Alaskan legend has it that once the snowbirds head south, ice worms rise from their summer sleep deep within the permafrost to begin a relentless attack upon the mortals left behind. The worms attach themselves onto any exposed flesh like a leech and proceed to suck the heat from it . . . leaving in it’s wake a trail of gray dead skin.
Jimmy the Indian loved to tell stories about his beloved Alaska and keep the legends alive. The ice worm was one of his favorite characters, especially for us guys who’d just wandered into the north country. At break time we’d be hanging around the fire pit trying to get warm when Jimmy would wander over and begin yet another story focused on his favorite pal, he must have had a hundred of them. He also claimed to have had a few close calls with the worm himself, so to him it was an enemy demanding much respect.
But for the moment I wasn’t much concerned with respecting legends. I just knew my feet were numb and my double gloved hands burned with pain after spending too many hours wrapped around the frozen, steel casing of a nail gun. I was damn cold as I waited impatiently for the foreman to give up trying to thaw the compressor and let us go home.
Finally he gave the word and the whole crew jumped to. I quickly packed my tools in the pickup, begged and pleaded the old engine to start until it finally roared into life. I left the construction site at three o’clock in the afternoon and already I needed headlights to guide me as I pulled onto the snow covered, gravel road and headed south.
A couple of miles down the empty road amidst scrubby pines and frozen tundra sat the log lodge I’d passed that morning on my way up from Anchorage. The long drive had been a bit much for the old pickup so I planned on saving myself the aggravation and room there for the couple of weeks it would take to frame a house we’d just started.
Once reaching my destination I pulled into the small parking area. Light emanating from the lodge’s windows cast a golden hue across the purple-blue snow, a welcome far more enticing than the half lit neon sign hanging by the road. I parked, plugged the truck’s engine heater into one of the electric outlets lining the front of the wrap around porch. The thermometer hanging beside the steps read -8°.
Grabbing my duffel bag from the truck’s passenger seat, I crunched up the frozen steps and pulled open a heavy log door. Upon entering the lobby I stood there for a moment stamping the snow off my feet and enjoying the sudden change in temperature. I was looking forward to a warm meal, a couple of beers and a long, hot shower.
A young girl sitting behind the centrally located counter lifted her eyes from a book she was reading and gave me a large smile. “Hi.” She said. “Can I help you?”
“Hi, yeah, I’d like to rent a room for a couple of weeks if I could.”
“Ok, got a real nice one just down the hall, first door to your left. 350.00 a week. Want it?”
I nodded my head, “yes mam, I sure do.”She accepted my cash and handed me a key to the room. I thanked her, bid her a good evening and headed down the hallway. I found the room to be more than sufficient and was actually quite pleased with it. I stashed my gear and made my way back to the lobby.
On the opposite side was an archway leading into a small, cozy log beamed lounge. The room had a number of eating tables spread around and a large stone fireplace built into the back wall. Down the right side of the room sat a long, slab wood covered bar. Except for the three guys sitting at the bar the place was empty. I chose a small table close to the large, crackling fireplace, sat down facing the door and began to unwind.
A few minutes later a scruffy old man with a long white beard and a balding head limped over on one good leg and placed a glass of water on the table. His cheekbones bore a grayish cast to them, but it was the large, watery, dead spot covering his nose that attracted the most attention.
“What’ll you have, sonny?” the rugged-looking old timer asked.
“Give me a burger, French fries, and a cup of coffee, please. And put a double shot of Jack Daniels in the coffee if you would.”
“Sure nuff,” the old timer said and ambled off. He returned minutes later with the spiked coffee.
It was very good and it was hot. The alcohol spread through my belly immediately and by the time the food came my countenance had taken on a lovely mellow glow.
“Here you go sonny.” The old guy sat the large plate before me. “Anything else?”
The burger looked good. The French fries were the largest I’d ever seen. Some of those babies were at least 8 inches long. I picked one up to study it.
“Grow em in the Matanuska Valley,” he said, “Biggest potatoes in the world, or so they say. Some of em get big as a football, and I ain’t bullshittin either.”
“That’s what I heard,” I said. “But, I’ve never seen one before.” I took a big bite out of the fry I was holding. “Mmmm, tasty.”
“Where you headed?”
“I’ll be staying right here for a while. Maybe a couple weeks or so.”
