The Adventurer's Son Page 2

Brian gave me a quick lesson on how to survive in the bunkhouse, empty all day while everyone was off stripping coal. “This here’s the oven. And here”—he opened the freezer—“are the Tater Tots. Just turn on the oven, put the Tots on the cookie sheet, and cook ’em up until you can smell ’em. Eat whatever you want, but don’t b-b-burn down the bunkhouse!” he instructed with a laugh. “Now, if you’re gonna leave camp,” he said, turning serious, “take Moose with you. See ya tonight, Rome!” And with that he left for work and I left with Moose to explore.

Moose was the camp dog. Zinn claimed Moose was half wolf, and I believed him. His coat was thick, unlike that of any dog I had ever petted, and he was tall, with long, lanky legs and big feet on an otherwise German shepherd frame. He wagged his tail and looked at me with a dog smile when I rubbed his back.

There were no computers or televisions in rural Alaska in 1970. In their place, I had books and a taxidermy correspondence course, a .22 rifle my uncles entrusted me with, and a Kawasaki dirt bike that was too big for me. The motorcycle’s front brake lever was broken in half, the result of a kick-start failure. To kick-start the bike required that I launch my skinny frame up with both feet off the ground, shove the kicker down with my right foot to fire the ignition, then engage the clutch and first gear, all before the bike fell over. It didn’t always get going in time. When it did, I toured the mining roads, thrilled to drive on my own; but I grew bored just zooming around.

Most of my favorite explorations were on foot and off-trail with Moose out front. We pushed through willows and alders, rock-hopped, waded streams, and explored two nearby ghost towns called Suntrana and Lignite, where the coal had been mined out but the scent of diesel still lingered. Wood frogs waited in tundra ponds, magpies in shrub thickets, red squirrels in boreal woods. I carried Peterson’s field guides to identify the birds and mammals. The books nourished my dream of growing up to be a scientist; the nature near Usibelli gave my dream form.

In early autumn, Zinn took me on a bowhunt for moose off the Stampede Trail. The midnight sun was gone and it got dark at night with the northern lights shimmering overhead. We left early to find a moose, and my toes didn’t thaw until the frost had melted off the red leaves of fireweed. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but Zinn looked back at me. “You sure are noisy, aren’t you?” His big fake teeth flashed in a smile. His real ones had been knocked out during a fight with his best friend.

I doubled down on not stepping on any sticks, not brushing noisily against any bushes, and certainly not talking. I kept close behind, carrying Zinn’s eight-pound .30-06 rifle that he said we might need for bears. Zinn spotted a brown bulk that we stalked quietly together until he asked me to wait while he went ahead. I sat patiently cradling the rifle. Careful with its scope as Zinn instructed, I watched bugs crawl and leaves fall.

Then Zinn appeared mysteriously out of the brush. “It’s a cow,” he whispered, aware there might still be a bull nearby. We could only take a male moose, so we continued our hunt until the pungent odor of high-bush cranberries hung thick in the woods. “Moose lay down now ’cause it’s too hot for ’em. We won’t have any luck. Let’s go back to Usibelli.” Zinn’s lessons were based on his humble farm roots and a trip sailing around the world in the U.S. Navy.

Later that fall, near remote Cody Pass, Zinn got a bull caribou without me. He brought back its sweet-tasting meat and its antlers still covered in the short fur called velvet. Like skin, velvet has blood vessels that nourish and grow the antlers until they reach their full size. Then the bull scrapes the velvet off to display his white rack to cows and other bulls, or sometimes to fight for the right to mate.

Zinn asked me to mount the antlers. My taxidermy course materials instructed that flushing them with gasoline would expel the velvet’s blood. I doused the furry horns in gas, worked dry preservative between the skull plate and skin, then fastened the rack to a plaque. For my flight home, we boxed the caribou antlers up with a big, black raven I had mounted: two priceless souvenirs from a summer of doing whatever I wanted, learning independence and responsibility.

THE FOLLOWING SUMMER in Virginia, a friend’s dad took us to the Appalachian Mountains. We were going to climb Old Rag, a barren granite dome in Shenandoah. “There they are,” the father announced when the hills came into view. “The Blue Ridge Mountains!”

