Friends from the Fortymile River, Alaksa
by Brad Mohre
This story is from a mid 1990’s newsletter and tells of one of the many fascinating people I knew while living deep in Alaska’s bush from 1977 to 1991...
Recently I was reading a political article in the Anchorage newspaper where local candidates were asked whom they most admired. One candidate replied, “Albert Zucchini”. To me this seemed like a strange response since it was likely that not one in a thousand readers would have known who Albert Zucchini was. I am proud to say, I did.
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Affectionately known to his friends as “Shorty”, this man roamed the Fortymile River of Interior Alaska for half a dozen years. Other parts of Alaska's Interior enjoyed Shorty's company for many years before and many years after his Fortymile days.
My cabin was on the Fortymile and more than a few times I had the pleasure to cross paths with Shorty. This all took place about 35 years ago, when he was in his mid 60’s. I would generally see Shorty during his floats of the river where my cabin was 28 miles downstream from the road where he would 'put in.' Most people would travel this remote river using modern rafts, canoes or kayaks. Shorty’s preferred method was a large inner tube to which he had tied two wooden planks. I only knew Shorty to have one change of clothes, but they were always clean from washings in the river.
He was hard of hearing and when his inner tube was near my cabin he always would shout, “Hey, Brad! Are you hungry?” Shorty did not realize I had little affinity for his main staple - hard tack biscuits. "Hard" is not really the correct word because one hour after Shorty finished “baking” this delight the biscuits could easily be used as hammers to break rocks!
Shorty’s main winter food was beans. However, it was too much trouble for Shorty to cook one meal at a time. So he would boil up about five pounds of beans (no onions, bacon or anything for flavor) and when finished he would spread them out to freeze in a thin layer on a sheet of plywood. He could then break it into pieces and take some with him wherever he traveled, wood slivers and all.
Shorty was mostly a caretaker for different cabins during his winters on the river. His snowmobile, I swear, was one of the first ever made: a Larsen. Shorty figured it used too much gas so he put a metal tip from a ballpoint pen in the gas line. After that the Larsen’s top speed was about 10 miles an hour. Shorty never went very far on that snowmobile, but he smiled all the way!
I had occasion to stay with Shorty in a cabin on a few different nights, one of them after we had cut down and brought in several loads of firewood. Even though it was 30 below zero we had worked up quite a sweat. So, naturally, we hung our clothes by the wood stove when we went to sleep that night. I did not see Shorty put his sourdough starter on the rack above the stove. A Sourdough starter works like yeast with heat being part of the catalyst. To say the least, Shorty was quite enthusiastic about everything he did, including mixing flour and sourdough. We woke the next morning to a terrible mess of mean rising sourdough, thick and gooey, running down the walls, over our clothes and onto the stove! It wasn’t very funny at the time but as I recall we sure did have some good pancakes that morning!
During the winter it would take Shorty close to 20 minutes to get dressed for outside activities. He took great pleasure in “rubber bands” he made from cut up inner tubes, using one on every extremity (including his neck!) to hold down each layer of clothing. It would not be unusual for Shorty to be wearing 12-15 inner tube bands.
One of Shorty’s favorite activities was sorting through cans of old nuts, bolts and miscellaneous parts. One spring he was with us in mining camp quietly going about this pastime. It was a cold day for March, about 10 degrees, and three of us were in the cook shack when Shorty came in with a coffee can of bolts. He set it on the barrel stove to warm up the contents. Good enough. But ten minutes later we had all spilled our coffee and were sprawled on the floor as six .22 caliber bullets, buried somewhere in the can, exploded and echoed through the building.
Shorty was staying at my guest cabin for a few days one summer when he came over and announced, “I think I’ll give myself a haircut”. I was writing a letter and absent-mindedly said, “Good idea.” It was about five minutes later that I realized Shorty had not asked for the scissors. I looked out the window and saw smoke coming from a small fire in the guest cabin wood stove. I dashed over and threw open the door just in time to see Shorty pull his head from the open wood stove door. I must have given him an incredulous look because Shorty stood up, patted his smoking hair and said, “What, does it look that bad?”
