Teachers of the Ancient Ways

February 20th, 2016 by

Kobuk River Elders at fish camp

As a boy I fantasized about living with Indians (Native Americans) before their world had been radically changed by European domination.

My fantasies became reality in the early 1960s when my wife and I moved to Alaska. We worked as teachers in remote Native villages in the northern reaches of the fledgling state. We found ourselves in a setting as wild as that of the early colonial days residing with Natives closely tied to the natural world. They traveled by dog teams in the winters and by skin covered canoes during the brief summers. It was a dream come true.

It was soon apparent that Native Alaskans were on the cusp of changes that would alter and possibly overwhelm the old ways. In 1966, Richard K. Nelson and I collaborated to document the subsistence practices of the Inupiat living in Wainwright, Alaska. We later joined with other cultural scholars to carry on research among the Native residents of the upper Kobuk River, the Koyukuk River and the central Brooks Range. These studies were published by the University of Wisconsin, the University of Alaska and the National Park Service.

Among the many Native Alaskans who influenced my life two played particularly important roles, Wesley Ekak (Ekak) of Wainwright and Joe Sun (Imuk) of the upper Kobuk River. Both were respected elders renowned for their knowledge and skills of living from the land and for their encyclopedic command of the cultural history and traditions of their people. I was fortunate to spend time with each in their village homes and at camps while they engaged in subsistence activities.

One of the important lessons that I learned was that Joe Sun and Ekak viewed the world through cultural lenses far different than my own. They saw and sensed nature in ways profoundly more insightful and sensitive than did I. Where I saw simple topographic features, wildlife and vegetation they saw a world filled with spiritual presence. Animals had souls and could communicate over great distances. Trees were aware and sensed what humans said about them. The land itself could be offended by carelessness or the arrogance of humans. The land and the creatures on it literally spoke to them, and they listened.

The Bush People

January 23rd, 2016 by

The Bush People

Visiting Bush Couple

Visiting Bush Couple

John McPhee wrote a masterpiece book, Coming Into the Country, describing a loose assembly of individuals living in isolated cabin sites scattered along the banks of the Yukon River downstream of the community of Eagle. These mostly young men and women arrived in Eagle over a period of several years in the early-to-late 1970s. They were seeking the opportunity to follow a “pure” lifestyle of living off the natural environment with minimal reliance on or interference from modern society. This group collectively became known as “The River People”.

Every year there are people who arrive in Alaska seeking a classic early frontier-type experience. Over some three decades we came to know several of what we called the “Bush People” particularly in and around the Brooks Range and its major drainages. I would fly our small plane over their log cabin homes to drop mail or deliver supplies. When conditions permitted I sometimes landed to visit with a bush resident or occasionally to render emergency assistance.

The great majority of the “Bush People” we personally knew were non-Natives, although some had Native spouses and partners who accompanied them into the wilds. Most followed their dream of independent wilderness living for a few years and then decided to return to a more conventional life. Some took the middle ground moving into small communities on the edge of wilderness areas where they could still continue to experience some degree of independent bush life. A very small percentage toughed it out and were able to carve out a long-term sustainable lifestyle. Advancing age, children, health care and economic concerns were among the factors that contributed to decisions to retire from the isolated lifestyle in the backcountry regions of Alaska. It is also a fact that humans are naturally social creatures innately wanting and needing interaction with others. Self-imposed isolation can contribute to emotional stress, as Robert Byrd describes in the book, Alone, about his own experience in Antarctica.

In the book, Our Perfect Wild, we go into detail to relate interactions with two particular bush residents, Blondie and Hog River Gary. Both went off into the wilds to live out their dreams of being the modern version of mountain men. I also acted as a representative of the National Park Service making contact with scattered bush residents to inform them of the changes the designation of new national park areas in Alaska would bring to their lives. This duty took me into some of the truly remote regions of Alaska where I worked with individuals who often had little tolerance for legal restrictions. I understood their desire to live a truly free life, but I also knew that the new parks belonged to all Americans and had to be managed in the interests of the general public. It was a delicate balance.

