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Four am is not my favorite time of day, but on Friday the 24th of September I was awake (though not particularly alert) at four to hit the road by five. The 300 mile drive was made arduous by falling snow and icy highways, reminding us that “fall” in Alaska is at best a fleeting and fickle concept. All of us who traveled from the Interior encountered ice, snow, freezing rain, deep slushy mucky yucky snow, etc. In spite of less-than-ideal conditoins we had 17 participants show up living in 5 historical, 1 primitive and 2 vehicle-based camps. "Grandpa" Bob Hiller who is even older than Beaver Killer was the smartest of the crew, renting a heated cabin in a near-by lodge. Those traveling from south-central locations had better roads, dealing primarily with rain and a skiff of snow.
One of our members, Tom Gallion, rode down with me. Now Tom is a real glutton for punishment. His first living history event was an arduous CoHT winter camp a couple of years ago, and he's been on a couple of hunts, but this was first trip to a gathering or rendezvous of any type, so he was living in the lap of luxury, relatively speaking of cours. He and I left the house at 5 am on Friday, pulling a trailer loaded down with Nor' West Company trade goods dodging snowflakes as we pulled out of the drive. The roads were pretty good for the first 120 miles or so, then turned pretty much to ice for the next 100 miles or so. The last 80 miles were a cakewalk by comparison.
This was our fist event held on the property of "Smitty and Jessie" Smith, on Mendeltna Creek. roughly 20 miles or so west of our previous location at Tolsana Creek. Smitty runs some extensive traplines in this area each winter and does some sidework doing gun repair. He and Jessie don't get out and about much (life on an Alaska homestead doesn't offer much free time for recreational travel) so they were very excited about being able to host this event, and they did a bang-up job of it overall.
The site is on a rise of ground above Mendeltna creek, with easy access to the creek for water and plenty of firewood free for the gathering. In fact, a lot of wood was already cut to length and ready to burn. They did a bunch of chainsaw work last spring to create the historical camping area, which they plan to expand next year. Judging from the size of the logs stacked near their house, I'd say they did some SERIOUS chainsaw work in there. Access was a bit difficult but certainly not unworkable. I was able to get my trailer into the site though when packing up I elected to shuttle goods back to the parking area rather than attempt it a second time. Ken and Lois Yehlik had trouble getting their min-van into the site which prompted some quick civil-engineering work to remedy.
Swanny's Nor' West Company Camp
Friday rain and snow spit down off and on most of day,
prompting us to set up some pretty darned cozy camps. Tom and I were living in
my wedge tent which I quickly learned is a good size for one person with two
dogs, but a bit too "cozy" for two people and two dogs. I ended up putting the
dog's kennels outside, covered with a tarp. They were apparently happy enough
with that set up since they stayed quiet both nights. The ground beneath us was
still covered mostly in peat, so stakes didn't much want to hold fast. I elected
to set up my store in a my wall tent rather than the oversized wedge I usually
use, because the big wedge requires some real solid ground to stay in the air.
It took Tom and I just a couple of hours to have a real comfortable camp set up.
By evening we boasted five historical camps. One party set up a modern tent up by the house, one fellow decided to live in his pickup camper. Bob Kellogg, visiting from New York, decided to sleep in the back seat of his car. If we'd known earlier he of his accommodation I'm sure we could have found him a more comfortable spot in someone's lodge. Bob Hiller, who is even older than Beaver Killer, was perhaps the wisest of our group as he rented a heated cabin at a local lodge. All told, we had 17 participants which ain't too bad considering the forecast and actual weather conditions.
Fall Rendezvous Participants
By evening the sky cleared up a bit and bottom dropped out of
the thermometer. Smitty reported that when he last looked it was only 17 degrees
and dropping. That made the central fire a pretty popular gathering place for
If you don't like Alaska weather, wait just a bit and things will change. Saturday morning brought snow. Sometimes it was little bitty snow, sometimes it was great big heavy snow, and a lot of the time it was middlin' sized snow, but it snowed almost all day resulting in a good two inches on the ground by noon. That didn't slow anybody down though. A lot of these folks came to shoot, and they spent Saturday morning shooting up paper targets and some of the larger snowflakes. Saturday afternoon we did a trail walk shoot.
Smitty set up the trail walk, and he did a fine job of it, too. There were 15 different targets presented, ranging in size from a peice of string or the edge of a double-bitted ax or playing card to a huge ol' gong. Also a good variety of ranges from about 20 feet to nearly 120 yards.
It finally warmed up and stopped snowing late Saturday afternoon. We gathered around the central fire and discussed the issues of the day. Most of us were pretty tired and even though the weather had warmed it was still pretty chilly and most of us wandered off to our bedrolls before 10 pm which is unusually early for our crew. Of course many of us sought the shelter of our camps because it had started to rain.
The Campfire was the Center of Activity
Rain and sleet were the rules of the night and most of us had
to travel many miles to get home, so most of us spent Sunday morning packing up
to head out. It had warmed enough during the morning that the Glenn highway was
merely wet, so folks heading back to Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley could look
forward to some decent traveling. Those of us from the Interior faced an
entirely different story.
The road from camp to Glenallen was good enough, and from there to Paxon was wet with just a few patches of slush. From Paxson to Donnelly Dome the road was covered with six to eight inches of heavy, wet snow and slush and had not seen a snowplow blade since last spring. With my rig in four-wheel drive and creeping along at 25 miles an hour Tom and I did okay. The trailer only tried to pass the truck once. We were more fortunate than the three or four rigs we saw in the ditches and were grateful we didn't join them.
Our annual fall Gathering and Rendezvous is scheduled for the third weekend of September, and weather conditions this time of year are always a crap-shoot. The past two years we've enjoyed wonderful weather for the event with chilly temperatures but clear sky and bare ground. There was some talk of rescheduling the event, but an earlier weekend would conflict with big-game hunting seasons and a later date would be a full-fledged winter camp unlikely to draw quite so many participants. Meanwhile, booshway Dennis “Lightfoot” Midgley has committed to hosting this event for at least two more years and Smitty and Jessie are planning to make some additional improvements to the site, so it looks like next year we will return, at about the same time, to face whatever conditions the fickle and fleeting autumn season may bring.
More photographs from the 2004 Fall Rendezvous and CoHT Gathering at Mendeltna Creek can be seen at http://www.norwestcompany.com/gallery