John Schandelmeier: New Year's resolutions after winter spent on snowshoes

John Schandelmeier
Bill Roth

The New Year usually brings thoughts of what is to come. The phrase, "I'll do that next year," is upon me. However, a couple days ago I ran into an old acquaintance that I had not seen since 1973. The chance encounter caused me to reflect. Sometimes looking back helps us to shape our future. In the winter of '73, a friend and I flew in to the Bush to trap. We both had fair experience in the woods and high hopes for a good catch of fur.

We were looking for marten north of the Yukon. The area we chose was remote. Frank Warren, the owner of the roadhouse in Circle City, flew us in. Two guys, a big German shepherd and a Citabria loaded with traps took a couple of trips. It would have been nice to take a little food, but two trips were all that we could afford.

Beans, rice and flour were our staples. Salt and yeast rounded out our supply. We took one rifle and a .22, expecting to take a caribou or moose. I don't remember checking to see if caribou season was open at the time. A homemade wood stove made from a 15-gallon drum and a lantern completed our household furnishings.

Frank stuffed the dog and me, plus as much gear as he could fit into the Citabria and pointed the plane's nose northeast. He flew for about an hour, until I said: "There!" The small river below us became home for the next four months.

My partner, Ole, and I spent three days building a cabin. It wasn't much. Our shelter was 11-by-15 feet. It had a flat roof, Visqueen for a window and was constructed of unpeeled spruce. Trapping season was open and we were anxious to get started.

Before the door was on the cabin, I shot a caribou with the .22. It was a bull just out of the rut and mostly inedible, but it sufficed until we got a few beaver snares in. Later caribou were chosen with a little more care.

We ate five caribou and 20 beaver that winter. Grouse, rabbits, lynx and a few red squirrels kept us going. Beans. That was the only thing we didn't run out of. It is amazing how much food two guys can go through when covering 20 miles a day on snowshoes.

There is little daylight in the northern Interior so most of our days were spent under the stars. There were no LED headlamps in the '70s. We took no flashlights. Our winter life was about as simple as one could make it. There were no mechanical items to break. The biggest breakdown was the stock of our .22, which was remedied by carving a new one from a birch tree. Our only contact with the outside world was an AM radio and the knowledge that Frank Warren was to pick us up sometime toward the end of February as long as it was warmer than minus 50.

A winter such as Ole and I spent 40 years ago, while still possible, would be much harder to accomplish in today's world. Remote spots are fewer. There are regulations that prohibit flying out and building a cabin on public lands. However, the biggest obstacle of all is our present lifestyles. Even in Alaska, the last frontier, we are tied to electronics and our mechanical necessities. Snowmobiles, headlamps, phones and those little gadgets that make our lives easier all conspire to confound simplicity.

We were 100 miles from the nearest village; our health care plans did not exist. We had beans, flour, snowshoes and a gun. Does that sound romantic? We caught good marten, a lot of beaver, a few cats and a bit of other fur. There was no fuel bill, no cellphone plan and no credit card. Our big expense was the airplane ride.

Life is different today. Trapping is different. Snowmobiles rule the wilderness. There are airplane trappers on television that fly back and forth from town. It is almost unheard of to be out in the woods without some sort of emergency communication. Are we are forgetting that caring for ourselves in the outback is our own responsibility?

Forty years ago, I had no responsibilities. We caught fur, came home with a few dollars and had an experience that I'm sure shaped Ole and I in all of our future escapades. That winter on snowshoes constantly reminds me to strive for simplicity. This is important whether one is contemplating a winter expedition or a summer camping trip. The more stuff you have, the more that can break!

Stay simple; you will "catch some fur" and come home feeling like a hundred bucks.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier