Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Shot to the Heart, Part 1

Three Alaska Women Go Moose Hunting

The Yupik Eskimos who live beside the 800-mile-long Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska believe that hunting is a joint endeavor between man and animal, and both must agree to participate. When the animal stands facing the hunter, it is offering itself to be taken for the hunter’s needs; it knows this and makes the offer willingly. The hunter must be worthy of the offer, seeking the animal with an attitude of respect and gratitude.

As Lynn sighted through the scope of her Winchester 270 at the bull moose standing 85 yards away, she felt a lot of things. The adrenaline thundering in her veins had her heart pounding like mad, her breathing deep and full, her eyesight sharpened, her muscles tensed and ready. She was nearly shaking with the effort to control her body’s fight-or-flight response. At the same time, she felt deeply the respect and gratitude that were the animal’s due; but even these were surmounted completely by her awe at the magnificent beauty of the animal. He stood facing her head on, six feet tall at the shoulder, displaying the full width of his chest and his mighty eight-point rack, calmly chewing on young willow shoots. Perfectly still, he looked at her.

“Thank you,” she whispered, as she gently pulled the trigger. It was a shot straight through the heart, and he died after taking only a few steps and then sinking slowly to the earth.

The sound of the gunshot echoed away, down rivers, across valleys, up against mountains, deep into the Alaskan wilderness. In all these square miles, there was no one to hear it. To this remote spot on the bank of the Swift River three of us had traveled hundreds of miles to meet this moose, a long river journey up the Kuskokwim River from the town of Bethel, then several days hunting up and down the main river, exploring tributaries, looking, looking, always looking. Three women: Lynn, Tracy, and me. We came here to learn the lessons of the river, and the land, and the moose; we sought to hunt with honor, and to receive what was offered with gratitude.

The area around the upper Kuskokwim River is a huge and beautiful land, almost completely untouched by human presence. The tributaries that run into it are fast and deep, cold and clear. Wildlife is abundant, and the land hums with an energy that feels like stars are singing.

The trip began a week earlier, after months of planning. The three of us had been best friends for about eight years. Lynn and I both work at the hospital here in Bethel. She is an experienced hunter who had taken two moose in previous hunts. Tracy is a dedicated angler from southeast Alaska who had never hunted but loves to camp, hike, fish, and do anything outdoors. She is physically fit, generally competent, usually cheerful and always helpful; an ideal traveling companion. Like Tracy, I have always loved the outdoors, but had never hunted before.

We left Bethel in my 22-foot handmade aluminum boat loaded with camping gear, a wall tent with a wood stove, rifles, an inflatable Zodiac, a spare outboard motor, 110 gallons of gasoline, plenty of food and two dogs. Downriver people like ourselves usually face a journey upriver with a combination of excitement and trepidation. Everybody who travels the river has at some point been stuck on a sandbar that appeared out of nowhere or lost in a side slough that looked like the main river. Preparation for river travel must be well-planned and carefully executed, for the dozen or so upriver villages cannot be depended upon to have supplies or gas; and if they do, prices are likely to be steep.

The plan was to travel three hundred miles up the Kuskokwim River past the village of Stony River and spend two weeks camping and hunting moose. It would be an ambitious undertaking for anyone, but for three non-Native women to do it was considered audacious in the extreme. Tongues were wagging and skeptical eyes were watching us as we left town.

We cruised out of Bethel on the first Sunday in September under clear skies with a light breeze at our backs. The river was friendly and just smiled at us as we made the only big mistake of the entire trip right at the start; after three hours on the river, we were suddenly back in Bethel. We got turned around on a slough up above the village of Kwethluk and never even realized we had headed back downstream. In telling the story later, we came to understand that it is a mistake many people make at least once, but at the time our egos were certainly chastened by the experience.

The trip to Stony River took twenty hours over three days. We found beautiful, isolated campsites each night and felt continuously smiled upon by the river gods. We found a few shallow spots in the river, but managed not to get caught by them. Watching the miles of riverbank go by, it was evident that we were gaining elevation. The river gradually became more narrow and swift and mountains appeared in the distance. The season seemed to advance quickly; trees that were all green in Bethel were dressing the hillsides in green and gold by the time we made it to the village of Aniak, about half way.

Our ultimate destination was some land up the Swift River and the Sunitna River, tributaries to the Kuskokwim, another twenty miles past Stony River. We had an invitation to stay there from our friend, Goosma, a retired river boat pilot who divides his time between Bethel and his home in Stony River. We were to check with his brother Andrewski, also a river boat pilot, when we got to Stony.

The village of Stony River is quite small; perhaps 45 people live there. About half the homes are log, in variable states of repair. As in most Eskimo villages, there are quite a few old government-built houses from the 1960s. Lots of old abandoned equipment stands about, lending a somewhat run-down air to the place.

When we pulled in off the slough that leads into Stony River from the Kuskokwim, we were at Stony Landing, the home of Andrewski and his wife Maria, one of the nicest homes in the village. Andrewski greeted us warmly as friends of his brother and directed us to find his son Brian to get help finding a place to stay for the night.

Brian is a strikingly handsome young man in his late 20s with beautiful, straight white teeth, wide Eskimo cheekbones, snapping black eyes and a movie star smile. He is tall and dark with jet-black hair that stands up like a roach, and he moves with an athletic grace. He was very warm and friendly and glad to help. In the end, Goosma’s daughter Anna offered us her house; she was housesitting at her dad’s place while he was down in Bethel. be continued...



Anonymous wolfbaby said...

how very exciting for all three of you.. i love the tradition that native americans have towards respecting mother earth and it't in habatitants..

Friday, September 08, 2006 2:56:00 PM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

Whoa - This is an amazing undertaking, I'm in awe that you all took it on. I can't barely even get my act together enought to pack for a weekend at our own house, let alone have to bring along my own gasoline and campong gear for a week on the river traveling 300 miles!!!ou are a WOnder WOman (all three of you). Can;t wait to read the next installment.

Saturday, September 09, 2006 3:03:00 PM  

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