Bearded man in doorway of old cabin

Excerpt from a 1997 letter – Nelchina, Alaska

Bearded man in doorway of old cabin

Norman Wilkins at an old cabin

…More has happened since I started the letter, this will fill you in to date.

About a week after the bear hunt, I took the Suzuki to the Ballanger pass trail head for a sight-seeing get-in-the-mountains trip.

Within two miles on the trail, I was seeing lots of caribou. Some of the mountain slopes had groups of several hundred animals, with many groups like that in sight. (Later I heard that a local old-timer bush pilot estimated 10,000 caribou.) I took a picture of a small bunch close to me and slowly drove down the trail, giving them all the time they needed to cross in front of me. At the top of the pass on the other side—the same view, ‘boo’ everywhere.

I shut off the machine, sat on it, took more pictures, and simply absorbed the sights and sounds. Large bulls, small bulls, yearlings, cows, calves (many at 30-100 yards), were eating, lying down, chewing their cuds, resting. The animal smell, their scent, urine and belching was strong in the air.

Aware that I was there, they largely ignored me, or so it seemed. Few made eye contact. Some cows were making a rapid, grunt-like sound. With luck, I caught a cow doing this; directly, a calf came running to her and began to nurse, butting very hard with its head in the process.

The day was beautiful, warm, sunny, some breeze. Experiencing all of this within yards of me was very moving. I felt lucky and fortunate to have been a witness.

Later, a friend said, “I wish you would have had my camcorder with you.”

Yes, it would have made an outstanding film.

—From a 1997 letter written by Norman Wilkins, Nelchina, Alaska

Two moose hooked horns while fighting and died

several moose from the air

Looking down on several moose from the air

Saturday, September 11, 1982—finished the buggy, got gear ready and drove Allen’s trapline trail. Had some troubles on the way in, but got camp set up before dark. Dan flew over, it was a nice day.

Sunday, September 12, 1982—mostly a nice day, a little rain and wind. Tramped all around, saw some ducks and two moose that had hooked their horns while fighting and died together. Found a weather balloon, rain and windy tonight.

Monday, September 13, 1982—Ken and Danny are out here hunting too, with me. Hunted farther out. Ken jumped a caribou. Dan flew over.

Tuesday, September 14, 1982—frosty morning, left camp early, went farther east. Saw nine ducks, a brown thrasher, camp robber, ravens and beaver and bear sign and more moose sign, one trophy caribou and two real nice ones. Nothing that I could get to shoot. Dan flew over and it rained this evening.

Wednesday, September 15, 1982—we hunted even farther from camp. Saw some ducks and a cow moose and one caribou. Very windy. It blew so hard that Danny’s tent blew away, maybe 400 yards from where we were camped. It was one of those tents that would roll if it isn’t fastened down right and it just rolled and rolled and rolled until it finally got hung up. The tent that I had, shook, but the wind didn’t phase it a bit. Rained in the night.

Thursday, September 16, 1982—wet morning not so windy, Dan flew over again. Went hunting till noon, saw some bear tracks. Left at noon, saw two cow moose on the way out, got stuck and had to winch out of a mud hole. Sunny day.

Friday, September 17, 1982—slept a little late, got started on the storage shed at 10:00 a.m. And had quite a bit of it done by 6:00 p.m. Ate supper and visited Hoffmans. It was really sunny today, 30° in the morning and cloudy tonight. I feel sick tonight.

Saturday, September 18, 1982—worked on the storage shed and hunted a little on the Slide Mountain. Bob Schmidt had some hinges and gave them to me for the door on the storage shed. It was a nice day; visited Dan, Denny, and Charlie T. were all there too.

Sunday, September 19, 1982—worked on the storage shed. Bob and I drove Lake Louise Road, hunting. Then later, Dan and I flew out to John Lake and we slept in his Cessna 185 overnight so we would be legal to hunt in the morning. (It is illegal to hunt the same day airborne.)

Monday, September 20, 1982—up very early, it was a pretty nice day. Stalked a bull moose in a large bunch of cows. We didn’t get to see them, we could hear them and the cows didn’t pay too much attention to us, but we just never got to see them. Saw four bull caribou, saw nearly a hundred moose on the ground when we got in the plane and took off to leave, Dan circled the area—that’s when we saw so many moose. There were about 50 in one bunch and about that many in the other bunch and they were about a mile apart. Salvaged lumber later at Dan’s.

Tuesday, September 21, 1982—I have almost all the shelves installed in the storage shed now and started moving things into it. Sylvia went to Glennallen with Bob and Margaret. Blake and Danny stopped by. Later, Henry came home from work and took us out to supper.

Wednesday, September 22, 1982—frosty morning, fine day—fantastic northern lights at night. Moved a lot of gear into the new shed.


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.