High Alaskan AdventureAug 15th, 2006 | By jdubray | Category: Student 2006
The forest fires of Alaska were burning blazes the size of Hawaii and Rhode Island all over its interior. It wasn’t anything new, but still they called for every single available resource from the lower 48.
I was on the Lolo Interagency Hotshot Crew at the time, and on the crew with me was one of my best friends; his name was First In Line Once Twice. His name was so long and ridiculous that I called him No Use for short, but he hated it when I called him that. I called him No Use for a number of reasons, but the biggest of all was that he drank a lot, and when he got drunk he became of no use to anybody. A lot of people combined the first letters of the three words in his first name and called him FIL.
No Use was an Oglala Lakota from Wanblee, SD, which is deep in the heart of Sioux country. He was at Missoula majoring in art, and I was majoring in physical education. I often hated to admit it, but although I looked white, I was a half-breed Brule Lakota from Lower Brule, SD.
I don’t know how he did it, but No Use had talked me into firefighting. At the time I had only heard stories about it. But when we signed up for the Lolo Hotshots, I entered a whole different world. I knew that firefighters worked long hard hours and often went with no sleep or showers. Yet at the same time they made good honest money and got in shape. And those were two things I needed.
“Man, we can make $15 – 20,000 this summer,” No Use said, all excited after we got done with our interviews. The job was dangerous, and I knew I could be killed, but for some reason that is what turned me on to the job.
The first few weeks of training were as close to boot camp as I will ever get. We would run between four to six miles a day, do about 250 push-ups, 250 sit-ups, and numerous other callisthenic exercises. I didn’t mind the pain because I knew that it couldn’t kill me.
The experience felt something like the military except that I could leave at anytime, if I wanted to. People yelled and cussed at us. The worst was a 5-year Lolo Hotshot veteran named Sid Bonner. He was a three-quarter blood Blackfoot Indian, and he was the hardest on us. He constantly yelled at No Use because he would often show up smelling like booze. Around the third week of training we got sent to Alaska, which would turn out to be an unforgettable experience.
We left at 0600 in the morning in a chartered plane along with two other Hotshot crews. When we arrived at our destination, we were lifted by chopper out to the heliport and dropped off, and then we had to hike in 5 miles to our objective.
On the way we had to climb this steep rockslide which required some skill to negotiate. There were warnings of grizzly bears, cougars, even Bigfoot. I kept my eyes open and didn’t expect to see much, but around 1300 I kept hearing this sound like a chainsaw trying to start. I was a rookie, and we weren’t allowed to ask too many questions. I decided I was just hearing things and kept working.
We were digging fire line and lots of it. We had only been at it for 4 hours, but my lower back felt like someone had taken a scalpel and severed all my tendons, and my biceps felt about to burst. The thought of going back to school in August lightened my misery.
At around 1400 I was still hearing the chainsaw sound. A Hotshot crew from Alaska came up the blackened mountain and leapfrogged ahead of us to put in more line. I asked their female leader, who was bringing up the rear, if she could hear the noise I had been hearing.
“Are you on pot?” she said as she walked past.
“No, I just keep hearing this noise like a chainsaw trying to be started,” I said. She stopped and listened for awhile. Then Sid jumped in with his usual unwanted advice that came at a scream, “Sky, what the f**k you doing? Get back to work. We got everybody f**king working here, except for f**king you, f**k,” he growled. I looked at him, smiled and pointed my nose back to the ground and scraped the earth with my Pulaski.
I looked around as I dug and noticed that there were a lot of caves and dead trees around. I heard the noise once again, and I think everyone else heard it this time. The Alaskan lady stopped by the entrance of one of the caves. The clicking and scraping of metal tools on the ground ceased as everyone stood up, knowing they had heard something out of the ordinary. I looked up at No Use who was up front with the sawyers. They stopped their chainsaws and listened. The noise came again, this time like a chainsaw mixed with a woman’s scream.
Then out of the cave where the Alaskan girl stood sprang a huge grizzly bear; his brown fur was half-burnt, so that skin and flesh could both be seen. He smothered the lady with his arms and body. She had time for half a scream as the enraged animal bit down on her head and neck. There was a sickening sound of bone cracking and a silenced scream as her head spurted out of the bear’s mouth and rolled down some rocks directly toward us.
“Holy Chit!” No Use yelled and started up his chainsaw. Some of us ran and some of us just stood there, like me. No Use revved his saw and went after the grizzly. The bear left the lifeless body of the girl and swiped a right paw at No Use. The saw cut the paw right off, yet the momentum of the severed paw still slapped him on the face and sent him flying into some bushes. Some more of our guys re-started their chainsaws and went after the bear.
One guy from the Alaskan crew, desperately trying to avenge his crew member’s death, full-bored his saw and went straight for the grizzly. He sank his saw deep into its left shoulder and the grizzly roared, stood up, and swiped him away with its good paw. The man screamed as he staggered back, his whole face gone, replaced by four deep-gouging claw marks that extended all the way down to his guts and those too dangled before me. His yellow Nomex shirt turned suddenly red.
A third guy went after the grizzly and thrust his chainsaw deep into its guts. The bear swiped him out of the way too, but he landed uninjured, and he immediately attacked again, this time with a Super Pulaski. He took a swing, but the bear was too quick and powerful and hit him directly in the head with its paw, and he collapsed.
I was the last one. I smiled. It was my time to die and what a horrible way to die. I gripped my Pulaski and walked toward the grizzly. The bloody grizzly looked like a freakish creature with its burned face and arms. The blood gushing out of its wounds made it even more surreal. It stood there on its hind legs, and we locked eyes.
“Give me that,” No Use gasped, suddenly emerging from the bushes. He jerked the Pulaski out of my hands, cocked it behind his head and threw it; it sank deep into the grizz’s guts. The grizzly roared in pain. No Use ran ahead of me and grabbed another Pulaski that someone had abandoned. He cocked it back and tossed it and again found his mark just above the grizzly’s heart.
No Use grabbed a third Super Pulaski left on the ground and ran straight for the weakened bear. No Use leaped onto one of the Pulaski heads sticking out of the grizzly’s guts and jumped up towards its head. When he reached max hang time, he brought the Super Pulaski down on the top of the grizzly’s head with all of his might and sank the blade all the way to the handle.
The grizzly quit roaring, and its whole body went limp. No Use held on to the Super Pulaski’s handle as they both collapsed.
“Oooohhhh Cccchhhiitt!” No Use yelled as they crashed into some bushes. I snapped out of my daze.
“No Use, No Use,” I called as I ran over to him. When I reached him, he was lying there still hanging onto the Super Pulaski’s handle.
“You OK?” I asked.
“I told you to quit calling me No Use,” he said.
“How the f**k did you do that?” someone asked as the surviving crew members slowly and painfully started emerging from the bushes.
No Use stood up. “I’m f**king Indian, that’s how I did that,” he said.
Sid got on the radio to get us the hell out of there.
As a student at Haskell Indian Nations University, H. Jack Dubray aspires to help his tribe, the Hunkpapa Lakota of Standing Rock, ND, through future political endeavors and to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Using his degree, he also hopes to get published and teach creative writing classes.
Dubray gives credit to Dr. Denise Low-Weso, a Haskell creative writing instructor, for inspiring him to write the novel he is currently writing. “High Alaskan Adventure” is from the novel. Dubray finds writing to be fun, rewarding and powerful.