I could go on for pages with Shorty stories. However, I suppose I will always remember Shorty most from a time when he and I put down a winter prospect hole on the river. A prospect hole through five feet of ice and three feet of river gravel is an arduous process. We had been working on this four-foot by six-foot hole for several days during which the temperatures were right around 50 below. We were eager to get it finished and so after building an earlier evening thaw fire in the hole, we went back out about 11pm to pick and shovel out a few more river rocks. We had worked for about 15 minutes when we climbed up and sat on the edge of the hole. The most spectacular display of Northern Lights either of us had ever seen suddenly came out; a single, steady, wide band of deep blood red, running from east to west. It really was an unbelievable sight. We just sat in silence…at fifty below, twelve river miles from the nearest neighbor, just Shorty and me and those staggering northern lights.
Looking back on those times I would have to agree with that Anchorage political candidate...Shorty is indeed one of the people I most admire.
Post Script: Shorty passed away in 1999. He had no relatives anyone knew of and died a “paper millionaire” owning many, many acres of land in the Fairbanks area.
Here is another of the wonderful people I came to know while living on the Fortymile River of Alaska's deep Interior. Betty was, is, a very special person in my life...
As I look out across two feet of snow here in Northeastern Washington state, my mind easily drifts back to the years of wintering in the Alaska bush. As Robert Service so aptly put it: “The winters, the brightness that blinds you, The white land locked tight as a drum; The cold fear that follows and finds you, The silence that bludgeons you dumb. The snows that are older than history, The woods where the weird shadows slant; The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery, I’d bade them good-bye but I can’t!”
When I think of cold I think of a late and dark afternoon in December 1983, on the Fortymile River in Alaska’s Interior. I was alone in the cabin, many miles from roads and neighbors, comfortable next to the barrel stove. As I sat to write my daily journal entry under the flicker of the kerosene lamp, the thermometer out the window confirmed everything was a normal - 45 degrees below zero. Suddenly a voice boomed up from the frozen river, ”Hello at the cabin!” It was Betty Weston and her husband, Tom. They had been in town buying supplies and upon their return discovered the road was blown shut for the winter. So Tom thought he would drive the pickup 36 miles down the river ice to their cabin. All had gone well for 20 miles before the truck fell through shell ice and into the river up to the bottom of the doors. Tom and Betty were stuck, it was pitch dark, and it was 45 below zero. And, I must add, their age was in the mid 50’s at the time. It was still sixteen miles to their cabin and the only person and cabin between was me, three miles away. Somehow, without a light or a trail and the temperature at 45 below zero, they reached my cabin; later confessing a bowl of beans and sourdough biscuits never tasted so good. It took us three days to free the truck from the ice.
Betty was, and still is, a remarkable woman. She came to the Fortymile in 1947 with her first husband in search of gold. At that time the area had no road, so they flew in a small bush airplane to Wade Creek and hiked overland some 30 miles to their homestead. Later they purchased a small dozer for the mining operation and would haul supplies down the river ice each spring and early winter. Mail was dropped once a month from the passing mail plane on its way to Eagle. Betty tells the story of one time when the pilot dropped the mailbag and it landed squarely in the waterhole that had been chopped in the ice!
Betty raised and home schooled three daughters on the river. Each of them went on to graduate from college and have well respected careers. By the time I arrived on the river scene in 1977 Betty’s husband had passed away and she was remarried. Betty was widely known as one of the “old timers”. From grizzly bears and gold nuggets, to frostbite and northern lights, there wasn’t much she hadn’t seen or done. During the summer she maintained an immense garden. She would can and jar her harvest in the fall and stock her root cellar for the winter.
Talk about a good cook! Everyone was always welcome at her table and if someone knocked on the door in the middle of a meal she would jump up and set a new place. All her meals were cooked on a wood stove where she also heated water for the piles of dishes and the ever-at-the-ready coffee pot. Her home made jams and jellies were superb on bread baked six loafs at a time in the woodstove.
