“Be careful for what you wish; it surely shall be yours.” These are wise words indeed and provide the backdrop for the trip my sons and I took last summer into the Alaskan bush. The trip was a celebration of my retirement and Zach and Luke were ready to once again join me and head out into the “woods.” We decided to raft the remote Koktuli River in Southwestern Alaska. We looked forward to eight days of comradeship, adventure and seeing spectacular wildlife. When the bush pilot dropped us off on the shore of a tundra lake, his parting words were about the time he was mauled by a bear and how it changed his life. We thanked him for the story, looked at each other with wide eyes, loaded our 12-gauge slug guns and began the portage to the river. That night we slept on the tundra with grizzly sign all around.
It was different being on the treeless tundra. Forget shelter or firecraft. There is a reason the great arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote volumes on the clothing of the Eskimo and Inuit. Warmth and shelter are all about what is on your back or the tent you pack. After we made camp, Zach went off to explore. He dressed warmly, took one of the shotguns, Scott Gossman’s Moose knife, the GPS, a compass and off he went. Several hours later when he returned, we had a conversation about how easy it would be to get lost and how tough it would be to survive on the tundra. What looked like a flat plain turned out to be endless rolling hills with no reference points. Zach said that he quickly lost sight of camp. He was never in danger of being lost but the hike was sobering.
Close Bear Encounters
As we progressed down river, the adventures kept coming. We moved from tundra to willows to spruce forest. By day three we were seeing bear after bear. We had one close encounter that forced us to abandon camp just before dark, which made for a tough evening. After two hours of navigating a braided portion of the river, dragging over shallows and dodging sweepers, we settled in for the night. We were in the “woods” for sure.
Much of what determined our comfort and safety was the result of the work we did with our cutting tools. The river channels and gravel bars were thick with trees; spruce and poplar that wash down river when the ice breaks up in the spring. They are a mixed blessing, providing abundant firewood but also a grave obstacle to the river traveler. With Zach at the oars and Luke in the bow, we avoided the worst of it. But woe to the rafter who gets stuck in a logjam. Choose the wrong channel and you’re cooked! The raft cannot be dragged back up river. The current is too strong. You either cut your way out or who knows what? When in trouble or for cutting firewood, we turned to our Cold Steel Trail Boss axe.
Who’s The Boss?
With the Trail Boss we cleared obstacles, chopped the sharp stubs off spruce trunks we had to drag the raft over and cut enough firewood each day to cook two meals and burn a fire into the night for warmth and to let bears know we were about. It’s a good thing the Trail Boss did the job, as we broke our folding saw early on and the ring saw we packed was useless. What works camping or deer hunting in my woods back home may not hold up in the Alaskan wilderness.
Scott Gossman’s Moose knife is a Puma White Hunter pattern on steroids. The Moose is great for camp chores, being stout enough for use as a hatchet yet sharp and quick enough for cleaning fish, shaving tinder and carving an expedient spatula. The 6-inch blade of O1 tool steel sports Scott’s razor-sharp convex grind and the canvas Micarta handle provided a super grip even when wet and wrist deep in fish entrails.
My EDC knife was Mike Mann’s Hunter’s Companion. This was an all-purpose, handy tool that was in constant use: food prep, carving, cleaning fish, cutting line and rope, you name it. The 3.5-inch blade of high carbon steel was as tough as could be, held an edge and sharpened readily with a diamond stick. The handle of curly maple was hand filling and comfortable. I am hard on my belt knife and Mike’s knives have never let me down. The Hunter’s Companion was up to an adventure and we certainly had one.
For more information visit or call the following companies: Cold Steel (www.coldsteel.com; 800-255-4716); Scott Gossman Knives (www.gossmanknives.com; 410-452-8456); Mike Mann/Idaho Knife Works (www.idahoknifeworks.com; 509-994-9394).