my first hunt

Mount Hayes and the Tanana River

My first grouse

Birch wood for the sauna

The allure of a rustic little cabin in a middle-of-nowhere birch forest, nestled below the Alaska Range and above one of the largest glacial fed rivers in the world, was just too much for me. Combined with five Alaska Husky-German Shepherd puppies that I’d helped give birth to, plus 15 adult sled dogs that I’d grown to love, there was no looking back. No matter that I was miles from nowhere, or that the cabin didn’t have indoor plumbing. There was a wood-fired sauna, instead. And the thought of sweating the night away in that, after a day of forty-below winter cold, sounded all right. Regardless that the package came with an all or nothing unsound relationship.

The promise of adventure and aesthetic beauty does strange things to a person. When I first arrived in Alaska it was three o’clock in the morning and the sun was still on the horizon. In the days to come I cooked outside on an open fire because we didn’t have a stove. I roasted garlic and made raspberry jam and fry bread. When fall came I hunted grouse and picked cranberries and made a sauce to go with the bird. When I slit open the bird there was still a berry in its throat. Everything was like that–visceral. A person’s senses couldn’t help but be stunned.

I had a neighbor that fed me strawberry-rhubarb wine, homemade; told me stories about moose calves drowning as they crossed the current in the Tanana; and had the largest Louis L’amour collection I’d ever seen. He seemed to me like the last real thing.

One day when I was out walking the dogs on a trail in the woods, I got chased by a cow moose that the dogs had stirred up. As I hid behind a tree that I contemplated climbing, the dogs outran the moose and I was left in a stand-off with the 800-pound animal. I knew the biggest danger was getting kicked–for a dog it could have been in the head, shattering an eye socket or the skull; for a human maybe the rib cage. My adrenaline was pumping mach ten, and I eventually shooed it off and made my way back up the trail.

Those were the kinds of things I thought about, though. Day in and day out. And for me, that’s hands down the best thing about going somewhere else: you revitalize your senses and see the world anew. You become an outsider, required to learn from your inexperience. And you are vulnerable.

It’s a double-edged sword, though, because in vulnerable situations you often compromise your personal well-being. You trade running dogs during a full moon about to burst at the seams for personal turmoil. A journey on one hand, disregard on the other. It’s the stuff of life, though. Maybe a rite of passage.

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