“Those aren’t mountains!” I said, my appreciation for scenery forever spoiled by Alaska. “Those are just foothills. There’s not even any snow on ’em!”

Pronouncements like that—and telling the kids at school about my summer in Alaska with a .22, a wolf-dog named Moose, and a motorcycle—didn’t gain me many friends. “Stop bragging, Roman!” they’d say. But their criticism never curbed my enthusiasm for Alaska, with freedoms and adventures impossible back east. My Alaskan experiences gave me the confidence to try anything and the strength to endure my parents’ breakup, which had begun with their separation in 1970 and ended in divorce four years later when I was thirteen.

After my parents’ marriage ended, my mom married a gentle lawyer from Virginia named Lew Griffith. Although we never called him “Dad,” Lew was an excellent father figure to my sister and me. My mom and he nourished my preteen fascinations with milk snakes and plethodontid salamanders, steaming geysers, and sphagnum bogs. She even encouraged my suggestions for family vacations, where I chose the destinations and planned the trips.

Informed by AAA maps and National Geographic articles, I charted far-flung natural history tours. With my mom or Lew behind the wheel of the family station wagon, we made road trips in search of colorful amphibians in the Appalachians and insect-eating plants in southern swamps. We cruised summer blacktop at night across Arizona deserts looking for reptiles. My mother even drove Tamara and me across the country to my grandmother’s farm on a tour of national parks.

Tamara usually stayed back at the motel pool or with my mom and Lew while I went to look for creatures alone or with Mike Cooper, my best friend, who often joined us on these trips. More interested in dogs and horses, Tamara shied away from the mud, bugs, and spiderwebs that we budding scientists were willing to endure.

Back in the sixties and seventies a boy could still run off to play alone during the idyllic era between rural-agrarian America, when kids worked the land, and today’s suburban-urban America, when kids embrace indoor entertainment. The suburbs then, like Holmes Run Acres where we lived in Falls Church, often dovetailed with natural ecosystems. The Chiles Tract, the last large parcel of undeveloped land inside Washington, D.C.’s Beltway, was only two blocks from my home. I’d spend hours wandering its forests, creeks, and swamps, learning my way in the woods.

Mike Cooper and I filled steamy terraria in our rooms with pink lady-slipper orchids and bright green sphagnum mosses we found in the Chiles Tract. Our bubbling aquaria housed red-spotted newts from the swamps and spotted turtles from the creek. After an escaped snake found its way into my mom’s underwear drawer, she reminded me politely but frequently to keep my bedroom door shut.

Our mom valued education and sent Tamara and me to a small progressive private elementary school near our home, where sensitive science and English teachers leveraged my fascination with science and nature into essays and research projects for their classes. But as puberty advanced, my interests shifted away from the nurture of reptiles to the nature of girls.

By my senior year in public high school, my participation in the adventure sports had eclipsed my studies of natural history. With its thrilling physical problem solving far above the ground, rock climbing engaged me most and I took up with two teens who climbed at a high standard: Dieter Klose and Savvy Sanders. After graduation, we three headed to Colorado in Dieter’s white Econoline van. I went farther, exploring the West by thumb and freight train, catching the ferry to Alaska at summer’s end.

With my good grades and strong interest in adventure sports, my parents and neighbors encouraged me to apply to Princeton and Dartmouth. But I couldn’t. Three summer trips to Alaska had—as Henry Gannett of Harriman’s 1899 Alaska Expedition warned—dulled my “capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.” There was only one place for me.

To my parents’ likely dismay, although they never tried to dissuade me, I applied to a distant college with the Alaska Range’s sheer Mount Huntington on its catalog cover—UAF, the University of Alaska Fairbanks—to study science, pursue adventure, and once again do whatever I wanted.

Heading north at sixteen, I was too na?ve to appreciate the prestige that an Ivy League education would bring. But even now, writing this as an old man near sixty, none of my regrets center on moving to Alaska then.

Chapter 2


10,910, east face.

Courtesy of Clif Moore

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