A Different World
Oil lamps and the smell of fresh coffee, a fire in the wood stove and Charlie in the kitchen casting lead balls—I sat in Charlie Bierman's living room last Thursday, talked to him, his wife and two other muzzleloaders about building rifles, politics and the wolf-killed moose at the end of the ridge. It was zero outside and snowing, wind blowing, a ground blizzard keeping me from returning home.
This is the quiet season, that period after the late moose season and before sandhill cranes return when I live in a different world, an indoor world. Although a few shooters will bust clay birds this coming weekend, and a few others will seek migrating ptarmigan on the higher domes despite concentrations of birds remaining spotty (hare and grouse populations remain low) for me this is when I read catalogues, remember the one that got away, order a new barrel for next year's trade gun frolic, forge and haft a knife for a blanket shoot, and maybe this winter, carve the Northwest Coast style wood trencher for which Robin Karnes paid however many years ago.
The drifting snow covered the previous day's tracks as Charlie's wife, Alena, worried aloud about whether the wolf pack would return. The pack probably followed the migrating caribou herd through the outlying parts of the city. For the past couple of weeks, caribou have wandered the ridges between Fairbanks and Fox; they have darted across sled trails and rush hour traffic; they have stood on ice-covered centerlines and stared dumbfounded at the encroaching suburbs and at the wide-eyed children in stopped vehicles who are experiencing their first winter North.
Alena seemed certain the wolves will return to their kill. She feared her penned horse might be vulnerable, and as she added wood to the fire, quietly roaring orange behind glass stove doors, she told about sled dogs taken by wolves and wolverines a decade, two decades ago right here at the edge of town.
The Biermans don't have electricity. Theirs is a different world from even mine. Theirs lacks the harsh examination of life that incandescent bulbs afford. Theirs is softened by flickers and crackles that stir primordial memories, muted by generations of earnestness in suburbia America. Most of us have to snowmachine or ski to remote cabins before we so thoroughly escape CNN or Wall Street Week or telephone solicitations. Most never find time to tell stories or cast lead balls, which is why Bass Pro Shops offer both for sale.
"Did I ever," Alena asked, "tell you about the raven that hitchhiked rides on city buses?" I shook my head no, and she continued: "It would hook its feet over a seam across the roof of a bus and ride all over town. Conserved energy."
"Are you sure it wasn't just trying to kept its feet warm?"
"It did this summer and winter. It was hitchhiking a ride on my uncle's truck when Moose & Goose stopped him, accused him of cruelty to the raven. He insisted that he hadn't put the raven on top of his truck. They didn't believe him until it flew off and caught a ride on a VolksWagon van with Colorado plates."
"What did they do then?"
"I don't remember."
Traditionally, winter means I can prop my feet in front of the stove and relax and not worry about whether there is something I haven't remembered to do. Unfortunately, yearround wage-paying jobs necessitate clearing driveways with a snow blower on which monthly payments are being made. Winter becomes a hassle. Getting to work develops into a war against nature. And Al Gore blames global warming on us for doing those things necessary to fight its effects as nations clamber to join this global Catch-22 of jobs and prosperity.
Since Grandpa Kizer, after chores, used to prop his feet beside a stove and read Scripture, houses have grown like children. They are larger than their parents'; softer, more comfortable. And it now takes two wage earners to support them.
A while back, I looked up Bass Pro Shops' web site; I wanted to order a catalogue. But before they would let me, they wanted to know what activities I did on a regular basis, regular defined as two or more times a year. I wasn't sure how to answer. Of course I fish two or more times a year. I spend weeks at a time camped beside a salmon stream. When my daughters were younger I used to can two hundred or more pints of filets a year—I still keep a fish or two to eat, especially ones that have been deeply hooked. But, no, I don't use much of the camping gear they sell. That gear is for people who only camp two times a year. I camp with a wall tent, a sheet-iron stove, a couple of Dutch ovens, an iron frying pan, an enameled coffee pot. What more does a person need? I bought two Coleman single-mantle gas lanterns thirty years ago, one of which still works, and a double mantle lantern fifteen years ago. It still works. I have used automotive gas in them from the beginning: it's a little corrosive, but I figure for the difference between what I pay at the pump and what Wal-Mart wants for a gallon of Coleman fuel I can afford to replace a lantern every few years. And now, my wife (Carolyn) wants me to leave those gas lanterns at home and only take candle lanterns, French ones at that (she is an 18th-Century French reenactess when attending rendezvous).
