Posted by: gmelvin | September 7, 2014

Gone With the Wind (story format)…

     A moment of indecisiveness delayed the venture that morning, but a final text quickly keyed my neurons that it was really happening. A moose hunt. Previous plans for the hunt got delayed by infrequent cancellations, but I was ready to go. My hands immediately grabbed the outdoor backpack, and I began rummaging through my supplies. I’ve never been out this far, but I was told I’d surely find a moose. Going one-way to the river was an estimated 3-4 hour trip by some. A few quoted just several hours. Supposedly, however, this river would have frequent visits by moose. To get there, we would ride across the valley beyond the three or four mountains standing just north of our village. I’ve never traveled out that far over tundra, especially on a trip that had no discernible trails. I crammed some loose food pieces, and filled several bottles of water. Tarp – yep. Knives and bags – yep. Extra food – certainly. Thirty minutes later – I was out the door.

     The Agiapuk River (some may call it the American River – correct me if I’m wrong) lies some 9-10 miles north by northeast from the village. It’s supposed to be a large stream that’s easily navigable by four-wheeler. It’s sorta like California Creek, which sits several miles west of the village, and is more of a popular trip. Before I left, I quickly looked over the weather forecast. It called for some precipitation, but not much. Southwest winds. I did a final check outside and could clearly see the mountains (even though a high overcast existed). Everything looked good.

     The teacher who accompanied me had traveled some long distances and trails this summer, and she was willing to come along for the ride and moose meat. Our first stop carried us on top on one of the small mountains just north of the village. And by small…I mean ‘very small’ with a relatively smooth top. I had frequented the trail several time before, but I never rode it last year. We paused up there, and I pointed out a large lake that would be used as our first landmark point to find the river. We were currently directly south of that lake. Once we would reach the left edge of the lake (west side), we would drive northeast until we met the river. If done correctly, we would arrive just in front of the river’s fork. Several, low lying clouds did stretch over parts of the valley below. I then looked for a particular mountain top across the valley that I would use as a second reference point when riding on the tundra. It was covered in clouds at the time, but I saw they would move away once we reached the tundra floor.

      We drove down the mountain. Five or ten minutes after passing the base, we rode by an odd looking rock graveyard of sorts. Completely natural in appearance, but completely out of place on the tundra floor. It was a conversation starter. We soon reached the left edge of the lake, and then turned to a north by northeast direction. I still could not see the mountain used as a second reference point, but several other features around the horizon easily gave me good direction. It eventually appeared. Moving on forward, we drove through a number of large blue berry and salmon berry patches. They reminded me of a promise I made earlier to go out berry picking – still need to do that. Overall, the ride was not as rough as I had expected. While it still required you to stand up on the four-wheeler during the ride, it wasn’t always necessary.

photo 4

     To our surprise, we reached the river in just over two hours after leaving Brevig. Great time. We had a brief moment of feeling like pioneers in the “old” days, following directions to a place unknown in a world without road signs or automobiles. The ride had went much smoother than anticipated, and nearly all my concerns about the trip faded away. I then maneuvered my four-wheeler between several clumps of willows off the river bank, taking a bit of care not to tip it over as the ground got frustratingly uneven.

     The river spread out wide and long, and had some of the most natural rocks I’ve ever seen. We even found several volcanic rocks on the riverbed. Fast, clear running water made the picture even better, and I took note to drink from the stream if needed (cutting a moose is quite a bit of work). I also had fun predicting the most shallow crossings for our four-wheelers. It’s simply a hobby of mine, but it’s often useful when the water is high. Looking at the flow speed, the surface appearance of the water (ripples versus smooth), flow direction, color and hue, type of gravel (or dirt) on the riverbed, the river width, noticing the patterns of small gravel bar locations as the river turned, the angle of turn, and more could tell you loads of information about what to expect when crossing the stream. But before riding downstream too far, I built a small rock marker to identify where we should return back on the tundra.

