Bearded man in doorway of old cabin

Excerpt from a 1997 letter – Nelchina, Alaska

Bearded man in doorway of old cabin

Norman Wilkins at an old cabin

…More has happened since I started the letter, this will fill you in to date.

About a week after the bear hunt, I took the Suzuki to the Ballanger pass trail head for a sight-seeing get-in-the-mountains trip.

Within two miles on the trail, I was seeing lots of caribou. Some of the mountain slopes had groups of several hundred animals, with many groups like that in sight. (Later I heard that a local old-timer bush pilot estimated 10,000 caribou.) I took a picture of a small bunch close to me and slowly drove down the trail, giving them all the time they needed to cross in front of me. At the top of the pass on the other side—the same view, ‘boo’ everywhere.

I shut off the machine, sat on it, took more pictures, and simply absorbed the sights and sounds. Large bulls, small bulls, yearlings, cows, calves (many at 30-100 yards), were eating, lying down, chewing their cuds, resting. The animal smell, their scent, urine and belching was strong in the air.

Aware that I was there, they largely ignored me, or so it seemed. Few made eye contact. Some cows were making a rapid, grunt-like sound. With luck, I caught a cow doing this; directly, a calf came running to her and began to nurse, butting very hard with its head in the process.

The day was beautiful, warm, sunny, some breeze. Experiencing all of this within yards of me was very moving. I felt lucky and fortunate to have been a witness.

Later, a friend said, “I wish you would have had my camcorder with you.”

Yes, it would have made an outstanding film.

—From a 1997 letter written by Norman Wilkins, Nelchina, Alaska

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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

Clam digging excursion cut short by medical emergency

full moon over trees

Norman loves the night sky, stars, Northern Lights, and the moon.

Wednesday, August 18, 1982—hurried around all morning getting ready to go to Anchorage and Homer later. We plan to go clam digging and silver fishing and Halibut fishing. Had a flat tire on the way to town. Stayed at Andy’s and Bob’s camper. It was a nice day.

Thursday, August 19, 1982—did business and shopping around town. Bought new tires for the pickup. Met Clarence W. and his wife in the afternoon. Nice day, went to Birdie’s at mile 142.5, which is south of Ninilchek—got there at 10:00 p.m.

Friday, August 20, 1982—up early to catch the tide. Birdie went with us to dig clams at mile 144. I dug eight big clams and we had a big clam feed—others got clams too. We tried for silvers at Ninilchek but didn’t have any luck. It was very nice weather, went looking for fossils too.

Saturday, August 21, 1982—got some clams far down on the Ninilchek beach. Jeff and Birdie were there, Bob and Kahren Rudbeck fished. I’m passing blood in my urine—I got real sick and went to the Soldotna hospital. Then I got even more sick at Homer and went to the hospital there.

Sunday, August 22, 1982—still very sick and in intensive care at the Homer Hospital. I had lost a lot of blood. I got several blood transfusions and so forth that goes with this.

Monday, August 23, 1982—still very sick. Doctor Sayer looked in my stomach. He sees where the blood is coming from. He recommends no more alcohol for me. I took his advice. (As of August 2008, it has been 26 years since I last took a drink.)

Tuesday, August 24, 1982—got out of the hospital at noon and went to Anchorage and stayed at Andy’s and Connie’s.

Wednesday, August 25, 1982—shopped all day in Anchorage, got some new tires on the truck, I like them. Got home at 10:30 p.m.

Thursday, August 26, 1982—went to visit the Hoffmans and also visited Sandy Farmer. It’s a nice day and I rested a lot.

Friday, August 27, 1982—took some garbage to the dump near KROA and then went to Billman’s and worked on the swamp buggy. It’s been a nice day, but a little cool. Had a bad setback with my stomach.

Sunday, August 29, 1982—woke up early, pretty sick. Tom and Lisa and everyone else convinced me to go to Anchorage to get checked out. Darrel took the swamp buggy to pull phone poles out at Gunsight. Stopped to see how they were doing. It was raining in Palmer when I got there. Saw the doctor and stayed overnight with Andy.

Monday, August 30, 1982—rained all day, shopped all day. Went to hospital at 4:00 p.m. Test was okay, got home at 8:30 p.m. and fed Tom’s dog.

Wednesday, September 1, 1982—it was a nice day with a few showers again. Mailed a lease to Rodney B. Bob and I went up Lake Louise Road hunting moose and caribou then went flying with Dan and flew over the trapper cabin. Saw caribou there.

Thursday, September 2, 1982—Rhynell brings milk every morning—goat milk, for my stomach. Worked around here till mid-afternoon, stopped at Hoffman’s and on to a movie at Glennallen.

Saturday, September 4, 1982—up early, washed three of my winter jackets and tried to get the water pump for the swamp buggy fixed. It broke. Sylvia sewed a tarp for me. Very nice day, pretty, full moon and cool this evening.

