Years ago I was hiking south down the Haul Road with a sawed-off shotgun strapped to my pack. Somewhere between Deadhorse and Coldfoot but a hundred miles from either. Hadn’t seen a car, truck, or semi for what seemed like hours. When I heard a distant buzzing, I squinted into the sky to see a bush plane, above the peaks, gradually growing larger. Passing overhead it dipped a wing and started circling, slowly spiraling down toward me. As it began its final descent, the engine whined, screaming through higher RPM’s as the tires hit the road with a plume of dust and I hustled to the shoulder to get out of its way. The plane finally came to a stop only a few yards from me. After the propeller lurched to a halt with a final backfire, the sheriff of the Yukon-Koyokuk Burough stepped out and faced me. Six and a half feet tall, he spoke through the bushiest handle bar mustache I’d ever seen.
“How’s it going,” he said as I walked up to him.
“You the owner of that green pickup down the road?”
“No, I hitched up here,” I told him. “Hiked around a few days. Now I’m headed back to Fairbanks.”
The sheriff nodded. His eyes ran up and down my pack and I remembered I had the shotgun strapped to the back. The stock sticking out from one side of me, the jagged, sawed-off barrel sticking out from the other. His eyes stopped on the shotgun and that was the first time the implications even dawned on me. I’d sawed off the barrel to make it lighter. Easier to strap to the outside of my pack. Bear protection. I hadn’t even considered the legalities. Second degree felony. Serious jail time. And for a scruffy-faced, long-haired hitch-hiker like me, they’d probably throw away the key.
“What’s that thing for?” He nodded toward the barrel.
“Bears,” I said.
His brow furrowed. He paused a long time to think about that as my heart pounded against my ribcage. I waited to hear my rights. As I looked down at the pistol on his hip I could already feel the cuffs bite into my wrist. Finally his head moved up and down slowly as he scanned the slopes around us.
“Well,” he said, nodding again. “Plenty of them around.”
His eyes met mine, knowingly, and I risked a smile. “Yup.”
“All right.” The sheriff straightened up. “You run into the owner of the pickup just have him call the office in Coldfoot. He can leave his rig here as long as he wants.” He gazed back out at the mountains. “I just wanna make sure he’s not lost or injured out here somewhere.”
Then he turned to walk back to the plane.
“Sounds good,” I said.
As the engine fired up I watched him pull down the road, gather more speed, and finally lift off the gravel. He circled back upward, growing smaller in the distance, and finally disappearing. One of only a handful of law enforcers in the Yukon-Koyukuk Burough—the largest municipality on Earth. Spanning much of Alaska, it’s roughly the size of Montana. Or Germany. And there’s only one road running through it.
The Dalton Highway.
Otherwise known as the Haul Road. Built to service the pipeline. When I first drove it to Deadhorse years ago, the ruts and washboard bumps rattled the rearview mirror off my windshield and nearly shook my pickup to pieces. Even now, it’s mostly gravel. Mostly travelled by truckers driving to or from Deadhorse. The occasional caribou hunter headed to the North Slope.
Walk any direction from the road and you go back in time. Into the biggest wilderness you can access without hiring a pilot. That’s why I keep coming back.
July and I have been up here five days so far. I broke a tent pole that I fixed with duct tape and a caribou antler. Walked through a blizzard. My tent was flattened by a windstorm and half my gear blew off the side of a mountain. I’ve never known such a windy, unseasonably cold Brooks Range but I’ve already seen moose, caribou, and a wolverine. And the weather’s drastically improved in the last two days. Now I’m sitting on a boulder overlooking the drainage I just traversed. Forty years old. Never thought I'd live this long, so I planned accordingly. Which is to say I never planned at all. Always lived in the moment. But here I am. And I’m ready for another forty, so it's time for some changes. Time to drink less beer and more water. Pay attention to the foods I buy at the store. Time to save up for land of my own. To be less selfish and treat people better. Time for less recklessness.
I gaze back over the valley. I hiked up into the range when my last ride dropped me off north of Atigun Pass. Since then I’ve not seen another soul. In fact, all these years I’ve come up here, I’ve never seen another human being in the Brooks Range unless it was someone I brought with me.
Like Mike and Jesse.
Two of my closest friends. When they said they were coming to Alaska I knew I had to bring them to the Arctic. Everyone should see the Brooks Range. Of course, if everyone did, it would lose so much of what I love about it. That back-in-time feeling I only get in places like this. The wildness. The unpeopled vastness. And the quiet.
Before we left the Goldstream Valley, where I was living at the time, Mike, Jesse, and me bought a hundred dollar 12 gauge at a pawn shop in Fairbanks. After a quick contest with some of our empty Pabst cans back at my cabin that night--trying to determine who was the best shot--we put Mike in charge of the gun.
There are lots of theories about bear protection. And bears in general. At times I’ve come to places like the Brooks Range unarmed. No gun or bear spray. And I’ve never had a problem. But a lot of it’s just dumb luck. And I’ll admit I feel safer up here when I’m carrying, even though some people arm themselves to the teeth and still get mauled. There was a couple floating the Koyokuk not too many years ago. They camped on an island. After they’d eaten, they stored all their food and anything that smelled on a different island. They also changed and left their sweaty clothes with the food. And the couple had a gun with them in their tent. Still, later that night, after they’d fallen asleep, they were both mauled to death by a grizzly.
