The Hunt

Note: This is a work of fiction. However, some of the writing was inspired by real events.

As the rain fell, it was absorbed into the sod roof.  The water worked its way through the various layers of sedges and moss before finally dripping on the floor of the cabin.  A layer of spruce boughs covered the floor, hiding the cold, bare earth that lay underneath.  The character to the rest of the cabin was similar to that of the floor.  Simple, rustic and functional. In one corner was a small tin woodstove, It shared a wall with the kitchen. Pans, some spices and bulk dry goods of every variety were organized and stacked haphazardly along and underneath the wooden counter.  With the cabin only being 12 x 12 feet, every last square foot of space was put to use.  Cups, a calendar, coats and other clothing accessories hung from nails on the wall.  Opposite the kitchen, was a rough spruce planked table with a couple of chairs to match.  There sat John, the dweller of this small wilderness cabin.  Beneath the flickering and dim light of an oil lamp he was drafting a letter to his brother back home in Ohio.

Two and a half years ago, in 1901, John had left Ohio, embarking on a journey that would bring him to the far north. After taking the train to Seattle, he boarded a steamer to the beaches of Nome.  He didn’t stop there, acting upon rumors, he eventually boarded two more steamers as he continued up the Yukon River to the mouth of the Koyukuk.  From there, he ascended the Koyukuk up towards its headwaters, approximately 60 miles past the last outpost of Bettles.  There lay a small cluster of cabins at a site named Slate Creek. In 1898, there had been a gold rush to the region, culminating in the town he found himself in at that time.  There was active mining occurring on nearby creeks and work was available.  Yet, John found this unappealing.  He was one who wished to succeed by his own merit.  So instead of trying his hand on a nearby creek, he built a canoe and set off for new country.  He poled and lined his boat another 16 miles upriver, where he would ultimately decide to try his luck on a creek that came in from the west.

He made all the mistakes one could that first winter.  Constantly flirting with frostbite, running low on supplies (most notably food) and struggling to thaw out and dig a shaft.  He had found almost no color that first summer as he sluiced through his meager pile of sediment and gravel that he had extracted.  Regardless, he lay down his last funds that fall, purchasing supplies for the second winter with the hope that his mistakes were behind him.

It was now early September and John had finished sluicing the material. Now he found himself biding time, waiting for freeze up and winter to get back to work. As he had hoped, he was able to extract more material the previous winter.  Unfortunately the increase in extracted sediment and gravel did not result in a high quantity of gold.  It was just enough though, along with a generous line of credit from the store in Bettles, to provide him with enough funds for a basic grubstake for the upcoming winter.  He recounted all this to his brother, ending with the statement that if he were to see similar results this upcoming year, he would be forced to leave the country.

Finishing the letter, John glanced towards the kitchen, eyeing his meager supplies.  There was enough food to prevent him from starving.  Though with the hard work that lay ahead, there would likely be frequent pangs of hunger.  He knew this and had been trying to supplement his supplies with fresh meat.  Each day, for the last 5 days, he had roamed the nearby country from dawn to dusk, hoping to find a moose.  As with his mining, John hadn’t found much luck here either, sighting only one cow, out of range, who had bolted upon catching his scent.  Discouraged by the lackluster results and seemingly constant rain, he decided to switch tactics.  In the morning, John would head north, upriver into the mountains.

Ten days previous, two of the miners from Slate Creek had floated by his cabin with 6 rams aboard.  They had told him the mountains 20 miles up country were littered with Dall sheep.  Having not been to the region, the ideal appealed to John even more.

Dawn found John already on the move.  Walking along the bank, he lined his canoe up against the strong current.  All the rain had transformed the river from its flat, clear waters to a frothing, raging and silty torrent over the course of two weeks.  John’s supplies, not amounting to much, were lashed to the bottom of the canoe.  He was forced to travel light, not owning a wall tent and having to return down the same river before freeze up.  A .30-.30 Winchester rifle, blankets, clothing, paddle, pans and a week’s worth of food were among the things that covered the canoe’s floor.  Near dusk, John pulled his canoe out onto a gravel bar, tying it off to a nearby spruce tree. Between spruce trees, he constructed a basic lean-to, built a large fire and promptly fell asleep. About half the distance was covered that first day and the incessant rain had finally let up.

The next day saw more of the same as John made his way into bigger country.  Large limestone mountains rose almost vertically from the valley floor 3000 feet up.  Steep walls, cliffs and pinnacles were a characteristic found on almost every one of the mountains in the area.  In other words, it was prime sheep habitat.  From the river, John could make out clusters of white dots higher up near some of the peaks.  With night falling, he would have to wait until dawn to begin his hunt.

The  calm conditions persisted and he awoke to a sky devoid of clouds.  A thin layer of ice covered the top of his water pot, indicating cooler temperatures.  By noon, he had made it halfway up the mountain. Luck had now seemed to be finally on his side.  The white dots that he had spotted from below the previous evening had remained on the same mountain and were in fact Dall sheep.  Grazing on green vegetation near tree line, they were separated from him by a small rise, a few hundred feet up.  With the wind blowing north up the valley, and the sheep to his south, he found himself in an ideal position.  By mid afternoon, the stalk had begun.  A little over one hundred yards away lay the sheep, with a scraggly stand of spruce trees preventing a shot.  Over the span of nearly a couple hours, John slowly inched forward on his belly.  The terrain worked to his advantage and the sheep were unable to see him so close to the ground.  Coming upon a small rock outcropping, he readied himself for a shot.  A quick glance showed 5 sheep, 4 rams and a ewe approximately 70 yards distant.  They were grazing amongst the trees still not visible enough for a clear shot.  John readied himself nonetheless, slowly removing his rifle from its sling and bringing it to his shoulder.  He got up on one knee, looked down the barrel of the rifle, to find 2 of the sheep staring in his direction.  He had been noticed.  They were bound to run any moment, leaving him with a narrow time frame in which he’d be able to get off a shot, let alone a decent one.  Sure enough, the next instant, the sheep began to sprint up the mountain.  POW! He had taken aim at one of the rams running past an opening in the trees.  The ram buckled before falling on its side.  John ran uphill to find the ram sliding down the other side of the mountain.  About one hundred yards beyond was an edge, surely leading to a large drop of some sort.  With no hesitation and his winter supply of meat on the line, John followed the ram, making great leaps downhill until he was able to slide and grab hold of the animal by its horns.  A knife to the throat ensured that the job was finished and he continued to hold the horns as the ram made its last movements. A look over the edge showed what would have been nearly a 1000 foot drop and the loss of the ram. Glancing around, it appeared the other sheep had gone up and over the peak to the other side, out of sight.  He would have to be content with just the one.  With darkness approaching, he quickly worked to dress the animal.  Great care was taken in removing the cape as it was highly valued in trading posts.  He made quick work of the rest of the ram, attaching the various parts to his pack and leaning into the head strap as he made his way down the mountain, the last glimmer of orange fading away on the horizon.  With the heavy load and having to navigate in the dark, he descended slowly.  Taking a few hours to reach his campsite.  Utterly exhausted, he made a small fire before falling asleep next to it atop his pack.

Morning came and with it John’s departure.  As he pushed off the bank, small ice pans drifted with the current past his canoe.  He had just beaten freeze up by a few days.  John sat back, paddling only sporadically.  He had removed some of the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming winter.  Fueled by his success, a new wave of optimism overcame him.  As he reached his cabin, he couldn’t help but think that this would be the winter that he’d hit a pay streak.

 

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