The FBI office was divided into cubicles by those green room dividers with translucent plastic upper sections, ubiquitous in 1960s government office buildings. They blocked vision but didn’t rise to the ceiling. As we cooled our heels in the foyer, we heard everything that was going on, including people fiddling with the equipment. So, while we wait for them to get their machine working, and before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s background on the events leading up to this moment.
Jerry and I, being the newest hires of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, were more or less at the bottom of the hierarchy. As such we got shared when extra help was needed. Help was much in demand in a brand new state limited staff trying to get its various departments up and running. So we were sometimes lent from one research branch to another or shuffled among various management projects. Our superiors saw many of our assignments simply as grunt work. But we were fresh out of the Midwest, Jerry from Michigan, I from Wisconsin. How many mid-westerners get to jump out of helicopters to tackle and ear-tag moose calves, while the chopper tries to hold Mama Moose at bay? How many get to help restore musk oxen and sea otters to their former ranges? The work took us to all corners of the immense state and to up-close encounters with seals, walruses, grizzly bears, wolves and others. Some of it was grunt work, but we saw adventure!
After all, mindset is everything. Tom Sawyer got the neighborhood boys to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence by helping to adjust their mindsets. Presented in a certain light, painting the fence became an artistic opportunity, not an onerous job. All depends on the way we look at things.
In this case, we were looking at gut piles.
It happened in the mid-1960s that the two of us were dispatched to certain areas of the state in search of the remains of hunter-killed moose. The job entailed rummaging through heaps of viscera for ovaries, (if the remains were female), and “harvesting” an incisor tooth and a section of lower jaw from the heads of both sexes.
To some, especially non-Alaskans, such an exercise might seem bizarre and unpleasant. The purpose is easily explained. The ovaries told the reproductive history of the individual animal and the teeth, its age and condition. Such information gave clues to the health of the populations in various parts of the state. This basic and essential data was put to use for the management and protection of moose in Alaska. To us, the magnificence and wildness of the countryside in which we worked more than compensated for having to dig around in frozen entrails.
This is how we operated: A hunting season would open for moose in a particular area, and, if assigned there, we would go and set up a base of operations. If roads existed, we would cruise around in a Fish and Game truck, and where there were only rivers, we accessed the country by boat. Either way we were on the lookout for signs of so-called ‘moose kills’, though they would be more accurately described as ‘killed moose’, since the moose was dead and it hadn’t killed anything. Sometimes we could follow a blood trail in the snow. Just as often we depended on ravens, magpies, or gray jays to lead us to the kill sites especially before the fist snow fall. Any or all of these birds might betray the presence of moose remains. Sometimes we followed them by sight, sometimes by sound. Once we had located the general area of a kill, we approached it cautiously in case a grizzly had already taken possession.
Our first assignment that autumn was to the area around Big Delta, about 100 miles southeast from the end post of the Alaska Highway in Fairbanks. Alaska was not, and still is not, enmeshed in a network of roads like the ‘lower 48’. Three paved main highways formed a triangle in the southeast corner of the interior of the vast state. Spur roads ran off of them. The area around Big Delta is indicated by the blue area on the map, just below the word “Fairbanks”. The red area indicates the location on the Kenai Peninsula, to which we were later assigned and where the events leading up to the arson case occurred. When evaluating this map and the wide scope of the countryside, keep in mind that Texas fits twice comfortably into the Alaska landmass.
In the Big Delta area, most of the country had to be accessed by boat. For this purpose we had a punt. these long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat with rockered-up bow were ideal for running Alaska rivers. An outboard engine was mounted on the transom on a special rack with a long handle known as a ‘lift’. A downward thrust on the handle lifted the outboard to whatever degree the operator depressed the handle. The propeller could even be lifted clear of the water. The operator stood in the stern with one hand on the lift and the other on a second extension handle that controlled throttle and steering.
In a given section of rivers in the mountainous and hilly parts of Alaska, one might encounter, in quick succession, rapids, riffles, deep pools, and gravel bars, not to mention overhangs, sweepers and windfalls. A river might alternate between amply deep pools and riffles too shallow for the propeller and skeg of an outboard. The idea when running upstream was to gain enough speed using the engine in the deep parts to be able to lift it at the last second, allow forward momentum to skim the boat over the gravel bars, then lower the engine in a deeper area and quickly throttle up to run again before losing all headway in the current. Going downstream the action was even swifter, since the boat had to have enough speed over and above the speed of the current to enable steering. Quick reactions, timing, experience and skill and all came into play and a dancer’s coordination. I don’t remember anyone asking before we set out whether we had quick reactions, timing, experience, skill, and the coordination of dancers. My experience on rivers had been mostly in canoes, but it turned out Jerry had operated a punt before.
