....CONCLUSION TO DAY 13Ö.
The roar of the Cub's engine is drowned to a purr as I turn away from Ken and put on the noise cancelling headset. Curly and I skim along the frozen river ice picking up speed as we head into the light breeze and relatively heavy snowfall. In seconds the powerful engine of the cub has us airborne and climbing quickly. We leave Ken standing on the river ice, and begin our trip to Curly's lodge. Weíre only in the air for minutes before I pick out the familiar features of the tundra below. We are flying directly over the northern line. I point out the remnants of the hay set to Curly. He banks for a closer look and comments on just how visible the set is. The golden brown grass really sticks out on the mostly white tundra. Itís a whole new perspective to get to see the line from the air. From the ground, the area looked like an endless sea of timber surrounding the tundra, creek, and river. From the air you can clearly see that is not the case. Previously unseen ridges and drainages run right up to the edge of the "gulo gauntlet". Large swampy areas with innumerable small ponds lay a short distance from the tundra. Steep rugged ridges running between the river and the tundra drop off sharply into the river on one side and into the creek, where our spur line was located, on the other. Itís no wonder this area held so much wolverine and marten sign, for miles around every terrain feature seems to form a natural funnel and the northern line flows right through it.
As we fly over the northern most set we had made on the line, I can see where what I once thought of as a ďvast sea of timberĒ is really only a thin strip of trees. On the other side of them they open into another tundra area of several hundred acres. Itís here, in this opening, that we spot a solitary red fox. The fox is hunting his way southward, toward our northern line. In the few seconds I have to watch him I can not decide if he has not yet heard us, or if he is just not concerned by the giant bird in the sky. Either way he seems unaffected as he stops to paw at the snow, and then continue on. I cant say for sure, but, I believe if I would have remade the hay set and stayed on another day, Ken and I would have found him waiting for us and wearing a shiny new MB550.
Since flying in with Curly on the first day, Iíve given a lot of thought to the location of Kenís cabin and line. Miles and miles of wilderness, and he chose this particular spot. After getting to know Ken, and observing his personality, I had doubted he threw a dart at a map to make his decision. More likely, I thought his selection process had required hundreds of hours of research and physical scouting. The requirements of; seclusion, summer and winter accessibility, land availability, and an abundance of natural resources; may seem like a ďgimmieĒ in this vast wilderness, but the opposite is true. One or two of those requirements may be easily met, but finding the combination of all of them, in one attainable area, is the hard part. Now that I'm more familiar with the location of his cabin and lines, both from the ground and air, I have an even greater appreciation of why he chose this area to build a home and spend his winters.
While I try to look at every track, tree, and rock there is in sight, Curly makes me an offer I cant refuse. He tells me that although he is remodeling his bathroom at the lodge, the shower works and he has an unlimited amount of hot water. He also says that heíll be cooking up some hot food and he may even be able to scrounge up a ďcelebratory beverageĒ or two. Wow! What can you say...Iím sad to be leaving the line with Ken, but nothing sounds better to me right now than hot FOOD, a long HOT SHOWER, and an ice cold BEER. Iím opening my mouth to tell Curly just how good that sounds when he continuesÖor, he says "we could do a little sightseeing and check some wolf and wolverine traps first before we go to the lodge". In addition, Curly says that since I donít have to be back to Anchorage until Wednesday night, if I want to, I can stay with him at the lodge until Wednesday morning and we could spend all day Tuesday checking all of his lines. The shower, food, and beer are forgotten, for now anyway, as I quickly agreed to this new plan. Letís recap this trip, I just had two weeks of awesome wilderness living and trapping with a guy who Iím proud to now call my friend. Now Iím being offered the opportunity of running an aerial trap line, with an experienced bush pilot, trapper, wolf hunter, guide and outfitter. Did I win the lottery, or what???
We fly along looking over some unbelievable landscape. Itís hard to wrap you head around the idea of just how much land is here. To reach a destination here travel by air is measured in hours, by river it's measured in days, travel by land is nearly impractical. Curly is continuously pointing out different tracks and items of interest. We see several moose in the willow flats along various creeks and rivers. Iím surprised to see several bulls that have their antlers. I find this odd until I realize that if I was a bull moose spending the winter in wolf country, I too would like to keep a hold of those antlers as long as possible. Peering out the front window, I notice a large ice and snow covered lake on the horizon. Curly says that is our first destination. Several weeks earlier Curly had found the remains of a caribou along the lake and he has set several wolf snares and a wolverine bucket in the area. He says heíd rather not land to check this if he doesnít have to, as he likes to limit his human odor in the area he has wolf sets. Making a pass over the lake, Curly told me of the large numbers of Caribou that were often found here. Unfortunately, there were none to be seen this day, but the tracks all over the lake were proof they had been here in great numbers. Curly began to make a few...letís call them sudden...maneuvers to get the plane in position to spot the sets. Iím again quickly surprised by the power of the little plane. Thereís no question about Curlyís flying abilities. I told him I believed he could fly the wings off of that plane if he wanted to. He started chuckling and told me that a lot of his clients will ask him if heís ever crashed before and heíll tell them that he has ďworn out a plane or two in an afternoon of flyingĒ. I think that is akin to the Captain of the Titanic saying he just "gave his ship an early retirement". As we sweep down over the sets, I am unable to see anything except for blurred tree tops and my own white knuckles. Curly says the snares appear fine, but he's unable to see if his wolverine trap has made a catch. He decides we'll land and walk in. We drop to a smooth glide over the ice and taxi to the edge of the lake. We get out and I try to follow along walking in Curlyís tracks. The wolverine bucket is undisturbed, so we head back to the lake and waiting plane. I notice the air seems to have taken on a chill, and the wind blowing in from across the lake of ice is definitely cooler than the protected area around Kenís cabin.
