By Mark Richards
This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Alaska Magazine
A wanderer's dream of the Last Frontier ends with a lonely death in the forest...
"Without question there are places in nature that own a certain unique spirit, that are so peculiar and individual that they draw us to them, not that they care, but that they stand out in the surrounding solitude and vastness of the forest and act as magnets to anyone who passes their way."
The place to which my wife, Lori, and I found ourselves magnetically attracted has a dark and foreboding spirit. Nevertheless, it called. It was early in the summer of 1981 and for two days we had lined our 17-foot canoe up a nameless tributary of the upper Yukon River. For 12 miles this clear, cold, grayling-laden, pool-and-riffle creek coursed alongside bluffs and hills in a mile-wide valley covered with sloughs, ponds, taiga and riparian forest. A unique shale bluff and a 90-degree bend in the creek signified (we were told) where a particular slough cut into the forest, and it was along the banks of this slough that we found a peculiar log and moss structure with a force so strong we could do nothing but let it draw us inside.
Stooping through a narrow opening and into semidarkness, we were immediately confronted with a sharp drop in temperature and a dank, moldy, mossy smell. The cavelike enclosure was tiny: approximately 6 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet high. My shoulder scraped the roof as I stepped, bent-over, into a corner and out of the light filtering through the entrance. Lori followed and we knelt on the floor in the dark. It was creepy, claustrophobic. We didn't even whisper.
A thin beam of light, glittering with dust particles, arrowed down through a small hole in the roof and shone upon the dirt floor in the opposite corner, revealing a clump of rusted, dissolving iron–an old woodstove. Through dilating pupils we saw a narrow, knee-high pole bed running the length of the structure. Many of the cross-support poles were gone, leaving gaps where a human shoulder once rested and aching hips searched for comfort. An old knife, in a sheath, hung from a nail on the moldy, log wall above the bed. There were no windows, no shelves and no other belongings inside the tomblike dwelling.
Local legend has it that a man spent most of a winter in this wet and always-dark den of wood, sod and moss. It is said that he died stretched out on his back, right there on what was left of the pole bed, and his troubled spirit haunted this place. Like so many other unprepared, inexperienced, Into the Wild types, he did not survive his first winter in the subarctic bush, but succumbed to starvation. Two trappers from upriver found his emaciated and partially frozen body when they canoed out just after breakup, three years before our visit. Fearing a tedious police inquiry, and not knowing the dead man's real name, they simply laid the corpse outside for animals to consume–after first stripping it of its still useful wool shirt, pants and shoepacs–never informing the authorities.
The dead man was known only as "Smeagol" by the half-dozen river rats and bush folk who had met him. And so it was that we knelt in the desolate den of a ghost on the banks of Smeagol Slough.
Smeagol's snowshoes could not be found, so it is assumed that he burned them after eating the babiche lacings. Too weak to gather firewood, forlorn and freezing, Smeagol appeared to have burned his ax handles and spare articles of clothing. He burned every possession that would burn, even some of the poles from his bed.
By that point Smeagol must have realized that rescue was his only option and prayed that one of the few trappers in the vicinity would wander by and save him. But snow was deep that winter and no visitors appeared.
The living skeleton doubtless became too infirm to move, and eventually lay in the freezing darkness and invited the cold to enter his body. Smeagol's insulating cabin, once used to hold heat, became an efficient refrigerator, awaiting his disinterment by the two trappers.
Lori and I sensed a deep melancholy, and the magnetism that drew us here quickly shifted polarity, repulsing us out of the confining, coffin-like den and back into the relative daylight of a mid-June, Interior-Alaska afternoon dense with humming mosquitoes. "Whew," we sighed in unison, relieved to be standing fully upright again. Lori's arms and shoulders vibrated.
"That gave me the willies," she said.
"Yeah, me too," I agreed while slathering on more bug dope and passing the bottle to my wife.
The understory in this towering white spruce forest was a scattering of highbush cranberry, monkshood and wild rose–their magenta flowers just beginning to bloom–with an ever-present carpet of mosses. The mosquitoes hummed, the slough burbled and a squirrel chattered. We looked down at the decomposing cabin, reminded of how far some among our complex species will go to escape into solitude, into the past, into a hoped-for different future. So, what of the man who died here, whose name is forever associated with this slough? What was he like? Where did he come from?
Smeagol came into the country in mid-July of 1978, first appearing scores of miles downstream from the upper-Yukon River village of Eagle, floating the silty, hissing river in a canoe poorly provisioned with food and supplies, stopping in at one fish camp after another, mooching food and telling anyone he met that his name was Jesus Christ.
