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"Something Drastic..." (Excerpt 1)

By the second week of November, Heimo knew he had to do something drastic. He had heard stories of trappers dying of hunger in their cabins, and he had already experienced two of the symptoms of hunger -- mental fuzziness and lethargy. He was hunting and splitting wood constantly now, and he didn’t have enough food to replace the calories he was burning at 30 and 40 below. But to give up, he knew, was a death sentence. He might as well take his .44 magnum and put it to his head and end it quickly. Desperately low on food, he decided to walk 15 miles upriver where he knew that Miller had a second cabin. He hoped that perhaps he’d find a small stockpile of flour or spaghetti or beans, something to carry him through the winter.

He was walking on the river, carrying a backpack and pulling a sled, loaded with his sleeping bag, his rifle and shotgun, and what remained of his food – a grouse, some flour, a few cups of macaroni, and a couple of pounds of rice, when he failed to recognize bad ice. He fell through, flung his arms out and caught himself, lucky not to have been sucked under the ice by the quick current. Soaked from the chest down, he crawled on top of the ice like a seal and only then did he realize that he’d lost his sled. Somehow his rifle and sleeping bag had fallen out of the sled before it went under, but everything else was gone, including his food. He was three miles from the main cabin.

Heimo ran as fast as he could, and when he reached the cabin, he was in luck: the fire was still burning in the stove. He hung his sleeping bag near the stove to dry, and then he shed all his clothes and wrapped himself in a blanket. He sat next to the stove until late afternoon, shivering, still too cold to move more than a few feet from the heat. Even though he resisted it, one persistent thought kept entering his head – “what are my chances?” – and he was forced to contemplate what twenty-year-olds should never have to consider -- death. That night while lying in his bunk, he resolved to try to signal a plane.

The following day, he stood out on a snowy gravel bar, hoping that a plane would fly by. His odds were next to nothing. In late summer, planes in the remote Interior are common sights, carrying hunters to and from camp, but in November they are rare. Heimo sat on the gravel bar until the sun set and then returned to the cabin feeling gloomy. On day two, he repeated his vigil, but again failed to spot a plane. On day three, he was disappointed again and hungrier than he’d ever been in his life. By day four, he was sitting on the gravel bar, assessing his chances of walking out. Birch Creek was nearly 40 miles, a trip that under normal circumstances, he could make. But now he was weak with hunger and he’d have to break trail the entire way. To his amazement, early in the afternoon he heard a distant engine, unmistakable in winter when sound is so clearly borne. Using his mirror, he desperately tried to get the pilot’s attention, by angling it into the waning sun; but eventually the sound trailed off into silence. He found two packets of noodles that night that he’d tucked away in the loft, but they did little to assuage his hunger. Despair had set in.

The following morning, Heimo woke determined to try his luck one last time. If he failed, he would attempt to shoot a few rabbits, expending as little energy as possible, then eat and rest for a few days, hoping to get some of his strength back.

He resorted to stomping out SOS in the snow, an effort he recognized was so futile that he couldn’t help laughing at himself. If he didn’t get out, he would be one of the anonymous numbers, another dreamy cheechako who lost his life in Alaska. He cut spruce boughs and laid them in the troughs that formed the letters, hoping that a pilot might recognize the blue-green outline of the letters against the white snow. He had just finished the S and the O, when once again he heard a plane.

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