Betty taught me the ’proper’ method of cooking moose meat and showed me the exact mix of sugar and cinnamon to put on top of sourdough doughnuts. She also showed me how to smile in the face of what was often adversity in the Alaska bush. When her cabin burned down one fall she cleaned out the old chicken coup and moved in. Betty also told me once to be careful on a float trip I was making downriver. I did not heed her warning...but that is another story.
Betty is now in Missoula, Montana, still laughing and keeping a warm welcome mat out for anyone who might drop in. As the new century dawns I think we should remember the “old timers” who pioneered the past century, making life easier, and more memorable, for everyone.
Before moving to Ketchikan I was mining gold for a meager living in Alaska’s Interior on the Fortymile River. It was there I met Neil. He lived 8 miles downriver from the Taylor Highway Bridge (a gravel road). It was Neil who gave me a place to stay on one of his old mining claims in a cabin 12 miles upriver from the bridge. During my first years there I would boat down to Neil’s place in the fall and help him sluice for gold and finish up his mining season. Neil was one of the most likable guys I have ever known, but I guess it would be accurate to say he was rough around the edges.
Neil had been living on the river since the early 1960’s and had always supported his lifestyle by mining. To my knowledge he had never worked for anyone else. His hair was flame red in those years, and his arms were covered in Navy tattoos. He could drink and curse better than the best and his laugh was a hearty roar that would make a lion jealous.
Neil did not believe in banks so he hid his gold by burying it in various places around his cabin. One spring I was visiting Neil and he seemed very preoccupied. I asked what was the matter and he replied, “I can’t find the *#%@$# gold I buried last fall”. Turned out he had buried close to 300 ounces in a new hiding place. Years later I asked him about the “lost” gold. He claimed to have never found it.
Of course, there were good and bad years in the mining game for Neil. After one especially good season Neil got the urge to drive to Chicago, his long ago hometown. In Anchorage he purchased, with cash from his gold sales, a new Jaguar automobile. And of course he drove it like there was no tomorrow. So sure enough, 750 miles down the Alcan Highway the engine blew. To the first person that stopped, he sold the car for a dollar, bought a bus ticket and continued on his trip.
One winter he talked me into taking a prospecting trip upriver with him on his snow machine. My better judgment was nowhere to be found that day and we set off at 20 below zero. Neil was an excellent mechanic. Yet, when we ran out of gas 17 miles from the nearest cabin there was not much he could do. It was by the Northern Lights and starlight that we found our way back to a warm fire.
I say Neil was an excellent mechanic; actually he was much more than that. He could listen to a D-8 Caterpillar bulldozer and know before it broke what was about to go wrong. In 1986 we were running a large mining operation when the digging arm on the one-yard backhoe broke, literally, in half. We were a ten-hour drive from town so Neil rigged a field repair from steel plates and hydraulic hoses - all from materials on hand. To this day the hoe is still working and digging with his patch job intact.
Often times it seemed that every machine Neil owned was patched and wired together. We were crossing the river in his old skiff one afternoon from his cabin to the diggings. He had started the motor and just sat down when the engine quit. Neil was beside himself with anger. As we drifted to the middle of the river Neil stood, screamed curses, turned and kicked the motor clean off its mount. The engine sank into the deepest part of the river. I had to row the boat back, Neil was cursing in pain holding his leg. He could not work for a week after that.
I was heading upriver in my boat in the spring of 1977 when the boat caught a wave wrong, causing it (and me!) to sink in water that still had ice flowing in it. Several miles downriver Neil and another friend, David, saw the flotsam and came up to take me shivering off the riverbank. They saved my life.
However, it was a very simple incident that probably best showed Neil’s true nature. We were in Fairbanks for mining supplies and were eating in a restaurant when we happened to see a man, shabbily dressed, hitchhiking along the road. Neil stood up from his hot dinner, walked out to the man and gave him $50 and a pack of cigarettes. Without a word he came back and finished eating.
The winter of 1995 found Neil in Hawaii, living well on the earnings from another good Alaska mining season. Late that November, in Hilo, Neil died of a heart attack at age 56. And now, simply put, without Neil Alaska is not nearly the place it used to be.
So tonight let us raise our glasses and toast the men and women on the trail, “May all your adventures end beside a warm fire, and may all the gold you hide never be found.”