Thunder Eggs and a Petrified Tree

round rocks

Thunder eggs

Thursday, September 4, 1980—did camp chores, then Mike and I walked the six miles to Little Nelchina airstrip. We were waiting for Ray to show up with the welder. On the way I saw three ptarmigan. He didn’t come, so we walked back to camp with our packs.

Friday, September 5, 1980—we rested up some and tied the dredge up on top of the buggy. Dug a garbage hole, buried our garbage, did some target shooting, carried in wood and caught four trout and two graylings.

Saturday, September 6, 1980—swamp buggy isn’t here with the welder and it’s been several days. We’re wondering where it’s at, so I left camp at 11:30 a.m. and walked 27 miles looking for Ray, not knowing just exactly what trail he might have taken to get to us. The last hour of walking was in the dark and as I came up on a long swamp, all I could see is the water in each track (vehicle track) shining from the stars. I decided to camp along the trail. I’m carrying a pack, sleeping bag, hip boots and some grub. I lay down along the trail on a small piece of canvas (in my sleeping bag) and pull the canvas around over the top of my sleeping bag (in case we get a shower in the night) and go to sleep. During the day I had seen two cow moose, and one calf and a very large bear track, along with lots of broken down ATV’s and swamp buggies. (There are lots of hunters traveling now and this country is hard on vehicles.)

Sunday, September 7, 1980—I was up real early and walked the last three miles out to the highway and hitched a ride to Nelchina. At Nelchina, I got reorganized and went to Gunsight Lodge. Whitey flew me to the confluence of the Little Nelchina and Flat Creek, where I waited again for Ray for several hours. While I’m waiting, I’m walking around this large gravel bar that Whitey landed his plane on and I found a rock that is called a thunder egg. I kept looking and found eight of them. If you cut these rocks in half, they are beautiful in the center. I gather these all up and I have them ready right beside my pack so I can take them with me when Whitey comes, but somehow I didn’t pick them up and take them when I left. When I got to the camp at Flat Creek, the welder had already been delivered.

Monday, September 8, 1980—got up real early and welded the buggy wheel back together, mounted it on the buggy and loaded up our camp. Mike feels that his wife would like to have him back home now. On the way out to the highway we saw three caribou. On the Nelchina, there was a huge piece of petrified tree (I had seen it previously) that I thought I could lift and put on the back of the swamp buggy to take back with us. As we went down the trail, I lost track of where it was and we got past it, so I didn’t turn around to go back and look for it again. It was going to be dark anyhow. Even so, it got quite dark on the trail the last hour that we were coming out. When we got out to Cal’s, Ray Kole was there. Ray is the man that brought the welder out for me. We visited there for a while.

Tuesday, September 9, 1980—went to Gunsight and saw Sylvia. (She’s been working there and rather than drive the 20 mile back and forth each way, she would stay overnight and work another day.) Then we stopped at Cal’s and drove the buggy home. Mike and I unloaded the gear and got him ready to go home. Dan Billman stopped by and then I went back to Gunsight and stayed the night with Sylvia.

An eagle, a bear and a three-toed dinosaur

man with a short beard

Norman Wilkins, early 1980s

Monday, September 1, 1980—I saw a large bull and cow, but it was too far to shoot. Charlie saw a cow and a calf but didn’t want to shoot those. We sighted in his rifle. It rained and blew hard and then a few flakes of snow. It’s pretty cold up in these mountains tonight.

Tuesday, September 2, 1980—up early and hunted off to the north. We walked up a creek there quite some distance. Brought our lunch with us. Saw a pinnacle of rock—an outcropping quite tall and it had lots of white eagle pooh on it. An eagle was sitting up there looking the country over. We walked a little farther and there was an esker (gravel esker) sticking up not too awfully high and it had a really sharp peak on its top. I decided to walk down this. Charlie followed me. We were walking along and I saw this interesting rock—it’s been broke in two. It was a three-toed dinosaur track. This rock was made out of mud, water and pressure at some time in the distant past. I picked up the two pieces that make the dinosaur track and put them in my pack.

We ate our lunch and headed south and east. We saw some more caribou that were too far away to shoot. We shot some ptarmigan, boiled it up and ate the meat. We boiled everything on this ptarmigan, all the little bones and we drank the broth from that—really was good.

