An Alaskan Sketch: Yukon Joe

The day you step into the Alaskan wilderness is the day that all your dreams become realized. Free and clear air, bubbling mountainside streams, atmosphere heavy with the scent of bristling pines and fierce wolf howls echoing through valleys and over hills all surround you. The last thing anyone wants to do is leave. This feeling of steadfast attachment tells us something about mankind, I think. It speaks to our yearning for wilderness and the freedom it brings.

Maybe it speaks to something darker. Our loathing for society, perhaps. It isn’t unheard of for avid outdoorsmen to become even avid-er misanthropes. Pining for the opportunity to tramp through the woods with no company besides an 1873 Winchester and your soul isn’t exactly normal, after all. But it’s near enough to acceptable for about a quarter of the population not to look at you with confusion behind their eyes and worry in their hearts. The allure of red flannel, straw hat, corncob pipe and suspenders is strong. Nobody who looks at the world for what it is can blame a man for wanting to escape it.

Joe ‘Petticoat’ Sloane, a rambling-tambling fur trader, sat perched atop a rocky outcropping along the shore of Alaska’s Yukon River. A tribe called the Doogh Qinag had told the Russians that their name for the Yukon (Yukkhana) means “big river” sometime around 1843. Ayup, Joe saw that the Yukon was a damn big river. Anyone who traversed it via canoe, like he had, would have to be blind not to. But now the year was 1897 (or, he wondered, was it 1898 by now?), and a certain man named Sloane needed a pelt to sell.

Deep inhale, sharp exhale. Smokey clouds of warm breath hovered in front of his harsh, wrinkled and stubbly face for a moment before being whisked away by arctic winds. Bear hunting was a difficult endeavor. Not everyone was cut out for it. One or two frozen and lifeless trappers had proven that to Joe. But for a man with expertise and experience it was more than doable. His bait pile lingered not more than a hundred yards away, draped over a rock in the open. Before long a grizzly would smell raw meat and begin a long, waddling journey to its last meal.

“I almost feel bad, but it isn’t like these beasts know any better,” mumbled the trapper, “Aw, hell, I need to eat too. Shouldn’t waste time feeling sorry about it.” Minutes passed. Joe had begun to drift off towards total boredom when a trio of bears loped into sight: Two cubs and their mother. Carefully and with great attention to preventing noise, Sloane rested the barrel of his rifle on a sturdy boulder. Exhaling softly, he took aim and squeezed the trigger. CRACK! A rifle shot rang out across the valley. All Joe saw or heard for several seconds afterward was smoke and ear-ringing. But when the smoke cleared, one bear was down. Two cubs stood dumbfounded, looking as lost as the orphans they had just become.