Many of the bush residents had no formal legal claim to the cabins they built and occupied and could not assert actual property rights over traplines, fishing sites, wood cutting areas, etc. Special regulations were written to accommodate their basic needs, but there were limitations that came with them. I recall many nights spent in small, candle lit cabins and tents talking with individuals about the changes taking place and listening to their concerns and wishes to continue a special lifestyle. I tried to carry their message to Park Service administrators in hopes of finding middle ground. Most had to be told that they could never legally own the land and cabins they occupied, because they were located on public lands that now had become a national park. An interesting side note of this story is that several Bush People eventually went on to work for the National Park Service as rangers, maintenance employees and in other positions. While I never considered myself to be a full-fledged member of the Bush People, my wife and I did live a modified bush-type life for many years, and I also eventually joined the National Park Service.

Wings Over Wild

December 25th, 2015 by

Wings Over Wild

Visiting Native fish camp on Kobuk River

Visiting Native fish camp on Kobuk River

Some people say that the Alaska state bird is actually a Piper Aircraft Super Cub.  There is a good likelihood that anyone who has lived in Alaska for more than a couple of years has been up in a small airplane.   The term, “air taxi”, literally means a flying taxicab used to transport people and goods throughout the Alaska bush.  There are many communities and homesteads all through Alaska that could not exist without the bush plane.  The men and women who fly these light aircraft are often the stuff of legend renowned for their skill and daring at landing on river gravel bars and mountain ridges, operating in conditions that would cause most reasonably sane pilots to cancel any flight plans and often sticking their necks out to rush a sick or critically injured villager to medical assistance and then going off to search for someone reported overdue or missing in the vastness of the Alaska wilds.

I recall a village student in one of my classes asking me if I was a bush pilot. It caused me to hesitate.  90% of my flying was definitely in remote backcountry areas of Alaska.  I knew great bush pilots, Paul Shanahan, Peter Merry, Tony Bernhart, and others.  I could not hold a candle to their skills and accomplishments.  To me they were the true “bush pilots”.

I took my first flying lesson on May 20, 1967, in a small two-place Cessna 150 operating off a rural grass airfield in southern Wisconsin. Three days later my instructor directed me to land and taxi the plane to the side of the runway.  He stepped out of the aircraft and told me to do my first solo flight.  On July 7, I passed the test for a private pilot’s license and bought a Cessna 170 B almost before the ink on my license was dry.  Barbara and I sold our property to raise the money to pay for the plane.

After a brief visit to our families in West Virginia, 0n August 5, we loaded the Cessna with our lead dog, Twilight, and basic camping supplies and took off with the nose of the plane pointed in the direction of Alaska.  It was a stormy flight requiring us to hug the ground for several days while impatiently waiting for breaks.  On August 15, we finally landed at the Koyukuk River village of Huslia.

Our airplane opened a new world to us. We were able to tremendously extend our range of explorations of vast wilderness areas, particularly the central Brooks Range, and become acquainted with the rich tapestry of cultures thinly scattered across the great land.

We owned three aircraft over the years, two of which were Citabrias, sometimes referred to as a poor man’s Super Cub. I also flew government aircraft for the National Park Service.  These ranged from Super Cubs to Cessna 206’s and an ancient radial engine Beaver.  All had their unique flight characteristics.  Based on the season they were equipped with floats, wheels and skis.  The loads carried included dog teams and sleds, canoes, snowmachines and a wide variety of equipment and supplies for park field operations.  Some items had to be lashed to the exterior of the plane.  Passengers included village Natives, park rangers, government officials, wildlife biologists, cultural researchers, politicians and law enforcement officers.  Search and rescue operations and transporting sick and injured persons to medical facilities were fairly common.

After 22 years of flying a variety of aircraft around Alaska I hung up my wings.   Operating off makeshift landing sites in the full range of Alaska’s weather tends to take its toll.  I personally knew some twenty individuals who died in aircraft accidents.  I walked away from three “events” that could have been terminal.  Toward the end of my career I was spending less time behind the controls of an airplane, so I knew I was losing the fine edge essential for flying the backcountry of Alaska.  Bush flying is rife with potential for accidents that can severely ruin one’s day.  I decided I wanted to collect on my retirement benefits.

