Letter Re: Grub and Gear--Lessons Learned from an Alaskan Trapper

Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009

James,
Going through some old gear last month, I found my food supply lists and notes from 1976-79. I thought the old list might be of interest and the lessons I learned during the first three years in the remote Alaska bush may be helpful to a few of your readers. I do not recommend Alaska for a TEOTWAWKI retreat but the lessons I learned the hard way may be helpful to any one in a cold climate.

I grew up in California listing to stories from my grandfather about Alaska and the Yukon. When I graduated from high school my grandfather gave me his remote trapping cabin in Alaska. At 18 I had a lot to learn and discovered many things the hard way. I was lucky to survive the first year.

When I got to Alaska I met my Grandfather’s old trapping partner. He told me that the cabin was fully stocked with everything including food. Enough food and supplies for at least one winter. When I started asking him questions on how to trap he told me “sonny I have not got the time to teach you and since you don’t have to build the cabin you will have time to figure it out. He added half under his breath” providing you do not fall through the ice or freeze to death. He also said something to the effect that if he had not owed my grandfather a favor he would never give his ½ of the cabin to a long haired hippy kid from California. I had to promise the old Sourdough that I would have all of his traps flown back to town at the end of the trapping season or buy the traps from him.

My first winter was a disaster.

Before this the longest I had been in the wilderness was a 23 day Outward Bound survival class that I attended the year before and I had never spent a winter in a cold environment.

To get to the trapping cabin it was at least a two week walk from the end of closest dirt road or a 1:20 hour flight in a bush plane. The cheapest way to fly to the cabin was in a Piper PA-18 Super Cub on tundra tires. The pilot told me he could carry 1 passenger and 200 lbs of supplies or a total of 400 pounds of supplies and no passenger.

When the pilot dropped me off he told me “If I am in the area I will check on you” He did not have any charters that way so he did not check on me that winter.

I got out of the plane with a full back pack of gear, a duffel bag of supplies and a 30-06 rifle. I had to walk a few miles to the cabin. I left the duffel bag in a tree to retrieve later. With a full back pack and my rifle I walked as fast as I could to the cabin. I was excited to see “My cabin” at last. What a shock I had when I saw the cabin! The old Trapper had lived many winters in the cabin and told me it was built strong. What I found was a small log shack with a dirt floor and sod roof. In the cabin a wood stove, a hand built bed frame and table. A old bed mattress suspended by wire from the rafters. There were traps, snow shoes, ax, bow saw, one man cross cut saw, files, a lantern and the other basics that are needed to survive the Alaska winter as a trapper. The trapper had not been to the cabin for four years. At least 60% of the food supply that I was counting on had been eaten by rodents or had spoiled.

First lesson learned! If you count on food to be there when you need it, You better have had your food stored in a very secure way or you may go hungry. Theft is also something to be considered in today’s society and in TEOTWAWKI losing your food cache would be disastrous

Most people think it must have been boring spending 4 ½ months alone in a cabin. The reality is I was too busy just trying to cut enough wood to stay warm and skin the marten, fox or wolf that I trapped or shot. I was cold, hungry and exhausted most of the time. I never had the time to get board. Being a green horn at trapping I only averaged 1 animal a week and it was usually shot instead of trapped.

The first winter at the cabin.

As soon as I walked into the cabin I I knew I was in trouble. I did not have the 4-to-5 month supply of food I needed. I had a topo map of the trapping area only but did not have the maps to get me back to the road or town, Second lesson! Make your Egress plans ahead of time and have at least 2 good contingency plans.

Thankfully in the cabin there were two steel drums with snap ring lids that were full of dry goods and on the shelves were some cans of dried goods that were also still good. The following list is what was still edible in the cabin as best as I can remember

The supplies along with a young moose I shot did keep me alive but it was no fun. I had youth and enthusiasm on my side and knew the situation was temporary. I decided to just make it a challenge and kind of live some of my grandfather's stories first hand for myself. I had in my pack 1 roll of toilet paper but there was none at the cabin

Third Lesson! Birch bark, snow or small pine cones work but make a very poor substitute for toilet paper. I also learned later that winter that at -40 your butt will freeze to a wood toilet seat in the outhouse. Make a toilet seat for the outhouse out of hard blue Styrofoam for winter will make using the outhouse less of a pain in the butt.

As fall quickly turned to winter the lake next to the cabin froze and the temp continued to drop. The high quality mountaineering boots I had used in the high Sierra mountains of California and Nevada were not anywhere near warm enough and did not have removable liners so the boots were hard to dry.

Forth lesson Pac boots with 2 sets of liners or bunny boots are must have items for cold environments.

