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Part One of Four: Meeting Heimo and My First Rabbit 6/15/2004

Today is Tuesday, June 15th, 2004. It is an incredible 55 degrees above. It’s been sunny most of the day. As the evening grew late, clouds spread across the sky and dropped a slow rain of fat drops. Now it is a little after one AM, the rain is gone, the sky is clear, and there is a profound stillness and quiet. There is a woodsy, earthy smell in the air. It smells like camp. It feels like vacation. The sun came up at 1:57AM on Saturday morning, June 5th. It hasn’t gone down since and won’t for many weeks. We've been experiencing 24 hours of light for a while now. It's enjoyable and easy to forget how late it is. Stephanie and I bought a four-wheeler in Fairbanks about a month ago, and we’ve been enjoying getting out and seeing areas that we had not been able to reach on foot. There have been evenings lately that we have jumped up on a suuden impulse and ridden miles out of town until 10 or 11 at night without really realizing how late it was. It’s easy to lose track of time when we’re wearing sunglasses against a midnight sun.

As you can see, we made it through our first cold winter in Alaska. It was profoundly cold, but it wasn’t as bad as one might imagine. The coldest our two digital thermometers registered was 50 degrees below zero. Others in town insisted that it reached 60 below a number of times this winter, and that was corroborated by official readings at our regional airport. But we bundled up and managed just fine. More than that; we thrived. Stephanie and I bought snowshoes and we enjoyed spending the few hours of sunlight on Saturday afternoons by walking through acres of fresh trackless snow. There is a lake close by called Hospital Lake. It freezes over in winter and accumulates more than four feet of snow. This is a favorite destination of ours. In Texas, I always enjoyed the one day a year that I woke up to snow on the ground. I lamented the fact that by mid-morning, every street, sidewalk, and yard was all tracked up, and there were no pristine and untouched patches of snow left. Here, it seems, a person could never run out of pristine, trackless snow.

One Saturday in February I was splitting wood in front of our house when a neighbor who lives in a house down a path behind ours was walking by. He noticed the snowshoes on the steps of our house and asked if I was headed out. I told him I would be going out a little later, and so he suggested, since I was going out anyway, that I set some rabbit snares and catch some “bunnies” for supper. I had an idea who he was, so I introduced myself. I knew of him because I had met his wife Edna and his two girls, Rhonda and Krin. The girls had become friends with Stephanie and had been over to our house a number of times. As it turned out, his is name is Heimo and he is a white trapper from Wisconsin who moved out to Alaska over thirty years ago when he was about twenty. His girls told us that this was the first winter in thirty years that he has spent “in town,” by which they meant Fort Yukon. He has been living, for most of the past thirty years, deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where he traps for fur and lives a true subsistence lifestyle. He married Edna, an Eskimo woman, and had three girls, one of which drowned as a child in the river on which they live. The two girls have lived most of their lives in the three cabins between which they rotate, deep in the ANWR and very near the Canadian border. The girls have been home schooled until now. They spent this past winter in town so that the girls could attend the Fort Yukon school.

So Heimo was telling me I should set some snares to get some bunnies for dinner. I told him I was a city boy and that I didn’t know the first thing about snaring rabbits. He told me it was easy and in minutes he went to his house and returned with wire that looked like what you’d use to hang a picture on the wall. He explained to me how to set the snare and encouraged me to give it a try. Later that day, I was telling Stephanie about my encounter with this neighbor. I told her about Heimo’s suggestion that we snare some rabbits. I asked her how she felt about the idea. I don’t know why I was surprised when she expressed her enthusiasm. So I walked about three miles out and set three rabbit snares. Over the next week I made that same walk about five times with no luck. That’s a long way to walk in thigh-high snow and snowshoes, and I was getting discouraged.

Then, on a Sunday afternoon in late February, Stephanie and I went out for an afternoon walk and to check my snares on the far side of Hospital Lake. We walked right up on the second snare set before I saw it. There was one surprisingly large snowshoe hare laying there in the snow. It hadn't been there long and was not yet frozen. I picked it up and pulled the snare off and held it up, marveling at it. Stephanie was very excited. We took it over to our neighbor, Edna, to show us how to clean it. Stephanie and I were impressed by how masterfully Edna dispatched the little rabbit. I wondered how many hundreds of rabbits she had cleaned in her life. That night, we had another first for dinner. Rabbit. It was delicious, and we enjoyed an odd sense of satisfaction at finding and preparing our own food. It can’t get much more organic than that.

By early March we were still buried in snow, but we could see signs of spring that gave us encouragement. At the first signs of spring, we marveled to each other how fast the winter had seemed to go by. It had actually been six months and wasn’t over yet. But the days were getting perceivably longer. We were now walking to work in that pre-sunrise glow once again. As we were celebrating the first signs of spring, we were still bundled up again the 36 below zero temperature in March. It is an odd feeling to have clear blue skies and bright sunshine and still be so cold. By late March we were beginning to see the temperatures break the zero mark.

Posted on Tuesday, June 15, 2004 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | CommentsPost a Comment

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