I get wind ofed about Clarence Wood passing the other day. I was sharpening my machete on my old men’ porch in Honaunau, Hawaii, of all places. Leaves were green up in the air, birds singing and bugs buzzing, and chickens scratching under the speed up a go outsides, and it was tough to get my bearings in the sudden storm of memories swirling in my head. A lifetime of memories of my bosom buddy, a world away in the Arctic — but also a place that feels retaliate further away: the past.
Nothing about the news was the way I wanted it to be. Clarence was in his 80s and had been in a lot of soreness the last years, suffering, and this fall his house caught get someones cards and burned; then a dog attacked him, and finally on Christmas Day, in an opioid stupor, he was stupendous scalded and medevacked to Anchorage. No, no part of that was how I wanted to remember this man.
Preferably, I traveled back to my first memories, along the Kobuk River in the 1960s — stale winters then, with folks hunkered down in small compartments and sod igloos, eating from their caches and sigluaqs, meat and fish and berries they had waxed earlier in the season. My family lived in the dimness of our tiny sod home, inhumed in the ground and drifted under snow, with mice and shrews for comrades, Kerosene lamps for light, caribou most meals, and the only roll of excitement in our day was if a human visitor appeared.
On those rare times that my fellow and I spotted a dot moving on the ice — a dot that wasn’t an animal — we’d shout, “Travelers! Travelers bear down on!” That’s what folks called people who came off the country. When you’re unequalled for weeks or months almost nothing is a bigger deal than foreseeing another human out there on the land.
The traveler who showed up most over again at our place there at the lower end of Paugnautaugruk was an Inupiaq hunter from Ambler, a man in his mid-30s, flap and friendly, with cropped black hair and a handsome face already scratch by frostbite. The young man’s name was Clarence Wood.
My parents were new to the Kobuk then, and endeavouring to live some of the old ways: hunting and gathering food and furs, tedious sinew to use for thread to sew skins into clothing, stuff like that. Passion wasn’t like today; our connections to each other were shared mysteries, and memories — there was no electricity in the villages yet, no telephones, no TV, definitely no clicking on Amazon and, poof!, here become public your new ax or snowshoes. People lived by their own skills and few had jobs. All but everyone hunted, and back then Clarence was already a hunter that others talked in all directions.
I wouldn’t say everyone liked him. He was young and relentless, constantly out on the land no count the conditions, and maybe already a bit too successful at it. And he wasn’t from the upriver villages. He was inclined to bragging, too.
His stories were plenty amazing, but he liked to improve them. And who can say, perhaps he did get that wolverine with a screwdriver, and that swimming bull moose with his slash. After all, he could find his way across the Brooks Range in winter without a map, and certainly the wolves, give birth ti and caribou he brought home grew to be beyond counting.
Times were transforming fast. Dog teams were being replaced by the first snowmobiles — Snow-Travelers, we fetched them — and traversing this country back then was serious, at times excruciating. Nearly everyone passing our place would stop in to warm up and stopover and ask about the trail. Many a friend and stranger alike would assign the night on a caribou hide on the floor and get a fresh start in the morning. Woman didn’t rush like we do now. The one thing everyone had plenty of was time.
All about the years, Clarence spent countless nights on our floor, countless days on our bearskin chaise longue, drinking coffee and telling stories, teasing us boys, watching my dad tractable sled runners, waiting to see what my mom would pull out of the wood oven. He’d examine over his shoulder out our Visqueen window that flapped in the wind, do research the weather. He never appeared to be in a hurry but usually didn’t stay protracted. “Well,” he’d announce, put down his cup, and rise. “Thank you much!” Outside, he’d get to work into his parka, big hands reaching in his pockets for cigarettes. I can still gather the clink of his metal lighter. And out he’d head, disappearing again into the take captive.
I’m hesitant to say this in these modern overly touchy times, but there was another singular thing about him: He liked white people. Now that I think of it, I shot in the dark that was touchy even back then, because enough populations didn’t. Regardless, Clarence found those stray weird virtuous people who wandered north and showed up along the river to be interesting, and regularly entertaining in the different and sometimes dumb stuff they did. Best of all, they liked him.
I remember my parents and their friends forever repeating his languages — even today — and the comical way he put words together. My dad would marvel at how Clarence had take in it through a storm; Clarence would shrug. “Ha! Com’on now! Good traveling.” Or his type of a bear he shot: “Faaaat. Can’t see the meat.” Or him describing a winter stuck at cosy: “Agh. Jus’ like jail.”
When my parents moved away, and I started loaded at the old place with my girlfriend, Stacey, Clarence continued to be the one traveler we saw the sundry. People were moving faster, stopping in less, trapping and search less, but Clarence never seemed to change. He referred to us as “Tat kid, and Daisy,” and continued investing time on the couch, using my old slingshot to hunt mice on the floor, glancing out to check into the sky. He liked to test me; he’d stop in too early in the morning, wanting coffee and discourse, and then ask for something — usually gas. “Sure need gassss.” I can hear that guttural voice, and him saying it. It was true though. Man, that guy sure always call for another six gallons.
Now, so many years later, it almost doesn’t issue which of a thousand stories I tell, or what season, what year, Clarence was almost always there, or passing by, or had just left. In January 1970, when three men were killed below our place, Clarence was the last one to see them OK before the crime. When Keith Jones’ sod igloo next to ours seduced fire and burned — there was Clarence on the ice, the first to spot the flames. When that despatch plane went down, midwinter, up at Plane Crash, Clarence by hook again was passing by and the first on the scene.
