Dangerous Detour – The Adventure Begins

Norman and Sylvia, June 1979 with the Freightliner, Cat, and Swamp Buggy

Norman and Sylvia June 1979 with Freightliner, Cat, and swamp buggy (the mean machine).

Friday, June 29, 1979—after eight months of work and planning we leave Motley, Minnesota with a fully loaded rig. The truck is a 1964 Freightliner semi-tractor with the frame extended. The bed on it measured 24 feet—and we were pulling a 20 foot pup trailer. The entire load of gear and equipment weighed 73,000 lbs.

The welding work on the swamp buggy we were hauling (nicknamed the “mean machine”) was done by Glen Peterson. We rushed all morning, then met Roger Shequen at the El Ray and had dinner. He has been a very big help. There were a lot of other people that gave me help and encouragement. My truck batteries were low and Roger pulled me with the truck he was driving.

When we got to Wadena, we stopped and checked the load and tires. Everything was alright, just had to add a little air to a few tires. When we got near Detroit Lakes, it was raining hard. The heater hose broke, so I pulled over to the side of the road and cut the bad end off and re-clamped the hose into place. Then we started out again. Stopped on the west side of town, camped and slept in the cab of the truck.

We continued on, but the entire week was not without its tribulations. Not far into Canada, we had problems with the truck’s transmission and had to make repairs in Edmonton.

Saturday, On July 7, 1979—we left Edmonton at 6:00 a.m. and the road was really hilly. We saw two deer and two large black bear. The bear we saw near McBride was very tall and thin. Both the bears we saw were big and it’s not unusual to see them feeding along this highway. We learned a bridge was washed out on the normal road we would have taken to Alaska, so to get around it, we took a detour to Prince George and on up to Cassiar highway. Twenty miles east of Prince George we saw a twoyear-old bull moose grazing in the ditch and one dead deer. We had a flat tire on an inside wheel of the truck near the top of a steep hill. I put blocks under the truck wheels and the trailer and changed it.

Coming in to Prince George there is a steep hill that goes down to the river there. Then you meet the railroad track and cross the river on a railroad bridge barely wide enough to accommodate a narrow road on each side of the tracks for vehicles. As I started down the hill, the heavy load we were carrying was pushing the truck hard. The engine is a Cummins 250 and it is to be run at 1,800 to 2,200 RPMs. If you push it over 2,200 RPMs the engine can fail. So as the RPMs increased, I would kick it up another gear to help save the engine—but we would run a little faster each time I did that. It was awfully windy and one of the mud flaps got to really flapping around, knocking the valve open on the air tank causing our brakes to overheat. Suddenly we didn’t have brakes.

I knew once we got to the bottom of this hill, we were going to have to make an extremely sharp turn onto the bridge. I’m kickin’ it up another gear—and another gear—and another gear. We are picking up speed alarmingly fast. Thinking we wouldn’t make it, I told Sylvia to jump while she had the chance but she wouldn’t do it. Instead, she said, “I’m ridin’ it down with you.” I have to give her a lot of credit she never even screamed.

We were careening faster and faster down the hill and finally at the15th gear, the truck reaches 2,800 RPMs. I expected it to blow any second. When we go to the sharp turn approaching that narrow lane, we were looking right down into the river. I made up my mind I was gonna put that truck across the bridge. Going through the turn, our rig leaned dangerously out, threatening to go over, but it held. The trailer cracked the whip behind us and I put her right into that slot—never even touched a mirror on either side. There were only inches.

Still moving much too fast, the trailer slid over and we blew out the two outside tires on the right side of it. Once across the bridge, we saw a dirt road straight ahead. We went down that for at least the equivalent of a couple of city blocks, finally coming to a stop. We pulled it over to the side and just sat there and talked a little bit to regroup ourselves. I said to Sylvia, “You know, I think maybe we should dig that bottle of whiskey out of the grub barrel. We haven’t had a drink in a week. Maybe now’s the time.” She thought that was a good idea and we each had a drink. We stayed put and slept there at Prince George for the night.

Taken from the manuscript of Norman’s book, 10,000 DAYS IN ALASKA.

From a 1996 letter written by Norman Wilkins

the cabin

The cabin sits on a ridge overlooking Scooter Lake at Nelchina, Alaska

As I write this a light fog lifts off the lake and a gentle air moves it to the west. From my seat at the kitchen table, I look out on a beautiful, calm and serene part of the world. I set my coffee cup down quietly so as not to break the silence. Suddenly I hear yawns; then shortly, the slap of feet on the way to the bathroom. Then Sylvia says, “Ooh! Look there, spruce hens—four of them!” Another day gets a kick start and we are glad to be part of it.

