I heard about Clarence Wood passing the other day. I was sharpening my machete on my parents’ porch in Honaunau, Hawaii, of all places. Leaves were green overhead, birds singing and bugs buzzing, and chickens scratching under the steps, and it was tough to get my bearings in the sudden storm of memories swirling in my head. A lifetime of memories of my friend, a world away in the Arctic — but also a place that feels even further away: the past.
Nothing about the news was the way I wanted it to be. Clarence was in his 80s and had been in a lot of pain the last years, suffering, and this fall his house caught fire and burned; then a dog attacked him, and finally on Christmas Day, in an opioid stupor, he was terribly scalded and medevacked to Anchorage. No, no part of that was how I wanted to remember this man.
Instead, I traveled back to my first memories, along the Kobuk River in the 1960s — cold winters then, with folks hunkered down in small cabins and sod igloos, eating from their caches and sigluaqs, meat and fish and berries they had gathered earlier in the season. My family lived in the dimness of our tiny sod home, buried in the ground and drifted under snow, with mice and shrews for company, Kerosene lamps for light, caribou most meals, and the only surge of excitement in our day was if a human visitor appeared.
On those rare times that my brother and I spotted a dot moving on the ice — a dot that wasn’t an animal — we’d shout, “Travelers! Travelers coming!” That’s what folks called people who came off the country. When you’re alone for weeks or months almost nothing is a bigger deal than seeing another human out there on the land.
The traveler who showed up most often at our place there at the lower end of Paugnautaugruk was an Inupiaq hunter from Ambler, a man in his mid-30s, lanky and friendly, with cropped black hair and a handsome face already scarred by frostbite. The young man’s name was Clarence Wood.
My parents were new to the Kobuk then, and attempting to live some of the old ways: hunting and gathering food and furs, drying sinew to use for thread to sew skins into clothing, stuff like that. Life wasn’t like today; our connections to each other were shared stories, and memories — there was no electricity in the villages yet, no telephones, no TV, definitely no clicking on Amazon and, poof!, here comes your new ax or snowshoes. People lived by their own skills and few had jobs. Nearly everyone hunted, and back then Clarence was already a hunter that others talked about.
I wouldn’t say everyone liked him. He was young and relentless, constantly out on the land no matter the conditions, and maybe already a bit too successful at it. And he wasn’t from the upriver villages. He was prone to bragging, too.
His stories were plenty amazing, but he liked to improve them. And who can say, maybe he did get that wolverine with a screwdriver, and that swimming bull moose with his knife. After all, he could find his way across the Brooks Range in winter without a map, and certainly the wolves, bears and caribou he brought home grew to be beyond counting.
Times were changing fast. Dog teams were being replaced by the first snowmobiles — Snow-Travelers, we called them — and traversing this country back then was serious, at times deadly. Nearly everyone passing our place would stop in to warm up and visit and ask about the trail. Many a friend and stranger alike would spend the night on a caribou hide on the floor and get a fresh start in the morning. People didn’t rush like we do now. The one thing everyone had plenty of was time.
Over the years, Clarence spent countless nights on our floor, countless days on our bearskin couch, drinking coffee and telling stories, teasing us boys, watching my dad bend sled runners, waiting to see what my mom would pull out of the wood oven. He’d peer over his shoulder out our Visqueen window that flapped in the wind, checking the weather. He never appeared to be in a hurry but usually didn’t stay long. “Well,” he’d announce, put down his cup, and rise. “Thank you much!” Outside, he’d shoulder into his parka, big hands reaching in his pockets for cigarettes. I can still hear the clink of his metal lighter. And out he’d head, disappearing again into the land.
I’m hesitant to say this in these modern overly touchy times, but there was another different thing about him: He liked white people. Now that I think of it, I guess that was touchy even back then, because enough folks didn’t. Regardless, Clarence found those stray weird white people who wandered north and showed up along the river to be interesting, and often entertaining in the different and sometimes dumb stuff they did. Best of all, they liked him.
I remember my parents and their friends forever repeating his expressions — even today — and the comical way he put words together. My dad would marvel at how Clarence had made it through a storm; Clarence would shrug. “Ha! Com’on now! Good traveling.” Or his description of a bear he shot: “Faaaat. Can’t see the meat.” Or him describing a winter stuck at home: “Agh. Jus' like jail.”
When my parents moved away, and I started living at the old place with my girlfriend, Stacey, Clarence continued to be the one traveler we saw the most. People were moving faster, stopping in less, trapping and hunting less, but Clarence never seemed to change. He referred to us as “Tat kid, and Daisy,” and continued spending time on the couch, using my old slingshot to hunt mice on the floor, glancing out to check the sky. He liked to test me; he’d stop in too early in the morning, wanting coffee and conversation, and then ask for something — usually gas. “Sure need gassss.” I can hear that gruff voice, and him saying it. It was true though. Man, that guy sure always needed another six gallons.
Now, so many years later, it almost doesn’t matter which of a thousand stories I tell, or what season, what year, Clarence was usually there, or passing by, or had just left. In January 1970, when three men were murdered below our place, Clarence was the last one to see them OK before the crime. When Keith Jones’ sod igloo next to ours caught fire and burned — there was Clarence on the ice, the first to spot the flames. When that mail plane went down, midwinter, up at Plane Crash, Clarence somehow again was passing by and the first on the scene.
