Siwashing on the Kenai

A lover of wilderness since boyhood, a hunter who has tested his endurance in the far reaches of Alaska, Mongolia, and Indochina, and a conservationist long identified with the American Museum of Natural History, W. DOUGLAS BURDEN has set down his adventures and reminiscences in his book LOOK TO THE WILDERNESS, which is to be published this month under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.


TRAILING a wounded bear through heavy alders on a steep Alaskan mountainside is not the most restful way of spending a summer evening, nor is it the best way of making preparations for a stormy night.

Henry Lucas, my Alaskan guide, and I had been tracking him for several hours before darkness forced us to give up. Then we struggled upward out of the engulfing tangle and into the open hills, where the wind was so strong we had to lean against it. In the dim light, it took a long time to find the scrubby mountain hemlocks we were looking for. They were not more than four feet high, stiff and unyielding from battling the mountain gales, but they provided enough wood for a campsite.

A mountainside usually varies only in degrees of steepness, but there was one spot between two hemlocks where the slope was sharply reduced. We tied a six-by-four strip of canvas between these two scrub trees, sloped it back, and set some rocks on it to hold it down. Then, with a sharp stone, we dug a little trench on the upper side to carry off the water. After that we started a fire.

Siwashing is the only way to travel in the hills. Siwash is an Alaskan term meaning “Indian,” and siwashing is camping the way the Indians do — with nothing but rifle, fry pan, tea pail, salt, tea, and a little sour dough. Siwashing releases you from the necessity of returning to any fixed campsite. You are free to go where you please, to move as the spirit moves you. You need only drop down far enough from the summits to find wood for a campfire. Then, in the morning, you climb again and spend the day on top of the world. And of course, you have to live off the country.

But every night the contest begins anew, for the tougher you are, the less fire you need. And as the protecting warmth dwindles with the dying embers and the chill enters your bones, you lie there pretending to be asleep and hoping the other man will rouse up to put on more wood.

Henry told me that when he was siwashing with the great guide Andy Simons, he became tired of keeping fire for him, so finally one night he got up very quietly, walked off over the dark mountainside for a quarter of a mile, and built himself a new fire. He was just getting himself cozily fixed before a fine bright flame when Andy moved in and lay down without saying a word. After that, Henry admitted defeat, just as I already had.

A wild roaring from the summits filled the air. The wind struck in blasts and scattered the embers from the fire. It was cold, for the wind came directly off the great Kenai snow fields that stretched for a vast area along the divide.

Smoke and ashes whirled into our eyes. Henry cooked a bannock in the fry pan, a mess of sour dough with grease, water, and salt added to taste. He could not see what he was doing, and it came out thoroughly charred, but we ate it anyway, with our eyes closed against the smoke.

Now the rain poured down. We had no blankets and no extra clothing. Henry said, “Maybe fire go out.” He reached out to collect all the wood we had gathered and set it around us under the canvas. It did not do much good because the old canvas leaked. Henry said, “Siwashing no good tonight.”

I replied, “No, no good.”

“Too bad,” he said, “we lose bear.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’ve been wondering about him. Do you think he will recover?”

“I don’t know,” replied Henry. “Bear plenty tough. Him headed straight down for glacier. Maybe try to cross.”

The canvas snapped in the gusts. Henry put more wood on the fire. Occasionally it flared up in spite of the rain, and I could see Henry’s lean, dark, sensitive face and his quick-moving eyes looking into it. No matter what happened, Henry never complained. A good man, I thought.

By lying feet to head, there was just room for both of us under the canvas. For a long time I lay there, trying not to roll downhill. Finally I took a stick of wood and wedged it in against me on the low side. For a while I slept, but the storm lashed us with still greater fury. Our canvas strip formed an eddy that sucked the smoke in on top of us. Feeling suddenly choked, I jumped up and ran out into the rain to get some fresh air in my lungs. Henry came out too; even he could not stand it. Then, with hunting knife in hand, I dived back under the canvas and slit a hole in it near the bottom and stuck my head out into the rain. “No,” I thought, “siwashing no good tonight.”