The old timer pulled up a chair and sat down across the table from me. “Where you from?”
“Anchorage . . . Ohio originally.”
“Ohio? Ain’t that where they grow all the corn?”
“We grow corn, but you’re probably thinking of Iowa.”
“Iowa? Yep, suppose so. Been a long time since I’ve seen the lower forty-eight, and then only as far as Dakota . . . born there you know. Ran away from home soon as I could reach the doorknob.” The old guy laughed. “Hitched a ride up here and ain’t been back since.”
“You own this place?”
“No . . . just helpin out my buddy Tom. I live down the road apiece and help out once in awhile when things get busy, or Tom wants to fly off to Anchorage for supplies.” He held out his hand, “name’s Gus.”
I took the gnarled hand and was a bit surprised by its strength. “Mike.”
“So Mike, What brings you to Alaska?”
“Oh, I don’t know, just needed to get away for awhile and thought this would be as good a place as any. I drove up the Alcan in August.”
“Been a resident for over fifty years now,” Gus said with pride in his voice. “Came up in thirty-four when Alaska was still a territory. You think that Alcan’s a mess now, you shoulda seen it then, took me three weeks just to get through the Yukon.”
Gus took on a contemplative mood. “Statehood screwed everything up though in my way of thinkin. And them damn . . . You got a trade? Not much work around here if you ain’t got a trade.”
“I’m a carpenter. We’re building a house down the road a couple of miles.”
“Oh . . . well hell, boy, you can get a job anywhere. They’re buildin houses all over the place for them damn Texans. Since they started the pipeline, them damn Texans are everywhere.”
I soon realized that to Gus a damn Texan was anybody associated with the pipeline being built to transfer oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. And Gus made no bones about hating the pipeline.
I finished my meal and drank a few beers with him while he rambled on about the good old days. His open friendliness, a welcome contrast to conservative, hard faced Ohio, pleased me. Gus was a real pleasure to be around. I listened to him well into the night, until my eyes would no longer stay open. The alcohol-heat mixture had gotten to me. “I have to go to bed Gus, I’m beat and about to pass out,”
“You go right along sonny, I’ll have a hearty breakfast waitin for you in the mornin”.
“Sounds good,” I said standing up. “Nite Gus. ”
I returned to my room, unpacked my duffel bag and took a long, hot shower. After drying I crawled naked between the clean smelling sheets of the double bed and pulled up the thick down comforter that lay neatly folded at its foot. As I settled in and waited for sleep to come I thought about old Gus and the story he’d shared with me earlier.
“What happened to your nose?” I blurted out when Gus alluded to the frozen spot while we were in the midst of the evening’s conversation.
“Well, sonny, it was like this . . . you want the whole story?” I nodded. “Wait till I get us another beer, cause this’ll take some tellin.”
Gus went behind the bar of the empty lounge and returned with two more Mooseheads, sitting one of them in front of me. After sitting down across the table and taking a pull from his bottle, he twirled the end of his bushy mustache while collecting his thoughts, and began.
“It was back in the old days, somewhere around 1940. I was a young buck about twenty-years old sittin in a Fairbanks bar one day when this old timer starts tellin me about a claim he owned at the headwaters of a creek called the Wolverine down Palmer way. The Wolverine runs alongside Lazy Mountain and ends up fast flowing into the mighty, and one hell of a dangerous, Matanuska River.
He told me he couldn’t make the trek anymore because of his age and he wanted to sell out his claim. After assurin me there was still plenty of color left in her because he was a lazy sort and only panned the creek, he asked if I was interested in buyin him out. I said without further thought that I’d buy the claim from him and put his mind at ease if he’d let me make payments on it. So, we finagled around a bit, and by the time we had two more beers, we’d struck an agreement.
I walked out of that bar with my head held a little higher that day, as I was now a man of substance, ownin a gold claim and all. I had visions of grandeur in my brain as I went about thinkin how I was goin to spend the fortune waitin for me on the Wolverine. Little did I know at the time that a man never buys a claim until he at least sets foot on it . . . but then I was young and dumb and gullible enough to believe without question what that old man told me. I guess I deserved what I got and I don’t blame him none, he was just tryin to get out from under that claim.