One day when we were out hunting ptarmigan, I had a 12 gage shotgun and Charlie carried a rifle. We’d switch off shooting. When I shot a ptarmigan, why then I’d give him the shotgun and I’d take his rifle and he’s shoot the next ptarmigan and so on. We were walking up through the willows and we came upon a six foot grizzly. All I saw at first was just his head. He had heard us coming and was looking at me. Then he stood up and I said “Bear!” to warn Charlie that there was a bear close by. Charlie couldn’t tell from that whether or not the bear was coming at us, so he was backpedaling. When the bear stood up and saw there was two of us, the thing reeled and ran. Charlie said afterwards he was concerned that he was handling a strange gun and was wishing he had his familiar .30-06 in his hands when I hollered “bear”. Here I am holding his .30-06, not familiar with it—and I wished I had my shotgun! But nothing came of it and we got back to camp and dressed out the ptarmigan and had our supper.

Wednesday, September 3, 1980—Charlie had breakfast and walked out to the strip on the Little Nelchina to meet Whitey, the pilot. Whitey will fly him out to the highway. He’s sorry to have to leave us, but he must. I hunted ptarmigan and got five. Mike came back in the early afternoon. He had made arrangements to have a fellow with a swamp buggy bring the welder to us.

Norman watches a wolf feed on caribou

dead caribou mostly eaten by wolf

A wolf fed on this caribou killed by a bear

Monday, August 25, 1980—finished getting ready for the hunting trip. Mike and I left at 3 p.m. We got to Crooked Creek and the Little Nelchina confluence at 8 p.m. and camped for the night. I got stuck and had to winch out once. We saw a caribou, but it was so early in the hunt, we didn’t want to shoot it. We expect to be out here hunting for about three weeks.

Tuesday, August 26, 1980—up at 6 a.m., broke camp at 9:00, reached Flat Creek at 11:00 and went on to McDougal creek. Went up McDougal 3.5 miles, prospecting on the way and glassed for sheep and camped. Saw one caribou.

Wednesday, August 27, 1980—went up a mountain of rotten rock, held together with very little moss. We got up on the shoulder of that mountain and sat down to rest for a while. We were looking the country over and we saw a wolf—this wolf had a white tail tip, much like that of a red fox. We watched this wolf and he seems to be going somewhere, but he’s hunting as he goes along. Pretty soon we see him get very cautious and he circles around, finally he goes in to feed on a caribou that a bear has killed—but he’s always looking around in fear that the bear will come along, but it doesn’t show up. He fed for a while until he took the antlers in his teeth and dragged them off for a ways and kind of worked at that. The last we saw of him that day he was going off to the north. Then we went on up the mountain.

We had to cross—I guess you’d call it a slice or crack in the mountain. The rocks are rotten here. This kind of rock, when exposed to oxygen, gets rotten, and it’s so steep there, it rolled down this chute. We crossed on the upper end of it on snow and we get over to the other side and crawl up there. We can see a lot of country out there. All we saw was ewes and lambs, no rams. We decided there was no sheep to hunt here, so we back off and get back to this chute and we want to cross it but the snow is no longer frozen and it’s soft from the heat of the day. We had a little trouble getting around it and we got across it to the other side and we climb out and we go over to the shoulder of this mountain and we start to go down that shoulder and it does not feel good to us. The rocks are rotten. Didn’t give us any trouble climbing up but, going down—and it’s so far down that if one of us slipped and fell, we’d roll for a long ways.

So we went back up on top of the shoulder to decide what to do. We went back over to this chute and I tested the rocks along the side we were on. I could pull them loose and drop them and they’d roll down this chute. But out in the middle of this chute there was solid rock. I told Mike, “I’m going out on that and see what it looks like from out there.” I went out on that and it was solid and after a few minutes of mulling this dilemma over, I told Mike I thought we could go down this chute (the loose rock was something like a couple feet deep or so) and I thought I could walk down it, sliding all the time, of course, and the rock’s going to be moving and we’d have to keep our feet moving and not fall. It took Mike some time to decide he wanted to do that and we decided to go. I started down in the center of this. I would pull my foot up and take a great big long step and then the next foot and all the time sliding, a pack on my back and a rifle. It went really well and I could see down there that there was a bulge out from the mountain and this chute makes a slight turn there and I aimed my downward movement to come to that bulge so I could stop there and look things over. Mike, he’s coming down and when I got to that bulge, why it looked good from there on down so I continued on down. Then Mike came down. It turned out fine.

