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LAST FRONTIER OF THE YUKON TERRITORY—TEETH, CLAWS AND ANTLERS TO THE DEATH

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By Frosty Wooldridge

 

“The hard life that never knows harness;

The wilds where the caribou call;

The freshness, the freedom, the farness–

Oh God! How I’m stuck on it all.”

Robert Service

 

Ramshackled buildings with wooden boardwalks lined the streets as we pedaled into Dawson City, Yukon on a hot July day. Stooped shouldered, craggy-faced prospectors shuffled along in the dirt without giving us a nod. Bowie knives hung from their belts and they gripped rifles in their hands as easily as a Chicago businessman carries a briefcase. Their faces reflected the rough life that hadn’t changed since the days of Jack London.

Ever an optimist, but I didn’t know how anyone could live in that place where the winter winds bit like driven nails.

My brother Rex purchased a gold pan and caught up with me at the Klondike Grocery Store. I crammed apples into my panniers.

“Ready to camp?” Rex asked. “I’m itchin’ to hit the stream for some gold panning.”

“The storekeeper said we could find a place a mile from here on a tributary of the Yukon,” I said.

“This buckeroo is gonna’ make the big strike,” Rex said, joking.

We pedaled our fully loaded mountain bikes out of town to an abandoned path overgrown with bushes. The rutted trail led through deep woods and several times, we got off the bikes to hoist them over fallen trees. We followed the path down a ravine until it stopped at a wide, shallow stream lined with brush and trees. A sandbar stood in the middle of the slowly gliding current. It proved one of those places where tranquility kept a vigil and only the whisper of the wind broke the silence.

“This is the perfect place to start the next Klondike gold rush,” Rex said, slapping his pan. “You want first chance?”

“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll set up the tents.”

Rex took off his shoes and waded into the water. I pulled the panniers from our bikes, pitched the tents and had camp set up in 30 minutes. After starting a fire with deadwood, I boiled some water for tea.

With a steaming cup in one hand, I grabbed my journal and walked down to the river’s edge. Sitting against a rock with my socks off, I wasn’t paying much attention to my gold panning brother. Overhead, white clouds skidded across the sky and a cool wind whispered through the pine trees. This was a serene place—the dark soil, the rocks, and a pine-scented forest—and beyond, a river that crawled between sandy banks like escaped quicksilver.

“You rich yet?” I yelled at Rex as he dumped another pan-full of muddy water.

“Any minute now,” he said, standing up to rub his shoulders. “This gold panning is hard on my back.”

Rex continued his task while I wrote a few lines in my journal. That journal had been a part of my bicycling travels for 40 years, but every time I began scribbling, I still wondered what to write. That shatteringly beautiful waterfall we had seen last night, turned to molten gold by the sun? The slow dark glide of that bald eagle on his dinner patrol? The salmon lashing upstream toward birth and death?

So absorbed in my thoughts, I only partially heard the harsh crackling of nearby brush and breaking limbs. But what happened next brought me leaping to my feet and turned my blood to ice. The journal fell from my hands.

Terrifying roars and bellows filled the air, and sounds of snapping limbs echoed across the river. Whatever it was, it was BIG—and the battle being joined.

“What the hell was that?” Rex shouted, dropping his pan and scrambling out of the water.

“I’m not sure,” I said, as he stopped beside me, breathing hard.

“I don’t think we should wait around,” Rex said—and at that moment a bull moose stumbled into view, head erect and blood blackening on his torn shoulder. He lowered his rack, as an enormous grizzly rushed at him and swatted the antlers aside. The grizzly charged with his thick neck lowered and extended, and his jaws opened wide as he lunged for the moose’s throat. Somehow, the moose avoided the grizzly’s teeth, and dug in his haunches so that the muscles in his legs were cable-tight. He countered with a lunge at the bear’s chest. Horn ripped through his brown hide, hit bone—and the grizzly roared, but the killing lust consumed on him.

In he charged again, half-rearing on his hind legs, both paws swatting at the moose like a boxer, staggering the animal. The moose bellowed, gave ground, came back again—and suddenly both animals reared, hooves to fangs, one desperate to live, the other intent on killing.

