discomfort is bad enough. The increased risk of frostbite is worse.
I need to get a fire going_
_It will help Marty locate me, and it’ll beat back the darkness, which I’m starting to fear as much as the cold. I’m on a hillside studded with dwarf spruce trees, many of which look dead or at least pretty dry. That’s good, but I’d give anything for a multitool with a saw blade instead of a blade more suited to peeling grapes. Serves him right, I hear someone saying. Heading out no better prepared than a child. The bigger concern is that I need to get the fire going the first time. I’ve already learned that lighters don’t light in subzero cold. The butane doesn’t atomize or something. I’ve taken to carrying one of the two that are always with me in the pocket closest to the heat of my crotch. But I’ll have to take off my mitts for the moment of truth–turning the striker wheel. I learned the first day here that you have about 15 seconds–and that’s with liner gloves, not bare skin–before your fingers cease carrying out orders from your brain. What was it Marty said? Something about how if part of you gets cold and then feels warm not to trust it. You’re not really warm, he said. It means your body, in its wisdom, has decided not to continue wasting warm blood on an extremity that has shown itself incapable of using the resource effectively.
Your body says, in effect, “O.K., we’re not sending any more blood to Mr. Nose.”
It’s at this moment that the raven flies over. I am standing there dumbly, trying to remember my own list, wondering what key things I might have forgotten or overlooked, when I hear it. There is the unmistakable wheshk, wheshk, wheshk of down-stroking wings. It’s louder than feathers beating empty air ought to be, and the only sound I’ve heard besides the wind since my machine stalled. I look up and see it, bigger than a normal raven, vectoring in on me. It is at once both full of intention and in no particular hurry. The entire world shrinks to the approaching black bird and me. As it pulls even with me, it dips briefly, then climbs back to its former altitude. And it lets fall a world-weary croonnnk.
The raven’s shadow slides over the snow at my feet and on down the hill, a semaphore from the next world. The appearance of the bird, the dip, the cry–all of these fall within acceptable parameters of bird behavior. But the sliding shadow unleashes a jolt of pure terror. With the sudden clarity that descends at threshold moments, I understand its call. The raven’s mind is not that different from yours or mine. The call is an oral reminder, a raven’s Post-it note: Check back here in the morning to see if this man has become carrion yet.
You’re going to be O.K., I tell myself. You’re in no immediate danger. It would be stupid to try to walk anywhere because you’re already exhausted, not to mention lost. You don’t need to get more lost. Marty will come looking for you when he gets back to the cabin. I try to avoid the fact that my survival is totally dependent on Marty. It’s not that I lack confidence in him. He is almost ridiculously competent. But even Marty is subject to mishaps, and if anything should happen to him, I’ll die here. And what I really try to avoid is my own growing awareness of what friendly terms life and death are on here, how easily things slide from the one state to the other. Except it’s a one-way slide. Best not to think too hard on that at the moment.
No Country for Cold Men
My first impression of Marty when we meet at the Fairbanks airport is that he doesn’t make a good first impression. He’s 47 years old, maybe 5-9, and medium-stocky. He has an unruly full beard and a head of shaggy red hair running to gray. His eyes, magnified by glasses, make him look a little goofy. Wearing a battered Carhartt jacket and beat-up boots, he is leaning against a counter and shooting the breeze with a friend who is also meeting someone from “the outside,” as Alaskans refer to the Lower 48
At first glance, I’m thinking he could be the guy who fixes the vending machines in a bowling alley in Dubuque. We shake hands, pile into his truck, and drive through the night on a snow-slick highway to his home in Two Rivers, a town 25 miles outside Fairbanks. When I ask how he came to live in Two Rivers, he shrugs.
“Fairbanks”–a town of 35,000–“is just too crowded,” he says.
The next morning we are standing in the snow-covered field behind his two-story cabin readying his little Super Cub. Marty checks the engine block heater he plugged in a couple of hours ago and kicks the ice from the plane’s skis. I notice he’s working over a wad of chewing tobacco, which he hadn’t done last night at the airport, or on the drive back here. He does something to the propeller, tugs at guy wires to various parts of the wings, and unhooks the engine block heater. I ask if he chews often. “Only when I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m always excited when I’m headed to the bush.”
