Walking Across Alaska: The River, Part III

Posted Jul 5, 2012
Walking Across Alaska: The River, Part III

By: Scott D. Railey

Read Part II Here

I opened my eyes to a new morning as steam poured out my sleeping bag, like smoke rising to the roof of the tent. 

“Now that’s a sight you don’t see every day,” I thought. 

The Coleman bag was very damp but very warm. Hollofil is a life-saver in the bush. On the other side of the tent Steve Vogt is mumbling something about a train wreck. I crawled out of the bag, opened up my duffel bag and pulled out a new set of clothes that had been closed up in a garbage bag. 

“Dang, it’s good to put on dry clothes,” I said. 

Steve was doing the same as he rubbed a knot on the side of his head the size of an orange. 

I started chuckling, “You look like you got an alien poppin out of your head.” 

He replied, “Well…you don’t look so great yourself.” 

Steve started organizing his gear as I limped out of the tent and padded to the raft. 


Dang it! The raft was flat. It had a hole on the port side the size of a golf ball. I reached into the water in the bow of the raft and pulled out my backpack, drained it and found a bottle of Tylenol. My right knee was swollen bad...too many knee surgeries. I then pulled out our cooler that had been tied to the raft, opened it and it was empty. I searched in the water of the raft floor and there was food scattered everywhere. I then discovered a large chunk of cheese.  Dad gum, I was hungry.

“You want some cheese?” I hollered to Steve. 

“Yeah,” he yelled back.

Now let me share something with you that you already know about knives.  No matter how young or how old you are, a knife can cut you. Dang, I’m smart aren’t I? It may sound simple, but when you least expect it – It happens. I pulled out my handmade sheath knife, a small Bowie. I fashioned the blade from a bar of D-2 steel. The handle is made from mock orange wood that came off my Uncle Ren’s farm in Alabama. It’s a great skinning knife for big game but it’s also a fighting knife and she’s sharp! I pulled the 5-inch blade through the edge of the wet cheese and…you guessed it…WHACK! The blade sank deep into my thumb and I mean deep.

“Son-of-a-gun!” I hollered. Blood spurted everywhere. Steve ran down to the raft and examined the wound. 

“Dang fool, cut yourself good this time. That’s gonna need eight to ten stitches….no problem though,” he said. 

He walked back to the tent grinning like Dr. Frankenstein. I could hear him talking to himself in the tent as he pulled out his emergency medical bag.

“Let me see now, what we got…cat gut, lidocaine, iodine…yes sir, I’m gonna sew ol’ Scott up,” he mumbled. 

I thought, “To heck with this.” I reached in my backpack, pulled out a sandwich bag of my own medical supplies. I took a penicillin tablet, chewed it to a paste and spit the goo into the open cut. I wadded up a piece of toilet paper on top of the gushing wound and duct taped it. 

Dr. Vogt walked up to me with a small plastic tray with things on it. He looked at my thumb with the oddest expression and said, “What have you done?”   

I explained about my treatment as blood dripped out of the end of the duck tape and dropped to the ground. He stormed off in disbelief. “You fool…..I hope it rots off! You must think you’re some kind of doctor. You’re probably gonna die.” 

He continued to angrily walk toward the tent mumbling, “Darn fool thinks he’s a doctor.” 

We hovered over the deflated raft looking at it as the river pounded past us a few feet away –kind of like staring at a dead body. 

“We can fix this,” I said. 

Steve replied, “If we can’t we’ve got a long hike, maybe a hundred miles.” 

We pulled out a tube of bicycle tube glue and a large patch (we were prepared for this). As it was still raining, we took a tarp and made a shelter over the port side of the raft. We glued the patch over the hole then glued a large area of duct tape on top of that. We let it dry for six hours and the raft was like new – ready to go.

Steve stared at the river, looked at me and said, “Maybe we need to camp right here a day or two and heal up.” 

I replied, “It’s a good spot, I like this mountain range close to the river.” 

We hunted for two days, seeing only a few small moose and no caribou. But what we enjoyed the most was fishing. Man, we were catching grayling and Dolly Varden on fly rods using small orange egg patterns, drifting them on the bottom. It was two great days of fishing and taking it easy. All I had was a fly rod because my Dad’s old spinning rod that I had spent so many hours restoring was broken in a million pieces. But what the heck, I became a better fly fisherman those two days. 

On the third morning we broke camp, loaded the raft and started down river. I was at the oars and Steve was in the bow. To say that I was at high alert was an understatement. If we heard a roar of water downriver, we pulled over immediately and walked down river to investigate. On several occasions, we cut sweepers down using an axe and saw to clear the way. It was a learning experience - a baptism under fire. 

Later that evening we were drifting down river when Steve noticed a man standing on the bank 200 yards ahead. The man had a beard and was waving his hands at us. I pulled the raft over 50 yards before we got to the man. Steve jumped out, tied the bow to a tree and I walked down to investigate. Steve stayed back to observe. I approached the man and could immediately see great anguish in his face. He was wet. Then unbelievably, another man was lying at his feet in a prone position, blue from hypothermia. I noticed their raft in the river was under water, trapped against the sweeper.

“For God’s sake, don’t leave us,” the standing man said.

His friend just mumbled. 

I waved for Steve to come down. Steve examined the injured man. “This man needs to get warm right now!” he yelled. 