We hop back into the plane and take off. Curly keeps me entertained as we fly along, always turning to look at this or that, always handy with a story about a particular river, lake, or mountain we fly over. As we approach an unnamed river he points out a cabin that looks vaguely familiar. It seems Iíve seen pictures of this famous cabin before. Does it look familiar to anyone else??
As we circle the cabin Curly opens the window of the plane so I can get a few pictures. Whew! That gust of air will wake a body right up! As we make our last pass I notice an unmistakable object on the ground.
I ask Curly if this is one of those planes he ďwore outĒ. He laughs and says that it wasnít him, but that an older gentleman had attempted to make the runway a little longer by using the prop of the plane. The trees didnít give much, the old man lived, but the plane didnít.
We check a few more lynx, wolverine, and wolf sets on our way to the lodge. We are able to check these from the air so we donít land on any of them. Flying sixty miles an hour, diving in from two hundred feet to about twenty feet off the river, all while trying to spot a 330, is exhilarating to say the least. Here is a short video of one of the trap checks. Look quick!
What seems like only minutes has actually been over an hour. The sky has become a dark grey, and our afternoon of "flightseeing" has come to an end. We approach Curlyís base of operations, and I have to say Iím more than a little surprised. On the trip out here I had though that this wilderness lodge would probably be a medium sized cabin with a wall tent for the guides and guests. I was most certainly wrong. The lodge, guide quarters, guest quarters, outbuildings, fuel tanks, itís all immense. What's even more amazing than seeing all this here, is realizing how it all got here. Everything has been either built from natural materials on site or flown in one plane load at a time. Just the logistics to keep this place operational must be staggering. The Stoney River Lodge ( Click here to see Stoney River Lodge
) is owned and operated by Curly and Betty Warren. An unbelievable oasis in the wilderness. I can tell right away that this place is a sight for sore eyes after returning from an extended stay in the bush. Later, while viewing the countless pictures, letters, trophies, and accolades covering the walls of the main lodge, I begin to get a sense of the world class hunting and fishing opportunities that the surrounding bush provides. Immediately upon returning home, I began recruiting the wife and several of our friends for another Great Alaskan Adventure. This one will be home based at Stoney River Lodge. ( As I write this a May 2011 black bear hunt/fishing trip is in the works!!)
We make another smooth landing on the frozen lake and taxi up to the runway. After tying the plane down we head up to the main lodge where Curly introduces me to two of the three women that keep him company out here. These two ladies are big, black, and very affectionate. Now, before you go thinking that Curly is some kind of interracial, polygamist cult leader, let me explain. Sassy and Belle are two black labs that are purported to be duck monsters. Curly has them demonstrate their fetching skills, and while I am impressed by the way they both work, Iím thinking for most of the year they probably devote the majority of their time fetching food from thier bowls. The two girls make it immediately clear, they love to play fetch and roll in the snow, and they are not bashful about getting strangers involved in thier games.
As it was with the Ol' Blister and Ken, Iím not lucky enough to meet the real woman in Curly's life, Betty Warren. "Bee-Dub" as she is affectionately called is off on a trip to sunny Florida, so Curly and the girls have been ďroughing itĒ. Before I can pry myself away from the girls (happens all the time) Curly hops on a monster Arctic Cat snow mobile and heads down to the plane to bring up my gear. Curly shows me my room in the guest lodge. It looks very clean and comfortable, heís already had the fuel oil stove running so itís toasty warm. The place seems to be brand new, Curly tells me this guest lodge and all itís rooms are a recent addition. The guest lodge has been winterized, so Iíll head up to the main lodge to enjoy that hot shower. Curly says that he mandates a minimum thirty minute hot shower when any of his clients return from the bush, and he's not kidding. I dont think I stink that bad, but Iím happy to take him up on that. While he takes off to fire up the generator and start dinner, I enjoy what felt like an hour of steamy warmth. Iíll say it again...I never did experience the brutal cold temperatures that can occur here during February, but after staying in the bush for two weeks you forget what it is to be completely warm. I was always comfortable, but unless you were buried in your sleeping bag, always something--your hands, head, feet, nose, ears,--something was chilled. Soaking in that steamy hot shower, I began to appreciate warmth again. The clean set of dry clothes that I put on afterward made me feel like a new man.
The dinner Curly prepared consisted of grilled moose steaks, sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes, hash browns covered with melted cheese, and green peas topped with melted butter. I have to say it was a feast of food piled high on the table. When we were finished there wasnít much more than a spoonful of leftovers, I think I would have finished that too if it hadnít been for the three beers and the cup of whiskey I had used to wash the meal down. After dinner Curly showed me some of the impressive mounts in the main lodge and tells me a few of the stories behind them. In particular the is a mount of a wolverine that Betty caught. It is a great full body mount of a beautifully colored wolverine. I can only hope my wolverine mount turns out nearly so good. Curly and I visit for a while but I donít last long, after the few drinks and the huge meal I'm looking for the bed. I walk out into the night air and realize the temperature is steadily dropping. I turn to my warm room in the guest lodge, where I dream of whatís to come tomorrow.