Many times during the winter I could have shot Grouse or Ptarmigan If I had a 22 pistol. That would have added much wanted variety to the menu. The other problem I learned is if you get a wolf or wolverine in one of your traps a 30-06 blows too big a hole in the hide and destroys most of the value of the fur.

Fifth Lesson! a .22 rifle or pistol is a must have item.

After 2 months my clothes were in bad shape. Most Light weight high tech clothing used for backpacking or mountaineering is not designed for day to day hard use and does not hold up to rigors outdoor work for the long haul. High quality wool clothing does a lot better over the long haul and is not susceptible to melting next to a fire like nylon is. Yes wool is heavy and takes longer to dry but in my opinion for working in the woods wool is the way to go.

Sixth lesson ! clothing made for loggers, Surveyors and commercial fisherman may be heavy but it last a lot better than sporting gear. Filson is the best.

My diet was boring and I was always hungry after two months. I started getting sick and my teeth seemed to be getting loose. It finally dawned on me that I had no intake of Vitamin C. I may have had Scurvy. Remembering something I learned from my grandfather I started eating rose hips that were dried and still hanging on a few bushes near the cabin. Thankfully we did not have deep snows that year so I could find a few rose hips. I was lucky! Seventh Lesson! make sure you have a source of Vitamin C.

Every time I took my rifle inside the warm cabin it would condensate and the rifle would get wet.

Eighth Lesson If you bring a rifle into a warm cabin from a below freezing environment it will condensate, this promotes corrosion in addition the moisture in the bolt may be frozen the next time you are outside in the cold. If you do bring a weapon in from the cold strip it down, dry it and clean it. I left my rifle outside next to the door for most of the winter and only brought it in to clean. This would not work in a TEOTWAWKI so other tactics will have to be developed.

One morning there was a small earth quake that got me to thinking of my family and the outside world. Started felling very alone. Starting thinking what if the Russians had dropped “the bomb” I would not know it.

Lesson #9! Being able to at least hear what is going on in the outside world helps your mental attitude a lot. A radio to listen to the news was smoothing I longed for.

Snow shoes are easy to use and most anyone will figure them out quickly. When you are working on snow shoes you will fall now and then. Lesson # 10 tape the muzzle of your rifle to keep snow out of the barrel when you take the invariable header into the snow. I use electrical tape or put a condom over the muzzle of all my rifles in the field to keep everything out of the barrel. It will not affect accuracy unless you are shooting over 300 yards.

The winter was full of hardship and big education. I did enjoy it but given a choice I would not want to repeat that Winter. In the spring I sold my furs in Anchorage. The fur buyer could tell I had never trapped before as the way I had prepared the pelts was poor at best. I got .20 cents on the dollar for my pelts and I think that was generous on the part of the fur buyer. 4-½ months of hard work and after paying the bush pilot along with the money I still owed the trapper I would have less than $100. The trapper met me at the fur buyer after paying him for his traps he was now very friendly and asked me many questions. He encouraged me to go back for at least one more winter. He told me to go get a bath and haircut and meet him at the White Spot cafe down the street in downtown Anchorage and he would buy me a good meal. While eating he handed me a the following list

This was the list of supplies that the trapper had the pilot bring to the cabin each spring when the plane came to pick him up. This filled what would have otherwise been an empty plane. In early April the lake next to the cabin was still frozen so the plane would land on skis and taxi next to the cabin. The pilot and trapper would put the supplies into the cabin then the pilot flew the trapper back to town.

The Trapper then informed me that he had purchased the supplies for me and was having them flown to the cabin along with 2 more steel drums to safely store the supplies in.

The "Rifle and a Backpack" Myth

I often get a chuckle from people that think they can fill a back pack and head into the woods and survive long term with what is in a back pack. Until recently I spent most of my life guiding in Alaska and in Africa. I spent an average 110 days a year living out of a back pack under a tarp or in a pup tent, and another 180 days each year living in a remote cabins without electricity or running water.

In an uninhabited game rich environment with a rifle and only a back pack of gear I could survive for a period of time. How long could I survive? I do not know as there are too many variables.

What I do know is in the case of TEOTWAWKI where many people would be fleeing the cities and overcrowding the wild places looking for food I could not survive trying to live off the land with only a back pack full of gear. There will simply not be the recourses available. If a skilled person had no ethics they could take to stealing, looting, probably murder/cannibalism they might make it long term starting with only a back pack full of gear. For me and my family I believe in preparing now and stocking up while food and supplies are available and reasonably priced.