Trouble training the sled dogs, Libby Riddles lends a hand

Two people and a dogsled

Norman (in red) and Sylvia (seated) posing for pictures after running the dogs.

Monday, November 17, 1980— I ran Fear, the lead dog, Oscar, Mack and Chrissy twice today—three miles each time. They are doing pretty well. Weather is nice, a low of zero degrees to a high of 10 above. Called Nadia, Ernie H. and Jim R.

Thursday, November 27, 1980—Charlie helped me run the dogs again today. Things didn’t go well. This is discouraging. Fear, the lead dog just isn’t strong headed enough to lead the dogs.

Friday, November 28, 1980—cut up firewood for the lodge garage, their saw is broke down so we used my saw. Did chores and took care of the dogs and ran Sylvia to Gunsight to help Nancy at the lodge. Mike was here and visited for a while.

Monday, December 1, 1980—up early, took Sylvia to Gunsight, helped Ray a little then came back and hitched the dogs to the sled and took them to Libby Riddles place (three miles). She put a dog called Phantom in my team. Had a good run, lots of excitement. Broke my brake on the grade off of Snowshoe Lake so I turned back for home to make repairs.

Tuesday, December 9, 1980—it’s -37° this morning. I glued the heels of my Sorel boots where they were weakening. Took my dogs on a training run in the afternoon at -40°. At supper time, Mike P. called.

Wednesday, December 10, 1980—put the snow hook holder that I made out of leather onto the dog sled, allowing me to more safely carry the snow hook when I’m driving the dogs and the sled. I put some oil in the front differential of the pickup and cut up some logs for Henry. It was -35° all day and dropped to -40° this evening.

Thursday, December 11, 1980—I read late last night and slept late this morning. Henry’s water system froze up and I helped get it thawed and back in service. Took dog collars and a chain and a snow hook back that I had borrowed from Libby Riddles. Now I have my own equipment. It’s -45° today.

Friday, December 12, 1980—hitched up the dogs this morning at -48° and took pictures in front of the cache here at the lodge of the dogs and sled. I tried to run them, but Fear, the lead dog that I got from Libby just wouldn’t lead. The pups sure wanted to go. It’s discouraging—maybe she thought it was too cold.

Dan’s wife Patti had asked him to bring his van down for me to take into Anchorage. He did it, but didn’t understand why Patti wanted me to drive it into Anchorage. Unbeknownst to him, Patti had made arrangements in Anchorage for his van to have a new paint job. She wanted to surprise him for Christmas.

Mud Flying

a truck with big wheels and chains

The Swamp Buggy, also called the Mean Machine

Wednesday, October 3, 1979—took the buggy down to Gunsight Mountain Trail (about 25 miles). Henry went with me. The trail there goes over Ballenger Pass. He had some guys mining back on Alfred Creek and when they were moving equipment out, his Cat broke apart in the rear end. They had to leave it behind.

We are going in to pull his Cat out over the mountain and across a swamp to get it to the highway. Everything went well. Where the sun hadn’t been shining, the trail was frozen and icy, but I had chained up all four tires on the swamp buggy and it pulled this small Cat up the mountain.

When we got down to the swamp, I really put the pedal down on the swamp buggy. Henry was riding the Cat back behind me, steering and trying to keep it in the trail, mud flying. It was quite a ride for him. We got through the swamp and down a steep hill to an old lodge where we had a trailer parked. We planned to load the Cat on it. We had chains and load binders with us. We worked the load binders one after the other, one length of chain at a time. It took us a long time—and was hard work.

Henry and I were really tired by the time we got that Cat loaded and back to his lodge at Nelchina. (The next day, we were stiff and sore.) I did a few odd jobs around here at the lodge.

Caribou hanging on a meat pole

map of river

Old Man Creek at Little Nelchina

Sunday, September 30, 1979—got the Cat track on and went down the river. Saw a caribou hanging on a meat pole where some hunters had their camp during caribou season. We stopped there and Tim goes over and sniffs the meat and sure enough, it has spoiled. There was a sign posted there saying to take the meat if you want it, but of course, no one would want to eat that.

We went on down the river, and just around the bend, near an old cabin, I had to clean the carburetor on the Cat pony motor before it would start.

At lunch, where Old Man Creek comes into the Little Nelchina River, we stopped near a campground at the highway that goes to Nelchina Lodge. Henry and Ken get there a few minutes later. Henry’s been working up on a gold claim in the Yukon and he’s brought home mastodon tusks and bones from the Yukon.

When we got to the highway, Ken loaded the Cat on the trailer and Tim drove the swamp buggy. We got the Cat up on the trailer and we were going down the highway when a state trooper pulled us over. He looked the whole outfit over and turned to us and asked whose outfit this was. I told him it was mine and he said, “I could fill out several tickets with everything I see that is wrong here.” We asked him what we should be doing differently and he said, “Mud flaps on the trailer—you don’t have mud flaps and the floor of that trailer is not in very good shape.” I told him the Cat had busted the planks in the trailer and we’re just coming out from the back country and I hadn’t had a chance to replace the mud flaps that had gotten torn off traveling. He kind of accepted that, and this conversation went on over different things for a while and finally he told us, “Well, you can go on now.”

