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Chapter 6

Moore Creek

 

Waino (Billy the Finn) Koskinen had been mining for many years at Moore Creek, forty miles east of Flat. He had no machinery so he groundsluiced, working with wheelbarrows and water pressure. He was twelve thousand dollars in debt to the grocery, and the Miner’s and Merchant’s Bank, both owned by Harry Donnelley. He had six thousand dollars left in the fall of 1935 after he paid his two men and the cook for the season. Instead of paying Donnelley, he went to visit the girls down on the line, who kept him drunk, getting his money.

Fixing up his dog sled the next spring he went to the store to buy groceries for another season. When Harry asked for a payment on his bill, he complained that he was broke, the girls had all his money. So Harry foreclosed on him, putting the mine up for sale.

Gus, his brother Charlie, and Gus’s partner, John Ogriz, were going to buy it. We wanted to get in on the deal too, so Harry Donnelley lent us the money for our share.

Gus and John sold us their old gasoline powered Caterpillar bulldozer and a set of bobsleds. Charlie and I hired Frank Lott, Billy the Finn, Max Rantala and Frank’s wife, Peggy, for our crew. Peggy and Hildur were to do the cooking.

We started hauling barrels of gasoline, grease, oil, groceries and other things needed for the mining operation. Billy had a dog team of eight dogs that we got with the deal, so we took them and the dogsled too.

Oscar Winchell took Hildur and Peggy and a load of perishable groceries in a Stinson airplane on skis and landed on a small open spot near the old log cabins at the mine.

We made several eighty-mile round trips to Flat with the old sixty caterpillar to haul in all the supplies before the snow melted and mining started.

Hildur brought her cat on the plane from Flat in a box. Rough air next to Camelback Mountain scared the cat so it scratched and let out a terrified yowl. When Hildur released it in the cabin at Moore Creek it dashed out, disappearing into the woods.

Because of the high elevation there was never less than six feet of snow in the spring. Hildur put on snowshoes and brought the cat back, but every time the door opened, out he went. She kept bringing him back until in a week or so he stayed home. In the fall Peggy took the cat to Flat in a box on the plane. As soon as she released it, out it ran, never to be seen again.

Max Rantala was a good bulldozer operator; he had operated the old sixty for Gus and John the previous summer. I operated the bulldozer on the other shift and kept it in running condition. Frank Lott worked the hydraulic nozzle on the opposite shift from Billy, ground sluicing the gravel into the boxes after the bulldozer pushed it into a pile in front of them. We first had to bulldoze aside all the spruce trees and willows, then groundsluice off the muck to get down to the gravel.

Hildur and I lived in the back room of a very old, low log cabin, using the front room for the mess house. A big Lang cast-iron, wood-burning cook stove had been hauled there by dog team from Flat many years ago. A table covered with oil cloth had benches on both sides and wood-burning cook stove had been hauled there by dog team from Flat many years ago.  A table covered with oil cloth had benches on both sides and ends. Everyone ate there.

After the snow was gone, Oscar Winchell dropped fresh meat and mail once a week onto the tundra behind the cabins. He took the door off the plane in Flat and each time he circled, he reached back to push out a bundle. We had to watch closely, for they fell through the soft moss and were hard to find. A few chunks of frozen beef slid under the moss and were never found.

Oscar had a standing order from us not to bring any alcoholic beverages to the mine. Somehow Max Rantala had ordered four-fifths of 151 proof Demarara Rum from Bert’s Drug Store in Anchorage. The snow was gone when the package came. We were having lunch but Max was the first one out to check each item dropped. When he finally found it, with all four bottles broken, he got down on his hands and knees, sniffing the moss.

“That’s it, alright!” he yelled, and began cussing Oscar for being so dumb as to drop a drug store package.

We worked hard all summer, two ten hour shifts, seven days a week, but when freezeup came we found that our total expenses were a lot more than we got from the gold. Things looked pretty discouraging.

We leveled off an airplane landing strip as soon as we had enough tailings (washed gravel) that came through the boxes.

Hildur flew out with Winchell to go to Spencer, New York, to be with her folks and sister when our son, Ray, was born.

Charlie and I decided to spend the winter at the mine to try finding richer ground with a prospecting drill which we borrowed from Gus and John. I went to their mine in Flat to dismantle the drill, then took it to the Flat airfield with Gus’s truck.