Thursday, August 28, 1980—this day we decided to go through the pass to the west and, by gosh we saw this gray wolf with the white tipped tail again. He was hunting on a mountain over in that area. We got out to the end of the pass and it’s a vertical drop to the little creek on that side. We didn’t go down—no way for a man to get down there. We glassed for game for a while and watched the country, really nice there, but we didn’t see any game—no sheep.

Friday, August 29, 1980—we got the dredge off the top of the swamp buggy and put it to work in two places on McDougall Creek. We got some gold, but it’s fastened to a darker material–tried a magnet on it and decided it was mixed with iron and could be magnetized. We did catch one grayling.

Saturday, August 30, 1980—Mike and I dredged again in McDougall Creek and today again, we had poor luck finding any gold. The gray wolf fed on the bear kill again. Charlie had a pilot fly him over us. They landed down at the confluence with the Little Nelchina where the pilot let Charlie off. Mike and I went to meet him. I broke a wheel on the swamp buggy at Flat Creek. It was pretty dark by the time we got Charlie to our camp—good to see him.

Sunday, August 31, 1980—Mike left for Gunsight Mountain to get my welder so we could fix the wheel on the swamp buggy. Meantime, Charlie and I hunted caribou. Saw three and didn’t shoot.

Canning salmon, killing chickens and picking berries

salmon meat in open jars

Canning salmon is an all-day project

Tuesday, August 12, 1980—went fishing in Mendeltna creek on Oilwell road. We got 20 salmon (We can the meat). Walked in to Peter’s cabin to check it for him and it was okay.

Wednesday, August 13, 1980—went salmon fishing again and Scott, Doug and I, we got nine and we canned them that night. Nine fish made eleven quarts, canned.

Thursday, August 14, 1980—Chad, Trish and Frank Wilson came. Chad and family and Sylvia and I went to Lila Lake near Gunsight and caught a few grayling. Chad and I and the boys went across the lake to an outlet and fished there and the grayling were just thick! Mike P. tells me that fish and game stocked rainbows in his and other lakes in the area. Crater Lake for one, and Round Lake too, on the Lake Louise Road. In later years they maintained that and it is good fishing.

Friday, August 15, 1980—hauled more gas for the lodge. Chad went with us to Arizona Lake (it’s a grayling lake) but today the fishing was poor. We stopped and visited Mike and Lynette on the way home.

Saturday, August 16, 1980—Went to see Dan Billman and helped kill eleven chickens. Sylvia is an old hand at butchering chickens. They wanted her there to show them how to do it. Met Denny Billman, Dan’s brother, and his step-father Loyd. Dan’s mother and stepfather own Anchorage Tank. Seemed like a really nice guy and we grew to be friends.

Sunday, August 17, 1980—Mike and Lynette needed help moving a refrigerator and a freezer.

Monday, August 18, 1980—helped at the lodge again and Sylvia picked a few blueberries. Sylvia was across the highway at the base of Slide Mountain on her hands and knees picking blueberries, engrossed in her work, when suddenly she feels something at her behind. She’s thinking, “Oh my gosh, it must be a bear!” But when she turned, it was the lodge dog—whose name happened to be “Bear”. It sure frightened her.

Stuck in the mud at Alfred Creek

dall sheep ewe

Dall sheep lamb

Friday, June 13, 1980—went to Peter’s cabin and spent the day fishing. Caught whitefish and grayling in the stream there. Peter got a really nice grayling. Then Peter showed me some old, Indian dugout holes where they cached fish, covered it with moss to keep it fresh. The ground here is frozen and it keeps fish from spoiling when they put the tundra over it to insulate it. We had a good time exploring and fishing.