With rifles and ammo, spare gas, survival gear, knives, axes, saws, binoculars, formalin, specimen tags, and what-not aboard we set off from the bridge at Delta up the mighty, roiling Tanana, (TAN-na-naw), a tributary of the mightier Yukon, gray with glacial silt, corrugated with white-capped rollers, and lashed along its banks with deadly sweepers. The mission of such rivers is to return land to the sea. In doing so, they gnaw impatiently at their constraining banks. Wherever the forest grows to the riverbanks, especially on the outsides of bends, it is undercut by the rushing river. Stands of spindly white spruce and black spruce near the banks come under attack. They find themselves with fewer and fewer root holds, and start to lean toward the river, eventually toppling in. If the roots still have sufficient holdfast to the bank, the long narrow boles of the trees may lay perpendicular to the bank. Partially anchored by their tenacious roots, they thrash wildly up and down in the current. Called “sweepers”, they must be avoided. One moment the way looks clear and safe and the next moment a tree surfaces in your face or under your boat. If there are a series of sweepers, some may be on the upswing, while others slash downward in a shearing action.
After running upstream some miles from the bridge, we left the Tanana without regret to enter in succession two of its better-natured tributaries, the winding Goodpastor, and the incomparably clear, spring-fed Delta Clearwater. The hoots and yells of ravens, the chatter of black-billed magpies, or the sight of a friendly gray jay, gliding through the birches in the cold air—any of these
might betray the presence of moose remains, especially if more than one were present.
Much has been written about ravens so just a word here about the friendly gray jays, (known also as Canada jays, camp robbers or whiskeyjacks), a person barely has time to start setting up for a picnic or a camp in the north country before these flitting, inquisitive, gray shadows arrive. Bold and trusting, never shy, never on the guest list, they’ll invite themselves to any party, hoping for hand-outs and investigating the entire site for scraps of food. Nature has not given them brilliant feathers like other jays, so they turn up in sensible, understated dress for any event. Still, they are handsome enough, and muted gray, white and black works for most occasions. They are welcome to any party of mine, regardless that their manners are not refined. Don’t be surprised if one lands on your head. My Uncle Bjarne once remarked: “They’ll damn near take food out of your mouth!”
I find them companionable, like chickadees. When a person is in uncaring, indifferent wilderness it’s good to be welcomed, whatever the motive of the greeter.
I’d like to discuss magpies too, but will save that for another story.
We’d spot tell-tale birds, shut the engine down, tie the punt to a tree, and follow them to the kill. Sometimes we’d just kill the outboard and listen. The world of ambient sound opened immediately that the engine was silenced or the crunch of our boots through snow was stilled. These intelligent birds keep jealous watch on each other. As soon as one discovers a site others hasten to follow in case they can get in on something to eat. Disagreements about which is entitled to certain morsels will follow and the sounds of their altercations led us to the kill. This would usually be within a hundred yards or so of the river, within the distance that a hunter might spot a moose from his boat. If a bear had already claimed the gut pile, we’d back off and abandon it. Mostly there was no bear and we’d collect the specimens. This involved finding and retrieving the ovaries, skinning back and sawing free one of the molar-bearing jaw sections, and pulling an incisor with a pair of pliers. We’d tag and bag them, and be on our way. The more advanced the season, the less worry about bears.
On the Goodpastor, the scent of wood smoke reached us before Slim Carol’s cabin came into view. If Slim were home and not out back on one of his trails, he’d come out to greet us, flush-faced, black patch over one eye, ready with a friendly cup of hot coffee for the infrequent visitor. He would know of any moose kills in his area, and would likely have made one himself on his network of trails running back through the forest, trails fitted to his special wheelbarrow which he used to bring in firewood as well as his annual moose kill. A moose is a more or less horse-sized animal, too big to move as a whole. It must be cut into sections for transport. Even so the sections are heavy. A hindquarter, for example, may weigh over 150 pounds. It’s hard work. Slim’s wheelbarrow eased his burden. He’d still have to make multiple trips from the kill to his cabin, but he wasn’t struggling to drag the sections, or to carry them on his back. His cabin, set back only little way from the river atop a high sandy bank, was on the outside of a bend. It lay exposed and vulnerable to eventual destruction by the combined efforts of the river current and the nesting swallows that burrowed in the bank. A eventuality would play out in time.