     Having the wind mostly behind us, and going downstream, made for an easy ride. About thirty minutes into the ride, my eye caught something in the distance. We stopped, and watched as three large (but indistinguishable) animals ran on the mountain side. Musk ox? They had whitish patch of hair on their backs, which would fit the animal. Also, we couldn’t quite tell if they were coming at us or away. Still not sure – I grabbed my binoculars and saw they were three bears running away from us. I just watched in amazement at the wild animals, not taking in much account that my traveling partner might want to look. Realizing that, I handed over the binoculars. We sat there for sometime, motors off and patiently making sure they were running away from us. We never saw them anymore, but our guard heightened as we rode further downstream.

     Willows make for good hiding spots. Tundra bushes varying in height from mere feet to over your head, a bear or moose can be anywhere and clearly out of sight. We kept a close eye on our surroundings. Typically, noise from our four-wheelers would alert and sometimes move any big game animal (like the bear we previously saw) – but not always. About a week before this trip, I shot a caribou upstream on California Creek. Rather than completely running from the four-wheeler noise, he instead found a willow patch and sat down (mostly out of view). Following his antlers that stood out, he was able to be taken.

      We rode for several more hours, not seeing much other than a fantastic tundra view. I did notice the weather south of us (to my right). Mountains faded into white with the rain and increasing fog – promising a wet trip very soon. Occasionally, some precipitation would catch us on the ride, but not much. So far.

     After about an hour or more riding downstream without seeing anything, we decided to stop and turn back. Next to us, a steep slope of some elongated mountain made for some interesting wind conditions. The wind speed increased, and the drizzle that followed grew a bit annoying. We took a short break, and had an interesting talk about how chocolate chip pancakes packs as a snack on a trip that we were on. My snack was a bit better – sliced spam. I hunkered down on the leeward side of my four-wheeler, fixing my gloves that I mistakenly took off. My hands were wet, and it was a long struggle before they ever got back on the hand. I then filled up my friend’s four-wheeler with extra gas that I brought along for the trip. She had a quarter of a tank, but mine had enough to move on further. Once we tied everything back down, we turned around the four-wheelers and headed upstream.

     Then out of nowhere, I caught sight of two tall objects that looked out-of-place. Their silhouette looked like an animal, and both stood on a ridge just across the stream. Not quite able to see what I was looking at, I looked through my binoculars and saw they were moose! But the moment was short lived, as it was a mother moose with her calf. In Alaska, this would be an illegal kill.

     We paused for a bit, motors off as the momma moose looked us over. She soon started to move down the hill, and the calf eagerly followed. As she continued her walk, the pace picked up a bit and we noticed she kept coming toward us. For a moment, I took pleasure in the fact that we might see a moose up close. But only for a moment…and I realized what she might be doing. I watched her brisk walk closely, and soon realized her intentions as her feet stepped in the stream just across from us. I turned around, and told my friend to “Go! Go!” – quickly using my hands to point in the opposite direction. She turned on her machine, and made a quick 180* downstream. Momma didn’t like us, and she’s about to get physical.

     I looked back at the moose, now paused as she heard the ignition of the four-wheeler engines. Noticing I still remained, she continued her pace towards me. I quickly followed my traveling partner’s path, and took off downstream. She never looked back for awhile. I did, and saw the moose unable to keep up with us. I still continued, and kept going for about a half-mile. Seeing us speeding away, the momma moose returned across the stream and started running our way along the mountainside – but on the opposing side.

     IMG_7696

     We had another teacher several years ago who got charged by a moose while picnicking in a patch of willows. He had a nice husky dog with him, but still no one heard the animal until it was on them. He shot the moose just feet before it completed her charge. The teacher then dressed the moose on the spot, but had to give away the meat since it was an emergency kill out of season.

     My hopes of finding a moose jumped after this incident. After talking it over, we decided to go further downstream to see if a male moose was nearby. We spent 30-45 minutes looking, but to no avail. The temperature was dropping, and the lingering thought of the ride back didn’t bode too well. We turned back. Our trip now took us not only upstream, but against the wind. Wind speeds were predicted today around 20mph. About ten minutes later, we got rain. My eyeglasses got both fogged up and soaked with water, making it much harder to see. Occasionally, I found my four-wheeler washed up deeper than anticipated because of this weather. My friend was still ok for moving further upstream, so we kept pushing.