TOWARD dawn the wind abated, and I pulled my head in. Water had been trickling down my neck all night, and I was soaked and cold, tired and stiff. I looked at Henry. He was sleeping, curled up in a ball, and there, tucked under one ear for a pillow, was our dingy little sack of salt.

Breakfast was another charred bannock and tea in a tin cup that burned the lips and was too hot to hold. We were submerged in a blanket of driving cloud. Directly below us was Skilak Lake, totally invisible. To the southwest was Skilak Glacier and the great snow fields of the Harding Range, along which we hoped to find bear and the beautiful Alaskan white sheep.

It had taken us nearly a week to reach our present position. From Kenai Lake above the town of Seward we had had to run some eighteen miles of rapids to Skilak, a wild ride down foaming canyons, past whirlpools of black water. In two and a half hours we had been hurled out upon the heaving gray of Skilak Lake. A bad wind beat down from the glacier gorge. It came at us out of a wind funnel and threatened to swamp our little boat. So we made for shore, where we spent the night in a deserted Indian hut. Known locally as a “bribery,” it was built of poles and bark and shaped like two lean-tos facing each other with a smoke hole between. We found it warm and comfortable. After that, we rowed for many miles across the lumpy glacial waters of Skilak Lake. Then we worked up into the lower hills, where we had been hunting hard without success. Now we were headed for the high country.

Misery makes one move. Even after hot tea, we were still congealed and needed to warm up with exercise. Besides, there is always hope of better things elsewhere. So, in spite of rain and wind, we struck camp and headed off into a wet bank of cloud. We each carried a small pack with tumpline, a climbing stick, and I had a telescope and my Mannlicher held by a strap across the chest. The wall of gray-white mist made us feel blind. Our altitude was about three thousand feet, and we decided to move higher in the hope of a break in the weather. About ten o’clock there was a sudden rift in the clouds, and we saw a patch of blue. Nearby ridges began to unfold as the clouds dispersed. The brief views were unbelievably intriguing. A hole would form in the clouds; we would look down and see a bear half a mile away in the valley, a sudden, magnificent spectacle; and a moment later, the cloud blindness would be upon us again.

Gradually, however, there were more and more apertures of captivating beauty. After three hours, we came into a great basin, a rugged, sheer-walled cirque, where we saw nine rams feeding at the base of the wall; four more were just below the top of the mountain; five others lying down at the very summit, surveying the entire range. My telescope soon showed that the five on the top were veterans.

They were a long way off, and we were travelworn and hungry, but those superb creatures demanded a supreme effort. To reach them, we had to drop down into the bottom of a chasm before tackling the main wall. The descent was easy via a steep snow-filled gully. Henry took a run and a jump and glissaded in a squatting position down the steep slope with his climb stick thrust under one arm into the snow to control his speed. I followed. At the base we cupped our hands and drank some snow water. It tasted flat. When we were about halfway up, a severe snowstorm came over the summit with sudden fury. It was right in our faces and so thick we could not see twenty feet. The flakes were so enormous and wet that in ten minutes there was an inch of snow and Henry and I were both as white as the mountainside. However, the sudden cold freshened us, and the snow muffled the sound we made on the rock slides, so we gained the top under cover of its all-concealing blanket and with intense excitement began scouting for our rams.

Creeping about in a blinding snowstorm on top of a mountain looking for game gives you an eerie and ghostly feeling. You gaze out in all directions into a misty vault of wind-driven snow. Even the rocks beneath your feet are a deadly, shadowless, even white. You could easily walk over a precipice. The sky seems to be above you and below and on all sides. After about ten minutes of fumbling in the storm, we nearly stepped upon a pair of rock ptarmigan that relied to the last second on their concealing coloration. They rose like thunderbirds and immediately dived into the white void at our right. I wondered in such blindness how they could make a sale landing. With zero ceiling, what instinct would allow them to reach ground again unharmed? I wondered also if the rams had heard the warning sound.