In the dark, aquarium-clear depths of the Delta Clearwater, Arctic grayling scattered as we floated over them, and in the riffles, coho salmon darted off their spawning redds at our approach. A mysterious and irresistible drive brought the salmon all the way from the Bering Sea, up the Yukon and the Tanana Rivers to the place of their birth on the Clearwater. They could journey no farther. A mile or two upstream the Clearwater is born from springs in a wetland bog. The salmon will expend the short remainder of their life energy spawning in the riffles, and in a few days or a week will be dead. But links in the genetic chain are alive in the river gravel. The eggs will hatch and the little lives have been encoded, or have the capacity to be encoded, to this place. The young salmon drift down the river, often facing upstream as though reluctant to leave their birthplace and needing to memorize things. Though they will travel far, touring the wide Pacific, eventually they return here. George Dalton Sr., Tlingit elder, living with the great salmon runs of Southeast Alaska, used to say to me, “Son, Salmon is way smarter’n me. How he fin’ his way ‘round the ocean, Japanee, an’ come back again? I can’t do it!”
Having completed collecting moose specimens on the tributary rivers, Jerry and I headed downstream, hauling out at the Tanana River Bridge, picking up our truck, and making a quick stop at my cousin Russ’s nearby place on a slough of the Tanana. The stiff springs on our truck made for a bouncing, lurching ride on the rough road down to his homestead in the Hollow. We ran the gauntlet of his sled dogs as they rushed out of their log dog houses, howling and straining against their chains. No body entered the Hollow unannounced. We pulled up to his cabin, Alaska Department of Fish and Game emblazoned on our truck doors. Russ’s partner Big John stepped out menacingly, shotgun in hand, not pointed at us, but at the ready. Russ followed him out of the cabin, ducking his head and squinting at the truck. “That’s my cousin!” he cried, pushing the barrels of the shotgun aside. “Looked like a game warden to me” Big John muttered darkly. Game wardens were clearly not popular in the Hollow. Confusing research biologists with law enforcement officials happened frequently enough. In this case it didn’t matter. We shared an amicable lunch. Next time though, was different.
Collecting moose specimens occupied much of our time that autumn. In between we lived in Fairbanks, where we sectioned incisors with a diamond saw in order to read the age and history of the animal using light transmitted through the thin root slices. And so it went. In November we were out once again, collecting.
Not long before Thanksgiving, we found ourselves doing the familiar work at which we’d become proficient, this time on the Kenai (KEE-neye) Peninsula. Our base would be a mile or two from the community of Cooper Landing. Here, a small parking apron and scenic overlook featured an expansive view and a historical marker. A Fish and Wildlife Service trailer had been set up for our use at the far end of the apron, 100 feet or more back from the road on the edge of the parking area. Behind it the hill fell away steeply offering a panorama of Kenai Lake in the valley below and the blackened remnants of a large old forest fire, the Kenai Lake Burn, on the mountainside beyond the lake. In the other direction, across the parking pull-off, now a snow covered sheet of ice, the two-lane Sterling Highway wound its way along a mountain side. This was the only highway in the western and central parts of the Peninsula and the connecting route between Anchorage and the peninsula communities.
The Fish and Wildlife Service trailer has been mentioned and plays a crucial part in this story, and, to clarify, because the agencies are often confused, the Fish and Wildlife Service is Federal, a branch of the U.S. Department of the interior, while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is a department of the Alaska state government. I don’t remember now why we, as Alaska state employees, had the use of this Federal trailer, but small and cramped as it was, it beat tent camping, especially in the cold weather. Among its much-appreciated features: an oil stove and two bunks. Outside, next to it, we set up two plastic trashcans, one with formaldehyde for the ovaries, and a second for the jaws that we would be collecting. Also on hand were two vehicles, the pick-up truck we’d driven down from Anchorage, and a second, somewhat larger, orange International truck with a steel A-frame or gin pole welded to the truck’s frame. A winch cable ran through its apex. Such vehicles were known in the Department as “Moose Wagons.” The cable could be snaked out some distance and used to drag a moose carcass out of the woods.
The 15,000 square mile Kenai Peninsula, east of Cook Inlet and south of Turnagain Arm, has produced many world record moose. The event to which we’d been assigned was not so much a trophy hunt, but a hunt designed for Alaskans to provide for their larders. It featured a special opening for taking cow moose in a particular area. Jerry and I had been at work dawn to dusk, following birds or blood trails to kills, collecting specimens. Although the daylight hours were short, hunters were doing well with the result that our containers were filling up. The work of such specimen collecting day after day is tiring, usually involving sometimes distant treks through the snow in and out of the woods, picking through offal, sometimes frozen and sometimes fresh. No matter how carefully done, one’s hands and cloths begin to collect blood, moose hair, and formaldehyde. Each night after tagging and securing specimens we drove up the road several miles to Ma’s Diner, a café more or less in the middle of nowhere, to wash up in the men’s room sink and to eat dinner. We kept the trailer stove going during the day so things wouldn’t freeze up and to have a warm place to return to at night.