Even though Hunt River, the area where I grew up, was his favorite place, if you talked to villagers hundreds of miles away in Huslia, or in Anaktuvuk, or homesteaders up the Ambler River, or whalers up the coast in Point Hope, they’d say similar: Clarence Wood traveled there, too.
In the 1970s, caribou over-wintered across from Paugnautaugruk, and that brought hunters, and a few times Grace and Paul Outwater from Kiana spent the night. I remember Grace chiding Paul, telling him not to step on the caribou hides my dad laid out. Later, folks told us Grace was Clarence’s mom. We were surprised, and marveled at the idea. Clarence was already larger than life — almost as if he couldn’t have a mortal mom, and from only 70 miles downriver.
Clarence was half deaf; he didn’t often talk about his past. I would have liked to know it. My family had heard he was from downriver, maybe, and that his dad might have been from the North Slope but had died somewhere in the mountains. One rumor was he died from drinking ice water after eating too much caribou fat. It seemed plausible. We heard Clarence’s siblings had died when he was little, and only he had survived. That, too, seemed plausible. He was so tough. It made sense.
I lost track of how many times I almost shot Clarence. The first time was when I was 11. I never told anyone. It was May; the first geese had arrived, and I ran my dog team down to Willow Island across from the mouth of the Hunt, tied them in the willows and laced on my snowshoes, and sneaked toward where I heard Canada geese hollering. Through brush I saw two dark things moving, disappearing, moving again. The honking was loud, and coming from them. I aimed with my .22. Suddenly I realized it was Clarence’s black shaved head in the crosshairs, crouched down behind grass. Beside him was his brother-in-law, Merrill Morena, another good friend of ours, blowing on a goose call.
Another time Clarence wounded a grizzly bear at dusk below our log cache. He’d been drinking, and left 10 minutes later, heading upriver in his boat. I searched for the bear in the dark with a flashlight but couldn’t find it in the willows. I came home discouraged and tired and laid my shotgun on the table. Stacey woke me up during the night. It was windy, dark, the dogs were barking like crazy. I went out barefoot. I heard the bear in the brush, coming up the hill. I held the gun level. When it was a few yards away I was ready to shoot but something stopped me. It was Clarence. His motor had broken down and he’d drifted back downriver. I stretched out a caribou hide for him and in the morning I heard him pumping the Coleman, softly, the way he did, heating water, wanting coffee too damn early. When I woke up again he was gone.
Later, bears have pushed on the door and I woke up mumbling, “Hold on, Clarence! I need to find my glasses and pants.” Plenty of times it was him. Once, I woke up my daughter, told her a bear was standing at the door, peering in the window. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, asked, “Dad, are you sure it’s not Clarence?”
Shuck, I don’t want to write about Clarence. Shuck — even that word is one I picked up from him. That past feels too far away; it’s too confusing to try to place that iconic figure in this modern world. There are no more hunters like him. Not just no one to take his place, but no place left to take. He was a hunter in the true sense of the word, a predator, a throwback from the old Eskimos who survived on this land, and it was tough watching him get old.
In Kotzebue, when he was deafer than ever and wearing glasses, his back giving out and his stomach hurting, he called me, asked for a jug. I went to the old hotel, had a drink with him. His wife wasn’t overly pleased to see the bottle. “When he drinks it’s no party,” she mentioned.
“Yeah,” I said. “I have noticed that a few times over the years.”
Clarence was in pain. “Hard,” he growled, grimacing, pushing on his stomach, gripping his lower back. “All my life I push myself. All my life, hard. I never think about give up. Just keep going.” His face was serious and in pain. “Agh, my baaack.”
The next time I saw him my family had boated to Pipe Spit, east of Kotzebue, and I saw a boat on the Kobuk Lake side of the spit, idling. It came ashore and I recognized the homemade plywood cabin. Clarence was happy to see me. Well, not me as much as my brand new spare prop. “Ha!” he said, gripping it. “You never take it upriver, get ta paint off?”
He gestured for me to put it on for him. He lit a cigarette. “Lotta gas leaking alright.” He held up a wet hose. “This one sure problem me.” I glanced over the transom, into his cabin. Two grandkids were up by the windshield, crammed in front of blue drums of gas, with gas pooled around the bungs and more tanks in the stern leaking gas. I fixed his hose. He told me he was turning back to Kotzebue, but when I shoved his bow out he swung east instead, stubbornly heading across Kobuk Lake. At about 3 miles an hour, smoking another cigarette — hundreds of miles from home, riding a bomb.
When he was 78 I ran into him on the wet spring trail, below Onion Portage. He jumped off his snowgo wearing hip boots and a shotgun. I told him it was great to see him, asked where he was headed. He shrugged that old familiar shrug, scanned the river for anything moving. “Well. No use to stay home.”
Well. Shuck. I’m not going to be able to make it home before his funeral. And I think it’s going to be tough for me to imagine the country without Clarence on it. I feel like the ice is breaking loose, heading out of sight downriver — like breakup, but this a larger change than a season. Clarence was the old days. From a bigger land, and I think for me he’ll remain out there with the bears, and wolves and wolverine. I mean, if you told me that after today there were no more wolverine, I think this is how I’d feel. I think it will feel as if he’s out there. On those old trails. Because that is the way it was.