MACLAREN RIVER — Streaks of gray light pushed aside the heavy morning mist that shrouded the wide gravel flats of Phelan Creek. The Richardson Highway was wet from heavy rains. As I rolled through in the truck, warm and dry, my thoughts turned to one of the first white men to traverse this country.
Lt. Joseph Castner walked through this area in 1898 with the expedition headed by Capt. Edwin Glenn, after whom the Glenn Highway was named. Glenn sent Castner and a private on a trip that was intended to find a short overland route to Circle City.
Castner ran out of summer. The expedition lost its horses, all of its gear and even its shoes. Before the short summer turned to snow, the pair managed to return to the Tanana River at Volkmar Creek, east of Delta Junction. They almost starved before Indians of the area found and fed them.
Castner's trip was typical of many explorations of Alaska's Interior. Some explorers fared better than others, depending on their ability. Most accounts remain unpublished except in military archives. The reports there can make Lewis and Clark look like summer tourists.
Those of you who drive through Isabel Pass en route to Chitina to dipnet red salmon, or head toward the Denali Highway to chase caribou, might think of those early explorers as you crank the heater in your truck on the cold damp days of autumn.
Castner Creek (Mile 217 of the Richardson Highway) is a torrent rushing from under glacial ice. How'd you like to wade across that? Castner Creek and a dozen others like it join the Upper Delta River as it builds volume en route to its confluence with the Tanana.
We have it easy. Think it's a tough day to pack 200 pounds of caribou a couple miles to your truck?
"No sir, I'm not packing that far," you might hear. "That is why I bought this side-by-side."
I'm not going to say that hunters should walk to the Maclaren Summit from Paxson and pack their animal back out. But think back before complaining that it's raining and the tire is flat on the ATV. Trust me, I know, I have whined about those things.
Appreciate the modern tools we have to assist us during hunts and other outdoor expeditions. Compare what we have today to what was available in the past.
Your dad had an old Deuce-and-a-half truck to go off-road, and it got stuck in every mudhole.
The surplus WWII Weasel hated rocks and threw a track every time it was in a bind.
How many hunters remember the wood-frame Trapper Nelson pack boards with hard, narrow straps that bit into your shoulders? Pack half of a caribou three miles on one of those devices.
Bernie Bevis, who operated Maclaren Lodge for a couple years in the early 1970s, brought a moose out from the backside of Moore's Mountain, a round trip of 20 miles. That moose came out one quarter at a time on a Kawasaki 100 dirt bike.
What? No cell reception? Just a few years ago, you were lucky to be able to drive back to Paxson to use the lodge phone.
We definitely have more tools today. Sure, adversity still happens, but the trials of today are seldom true hardships. And generally, they're solved much easier.
I have a friend who, when confronted with an obstacle in the outdoors, says, "Let's find the easy button." That might be the way we'd prefer to solve the problem, but it's not the only way. Sometimes easy is not best.
The first week of the Nelchina caribou hunt is in the books. My observations of a very limited area of the Denali Highway is that "easy-button" devices such as ATVs lag behind the Trapper Nelson types by roughly five to one.
Castner ate his horses. He trapped a few whitefish with a rock dam in a side slough. He starved, froze and almost drowned. Through it all, he carried on, intent on his mission. I bet he whined a little as he moved, but obviously that did not slow him.
Remember this guy and others like him that traveled the country we recreate in. Let's appreciate the cushy accouterments we have today while not forgetting it has not always been quite so easy.
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 International Sled Dog Race.