In the early 1980s I bought a lot of my supplies from a sporting goods/gun store in Anchorage. The store maintained an excellent inventory for hunters, trappers or survivalists. The store manager could talk the talk on both survival and hunting. One fall he hired me to take him on a 14-day bow hunting trip into the Alaska bush and film the adventure. He also hired a young guy that had just moved to Alaska from Georgia to help carry camera gear. I was concerned regarding the greenhorn from Georgia and even more concerned when I saw his marginal gear. The Georgia greenhorn however did fine and was a huge help on the trip. The trip however was a complete failure. The store manager had every neat gadget I had ever seen and many that I had never heard of. His pack was too full to carry any of the food or camera gear. He was out of shape and his pack was also too heavy for him to comfortably carry. After the float plane dropped us off on a high mountain lake we planned to walk for a week to my cabin hunting Dall Sheep on the way. Then at the Cabin we planned to hunt Moose and Grizzly. During the first 2 days the store manager left a lot of gadgets and some much needed gear on the trail to lighten his pack. I was stunned as I thought this guy knew his stuff but he was totally bewildered on how to apply his knowledge or gear in the field. One of the things I still clearly remember is he actually dumped all of his extra socks and his rain gear at the first nights camp. Leaving that gear behind cost him dearly. The Greenhorn from Georgia was a farm kid and was able to adapt to the Alaska bush even with his marginal gear and lack of knowledge of the Alaska bush. The store manager never made a single stalk on any animal as it became a challenge to just get the store manager to the cabin. By the time we got him to the cabin his feet were so badly blistered he could hardly walk and could not even carry his own pack or bow. This rambling story actually has a point. I had heard the store manager tell many people before our trip that with his properly equipped backpack he could easily survive in the bush indefinitely. My grandfather use to say: "Ignorance is bliss but it will not put food on the table."

My Second Winter

I still had a lot to learn but this winter was a lot better. First thing when I arrived at the cabin was to see that the supplies were all there and in fine shape. I also had topo maps and now knew 3 different routes to get back to civilization. It was at least a 2 week walk but I at least knew the routes to get there.

In a TEOTWAWKI situation if you are at your retreat in the winter you will probably also get into a routine. That could be both good and bad. Think security and mix the times up so ambush is harder for the goons to set up.

Winter set in, an in my second winter in the cabin, it did not take long to get into my routine. Every day starts the same. At approximately 6:00 A.M. The alarm clock goes off. What I mean the stove has only a few coals left and the cabin is freezing so I have to get up and stoke the fire. Then step outside into the extreme cold. Cut a log into rounds and this is done in the dark. Then go down to the lake still in the dark (batteries for the flashlight are too precious to waste and so is gas for the lantern) carefully chip the ice around each of five fishing lines with a hatchet. Pull up the hook hoping for a burbut (fresh water ling cod) reset the bait, haul water back to the cabin. If I had not caught a fish for breakfast then on the meat pole next to the cabin I used the saw and cut off a frozen chunk of caribou. Still dark and I am cold, step into the cabin warm up my frozen hands, dry my gloves and cook breakfast on the wood stove. Then put the dutch oven with beans, lentils or rice on the wood stove to rehydrate while I am gone for the day. Pack my lunch: two pancakes with a slab of cooked caribou meat in the middle, also put one tablespoon of tang into my insulated water bottle then fill it with hot water from the pot on the stove. Warm tang makes a nice mid morning warm up on the trail and is a source of Vitamin C.

As it is just starting to get light strap on the snow shoes and head out pulling the sled. If it has not snowed I can walk on top of the packed trail with the snow shoes on the sled.

The day is spent dragging the sled checking and resetting traps while constantly looking for a wolf, fox or wolverine to shoot. During each day I must also find a dry standing dead spruce tree to cut down and limb with the ax then using the sled haul it back to the cabin. Must always be on my main trail with everything tied onto the sled before it is completely dark. Days are short: the mid-winter sun is only up for 4 ½ hrs. I used my flashlight is only for emergencies.

Following a packed trail is easy in the dark just remember to get behind the sled on any downhill or the sled will hit you in the back of your legs and could break a snowshoe or your leg. Usually get back to the cabin long after dark.

Lesson # 11 Cross country skis are no substitute for snow shoes.

The snow shoes at the cabin were old and on the last legs of useful life. Instead of bringing a new set of snow shoes I had purchased a new set of back country cross country skis to the cabin. I thought I would use the snow shoes as a backup. Learned that skis are not as good to work on as snow shoes for doing chores or trapping. Skis have a place and can save time but are not a replacement for snow shoes. In snow country snow shoes are essential and skis are a nice luxury.