Saturday, June 14, 1980—took Henry, his brother Phillip and Bill Houser in the swamp buggy to Cal Gilcrist’s gold claims on Alfred Creek. While there, we got a few nuggets—got stuck twice. Henry’s always upbeat about things like that and it helps get the buggy out of the mud holes. The trail is wet and slippery. Had a good time, though. On the way back out, I was coming up this stream at Pass Creek and there was a big rock and the swamp buggy wouldn’t climb over that big rock. The water was really deep and Henry’s brother, Phillip was riding in the swamp buggy with me and Bill Hauser was up on top of it. When I couldn’t go any further, Phil, he reached out with a cup and dipped it in the stream that was running by us and got himself a drink of water. Then I had to back a long ways down the stream before I could get out of there and get on the regular trail. When we got back to Nelchina in the evening, we had a party.

Thursday, June 19, 1980—got up early and Dick and Phyllis and Sylvia and I went into Anchorage and did some shopping. I got a gold dredge in the hopes we can do some dredging with it. From the highway, we saw Dall ewes and lambs on Sheep Mountain.

Sylvia returns to Alaska and she and Norman build a Greenhouse

Aerial image of farm in Motley

Wilkins farm in Motley from high above.

March 5 to May 10, 1980—Norman goes outside to Minnesota to take care of business with the farm in Minnesota. Sylvia returns with him to Alaska and they busy themselves with springtime projects.

Monday, May 26, 1980—started building the greenhouse. I got it framed up. It’s very small. It’s 8 feet square and 8 feet tall.

Tuesday, May 27, 1980—worked on the frame of the greenhouse again most of the day and went on a wrecker service call with Henry.

Wednesday, May 28, 1980—worked some more on the greenhouse. Leo Ogilvy and Mike both stopped to visit. Helped Henry this evening.

Thursday, May 29, 1980—put clear fiberglass paneling and some plywood on the lower parts of the greenhouse. Then I went to Dave’s for a birthday party in the evening.

Friday, May 30, 1980—slept late, put the door on the greenhouse and did some other work on it. Mike stopped by. It’s been quite windy most of the day and a light shower this evening.

Saturday, May 31, 1980—had to build benches in the greenhouse. We had a shower last night and half inch of snow and ice-like hail this afternoon.

Sunday, June 1, 1980—worked on the greenhouse and visited Lucky and Mary Beaudoin. Mike and Lynette stopped and Mike and I went shopping in a couple of the local dumps. That’s always fun—sometimes you find something you really need.

The 1980 Nelchina Gold Rush

a pick and shovel

Norman’s mother in California saw the story on the news.

Monday, February 25, 1980—the US Geological Survey people are going to announce the location of a gold discovery in the Nelchina basin tomorrow morning—the gold rush is on! We found out the gold is near the Nelchina Glacier. Dan’s brother, Denny had done some scouting in Anchorage and gained some other information that was helpful to us. The plan we had, Dan was going to fly us out and land us with his ski plane on the glacier.

Tuesday, February 26, 1980—Mike and I loaded our gear in the plane and we had some claim stakes. Dan stayed and helped with the measuring while Mike and I walked about 13 miles on snowshoes. That night, Dan flew in. It was getting quite dark and maybe -20°. Dan had Henry along and Henry was throwing out our duffle bags and sleeping bags and more stakes. When this stuff landed in the snow, it would get buried, so Mike and I hurried to where the drop area was and pulled everything on top of the snow that we could find. The star reflection on the snow gave us enough light that we could find them once they were up on top of the snow. There was one bundle of stakes we couldn’t find, but we did find our sleeping bags and grub. We dug another snow cave, this one smaller, for two people. Mike fixed supper that night. We didn’t have too bad a night, it was cool, but it was alright.

Wednesday, February 27, 1980—Dan flew in the next morning, and we staked six, forty acre claims. Then National Geographic and NBC News from Los Angeles California took pictures of us from their helicopter. My mother in California saw our pictures on the TV news. There was one helicopter (we didn’t see this happen, but were told later) tried to land and one skid went through the snow crust and damaged the helicopter. Then there was a light snowfall, but Dan was able to beat the darkness and fly us out to the Nelchina Lodge.

Saturday, March 1, 1980—worked on year end bookwork. Got gear ready to go back to Nelchina Glacier. David Harding from NPR Radio in Anchorage interviewed all of us here at Nelchina Lodge about the gold rush.