Soon afterwards we saw fresh track of our rams. They had been disturbed either by the ptarmigan, by an eddy of scent, or by some intuitive awareness of danger. It would have been useless to follow them; nothing to do but wait until the storm cleared. Meanwhile, we ate some bannock left over from breakfast. Though leaden and soggy and tasteless, it was at least a filler. By the time we had finished, the clouds were dispersing. Immediately we rose and circled a nearby peak, only to look back and see our rams trot right by where we had just had lunch. Though too far for a shot, they loomed larger than ever.

As soon as they disappeared, we took after them. Then, for a few minutes, the clouds obliterated everything. When they passed, the rams had completely gone, but the whole sky cleared. To one side we could suddenly look down on Skilak Glacier, seven miles away. It lay like a great sprawling monster wedging a path for itself between the hills. On the other side, through Rocky Pass, Skilak Lake yawned into view. It was a sheet of molten metal. Then valleys opened under our feet with long green slopes below the snow line, and here and there small blue lakes appeared, beautiful glacial tarns, nestling in the rugged hills.

At last the sun came out in full force, and since the tracks showed that the sheep had taken off at full speed, we found a cozy spot sheltered from the wind and stretched out for a good rest. It was an utterly glorious location. In front of us stretched an endless panorama of snow and ice. It was the great ice field rolling up to the horizon in a gigantic arc like the curvature of the earth. Here and there nunataks pierced its virgin sheet with their black spearlike heads. It was a wintry scene, clear and cold, and the wind off the ice seemed to sweep to the very marrow of our bones.

Henry, when traveling, did not speak, but I sensed that the spirit and beauty of the mountains touched him too. It was good to share these feelings, and I suddenly realized why he preferred to lead the primitive life of a trapper. He truly loved the wilderness.

AFTER a while, we changed our socks and aired our feet. Since we had not taken off our shoe pacs all night, it was restful to be rid of them for a while. Then the crusty remains of the muchabused bannock reappeared from the bottom of Henry’s pack, and we munched on it again. It was so beaten that, after sampling it, Henry said briefly, “Better get some meat.” With that, we started out again to look for a ram, but we kept going too long, and darkness descended. While in the open hills, it was not too difficult to travel at night, for it was never really pitch-black, but once down among the alders and the long grass, looking for a spot to camp, we were in plenty of trouble. We had come into a mighty hollow with the dark mountains frowning down on every side. We stumbled and fell and waded an icy stream, and at intervals Henry, the silent one, roared angry threats at any brown bear that might be concealed in the willow scrub. An unfortunate porcupine fell victim to Henry’s stick. Finally, in the thick blackness of the alders, we set up our canvas and cooked porky for supper. We skinned him and roasted the meat on sticks over the embers: a porcupine is reasonably tasty if he has not been feeding too much on spruce. This one went quite well.

In the middle of the night I woke up with a start. I reached for my rifle, listening intently. The fire was almost out, nothing but the dimmest embers remained, and though the alders hemmed us in on every side, a congealing wind crept in off the ice. I had taken off my shoe pacs and was using them as a pillow. Suddenly some instinctive fright made me rise up in stocking feet. As I did so, rifle in hand, there was a fearful woof a few feet away, and a bear catapulted off through the alders. My heart pounded. The bear’s violent crashings aroused Henry but didn’t bother him. He said that bears came into camp quite often when the fire went down. I had no idea whether he was a brown or a black, but whatever he was, he was evidently more startled than I. We could hear him smashing through the underbrush for a long way. After that, we built up the fire and chatted for a while. Then we stretched out again in the glowing warmth and went to sleep.

We had now arrived in the very heart of the hunting country. The time had come to go after the sheep in earnest. Besides, our sour dough was gone and meat was essential. At dawn we started off again. A few hours later we sighted a large band of ewes and lambs with some young rams. Against the dark-brown and greens of the valley bottoms, their whiteness stood out in bold relief. Henry examined the sheep through the telescope. As he closed it with a series of sharp clicks he said, “We get one.” They were headed for a nearby pass. The wind was in our favor, so it was a simple matter to post ourselves in their path, behind a large boulder.