“Let’s get out of here,” I whispered. “Leave the gear. We’ll get it later. This is no time to worry about the small stuff.”

Rex needed no urging, and although every nerve in my body—and probably Rex’s—screamed at me to run like hell, I forced myself to walk my bike into the tree line. There, back in the shadows, we watched the brutal drama unfolding on Nature’s stage.

The moose suffered the worst of things, yet he battled gallantly, keeping his antlered head low and catching the grizzly each time it charged. But the bear resembled the size of a VW Beetle, almost as heavy and as solid as the moose. He towered higher when he stood—so that he could strike downward with his razor sharp claws, ripping his prey’s shoulders like a toreador lancing the forequarters of a bull to weaken it—and make it lower its head for the matador’s sword thrust.

A bull moose weighs 1,000 pounds and a grizzly can reach 900 to 1,000 pounds. These two seemed evenly matched in size—which meant the bear, with his four-inch claws and two-inch teeth, carried an advantage. Barring some stupid move, like allowing his jugular to be pierced by an antler, the grizzly’s victory could not be doubted.

From our hidden vantage-point, looking out between the limbs of trees, we saw bright rivulets of blood running down the bear’s chest. The moose looked a pitiful sight—staggering with weariness, backed into the shallows where the water turned reddish brown, and a large piece of antler broke off by one mighty blow from the grizzly’s paw. In charged the bear again, roaring at fever pitch, almost a scream, and the exhausted moose bellowed back its defiance.

Now, however, the battle’s balance shifted. The bear’s sharp claws ripped into the moose’s ribs, laying them bare. Then the bear sank his teeth sank into the moose’s neck, and only by a supreme effort—the moose shook the bear off again.

I didn’t want to watch any more, yet my fascinated eyes scanned the scene—ready for the final drama. After five minutes that seemed like hours, the bear made one last head down charge—and sent the moose sprawling into the river. The moose made a final bellow, a last exhausted attempt to rise, but fell helpless. The grizzly grabbed him by the throat, and the moose thrashed erratically for a minute, then died.

“Oh, my God,” Rex whispered, gripping my arm.

The bear held his grip until the moose stopped quivering. Then, raising his massive anvil-shaped head, he let out a roar that shivered the forest air, and began feeding.

I felt as Rex did, as any human being would—a frightening scene. Savage violence unleashed beside a beautiful stream in the wilderness. Yet no one committed a crime. Life sustains life!

The grizzly, blood mixed with froth lathering his jaw, raised his head and looked right at us. Whether the wind had shifted or not, we needed to vacate the premises.

“Come on,” I whispered. “Let’s get back to town, not that anyone there is going to believe what we saw.”

In the morning, we rode back to find our gear still intact, but on the sandbar a partly devoured moose carcass remained as the only indication of the battle.

In silence, we folded the tents and packed our gear.

“I guess you’re out of a gold pan,” I said.

“I don’t care,” Rex said. “Money can’t buy what we saw yesterday.”

We pedaled our way out of the woods. The gravel road wound through the mountains like a lazy serpent, bending and slithering its way along the Yukon River. We pedaled our bikes up a long grade to the ‘Top Of The World Highway’. No telling what lay ahead. That’s the way it’s been for my bicycle and me—always the promise of a new adventure around the next bend….

The summer no sweeter than ever,

The sunshiny woods all athrill;

The grayling aleap in the River,

The big horn asleep on the hill;

It’s that big, broad land way up yonder,

It’s the forests where silence has lease;

It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

It’s the strong life that never knows harness,

It’s the wilds where the caribou call;

It’s the freshness, the freedom, the farness,

Oh God! How I’m stuck on it all. Robert Service

 

##

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as 15 times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. He is the author of: Handbook for Touring Bicyclists; Bicycling the Continental Divide: Slice of Heaven, Taste of Hell; Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks for Your Imagination; Old Men Bicycling Across America: A Journey Beyond Old Age; Zen Between Two Bicycle Wheels: Eat, Pedal Sleep, on Amazon.com and/or direct copy 1 888 519 5121

 

 

 



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