     We eventually found the marker, and I was quite thankful for placing it there. We rode up the bank, and found the path taken earlier when we left the tundra. This trail was marked by our tire tracks, but I soon lost it as we pushed deeper into the tundra. Visibility significantly worsened to a mile or less, obscuring the original landmarks that were previously used. We could not see the mountains near the village, west of the village, or even the mountains we just left. Everything was white. Predicting this might happen, I did a small search of my backpack for my compass…which happened to be missing. Next backup plan. I knew the wind was coming from the southwest. In theory, and based off that forecast, we could point our four-wheelers in that direction. We would either wind up at California Creek, or hit the mountain range just north of the village. Either outcome would be acceptable, for we would have a landmark to get back to our mountain (as long the wind stays true). After passing several small large ponds, my gut feeling took a bad turn. I didn’t quite know why, but my partner mentioned that she felt we did a u-turn somewhere at one of the large ponds.  The river behind us disappeared, and soon the ground below our wheels started looking strange. The rivets on the tundra floor were out of place (more than usual), and particular random rocks or ponds would pop up that made us think if we were traveling in circles. I soon felt the wind coming from a different direction, and couldn’t quite remember where that change took place. One side of me said wind in Alaska could change at a moment’s notice; however, my experience with riding said it has rarely changed to such a degree. Furthermore, there was no weather forecast stating such a change.

     We soon fell in the pitfall of second guessing ourselves. Did we u-turn? Why is she stopping and looking around again? Why are we randomly passing trails? Or landmarks that look strangely familiar? Why is the wind blowing a different direction? We never drove over those small rocks? The pounding realization that you’re second guessing yourself does strange things to your confidence in your own abilities. And…I believe…that’s particularly the time where you need to lose that confidence. My own confidence shifted into the Lord, and remembering that I was in his hands. I may not have known where I was going at the time, but I truely know what it’s like to walk without knowing where you’re going. I wouldn’t be a teacher if that wasn’t true. I was simply concerned over what was happening and how my traveling partner was holding up.

     A couple hours later, I saw a stream in the distance and believed it to be California Creek. But as we drew closer, I could see anything but California Creek. We arrived back at the same point where we departed the river.

     I could barely believe it was the same river. I quickly drove down the bank and went searching for the rock marker I had built earlier. Surely enough – it was there. We basically made a full 360* ride in the tundra that took several hours. My partner soon traveled down the bank, and we kinda just looked at each other. The weather was much more miserable than when we initially left. Low visibility and temperature, a good wind, and rain continued to dampen our spirits. Also, our gas was low again.

     I filled her tank up, and kept a few gallons aside for when I would need it. We had to decide whether or not to try again, or wait for the weather to get better. Only problem however…it was close to seven in the evening. It would be getting dark by the time we reached the village. Also, there’s a question on if the weather would improve. We literally had just enough gas for one more shot at the village. We did a thorough search of my backpack for the compass, but couldn’t find it. We then remembered our iPhones had a compass, and we pulled them out. It was then we noticed that our compasses varied by about 180*. Eventually, the decision was made to use mine as the primary compass. I knew the direction that the river ran, and the wind direction still corresponded with the weather forecast. My iPhone played true to these directions.

     We took the same path out of the river, and this time I put my full trust in the wind. And a little in my compass. Pulling up on a flat spot just off the river bank, we pointed the four-wheelers and had the chilly wind blow directly in our faces. It was not much sooner than we found a trail that strangely looked like ours. It even pointed in the right direction – southwest and into the wind! Taking a closer look at the trail, I could tell by how the grass laid that this was our original trail (and nobody had driven over it in the opposite direction). As we rode, the trail occasionally faded and appeared about a hundred feet later. That made me somewhat thankful for the rain, for the precipitation kept the trail intact. We would occasionally stop, and check the compass to confirm both the wind direction and how each other felt about our own direction.

     As we continued, we would sometimes find other trails pointed perpendicular to our trial. I’ll never know for sure, but we assumed that it was ours when we had second guessed ourselves earlier. After about an hour though, the trail disappeared completely and we were left to the direction of the wind. The tundra did feel right at this time, but it no longer allowed for the trails to remain as easily visible as when we had left the river.

