The Caretaker

As a young boy I dreamed of living in the wilderness. At about 9 years old, growing up in the remote mountain “Ozarks” of Northern California, I had my own little self-built “log cabin.” In reality it was a rather crude affair, but it was built of logs—hand cut, hand drug and placed into position by yours truly (and anyone else I could recruit, usually my dog). A log “lean-to” may be a more appropriate description. Summer evenings would usually find me heading over to my “cabin” where I, along with my faithful dog, would spend my nights and most of my days if chores did not force me home to our small ranch. I loved it. I recall my mother telling me later how she didn’t like it. She told my father to tell me I couldn’t spend my nights over there. But in the “olden days” dads were not like today … “Let him go, he’s 9, make a man outta him …,” Dad would tell her.

The call of wild country carried over into young adulthood and pushed my new wife, Pam, and I off to the mountains of Montana. For almost two wonderful decades we lived a great life of fun and adventure. It was almost enough. But many nights I still went to bed dreaming of real wilderness: remote, no roads, no electricity, wild animals—lots of them—and a land where you depend on yourself to survive. So after a lot of looking, at the ripe old age of 42, Pam and I, along with our then 9-year-old son, Aaron, headed for the Alaskan Bush. It was a perfect fit for us.

There are a lot of people who think they would love to live in the wilderness. Some more than others. But we learned over the years—living in the wilderness is not for everybody, even if only for a few days…

Living in the Alaskan Bush has its challenges for sure. Oddly enough, if you need to leave the place for one reason or another, one of the big challenges is trying to find someone to care for your animals and sweep the bears off the porch from time to time.

Also, there was always the chance a bear could get into the place, which is always a disaster, at the minimum. We could never leave the place without someone around.

It seemed like everyone would love to do it. We were always told, “Oh I would LOVE to come out there… It’s just so beautiful… ” Or, “It is so quiet and peaceful at your place, if you ever need anyone to…”

But, when the time came when we actually needed someone, it seemed like people, civilization, life in general, ruled what folks did with their time. More often than not, we had a heck of a time trying to find someone to be a caretaker. Our dogs were what kept us from just walking out the door. They needed someone to feed and take care of them. Also, there was always the chance a bear could get into the place, which is always a disaster, at the minimum. We could never leave the place without someone around.

I recall one time many years ago, my sister called to tell me our mother had a stroke, which was not unusual. Mom had a history of illness in her life, but the doctors said she would probably not pull out of this one. We immediately started looking for a caretaker. We first called the people we knew and were comfortable with.

Caribou Lodge in winter.
Photo by Rich Haebler

Each answer began in a similar fashion, “Boy, I would love too, but …”

Once those options were exhausted, we started with the “unknowns.” Often an “iffy” proposition at best, but we were desperate to get south to be with Mom, so we were ready to try anyone. After about three days with no luck I told Pam I would fly out to the little town of Talkeetna; there had to be someone who would do it. I would stay until I found them. It was the dead of winter, cold with deep snow. We got the airplane engine preheated, all the covers stripped, an airstrip roughed out over the wind drifted snow and off I flew.

Shortly after landing in Talkeetna, I was checking in with local flight services, mechanics, anyone I knew, and I ran into a friend, who knew a friend, who had a brother … who was not doing anything. I was told, “He would probably be happy to do it. He is bored in town.” A quick call to the friend’s friend, and our potential caretaker showed up at the hangar. A short conversation confirmed he was free, no commitments—a young single fellow in his early twenties. I felt comfortable with him as well. I explained about my mom, told him we would be gone for 18 days and I said, “Don’t call us in 10 days and say you need out and can’t do it …” He confirmed that was no problem, he was free, he would be there. I told him to go home and get his clothes, everything else was at the lodge. We would fly in as soon as he got back, and that’s just what we did.

Once at the lodge Pam and I made our reservations to fly south out of Anchorage the following night. We then started showing “Jeff” around and teaching him about the place.

“If the dogs bark at night, or any time, get up and check it out. Our dogs have been raised and trained since puppies not to bark at nothing. If they bark there are animals here… This is the dog food and this is how you fix it, make sure they get water every day …” and so on.

There was a lot to go over in a short time. I also had about four pages of notes. Each line answering the question, “What to do if …” It went well, until I got to the woodstove.

The next morning dawned clear and cold. I started preheating the engine and getting the airplane ready to fly, which always takes a couple hours in the winter.

“And this is our wood heater, it works great, only source of heat, here’s the damper, pretty simple, I’m sure you’ve used a wood stove before…”

“Well, not really,” he replied, “I’ve never used one.”

It was a bit of a shock. Everything we own in the place, with someone who had never used a woodstove? But it was a little late to change the plan—he was our last option. We gave him a crash course on woodstoves, which consisted of SAFETY, operation, loading, dampers, SAFETY and so forth. By nightfall I was fairly comfortable he was not going to burn the place down while we were away. He had a pretty good idea of how to take care of things.

