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

A fine buffalo hunt

two men with buffalo head

Darrell Gerry and Norman Wilkins with buffalo head at Nelchina

Thursday, September 15, 1983—28° to 38°, some snow. Skinned the moose Blake got, went to Anchorage, visited Connie and Andy until time to pick up Sylvia at the airport (Sylvia her sister Frances, Nadia and Darrell have just returned from three weeks visiting relatives overseas). Got home at 4:00 a.m.

Thursday, September 22, 1983—cloudy and rain, got to Delta one hour before daylight. Napped one hour, ate breakfast, went to Scott and Barney Hollembeck farm. Good hunting! I shot four crane, Scott and Darrel each got one. Slept in Delta.

We heard that Bob Abel shot and killed Jack (don’t know his last name). Jack was Bob’s best friend and he had a 5- year-old son.

Sunday, October 16, 1983—cloudy, 15° to 20°. Got gear and truck ready to go buffalo hunting. Tried to saw stove wood, bar on saw failed.

Monday, October 17, 1983—cloudy, 20°. Darrel and I went to Delta and checked in with Fish and Game and started getting permission from farmers to hunt buffalo. Stayed at Cherokee II. The buffalo tramp down and eat the farmers’ grain crops.

Tuesday, October 18, 1983—hunted all day and got permission from more farmers to hunt on their land. Staying at the Silver Fox with Dan and Slick. Al has brought his wife Wendy and two boys from Pennsylvania to live here. Met lots of new people. Didn’t see any bison.

Wednesday, October 19, 1983—still snowing here, 0° to 20°. Later it cleared up. We each shot a crane. Darrell probably would’ve gotten another one but his firing pin broke. Got a nice bull bison after a long exciting chase. It was -10° below zero and dark while we dressed it out. Back to the Silver Fox at 2:00 a.m.

Thursday, October 20, 1983—gave some bison meat to friends here. Checked out with Fish and Game, got home after dark. Had a supper of buffalo hump.

Friday, October 21, 1983—partly cloudy, warm, 30°. Friends came to see bison and take pictures. Hung meat in Schmidt’s basement and had supper there.

Saturday, October 22, 1983—partly cloudy, 15° to 25°. Darrel and I took the buffalo cape and hide to get it tanned. Dan came and invited us to their place in the evening. Jim Odden’s folks are visiting from Wisconsin.



Trouble training the sled dogs, Libby Riddles lends a hand

Two people and a dogsled

Norman (in red) and Sylvia (seated) posing for pictures after running the dogs.

Monday, November 17, 1980— I ran Fear, the lead dog, Oscar, Mack and Chrissy twice today—three miles each time. They are doing pretty well. Weather is nice, a low of zero degrees to a high of 10 above. Called Nadia, Ernie H. and Jim R.

Thursday, November 27, 1980—Charlie helped me run the dogs again today. Things didn’t go well. This is discouraging. Fear, the lead dog just isn’t strong headed enough to lead the dogs.

Friday, November 28, 1980—cut up firewood for the lodge garage, their saw is broke down so we used my saw. Did chores and took care of the dogs and ran Sylvia to Gunsight to help Nancy at the lodge. Mike was here and visited for a while.

Monday, December 1, 1980—up early, took Sylvia to Gunsight, helped Ray a little then came back and hitched the dogs to the sled and took them to Libby Riddles place (three miles). She put a dog called Phantom in my team. Had a good run, lots of excitement. Broke my brake on the grade off of Snowshoe Lake so I turned back for home to make repairs.

Tuesday, December 9, 1980—it’s -37° this morning. I glued the heels of my Sorel boots where they were weakening. Took my dogs on a training run in the afternoon at -40°. At supper time, Mike P. called.

Wednesday, December 10, 1980—put the snow hook holder that I made out of leather onto the dog sled, allowing me to more safely carry the snow hook when I’m driving the dogs and the sled. I put some oil in the front differential of the pickup and cut up some logs for Henry. It was -35° all day and dropped to -40° this evening.

Thursday, December 11, 1980—I read late last night and slept late this morning. Henry’s water system froze up and I helped get it thawed and back in service. Took dog collars and a chain and a snow hook back that I had borrowed from Libby Riddles. Now I have my own equipment. It’s -45° today.

Friday, December 12, 1980—hitched up the dogs this morning at -48° and took pictures in front of the cache here at the lodge of the dogs and sled. I tried to run them, but Fear, the lead dog that I got from Libby just wouldn’t lead. The pups sure wanted to go. It’s discouraging—maybe she thought it was too cold.

Dan’s wife Patti had asked him to bring his van down for me to take into Anchorage. He did it, but didn’t understand why Patti wanted me to drive it into Anchorage. Unbeknownst to him, Patti had made arrangements in Anchorage for his van to have a new paint job. She wanted to surprise him for Christmas.

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.

Hung the snowmobile up on a spruce

1970s Skidoo

Norman flew over the windshield

Tuesday, November 13, 1979—serviced the snowmobile track and found the track adjusting bolt is lost. I have no replacement, so I drove over a 110 miles to Wasilla to get it and a spare belt and some material for the cabin and trapping license. Roads were icy and foggy. Got home late.

Wednesday, November 14, 1979—got up early and worked on the snowmobile, got trap gear ready, cut up some wood and Henry and I checked part of the trapline. Didn’t find anything in any of the traps. Helped Tim haul logs with my snowmobile and sled. It was a beautiful sunset. It’s dark enough here now that we need lights on the snowmobile after 4:00 p.m.

Thursday, November 15, 1979—while pulling a heavy load of wood out, I came to a turn and couldn’t get around it quickly enough. I hung the snowmobile up on a spruce and I went out over the windshield and piled over in the snow. Didn’t get hurt. Things like that happen every once in a while. We went down to Cal’s this evening to weigh out some gold. He’d gotten a black wolf already, and a nice wolverine, a mink and a marten so far on his trapline. He’s doing very well. Checked my trapline and I had two rabbits in snares and one had been eaten by something. I set a snare for a lynx and then when I got back to Nelchina, worked on the cabin floor and started the door—been living without a door.

Friday, November 16, 1979—it started snowing and is still snowing lightly. We got about 8 inches, but the temperature is quite warm. I got wet getting a load of wood. Ate, then went out on the trapline, but no fur is moving in this weather. Picked up some sets that weren’t producing and saw a cow moose and calf.

Saturday, November 17, 1979—last night was Jackie’s birthday and Tim, Mike, Jim and Blake came over here for a while. Then we went over to the lodge for a small party. I tended the bar. Dan Billman was there. He had brought me back four dozen traps that he had gotten for me when he went into Anchorage.