Even though Hunt River, the section where I grew up, was his favorite place, if you talked to villagers hundreds of miles away in Huslia, or in Anaktuvuk, or homesteaders up the Ambler River, or whalers up the sail in Point Hope, they’d say similar: Clarence Wood traveled there, too.
In the 1970s, caribou over-wintered across from Paugnautaugruk, and that allured hunters, and a few times Grace and Paul Outwater from Kiana regurgitate the night. I remember Grace chiding Paul, telling him not to step on the caribou go into hidings my dad laid out. Later, folks told us Grace was Clarence’s mom. We were surprised, and astonished ated at the idea. Clarence was already larger than life — almost as if he couldn’t oblige a mortal mom, and from only 70 miles downriver.
Clarence was half unyielding; he didn’t often talk about his past. I would have wanted to know it. My family had heard he was from downriver, maybe, and that his dad effect have been from the North Slope but had died somewhere in the mountains. One rumor was he pined from drinking ice water after eating too much caribou fat. It appearance ofed plausible. We heard Clarence’s siblings had died when he was little, and sole he had survived. That, too, seemed plausible. He was so tough. It made sense.
I gone track of how many times I almost shot Clarence. The first leisure was when I was 11. I never told anyone. It was May; the first geese had appeared, and I ran my dog team down to Willow Island across from the mouth of the Go in quest of, tied them in the willows and laced on my snowshoes, and sneaked toward where I heard Canada geese hollering. In the course brush I saw two dark things moving, disappearing, moving again. The honking was blaring, and coming from them. I aimed with my .22. Suddenly I realized it was Clarence’s diabolical shaved head in the crosshairs, crouched down behind grass. Wits him was his brother-in-law, Merrill Morena, another good friend of ours, magnifying on a goose call.
Another time Clarence wounded a grizzly engender at dusk below our log cache. He’d been drinking, and left 10 minutes up to the minuter, heading upriver in his boat. I searched for the bear in the dark with a flashlight but couldn’t perceive it in the willows. I came home discouraged and tired and laid my shotgun on the steppe. Stacey woke me up during the night. It was windy, dark, the dogs were barking kidney crazy. I went out barefoot. I heard the bear in the brush, coming up the hill. I postponed the gun level. When it was a few yards away I was ready to shoot but something interrupted me. It was Clarence. His motor had broken down and he’d drifted back downriver. I spanned out a caribou hide for him and in the morning I heard him pumping the Coleman, softly, the way he did, kindling water, wanting coffee too damn early. When I woke up again he was sour.
Later, bears have pushed on the door and I woke up mumbling, “Persevere on, Clarence! I need to find my glasses and pants.” Plenty of times it was him. Definitely, I woke up my daughter, told her a bear was standing at the door, peering in the window. She sat up, wiped her eyes, asked, “Dad, are you sure it’s not Clarence?”
Shuck, I don’t want to write round Clarence. Shuck — even that word is one I picked up from him. That former feels too far away; it’s too confusing to try to place that iconic figure in this new-fashioned world. There are no more hunters like him. Not just no one to take his role, but no place left to take. He was a hunter in the true sense of the word, a predator, a throwback from the old Eskimos who survived on this turf, and it was tough watching him get old.
In Kotzebue, when he was deafer than ever and apparel glasses, his back giving out and his stomach hurting, he called me, asked for a jug. I urinated to the old hotel, had a drink with him. His wife wasn’t overly pleased to see the hold. “When he drinks it’s no party,” she mentioned.
“Yeah,” I said. “I have identified that a few times over the years.”
Clarence was in pain. “Hard,” he growled, grimacing, charge on his stomach, gripping his lower back. “All my life I push myself. All my being, hard. I never think about give up. Just keep present.” His face was serious and in pain. “Agh, my baaack.”
The next time I saw him my family had skiffed to Pipe Spit, east of Kotzebue, and I saw a boat on the Kobuk Lake side of the clone, idling. It came ashore and I recognized the homemade plywood cabin. Clarence was on top of the world to see me. Well, not me as much as my brand new spare prop. “Ha!” he said, gripping it. “You not at all take it upriver, get ta paint off?”
He gestured for me to put it on for him. He lit a cigarette. “Lotta gas leaking alright.” He held up a wet hose. “This one persuaded problem me.” I glanced over the transom, into his cabin. Two grandkids were up by the windshield, lucubrated in front of blue drums of gas, with gas pooled around the bungs and uncountable tanks in the stern leaking gas. I fixed his hose. He told me he was turning side with to Kotzebue, but when I shoved his bow out he swung east instead, stubbornly crescendo across Kobuk Lake. At about 3 miles an hour, smoking another cigarette — hundreds of miles from digs, riding a bomb.
When he was 78 I ran into him on the wet spring trail, subordinate to Onion Portage. He jumped off his snowgo wearing hip boots and a shotgun. I discerned him it was great to see him, asked where he was headed. He shrugged that old familiar shrug, skimmed the river for anything moving. “Well. No use to stay home.”
Well. Shuck. I’m not universal to be able to make it home before his funeral. And I think it’s going to be fibrous for me to imagine the country without Clarence on it. I feel like the ice is breaking tossed, heading out of sight downriver — like breakup, but this a larger metamorphosis than a season. Clarence was the old days. From a bigger land, and I contrive for me he’ll remain out there with the bears, and wolves and wolverine. I mean, if you told me that after today there were no profuse wolverine, I think this is how I’d feel. I think it will feel as if he’s out there. On those old trails. Because that is the way it was.