Giving a test tug to a bungee securing the front half of a plastic rifle scabbard to a wing strut, he seems satisfied that it will hold. In the scabbard rests a battered .358 Norma Mag, the go-to rifle that he calls the Bonecrusher. He only uses half of the scabbard because that’s sufficient to protect the rifle in flight. The other half would be just an extra pound of plastic. In a land without roads to its most interesting places, the small plane fills the role the SUV occupies elsewhere. In a land without runways, a pilot lives and dies by the power-to-weight ratio of his aircraft. That’s why Marty loves his 1937 Super Cub–of which only a rivet or two of the original aircraft remains. He says the Super Cub is unrivaled for its ability to take off and land “on a bug fart.” Being somewhat obsessive, he has further modified his by stripping the extra stuff: the radio, the electrical system, the heater, and the original windows. He had his brother, Stitch, who works on planes professionally and lives next door, install the thinnest Plexiglas windows that would pass inspection. He uses a handheld, battery-powered radio in the plane, and the only heat onboard is the windshield defroster. You get the feeling that Marty would yank off the landing gear and flaps if he thought he could steer and land without them.
I scrunch my toes inside my boots. They are already numb despite two charcoal heating pads in each.
I recall the famous line about how there are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. I’d be worried flying with Marty if he were younger. But he’s been at it for almost 20 years, and he’d have screwed up terminally long ago if he were reckless. Nevertheless, there’s a glint of wildness in his eyes that his glasses can’t hide. On a hunch I ask what kind of car he drove growing up in Wisconsin. “Just an old 1970 Torino,” he says. “But I dropped a 429 Ford Cobra Jet in it.” He says the speedometer only went up to 120, but one night on the highway he passed a buddy in a 454 Chevelle. The Chevelle’s speedometer went up to 140. Marty smiles at the memory. “He told me he’d had the needle buried when I passed him.” He spits tobacco juice into the snow. “You about ready?”
Just to verify that they are in fact without feeling, I scrunch my toes again. “Yep,” I lie.
Now that Marty shares his cabin with his wife, Dominique, and their beautiful toddler, Noah Jane, he commutes to the bush. But he still spends more time there than not. From November through March, he traps. From April through October he works as a smokejumper, one of an elite group that parachutes in to remote areas all over the U.S. to fight fires, sometimes for weeks at a time. His specialty is rigging cargo, much of it on pallets that get dropped in. It’s demanding, dangerous work. It’s also good money, which is handy, because nobody strikes it rich these days trapping.
With his breath pluming in the minus-30 air, Marty does a final walk around the tiny airplane. Then we shuffle into the heated garage to say good-bye to Dominique. She gives Marty a kiss, then puts her face close to mine. “Remember what I’m saying to you right now,” she says. “Never leave the cabin without a lighter and some paper in your pocket. You got that?”
I nod, feeling like a third grader. In time, I will wonder if Dominique saw something in my demeanor that Marty didn’t. And I will thank her for having spoken to me this way.
Marty and I are airborne almost as soon as he applies power. The skis lift off the snow, the engine buzzes like an angry mosquito, and then we’re at 1,500 feet, basking in some toasty minus-25-degree air. I’m bundled up: parka, bibs, moon boots, and mittens the size of boxing gloves. The cockpit is so cramped I can barely turn my head, and the engine noise precludes conversation beyond a shouted word or two. The defroster clears the windshield, but the side windows are iced over. It’s like sitting inside a loud refrigerator being transported cross-country on a hand truck. When Marty makes a downward stabbing motion and shouts, “Moose!” I gently scrape at the window with the back of a mitten, trying to clear the Plexiglas, but he waves me off. “Easy, Bill!” he shouts. “You blow out a pane, gonna be real cold in here!”
I decide to pass on the moose viewing for now.