While waiting, we heard the guttural, rasping call of a raven. It was good to hear him, and 1 enjoyed it, for he is a lonely wayfarer, a dweller of the waste spaces of the world. Winter and summer he adheres to his solitary haunts. Where humans move in, the raven moves out. As usual, he was without company, sending his bleak and dismal cry down the valley. It was a cry of solitude, and it imparted to us a strong sense of his own incredible loneliness.

But there was little time for such thoughts. The beautiful band of sheep had arrived in range. I selected a fat young ram and shot him through the neck. That night we roasted strips of mutton on hot slabs of rock; the meat, with salt added, tasted good. The weather turned momentarily warmer, and with thick, soft sheepskins to stretch out upon, we feasted and slept, and slept and feasted, and renewed our strength.

Next morning I saw for the first time an animal that is rarely encountered face to face. He was moving toward us with an ungainly gallop. It was a wolverine, the much-dreaded carcajou, a creature of immense strength and cunning and with such savagery and fighting ability he has been known to stand off a pack of wolves. Though relatively small, rarely weighing more than forty pounds, he is, above all animals, the one most hated by Indians and trappers. The wolverine belongs to the weasel family. He is a fine tree climber and a relentless destroyer, and God pity anything he takes the trail of. Deer, reindeer, and even moose succumb to his attacks. We sat on a rock and watched him come, a bobbing rascal in blackish-brown. Since the male wolverine occupies a very large hunting area and fights to the death any other male that intrudes on his domain, wolverines are always scarce, and in order to avoid extinction need all the protection that man can give. As a trapper, Henry wanted me to shoot him, but I refused, for this is the most fascinating and little known of all our wonderful predators. His hunchback gait was awkward and ungainly, lopsided yet tireless. He advanced through all types of terrain without change of pace and with a sense of power that seemed indestructible. His course brought him directly to us, and he did not notice our immobile figures until he was ten feet away. Obviously startled, he rose up on his hind legs with paws outstretched and swayed from side to side like a bear undecided whether to charge. Then he tried to make off at top speed and watch us over his shoulder at the same time, running headlong into everything in his path.

FOR several days thereafter we saw nothing but bear; I counted thirty-five. The ripe blueberries had brought them into the open. Two of them I shot for their fine, glossy, early-fall hides, but bear were not our primary concern. It was the sheep we wanted, and Henry was getting worried. We would look down into some new valley only to find it empty, or with a few ewes and lambs. Then Henry would say, “Where sheep go? What happen? Must be someplace.” We would travel on again, deeper and deeper into the hills. Finally Henry decided that the big rams must be in the roughest country, beyond Iceberg Lake, so there we went.

After several hard days combing the many tributary valleys of Benjamin Creek, we arrived. It was very cold, and we spent an uncomfortable night with but a few hours’ sleep. Then we climbed to the lower edge of the crags and followed a sheep trail for about four miles. Without the trail, walking would have been difficult, for we were in extremely rough country.

When we reached the summit of the range, all fatigue was drained from us by the sheer exhilaration of the view. It filled the heart and mind with the magnificence of our world. At our feet lay the great ice field, rising pure white until, in the distance, the blue sky joined the snow in a clear-cut line. Sailing out upon this expanse, two black fortresses of rock rose up like control towers from a battleship. They were bedded over in the bow with banks of wind-swept snow, and their flanks were mantled with dashes of spray.

Vast as it was, this gleaming sheet of snow was but a fractional remnant of the great Wisconsin Ice Age. The mountains we had been hunting had only recently emerged from a deep blanket of ice that had molded most of their contours into smooth and rounded forms with U-shaped valleys and vast stretches of polished striated rock. The indelible imprint of titanic forces marked everything we saw, and the sense of time stretching in both directions made me realize that but one characteristic is universal and everlasting, and that is change, endless change, from one form to another, from one condition to another. These mountains which had so recently been a hostile, frozen land were now the home of sheep and bear and wolverine, of caribou and moose and fox; a complex community of living creatures. We stood at the knife edge of two worlds, the world of lifeless glacial ice and the throbbing warmblooded world of mammals.

