Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Road Kill Club

Alaskans are interesting folk, at least the ones I met. Take Jonah, for instance.

Cute, isn’t he? These girls certainly thought so.

Jonah was the captain of the boat (or as he called it, the Ferrari of the fjord) that took us across the fjord to our canoeing expedition. Normally, it’s a 30 minute trip down one fjord, around Haines point, and up another fjord to the drop off point. We did it a little differently because of turbulent seas at Haines point. Jonah piloted us to Haines where we disembarked, crossed the peninsula by bus, and then boarded another boat to the drop off point. The benefit to this more complicated route was that we got to see Haines, which was beautiful…

…and we got to spend more time listening to Jonah tell stories during the bus ride. It was during this bus ride that we learned about the road kill club.

In Alaska, you can sign up with the state police to be in the road kill club. Now, I don’t know if this includes all of Alaska or just the region I visited, but one of Jonah’s good friends was a member. The state police keep a list of names and phone numbers of people who so choose, and then when wild game is hit by cars, but is not too mangled, the police call the next person on the list who then has two hours to get to the scene and remove the carcass. This is not the sort of game you would expect to find dead on a Kentucky road, or really most of the lower forty-eight, like rabbit, opossum, the ever-present skunk, or even deer. I’m talking BIG game, like moose.

My car was almost totaled and sustained damage that took six weeks to fix last summer when it tangled with a deer, so I shudder to think what would happen if it had hit a moose. According to Jonah, unless a semi or other large truck hits the moose, most of the damage is sustained by the vehicle and not the moose. I believe him.

Alaskans as a whole are more tuned into Mother Nature than most. As Danny told us when giving us canoeing gear, Alaska will bite you in the ass if you turn your back on her. The extremes of Alaska make it what it is, and most Alaskans wouldn’t want it any other way, but you have to respect it. Part of that respect is an unwillingness to let a whole moose and all that meat go to waste if it gets hit by a vehicle.

So Jonah’s friend was on the list. He told us that one night, he and his friend and a few others were at a local watering hole. It was winter, and from what I gathered, the local watering holes are particularly popular in winter. His friend was more than a couple of glasses in when THE CALL came. He was in no condition to drive, and was smart enough to realize that, but he only had two hours to get the carcass or the police would call the next person on the list. Jonah had us all in stitches as he recounted his friend’s frantic scramble to find a sober driver, get to the moose on icy back roads, and load it, still drunk (the friend, not the departed moose), onto the truck under police scrutiny.

For Jonah, the moral of the story was that they all ate LARGE that winter…moose steaks, moose jerky, moose stew, etc. For me, the message was Alaskans are all a little bit crazy. Jonah’s story was hilarious and a little frightening at the same time. Alaska is a place where people will risk life and limb to get to a moose carcass to fill their freezer for the winter. The police have to manage the program because otherwise, according to Jonah, people would resort to stupidity and violence to get something as valuable as a dead moose.

Jonah keeps his own personal crab pots in the fjord. He pointed in this general direction when he told us about them.

He was anxious to drop us off at the end of the day and check them. The weather had been bad for several days, and the pots had gone unattended. This is a common enough practice that crab pot protocol exists among the locals. If you know someone can’t get to his pot for various and sundry reasons, it is considered acceptable to check it and take the catch as long as you rebait it and set it back where it was.

Alaska not only breeds people who are connected to the land and the sea, it attracts them. Jonah’s copilot, Jen, drives to Alaska every summer from Austin, Texas. Yes, drives to Skagway from Austin, no easy task in a state where many places are only accessible by boat or plane.

Our guides who led us to the Davidson Glacier by canoe live in primitive cabins close to the lake. There is no heat, and trust me, it was cold out there, and they use compost outhouses. They live this way all summer by choice. You might be tempted to think these guys were not the sharpest tools in the shed, except I’m pretty sure they were.

That's Danny checking the girls' life vests.

I had an extensive discussion about Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild with him, prompted by this bus in the middle of nowhere.

Although he understands that Krakauer identified with Chris McCandless’ spiritual quest, Danny thought McCandless was a just another dumbass who didn’t properly respect Alaska and got “bitten in the ass.” I tend to agree. Danny was also the one who gave me the Mark Twain quote I used in Blue Ice. Turns out Danny is only a glacier guide in the summer. In the winter, he works as a teacher in Haines.

This is Justin.

Justin was a wealth of knowledge about the lake, the forest, the glacier, and even the birds we saw. In the winter, he moves to New Zealand and actually leads hikers across one of the glaciers there. He told us about a “perfect day” he recently experienced. He wasn't working that day, so he decided to hike up the edge of the ice on the Davidson. On his way back down, he sensed movement, and stopped just in time to see a brown bear (aka a grizzly) come out of the brush. He sat quietly and watched until it wandered off. He was just thinking how cool that was when a wolf made an appearance. Davidson Lake is off the beaten path for most wolves in the area, so seeing one there was a very rare thing. If that wasn’t enough, later that afternoon, Justin went kayaking in the fjord with some of the other guides, and what do you think they saw? Yep, a humpback whale. It came right up next to them on their kayak.

These kids have chosen to live extraordinary lives, lives where you sign up to be in the road kill club, observe proper crab pot protocol, and drive five straight days from Texas to Alaska for the privilege of living in primitive conditions for five months. A life where a “perfect day” means seeing a bear, a wolf, and a whale within a six hour period.

Now…there is another breed of folk in Alaska as well. One who is less, shall we say, positive and optimistic about life. I met one of those as well, but I’ll save him for another day.

As we hiked back to our pick-up point on the beach, Danny called it the denouement of our journey. Oh, how I love a man who drops literary terms into his everyday conversation! Danny was wrong though. That excursion was the climax of mine.

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