Winter Wonderings

December 7th, 2015 by

Barbara & Ray Dog Team Trip N. Frk.

The Brooks Range adorns the brow of Alaska stretching in a shallow arc from east to west entirely north of the arctic circle. The jewels of this spiked crown include Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, the Arregich Peaks and Mt. Iggigpak. For nine months of the year it is a true winter wilderness of austere beauty. Temperatures can plunge well below minus sixty degree F. and fierce storms frequently lash the spare and rugged landscape. Only the hardiest wildlife remains active during the Long Cold. Caribou, wolves, moose, Dall sheep and the occasional wolverine make up the majority of larger winter active residents. Most other wild creatures either flee south to more temperate climes or literally bury themselves alive to conserve energy until the summer briefly returns.

These frigid mountains and lonely valleys have a haunting beauty that some find irresistible. Streams become solid pathways that explorers can follow into the most intimate recesses of the mountains. With the exception of Dall sheep, snowy hare and ptarmigan, winter active wildlife becomes more visible against a white backdrop. Bands of caribou walk single file along the lower Barbara Next to Citabria on Is. L. in Wintermountain slopes seeking spare patches of lichen and moss hidden beneath the snow. Wolves trot along the frozen streams following the path of least resistance in their constant search for prey.

Barbara and I began to probe the Brooks Range during the winter months when we moved to the Koyukuk River area in 1967. By this time we had our own small airplane which we equipped with skis for winter flying. In the early spring when the days grew longer we would occasionally fly to villages along the southern slopes of the Brooks Range and to the Nunamuit (lit. “Land People”)community of Anaktuvuk Pass on the northern edge of the range becoming acquainted with Inupiat and Koyukon residents. We did aerial tours among the mountains sometimes landing on frozen lakes for brief day visits. By 1970, we had a winter tent camp established on a small lake in the upper Alatna Valley of the Brooks Range where we spent occasional weekends.

We first crossed the extreme western terminus of the Brooks Range by dog team in 1974. In early 1976, I drove our team from the Koyukuk River village of Hughes northward through the villages of Alakaket and Bettles and then ascended the ice locked John River to the Inupiat Eskimo village of Anuktuvuk Pass effectively transiting the width of the central Brooks Range. This trip was part of a research project to document the subsistence uses of the central Brooks Range by local residents. The return trip crossed into the headwaters of the North Fork of the Koyukuk River and then descended southward to return home.

There were several other extended winter trips into the Gates of the Arctic over the following years. One of these took place in early 1981, when I flew Barbara, a team of seven huskies and sled and winter camping equipment to a frozen lake in the upper Noatak Valley. We spent ten days carrying out winter explorations of the upper Noatak region documenting our findings for park management. During this time we broke trail the length of the Kugurak River Valley and ascended the Noatak to its extreme headwaters on the eastern flanks of Iggikpak Mountain. For three days we camped next to an enchanting cluster of artesian warm springs with spouts of crystal clear water rising up to twelve inches in height. The subzero temperatures did not seem to affect their flow.

In March of 1982, we led a National Park Service expedition consisting of NPS employees and four dog teams on a winter ascent of the North Fork of the Koyukuk. The route extended over Ernie Creek Pass and down the Anaktuvuk River into the village of Anaktuvuk. It was necessary to break trail through deep snow the entire length of the North Fork. While visiting Anaktuvuk a late winter storm swept into the mountains and covered the land in more than a foot of fresh, wet snow that set off extensive overflow flooding of the North Fork and other streams. All surface traffic, including dog teams and snowmachines, was brought to a standstill. We were forced to fly personnel, dogs and equipment back to Bettles.

We truly loved the winter wilderness of the Brooks Range and other regions of northern Alaska. Over a period of twenty-five years our dog team pulled us across thousands of miles of often unbroken snow during. We expressed our gratitude to these faithful friends in the Acknowledgements of, Our Perfect Wild.

