Flying to the Alaskan Circle
Flying to the Alaskan Circle. Field & Stream Online Editors

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**Starve or Freeze **
The Gwich’in say that the far north is where a man has room to dream, but by early November, Heimo had almost exhausted the local supply of grouse and rabbits and was running dangerously low on macaroni and flour, and he was dreaming of food. He had shot and wounded a small bull moose in October nearly 10 miles from the cabin. He tracked it late into the day but never found it, and only then did he realize that he was too far from the cabin to hike back in the dark. Instead of taking the chance of getting lost in unfamiliar country, he built a lean-to and spent the night with only a fire and the clothes on his back to keep him warm.

His efforts to bag a bear were also unsuccessful, and the area moose fled when a pack of wolves moved in. He thought his luck had changed when he discovered a large patch of rose hips just southeast of a big bend in the river, no more than a half mile from the cabin. He knew that for the early Gwich’in, rose hips were a source of vitamin C, and a constant one since rose hips stay on the bush all winter long. He was craving vitamin C, and he stood right in the middle of the patch feeding like a grizzly. It was 36 below. Taking off his mittens, he picked and ate the frozen rose hips until his fingers were too cold to move. That night he awakened with the worst gastrointestinal problems of his life, and spent much of the night in the outhouse in temperatures that had fallen to 45 below. Days later he was still sick and weak and unable to hunt.

By the second week of November, he knew he had to do something drastic. He had heard stories of trappers starving to death in their cabins, and he had already experienced two of the symptoms of severe hunger-mental fuzziness and lethargy. He was hunting and splitting wood constantly now, and he didn’t have enough food to replace the calories he was burning at 30 and 40 below. But to give up, he knew, was a death sentence. He might as well take his .44 magnum and put it to his head and end it quickly.

Desperately low on food, he decided to walk 15 miles upriver where he knew there was a cabin. He hoped that perhaps he’d find a stockpile of flour or spaghetti or beans, something to carry him through the winter.

He was walking on the river, carrying a backpack and pulling a sled loaded with his sleeping bag, rifle, and shotgun, and what remained of his food, when he failed to recognize bad ice. He fell through, flung his arms out and caught himself, lucky not to have been sucked under by the quick current. Soaked from the chest down, he crawled on top of the ice and only then did (Continued from page 76) he realize that he’d lost his sled. Somehow his rifle and sleeping bag had fallen out before it went under, but everything else was gone, including his food. He was 3 miles from the main cabin.

Heimo ran as fast as he could, and when he reached the cabin, he was in luck: The fire was still burning in the stove. He hung his sleeping bag near the stove to dry, and then he shed all his clothes and wrapped himself in a blanket. He sat next to the stove until late afternoon, shivering, still too cold to move more than a few feet from the heat. Even though he resisted it, one persistent thought kept entering his head-What are my chances?-and he was forced to contemplate what 20-year-olds should never have to consider-death.

**One Last Chance **
That night, lying in his bunk, he resolved to try to signal a plane. The following day, he stood out on a snowy gravel bar, hoping that a plane would fly by. His odds were next to nothing. In late summer, planes in the remote interior are common sights, carrying hunters to and from camp, but in November they are rare. Heimo sat on the gravel bar until the sun set and then returned to the cabin feeling gloomy. On day two, he repeated his vigil but again failed to spot a pla. On day three, he was disappointed again and hungrier than he’d ever been in his life. By day four, he was sitting on the gravel bar, assessing his chances of walking out. Birch Creek was nearly 40 miles, a trip that under normal circumstances, he could make. But now he was weak with hunger and he’d have to break trail the entire way.

To his amazement, early in the afternoon he heard a distant engine, unmistakable in winter when sound is so clearly borne. Using his mirror, he desperately tried to get the pilot’s attention by angling it into the waning sun; but eventually the sound trailed off into silence. He found two packets of noodles that night that he’d tucked away in the loft, but they did little to assuage his hunger. Despair had set in.

The following morning, Heimo woke determined to try his luck one last time. If he failed, he would attempt to shoot a few rabbits, expending as little energy as possible, then eat and rest for a few days, hoping to get back some of his strength.

He resorted to stomping out SOS in the snow, an effort he recognized was so futile that he couldn’t help laughing at himself. If he didn’t get out, he would be just another dreamy cheechako who lost his life in Alaska. He cut spruce boughs and laid them in the troughs that formed the letters, hoping that a pilot might recognize the blue-green outline of the letters against the white snow. He had just finished the S and the O, when once again he heard a plane.

John Peterson, who was trapping out of Fort Yukon, had asked a pilot who flew the Fort Yukon to Fairbanks run to check on Heimo. When his flight from Fort Yukon to Fairbanks was empty, the pilot made good on his promise. Using a map that Peterson had given him, the pilot flew over the cabin. Heimo was carrying an armful of boughs when he spotted the plane. He dropped the boughs and as he described it, “started to go crazy,” jumping up and down and trying to remember the land-to-air signals that were noted on the back of his hunting license.

When the pilot didn’t acknowledge him, Heimo ran to the end of the gravel bar and frantically stomped out PIC ME. He was beginning the U of UP when the pilot tipped his wings, indicating that he understood. Since he was flying a big commuter plane and couldn’t land, the pilot radioed John Peterson in Fort Yukon. Peterson, who’d flown the greenhorn in three months earlier and had developed a fondness for him, was glad to come and get Heimo. Fort Yukon was only 70 miles away, and by late afternoon, on that same day, Heimo was in town.

**Broke but Alive **
In Fort Yukon, Heimo sold what fur he’d managed to trap. He’d been so busy feeding himself that he’d had little time or energy for trapping, so his catch amounted to nothing more than a weasel, a few muskrats, and a half dozen marten. The Fort Yukon fur buyer only gave him $90 for his winter catch, but Heimo was so happy just to be alive that he didn’t care.

In a letter to his friend Jim Krzymarcik, written on notecards, Heimo provided more details of his first months on the river and his brush with death: _Sorry I didn’t write sooner but when you live out in the bush you don’t come in contact with humans too much…. The first week was hell living by myself…but now I would not want to live in town…. I’m not in the bush no more because I lost everything I had. Food, axes, etc. And almost lost my life…. I got about 3 miles from the home cabin and had to cross the river…I started to cross and broke through…Fell in up to my chin and the current almost pulled me under the ice…. I don’t know how I pulled myself out. So I got out and it was 44 below and I ran 3 miles back to the home cabin. Almost passed out the last half mile. My skin was a real dark blue. One eyelid froze shut. I am very lucky I’m alive. So now I’m in Fort Yukon. Lost all I owned and don’t know what to do. But will not go back to Wis. I got this wilderness blood in me now and no way will I go back. He signed this letter “Heimo the Alaskan bush trapper, guide, packer, and mountain man” and included the tail feathers of one of the spruce grouse he’d shot. _

_Postscript: After six years alone, Heimo married. He is now entering his 29th year in Arctic Alaska, where he and his wife, Edna, are raising their two teenage daughters._ck to Wis. I got this wilderness blood in me now and no way will I go back. He signed this letter “Heimo the Alaskan bush trapper, guide, packer, and mountain man” and included the tail feathers of one of the spruce grouse he’d shot. _

Postscript: After six years alone, Heimo married. He is now entering his 29th year in Arctic Alaska, where he and his wife, Edna, are raising their two teenage daughters.