Each night when I finally arrive at the cabin I am tired and hungry. First thing is to start the fire then fix dinner. After dinner if I was lucky that day I can light the lantern and skin whatever I had trapped or shot after it has thawed. 9:15 PM is the highlight of the day! I get to listen to the AM radio for 45 minutes.

Lesson #8 and had brought a radio this time. Always hoping Caribou Clatters has a message for me from my family. Allow myself 45 minutes to read by lantern or candle light. 11:00 PM re-stoke the fire and collapse on the bed. The radio, dinner and sleep are the reward of a day’s hard work. Around 2:30 AM the fire has burned to just a few coals and I get cold, get up put more wood on and go back to sleep. The next thing I know it is 6:00 AM the fire has burned to just a few coals and it is freezing in the cabin and the day starts all over again.

Lesson #12 In a cold winter climate Use no oil in the bolt or trigger assembly of your rifle as it may freeze. I tried to shoot at a wolf (a wolf hide was then worth $450) when I pulled the trigger on my rifle it only went click. The firing pin would not strike the primer with enough force to set off the primer. After the second try and another click the wolf ran off and out of range. That was only an expensive lesson. In a TEOTWAWKI it could have been some one shooting at me and I would have had a useless rifle.

On my daily trips to check the fishing lines and get water I knew the ice was 28” thick and still getting thicker each week. A December day the temp was -27 F and I was crossing the outlet end of a small lake to check out some tracks. Not worrying as I thought the ice was 28” thick everywhere I fell through the ice and found myself waist deep in water. This was two miles from my cabin It was all I could do to make it to the cabin.

Lesson #13 any out let or inlet of a frozen lake may have thin ice also a warm spring or other things can cause thin ice. The fire was out in my stove and no coals were left. I had a very hard time getting a fire started and as a last resort used white gas and almost burned down the cabin.

Lesson #14 have the kindling and all the fixings of a fire ready any time you leave your cabin. You never know when someone may be at the end of their strength and need to get a fire going.

One evening in early January I returned to the cabin to find a note and care package on the table from the bush pilot. The pilot had brought me a bag of oranges, a fruit cake and a newspaper. He also left three letters from my family. It was if I had won the lottery

As the snow got deeper during the winter I started finding that many animals liked to use my packed trail. I learned never underestimate the danger of a moose particularly in the winter if they are on a packed trail they may charge you instead of going into deep snow. I had a cow moose chase me up a tree then stomp my on sled and break one of my snow shoes.

Lesson #15 Moose are dangerous, especially late winter

In early February I came across Grizzly tracks in the snow. I was shocked as I thought that bears would be in the den all winter. I followed the tracks and found the bear had made a moose kill.

Lesson # 16 Grizzly bears and black bears do not truly hibernate and may be out of the den during any month of the year. Over the years I learned if a bear is away from his den in the winter it will be hungry and grumpy.

As a kid I loved watching western movies. It seemed to me cowboys wore their handgun in a low slung fast draw holster and I thought that was cool. The western style fast draw holsters I tried in the bush were useless. I now see that some law enforcement and military teams are using a thigh mounted holster. I am not disputing the tactical points of that method but if you are working in the woods you will occasionally fall into snow or mud. That is when you want your hand gun in a full flap holster or in a normal holster worn under the last layer of clothing. Getting your hand gun into your hand fast is of no use if it will not fire when you need it.

Lesson #18 Select holsters that will allow you to comfortably carry your hand gun with you at all times and will protect the weapon from the elements. I have tried over 40 different holsters and method of carrying my handgun. I strongly suggest you experiment now on how to carry your own handgun. Find something that works for you. I presently use three different holsters:

In March, the bush pilot landed on the frozen lake with 400 lbs of supplies. He helped me put the food into the steel drums for the next trapping season then flew me back to town.

I had spent 160 days alone in the bush trapping. I sold my furs to the fur buyer in Anchorage. After paying the bush pilot for the supplies and flights to the cabin and back I had cleared $2,700.

I learned a lot that winter and over the years refined the old trappers list to keep me well fed and a lot happier.

A More Complete Supply List

After my experiences the first two winters, I composed the following list. This is for one man for five to six months. It was refined for my personal taste and needs in the Alaska bush. The old trapper that I got my first list from made do with a lot less than what I took. This list is tried and true and not a just theory that someone made up. I had around 200 traps and ran the line on snowshoes, foot and skis. Cut my firewood by hand (no chain saw) and hauled my water from the lake in buckets. It was hard work 12-15 hours a day 7 days a week and I burned a lot of calories. Using the following list I ate well and always had plenty of supplies left in the spring:


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