Turning to the north, I saw a great chain of mountains rising, peak upon peak, into the distance. Further to the north lay the Benjamin Valley, a pleasant green in the warm sunshine. To the northwest, the great volcanoes of the Alaska Range rose shining into the sun. They stretched endlessly westward into the great Aleutian chain. I looked across another lower range and down into Tustumena Lake, a bed of silver in the dark-green moose flats. Directly below us was Iceberg Lake, from which we had recently come, and the Kelley Glacier with cataracts of melting waters foaming from its mouth. For a moment their roaring filled the air. It rose and died and rose again on the wind. An eagle floated lazily over the basin. Nearby was a glacial cirque, a vertical gorge of rent and ice-battered rock. This was a glorious spot, and I could not help but wonder how long it would remain so.

The slopes facing the ice sheet were still to be explored, and this we now proceeded to do as the afternoon shadows gathered. Beneath us the mountainside plunged steeply down and tucked its feet under the glacier. Glancing over a sharp ledge, we looked down on bands of white sheep everywhere. They numbered ten to fifty in each band. Some had gouged out resting places in the talus and lay peacefully viewing the ice field in the evening sun, while others grazed slowly along, working their way up from lower levels. After many days of hard work, Henry and I had stumbled on a true hunter’s paradise. In this far corner of the mountains the finest rams had secreted themselves. But, as usual, the biggest heads seemed to be in the most inaccessible spots. One mistake on our part, and all the sheep on that whole mountainside would be gone.

We decided to play it safe. Using a deep draw, in which to remain completely invisible, we dropped down fifteen hundred feet to find a place to siwash in the alders. If necessary, we would go without a fire and even without supper. Once we were in the alders, it was possible to survey the whole mountainside while remaining unseen. From their protection, we looked up into a great amphitheater, and everywhere sprinkled over it were white dots. At the foot of some steep ledges were the biggest rams. We fastened the telescope on them. They were dream heads that we could only gaze at with hopeless longing. No other wild creature equals the noble appearance of a fine old mountain ram. His arched neck, his battering full-turn horns, gnarled and wrinkled with the passing years, proclaim him a creature that is truly the product of his wild and rock-bound home. His very bearing carries a sense of the greatness of the land he inhabits.

We saw many big heads, but all of them either so well positioned or so surrounded by lesser sheep that an approach was impossible. As the sun went down, most of the sheep began to change positions, but no opportunity for a stalk arose.

Finally, just as it was getting dark, two rams appeared above an outlying spur of alders. Here was our chance. Following a series of bear trails through the thick underbrush, we started after them. For fifteen minutes we climbed laboriously on hands and knees, Henry leading the way; and he managed to gauge it just right, for when we reached open ground, there were our rams about a hundred and sixty yards away.

I waited for a full two minutes, until I had stopped panting. Then, setting the hair trigger, I fired at the nearest ram, which immediately crumpled up and rolled down the mountain toward us. His companion ran a considerable distance and paused. My hair trigger went off just as I was drawing a bead, and the shot was wild. However, the next time he stopped, he too was knocked down.

Before climbing up to them, we looked around. In the dim light I could see the sheep all over that mountainside on the move, all climbing, seeking escape from the death-dealing explosions that had shattered their peaceful home.

We made a hasty job of the skinning and slid back down through the alders. It was a happy siwash camp that night. There was hard work ahead, packing heads and pelts and bearskins over Rocky Pass and down to Skilak Lake, but our elation was great, and we felt satisfied.

We had got what we came for, sheep and bear, but more than that, I had learned what real travel is in a still-untouched wilderness — real travel, pioneer style, as the mountain men of our old West had known it. Best of all, I had come to sense deeply the ever-changing moods of our great northern frontier, the Alaskan mountains. I had absorbed something of their magnificence and grandeur. A little of their beauty and strength would remain a part of me to the end of my days.