About this time a problem began to develop. Hunters, confused by wording in the game regulation booklet about the precise boundaries of the area open to the taking of cow moose, were shooting cow moose on the ‘wrong’, or closed, side of the Kenai River. Department Protection Officers (wardens) were making arrests. Suffice it to say that sufficient ambiguity existed in the ‘regs’ so while officers continued to arrest hunters and confiscate moose, the affected hunters felt unfairly dealt with and were angry. Although we heard about them, Jerry and I did not witness any of the confrontations. We stuck to our jobs and continued to collect specimens. Meanwhile, the Protection Officers were collecting the confiscated carcasses with the use of the moose wagon and, for convenience, depositing them around our trailer. The flat area was useful as a temporary repository. In the bitter cold the carcasses would keep for later transport into Anchorage for eventual distribution to charities. All were dumped on our door step, the total increasing day by day until we had seven of them on the icy lot.
Meanwhile two other seemingly unrelated matters developed to affect the outcome of this story: three stray mongrel dogs showed up, and our specimen cans got full. The starving dogs, hunched and shivering, their ribs showing through their short hair, had clearly been without food or shelter. In desperate need of food and kindness they adopted us and our site. Evidently lost or abandoned, they would soon die of starvation and the cold. Putting aside the question of their eventual fates, we fashioned a rude lean-to shelter under a corner of the trailer with a sheet of plywood and fed them scraps of moose meat. We laid down straw or spruce limbs to provide a little insulation from the cold ground. They huddled down gratefully in the meager warmth radiating through the trailer wall.
The presence of the dogs forced us to rethink the storage of our overflow of specimens. Those in the trash cans in formaldehyde remained safe and secure, but the more recently collected jaws had been placed in a cardboard box on the snow. They could easily be gotten by the dogs. We couldn’t keep the jaws inside the trailer. In the warmth they would thaw and spoil. The best place for them, given the circumstances, was atop the trailer. The trailer being small, we had an easy reach to set our hard-won box of specimens on the roof. No ladder or step stool was required. We simply reached up and placed the box on the roof, taking it up and down as needed to add specimens.
Those chores taken care of one day, we set out after dusk for Ma’s café. This cheery, warm restaurant with red-checkered curtains and plastic table cloths, was the kind of place where you might see cross- stitchery messages framed on the wall, (Eat slowly and chew your food well) interspersed with Thanksgiving decorations. We looked forward to the evenings. A cold wind gained some strength with nightfall so the warm café was especially welcome. We’d been in there often enough that the owner knew us by sight. She probably said something like, “What’ll it be tonight, fellas? I still have specials,” something like that. Hunters occupied a couple other tables, though the place wasn’t full; probably still not time, though night falls early in November in Alaska. We hungrily tucked into our meals, half- focused on the murmured conversations and outbursts of laughter from the hunters as we discussed plans for the morrow. We’d gotten about halfway through our meals when the door flung violently open and a wild-eyed man burst through along with a blast of wind-blown snow. “FISH and WILDLIFE?” he yelled, pivoting around to include the room: “FISH AND WILDLIFE!!!? YOU GUYS FISH AND WILDLIFE?” The café fell silent, everyone staring at the man, forkfuls half way to their mouths. “We’re Fish and Game.” Jerry volunteered tentatively. “WELL, GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR! YOUR TRAILER‘S ON FIRE!”
Tensely gripping the wheel and maneuvering to keep the speeding pickup from sliding off the black ice, I drove while Jerry urged greater speed. We had a couple miles to cover and it seemed a long ride but two curves away, a red glow through the trees confirmed our fears. One curve to go! We slewed onto the icy lot and onto the awful scene, sliding to a halt. On its side in the middle of the lot lay our trailer, engulfed in flames. On its side! The steel cable wrapped around it, led back to the winch on the moose wagon. There was no one around. No time to wonder what happened, just deal with the fire!
We had a couple of fire extinguishers in our truck in addition to one grabbed from Ma’s. Jerry tried to use one, only to be driven back by the intense heat while still beyond range. A second attempt, using his parka as a shield, allowed a slightly closer approach. Still out of range, he expended the extinguisher ineffectually. The wind-whipped flames had too much head start. The small trailer windows blew out
with reports like rifle fire! Anything alive in there would have been trapped: the door was pressed against the ground. I jumped back in the truck, hurtled down the ice-coated highway in the opposite direction from Ma’s to Cooper Landing, grabbed more fire extinguishers from a café in town and careened back up hill. Those too, were emptied on the fire.
