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Final trip with dad to trapping cabin a son's treasure

Michael Carey

Snow fell lightly from a leaden sky and began to accumulate in front of my house. Winter had come to Anchorage. But in my imagination, I was atop a cut bank along Carey Lake, south of Lake Minchumina, where my dad had a trapping cabin, a high-school kid alongside Fabian peering into the gloaming on a gray afternoon almost 50 years ago.

Perhaps a quarter mile distant a half-dozen caribou plodded slowly along the western edge of the lake, churning the granular snow with their hooves. They were oblivious to us, our yellow Super Cub parked on the ice, and the smoke floating above the cabin from the fire Fabian lit minutes before. This was true wilderness, where, my dad said, man is a stranger -- and as I learned, eternal rhythms play themselves out every day. The name Carey Lake, bestowed on the map by the federal government because of Fabian's tenure as the resident trapper, was a meaningless abstraction in the silence surrounding us.

Fabian knew I would be going away to college the following September -- knew I wasn't staying in Fairbanks -- and wanted to give me a last look at what had been an important part of his life for most of 20 years. The last look lasted a week.

I flew to Lake Minchumina from Fairbanks aboard the mail plane on my 18th birthday. The twin-engine F-27 was headed for McGrath after a brief stop at the lake. Fabian met me at the airfield, and we put my bag in the Cub for the flight to his lake.

Before we left Minchumina, we visited trapper Kenny Granroth. Kenny, who had come to Alaska from Michigan in 1940, had a spacious, two-room cabin on a small rise near the lake. The front room doubled as the local post office. Mail bags and government circulars littered the floor. Ever the congenial host, Kenny would dig out cans of beer for his guests and distribute them with the warning, "Don't go into the next room. Alcohol is prohibited in federal facilities."

My dad and Kenny were men of strong opinions. Before long, they were in roaring debate over arcane trapping matters, the habits of various animals, and who did what on the north fork of the Kuskokwim River 25 years ago. They only called a truce to agree meddlesome bureaucrats were ruining Alaska.

The flight to Carey Lake took 25 minutes at tree-top level. Shortly after landing, we noticed the caribou taking to the ice. As the caribou disappeared from sight, Fabian muttered "Dinner time" and dug a covered pot of frozen lima beans from the snow outside the cabin door. Given an hour on the edge of the stove, the beans were warm and tasty.

The week passed in a blur. I remember a great deal of walking on hardened trails my dad snowshoed before I arrived. Occasionally, our walks were punctuated by the excitement of finding a frozen marten in a trap. Or the disappointment of discovering a sprung trap a marten escaped.

As a young man, Fabian made his rounds by dog team, but sled dogs require endless attention, and he gave them up in 1950. The "iron dog," which Fabian initially embraced, was a great disappointment, frequently challenging his skills as a mechanic. He spent as much time repairing his snowmachines as driving them.

Several days, 30-below temperatures kept us near the cabin. "At this temperature, the fur is not moving around, so there's no point in us moving around," Fabian explained.

There was plenty to do in the cabin, starting with filling the wood box. Under a Coleman lantern, Fabian skinned marten, made repairs to worn garments, cooked and cleaned. I stood by to take orders. Our transistor radio blared most of the time, and Sunday afternoon we listened to the 49ers football game from San Francisco. Reception was good in the woods west of Mount McKinley, and at night we tuned in Radio Moscow, which broadcast classical music and commentary in Russian.

In retrospect, I am struck by how tiny the cabin was, a speck in the hundreds of miles of black spruce, pothole lakes, and nameless creeks stretching from the Alaska Range toward McGrath. The cabin -- and the airplane -- were all we had to protect us against the elements. Without them, we would have been cave men with rifles and sleeping bags. Fortunately, Fabian was a skilled woodsman and the 12-foot by 9-foot cabin was comfortable as long as we fed the Yukon stove.

Trapping seems like a surprising career choice for a man as gregarious as my dad, but it is clear he enjoyed the independence and was proud of his trapping ability, which could produce 100 marten a season. He also noted more than once, "If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it." There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line.

My dad began his trapping career in 1937, the year he arrived in Fairbanks from Minneapolis. At 20, he had outdoor skills I would never develop in a lifetime. Veteran trapper Carl Hult saw young Fabian patiently notching cabin logs and asked, "Where'd you learn to use an ax like that?" Fabian replied "Am I doing something wrong?" Carl shot back "That's what's wrong. There is nothing wrong. Kids don't know how to use an ax like you do."

On one of the last days of my visit, Fabian and I had a mixup on one of his trails and became separated. I found myself walking alone, assuming Fabian would be around the next corner. Then I heard him screaming my name -- behind me. I yelled back and retreated toward his voice. "Don't do that again," he said when I reached him, a blunt reminder that in the wilderness simple mistakes can have serious consequences.

The week done, we flew back to Fairbanks in the Super Cub. The temperature was 25 below on the ground when we warmed up the Cub and 5 below in the air as we flew over landmarks I had known since early childhood: Castle Rocks, the Bearpaw River, the Bonnifield Trail. The flight took more than two hours according to Fabian's log book, and I spent most of those two hours fighting the cold and feeling sorry for myself.

I would return to Carey Lake only once: to bury Fabian's ashes on a cool September afternoon 12 years later. Eight or 10 of us, family and friends, flew in from Fairbanks aboard two float planes. As we gathered on the cut bank from which I had seen the caribou, I realized I was the only mourner who had been to the lake before.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.


MICHAEL CAREY
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