In 1959, when Evan and Joannie went up to homestead in the Prophet River country—more than one thousand miles north of the US-Canadian border—they almost immediately met an outgoing member of the Dane-zaa tribe named Jerry. That day, Evan and Joannie were busy backpacking their supplies from their cache at Mile 210 on the Alaska Highway. They carried their packs down over seven miles of muskeg to the spot on the Prophet River where they’d already built a lean-to. Their plans were to build a cabin and, eventually, a utopian community.
“I see one people-pack walking!” a voice called to them from farther down the trail. The muskeg sucked at their boots and made it hard to keep walking toward the first person they’d met in the Prophet River Valley. Since they were each carrying about sixty pounds, they felt as if they might be sucked completely into the swamp with every step. “I see two people-packs walking!” Jerry observed as they got closer. Finally they met in the middle of the trail. “You lost?” he asked.
When they told Jerry that they had come from New York City to find a better life in the northern wilderness, he said: “My trapping cabin over there—stay in my cabin! Trap on my land! You want a dog?” So even though they always had trouble convincing anyone from the south to remain at the community with them, Evan and Joannie were never really alone in the wilderness because the Dane-zaa people were not far away.
This proved important in the matter of getting enough to eat. Although Joannie was an experienced gardener, she had never tried to grow vegetables in a place where the temperature dropped to freezing on a July night and eleven-day rainstorms came regularly every other week. They’d brought along a supply of rice, beans, peas, and peanut butter, but meat was an essential part of the local diet, as few other foods were available. The Dunne-za at that time lived on meat, fish, and a few items of “white man’s food” like flour, black tea, and sugar.
Evan consulted the thousand-page book he and Joannie had compiled by researching at the anthropological library of the Museum of Natural History. Along with information about tanning leather, dyeing cloth, delivering babies, and hundreds of other things members of a subsistence community would need to do or make for themselves, there were a dozen or so pages about making hunting snares. Evan carefully constructed his snares with small branches and pieces of wire. He placed a large number of them around their camp, figuring a rabbit would jump into at least one of his snares by suppertime each day.
But the days and weeks passed and the snares remained empty. Evan and Joannie, along with some friends who came to visit, felled small spruce trees, peeled and notched them, and built a cabin according to the sketches in their thousand-page manual. At the end of the day they were hungry, and their food stores were getting lower. Evan couldn’t figure out why the little Arctic hares, which were brown in summer and white in winter, were so plentiful in the area but so difficult to catch. Jerry and other Dane-zaa visited from time to time, and one day they arrived when Evan had just finished building some bookshelves for the many books they had packed in over the muskeg from Mile 210. “Everything you know in those books?” Jerry asked.
One day Evan was out walking with Jerry, who pointed casually to a spot where the faintest path showed, just an extra glimmer from slightly trampled blades of grass. “Rabbit run here,” Jerry commented. Then Evan realized that there were little animal highways leading from place to place, and if you wanted to catch an animal you had to put the snare in its path. These animal trails were invisible until someone showed them to you, and then you saw them everywhere.
Copyright © Leora Freedman 2016
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