All efforts were to no avail. We watched the trailer burn to the ground leaving the frame, axle, and parts of the oil stove and tank An hour later found us sitting on a moose carcass despondently regarding the smoldering ruin, the whimpering feral dogs and the other moose bodies scattered around. All lay silhouetted against the stinking, popping red embers of what had been a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trailer and its contents, including some of the collected specimens and our personal possessions: cameras, firearms, my wallet, everything we owned except for the clothes we wore.
The story was easy to reconstruct with the evidence before us. Likely the culprit or culprits had pulled off the highway, watching when Jerry and I left for dinner. Then they moved in. They had unwound the steel cable from the moose wagon, wrapped it around the trailer, and winched the structure over on its side. Burning oil running out of the stove quickly set fire to the whole thing. To a certainly the perpetrators had been one or more of the disaffected hunters. Perhaps they regarded pulling a trailer over on its side a justifiable act of vengeance? As smoke and flames began to leak from the trailer, did the deadly seriousness of their action dawn on them? Who knows? Was the wild-eyed guy one of them? He could have been merely a drive-by witness to the burning trailer, but then how would he know that it was government property? He did know to shout, “Fish and Wildlife!” into Ma’s café?
As we sat on the moose rehashing the events of the night and settling our nerves, the headlights of a car rounding a distant bend flashed through the forest. Run! We scrambled over the edge of the parking area, out of sight until the car passed, chains clanking. The people who had done this might return. What were their intentions toward us? Our firearms were burned up. We had no way to defend ourselves.
Eventually, we abandoned the scene for the night. The coals had almost completely burned down and the fire would not spread in the snow-blanketed world. There wasn’t much left to do here, and the stench of burned rubber, plastic, wood, clothing, aluminum, and singed moose hair was getting to us. The phone at Ma’s must not have been working as I remember driving to a bar some distance farther down the road toward Soldatna in order to make a call to the State Troopers and to our boss in Fairbanks to report the incident. The bar’s noisy atmosphere made the phone conversation difficult, and the ambient convi viality made a stark disconnect with our experiences that night. Above the laughter and noisy conversations, one patron loudly boasted to no one in particular, “Hell, with my .44 Mag I’ll skip a tin can across the damn road...” For all I knew the guilty parties were celebrating in that beery tavern.
We arranged with Ma for a room. I think we did not have enough cash between us to cover it, but we might have had some state travel vouchers in our truck. Next morning a state trooper showed up. We reported everything we knew and in recounting the details mentioned that we’d stored some of our moose jaw specimens on the roof of the trailer. We came to regret recounting that detail.
Following instructions from Fairbanks we secured our remaining specimens, and continued collecting during the remaining few days of the season, managing on our own scanty resources and the generosity of the owner of the café. When the trailer had been winched over it had tipped away from the trashcans so at least the specimens they contained were spared. The next worry centered on the seven moose carcasses strewn around the blackened fire scar like casualties from a bomb blast. Those that lay closest to the fire had their hair singed, but all remained frozen and unspoiled. Almost two tons of protein, this resource was not be wasted.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on our trailer, we had no feel for the thinking of the people behind it, no idea if their violent sense of vengeance had been satisfied. So far, no one had taken a shot at us. That concern faded over the next few days and a growing sense of outrage took hold, a determination that whomever had done this, would not get those moose. We had called the Anchorage office several times requesting that a truck big enough to transport seven moose be sent out, but the staff there probably also had their hands full and our sense of urgency seemed not to be shared. No truck showed up. We had a somewhat cheerless Thanksgiving dinner at Ma’s. The moose season closed, and with the last specimens collected our work in the field came to an end. There remained the job of getting the collection to Anchorage and from there to Fairbanks for processing and study.
There also remained those moose carcasses. Though they were not technically our concern, no one from the Anchorage office had carried through with their responsibility or offered to help. Not having the means to transport the moose to the city we hatched a plan, the essence of which was denying the trailer burners a chance to get their hands on what we now regarded as our moose. At least they had become our responsibility. Traffic was light in this out-of-the-way corner of Alaska on a winter evening. Long periods dragged by between cars. Two or three vehicles passed by over the course of an hour as we sat in the moose wagon waiting to take action. Still, it would possibly only take one party to observe us to foil our effort. So, wait for nightfall. Evening light faded too slowly. The first few flakes of a developing snowfall floated in the air, gaining in strength. Good! The snow would work for us.
