Father-son memories are never more poignant than those that stem from alone time in the wilderness. When extreme conditions and a near death experience enter that equation, those memories are intensified exponentially … seared into the brain’s deepest storage center.
Some forty years ago, I lived out one of those experiences with my own father. It wasn’t the first time we’d faced danger in the wilderness together and it definitely wasn’t the last. I relate this story because of all our adventures, this is one of those that comes to mind first.
The year was 1974. We didn’t see Dad much at all that summer, which was typical. To supplement his meager teaching income, he worked as a big game hunting and fishing guide during the summers in some of the most remote parts of Alaska. At the end of the school year, he’d pile the family into our car and take us out to eat. This was a very big deal to us. For one, we had very little money … going out to eat was a once a year occurrence. On top of that, this was Dad’s annual goodbye dinner. The next day, he’d hop on a float plane and slip into the wilds of Alaska for weeks or even months at a time.
“Subsistence hunting was not
just a part of our life,
it was our life.”
I had listened to Dad’s guiding tales for many years and the ones that fascinated me the most involved his numerous Dall sheep hunts. I yearned to enter the high country and accompany him on one of those hunts, and it wasn’t long till my wish came true.At twelve years old, I was old enough to have hunted small game on my own for the past three or four years. One year earlier, I had proudly bagged my first mountain goat high in the hills above Skagway. Subsistence hunting was not just a part of our life, it was our life. Every piece of meat on our table was harvested by someone in the family.
It was late fall when Dad surprised me by showing up at one of my football practices. I hadn’t seen him in a month and this was an unexpected visit, so of course I was excited. Pulling me out of practice early, he asked if I was willing to miss a little ball and go sheep hunting. Boy, was I! We immediately headed home and I packed my gear.
The next morning, we headed out. It was a five hour drive from Wasilla to Silver Lake, a small body of water that lay between the old mining towns of Chitina and McCarthy. The road out of Chitina was brutal. It’s much improved now, but in those days we bounced along an old railroad bed that was once used to transport high-grade copper ore from the mines at Kennicott to the port of Cordova. One of the most hair-raising parts was crossing a rickety railroad trestle that spanned a two hundred foot deep gorge. Many of the planks were missing so Dad had to exit the truck numerous times and replace them by hand. After finally reaching the lake, we boarded a small floatplane, took off, and landed on a glacial lake high in the rugged Wrangell Mountains.
There was a small tent set up beside the lake; this served as Dad’s base camp where he’d glass the mountains and begin his hunts. After eating a pouch of freeze-dried stroganoff, we spent an uncomfortable night fighting for sleep … the uneven glacial moraine made a pretty lousy sleeping pad. Eventually, I faded off with visions of full curl rams in my mind.
The next day, I was fully introduced to what being in “sheep hunting shape” really meant. I was a very active kid at the time … football, basketball, hockey, skiing … whatever. I never stood still and I considered myself to be in great shape. But, “sheep hunting shape” is animal shape. At least it was for Dad. Carrying a sixty pound backpack all day long (and remember, the days are very long in Alaskan summers) over icy, rocky, steep, unstable terrain will break anyone who is not prepared for it. Dad told me the worst thing that could happen as a guide was to have a plane land with an overweight and unprepared client. That meant dad would most likely have to carry the guy’s load for him. Sometimes, he even had to tie ropes around out of shape client’s waists and literally drag them up the hills.
Our first day on the glacier we hiked nearly twelve miles up to a second camp. I arrived exhausted and ready to sleep. That’s not what happened. We were there for one purpose … to dismantle that camp and return to base. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want Dad to know how much I was hurting so I bucked up and began the long trek back. We glassed along the way and spotted quite a few nice sheep. Dad estimated they were in the 35 to 37 inch range. Big, but not what he had in mind for me. Years of guiding experience in the area had him convinced that somewhere in those hills lay record book sized rams. He had spotted a couple that he was sure were over 40 inches earlier in the week, and he thought he could get me close enough for a decent shot.
“By this time, my fingertips were bleeding and
I was scared to death …
absolutely sure that my life was about to end
at twelve years old.”
By the time we arrived back at base camp, it was almost midnight. I was miserable. My feet were screaming and the moleskin did little to alleviate the painful blisters on my heels and toes. My one consolation, besides the satisfaction of knowing that I had just hiked 24 miles in one day with a full pack, were the words Dad told me that night. “I know you’re hurting, but there aren’t very many people in the world that could have done what you did today.” Funny how a few words like that can soothe so much pain.
The next morning arrived cool and crisp. Distant rock slides could occasionally be heard breaking the glacier’s immense icy silence. As we prepared breakfast, Dad was continually glassing the mountainsides when he suddenly called out, “There they are!”
The two monster rams he had spotted earlier in the week were standing on a small plateau high above some practically vertical cliffs less than a mile from our camp. We hurriedly grabbed our rifles and backpacks and set out after them. By keeping ourselves close to the cliff face, we were able to remain downwind and out of sight. When we arrived at a spot that we believed was directly beneath the sheep, we separated, electing to take parallel routes up the cliff face.
The higher I climbed the steeper it became. Eventually I reached a point where the rock face was actually more than vertical. I was a couple hundred feet up, my gun was strapped across my backpack weighing me down, and I was in absolute no-man’s land. I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down. Sometimes when you’re hunting, adrenaline kicks in and leads you to make some stupid decisions.
“I said a quick prayer and
the next time the rope swung my way,
I lunged for it.”
I called to Dad who was on a gentler face about fifteen feet to my right. He tried to coach me down but I couldn’t see my feet below me so there was no way to descend. By this time, my fingertips were bleeding and I was scared to death … absolutely sure that my life was about to end at twelve years old. He could see the fear in my eyes and he tried to calm me down. He said that later we were going to look back at this and laugh. That just upset me more. Somehow, Dad was able to reach into a pocket in his backpack and pull out a long nylon cord. He wrapped one end around his wrist and then tried swinging the other end over to me. I wouldn’t reach for it, because if I let go and missed, I’d most likely be dead, plus, I didn’t believe that Dad would be able to lower me down without falling himself. I was losing my grip strength and Dad convinced me that I had no other choice. I had to trust him, so I said a quick prayer and the next time the rope swung my way, I lunged for it. I caught it and immediately my body swung around backwards forcing my rifle into the rocks. Dad was able to lower me down to a safe ledge and I cried with relief. My gun, a beautiful .243, was a mess, and I thought Dad would get mad at me for dinging it up, but he didn’t get upset at all. I think he was as grateful as I was that we’d made it out of that one.
That near death experience had a sobering effect on both of us. We spent the next three days near camp glassing and patiently waiting for the big rams to move to a more accessible location. They never did. Right before our pilot returned to pick us up, I trained Dad’s spotting scope on the larger of the two sheep. He was standing in the exact spot he was in three days before, nonchalantly chewing his cud, and I swear, that sheep was smiling at me.
Story By Chuck Heath, Jr.