Outdoors & Recreation

Wild Country / Strange People

Photo by Mike Nichols

Photo by Mike Nichols

Our “neighbor” Ed and I talk a lot. He’s a couple of days on foot from our place, but we still manage to talk often. I can always tell when he calls as I hear the static from his radio phone long before I hear the click of him keying his “mic” and hear the always welcome, and always familiar … “What’s goin on over there?” Most times we don’t talk about a lot, other than how many moose we’ve been seeing, how many bears have been around, the weather, and so forth. Most people would get bored pretty fast if they were listening in on the conversation, and with the system we use its totally possible for someone to join the line. Too bad for them I guess. My wife, Pam, and I have spent almost a quarter of a century living in remote Alaska, and Ed has spent twice that amount of time out here, so, needless to say, we understand each other-mostly. We have talked about the “strange people” who live all bunched up out in “civilization.” It just seems odd, and with more years out here than I have, Ed seems to think it’s weirder than I do. That said, over the years of living in Alaska, Ed and I have shared a few strange stories of OTHER folks (certainly not Ed or I) living out here in the Bush, who might be as odd as all those living in civilization…

One of these stories is about a fellow named Gabe (some names have been changed to protect the innocent, or guilty, as the case may be). Most of this I know for fact, some was picked up over the years as the “Gabe Saga” continued, and while I can’t vouch for the story one hundred percent … it’s pretty close to true, and it is the way I heard it.

He was not really setup
for what he was attempting to do.
But he survived the winter.

For me it started one day years ago after the winter’s ice broke off our lake. With our little airplane on floats, I made the first flight out to town of the summer to pick up a month’s worth of mail, and start catching up on supplies which get pretty well depleted over the long winter and through the spring break up. After landing on a small lake outside of the small village of Talkeetna, I ran into a good friend who was flying for a local flight service and was headed out to pick up a client. After not seeing him since the fall we caught up a bit on the news. I noticed he was glancing at his watch every couple of minutes and, knowing he was pretty much an on time guy, I said, “You better get going Elbert, I don’t want to make you late … we can talk later.” He hesitated, and then quietly said, “Well, I have to go pick up Gabe … I don’t really want to … he really smells bad and the plane takes days to air out.” Wow. That didn’t sound too good. I found out Elbert had flown Gabe into the wilderness by float plane the fall before, late in the season when ice was starting to form on the lakes. It seemed Gabe was ill prepared to winter in the Bush. He had his “supplies” loose in garbage bags, some of it stinky, and he was talking about raising mink or some such. He was wearing jeans and cowboy boots, and ended up falling in three feet of water on his back in the icy lake, eyes wide open, sputtering, “I can’t swim. I can’t swim!” He was not really setup for what he was attempting to do. But he survived the winter.

A few days later, while I was loading the plane to fly our supplies home, I noticed cases and cases of grapefruit stacked on the dock next to where I was loading. I mean like fifty-six cases, as I recall. I found out from my pilot friend that Gabe was having his summer supplies flown out, about ninety-five per cent of which appeared to be … grapefruit-fresh grapefruit, and little of anything else. Hum … a bit odd, to say the least.

It seemed there was something new each year. One spring I flew out and saw cases and cases of spinach stacked high on the dock-fresh spinach. I had no doubt about where it was going. My biggest wonder was how Gabe expected to keep it all from going bad. It was … well, kinda odd. Again.

Then my friend Elbert, who had flown him in and out many times by that point, started telling me about Gabe. Gabe knew a lot about old movies and baseball. He could tell you the details of almost any baseball World Series. You could say something like, “Boy that (pick a year, 1948, 1972, 1991…) Series was really something, huh?” and Gabe would rattle off the stats like he had just watched the game in person. Made you kind of wonder a little.

We all started to figure things out when we were told that sometimes Gabe could be heard long before being seen, coming down the trail to the waiting airplane on the lake, talking away to his imaginary friend … “I told ya not to do that …” pause, then, “Well see? That’s why I told ya not to do it …” He would break out of the brush to the plane and say, “Hey Elbert, how you doin?” as if the entire world was in order, and for Gabe, I’m sure it was.

They dispatched a helicopter to go
check and found Gabe buried in his hole
in the snow, about asphyxiated
from his oil stove and in bad shape.