Anyways, after I scraped up a down payment, we got together with his lawyer and made everything good and legal. I bought some gear at Kozlowski’s in Anchorage and hitched a ride east to Palmer. I met a buddy there who ran me up the Lazy Mountain road in his old Ford truck and dropped me and all my gear off at the small bridge that crossed over the creek. I packed up all the supplies I could carry, hid the rest in a good spot under the bridge and started walkin along a trail that led up the valley towards the glacier.
Following the Wolverine very far proved impossible because of the thick bush and narrow bottleneck that was formed by the two mountains as they bottomed out. So, instead of fighting it, I headed up Lazy until I found an old moose trail huggin the ridgeline. I followed that trail around the bottleneck until it dropped down once more onto the Wolverine and opened up into the lushest valley I ever saw. The Valley of the Pine Trees, as I later called it was just a spot on the map, but man was it pretty in there. Blueberry bushes were everywhere, and the meadow flowers were blooming. Game trails were deeply carved into the soft muskeg and the large old pines hugging both sides of the river were giving off a fragrance them Seattle ladies would pay big bucks just to bathe in.
That valley was one lovely site, but it had its dangers. As I hustled through the darkening forest I could hear a bear lumbering ahead of me, grunting as he moved away from this stinky, two-legged intruder. Later, I stumbled onto a large pile of crap still steamin in the coolness. I whistled and made plenty of noise after that, because I didn’t want a surprise meeting with the owner of that whopping big pile of shit anytime soon.
The claim sat at the far end of the valley at a fork in the river, just like the old-timer had said. The creek itself was runnin off the glacier that covered the upper parts of the range. It was cold, and so full of silt you could hardly see the bottom in just a foot of water. That’s the way it is with a glacier flow, looks like watered down milk.
At a short bend in the creek, hidden in a stand of pines sat my cabin. Door half ajar and open to the entire world it resembled a hangout for all the critters in the valley. The old rusty stove still worked, but the place was a total mess. Cans were ripped open, bunk beds were chewed up, and there was a large pile of old pine boughs layin in the corner of the one room shack. I began to wonder if the old place was a liability instead of a blessin, but it was either the cabin or the woods and the bear . . . no contest. I moved in, took the top bunk and dared any varmint to try and take it away from me. I began to clean the place out. It took me a few days to fix up the old shack for living, but by damn I did it.
I had one problem though. It seemed a million shrews had turned her into their own private hotel and weren’t about to give it up without a fight. The little varmints would come out at night and run all over me while I was trying to sleep. Many times I’d open my eyes in the dim light of the stove to see a pair of beady little eyeballs staring back at me. Once I got the place cleaned out and removed the pine boughs they musta figured they’d have to share their hotel with me because they started leavin me alone . . . sorta.
It was time to get my other stuff. I put everything in order and started the long and hard chore of going back to my cache under the bridge to get it. Half a day in, half a day out. It took me three trips total, but finally it was all there. Everything I needed to live out here in the bush alone was now at arms reach. I felt good as I sat before my little stove with a jug of Old Crow in hand and toasted myself a few more times than I should have, but what the hell I figured I deserved it.
Next mornin, regardless of being hung over I was up and at it as normal, till I started out the door that is. That old bear musta got a whiff of my bacon frying cause he was out there hanging around looking to steal my grub, but I had it hung high in a tree until I got me a proper cache built. There he was, a grizz as big and fat as I’d ever seen, sitting on the ground under my stash trying to figure out how he could get to it.
He couldn’t climb the tree, but it was a good thing I’d hung it high enough anyways cause that old boy must have cleared thirteen feet when he stood on his hind legs. After gawkin at his highness for a while and admirin his beauty, I quietly closed the door and waited inside till he left. He was too pretty to shoot, and I was too young to die.
One morning I found a bag of rusty nails and a few tools on a shelf in the outhouse and decided to fix up the broken down sluice-box behind the cabin. I re-nailed and braced her up as best as I could, set her in the creek and soon the Wolverine Mining Company was officially in business. I didn’t have any callers comin by to welcome me and lay their blessins on my new endeavor though, seeing as I was the only human in the whole valley.
I was all alone, just me and the moose and the bears. There was a good sized pond close by loaded with fish, and plenty of ptarmigan for food, even a strong freshwater spring bubbled up at the base of the big rocks that fed directly into the creek. Everything a man needed to survive lay within my reach. A pretty woman to keep me company and I’d of thought I’d died and went to heaven.
