I’VE NEVER BEEN here before. Hell, I’ve never been to Alaska before. Talk about big. I thought Maine covered more territory than I could possibly explore. This place? Miles of tundra, mountains that would literally take your breath away. I mean if you hankered to climb them, you’d need oxygen to breath. We weren’t doing that!
Curt and the boys from the Maine Big Game Hunting Club convinced me to spend the money and take the trip. Curt had been there before and emoted about the big state. They were so animated that Bob and I caught the fever. Little did I know.
Okay, so Curt Travers, Bob Fleece and me, that’s Jack Berson – I’m telling the story here – we prepare and put our affairs in order for an extended trip, you know? Packing to hunt in Alaska is not exactly the same as in the lower forty-eight. Plenty of books and brochures point out the what and why of it.
We catch a United Airlines flight to Anchorage, We get there safe, “flying the friendly skies” and all, pretty boring, but anticipation keeps us on our game. At the airport we find a small hanger, name above it and a sign below that, Flights to Anywhere in Alaska. The plane’s small and comes with a wild looking local prop jockey, guy named Randy Bull.
I’m the one says prop jockey.
“We call them bush pilots up here; take off and land on a 150 foot runway if need be.” He laughs.
“We want to fly up to Nenana Airport,” Curt says. Nenana is only ten miles or so north of Northern Sky Lodge where we’re going.
Randy frowns. “No can do. It’s closed for a few days, hanger fire. I’ll fly you to Clear Airport up near Anderson. You can get a car there to the lodge. Heard of the place; about fifty miles.
That didn’t seem bad. Fifty miles isn’t much in Maine. “Deal!”
Randy flies us to the airport. He’s not cheap but we know everything’s expensive up here. He earns his money in the changeable weather we run into on the way. Guy’s unflappable. I stop wondering about him being a prop jockey. We land, unload and get us a four wheel drive Jeep for off road. My Alaska map says Clear Lodge is pretty nearby.
“Why not stop here, Curt? It’s close and the territory’s wild enough,” I say.
“Nah. I got it on good authority that Northern Sky Lodge is the place to step off for hunting wolves. That’s what you wanted, right?”
“Stick with me, buddy. I won’t steer you wrong,” he says. “Alaska’s sectioned off for bear and moose and all the other big stuff. 20C, that’s the area we want. Season’s been cut to April 1st, but we’re under the wire on that. We’ll be fine.”
Bob drives. He doesn’t talk a lot. I sit in the rear seat and squirm this way and that seeing first only sights along the way. I find it exhilarating. Highway 3 is a good road. Alaska winters are hard on all roads, but the maintenance people keep up with it, seeing as there are so few highways, and considering the state’s over a half million square miles large.
I’m pumped. The others look pleased, too. We’re gonna have a great time, bag the limit and bring home trophies for the other club members to drool over.
That’s the plan. Ever hear how plans can oft times go astray? Me, too. Northern Sky Lodge is clean and well kept. It’s rustic, log cabin style and comfortable. The owners are Alaska stock. We discover they are selling the place. Just as an aside, I ask why.
“Wife and I want to retire and move south,” Brad Stepel, the owner says. He’s a big fellow and he looks capable. He’s wearing what I call tundra wear, loose cut heavy denim trousers with cargo pockets and a wool long sleeved red-checkered shirt. I can’t see his feet, but I’d bet he wears size twelve hunting boots 24/7. Behind him hanging on hooks on the knotty pine wall is a repeating rifle heavy enough to bring down elephants. I look and look away.
“But it’s so beautiful here,” I say. I don’t exactly have a bad feeling, but I want to conclude our check-in and get to my room. The guy is borderline scary.
“We’ve had the place for years and we’re ready. You interested?”
“Just wondering.” That ends the conversation. We get adjoining rooms and settle in for our week.
Marta’s his wife. She’s a small woman, careworn and no longer pretty. She looks hardened by the place she lives in and maybe for the life she leads, who knows. She also looks – what – a little weird maybe? She doesn’t speak at all. Her husband’s the player. We ignore her.
Once removed from the hulking presence of the owner, we lighten up. Curt doesn’t seem bothered and Bob grunts and grins when I air my immediate concerns with them.
“Jesus, Jack, you gone paranoid?”
“No, just got some vibes you clowns missed is all.”
“Shit, there’s three of us. What’s he gonna do?”
“Yeah? Well, I’m locking my door and my windows tonight.”
They look at me funny, but there’s nothing else.