Sunday, March 2, 1980—got up very early and Dan flew Henry and me to the Nelchina Glacier and we re-staked these claims and staked six more. It was a long day on snowshoes. At one time, I was walking ahead pulling a hundred foot steel tape. Henry was behind me and as I’m snowshoeing along, I suddenly hear the sound of running water. This is not good! I hollered at Henry and I very carefully walked backwards on my snowshoes. The Nelchina River runs out of the glacier winter and summer and I had walked right over where it was flowing. I had no idea how far it was to water, but I wasn’t going to stay and find out!

Monday, March 3, 1980—we filled out the papers to file on the 12 claims. Dan, Mike and I went to Glennallen to file the claims.

Four men, two dogs and a snow cave

a man's feet on skiis

Dan and I didn’t like the idea of going out in the fog.

Thursday, February 21, 1980—we cut and hauled two loads of wood for Blake, then worked on getting camping gear organized for this cross-country ski/camping trip.

Friday, February 22, 1980—it was -20°. We all gathered our gear at Nelchina Lodge, loaded up and left to go to Eureka Lodge. We unloaded our gear and left there about mid-morning on skis. The skis I had were borrowed and they didn’t work well on my boots. After a few miles, the guys could see I wasn’t going to be able to keep up that way, so Jim had a pair of emergency snowshoes. He gave them to me to use. I could do a lot better on snowshoes than I could on those skis.

We got out to Albert Dome and we used anything we could to move snow and dig a cave in the side of this dome up near the top. We had snowshoes and everything working at it. One of the things that I used was one of Sylvia’s favorite skillets—and I broke the handle off of it. It took quite some time and it was dark by the time we got the hole dug.

This hole was back in a big drift. We dug it so it was bigger than a 12’x16’ tarp that I had brought along to use as a ground tarp. Then we dug a little hole off of that, a little extra room for cooking. Dan, he suggested thinning the roof in one area in order to let in light through the snow, so the guys did that. Jim had a thermometer and kept track of the temperature in there. It would get warm enough from cooking that the warm air would go over to where they had made this shallowing in the roof of the snow cave and the water would drip down there.

Dan had brought his dog along and Mike had brought his. Mike’s dog was trained to pull a sled and she did really well. We had a place for the dogs to sleep up in the higher part of the snow cave. The snow cave dipped down and then went up so it preserved the heat inside. The heat didn’t leak out into the outside air. We blocked the cave entrance too, to discourage heat loss. It was really nice, the temperature hung around 30° in there. We all had a good time. We slept late and we ate well.

Saturday, February 23, 1980—the guys, I believe it was Mike and Jim were fixing breakfast. We ate a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs—big enough that it took a big skillet to fry it for one person. We had a stack of pancakes and every one of us wanted the fat from their bacon poured over the pancakes, we wanted every drop of it. (Fat, when you’re out in circumstances like this, is heat—it turns to heat when you eat it.) Anyway, we all had a big breakfast and then went out and decided to go exploring.

There was a lot of fog. It was kind of “iffy”. Dan and I didn’t like the idea of going out in the fog. We kept within sight of the snow cave; there isn’t much to identify it once you get too far away from it. We saw Jim and Mike take off on their skis, counting on the trail not drifting over before they came back. Then the fog lifted and Dan and I went too. We all went to Crooked Creek. I snowshoed and they skied. Along towards late afternoon while we were heading back, a white out came along—and a ground blizzard, but we found our way back to the snow cave.

Sunday, February 24, 1980—it was so nice in that cave, we just hated to leave. The weather had turned nice. We had told people at the highway that we would be coming out on the 24th. We started snowshoeing the eight miles back to Eureka.

Those guys were ahead of me and when we were oh, about a half to three quarters of a mile away, and I just happened to look over and here was a small group of ptarmigan in amongst some real small spruce trees. The guys were skiing faster because they were getting close to Eureka and didn’t look off to the side so they missed seeing them. Between them and the lodge, there was a person. It looked to be Patti Billman—and it sure was. She was walking out to meet us. She had big news:

There had been a gold strike on the Nelchina Glacier. We were all excited about that and when we got into the lodge, there was a guy in the lodge that Dan knew really well. (We all knew this fella too) He walked up to Dan and he said, “Boy, where have you been?” So Dan told him where we had been. “Well”, he said, “You should have been at the gold strike at Nelchina Glacier.” Dan slapped this guy on his belly and said, “You couldn’t go where we’ve been.” Anyway, Eureka was full of people. We left and went to Nelchina to the lodge there.