Nightfall found us still in the Moose Wagon. Far down the road the headlights of a car shone through the trees and falling snow, then winked out as the vehicle passed into a fold in the mountainside. A minute later the headlights flashed again followed by the muffled sound of tires on the unplowed road as the car went by. Our eyes followed its red taillights until they too winked out around a bend. Thirty minutes passed without a car from either direction. Time to get moving.
Nature’s artistry, with snow as its medium, soon transformed the ugly black burn scar into something unremarkable, indistinguishable from its surroundings. Jerry started the Moose Wagon. Windshield wipers cleared the snow. A final glance up and down the highway. No cars. With a click our headlights were on. Shining horizontally over the steep edge of the parking area, they picked up only the whitening tops of spruces in the valley below. Jerry brought the truck around, windshield wipers slapping and headlights shining, while I walked ahead to lead him to the nearest oddly-shaped lump in the snow. My gloves served to dust the accumulating snow off the neck of the moose. Dragging the cable off the winch, I worked it around the neck with some difficulty as the moose was frozen to the icy ground. I hooked the cable back onto itself, and signaled Jerry to start the winch. Then, just as the cable cinched around the neck I drew my finger across my throat, signaling Jerry: Cut the lights! I had seen headlights far down the road! We waited. Fresh snow lay on top of black ice on the highway, so the approaching vehicle moved slowly. Several minutes ticked by as it made its way up the winding climb past our pull-off, until it passed around a curve. In the moments of silence that followed, a great- horned owl called from the stillness of the valley.
As soon as that car was gone we engaged the winch again, this time with the headlights off. The body of a freshly killed moose is flexible and lifts differently than a frozen one, which comes free of the ice with all the flexibility of a steel beam. This one had frozen tightly to the ground, no doubt as a result of the fire melting the ice and water seeping under the body and freezing again. As the cable tightened the truck knelt lower and lower until the outcome began to look uncertain. The winch groaned and the front end of the truck bowed to the unyielding load. At last the deep-chested moose tore free, lifted as the truck righted itself, and swung grotesquely above me, its long, rigidly-frozen legs twisting slowly with the body.
Jerry’s view from the cab was limited to the head and chest of the moose and the snow flashing through the headlights. We’d turned them on again for the most dangerous part of the operation: bringing the front truck tires to the very brink. The moose had to hang over the steep slope without risking the truck going over too. From my perspective below the moose, the view was quite different. I could see the black mass swaying overhead and the blinding headlights winking, one after the other, as the moose swung gently back and forth in front of them. Trying to maintain my grip on the slope I moved slightly to one side so Jerry could at least see my arm. I motioned him forward and he gingerly coaxed the moose wagon ahead inches at a time, braking frequently out of utmost caution. There was, after all, the danger of plunging into the valley below. That wouldn’t be easy to explain to our boss in Fairbanks. Each stop and start, however carefully finessed, got the moose swinging fore and aft. With one hand on the carcass I struggled to damp this pendulous motion and keep the rigid legs from smashing a headlight or clubbing me. When the front tires were as close to the edge as we dared, the moose hung over the steep slope and the shadowed abyss of the valley. Moving to one side, I gestured ‘down’. Jerry could just see my head and shoulders over the edge. With the winch in reverse the big animal lowered until it settled in the snow and came to a tenuous rest on the slope, its head a few feet below the lip of the parking area. Would it stay or slide down the hill? Jerry gingerly slacked off the gable, reversing the winch. Stay or slide? It stayed, (whew!) and it would not be visible from the road. One down!
I unhooked the cable. We backed the Moose Wagon and maneuvered to the next carcass. Now we worked without headlights. By the time the second moose was positioned next to its companion, the first was already covered with a dusting of snow, and by the time the third was in place, the first was just a white lump on the hillside. In this way we worked into the night, gaining experience with each move. One carcass after another was lowered next to its companions, all with their heads pointing upward and their noses below the much-mentioned edge. If and when a crew showed up from Anchorage it would be a fairly easy job to retrieve the bodies with the Moose Wagon--much easier than what we were doing. Plus, they would not be conducting a covert operation at night.
We’d established a routine. The job was going smoothly, hampered a little by the increasingly hard snowfall. Last in line was a particularly large cow moose. She lifted without a problem. Jerry edged the truck to the brink as I scrambled and partly slid down the slope to guide the body into place. It was late. No cars had passed for a long time so we worked with the headlights. The touchy operation of bringing the front tires to the drop-off without going over became familiar with practice, but the tentative forward movement of the moose wagon, interrupted with braking, still got the moose swinging like a pendulum. Its weight hanging out beyond the front of the truck, compressed the front springs, directing the headlights partly downhill to cast a giant moose shadow on the snow-laden spruce trees below.