Welcome to the Bush
Marty’s path in life took a sharp left turn when he was 7 years old and his father took him outside their house in northern Wisconsin to check the trapline he ran. “It was all just so cool, is what I remember,” Marty says. “Being on snowshoes in the woods on a snowshoe trail. Coming up to a trap and the anticipation that you might have caught something. And, of course, the animals themselves. I already knew how cool they were–wild and out there in the woods and somehow surviving. And the idea that you could get to understand them, that you could learn their habits and tracks, where they liked to go, and that you could catch them–that completely got me. I knew right then what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
He would have become a trapper in Wisconsin, except there were too many people and too few animals. He came to Alaska as countless young men do each year: a few years out of high school with no money and less knowledge of what he was getting into. He slept in by-the-week motels or on the floors of friends’ houses. He worked as a logger, construction laborer, and janitor so he could buy traps and a tent and hire bush transports to drop him off for his first forays into the bush. Marty says he’s gone over the same trails thousands of times now but still finds each day different.
After two hours pass in the cockpit, the plane’s skis slap snow in a small clearing along a frozen river. I have an urgent need to pee, so while Marty unloads and cranks up the snow machine he keeps under a tarp at the edge of the strip, I take off my mitts to begin undoing the relevant three zippers. Within 15 seconds, however–by which time I’m halfway through undoing the second glove–my fingers dissociate themselves from me. They’re attached to my hands but they aren’t mine. Then comes the pain, as if they’re being crushed in a vise. This kind of cold is outside my frame of reference. It’s not about discomfort. It’s about what’s physically possible. I can wait to pee. I can wait until we get back to Fairbanks if I have to.
I stand on the back of the sled and hang on to its posts, legs braced against my duffel, as we take the short, cold ride to the cabin, which sits in a grove of alders. Surrounding it are outbuildings housing snowmobiles, gas, tools, extra food, and other supplies. A dozen or so marten–like mink but a little bigger, brown, and with paler heads and underparts–hang from a beam between two trees. It’s Marty’s catch from three days ago, and each animal is frozen in the twisted posture it assumed when thrown into the sled he tows. Larger predators don’t eat his catch when it hangs outside the cabin because of the lingering human scent. “They won’t risk taking one unless they’re starving,” he says. Lynx, he adds, are “bunny specialists,” their numbers rising and falling with rabbit populations. They have huge feet that allow them to stay atop even lightly crusted snow. Marten eat squirrels and smaller rodents, especially voles, as well as carrion. The two species don’t compete directly, Marty says, and yet they’re never abundant at the same time. This year, for example, has been much better than average for lynx, but only so-so for marten.
Moose antlers are strewn around the campsite. A large cardboard box by the door contains raw lynx skulls. It’s a startling sight: maybe 70 heads, all teeth and eye sockets and strips of red tissue still clinging to the cheekbones. “I get two or three bucks each from a guy in town,” he says. “I think they end up on a website called Skulls Unlimited.”
A large thermometer on the cabin wall reads minus 37. He pushes the door open, and as my eyes adjust to the dimness the first thing I see is a revolver hanging upside down on a nail by its trigger guard over Marty’s bunk. It’s situated so the barrel points toward the other bunk, where I’ll be sleeping.
“That thing loaded?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “That’s my trouble gun–a .454 Casull.”
Up here, when trouble comes calling, an unloaded gun is the more dangerous thing to have in the cabin. Marty tells me not to worry: Bears are almost all hibernating in January. This time of year, trouble is more likely to come in the form of a moose on the trail. Moose use the trails for the same reason Marty does, ease of movement. But they get ornery in late January, he says, because they’re tired of the winter and running out of browse. A lot of times they don’t want to cede the trail to a snow machine, and even when they do they’ll sometimes get mad all over again afterward and chase after you. “You never want to break down on a machine,” he says. “But you really don’t want to with a moose on your ass.”
At this moment, I find myself experiencing the strange nature of modern travel, whereby it’s possible to arrive so quickly in a place that operates by such different rules that you can’t quite make sense of it. I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is not just an out-of-the-way place. This is a different kind of reality, a place where death slips in through the narrowest of openings–a lost glove, a minor mechanical problem, a wrong turn.
While the stove slowly drives the cold from the cabin, Marty talks as he pulls out caribou steaks for dinner. He says that frozen creeks are a good way to get around, but that one constant danger associated with them is overflow–the insidious layer of water pushed up by the pressure of the ever increasing weight of the ice above. The water lies unseen beneath snow…until you walk or drive into it. If it’s more than a few inches deep and you’re any distance from home, you can freeze to death in a hurry.
