Book Excerpt: An Alaskan Transplant’s Last Frontier Memories
The following appears in the December issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
When I first came to the Alaskan Arctic in the mid-1990s, I had no idea that I would end up spending almost 25 years of my life here. The first time I came up here is what did it,
and looking back I believe it really was that trip that truly hooked me. But if you told me back then that I would spend half my life here – a whole quarter of a century – I would have told you that you were crazy. But I did and with that came a life of incredible blessings.
One of the things I promised myself back then was that I would write a book about my time here and chronicle my adventures in the Arctic, so to speak. I remember sitting on my parents’ couch in Oklahoma having a discussion with my father before I moved north. He asked me why I was going (as if he didn’t know) and how long I might be gone.
It was the hunting, of course, and I really didn’t know how long I would be away. “Long enough to write a book about hunting in the Arctic,” I told him. My writing skills were new back then, and even though I had only been published a couple of times I had the bug and wanted to continue doing so, if I could. Anyway, my dad agreed and supported me on my quest.
I kept journals in those early Arctic years, and with much effort and many sealed envelopes full of CDs and cover letters later I got published. Many of those mailings were rejected, and for good reason, but eventually it did happen.
Most of those that did get greenlit for publication were in magazines that accepted manuscripts for consideration. In return I received nothing moneywise – only an opportunity. And even though most of those publications were very reader-specific, I was grateful for the exposure. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
For some, having an Alaskan story published once would be enough, but it wasn’t for me. The biggest reason was the extensive amount of storylines I had or could gather. Every day up here was a new adventure, allowing me to write as much as I wanted. It was truly endless.
So, as the journals filled – I have boxes of old steno notebooks filled with ink – I kept writing. Eventually over time I got better at the craft and it was no longer “if” I could get it published, but where and whom I wanted to publish it with. I’ve been blessed and a bit lucky, but I would say with a lot of hard work and persistence it has paid off over the years.
I’m not bragging by any means; there are many writers who are a lot better than me. But I’ve been fortunate enough to be published over 400 times in my career as a writer. Most if not all of those have pertained to my life here in the Alaskan Arctic – specifically my hunting and fishing adventures, plus a few survival tales thrown in there.
So, as you may have guessed, the time finally came to put my book together. I thought it would be hard at first, but with the right publisher, good editors and, of course, a laptop with Microsoft Word, it became quite easy.
My old journals served a purpose too, and going through them again brought back a ton of memories – the old days of sitting at Bayside Restaurant with a cup of coffee writing away or inside a tent at night listening for bears as I tried to write – that I wanted somehow to get into the book.
Looking back on all those old stories, I was really surprised at how much material I had to use. It was all there, endless adventures throughout the Arctic and all of Alaska. The memories were vivid, and the time had come to put it all together. So with that, my book has come to fruition. It was a dream that I had and something I promised myself I would do long ago. I look at it as coming full circle during my time here.
The following are just a few excerpts from my book, Atkins’ Alaska, published by Publications Consultants in Anchorage, Alaska. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have had putting them together.
Sometimes, tales of past experiences get put aside like an old pair of boots, but they’re hardly forgotten. I think about them often and to tell the truth, they define who I am and what I’ve done here. Events where mistakes were made, and if not for a lucky decision here and there, things could have turned out quite differently. I’ve been a part of or at least participated in many of these here in the Arctic, and to be honest there have been times when I didn’t think I’d make it home alive.
I definitely learned from them and there are few that are hard to write about. The struggles of each were real and the sheer closeness to receiving bodily harm was a little too close for comfort.
Many people shake their head and wonder why I put myself in these situations. Looking back, I wonder myself sometimes. Was it the challenge, the adventure or maybe the sheer want of an animal that propelled me? All I know is that most people can’t comprehend what it’s like to come face to face with a sow grizzly or the sinking feeling that if something isn’t done soon, you’ll freeze to death. Crazy, to say the least.
This is one of those stories. A flash from the past where we became the prey and not the predator. Sometimes it’s better to just shake your head, back out and say, nope.
It was pitch dark and the big grizzly was rushing full speed towards our tent. With a flashlight in one hand and a .44 in the other, all I could say was, “Here he comes again, and this time I don’t think he is going to stop!” The only comfort was being inside the tent, or so I thought. This was like a bad dream …
HIGH MOUNTAIN OX
Teetering on the side of a mountain, I came to a stop thinking, “This is really going to hurt!” The slick, hard-packed snow provided zero traction and my Sno- Go track began to spin at its steepest point. Thirty yards from the top, where Lew stood watching me, I began to tip.
One ski was off the ground, and I could feel the weight of the heavy sled pushing against me. Straddling the seat and leaning hard against the mountain, I knew I couldn’t hold it much longer and prepared for the long tumble down to where I had started. In my mind, I could see gear – bow, rifle and everything else – scattered like trash down the mountainside, and me with a broken neck. Luckily, I was able to balance it and bring it to a stop.
This year’s weather has been difficult here in the far north, more weird than difficult. Winter arrived early, producing tons of snow blanketing the region in deep white and then it began to warm up.
We then had rain for a few days and then it reversed itself again, giving us a dose of extreme cold. I can handle these changes – I’ve been doing it for years – but the inconsistency is a killer for those of us who like to be outside.
