We rose before dawn and stepped out beneath a moonless sky aswarm with stars. It would have been beautiful, even majestic, if we hadn’t been thoroughly lost.
What had started as a hunting expedition had turned into a nightmare the moment a strong gust of crosswind hit the Dehavilin Beaver as the floats were touching down. The wing dipped into the water and the plane began somersaulting over the surface of the lake.
The pilot David, and Jerry, a hunter from Minnesota, did not survive the crash. David was the guide and the one who knew the area we were to be hunting. He had grown up in this area of Alaska and we were going to be dependent on his knowledge for a successful hunt. Now he was gone.
My other two companions in nightmare were Joey, a talker from New Jersey, and Dane, a strong silent type from Texas. Joey never shut up as far as I could tell; he began whining the minute we were safe on the bank. Dane never talked as far as I could tell; he hadn’t even said anything when I was introduced to him.
In our struggle to get safely to shore we had managed to salvage almost none of our equipment. Dane had his big Bowie knife. Joey had grabbed a tarp in a plastic bag that he had used as a flotation aid. I had nothing but my wits, and they were unravelling fast.
Joey, full of words, had immediately began making suggestions even as we were still dripping lake water.
“We should head downhill, downstream. Civilization will be near the ocean.”
I countered with what I thought was impeccable logic, “We have no idea how far we are from the ocean.”
Dane said nothing.
“Do you have a better idea, then?”
“No, you’re right, let’s head downstream.”
We walked until near sundown, staying near the stream descending from the lake and heading for, we hoped, the ocean. Dane, without a word of course, suddenly grabbed the tarp from Joey and headed up into the woods away from the stream. We raced to catch up.
Still wordless, he spread the tarp out on the ground between some small saplings after using his knife to cut down two smaller ones in between. He took off his boots and began to remove the shoestrings from them. Using the strings, he tied the upper ends of the tarp to saplings, making the beginning of a lean-to. When it was obvious he needed more strings to tie the bottom of the tarp to keep it taut, he just turned and looked at me without a word. That was when I realized he must be mute. I removed the shoestrings from my boots and helped him tie the bottom of the tarp to the base of two other saplings.
During this entire episode Joey kept up a constant string of objections and questions. All were ignored by Dane. Still mute, he began to gather pine needles and moss from around the lean-to and place them inside the lean-to, all on the left hand side. Joey whined the entire time.
I caught on quickly and began to gather my own pine needles for my own mattress. I took the middle of the lean-to. Joey didn’t catch on until after Dane and I had both laid down for the evening. He gathered his own ’mattress’ with very little light to help, grumbling the whole time.
~ ~ ~
The next morning the beautiful moonless sky was unappreciated. We were lost in Alaska and I was terrified. Civilization could be a hundred miles away as far as we knew.
We resumed following the stream. It had a couple of smaller streams join it and began to resemble a small river. We heard rapids before we came around the bend to see them. What we didn’t hear before we saw it was the bear.
It was an Alaskan Brown bear, the king of the grizzlies. It had to be at least eight feet tall and weigh a ton. It moved with an agility surprising for such a behemoth. My first awareness that it was even near was seeing a blur of brown and grey as it charged Joey. I have to give Joey credit for consistency, he was still talking at the end. He was cussing the bear with spectacular Jersey flair even as he died.
Dane and I ran back the way we had come. The only clear footing was near the river so we followed it. I am pretty fast even when not highly motivated and I was in the lead. That was when I heard Dane make the first sound I had heard him make. It was a scream, but not a scream of pain. It was a scream of anger, no, not anger, a challenge.
I turned to see that he had moved into the river. Waist deep in water, he pulled his big knife, and was screaming to attract the bear’s attention. My God, he was challenging it to a fight!
The bear charged into the water. Dane dove downstream and began to swim for his life. The bear raced after him. Dane, it turns out, is a very fine swimmer. With the direction of the water aiding his effort, and the bear being impeded by the water, the race was close. They disappeared around the bend in a dead heat.
I am not ashamed to admit it took almost an hour of silence before I followed. Dane was maybe a quarter mile down stream, walking toward me. Coming back for me. Too bad he was mute as I was really curious where the hell the bear had gone.
I had to say something so I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so selfless.”
He said, “It’s nothing.”