Then Marty gives me the lowdown on Alaskan cold:
At 20 below: It’s business as usual for a trapper. Wiggle your toes in your bunny boots, and make sure you have your hood up when running on the snow machine to prevent frostbite.
At 30 below: Pretty much the same deal. Marty will still fly if he believes he can find warmer air up top, which is usually doable. “Nothing fun happens above 500 feet,” he says. “I like to see critters and tracks. And I prefer gloves when flying. Better feel for the plane. But at minus 30, I’m wearing mitts.”
At 40 below: He reconsiders whether he really needs to leave the cabin. “You might be fine. But the thing is, once you even start getting cold, it’s hard to get any warmth back at minus 40.” And things start to change. Gas doesn’t flow the same. Marty carries a .22 mag rifle to dispatch troublesome trapped animals because a regular .22 bullet “just sorta falls out the end of the barrel.” For the same reason, he doesn’t like semiauto anything.
At 50 below: You’re looking at an entirely different beast now. “If anything goes wrong, it’s bad. Period. I don’t go much farther than the woodpile those days.” Snow machines, even if you can get them started, tend to flood or stall. There is absolutely no mercy at minus 50. Your urine rattles when it hits the ground.
Marty seems happy and at home here, bustling about the cabin, cranking up the propane that powers a light. After we clean the dishes, I prepare myself for a dreaded but necessary visit to the outhouse. Once I’m there, I arrange myself to expose the absolute minimum amount of skin. But when I finally sit down, I am amazed to find that the seat is instantly warm. This just happens to be one of the miracle properties of the extruded polystyrene foam we know as Styrofoam. The outhouse seat is 2 full inches of the stuff carefully whittled to the appropriate shape. It is genius.
“Man, that Styrofoam is awesome!” I tell Marty upon my return. “Who knew?”
Then, as I fall into sleep in my bag, I nevertheless remind myself of the need to be careful. Don’t be blinded by the false miracle of the toilet seat, I tell myself. There is precious little luck in this place. And less forgiveness.
A Self-Taught Loner
The next day Marty and I go for a short ride to get me used to the snow machine. He instructs me in the rudiments of riding–how to lean, how to absorb bumps with your knees. Even in this cold, I’m soon shedding layers.
It strikes me that what separates Marty from an uncountable number of other dreamers who pour into Alaska every summer is simply this: He refused to give up. Each time he encountered another obstacle, he set about overcoming it and never doubted that he could. When he realized that life out here depended on snow machines and chain saws, he taught himself enough mechanical skill to fix both. He learned carpentry so he could build cabins. He learned welding and electrical skills. He picked up a working knowledge of wildlife biology, of predicting where an animal will or won’t go, by studying the critters and their tracks. When he realized he’d eventually go broke paying for air charters, he set to work learning to fly. By his own admission, he is not a particularly good shot, doesn’t seem to be able to sharpen a knife without grinding it halfway to nothing, and is a lousy businessman. But he’s good at being alone, and he doesn’t give up easily.
The hardest part of being out here, though, is readjusting to society. “You get ‘bushy’ is what it is,” Marty says. “You get so you can’t have people around you.” In the bush, for example, if something moves, you focus on it instantly. In society, everything seems to move all the time. He tells me about once going straight from a few months in the bush to a grocery store, having a guy walk behind him down an aisle, and “just freaking out.” He left the store without buying anything. Another time, waiting at a counter at the post office, he saw a female clerk approaching and could not stop his feet from backing up to expand the distance between them. “It was just something I felt I needed to do at the time.”
The Moment of Truth _
_You really need to get that fire going. I need it primarily to keep my mind occupied, to stop fixating on just how alone and helpless I am, on how quickly my body, with the help of the raven and all kinds of other creatures, would be reabsorbed into the ecosystem. I need it to stave off that shadow sliding over the snow.