Bob speaks up. “Let’s figure out what we’re going to do.” He looks at his digital watch.
Curt says, “Look, it’s three o’clock, late winter time. That means we don’t have much more light. Let’s find a place for a few brews and get a good night’s sleep. Take a few to set up your packs for tomorrow and meet me in the lobby. You okay with that?”
We both say “Yeah, sure.” We separate and spend time, leave and lock our rooms and Curt is there when we arrive.
“I just asked Bart here where we could get a drink. No place close, he tells me, but he keeps beer around for guests, $6.00 a bottle. There’s a small lounge over there.” He points. “You good with that?”
“Steep for beer.” Bob says.
“You know nothing’s cheap up here.”
Bob looks cross for a second but nods. Brad walks in and unlocks his small bar.
“Take what you like and I’ll bill you later.”
“Sounds fair,” Curt says and reaches for a cold one. Bob follows and I grab one. The stuffed chairs are comfortable and we trade stories and we’re blitzed before we know it. Around ten-thirty we’ve had enough. I’d lined up the bottles all evening, kind of anal. I smile stupidly at my impressive assembly.
Brad is back in the private part of the lodge behind the desk. I see him sitting in a chair. I see him look at us from the corner of my eye as we head for our rooms. He’s staring. As I unlock my room I glance up. Unsmiling Marta is looking down the hallway at me. Maybe I am paranoid, but I don’t like what I’m feeling.
We’re pretty drunk and we crash right away, except I’m bothered so I can’t sleep. I can hear Bob snoring through the wall. I have the end room farthest from the lobby. Curt could be snoring too, but I wouldn’t know. I glance at the clock on the nightstand, eleven-fifteen.
My eyes finally start to get heavy, when I hear Bob stop snoring and then I hear a muffled scream. Something is not all right. I’m out of bed and heading for the door when the image of Brad’s face looms in front of me.
So I’m crazy. I get my rifle and chamber a bullet, go to my bed and sit there, my back against the headboard. I hold my rifle at the ready, aimed at the door. I’m scared shitless. I hear a click at the door and a key fumble in the lock, slow and quiet. I picture Bob in the next room dead, killed by this lodge owner driven mad by the loneliness of living far from anywhere, acting out some nightmare in his mind, who knows what or why.
The door opens a crack, then more and in the dim glow of the hallway nightlight, I see Marta, butcher knife in her raised hand as she rushes toward my bed clearly intent on murder.
I shake and tears come and I gulp and fire, but my aim is true. The thirty-ought six slug intended for my first gray wolf smashes into her chest. It blows her out into the corridor. She’s dead before she hits the floor.
I know she’s killed my buddies. I can sense it. I must find out, but what about Brad Stepel? He heard the shot. He must have. What would he do?
I wait. There is no other choice. Yes, there is. I get off the bed. In my bare feet I walk to the bathroom. I load another cartridge into the chamber. He’ll have a gun. It’s him or me.
I hear rapid footsteps. They stop at Marta’s body. There begins a keening wail so incongruous that for a moment I can’t fathom it. The sound goes on a long time. Stepel is grieving. Then, mixed in with the owner’s sound I pick out a siren.
Did Brad call the State Police? He must have. I pad to the door, rifle still ready. Once past the partially open door I see him on the corridor floor, covered in Marta’s blood, cradling her head.
Through his sobbing, he manages a few halting words. “Mr. Berson, she went off her meds. I didn’t know. There were no signs.”
He looks down at the bloody knife on the floor next to Marta. He begins to shake. The siren stops abruptly, and I hear the Lodge door slam. Footsteps; Brad’s name called. Silence, then a big trooper appears, gun drawn. I hear him shout.
“Drop the rifle, mister.”
I have a live round chambered, safety off. I slowly lean down and lay the weapon on the floor, my other hand held high, palm open. The Trooper watches me closely.
“Brad, what happened here?”
“Hey, Tom, not his fault. Marta went crazy. Check the two adjoining rooms. She probably killed the other guests.”
The Trooper asks me to put the safety on and hand him the rifle. I do. A quick check reveals what I fear most.
“Both dead. Sorry, mister.”
I give him my story and he accepts it. Self-defense. My turn to break down. My legs are jelly and I slide down the other wall and grieve.
I’m home now. The flight took far too long. My report at the gun club left a quiet, somber audience. I look back. I wanted to bring down a wolf and I killed a human being. They accepted my resignation.
That’s the end of my story, all but a memory I have to live with forever.