Lunch

While the twins Miki and Julie Collins head out the trails on most mid-winter days, their two Icelandic horses spend time foraging wild grasses along the frozen swamps. Denali rises in the background with Mount Foraker on the right. 

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — The day after winter solstice dawned 20 degrees below zero. Not bad, but given how much overflow my sister Miki slogged through on her last lap out the trapline, she decided to stay home awhile longer to let the slush freeze. Crossing water at these temperatures complicates everything, and we had other projects to consider.

The carefully-stored, long-dead remnants of last fall’s moose still lay in the meat shed, and deepening snow meant that bigger fur-bearers including wolverine and wolf would be growing hungry, so we set off to build a set about 5 miles from home. Local overflow had stabilized and frozen, and with two modes of transportation, even if my snowmachine conked out the sled dogs would not.

I dusted snow off the decrepit Bravo and the good old iron dog started eagerly despite the nippy morning. At the meat shed, Miki helped me load the wrapped moose head and bones. We kept back some hide, antlers and hooves to freshen the bait later. For now, the intensely rank stink of the head guaranteed a good draw. With the machine ready, I helped Miki harness eight dogs and sent her off down the hill with five in harness and three loose to blow off steam. Pouncing on the Bravo, I scurried after her, but she’d already disappeared into the willows 200 yards across the river.

Emerging onto a snowy swamp after penetrating the first line of willows, I spotted Meyla and Mr. B grazing near the trail, unperturbed by the traffic flowing past them. Focused on foraging, the two stout horses paid no mind to me or the frosty snow weighing down their shaggy manes and tails. Snow-covered willows lay beyond them with a backdrop of thin clouds stretched across the face of the distant Alaska Range, all suffused in the soft glowing light of a lovely mid-winter day.

My speed varied from 5 miles per hour up to 15 as bumpy willow thickets alternated with open marshes, and I didn’t overtake the dog team for a mile and a half, where Miki stopped to pick up a nice lynx. Her seasoned trapline dogs waited quietly while we rebuilt the set.

“Wonder if it was that mink lure I collected that caught him,” Miki mused.

“Either that or the heap of beaver guts,” I replied.

With the edge off the dogs and smoother traveling for the machine, we traveled closer together, winding up a narrow cattail slough and skirting beaver houses and stick dams that still sported dangerous areas of thin ice.

Half a mile below our destination we entered the tunnel of brush that has frustrated us for 20 years, ever since the once-expansive river channel silted in and sprouted a stubble of willows. Every fall, hours of trail-brushing to remove summer growth seems pointless after each heavy snow. The weight loading ever-taller trees bends the tops into the trail, which is now more than 10 feet wide and still densely clogged with overhanging brush.

But we had not sallied forth today to brush trail. Chain saws freeze easily at 20 below, as do faces splashed with snow blobs smacking down from shaken trees. Instead, with Miki crouched behind her handlebow and me behind the windshield, we snaked under the chest-high arch and emerged intact a quarter-mile ahead where we crossed the new river channel. The usual quick glance up and downstream yielded no evidence of overflow or wolf tracks, and a few yards beyond that lay our destination.

Twenty years ago, this thicket of black spruce offered an ideal spot for a wolf set, with an open area for moose scraps and enough trees for strategic foot-paths with hidden snares. Today, the once wide-open swamp surrounding the thicket has overgrown with willows, while permafrost melt submerged the lovely clearing into an unpleasant bog clogged with dead trees and the sharp stobs of partly-submerged antlers left from previous sets.

However, the location still lay along a popular wolf corridor so Miki dragged the head, bones and other scraps in while I stomped out access trails, setting camouflaged snares in clumps of spruce. Miki cut small spruce trees, and I leaned one over each snare to deflect moose so they wouldn’t step through the cable loops. Finally, I stepped back and surveyed our work with satisfaction. The site lacked the explosion of moose hair so abundant at natural kills, but we could fix that by letting an energetic young dog de-hair some raw moosehide for us to scatter around.

We hadn’t targeted wolves recently because of naturally low populations, but the packs had bounced back rapidly and several moose kills had been spotted recently. Our snares killed wild animals quickly, yet were rarely dangerous to our dogs who knew not to fight and choke on a neck restraint.

Already the sun had completed its tiny swing above the horizon and a slow dusk began to envelope us as we readied our rigs and started home. Sunset pastels suffused the cattail swamps and the fluffy white coats of the willow as we wound back along the flats.

The horses had wandered across the trail and gazed thoughtfully toward us, wondering if they should follow us home for their hot supper of soaked pellets. We swept into the yard amidst clouds of foggy breath and the joyful chorus of leftover dogs. Meyla and Mr. B. rambled in to join the crew, and with a productive day behind us, we felt ready to turn our attention toward Christmas and the new year.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.