The chemical warmers in my mittens are stiff. I can’t tell if my hands are cold or not, but a stiff hand warmer is a spent hand warmer. To use my lighter, I’ll need to remove the mittens–huge things that reach nearly to my elbows and are snapped to a keeper cord running behind my neck. I try digging down to bare ground with a stick to clear a base, but it doesn’t work. Snow remains in the matted mosses and grasses beneath. Instead I lay a thick base of green boughs and begin gathering three times as much tinder, kindling, and fuel wood as I think I’ll need. Lower branches of most trees are fine for tinder and kindling–dry and easily broken off. But fuel requires whole trees, none of which are much thicker than my wrist. These I break by grabbing the trunk as high up as possible and then swinging on them, using my weight to bend and, hopefully, break them. It’s exhausting work. I kneel, fish out my paper towels and tear off two sheets, reserving the third in case of failure. I build my tepee of tinder and kindling, place broken lengths of bigger wood beside it. It’s time.
I transfer the lighter from its pocket to the inside of my right mitten and finger the striker, rehearsing the movement. You don’t want to waste time, but you don’t want to rush it either. It works on the first try. The paper catches, the tinder -crackles. The problem is that the spruce burns like gunpowder, done almost as soon as it’s lit. I pile bigger pieces on and go looking for more. Within 20 minutes, it becomes clear that if I’m to stay warm tonight, it will be the physical activity of keeping the fire going that does it, not the fire itself. And I know I don’t have the juice to do that all night.
It’s about 3 p.m. now. I’m two hours in, with two hours until dark. I’ve eaten a Kit Kat. I’m very thirsty and wishing I had a metal cup to melt snow for water. I’m not especially cold, but it’s better to bite the bullet now and put on my heavier duds. The stripping down and exposure to the cold in socks and a single layer of long johns are as bad as I’d feared, and it takes a while before my body is capable of generating enough heat to derive any benefit from the insulated clothing I’ve just put on. I find myself thinking of my daughter, Emma. I want to see her again. I want to hear her laugh again.
I wouldn’t mind stretching out by the fire, just for a bit. I’ve been doing nothing but gather wood since I built it. It probably wouldn’t go out entirely, and then I could stoke it again. But even in my reduced consciousness I know that this is not the smart choice. And now I’m nearly crying at how badly I want to see Emma grow up. My fear of the dark flares up again. You’re being stupid. Worrying about what hasn’t even happened yet. But the darkness, I know, will drive home the reality of how alone, remote, and helpless I am in ways I can keep at bay during daylight. Darkness is when the sentries of the mind drop their guard. Fire or no fire.
How will Marty find me? I note with a sinking feeling how the smoke from the fire doesn’t rise. It heads directly downhill, as if an invisible hand were pushing it down and herding it along the ground into irrelevance. And even if I could build up a big flame, it wouldn’t be visible for any distance with all the trees blocking the view. I’m on autopilot now, trudging ever farther along the path to break and carry back trees and parts of trees. The light is dimming now. I have fears of a moose stumbling across me and getting pissed that I didn’t ask permission before trespassing. I’m scared that a bear may smell the fire and come to investigate. Bears, I remember reading somewhere, aren’t true hibernators. Their temperature only drops a few degrees and since their sleep is not particularly deep, they may be fairly easily roused. By woodsmoke, for example, or the smell of a man. Could a bear tell by the way I smell that I’m unarmed and vulnerable? I doubt a bear would consent to giving me time to drop my mitts and open my pocketknife just to make things more interesting. A hungry bear probably doesn’t stand on ceremony. As the dimness grows, these thoughts and other distortions elbow their way to the front of the line outside the box office of the mind.
The Long, Painful Journey Back
A little after dark, as I’m resolving to take the night one load of wood at a time, I hear a fly buzzing. I’m standing by the fire, pondering how I have to walk a bit farther each time I seek wood. Then the sound dies. I lumber back into the darkness, which is not yet full. I’m saving my headlamp for emergencies. The batteries won’t last long in this cold anyway. The buzzing returns. I’m afraid to hope. If it’s not a snow machine, the disappointment will be too much to bear. But now the buzzing grows. It is a snow machine. I see its headlight crest a rise below me in the distance. I’m saved.
Marty is all up-tempo and good humor. “Well, I see you got a fire going, Bill!” He claps me on the shoulder. “You O.K., buddy?”
I tell him yes, just beat.
