Friday, August 28, 2020

Frontier Justice

In the early 1970s, the Palmer game warden, Fred Smith, occupied the corner office two doors down from where I was stationed as an Alaska Department of Fish and Game game biologist.  Well past retirement age with fleeting eyesight and a receding gray hairline, Fred still made as many cases as the best of them.  

The reason: people identified with this friendly grandfatherly gentleman.  Fred didn't have to sneak through dense willow thickets to pounce on poachers.  Everyday citizens, fed up with seeing someone else steal their moose or salmon dinner, simply reported violations to Fred.  He excelled at being a kind old man telling stories about the good old days.  The public reciprocated with modern day versions.  

My opportunity to assist Fred came the night I registered for a mid-winter watercolor painting class.  Returning home that frigid night on the winding remote (at that time) Matanuska Valley roads, a parked car seemed out-of-place.  Strange, I thought, so slowed to read its license plate number.  The notion that something didn't seem right gnawed at me until back home, I turned around and drove back.

The car had disappeared.  Instead I found blood in the road.  Armed with a flashlight, my boots squeaking in the cold, I followed a trail of crimson flecked snow to a steaming moose gut pile.   Back home I dialed Fred.  

Fred said he would check on the license number.  A few minutes later my phone rang.  It was Fred.  Rumor had it the owner of the car whom I shall call "Robert" was a moose poacher who sold the meat to the poor.  Fred still hadn't been able to make a case against this supposed modern-day Robin Hood.  He said Robert would be at the Pioneer Cafe the next morning.  I should meet him there.

At 7:30 AM, sure enough, I found Fred standing in the Pioneer Cafe parking lot next to the drab weathered sedan I had seen the previous evening.  The key to the trunk remained fixed in place, obviously ready for quick action.  Fred twisted the key.  The trunk popped open to reveal a blood-stained interior and moose hair, not the typical trunk used to transport suitcases to the airport.  Fred directed me to collect a blood sample on a microscope slide and close the lid saying he'd be right back.  I complied then dashed inside not wanting to miss the action.

Inside the Pioneer Cafe Fred found a tall angular man clad in Army surplus "bunny boots" wearing a grease-stained parka right where he knew he'd find him, sitting at a counter stool in front of a plateful of bacon and eggs.  

Fred approached Robert and with a friendly smile, simply said, "When you're done, come on over to my office," and left.  That was all.  That's sure not how they do it on TV, I thought to myself.

Fred and I went back to our respective Fish and Game offices and waited.  It didn't take long before I saw Robert slouch past my door.  I listened intently.

"You never know when your friends are going to rat on you," I heard Fred say.

"Who told you?," a panicked Robert replied.  "Who was it?"

Of course Fred was only making up a story, but that sounded like a confession to me. 

After more unsuccessful pleading from Robert about how Fred knew,  I heard Fred state, "we need to go get the meat, it would be unlawful to leave it where it was."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  "Unlawful."  Since when did that bother Robert?  However, he fell for Fred's bluff and with that the two of them got up and Robert led Fred to the evidence -- the evidence Fred needed to make his case, a case for which Robert spent six months in jail. 

Today I muse at the chances.  My love of art led me down that road.  I had been disappointed that all we did was register for the watercolor painting class, receive our materials list and an announcement the class would begin the following week.  Feeling let down, I drove home hours earlier than expected that evening.  Later, when class would normally have ended, Robert would have vanished and, at best, I might have seen blood on the snow-covered pavement. 

Otherwise, a flock of ravens, maybe a pair of eagles at the top of a cottonwood tree would have alerted us that another moose had been poached.  Why didn't we ever catch these guys?  Chances -- chances and a bit of bluff from a kind old man broke the familiar pattern leading, for once, to frontier justice.

        Dance of the Aspens  9 x 12 inches  Alkyd on Canvas  Private Collection

Other than a whimsical watercolor card, this is the only painting I have which includes a moose,  Thus, wanting a moose painting for this post, it'll have to do.  I started Dance of the Aspens as a plein air piece in the Yukon.  There I was drawn to the aspens battered by wind and snow to take on every manner of twisted shapes.  I didn't complete the painting that day, so brought it home to finish in my studio.  As for the moose, she's an add on from a photo Karen took in a similar area Fred would have patrolled although, given his poor eyesight, probably never would have seen.  In fact, neither did I.  But, Karen did.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Lead Astray

Summer made it.  At last.  Every weather service on the internet forecasted three days of golden sun-filled or at least sort of sun-filled skies to beam down on southeast Alaska before rain returned.  Obviously a long overdue explore somewhere around our island had to be on the agenda.  

We selected a seldom-traveled loop with the plan only lacking a written description.  But, this is Petersburg on 17-miles long by almost 10 miles-wide (at the point where it looks like it consumed too many of Karen's chocolate chip cookies) Mitkof Island.  Here, getting lost would require dense fog and a blindfolded driver.

So, Karen packed a lunch, laid out 1/8 bag of lime-scented tortilla chips (the few broken survivors from — was it just the day before) and, naturally…..went outside to see if she could entice Ms Squirrel to take peanuts from her lap.  What else does one do when they’re on the verge of setting off on an epic adventure?

Ah well, sun remained in the forecast for two more days and peanut butter and margarine sandwiches would taste delicious whether consumed with a squirrel in your lap or when we’re “lost” in a remote forested part of our island.
                  Step one:  Lure her close to Karen with peanuts 
                             "Oh Hi.  I'm just looking for peanuts."
"Karen, you are really tempting me."  Notice the jealous, but more wary Steller's jay, Gregory Peck, who just couldn't bring himself to take the risk.

Poor Gregory Peck was losing a feather and couldn't bring himself to risk darting onto Karen's lap for a peanut.
                              Meanwhile back in Karen's lap.

                             "Would you take my picture?"
           "Better yet, how about showing me how to use this camera?"
Alas, Karen finally ran out of peanuts and Ms Squirrel realized she was being watched.  Feeling camera shy with no more incentive to remain in Karen's lap, she scampered into the forest.  

Post script:  Alas, we never made our epic drive.  Exciting activities like manicuring our lawn -- I'm mowing around the buttercups in deference to the rights of insects so it (lawn) looks not-just-a-little sketchy, battling the invasion of migrating rogue salmonberry bushes, and attending a birthday party for a friend who lives (and is) 1200 miles away (I wonder who ate his piece of cake?) -- stuff like that kept us grounded in town until....the sun departed in a thunderstorm that made the Washington Mall 4th of July fireworks show pale in comparison.