Masks were frozen to our faces

Thermometer showing temp over 40 below zero

We stopped every couple miles to look at one another’s face, checking for frostbite.

Thursday, January 10, 1980—we got up for an early start—it was -30°. I had bad feelings about this trip. I thought it was way too cold to go, but Tim really wanted to go. He wanted to get those metal bunks and bring them back to the lodge here. Hooked on to the trailer, loaded up the snowmobiles and sleds and went to Lake Louise. Unloaded the snow machines and checked the temperature there at the lodge and it was -45°. We got the machines started and went down the lake—it’s maybe 20 miles or so to his mother’s cabin on Tyone Lake.

We stopped every couple of miles to look at one another’s face, checking for frostbite. We had masks over our faces, but frost would still get through. We got to Tim’s mother’s cabin and my machine wasn’t running right, seemed like there was still something wrong with the carburetor. When we got there, there was a little bit of daylight left so we went out looking for wood to use as fuel, but there was nothing but scrub, black spruce—it’s very small. We found all the dead trees we could find from 6 to 8 feet tall. Got those up to the cabin and cut it up into stove wood and started to build a fire in the stove. This is a tiny, tin stove. Lo and behold, the stove is two thirds full of ashes. We dug the ashes out so there was some room and got a fire started.

We didn’t have very much light in there and we took turns sitting in front of the fire to thaw the masks off of our faces. We both have beards and our masks were frozen to our faces. By the time we got our masks off, it was warming up a little in there. We put a kettle on the stove and thawed out some beans for supper—tried to make a pot of coffee too. We ate the beans and cut up wood for the night, we were glad for that.

We banked up the cabin with snow the best we could. Still, it was so cold in there that even later in the evening, we could sit back four feet and blow at the stove and see our breath. There is no insulation, it’s just boards. In an effort to try and stay warm after we ate, we crawled in our sleeping bags. It was cold all night and we had a hard time getting any sleep.

Friday, January 11, 1980—(found out later that it had stayed -38° to -40° all night and we think that farther down at the lower elevation where we had been, it was probably even colder.) The snow machines were really cold the next morning. We fixed a good, big breakfast and I went out and took the carburetor off of my machine and brought it inside. That’s a cold job with bare hands. I took the carburetor all apart and there was some ice in it—got it dry and put it back on. Then we loaded up our gear and those bunks and started out. I got a few white spots on my face from the frost, but we got back up to Lake Louise and to the lodge where we had our vehicles parked. We got things loaded up and got warm in the lodge and went back to Nelchina.

New Years Eve, 47 below

Wolverine Lodge

Summer picture of the old Wolverine Lodge.

Sunday, December 31, 1979—it’s -30° this morning, stayed cold all day. Worked on the sled for log hauling (re-built the hitch, this time). Hauling logs in the tundra and deep snow is really hard on the sled.

It was -40° at 6:00 p.m. Went to Lake Louise to a party at Wolverine Lodge. The whole neighborhood is leaving in one group tonight. We hung around Wolverine Lodge for a while. It was -47° at 11:40 p.m. when we headed for Glennallen about 36 miles away. We saw small herds of caribou both coming and going. About half way down the Lake Louise Road towards the Glenn Highway, it was midnight and we all stopped our cars, got out, and wished each other Happy New Year.

Then we went on to Glennallen to a roadhouse party and danced until 3:00 a.m. Then Dan Billman and Chris Ronning and I ran a hundred yard foot race in the parking lot. It was so cold that we didn’t dare breathe—we ran the hundred yards without taking a breath. (You don’t want to breathe under those circumstances when you are exerting yourself like that for fear of frosting your lungs.) We went back in the lodge and talked the cook into making breakfast for us. After breakfast, we went back to Nelchina. Chris Ronning came to the cabin about 5:00 a.m. the next morning. It was still -40° then.