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This is neither a misspelled movie review nor a comment on Japanese comic anti-heroes—rather a reminiscence of a few days I spent in the western brooks range with a small mammal biologist named Dwight Bradshaw, but tagged as “Ratman” due to his work in more southerly climes.

De  Long Mountains, Brooks Range, Alaska, 1989

“Small mammals” is not a common term—one evening during our adventure, a small airplane landed next to our camping site, and a grey, bearded, suspendered man climbed out of the cockpit—a local game guide–and asked, in a less than polite voice what the hell we were doing on his landing strip. Ratman, being the senior member of our group replied “trapping small mammals”. There was a very long pause. “Mice, really” I added. The man harrumphed. “Sure must be easy to pack out,”   he said, before moving on to check his (illegal) stash of supplies cached by the landing strip.  He was right–mice are a lot smaller than moose.

Trapping mice isn’t exactly glamorous—it hardly seems like a job at all—unless you are an exterminator—but mice are the base of the food chain for many animals—a we were in the Brooks range looking for what might be there. Voles (3 species). Shrews (5 species, and all of them covered in their own shit and digesting in their own stomach acids after a few hours). And maybe some lemmings, though certainly not in the abundance suggested by the famous TV footage from the 1950’s, when a swarm of lemmings was pushed over a ledge by a bulldozer for a waiting TV cameraman, manufacturing the myth of a species so prolific that it stripped its food source before stampeding into the Arctic ocean.   We set snap traps (aka, mouse traps) and pitfalls (aka, coffee cans buried to the brims so mice would fall in them) in straight lines, baited them with organic peanut butter (which contained DDE, a breakdown product from DDT when we tested it for contaminants) and waited overnight for the mice to find them. In the mornings, we checked the traps, counted the dead, measured them, and stuffed and labeled the best specimens for the Smithsonian.   That took until about 2 in the afternoon.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

So that left the rest of the day for “exploring”. I’d been in Alaska for a season or two, and liked taking little hikes, usually with a camera, not too far from camp—you usually didn’t need to go that far to find something worth looking at, pointing the camera at. And after an hour or two, wandering back to camp for supper and rest.  That was my idea of a little hike.

But Ratman had different ideas of what “exploring” meant. After looking at the topo maps, he’d suggest a route—“that peak looks not too far” he’d say, and we’d head off in that direction.  Once at the peak, another would present itself—not far, not far—just a little higher—and we’d go further. After a while, the sun seemed lower on the horizon—check the time—hell, it’s 11:30 pm, time to head back to camp, in bed by 2AM, exhausted.   Then up at 7AM, to repeat the process. Check the traps, record the data, and then, a little exploring—this time, no so far—but it always turned into a 10 or 12 hour “hike”.

Other memories—one morning, washing the dishes in the creek, I looked up to see what I first took to be a caribou crossing the creek just below me—but no horns—it was a wolf, long legged, far bigger than any dog—it stopped to stare at me for a few seconds before disappearing in the willows. And the last day, a sow grizzly with two cubs wandered up the creek towards our camp—caught our scent—turned away—we snuck back to the tent were Ratman found the bear gun—which gave us courage—we started yelling at the bear to try to drive it away—instead it turned back on us, charged with teeth chattering—we backed up, looking at the ground—it turned and ran off with the cubs.

rooks Range, Alaska, 1989

Now, looking back, those hikes were some of the most amazing hours of my life. Walking along ridges high above the tree line, surrounded by naked mountains, loose rocks, and clouds. I made some photographs I treasure still.

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3 Comments

    • Mary
    • Posted August 4, 2015 at 10:10 pm
    • Permalink

    The last photo is quite stunning!

    • Marvin Falk
    • Posted August 8, 2015 at 10:05 pm
    • Permalink

    Did the photos in your Brooks Range book come from this?

    • denniswitmer
    • Posted August 9, 2015 at 7:04 pm
    • Permalink

    No–but I did have an edit of that book that included these pictures–same mountain range, several hundred miles away…


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