Smeagol was a young American, but would not say from where he hailed. He said he was intent on finding God in the Alaska bush. He planned to build a cabin for the winter, and snowshoe over the hills and down into the Black River drainage the next spring, following the oxbowed Black to the Native village of Chalkyitsik. Described by those few who met him as average height and build, with a clean-shaven, weasel-like face, and slithering, shiftless demeanor, the man who resolutely claimed to be the son of God came to be called "Smeagol." The name came from his uncanny resemblance, both in personality and appearance, to a character of the same name from a series of popular fantasy books by author J.R.R. Tolkien.
Isolated Alaska bush folk and river rats tend to read whatever they can get their hands on, squinting by kerosene lamp on long winter nights, and Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy were well circulated and enjoyed by many. The imaginary Smeagol of Tolkien's creation was a memorable villain, a sickly, pale creature fond of darkness and fish, lying and stealing. The flesh-and-blood Smeagol seemed to possess the same traits.
The river rats fed Smeagol from their fishnets that summer and tried to tell him that he was unprepared, under-provisioned, overconfident and a wee bit sick in the head. They told him they did not have enough food to feed him through the winter, which Smeagol found hard to believe as he sat there salivating, watching the men can jar after jar of king salmon.
Eventually, in mid-August, Smeagol lined his canoe up the creek from which he would never return.
Smeagol appeared only one final time, in mid-winter when, in typical Gollum fashion, he stole canned fish from the cache of a trapper living at the mouth of the creek where it joined the Yukon. The trapper arrived home after a few days on the trail to find that someone had raided his pantry. Fresh snowshoe tracks led out of the trapper's yard and onto the frozen creek. It could have been none other than Smeagol, because the only other two souls on that creek were two well-known trappers a score of miles above Smeagol Slough.
Unusually deep snow soon followed and neither the trapper at the mouth of the creek, nor the two trappers farther upriver, made their way to Smeagol's cabin that winter. The meandering snowshoe trail winding back up the creek was the last living sign of Smeagol that anyone would ever see.
Men like Smeagol are not common to the north, but neither are they rare. Certainly, not all of them perish.
At the same moment, now more than 20 years ago, that Lori and I stood outside Smeagol's tomb–having only recently come into the country with dreams of a cabin and bush life of our own–a young man I'll call Jones was wielding an ax only 20 miles away, building his own cabin. A bush pilot had dropped him off earlier in the summer on a remote ridgeline–a one-way flight, the pilot told never to return. Jones had little food, and only a bow and arrow for a weapon, yet he lived there successfully for almost 20 years, alone the entire time save for rare and brief visits by a few others, surrounded by the heavy solitude of the Alaska bush.
I hear that Jones killed himself a couple of years ago.
What part does skill, luck and a well-stocked larder play in one's survival in the Bush? It is, in the end, the solitude and the deafening quiet that one must conquer. Author Ed Abbey summed it up best when he said: "Solitude is a great and difficult gift; loneliness is a sickness; and to be condemned to be alone is a terrible thing–madness follows."
And perhaps that is the key to why Lori and I were able to make it in the Bush; we weren't condemned to be alone. We weren't damned to hear only the voices in our own heads for months on end. We weren't fated to catch that horrible sickness that extreme loneliness brings on. We did it together.
Early in the summer of 2001, my two teenaged children–both raised here in the Alaska bush–and I boated down the creek as it ran high with spring snowmelt. Our goal was the mighty Yukon, then upriver to Eagle on our annual craft-selling and resupply mission. Lori stayed at home to take care of our dozen sled dogs. "We're coming up on Smeagol Slough," I yelled over the noise of the 25-horsepower outboard as we approached Twelve-mile Bend. We all craned our necks to the right and peered down the slough as we motored past, looking for Smeagol's tiny cabin.
Since we first visited this place, the creek and time had eaten away at the banks, leaving the rotting remnants of Smeagol's cabin tottering on the edge of the slough, clearly visible from the creek. That spring, however, it was gone–vanished–without a trace.
But in the minds of the few of us who live here and regularly travel this creek, there will always be a Smeagol Slough. Doubtless, there are many similar places scattered throughout untracked Alaska, just as there will be more in the future as young adventurers are drawn to the wilderness of the north, only to find themselves–as Dante said–"within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost."
And in this forest dark the young seekers will come to terms with their own inferno, magnetically drawn by the unique spirit of the Last Frontier.
BHA Founding member Mark Richards, his wife, Lori, and their two children live a subsistence lifestyle in the remote bush of Interior Alaska, where he is working on a book about his two decades in the wilderness.
© 2003, by Mark Richards