Years ago when I passed through Woodland, Washington, I stopped at a rod manufacture, and I bought an armload of obsolete blanks and blank seconds. Two, three dollars apiece. I made up rods from those blanks, and yes, some of them now need replaced, one reason for me ordering a catalogue. However, I really wanted their catalogue to see what lure colors are selling. I'm still trying to solve how to, on lures I make for my use, match the brighter colors offered on store-bought varieties.
Tackle catalogues are, for me, wish-books like seed catalogues. None of us in Fairbanks will plant sweet corn outdoors, but I read descriptions of varieties available. I can almost taste some of those varieties just as I can imagine what it would be like to catch a bass on a lure as ridiculous as a buzzbait—I might be able to catch a pike on Minto Flats using such a lure, but I'm not likely to try.
For Bass Pro Shops information, yes, I hunt with muzzleloading rifles, but I have no interest in handicapping myself with an in-line rifle. If I want direct ignition, I'd shoot an underhammer or a mule-ear. But I use a breech of my own manufacture on the plains-style rifles I build and hunt with. In thirty years, I have never had ignition problems so I see no reason to give away six hundred feet a second of round ball velocity to shoot a pistol bullet in a rifle that is harder to load than any original.
As for archery, I don't hunt often with a bow. Twice a year? Perhaps. But I won't buy something to only use it twice a year, not when I hunt on and off for five months of every year with highpower and muzzleloading rifles.
In Charlie's kitchen, by the light of his oil lamps, life seemed so much simpler than it is under the harshness of incandescent bulbs. And while the analogy is a little stretched, how did English archers win at Agincourt without pulley bows? Those armored French knights must have been easier to kill than a whitetail buck from a tree stand.
Charlie has no electric bill, no bill for natural gas, no TV cable bill, not even a bill from an Internet access server. He grows his own potatoes, cabbage, carrots. His moose came from five miles away. But he is not trying to isolate himself from this modern world; for the horses Alena worries about are her Akhal-Tekes, worth approximately forty thousand a head. They are, and are descended from the first animals allowed out of the Soviet Union. They are also one of the most ancient of breeds.
Perhaps it takes a little different sort of a person to voluntarily live without electricity and raise horses that aren't Tennessee Walkers or Quarter Horses. Perhaps it takes a different sort to, in the quiet of dark winter days, talk horses, cast balls, fill depleted pattern boxes with simple egg-imitation patterns for catching trout and salmon, and with those gawdy patterns that capture the awe of other fishermen. Perhaps it is a different sort who plans next year's hunting and fishing trips rather than worries about how next month's bills will get paid. If a person doesn't pay them, what will happen? Electricity gets turned off?
Charlie, a gunsmith for DownUnder Guns, wants to take a Dall sheep with a flintlock although his wife wants him to concentrate on moose. I would hunt with him except I plan to again fish silvers on Kodiak during the regular moose season. I would like to be in two and more places at once, but paradoxes can only exist in literary worlds. I live in a real world even if it is different from my brothers' world.
On dark days when wood has been cut and a path to the outhouse shoveled, Charlie and I have time to yearn for an undefined tomorrow. Once I opened my gunshop there along Oregon's Siletz River, I never imagined not being a gunmaker, never imagined living near Fairbanks, never imagined myself as part of a university community.
The art of weaponry has about it an aura of primitive beauty, and the zenith of its beauty might well be the long rifle, an efficient tool for killing that while more austere than its European counterpart is nonetheless pleasing to the eye and pleasurable to hold. Gunmaking is, perhaps, our admission that we are a little less civilized than we would like to acknowledge.
Dark winter days give me time to observe a world of life missed at sixty miles an hour. But on that evening in Charlie's kitchen, with him casting lead balls for his flinter, he said the only wildlife he wanted to observe would be in his sights—Charlie boxed a hundred lead balls, enough for this weekend's shoot. If the temperature isn't too cold and if it doesn't snow too much, he and a few other muzzleloading hunters, in preparation for next year's moose season, plan to shoot their large caliber rifles and muskets, .58s through .75s, at 38-mile on the Steese Highway tomorrow. But if the temperature falls farther or if it keeps snowing, he will cast more balls and everyone will wait until next week.
One dark winter day is as good as another in the margins of civilization.