We got to Nelchina—glad this trip was over.

Bear in camp and a rollover

trees-300pixFriday, August 31, 1979—in the morning, we heard pans rattling outside the tent where we’d been cooking. Jerry, he rolled out of his sack. His tent has a zipper on the door and It had been raining and snowing and had frozen during the night and the zipper was frozen shut. Jerry wiggled it until he finally got it opened a little bit and he looked out at this grizzly bear and yelled, “Bear in camp!” I got out of my sleeping bag and grabbed the shotgun and looked out the window from my end. It was just getting light outside and I’m looking out the tent window just in time to see the bear come and pick up a chunk of ham and gobble it. He was standing about twelve feet away looking me in the eye. He was really a beautiful bear. He looked to be about three years old, didn’t have the large head yet, and he appeared to have a long neck. (That tells a person that he’s not a mature bear.) I’ve got every confidence in the 12-gage. Jerry yells at him and tells him to get out of there and he bounds over the hill towards Tyone Creek.

I take the radiator out of the buggy and draw a picture and measure it and Jerry fixes breakfast—he’s a good cook. I take a small lunch and a raincoat and start walking out to the highway (It’s about 26 to 27 miles out there). I say so long to Jerry, from the top of the first hill. He has the flu and I tell him to sleep in the buggy in case the bear comes back. Flushed ptarmigan from off the trail and two miles later, two nice caribou bulls at about 200 yards. Then at three miles, a snow track, pulling a trailer, he had the tongue broke out. They planned to chain the tongue and the trailer and the snow track all together and continued to the hunt. I walk on to Little Nelchina and get a good drink of water and I tie my pant legs tight to my boots (loosened the boot strings and tied the pants tight to the boots) and then wade the river as fast as I can. That keeps most of the water from getting in my boots. It works real well. I get across the river and there’s more bear droppings and the more along the river I walked, I see more. Two miles later the trail over Monument Mountain, I eat half of my food. Two thirds up the mountain, I smell carrion. I talk out loud and move on. (Talking helps avoid the possibility of startling a bear that might be in the vicinity.) No water here—small dip with snow and it doesn’t taste good. I stop and rest a little coming down the other side of the mountain. Get a drink at Crooked Creek and I’m getting quite tired now.

I’m 4 ½ miles from the highway when a fellow gives me a ride. He’s got a brand new Ranger track hunting vehicle and he’s got a new trailer behind it. The guy is really thorough; he has built a ROP on it (rollover protection). When we come to the top of a big hill, I ask him if he wants me to get off and walk down the hill and he says, no, he thought it would be alright. We get down the hill about a third of the way and all of a sudden, the trailer hitch comes unhooked from the Ranger. It’s a new outfit and he hadn’t snugged up the bolt that keeps the hitch fastened to the Ranger and it ran ahead into the track and threw the track off of the Ranger. The Ranger went over on its side and on up on its top and is sliding down the trail, upside down. We didn’t slide so awfully far, but it finally got stopped. He had safety belts on the seats and we were both strapped in and hanging upside down off of the seats. He asked if I’m all right. I told him yes, I was not hurt. So he undid his belt and dropped out and got out of the frame and I got mine unhooked and got out of the Ranger. We’re standing there looking at it and telling each other how lucky we are we aren’t hurt and I look at my rifle—it’s got 4 inches of mud on the muzzle from where it had dragged in the trail coming down.

There was nothing left to do but try to get the Ranger up on its tracks. He had a come-along with him and a really good strong rope. Luckily the rope reached some willows that were big enough to use as an anchor. It was a nylon rope and the darned thing stretched quite a bit. We had to unhook the come-along and re-hook and hook and re-hook. I’d hold the rope tight as I could while he would be changing it. We finally got the Ranger rolled upright—and it’s crooked in the trail. We have to get it pulled around and blocked so it won’t roll on down this hill. We get it jacked up off of the ground and we loosen the adjustments for the track and we get the track on there and then readjust the tracks. We discover what caused the accident when we went to hook it up to the Ranger; it was obvious that this bolt had gotten loose and let the whole thing happen. So we tightened that bolt. When he went to try to start the motor then, it wouldn’t start. On closer inspection, we find that when the Ranger was rolling down the hill, it got to going really fast and he was using the gears and its compression to help with the brakes. It was going so fast that the pressure stretched the bolts that held the head on the motor. He did have a toolbox with all the tools he needed to work on it, so he re-tightened the head bolts. Then it started and ran well and we got out to the gravel pit at the highway (what everyone calls the trailhead).

He had a vehicle there and gave me a ride to the Nelchina Lodge and then all that was left for the evening was to eat, drink and sleep. I was really tired.

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.