We made a fire next to him on the bank and I’m telling you in 15 minutes he was back to his senses. We helped recover most of their gear but the raft was a bigger problem. All that was above the water was the metal oar lock. Steve took a rope and lassoed the oar lock but we couldn’t budge the raft. The river was pushing against it and we couldn’t pull it free. I thought about it for a while, went up river 30 yards and cut a tree down. I rolled the tree into the river and let it crash into the raft. As the others held the rope tight, the raft shot ten feet out of the water and swung to the river bank. Amazingly, there were no holes in the raft.

“Please don’t leave us,” one of the men said. 

“We’re not going to leave you,” Steve replied. 

Jim and Shane were from New Mexico. They were both great outdoorsmen who hunted elk in the mountains of their home state. As well trained and experienced as these men were, a flooded river did its best to snuff their lives out. Just one mistake almost did it. You see, that’s the way the river is when she’s angry. When she’s calm, it’s beautiful and serene. But when she loses her temper…watch out! Jim’s knee was torn up – he could barely walk. But, man could he cook. We ate Mexican food that night from moose meat they had in the raft. Most of their moose meat was lost along with their other food. Unbelievable as it sounds, they had killed two bull moose at the same time. The two bulls were fighting when Jim and Shane dropped them using 30-06’s. 

So many folks come west or to Alaska and feel the need for magnums…and there’s nothing wrong with that. But what a mag will kill, a traditional, slower moving bullet will do as well if not better.  Now I carry a 375 H&H, but its bear medicine if needed. It also kills large game like lightning if I pay attention to distance. Both of my boys have taken caribou cleanly with a 150 grain bullet from a .270. They weren’t magnums or ballistic tips – just a plain-Jane 150 grain round nose, soft point. I’m not against ballistic tips either…I’m just saying that the more traditional bullets work as well today as they did yesterday. 

Jim and Shane spent the rest of the trip camped next to us. They were good company.

A day later, two fellows drifted by in a raft and had lost their rifles in a sweeper the day before and all they had were pistols. Dern, I felt bad for them. We offered them a rifle to get by with, but they declined and drifted down river and out of sight. They looked like two sad, wet puppies. 

Towards the end of the trip we made camp on the Mulchatna River. The Chilikadrotna is a fast river and pours into the Mulchatna and then slows down. Steve and I hunted hard that day to no avail. On our hike back to the river, my knee was terribly swollen and I was also chaffed from wearing wool pants. 

Steve said, “When we get to camp, I’ve got something for your knee.” 

I replied, “Thanks bud, and I’m telling you when I do get back I am taking a bath in that river.” 

At camp, I took two pills from Steve, grabbed a bar of soap and waded out into the Mulchatna River. I bathed and yelled at the same time…it was COLD! In later trips, I learned to bath with baby wipes…to heck with wading in ice water. 

Shane came back from hunting late that night and told us about a grand caribou bull he shot on top of the mountain above us. The next morning we hiked up to help him pack the meat back.  But all we found was the head…a very large grizzly had eaten most of the meat and then buried the rest next to the carcass. We cut off the rack and hiked back to camp. I told Shane to take pictures of the kill sight to show game wardens in case he was stopped. You see, you better have all the meat for each rack you carry out. 

The trip was winding down. I had passed on a small moose. Steve had another hunter spook a very large moose and we could have killed a giant bull moose standing in five feet of water out in the middle of a marsh, but wisely chose not to. If you shoot a moose in water that deep, you are plain out of luck…you see, you can’t move him. I hadn’t pulled the trigger on this trip, but it was a great hunting trip…it was a learning trip…and boy did we learn. 

Let me share some things with you now:

Remember, cotton kills. Use fleece clothing and hollofil sleeping bags. No goose down and no cotton. 

Have great rain gear – no cheap stuff. Bring bug repellant for white socks. Have water proof binoculars and spotting scopes. Use a great dome tent, designed for Alaska. Remember, Notherns blow through that country with hurricane force winds. Don’t risk your life with cheap tents. Put a tarp under your tent and one inside the tent. Always secure your tent well. I use extra rope to secure the north side of our tent.

I wear a cowboy hat – it keeps rain off my neck and back. At night I wear a toboggan so I don’t wake up dead! 

Bring your fishing rods on a river trip. A fly rod with egg patterns is great and a spinning rod with Pixie Spoons or Mepps spinner are great too. 

Always plan ahead and talk to a local outdoor store before you come. 

I love Alaska. When you’re in the bush it doesn’t matter if it’s 2012 or 1912…you’re on your own Jack. I love the rivers…the mountains…the open tundra…and the sounds that each one makes. It’s beautiful music, like a great song heard for the first time. Make no mistake…you get sloppy and she will punch your ticket. 

The trip was almost over and our DeHavilland Otter landed at Dummy Creek kind of like an old WWII plane setting down with her big radial engine. The plane got caught up in the trees because of the river current. We had to take axes to clear the plane back out. We loaded up and idled back out into the river and took off to Anchorage. It’s kind of funny…when you return to civilization you feel somewhat offended. The sounds of the city seem almost cheap and plastic. 

Alone in Alaska can’t be explained – it must be lived. I remembered before the old plane landed, that I closed my eyes and thanked God for a second chance in life, for loving me as imperfect as I was and still am and for getting me back home safely. Little did I know that the small boys at home would make future trips with me laying a foundation to their own manhood.  Alaska does that. 

Oh, by the way…Steve made me take the duct tape off my thumb at the end of the trip.

“I’ll probably have to whack it off,” he growled.

I pulled the duct tape off and the wound was clean and healing fine. I held up the thumb in front of Steve and smiled, “How you like that big boy, I said. 

He glanced at the thumb and looked away and sarcastically replied, “I hope it falls off.”

May God bless you, your family and our country.

scott railey, alaska, caribou