LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - Once in awhile our stories in Fur-Fish-Game magazine attract letters from wannabe mountain men, and they all want to know what kind of firearm they need when they move North. While they plan to hunt for food, they’re mainly concerned with all the murderous bears that they must slaughter to stay alive.
I can’t help thinking about the old-timer who spent nearly 60 years in this area, living off the land and maintaining more than 100 miles of trapline. Despite a few terrifying bear encounters during those decades, Slim insisted he’d rather carry an ax than his rifle.
The statistics back him up. I’m not paid enough to check statistics, but if you listen to the news, you hear that an awful lot of people die of exposure — and accidental gunshots. Bear mauling fatalities, not so much.
As an all-purpose survival tool, a good trail ax can’t be beat. In a survival situation on a cold rainy day, you can split rain-soaked firewood to reach the dry center wood for a hot fire. You can swiftly chop dry fire-starter from tinder-dry, dead lower branches of spruce trees. You can cut poles for a shelter, strip birch bark for waterproof roofing and chop up slabs of moss for insulation, all with an ax.
It’s true that when you’re starving a rifle means meat — if there’s game around. Still, with an ax you can strip the inner bark of birch trees to eat, or cut poles and saplings to build a fish trap or weir, or cut logs for a deadfall trap.
In the Bush, an ax serves as the quintessential tool. When building a small Bush cabin, a chain saw, drawknife, hammer and other tools are great time-savers. An ax alone may take a lot longer, but you can still cut, peel and notch logs, collect roof poles, pound in spikes and nails and, again, cut bark and moss for the roof. Making square cuts for door and window frames is the only job a skilled ax person can’t do nicely.
An ice chipper works best for cutting a water hole, but an ax can do that job too. When cutting ice to melt for the household, an ax takes a much bigger bite than the chipper. Of course, the fastest way to chop ice is to find a frozen layer with air below where the water has drained away. With an ax you can easily shatter a 6-inch layer if ice into great slabs that quickly fill your buckets. Even just chopping along a vertical crack in the ice greatly speeds the work.
A chain saw and brush cutter make quick work of brushing trail, but there, too, when cost or weight is at a premium, your versatile ax gets the job done, especially if you keep it sharp. It makes quick work of blazing trees or whacking off branches to mark the trail, too. I have even chopped out a few extremely aggravating tussocks that poked a foot or two up into an otherwise smooth trail.
No doubt about it, when gathering trail gear, I grab an ax first. On the winter trail, it does more than whack out a few overhanging branches. After running the dog team through overflow, a few blows with the ax quickly knock frozen slush from the runners. If the dog sled or snowmachine ski jams against a tree, the ax makes short work of the offending obstacle. If the towline snags a tussock, an ax can lever it free.
On questionable ice, I stop frequently to chop holes to determine not just the thickness, but the quality of the ice — whether it froze clear, black and strong, or soft and rotten, or whether its integrity is betrayed by bubbles, white layers of snow or yellow layers of overflow.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the ax to hack braces from small trees for splinting broken sleds. I learned long ago to slab and fit the piece from a standing tree before cutting the thing down. The rooted tree holds perfectly still so I can form my board just right, swinging the ax at a wide angle for a deep cut, or an acute, nearly vertical angle for final touches.
We use an ax to chop fish, frozen dog food and animal carcasses. We use it to scrape ice off tent roofs, to split kindling, break loose frozen trap springs and flatten bent horseshoes and hammer them back onto the horse. I’ve pounded on nails, frozen snaps, jammed sled hitches and bent metal that needs flattening. I’ve chopped yellow ice away from doghouses buried and frozen in packed snow, to pry the houses up so the dogs can crawl in. (Keep your mouth shut while those yellow chips go flying!)
Of course, axes used carelessly or in anger are dangerous, but they don’t pose the deadly risks of firearms. (Although, while splitting kindling one day, old Slim saw his thumb on the chopping block instead of on his hand. He thought he would bleed to death, but he lived about 30 more years.)
No, I couldn’t live in the Bush without my ax, even if it’s not the best tool for dealing with a raging bear. Really, after 52 years out here, my sister and I have only had to kill one bear that was a serious threat. Oh, wait, make that two. No, three. But even so. Few of us will forget the Yukon Quest musher who killed an attacking moose with his ax, or the musher who wisely saved his own life by abandoning his dog team to a killer grizzly. They did things the hard way, because they had no firearms.
I’m not against guns, of course. If I had one and a bear got nasty, I’d use it. I shoot moose and a few grouse almost every fall, and the occasional wolf making trouble for the dogs. But the tool I use every day, year-round, is my trusty old trail ax.
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.