September 5th a close friend drowned while on a hunting trip. He was trying to get a line across the Maclaren River so they could get hunting equipment across. He and his brother planned to hunt for bull moose. He was 45 years old. Sure wish he was stalking a big bull moose this morning.

Sylvia picked many gallons of currants, blueberries and rose hips. No cranberries this year. We have some cabbage, cauliflower, onions and potatoes in the garden yet. A cold front is supposed to be coming down from the north.

An acquaintance from Minnesota stopped by a couple of weeks ago on his way home. We visited for a couple of hours. He had seen a bull moose cross the highway a few miles west of here. When this fellow continued on his trip, I went down to Allen’s with the bull moose story. He, Cal and I drove over there, spread out, still hunting. Allen came on big moose tracks, saw the bull, determined that it had legal brow tines and shot it.

I tweaked my left knee 6 weeks ago. If I have it looked at, it won’t be until after hunting season. It doesn’t get better or worse, so it will hang in there a while yet.

We have enough meat for ourselves. I would shoot a caribou so the uncle of the friend who drowned could have some meat. He is housebound and can’t hunt anymore.

Last Saturday I went on a day trip hunting sheep, mostly to keep my mind occupied. I went to the old “Zigzag” house; it’s burned down now. Two trails leave from there. I took the one going over North Pass. My ATV negotiated the mud holes. The dry summer and fall helped in that respect. Once over the pass, an occasional parka squirrel scurried down the trail ahead of me. They were so roly-poly they shook as they ran.

The trail goes down a creek on the other side with quite a bit of ice. Here I watch closely for I had heard that a miner had put a ‘Cat’ trail in on the mountain side in order to get around the gorge. The miner did a good job. Just at the lower end of the gorge, Willow Creek comes in on the right. It is virtually treeless!

Many years ago when I was here, a couple of brothers I knew were ‘glassing’ the sheep on the mountains at the end of the valley. They couldn’t determine any legal rams from this distance. Since they saw the sheep first, I suggested I wait till they were well up the valley before I started. Either the rams weren’t legal or were inaccessible because I didn’t hear shots and these two were gone when I got back out of the valley.

I left the ATV and walked slowly, favoring my knee and an old body. At each rise I paused to look over everything ahead, each side and everything to the rear. Safety in grizzly country is being aware. Plus, I was watching for sheep. When I was about a mile and a half from a cabin that I knew was here, it came into view as I crested another rise. Then it was just a matter of holding my course over a few more rises and I was there.

Built of shiplap pine on spruce pole framing, covered with 30 wt. tar paper many, many years ago, it had withstood the ravages of time remarkably well. As I came closer I noticed the door was unlatched and gently swinging on puffs of air movement. It stands on a low mound just at the foot of a steep, rocky entrance to another valley extension. I didn’t immediately enter the cabin.

Savoring being there, I took my time and walked around it, looking at the caribou horns, moose horns, some bottles, glass jars, etc. I glassed for sheep once again, but I know I won’t shoot one today for I won’t be able to pack it out.

Always interested in rock formations, a quartz outcrop caught my eye. Catalog this in my mind as a place to prospect.

Finally, I’ve completely circled the cabin. It has no window. When I finally do go inside, I mentally measure it to be 8’ x 12’ with plenty of head room. The shiplap has shrunk until cracks show and is rotted in places at the  bottom so  squirrels can run in and out.  Some tar paper has blown off and it  would be wet in a rain.

Someone has brought in an iron cot and a 10” x 12” x 20” sheet metal stove. There is only willow for stove wood; the elevation here is 4300 feet. There was a shelf with a pint bottle half full of apricot brandy and a crude table nailed up against the west wall. I had heard that 20 years ago, the floor was covered with hides. They are gone; bare dirt remains.

A different-looking 30-gallon drum with a lid on it stands at the foot of the cot. Lifting the lid, I see a sleeping bag. I don’t dig around in the drum, for it’s not mine to dig in.

Going  back outside, I  look around some more,  look for sheep also—no luck. Then I pick another route back to the mouth of Willow Creek. My legs are tired and will be more so. I found a caribou horn on the way out. God, how I like to look and see things when I’m out like that. A motion out of the corner of my eye turned out to be an eagle landing on Sharp Peak, a nearby mountain.

Back at the parked ATV, I dig out the other half of my sandwich, eat it and a cookie. Thus fueled up, I drove the 9 miles back out to trail’s head.

—Norman