That old miner, I soon found out, had stretched the truth quite a bit concernin the abundance of gold I’d find on his claim. It’d been worked over real good by the time I got to it and there were few nuggets to be found. But if a guy was determined, he could still get himself enough dust to make the hard work worthwhile. There was gold in the Wolverine; it just took a lot of sweat and digging to get to it.
I worked that old sluice box all summer and turned up just enough color to keep me interested. I figured that when I had enough dust to get me through the winter, I’d pack it up and hike out till the following spring when I’d bring in the necessary supplies to get a proper operation goin.
It was around about mid-October I’d guess, when I started hitting pay dirt. I was doin real good and didn’t want to leave til I cleaned out that gravel bank I was workin on. Sixteen hours a day I shoveled into that contraption of a box. I found a lot of dust, even some good sized nuggets were beginning to show up.
I had the fever. It just sneaked up on me one night and the next day I didn’t want to take the time to eat, sleep, or do anything else. The hell with the coming winter, I was driven to work that box, purely driven.
One cold night ice formed over the pond. A week later I watched the snow line on the summit work its way into the valley and knew if I didn’t get movin, I was soon to be trapped for a long winter in that small, airy cabin. With one eye on the comin freeze, and the other on the gravel pile, I worked even harder. I shoveled til the creek itself began to freeze over and the snow got so deep I just couldn’t work the box no more.
One morning I came to my senses long enough to realize my predicament and gave in and decided to hightail it outta there. I cached everything I couldn’t carry, loaded my pack down with the dust and enough grub to keep me goin till I got back to the road and without further ado headed on down the creek that, by now, was hard frozen.
The sun appeared for a while and there was no wind to speak of, but even then it weren’t much help against the bitter cold. I could tell by how fast my beard froze and how loud the crunch was under my feet that the temperature hung around zero that morning. The snow was knee-deep in some areas so I had to don snowshoes, but even then I made fairly good time cause the goin was level.
I snaked my way along that creek for the better part of two miles. Then, from under the snow, I heard a funny pinging sound. Before I could move another step it was like I’d just stepped on a land mine, there was a loud crack and the ice gave way under me. I went through, up to my hips in the freezing water so fast I hardly felt the shock.
I tried to jump out, but slipped on the rocks and fell full bore head over heels back into the creek, this time over my head. The water was flowing real fast around me and I almost got drawn under the ice before I got to my feet and crawled out and made my way to shore. As it was, I lost my pack and everything in it, including the dust. I was in dire straits. My dungarees were almost frozen and my feet were already losing contact with my brain. I figured I was goin to freeze for sure, and for a moment decided to just give up and forgit about livin.
Then I remembered the flint fire starter kit I kept sewn in my coat linin for emergencies, and this was surely one of those. I was movin pretty slow by then, but I tore the linin loose and found it. As the freezin was sneakin up on me, I managed to find a dead pine tree close by that was still standin and got enough dry tinder to start a fire.
I packed the snow down as best I could with my frozen feet, and put all my energy and skills at fire makin to good use. It took a while, but I got one started, else I wouldn’t be here tellin the tale today. I just kept loadin on the dead wood til I had a roaring bon-fire goin. I got naked and completely dried my clothes before movin on.
I hustled myself out of there OK after that, but I knew I’d had a close call, as close as I was ever goin to get. I was frozen some, and I’d lost my poke, but I lived to tell the tale.
After that experience, I put the claim up for sale and never went back cause my feet wouldn’t let me. I got around in town alright, but the bush was too much for the feet. I lost two toes on the one, and one on the other. My nose and cheeks got froze, and my fingers still pain me in the slightest cold, but other than that I’m just fine.”
Gus stopped talking for a minute, smiled at me and said, “Well, that’s the story of my frozen nose, sonny. If I hadn’t sewn some emergency stuff in my jacket I’d have gone stiff sitting alongside the Wolverine and been a good meal for the wolves.”
As I neared the point of sliding away into dreamland, I remembered Jimmy the Indian from Anchorage and his story about the Ice Worm. I thought of old Gus who had the strength and smarts to beat the worm at his game and felt a rush of deep respect for the tough old guy. I also decided to buy a fire starter kit and sew it inside the lining of my parka. A guy can’t be too cautious in Ice Worm country.