As the years passed, things got even stranger. Gabe lived in a hole in the ground, a crude affair from what I was told, consisting of a hole with a few logs across the top of it, covered with a tarp. With no communication, if Gabe wanted a ride out he would hike to the lake, where he was picked up and dropped off at, and spread a blue tarp out on the bank, which notified any passing flight service that he needed a ride out. It used to be common for the bush pilots who work for hire to know where most folks lived out in the wilderness. In their flights by, mainly in winter’s quiet times, they would always check for signs of activity when passing. Tracks around the place are always a good sign, smoke from a chimney even better. They show that things are okay on the home front. One pilot had flown by on a couple of occasions a few days apart and saw no signs of life in the area Gabe was living. With Gabe’s reputation the pilot was highly concerned, and, not wanting to go out on a body recovery alone, he called the Alaska State Troopers. They dispatched a helicopter to go check and found Gabe buried in his hole in the snow, about asphyxiated from his oil stove and in bad shape. He was flown out and taken to the hospital where he recovered quickly, and shortly returned to his hole in the ground.

The next “event” was a couple years later, again in the winter, and while the situation was every bit as serious, the consequences were far more severe. Gabe hitched a flight out to his “place,” and the pilot dropped him off assuming he had everything he needed. No one goes into the Bush unprepared, right? Knowing Gabe’s reputation and concerned about him the pilot flew back later to check on him. He found Gabe in his hole in the ground, curled up in his sleeping bag where he had been for sometime with little of anything for food or heat, and his feet were so swollen he could not get his shoes on. They got him out and to the hospital again, but they were unable to save his feet. The recovery did not take long though. In a few short months Gabe was back in Talkeetna, looking for another ride to his place. No problem for him, he was going back home. I recall well, Elbert was worried for him. We talked about options. It was apparent Gabe was going to find someone to get him in, so Elbert basically gave him a list. It said, “You need to have … food, a tent, a stove,” and this and that etc, etc, “Get it all so you’ll be safe and I’ll take you in.” So Gabe gathered it all up and Elbert flew him in. Then he helped Gabe get a camp set up, which I imagine had to be a little tough for Gabe with his new artificial feet. Elbert gave him a phone and said, “You call me if you need anything.”

“I tried to make friends with the bears,
but they don’t wanta be friends …”

About a week later, on his own time, at his own expense, Elbert flew in to check on Gabe and found his new camp on the lake abandoned. He had moved back down to his hole in the ground. As Elbert started the hike to check on Gabe, he ran into a pile of bear scat in the trail. Nothing unusual about that, bears are all over Alaska. A short distance farther and … more bear scat. Then more scat, and more, and upon reaching Gabe’s hovel, the bear scat was thick, the ground was torn up and the situation looked bad. Looking down into the entrance to Gabe’s hole he saw a tangle of rope, tarp, sticks and snowshoes, obviously an attempt to barricade the bears. Elbert, hesitantly, softly, expecting the worst, said, “Gabe, are you in there?” The reply was quick, “Elbert, Elbert, is that you?! … Get me out of here … the bears are bad this year, really bad Elbert, get me out, I’m leavin.” Elbert said he started cutting ropes and removing the mass Gabe had tangled over the entrance. Noting some of the bear sign was quite fresh, he asked, “How long since the bears were here, Gabe?” There was a pause as Gabe thought … “Oh, I don’t know … maybe twenty minutes?” Elbert, unarmed, cut faster. Once the bottom of the entrance was partly open, Gabe shot out, forgetting his feet. Elbert made him go back in and get his feet. “And at least get my phone too…” he added. “Okay, now let’s go.” They were shortly back to the plane and flying out. Gabe assured Elbert he could have everything, he was not going back there. It turns out after quite a few years of living in remote Alaska, the cause of the latest problem was again of Gabe’s own making. He had decided to start feeding the bears. “I tried to make friends with the bears, but they don’t wanta be friends …” And Gabe never went back.

It’s kind of a sad story really. The last I heard Gabe tried to make a go of it in civilization, which worked out poorly and he ended up in a care home of some sort. There is little doubt that he would have died out there at some point, but you know, I’m sure his hole in the ground looks good to him from time to time … even with all the bears.


Story by Mike Nichols

Categories: Outdoors & Recreation

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