Dusk had crept silently into my midst as I plodded doggedly along the meandering creek bottom.
The mountains that stretched dauntingly to the west, an impenetrable fortress of snow, shale and sheer bluffs, had long since claimed the blazing arctic sun for their own. A failed stalk on a lumbering grizzly, once promising, had in reality been long on promise and short on time. Leaving me with precious few minutes to reach my makeshift shelter before a cloak of darkness enveloped the unforgiving Alaska wilderness. An archaic game trail that filtered down the little draw, offered the path of least resistance and was a welcome relief from a day spent calf deep in a relentless expanse of water soaked tundra.
As I neared the mouth of the creek I began to notice that an eerie hush had spread across the landscape, lifeless and foreboding. The only noise was the hollow thumping of my high strung leather boots against the frozen ground and the whisper of the buck brush grazing my fleece pants. Fresh strips of caribou velvet waived ever so gently from limbs but still nary a sound was evident. I paused momentarily and rested my rifle between my front legs, both hands gripping the end of the cold steel barrel. At that moment I realized, being hundreds of miles from civilization, I was truly alone.
Stretching my ear into the hazy, gray distance, I listened intently for any signs of life as if the smallest emanation from any living creature would bring me comfort. As if on cue, a familiar melancholy tone arose behind a thick stand of black spruce somewhere in the distance. The deep rolling call of the arctic loon is unmistakable and as it filtered through the crisp night air I couldn’t help but wonder, perhaps his cry for companionship was a product of isolation in this far off place, a sense of insignificance that only the north woods can conjure, much like I was experiencing at the same moment.
With that, I slung the little mountain rifle over my shoulder and proceeded to my tiny camp which was perched above the high water mark next to the river. As I approached I noted that it was undisturbed. The little green, two-man tent which sagged pathetically in the center was just as I’d left it. Admittedly, it was a poor excuse for a hunter’s quarters but somehow, in this wild place, it still had a semblance of home.
Immediately upon placing my rifle and pack next to the tent, I hustled over to the nearest spruce and began gathering a bundle of squaw wood and tree moss from beneath the green boughs. After snapping off enough for my satisfaction, I walked back to the lifeless fire which had last heated my shivering self around lunch time. I put the stack of tinder aside and grabbed a serviceable branch from my wood pile in hopes of discovering a few hot coals still remaining from this afternoon. After sifting through the remnants and supplying a chest full of air to fan their ambition, I was pleased to find a few glowing members still alive, which prompted me to hastily add the pile of twigs and old man’s beard. It took only a few moments for a singular plume of sweet smoke to curl its way up to my nose and with the assistance of a few more breaths and dried sticks, the campfire was alive and well!
For a time I sat quietly, cross legged, elbows on knees and my arms outstretched trying to garner some much needed warmth from the tiny creation. As I rested my chin in the palm of my hand and for the first time realized my cheeks were as cold as ice bergs, I experienced a grand epiphany. The fire needs more wood! As I added more fuel, the flames began to grow and before I knew it I had a bona fide bonfire. So I scooted back from the mini inferno, a slight smirk on my lips, pleased with my overdone foolishness. I was fairly positive I could heat a small village with this masterpiece.
As the flames leapt into the night and minutes ticked away, unconsciously I began staring with an unbroken intensity at the blaze. The shimmering, crackling, orange hues had me mesmerized and as I looked on, suddenly I was in a place far away at a different time. It was my thirteenth summer and a friend and I were enjoying a similar campfire on finger ridge overlooking the Bitterroot Mountains. For two youngsters who, after a long day’s hike, fell asleep without extinguishing the fire and consequently almost turned the forest into ashes, the tale lives in infamy!
Next I was surrounded by memories of the hunt and the men who accompanied them. I could see all their faces, some I hadn’t thought of in many years. Some I hoped would join me again in the Alaska bush and some never would, as they had left this earth untimely and all together too soon. In the fire light, the spoils of the hunt were just as vivid. Caribou, moose, grizzly, sheep, I could see them all with my companions about them shaking hands and spinning their customary embellishments. I swear I could hear their laughter rising into the night with the sparks from the roaring blaze. Then there was another face with curling, long, blonde hair hanging to either side, a shy little smile and sparkling, greenish blue eyes that gleamed with anticipation of the unlocking of life’s mysteries. I must admit though, I quickly brushed that one aside. Such memories, warm and magical at first can be as unpredictable on a man’s heart as the merciless Bearing Sea.
It went on like this for an hour but as the flames started to die and my trance subsided I realized I had better down a dry supper and hit the sack. The combination of oatmeal bars and beef jerky was less than a culinary masterpiece but it would keep me alive. As I climbed into my sleeping bag and fluffed up my jacket for a pillow I noticed that my demeanor had changed. I was warm, cozy and most importantly I didn’t feel lonely any more. Perhaps tomorrow that big grizz would find his way back to the blueberry flats at the base of those mountains and I’d have another story, for another campfire, some other time.