While I tried to avoid getting kicked in the face by the swiveling moose and Jerry tried to avoid driving the moose wagon into the abyss, neither of us noticed that the winch remained in gear. The cable was slowly drawing the big animal higher and higher. When its neck contacted the apex of the gin pole something had to happen. The winch could have stalled or the choking cable might have decapitated the moose. Instead, the cable broke! We were unprepared for what happened. From Jerry’s vantage inside the cab, one moment he had a big moose suspended in the headlights, with me standing just below, partly visible over the edge, signaling to him. With a sharp CRACK! the cable parted, Jerry yelled, and the moose and I disappeared into the night in an avalanche of snow. The moose wagon, relieved of the forward weight, bucked up level and its headlights shone forth into the snowy sky.
For me, things were different. On the instant that the immense black body came I heard a shout. But the moose was on me and together we went tobogganing, heads first, down the slope. A thicket of brush arrested our slide. I was unhurt but buried in cushioning snow and still partly under the moose. Jerry’s voice, calling faintly from the distance above, came into my consciousness. “Skip? Skip?”
Except for that interruption, our project had gone as we’d planned, with nothing more unusual happening. By first light, all the moose lay in a steep row, covered in snow, out of sight of the highway, just so many large hummocks. Even an astute observer might not notice them. In the early hours of the morning we drove back to Ma’s for the few items we’d left there. That day found us taking leave of the glistening marvel that the snowfall had made of the Kenai Peninsula. We felt we’d done everything possible to finish our work and to protect the meat that would eventually be distributed to charities. The moose would be there when a Fish and Game Department truck arrived to retrieve them. We were each bound for our homes and getting cleaned up. Perhaps I’d even buy new clothes.
That all got postponed.
First we had to report to the Anchorage office. Biologists and Protection officers, working out of that office, had been collecting specimens from the area around the city. However, instead of removing jaws from the heads as we had done, they found it more expedient to simply tag the heads and bring them in whole. Someone else could do the dirty work. The heads, we were told, were downstairs in the vehicle garage below the offices. Never mind our filthy clothes reeking of fire and formaldehyde. Never mind our exhausted and penny-less state. The heads were ours to deal with.
Appalled is not too strong a word to describe our thoughts when confronted with that pile of moose heads.
There is a term in engineering: “the angle of repose”. Different materials such as sand, gravel, pebbles, bricks and so on, form a conical pile when dumped. The steepest angle that the material forms before it begins to slip is known as the angle of repose. I don’t know if the angle of repose of a pile of moose heads is known to engineering, but it is fairly shallow. The pile confronting us was bigger than indicated in my cartoon. Its top reached above my eye level, and the heads spread out over a large area. We stared in disbelief for a couple minutes and then, with a shrug of resignation and perhaps an unkind word about the people who had left this mess for us, we each each grabbed an ear at random from the pile, pulled out a head, and got to work with knives, saws and pliers. We had no money for a warm hotel room and showers at the end of each day. They weren’t in reach. We camped out at night in the upstairs offices and worked through the pile during the days, removing and tagging jaws and incisor teeth for study.
But no, another punch in the guts. The news: WE were suspects in the Fish and Wildlife trailer burning!
Unbelievable! How could this be? We had mentioned to the trooper investigating the case that we’d stored some of the jaws on top of the trailer to keep them out of the reach of the three feral dogs that had fallen under our care. But that created no problem. The trailer was small and its top a convenient shelf, high enough to store the jaws in boxes out of reach of the dogs, but nothing requiring a ladder or even a step stool for us to access. We’d taken the box down daily and replaced it as we added specimens. No problem. Still, in his report, the state trooper advanced his hypothesis that when it came time for us to retrieve the jaws from the trailer top, we found them too difficult to reach. Therefore, we’d wound the cable of the moose wagon around the trailer and winched the trailer over on its side in order to dump the box of jaws off. We had then, according to this trooper, driven off to Ma’s, leaving the tipped-over trailer and its burning oil stove while we had dinner.
On the assumption that no one could take such a hypothesis seriously, and much in need of showers and clean clothes, we decided to head home to Fairbanks. Three weeks accumulation of dirt and blood and smell qualified us as social pariahs. Now, in even worse condition after days of additional dealing with moose heads in the Anchorage Fish and Game vehicle garage, we were ready to rebel. No further delays! Who could even credit the trooper’s stupid story? We delivered the big crate of moose jaws to Air Cargo and boarded the spanking new jet to Fairbanks. Fortunately the two rear-most seats were unoccupied. In our rank condition we quickly claimed them, figuring that in these seats we would be farthest away from fellow passengers. I was staring ahead and dozing off when Jerry, who was next to the window, prodded me to attention and pointed outside.
