For several days in June, no one had heard from him. So two bush pilots landed their plane on the small airstrip and walked to the Alaskan lodge where he lived alone, calling his name. There was no answer, and inside their worst concern was confirmed. “Skinning Wolverines,” a story in the most recent issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, was inspired by the man they found dead there, a man I met while living in the village of Nondalton. His name was Mitch, and I knew him only for a short weekend, but have never forgotten him, and never will.
I first met him on a Friday night after a frenzied snowmobile ride trying to keep up with Marty “Bigfoot” Gaspar across a frozen lake. At the lodge, Mitch greeted us in the sub-freezing evening wearing a pair of cut-off shorts, one side cut to the knee, the other about six inches higher. He walked with a bowlegged limp. He was a large man with a red beard, a Vietnam Vet who had carved a life for himself caretaking that lodge in the wilderness. Marty called him The Mad Russian. He moved swiftly, never stood or sat in one place for long, and his frame was that of a man who chopped enough wood to keep a lodge warm through the Alaskan winter. He was given to swearing and drinking whiskey. He was welcoming, and friendly, but made no bones about the fact that pissing him off would render one forever crosswise in his sights. (It had happened. The man who was my principal and boss, for example, was to never set foot in Mitch’s lodge again). “Everyone has to make their own damn drinks,” he growled at us upon our arrival, but then proceeded to make us all Bloody Marys, generous on the vodka. Every hour or so, he would let out a vibrant yelp, a wild holler filled with the joy of being alive.
So it came to be the next morning that I found myself checking wolverine traps with Bigfoot and the Mad Russian. These were men entirely in their element. I was not. Riding a snowmobile was one of the new experiences I had that weekend. Shooting a particular kind of gun was another. When we saw several moose, I was advised, “If they charge, punch it. Don’t stop. You stop, those moose’ll stomp your ass.”
Not far from the moose was one of Marty and Mitch’s trap sets. It would be fair to say based on the fur all in hackles and the hissing behind bare teeth, that the wolverine the trap held was none to happy.
So now here I was, me, Daryl, meek pacifist urban dweller tree-hugging animal lover, trapping and hunting (well, tagging along, really--I don’t actually hunt). The wolverine was still growling and hissing. I closed my eyes and tried to make peace with the inevitable. I heard two shots. But wolverines don’t go down that easy. It was still hissing. Mitch kept walking toward the wolverine, and Marty kept telling him to be careful.
“If he gets out of that trap, he’ll climb all over you!” said Marty to Mitch.
But Mitch’s face betrayed no fear. The cigar between his teeth did not even twitch. Wild man. And “wild” is not pejorative. Mitch worked this land like any carnivore would, like a bear, or a wolf. Only with tools, and language and stories to tell. Wise in a way I’ll never know, and wish I would, because all the while I was thinking, if there’s one poor fool dumb enough to die out here, it ain’t any of the three of them. Anyway, the ending here is bloody, and I’ll dispense the details other than to say that back at the lodge, Marty skinned that wolverine while Mitch made a caribou roast and yelped, and swore, and laughed. Later, there was whiskey and cards, and celebratory gunfire into the crisp midnight sky. The next morning, before we left, Mitch gave me a pair of walrus ivory earrings for my wife, which she still owns and occasionally wears. As we rode away, I stopped and turned and saw him walking toward the barn where there was wood to be chopped, work to be done. All of it was work. Hunting and trapping was not a matter of hobby. In Mitch I saw a man who’d found what I still seek--a place in the world that fit him snug and comfortable. He understood how to fully live in the natural world and to participate both in its beauty and brutality and the knowledge he held is not one to be found in books, or theories, on the internet or the Discovery channel. His was a knowledge that connected to deepest instinct and purpose, a wisdom that is too quickly diminishing in this world, and I fear when it is lost for good, so will we all be.
I don’t imagine Mitch would have shed a tear had it been me that died. I don’t think he was wired that way, and besides, I doubt if he would have remembered me at all. But I’m not ashamed to admit his death had that effect on me. I wish him well where he has no doubt landed. I hope he finds there a chilled air, and a vast wilderness to wander.
Daryl Farmer's recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Quarter After Eight, Fourth River and Prairie Schooner. His first book Bicycling beyond the Divide: Two Journeys into the West (University of Nebraska Press) recently received a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. He is an Assistant Professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he teaches creative writing and literature. Read more on his website.