Ideally you want super-cold temperatures followed by lots of snow, but if it warms up and rains, it gets downright miserable. Slush and thin ice make travel dangerous and normal hunting time nonexistence. We couldn’t get out and do anything, so all we could do was wait for it to get cold again …
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
“Eli, are you going to be OK?” I asked for the hundredth time. Through tearful eyes he replied with a simple, “Yes.” I wondered if he really was, though, and it worried me. The Dramamine had little effect and the patches seemed more like a gimmick than an actual preventive against seasickness.
I felt sorry for him, to say the least – this might have been a bad idea, dragging him out onto the ocean for a trip like this. Thankfully, however, one of the guys on the boat had been thoughtful enough to bring a bag of Jolly Ranchers, which in the end helped save the day and the entire trip.
I know this isn’t how I usually start one of my stories, but when your fishing and hunting trip requires a boat in order to go a long distance in big water, then it usually always starts just like that.
Five-day excursions into wide open places, such as the southern end of Kamishak Bay (where we were), or other places like the Chukchi Sea where I live, are not for the faint-hearted anyway, but are common practices come May through June here in Alaska. Getting sick from the ever-pounding waves and rocking of the boat are a given and eventually someone or all will spill their beans.
This was not my first trip onto the deep blue, but it had been many years since I flew to Homer and tested my nerve and skill on a trip such as this.
“Cast and blast,” as it is often referred, are five-to-six-day boat hunts and fishing tours provided by transporters in and out of one or many bodies of water here in Alaska. They are fun and exciting and provide a lot of enjoyment for a true Alaskan adventure, something all should experience at least once in their lives …
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE ARCTIC
Alaska’s Arctic has been kind to me. Living here for the last 20 years has brought me many experiences, both good and bad. I’ve seen things that most only dream about and been involved in some of the greatest hunting adventures in what is truly one of the last great places on Earth.
Whether it’s been muskox on the northwest coast – where just surviving becomes the main focus – or chasing Dall sheep in winter or hunting the barren tundra where the mighty grizzly and majestic caribou roam, all were unforgettable, and each are etched in my mind forever. Here is one of those incredible times.
“They’re right over the edge,” I whispered into Lew’s ear.
“How many?” he asked.
“I don’t know?” I said. “I only saw the top of their backs.”
Lew’s face lit up with excitement shouting, “Check again, check again!”
“OK, but we have to be quiet or we’ll scare them off,” I told him.
We were hunting muskox on a hill overlooking the Agashashok River, located just north of Kotzebue in the Baird Mountains. Lew is a great friend who has been living here in the Arctic for the last 15 years. He and I have been hunting together for several of those years, but Lew, like many, had never seen a wild muskox up close before, let alone a small herd, like those now hidden in front of us.
I dropped down to my knees and crawled up over the edge to have a look. Easing my frozen binoculars up, I peered through the eyecups, only to come face to face with one of the beasts. “Damn,” I said under my breath, “they’re close!” Not wavering, I kept my eyes peeled, looking at each and counting under my breath.
After a few minutes I turned to Lew, who stood there holding the camera, all dressed in his warm but bright red parka.
“They’re right there!” I told him. “How many?” he asked.
“Twelve,” I said.
“Dang, let’s shoot one!” he blurted. “We can’t,” I said. “They’re all cows!” Quietly we stood there wondering what to do next. I could tell Lew was disappointed and so was I, but that’s how things work sometimes.
“What should we do?” he asked, pointing to the herd that was now wondering off. “Nothing; let’s just take this all in and remember,” I muttered …
WAITING TO FREEZE
The caribou were but small specks in the distance, tiny white spots against a burnt-orange and brown landscape. There was no cover to speak of and the hike over would take us through a land mine of deep tussocks and shallow pools.
The temperature was well below freezing and the north wind was crisp, bending spruce and biting through thick layers of clothes. I dreaded the hike, but hopefully the ground would be frozen, and the 2-mile stalk would be easy on my knees.
September is long gone now. Moose season is over and most of the caribou have moved south to their winter range. The trips across the big lake are finished and the old duck blind lies vacant until next season.
The big snowshoe hare are camouflaging themselves in white, while the half-white, half-brown ptarmigan dance in the willows, waiting on the snow to fall. It truly is a time of change.
Late October and early November are difficult times here in the Arctic, especially for the outdoorsman. Much like being in purgatory, the “hurry up and wait” mentality will drive you crazy. The ocean is cold but not frozen yet.
Rivers are icing up along the edges and the small tributaries are layered in white crystal. Boats are being stored while snowmachines lay in wait, filling yards and garages across the Arctic. It’s a time of bored anticipation.
As a hunter, it’s also a tough time for me personally. In the 20 years I’ve lived here I still cannot get used to this time of year. Most of my friends who live down south are just beginning their hunting seasons, with many still in waiting. I watch online at their exploits with jealous congratulations, praying for their success and seeing their failures. Each day they’re either sitting in a tree stand or pulling on waders to go chase birds or maybe even cutting meat, which finds me wishing I was there with them.
And even though I’d like to be, I wouldn’t trade places with them. I love Alaska and what it will bring, but now all I can do is sit, reflect and wait for snow. ASJ
Editor’s note: Atkins’ Alaska will be available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and everywhere good books are sold. It can also be ordered through author Paul Atkins’ website, paulatkinsoutdoors.com, and if you want an autographed copy, email him at paul@ paulatkinsoutdoors.com.
Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting in Alaska and throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.