Marty will later tell me that he knew I was lost when he saw my tracks going straight when I should have turned. At that point, he was at least two hours behind me, long enough for me to have covered a good bit of ground. While he suspected that I wouldn’t be able to hold to the trail going up into the high country, there was a slim chance that I could. The danger in that case was that I could end up even farther from camp and be that much harder to find. Having limited fuel and a sled full of fur, he’d decided to race to the cabin, gas up, unload the animals, and carry spare gas in the sled in case I needed it. The prudent thing was to plan for the worst, which meant heading to where I would have come out in the event I’d been able to stay on the trail. Only after having raced there and seen no tracks did he circle back to where I’d made my wrong turn and follow the tracks I’d made.
Marty’s headlamp is blinding me. He has his face right in mine as he continues his upbeat banter.
Later he will tell me he was checking for frostbite. I like hearing his voice. It does what he intends it to do: It makes me feel like everything will be all right. It makes me want to keep it together when in reality I’m so exhausted and so relieved that I want to sob. He says the fastest way home is to keep going up rather than backtrack, but that the trail has a few steep spots before it levels out again. I nod. I’m an infant now. I’ll do as I’m told.
He plods down to my machine, rights it, and starts the engine. He stands to one side, gunning it and pushing at the same time. He grunts and the snow machine rises up and returns to the path like a dog obeying its master. Later I will learn that Marty can bench 350 pounds and that to qualify for the annual physical for the smokejumpers, he has to run either 1.5 miles in nine minutes 30 seconds, or 3 miles in 22 minutes. I get back on my machine, but Marty remembers that its headlight doesn’t work. He has to move both machines around so he can switch the sled to the one I was riding. He has a good headlamp, he says. All I have to do is follow him home.
The trail gets much steeper. I fall off within 30 yards and stick the machine in a drift. Up ahead, I see Marty’s headlamp stop moving, then start coming my way. He walks down, again picks up my machine, and sets it back on the path. I fall off 50 yards later. He does it all over again. We come to a part of the trail that is even steeper. I tell Marty I can’t ride this, that it’s easier if he rides it up and I walk up. And it is. I would much rather walk than ride the damn machine another inch. I am exhausted. Every part of my body hurts. Marty rides my machine past his to the top of the hill. Walking back down to his as I’m walking up, he shines his lamp in my face again.
“Camp’s not far, Bill,” he says cheerily. “You O.K.? Warm enough?”
I nod and keep going. He steps off the trail into the snow to let me pass. The steep part is so steep that even he can’t get up it pulling the empty sled. He unhitches the sled and rides the machine up, then hikes back down to push the sled up. I hear him grunting with each step. I turn my head and see the bobbing white dot of his headlamp below me. That poor bugger. What a trouper. Somebody ought to go down and help that man. I am no longer in the running as an asset, as a somebody. I’m cargo now–no more use than a dead lynx.
We still have to run almost an hour to get back to camp, but Marty wisely lies to me each time I ask how far it is: “Oh, about 20 minutes or so.” Even though the trail is almost flat, I keep falling off at the slightest bump. I am a sack of potatoes. Marty keeps pushing or pulling my machine back onto the trail. Along one straight part, I lose my hat. When he next stops to check me over, he asks where it is. “Back there,” I mumble. “It came off.” I don’t want him to go back. I don’t care about the hat. I’ve got a hood that will protect me. I could be dropping hundred-dollar bills every 5 feet and I would not want to stop and have him go back to retrieve them. All I want is the cabin, warmth, a place to lie down. He goes back for my hat.
Finally, about the time I am imagining that I hear bagpipe music, the cabin comes into view. Inside, Marty lights a propane lamp, stokes the stove, and rustles up some stew, hot tea, and a slug of Scotch. It’s all I can do to crawl the 5 feet from the table to my sleeping bag. “I was starting to get a little worried about you out there, Bill,” he says brightly, as if he himself is surprised at the notion, and as if the idea of my actually being in danger was an outlandishly remote possibility that nearly came to pass. Which is probably how you want to tell a man in my condition that you were worried about him. To acknowledge that something has just happened, without saying it could have turned out any way other than happily.
I murmur, “Thank you, Marty,” mean it, and fall into an endless drift of sleep.