From a 1996 letter written by Norman Wilkins

the cabin

The cabin sits on a ridge overlooking Scooter Lake at Nelchina, Alaska

As I write this a light fog lifts off the lake and a gentle air moves it to the west. From my seat at the kitchen table, I look out on a beautiful, calm and serene part of the world. I set my coffee cup down quietly so as not to break the silence. Suddenly I hear yawns; then shortly, the slap of feet on the way to the bathroom. Then Sylvia says, “Ooh! Look there, spruce hens—four of them!” Another day gets a kick start and we are glad to be part of it.

September 5th a close friend drowned while on a hunting trip. He was trying to get a line across the Maclaren River so they could get hunting equipment across. He and his brother planned to hunt for bull moose. He was 45 years old. Sure wish he was stalking a big bull moose this morning.

Sylvia picked many gallons of currants, blueberries and rose hips. No cranberries this year. We have some cabbage, cauliflower, onions and potatoes in the garden yet. A cold front is supposed to be coming down from the north.

An acquaintance from Minnesota stopped by a couple of weeks ago on his way home. We visited for a couple of hours. He had seen a bull moose cross the highway a few miles west of here. When this fellow continued on his trip, I went down to Allen’s with the bull moose story. He, Cal and I drove over there, spread out, still hunting. Allen came on big moose tracks, saw the bull, determined that it had legal brow tines and shot it.

I tweaked my left knee 6 weeks ago. If I have it looked at, it won’t be until after hunting season. It doesn’t get better or worse, so it will hang in there a while yet.

We have enough meat for ourselves. I would shoot a caribou so the uncle of the friend who drowned could have some meat. He is housebound and can’t hunt anymore.

Last Saturday I went on a day trip hunting sheep, mostly to keep my mind occupied. I went to the old “Zigzag” house; it’s burned down now. Two trails leave from there. I took the one going over North Pass. My ATV negotiated the mud holes. The dry summer and fall helped in that respect. Once over the pass, an occasional parka squirrel scurried down the trail ahead of me. They were so roly-poly they shook as they ran.

The trail goes down a creek on the other side with quite a bit of ice. Here I watch closely for I had heard that a miner had put a ‘Cat’ trail in on the mountain side in order to get around the gorge. The miner did a good job. Just at the lower end of the gorge, Willow Creek comes in on the right. It is virtually treeless!

Many years ago when I was here, a couple of brothers I knew were ‘glassing’ the sheep on the mountains at the end of the valley. They couldn’t determine any legal rams from this distance. Since they saw the sheep first, I suggested I wait till they were well up the valley before I started. Either the rams weren’t legal or were inaccessible because I didn’t hear shots and these two were gone when I got back out of the valley.

I left the ATV and walked slowly, favoring my knee and an old body. At each rise I paused to look over everything ahead, each side and everything to the rear. Safety in grizzly country is being aware. Plus, I was watching for sheep. When I was about a mile and a half from a cabin that I knew was here, it came into view as I crested another rise. Then it was just a matter of holding my course over a few more rises and I was there.

Built of shiplap pine on spruce pole framing, covered with 30 wt. tar paper many, many years ago, it had withstood the ravages of time remarkably well. As I came closer I noticed the door was unlatched and gently swinging on puffs of air movement. It stands on a low mound just at the foot of a steep, rocky entrance to another valley extension. I didn’t immediately enter the cabin.

Savoring being there, I took my time and walked around it, looking at the caribou horns, moose horns, some bottles, glass jars, etc. I glassed for sheep once again, but I know I won’t shoot one today for I won’t be able to pack it out.

Always interested in rock formations, a quartz outcrop caught my eye. Catalog this in my mind as a place to prospect.

Finally, I’ve completely circled the cabin. It has no window. When I finally do go inside, I mentally measure it to be 8’ x 12’ with plenty of head room. The shiplap has shrunk until cracks show and is rotted in places at the  bottom so  squirrels can run in and out.  Some tar paper has blown off and it  would be wet in a rain.

Someone has brought in an iron cot and a 10” x 12” x 20” sheet metal stove. There is only willow for stove wood; the elevation here is 4300 feet. There was a shelf with a pint bottle half full of apricot brandy and a crude table nailed up against the west wall. I had heard that 20 years ago, the floor was covered with hides. They are gone; bare dirt remains.

A different-looking 30-gallon drum with a lid on it stands at the foot of the cot. Lifting the lid, I see a sleeping bag. I don’t dig around in the drum, for it’s not mine to dig in.

Going  back outside, I  look around some more,  look for sheep also—no luck. Then I pick another route back to the mouth of Willow Creek. My legs are tired and will be more so. I found a caribou horn on the way out. God, how I like to look and see things when I’m out like that. A motion out of the corner of my eye turned out to be an eagle landing on Sharp Peak, a nearby mountain.

Back at the parked ATV, I dig out the other half of my sandwich, eat it and a cookie. Thus fueled up, I drove the 9 miles back out to trail’s head.


Goose hunting

woman butchering a caribou outdoors on a log

Sylvia cutting up a caribou

Thursday, October 7, 1982—it’s 18° and snowing this morning. Lots of geese flying east in the valley today. This is their fall migration. They fly mostly down to California, but some stop at different places along the way. Ray from Gunsight wanted the Cat again, but the pony motor carburetor is plugged. Then the carburetor on the chainsaw quit. I did get 1-1/3rd pickup loads of wood. It was a fairly nice day.

Friday, October 8, 1982—went to Gunsight to hunt geese. The lake froze over during the night. Darrel and I went to Delta to goose hunt. Saw two herds of buffalo on a farm. We set out decoys wondering if the buffalo might tromp them or have fun with them but that didn’t happen. The geese had all left on the migration. We only saw one crane.

Saturday, October 9, 1982—no geese, none flying. Some hunters killed a buffalo on the farm as they were hunting geese. I bought some grain for Hoffman’s goats and straw for my dogs for bedding this winter. I’m having trouble getting the saw fixed. Saw a wolverine and several fox today. It was storming part of the way home. Didn’t get home until after 11:00 p.m.

Wednesday, October 20, 1982—was a nice day, high 20’s, near 0° tonight. Cut up and packaged the caribou that Dan and Patti gave us. Cut up the buffalo liver (I found this liver out in a field up in Delta on the farm—it had been discarded by someone). I’ll use the buffalo liver for bait this winter. Visited Bob and Margaret Schmidt and had supper there.

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.