Ray Bane



The Little Voices

November 15th, 2015 by

Robert Service’s poem,“The Lure of the Little Voices,” poignantly describes the attraction of early gold prospectors to the wilds of the Yukon and Alaska.  Over a span of some four decades Barbara, and I shared that addiction. We explored vast stretches of Alaska’s wilderness where evidence of human presence was rare. Where such sign existed it was usually ancient consisting of time softened earthen mounds once sod covered igloos and rings of heavy moss coated stones that served to anchor the sides of skin covered conical tents. These mute remains were unobtrusive, often indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the vast untamed setting in which they were found.

We first heard the faint siren whispers of the wilds in southeastern Alaska finding them irresistible. Over the years they lured us deeper and deeper into small, intimate settings where Nature becomes intensely personal. We came to realize that vast wilderness was the hiding place of small natural treasures, often obscured by larger, more imposing features. These include enchanting waterfalls tucked away in deep, narrow canyons, jagged mountain ridges populated by rock fairyland creatures, tiny islands afloat on small, rarely visited lakes, clusters of artesian springs with dancing spouts springing from rock fissures, natural rock bridges and standing pinnacles reminiscent of the hoodoos of Utah’s red rock country, high narrow passes between massive peaks and delicate alpine ice fields the struggling survivors of a long passed ice age. We found the birthing grounds of snowy white mountain sheep and the summer dens where wolves reared new generations for their packs. Colonies of ground squirrels and marmots entertained us with their perky scurrying between tunnel entrances hidden among rocks and low willow thickets. All of these spoke to us and captured our imaginations.

In 1967, Barbara and I moved to the village of Huslia on the Koyukuk River in the north central Interior of Alaska. We had a small airplane that carried us into the Brooks Range, Alaska’s most northerly and least human impacted mountains. We were captivated by the complex maize of narrow valleys and sheer-walled canyons, soaring needle sharp peaks, hidden cirques and dozens of other alpine features. We eagerly sought out and ascended small streams that, over hundreds of thousands of years, conquered solid rock patiently molding it into natural works of art.

I still hear the little voices.  They speak to me on quiet evenings when my mind wanders revisiting the hidden places we discovered over the years in the wilds. The voices exist in the ethereal twilight boundary between sleeping and waking when human nature briefly reverts to being natural.

Shopping for Moose

November 3rd, 2015 by

Moose meat was a major part of our diet while living in the Koyukuk and Kobuk River villages.  Each fall for fifteen years we would harvest a bull, ideally a two-year old, but we generally took whatever was available and legal.  The last thing we wanted was an old bull with massive antlers, but sometimes there was no other choice.  The moose in this series of pictures is about 3-to-4 years old. Much of the meat would be shared with villagers, particularly elders.

The hunting tent camp shown in the pictures was on the John River roughly twenty miles north of the community of Bettles.  I had scouted the area prior to moose hunting season picking out a strategic site for our tent camp.  There was a nearby marsh with good graze for moose, ample dry wood and the site was open to breezes that helped to cure meat and keep off bothersome flies.  We moved by outboard powered river boat to the site at the beginning of the moose season. Pole racks were erected to hang meat and allow the blood to drain.

I found this bull about a mile from our camp.  Barbara helped in field dressing the moose, dividing it into manageable pieces and moving it to our campsite.  The real work of a moose hunt happens after the prey has been taken.  After transporting the meat to the village we spent several days fine-butchering it into steaks, roasts, ribs, ground burger, stew meat, etc..  Most of this went into a large chest freezer outside our cabin.  When cold weather set in we could pull the plug and allow mother nature to preserve our harvest.  We also cut flesh into long thin slices and hung them to dry on dry pole racks.  A cool smudge (smoke) fire of dry balsam popular helped in the curing process and gave the meat a pleasant taste.  This dried (jerky) meat served as snacks and trail food during our winter dog team travels.

I did not think of moose hunting – or the hunting of other meat animals – as “sport.”  It was a practical way of meeting basic needs.  Even though I qualified as eligible to subsistence hunt in the newly formed gates of the Arctic National Park, I did not do so.  It seemed inappropriate for me to take advantage of this privilege while also serving as an NPS employee.  I wanted to avoid any impression by local residents of a conflict of interest.  As it turned out, I was able to find ample harvest opportunities outside the park.