Alaskan legend has it that once the Snowbird heads South the Ice Worm rouses from his summer sleep deep within the permafrost to begin his relentless attack upon the mortals left behind.
Jimmy the Indian liked to keep the Ice Worm legend alive, especially for us guys who’d just wandered into the North Country and hadn’t met up with him yet. Jimmy would explain how the worm crawled around till finding an open spot on a man’s flesh. Then he’d attach himself like a leech and suck the heat from it, leaving in his wake a trail of gray dead skin. To Jimmy the Ice Worm was an enemy demanding much respect.
But for the moment I wasn’t 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.
When he finally gave the word I quickly packed my tools and left the construction site. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and already I needed the trucks headlights to guide me as I pulled onto the snow covered, gravel road and headed south.
A couple miles away amidst scrubby pines and frozen tundra sat the log lodge I’d passed that morning on my way up from Anchorage. The long drive being too much for the old pickup I planned on rooming there for the couple of weeks it would take to frame the house we’d just started.
I approached the lodge and pulled into a small parking area. Light emanating from her 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 beside a couple of pickups and plugged the trucks radiator heater into an electric outlet attached to a modern day hitching post lining the front of the wrap around porch. The thermometer hanging beside the steps read -8°.
Grabbing my duffel bag, I locked the trucks door, crunched up the frozen steps and pulled open the heavy log door. As I entered the cozy foyer a young girl behind the desk lifted her eyes from the 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, please.”
“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 and signed on the dotted line. She handed me the key, I bid her a good evening and walked the short distance to my room.
After checking it out I stashed my gear and found my way back through the foyer and entered the large, rustic lounge in hopes of getting something to eat. There was an old pool table in the center, a bunch of tables spread about and a long bar following the right wall constructed of log slabs. Except for the three guys sitting at the bar drinking beer the place was empty. I chose a small table close to the large, crackling fireplace, sat down facing the door and began to unwind.
Soon, a scruffy old man with a long white beard and a balding head shuffled over with a glass of water. His cheekbones bore a grayish-white 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 hamburger, 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 I had taken on a lovely mellow feeling.
“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?” he asked.
“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?” he asked.
“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 as 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 helping out my buddy Tom. I live down the road apiece and help out once in a while when things get busy, or Tom wants to fly off to Anchorage for supplies.” He held out his hand, “names 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 highway 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 Al-Can’s a mess now, you should’ a 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 thinking. 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 building 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 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 really gotten to me. “I have to go to bed Gus, I’m beat,” I finally said.
“You go right along sonny, I’ll have a hearty breakfast waiting for you in the morning”.
“Sounds good,” I said standing up. “Nite Gus. ”
I returned to my room, unpacked my duffel bag and took a short, 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 I thought about old Gus and the story he’d shared earlier.
“What happened to your nose?” I blurted out when Gus alluded to the frozen spot while 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 Mooseheads, sitting one 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 sitting in a Fairbanks bar one day when this old timer starts telling me about a claim he owned at the headwaters of a creek called the Wolverine, down towards Palmer.
He said he couldn’t make the trek anymore because of his age and he wanted to sell out. After assuring 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 buying him out. I said that I’d buy the claim from him and put his mind at ease, if he 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, owning a gold claim and all. I had visions of grandeur in my brain as I went about thinking how I was going to spend the fortune waiting for me on the Wolverine.
After I scraped up a down payment, and everything became good and legal, I bought some gear and hitched a ride up the Lazy Mountain in my buddies old Model T Ford. I got out at the small bridge that crossed over the creek, packed up all the supplies I could carry, hid the rest, and started walking.
Following the Wolverine very far proved impossible because of the thick bush and narrow bottleneck formed by the two mountains as they bottomed out. So, instead of fighting it, I followed an old moose trail half-ways up the Red before it veered off and hugged the ridgeline.
After going around the bottleneck, the trail dropped onto the floor of the lushest valley I ever saw. The Valley of the Pine Trees, as I later called it. Blueberry bushes were everywhere, and the meadow flowers were blooming. Game trails were deeply carved into the soft muskeg and the large old pines were giving off a fragrance them Seattle ladies would love to own.
That valley was one lovely site, but it had its danger. As I hustled through the dark forest I could hear a bear lumbering ahead of me, grunting as he moved away from this stinky, two-legged. Later, I stumbled onto a large pile of crap still steaming 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 the fork in the river, just like the old-timer had said. The creek itself was running 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 glacier water, looks like watered down milk.
It took me a few days to fix up the old shack for living. 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 to see a pair of beady little eyeballs staring back at me. Once I got the stove cleaned out and unplugged the flue so I could get a fire going, they must of figured they’d have to share their hotel with me because they started leaving me alone, sorta.
Then that old bear started hanging around the shack looking to steal my grub, so I had to hang it high in a tree before I got a proper cache built. One morning I woke and opened the door to go out, and there he sat. A grizzly as big as I’d ever seen, sitting on the ground under my stash trying to figure out how he could get to it.
It was a good thing I’d hung it high cause that old boy must have cleared thirteen feet when he stood on his hind legs. I quietly closed the door and waited till he left. He was too pretty to shoot, and I was too young to die.
I found a bag of rusty nails and a few tools in the cupboard and decided to fix up the broken down sluice-box behind the cabin. After I re-nailed her as best as I could, I set her up by the creek and the Wolverine Mining Company was officially in business.
I didn’t have any callers coming by to welcome me and lay their blessing 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 small lake close by loaded with trout, and plenty of ptarmigan for food, even a fresh water spring. Everything a man needed to survive lay within reach. A pretty woman to keep me company and I’d of thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
That old miner, I soon found out, had stretched the truth a bit concerning 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 the nuggets were long gone. 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 digging to get to it.
I worked that old sluice box all summer, turning 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 next spring.
It was around about mid-October when I started hitting pay dirt and I didn’t want to leave until I cleaned out the gravel bank I was working on. Sixteen hours a day I shoveled into that contraption of a box, but 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 night ice began forming over the lake, and a week later, I watched the snow as it dropped on the summit and slowly work its way into the valley. With one eye on the coming freeze, and the other on the gravel pile, I worked even harder, until the creek itself froze over and the snow got so deep I couldn’t work the box anymore.
One morning, I finally just gave in and decided to hightail it out of there. I cached everything I couldn’t carry, loaded my pack with the gold and enough grub to keep me till I got back to the road, and headed down the frozen creek.
I could tell by how fast my beard froze around my mouth and how loud the snow crunched as I walked that the temperature hung well below zero that morning. The snow was knee-deep in some areas, but if I didn’t break through the crust, I knew I could make fairly good time cause the going was level. The sun appeared for a while and there was no wind to speak of, but it weren’t much help against the bitter cold.
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, there was a loud crack and the ice gave way under me. I went through, up to my hips in the freezing water. I tried to jump out, but slipped on the rocks and fell back into the creek, this time over my head. The water was flowing real fast and I almost got drawn under the ice before I got back to my feet 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 frozen and my feet were already losing contact with my brain. I figured I was going to freeze for sure, and for a moment decided to just give up and forget about living. Then I remembered the flint fire starter kit I kept sewn in my coat lining for emergencies, and this was surely one of those. I was moving pretty slow by then, but I tore the lining loose and found it. As the freezing was sneaking up on me, I managed to find a dead pine tree close by that was still standing, 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 making to good use. It took a while, but I got one started, or else I wouldn’t be telling the tale today. I just kept loading on the dead wood until I had a roaring bon-fire going. I got naked and completely dried my clothes before moving 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 going 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 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 couldn’t be too cautious in Ice Worm country.