     I remember driving that tundra with my mind literally screaming that I was heading in the wrong direction. While I was still in the wind, there wasn’t anything physical that I could see or latch onto as a reference point. We continued, and drove on more that day. My partner never stopped to check directions as before. It was then that my thoughts meandered off the lessons I learned in church as a kid. There are so many spiritual growth spurts in the scenario of being lost in the middle of nowhere. It pleased me. I chuckled with the thought on how the Bible allegorized the Holy Spirit as wind, and I understood.  We were soaked. We were cold. We did not know where we were going. My teacher friend appeared a bit worried, but she was remarkable in keeping a positive attitude in the whole outing. After a couple of more hours, we hit the large lake just south of our village mountain. And boy did that feel good!

     It just faded in softly, but I could soon see several rocks jutting above the lake surface along the shoreline. I looked down at my right, and saw the length of the lake with trails running parallel. We were at the northeast point of the lake. Seeing the other trails made me believe that I finally came to the right point! Both of us quickly followed them along the shoreline. The elation was great and lasting, but I soon came to a realization that something didn’t feel quite right. The wind was not supposed to be coming from my two o’clock position – it should have been on the opposite side. That opposite side should have been my southwest point. I stopped for a moment, and looked down at the trails for something to tell me where I was at…it never came. The wind continued from the two o’clock side of my face. I then pulled out my iPhone compass, and it also read that the wind was coming from the southwest. I asked my friend on her thoughts, and explained my concerns. She also commented that correcting the turn to the wind and compass readings felt completely off track. We paused there a few more minutes, and I just made a decision: we’ll just follow the wind as before.

     The lake soon disappeared, and once again we were in the same boat of second guessing ourselves. But the wind felt right – and that was the only thought we believe upon. I noticed a trail coming up on us. It didn’t completely point southwest, but something about it just made me feel right about taking it. I signaled that we should make a turn onto that trail, and she followed. After about twenty or more minutes though, through the fog, large silhouettes of something faded into view. They were rocks – our rock graveyard! Then a few minutes later…we were at the base of the mountain that we used to come into the valley. We made it back!

     We climbed the mountains with lights on and added caution. A trail was somewhere on the other side, and we had to find it by first reaching the top. As we pressed higher, the fog got thicker and the wind speed got worse. It was still raining. But we made it to the mountain top, and paused a moment for rest. We kinda remarked on if we were on the right mountain, but neither of us really believed it. However, at that height, we were able to text a friend in the village of our whereabouts. I also filled up her four wheeler, and finally poured some in my machine. Our ride down was a bit slow – partially because we never found the trail, we could barely see fifteen feet in front of us, and it was wet. At one moment, I had to jump off my four-wheeler to bring my partner’s wheels down a steep slope.

     We made it down in one piece, but undershot the trail we needed. We had to ride the mountain side due east to find the trail, while pointing the four-wheelers a few degrees back up the mountain. The slope was grassy and shallow, so there was no chance of suddenly dropping down. The only real danger was the tundra, for the mountain slope had very uneven slopes and angles that could quickly tip over a four-wheeler. I found myself constantly looking back at my partner to check whether or not she took a particular mound well (for I had nearly tipped).

     After about 10-15 minutes of rough riding, we hit the original trail that we had taken previously to go up the mountain. Little by little, riding on that trail along the mountain side and eventually into the village, small lights started appearing in the distance. First, the airport lights. Then a few village lights, and then all of them. It was a very beautiful sight, and we rode into a village of activity that knew nothing of our ‘short’ adventure. We drove up to the teacher duplexes, and a large group of young kids playing out in the dim light asked us where we were. I can’t quite say I paid much attention to them. I looked back at the mountains we just crossed, and saw a very low overcast that allowed a partial viewing of the mountain base.

     I walked into my house that night with my cat begging for food. After feeding him, I took a long, hot shower. I sat down on my couch, and had chocolate chip pancakes, spam, and a cup of chocolate milk. Home couldn’t have been more pleasant.

 

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