Last Frontier Magazine -


Beginnings of a Wilderness Education

Caribou Lodge, AK

Mike Nickols

Caribou Lodge, AK

I have said for years, after I finally reached the age that I truly realized it, that life is an ongoing learning experience. Every day brings something new no matter where you live or how old you are. Living in the Alaskan Bush is a learning experience with a limited number of “students,” a good number of whom survive and thrive. Many default and leave. In the most extreme cases, some do something less than smart, or just plain hit a stroke of bad luck, and don’t live to tell about it. Going into our third decade of living out here in the wilds of Alaska, my family and I have been fortunate. We are still alive, have all our limbs (albeit limited brain cells), and are not just hanging in there…but feel like we’re doing well. The learning curve has slowed in recent years, but we are still learning. The early years (on the other hand) were a bit of a challenge, to say the least…

I grew up in what was then the mountain “Ozarks” of northern California. We had dirt roads, no electricity, my Mom cooked on a wood cook stove, and our school had one bus to gather the few kids from both up river and down. There were so few students that I was qualified as the “smartest kid in the whole class,” mainly because for a good many years I was the ONLY kid in my class. Aside from the formal education, it was a perfect place to grow up. Remote by most folks’ standards, a river full of fish willing to bite a nine-year-old’s hand-tied flies, and right out the front door of our small ranch there was a world of country to roam and a wealth of knowledge to gain. Unknowingly, I learned all I could.

After many years I found my soulmate in those same mountains. Bigger country pushed us on (I use the term “us” loosely), and we spent the next 18 years in the mountains of western Montana, hunting, fishing, wandering, working and learning more about wild country. But I always dreamed of living someplace more remote. I went to sleep many nights just thinking about it, someplace where you lived on your own making do with what the land offered. A simpler life, the basics, where you depended on yourself. So after a lot of looking, from northern British Columbia to southeast Alaska…we stumbled onto a little slice of heaven; an old seasonal hunting camp in the middle of nowhere. We packed up and launched off into the wilds; just us, no neighbors, drop dead views (“ya can’t eat the view” kept popping into my head) and all that the Alaskan Bush had to offer.

In the beginning there were many challenges. The first was learning to fly an airplane. There were no roads to our new home so flying was the logical transportation. I received my pilot’s license “to learn” in a hectic two months in Montana. Upon arrival in Alaska I found that an airplane on wheels is one thing, an airplane on floats is another, and a very short while later I came to find…an airplane on skis in snow is something else again. But we learned. I was fortunate to have a good pilot friend who taught me a lot. When he left for warmer climates I found a mentor who always had time to answer my twenty questions when I made it out to town. Our conversations would begin with me asking something like “Hey Cliff, I went to take off this morning, and the plane just did not want to take off the snow…” Cliff would reply, “Well, you might want to check those ski bottoms, sometimes they’ll frost up a bit and ya gotta get that off and…you also might wanna check…” I could write a book about our first years flying alone.

Once in Alaska and successfully flying (some what) our priorities were few, but absolutes. It was late July and time was limited. Winter was coming. First on the list was making our new home survivable. We had to replace broken windows, repair the roof, install doors fit for winter, and gather food to eat and wood to heat. When you get out in a place like this you better start thinking about the basics of life, and it does not take long to bring things into focus. We needed: water to drink, shelter from the storms and food to eat. In reality, that’s all anyone needs. Anything beyond that just determines what kind of lifestyle you will live.

The water was easy; Alaska is abundant with water, and when it’s frozen, snow or ice melts. A real no brainer. The shelter took a little more work. Old dilapidated screen doors were replaced with REAL insulated doors, broken single pane windows were replaced with thermo pane windows ordered from town, and all the while we learned as we went. While doors and windows were too large to fit inside our little “pilot plus one passenger” airplane, the doors did strap nicely onto our airplane floats and the windows did tie successfully onto the doors. Yet the whole shebang didn’t fly nearly as well as I thought it should have. Roofing came in rolls and fit inside the plane along with a ton (literally) of screws, nails, caulking, insulation, odds and ends, and then some. The wood stove, a real priority to us, was way too big for our little plane, but throw a little money at it and presto! It arrives at your dock by chartered plane. Just add firewood. A lot of work in a short time (including the down to the wire sweeping of snow off the roof to roll out roofing) brought us into our first winter.

As for food, the Alaskan Bush has that as well, if you’re willing to work for it. With a bit of luck a fat bull moose and two days of packing brought winter’s meat home. A couple plane loads of grub from town, including a few luxuries, but mainly “hot cake” flour, pretty well set us up for supplies; if not elaborately, sufficiently. The only thing missing was fuel for heat. The wood stove was an awesome one, but living for the most part above the timberline meant the only thing we had to burn was small beaver cuttings scattered around the edge of the lake which we gathered by boat. The amount of cuttings available fell way short of a winter’s wood supply. So, strapping on our backpacks, Pam, Aaron and I each morning, and sometimes twice a day, hiked down into the timber below us, felled a tree, cut it into firewood lengths, loaded it onto our backpacks and hauled it home. I recall when the snow started to fly, looking at our small pile of wood, maybe a quarter of a cord…and thinking…”Lets see… October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May … holy cow … this could be a long winter.” And it was.

But it was a good winter too. Homeschooling took up a good part of the day for Pam and Aaron. It was a challenge in itself, but very good programs led to a very good education for our son. The other part of the “education” for him, and us as well, was learning how to put the needs together in order to live out here. With water for drinking, cooking and washing, a fat moose hanging, 50 pounds of flour, LOTS of hot cake flour, and the woodpile at a comfortable level, we were “pretty fat.” Our needs were taken care of. Although we didn’t have to worry about our necessities on a daily basis, we took nothing for granted. We worked for it all, appreciated it ALL, and it all had meaning. It still does to this day. It really did not take long to fully realize the difference between what a person really “Needs,” and what they “Desire.”

Caribou Lodge, AK

Mike Nickols

Caribou Lodge, AK

That first year was kind of the baseline, our launching pad if you like. We learned a lot; how the wind can blow hard here (like really hard) and an airplane on floats is really hard to tie down; it’s way easier to stay a little ahead of your needs than trying to catch up on them; grizzly bears really don’t seem to bother about you much, but at 50 feet away that’s hard to remember; a wolf is pretty smart (though not all are) and a big one can leave a track five inches across in the snow (glad I did not know that when I was little).

We also learned that when the snow is deep and the thermometer plunges, when the water barrel and wood box are full and the belly is heavy with a fat moose steak… it does not get much better for a little boy, or his parents, than a warm fire in the wood stove, sweatpants and stocking feet, and a long night of a family sharing a classic book. Throw another log on the fire, we have plenty.


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