There, trundling across the tarmac, seemingly floating along rather swiftly under its own power, the giant crate of moose jaws approached the plane. In fact, it was being hauled on the tines of a forklift, which we could not see behind the crate. We thought it was moving too fast. We couldn’t see the operator, and he could not have had much forward visibility. Sure enough, he pulled up near the jet’s cargo bay and hit the brakes. The crate lurched forward, teetered for a long moment, then pitched onto the tarmac. We couldn’t hear the impact, but we could see the crate split. Red moose jaws spilled out. Except for the tags on each one, the immediate ground around the jet suggested the entry to a Neanderthal cave.
The forklift operator squeamishly poked the jaws together with the toe of his boot and boarded the plane. “He’s mad! He’s mad, and wants to find out if that crate belongs to any of the passengers,” we thought. It would not have taken Sherlock Holmes to connect the jaws with us. Another night in the Anchorage office loomed, and another day re-packing jaws. We buried our faces in magazines and tried to look unrelated to the crate. But (whew!) he apparently had other business aboard, walked right past us, and soon disembarked. He and two other ground personnel picked the jaws up (by the specimen tags), tried to stuff them back through the split, and loaded the crate, rip uppermost, sideways onto the plane.
Passenger jet service between Anchorage and Fairbanks was still a novelty. Commercial jet travel in Alaska was fairly new. As I remember, we were aboard a Convair 880, which zipped along at over 600 mph. The four hundred mile flight home skimmed over the Alaska Range and began its descent seemingly almost before it began. I remember an announcement from the cockpit shortly after take off, that the flight would be smooth and that the crew already had “the fair city of Fairbanks” in sight. Home had seemed a long way off in time and distance when we labored on the Kenai.
Bob Rausch, the director of moose research and management in Alaska, and our boss, was as incredulous over the trooper’s charge as we. He sent a letter to the state troopers pointing out its absurdities and expressing complete confidence in his biologists. We thought this was the end of the matter. But then, another bombshell! It turned out that because the burned-down trailer had been federal property, the FBI got involved. Federal agents asked us if we would be willing to take a lie detector test. We had nothing to hide so I was inclined to agree. Jerry, being more cautious and suspicious, had reservations. Given what had emerged from our frank, honest report and co-operation with the state trooper, I am surprised that we were willing to have anything more to do with law enforcement. But, for whatever reason, a little nervous and uncertain, we showed up at the appointed time at the offices above the Fairbanks Post Office where the polygraphs were to be administered. An agent asked us to be seated and we waited on chairs in a corridor or foyer.
As mentioned, the walls of the offices were mere dividers that did not rise to the ceiling. The agent disappeared into one of the cubicles, out of sight, but not out of hearing. We sat in the hallway staring at the divider in front of us, and listening to the sound of shuffled papers and mumbled conversation and someone fiddling with the machine. Then, a distinct voice came over the wall: “Any FIRE RECORD on these CLOWNS?” Jerry and I looked at each other, got up, and quietly left the building. No one from either the state or federal government ever contacted us. That was the last we heard of the affair.
As far as we know, nobody was arrested for setting the trailer on fire. Jerry and I were each assigned to other projects and went our separate ways, though we remained friends for many years, and worked together on several art projects after leaving the department. We had not followed up on the cases against the hunters who had shot cow moose on the wrong side of the Kenai River. The trailer burners, we felt certain, were among them. Their act of vengeance against the Fish and Game Department punished people who had nothing whatever to do with the hunting regulations to which they objected so violently. Those are set by the seven-member civilian Alaska Board of Game and not by biologists working in the field. The specimens that burned up added another consequence to this unhappy event.
The three feral dogs slunk away shortly after the fire and we never saw them again. Likely the only witnesses to the trailer burning during its commission, their fate was unknown. Finally, we never learned if the moose we had so carefully hidden away on the snowy slope that night were ever retrieved by the state of Alaska and distributed to charities. If not, some summer tourist standing on the edge of the pull-off near the Kenai Lake Burn Historical Marker, while taking pictures of the sweeping panorama, might glance down past his feet and see skeletons. If he or she were able to identify them as moose skeletons, he or she might wonder how such a gang of moose, each with its nose within sniffing distance of the parking lot, met its end, and why were all of them trying to get up there in the first place?