I’m a Colorado resident these days, so I can no longer buy a firearm in Alaska. I’m not crazy about guns, but I'm a big fan of our 2nd amendment and I’ve owned a few hunting rifles over the years. My buddy, Wayne, has lent me his .45 for trips like these, insisting that I bring it. But if I don’t happen to be armed I come anyway. I just try to build a fire at the end of the day and carry an air horn for any bear that might be sniffing around my tent at night—the time I’m most vulnerable.
Grizzlies are unpredictable, but there are certain rules of thumb. Don’t surprise them, for one thing. And if you give them plenty of space most of them will leave you alone. Never get between a sow and her cubs or make any mama bear feel like you’re a threat. I make noise when I’m in the woods. Or the brush. Or any kind of alder jungle where I can barely see my hand in front of my face. I don’t want to startle a bear and spark his predatory instinct. But I’m usually above tree line where I can see a grizzly a mile away, make him aware of me, and avoid him with as much room to spare as possible. I’ll pile wet wood or a damp root ball on top of my fire at night so it’ll burn long and slow and smolder as much as possible while I sleep. Most animals hate smoke. Harnessing fire, for our distant ancestors eons ago, was a major evolutionary game changer.
Like people, there is the occasional crazy bear who doesn’t follow the rules. My friend, Mark, was hiking in Southeast Alaska when a brown bear charged him in an alpine meadow. A charging grizzly runs faster than a horse and Mark only had a matter of seconds to lift his 12 gauge and empty the shotgun into the bear who still nearly reached him before falling dead at his feet. The next summer, after he’d hiked back up to retrieve the jawbone for Fish and Game to analyze, they told him the bear had had an abscess.
If I had a toothache I couldn’t do anything about I’d probably want to kill someone, too.
Lots of times it’s older bears with nothing left to lose who are probelmatic. Grizzlies with injuries causing them pain and no amount of bear spray or air horns will stop them. Nothing short of a twelve gauge. And that’s only if you squeeze off a couple of shots in time. Still, deadly or not, a wild Grizzly is an awesome sight. They have home ranges as big as 600 square miles which is why there aren’t many places left where they naturally roam.
Mike, Jesse, and me never saw any bears on that particular trip, but we hiked two or three days in from the Haul Road before turning around and heading back to my pickup. I remember the final few miles. It was after midnight and we still had plenty of daylight, but we shouldn’t have been hiking. We were just too tired to stop and pitch our tents. And if we had stopped we would've collapsed for sure. All any of us wanted was the comfort of the truck, parked on a pull off by the pipeline next to the first creek we hiked up.
We’d been chewed up by mosquitoes, drained from walking mile after mile on spongy tussocks (which is like trying to walk on basketballs), our feet bloody from blisters, and generally delirious with exhaustion. We weren’t even hiking side by side or single file anymore. We weren’t even friends that night. A quarter mile of space between us and each one on his own death march to the truck.
When we finally made it, I crawled under the topper, Jesse curled up in the cab, and Mike laid down on his sleeping mat under the axels. Less than an hour later a generator kicked on next to us. An oil worker with a water truck was filling up from the creek. A walrus of a man who barely fit into his Carhartt overalls. He turned the engine off for a second as we emerged from all corners of the pickup.
“Sorry for the rude awakening,” he said. “Just doing my job.”
Then he fired up the generator again.
But none of us cared. We all passed back out and slept like the dead. Deafening generator or not.
The time before that was a Dall sheep hunt with Scott and Heath. Three weeks of scrambling up these steep slopes, carrying packs and rifles. August and already well into Fall up here. We’d marched through a few snow storms by then and I’ve never eaten so much in my life. Calories for the days, when we never stopped hiking. Calories before bed, to keep us warm through the night. Oatmeal; grits with tons of melted cheese; whole sticks of butter; mayonnaise by the spoonful. And, still, we each lost twenty pounds. Came back in the best shape of our lives.
Yeah. The Brooks Range stories go on and on. But wait.
I need to back up and start over. Because none of this is actually about shotguns or sheep hunts. Not even close. The machismo? Bravado? It’s taken me all this time to realize that this place is really about tranquility. Lichen. Spongy moss and granite. Vulnerability. The Brooks Range strips me of my ego and forces me to face my demons. Dwarfed by these nameless peaks, I am at the mercy of all kinds of weather. In my tent at night my heart pounds when I hear something creeping around outside and imagine that that something is eight hundred pounds of muscle, fur, teeth, and claws. The Blackfeet say the Creator sent bears to Earth to humble man. And I believe it.
The Brooks Range is not about the stories you later tell over a few drinks at the bar. Hoping they might actually impress someone. It's about that stillness you could never describe in a million years. It's about walking alone through a light rain, under a low ceiling of clouds. Across an empty valley bursting with Aven and Lupine. Toward those distant slopes. And up. To where everything disappears into the mist.