The next morning dawned clear and cold. I started preheating the engine and getting the airplane ready to fly, which always takes a couple hours in the winter. Even with blue sky all around, I still took the short hike up Blueberry Hill behind our place to check the weather toward Talkeetna, where we would be flying to. I was a little surprised to see a thick layer of fog covering everything down in the valley. It happens, and there is no getting to Talkeetna when it does. We waited and watched throughout the day, expecting the fog to break and lift at some point as it usually does, but by late afternoon we were running out of daylight. It became obvious we were not going to be flying out. The clock was ticking, we still had flight reservations on the “redeye” to fly out of Anchorage at midnight. Though we had rarely done it, and never at night, the next option was to go out by snowmachine.

I asked Jeff if he had ever ridden a snowmachine (all Alaskans call snowmobiles, “snowmachines”). “Yeah,” he said, “Lots of times.”

I then asked if he would drive out on snowmachines with us. Pam and I on one, and Jeff and our son, Aaron, on the other. After leaving us with our truck in Talkeetna he could just turn around and follow our track back in. Although it was a thick, twisty, complicated ride out, he couldn’t get lost, because there would be only one track to lead him back home.

He said, “No problem, sounds like fun…” Well, maybe.

We loaded up and rode off into the night. The ride out is, well, not simple. Once down below the timberline it is a solid forest of thick spruce and birch trees, but I knew the route pretty well and we had no problems. In about two hours we were sitting on the road leading to Talkeetna where our truck was waiting. I told Jeff to just follow our track back home. We would head to Anchorage, but would stop en route and call in a couple of hours to be sure he got back okay. If he did not answer, we would abort our flight reservations, come back, get our snowmachine and go track him down. So it was agreed, he headed back home, and we headed to the airport.

We were cutting it close to making our midnight flight, but it was doable. A couple hours into the drive we stopped at a pay phone as this was “b.c.” (before cell phones) and called home. It rang and rang, no answer. Hmm … I thought to myself. We pushed on toward Anchorage, stopping to call again a short while later. Still no answer. We were getting close to our flight departure time when we stopped to try again.

I told Pam and Aaron, “If he does not answer this time we will have to go back, get on a snowmachine and find him.”

He said he ran the machine off the trail in the ONLY deep hole in the entire route, spent a long time getting unstuck, then got the bent front ski straightened out and made it home.

The phone rang several times and I was about to give up, when I heard Jeff, half breathless, answer, “Caribou Lodge, this is Jeff…”

It was a relief. I said, “You made it huh? We were getting a bit concerned.”

“Yep,” he replied. “I made it, had a little problem though … I kind of wrecked your snowmachine …”

“You what?” I replied.

He said he ran the machine off the trail in the ONLY deep hole in the entire route, spent a long time getting unstuck, then got the bent front ski straightened out and made it home. With further inquiry I learned that he was fine, which was the most important thing, and the snowmachine, while damaged, was still functional. Good enough. We made our flight, but just barely.

We had left Jeff with contact info on how to get a hold of us and with instructions that if he needed anything, just give us a call. Otherwise, I would call him every five days or so and see how it was going. Five days into our absence, after not hearing anything from him, I did just that.

The phone rang and I shortly heard a soft but confident, “Caribou Lodge, this is Jeff.” We chatted for a bit.

I asked questions like, “How’s it going? Finding everything you need? Dogs are all good?” that kind of stuff. All seemed in order. If not chipper, Jeff seemed well enough. We went on visiting with family and Mom, who had made another miracle recovery and was actually just home from the hospital by the time we got down there. Things were turning out very well.

In another five days, again, after not hearing from Jeff, I made another call home. The phone rang several times before I heard him answer, very faintly, ever so softly…

“Caribou Lodge this is Jeff…”

I said, “Jeff?”

“Yes.” he replied, again ever so quietly. I could barely hear him.

“Everything alright?” I asked. “Yes.” he answered, again so softly it was still hard to hear him. And he said nothing more.

“So, you’re doing ok?” I prodded, trying to figure out what was going on.

“Yeah,” he replied.

I went on with questions, trying to pick up on what was happening up there and he kept giving more soft, quiet, one word, barely audible answers. I was baffled, and a bit worried to boot.

Finally, I said straight out, “Jeff, I know there is a problem. Something is wrong. Did a dog die? Did you burn something down? If I have to I will call a flight service and have them fly in to see what is happening. But it would be a whole lot easier if you just tell me what’s going on…”

There was a long silence on the phone, then Jeff started, soft and slow … ”Well, you know, I like silence. I like solitude…” And his voice, and volume, began to pick up and for the first time I could hear him… “But there IS NO ONE OUT HERE! NOTHING! MY SISTER SAID SHE WOULD COME OUT, ROB SAID HE WOULD VISIT, BUT NOTHING! NOBODY!”

And then I understood. Jeff was getting “bushy.” Cabin fever big time … after only 10 days.

So, I told him, “Jeff, go get the axe and chop some wood, go pack some water. Go run a trapline. Get a life, go do something.”

He mumbled a bit about there not being much out there, cheered up slightly, and we finished our conversation. The long and short of it is, Jeff did make the 18 days, but just barely. He was not cut out for all that much peace and solitude. As I’ve mentioned, it’s not for everybody. A couple of months out there and Jeff would have been a basket case. But he made it. On our return flight back home, we were barely out of the plane when Jeff leaped in. There was no way that plane was leaving without him.

I’m sure he will not forget his “experience” for a good many years. And as a matter of fact … neither will we.

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