The exciting news came that rich platinum deposits had just been discovered at Good News Bay on the southwest coast of Alaska. The pilots were all eager for business since they were paid on a percentage basis. Oscar Winchell came to Flat late in the evening with a Star Airways eight passenger Pilgrim. Everyone was in a hurry to get passage on the first trip in the morning on the stampede. I signed up too…

Later that evening a young native, who was trapping near Moore Creek, came to Flat with his dog team, bringing a note from Charlie informing me that he was coming to Flat and that we would go back to Moore Creek to start drilling as soon as we got the drill flown to the mine.

As Emmett Shaw was going on the stampede, I gave him money to stake and record a claim for me. Aina did the same. Emmett staked claims side by side for Aina and me in the middle of the Salmon River flats.

Early the next morning I awoke to hear Oscar’s plane roaring on his takeoff, then suddenly stop. Oscar told me later that it was thirty below zero so he had to warm up his engine with his fire pot. Fritz Awe insisted on going too. Oscar told him he couldn’t possible take him since he was already overloaded. But after he closed the door into the pilot’s cockpit, two hundred eighty pound Fritz piled in anyway.

Oscar got the plane up about fifty feet and it began to settle. He aimed for a level spot full of stumps on the bank of Otter Creek. The creek had a high cutbank but Oscar managed to hold the nose up just enough to miss crashing into the bank. It caught the landing gear, tearing it off. The plane slid on it’s belly through the stumps, completely wrecking the underside. No one was hurt, thanks to Oscar’s flying skill, but everyone blamed big Fritz. So what did Fritz do but go and pick up the plane with his dragline. He brought it to his shop, and spent a lot of time repairing it, as good as new.

Charlie Salmi offered to come to Moore Creek and cook for us for his board, and Otto Mikkola said he would come in a week or two to keep us supplied with firewood also for his board.

Oscar said he no longer could land on our Moore Creek landing strip because it was full of snowdrifts, but could land with the drill on a bald hilltop next to Camelback Mountain. The next day he took the drill there, and the two Charlies left with our dog team. They told me to allow them two days to get to the Bonanza relief cabin a mile from the hilltop; then have Oscar fly me there with our planeload of perishable groceries. They would come right up to take them to the mine.

We circled the cabin several times and saw no one. A faint trail led toward the mine. We flew to the camp, saw smoke from the chimney, and buzzed the cabin a couple of times. No one came out. We went back, landing on the bald hilltop, and unloaded the groceries. It was twenty degrees below zero so I covered them with a quilt and my sleeping bag.

Oscar took off. No Charlies appeared and it was getting late in the evening. I dug a deep hole in the snow, wrapped the groceries in the quilt and sleeping bag, and covered it all with snow.

It was starting to get dark when I began snow shoeing the nine miles to camp. In the semi-darkness the trail was hard to stay on. Even with snow shoes I sank down with each side step, especially the last few miles when darkness came.

I walked into the cabin and there they were, making hot drinks out of the gallon jug of pure alcohol they had brought with them.

I bawled them out, but they just laughed, saying, “Let them freeze. There’s lots more groceries where those came from.”

The next morning at daybreak I went to the shop, warmed up and started the old sixty tractor, hooking it to a sled. We went about a hundred feet when the front idler wheel for the track snapped back. The bracket that held the idler shaft had broken. The two Charlies went back to Flat with the dogs to get a bracket from Fritz Awe. They promised to be back in three days, but were delayed and did not return until eleven days later.

We started out at four in the morning, in the dark, for the sixty had a good headlight. The snow was deep, with huge drifts, so we kept getting stuck. The fuel line kept freezing up too, with condensation from the heat in the shop. We got to the groceries at one A.M. that night. Everything was frozen solid, but we took them anyway, and made it back to camp with no trouble.

The potatoes were usable by dropping them into boiling water, but the eggs onions, apples, milk, etc., we threw out. I leveled off the landing strip with the bulldozer and Oscar brought more groceries.

Otto Mikkola came and he and I trapped marten on the side. We got quite a few of the beautiful skins.

Hildur had gone to the radio station KFQD when she went through Anchorage, telling them she would send a telegram when the baby was born, to be broadcast on the nine P.M. bush people’s program, Tundra Topics. I kept my ear to the radio every evening. But on the night of December first when they broadcast the news that we were the parents of a big healthy boy, the radio had nothing but static. I kept listening every night, hearing nothing, because they broadcast it only once. On the fifteenth of December the two Charlies hitched up the dogs and went to Flat to get the mail. They promised to hurry back, but they went with friends on a wing-ding of a party and did not come back until December twenty-seventh.

During that time Otto and I took it easy. One morning about three A.M. I woke up to hear an airplane. I heard it again, very loud. Jumping out of bed, I yelled, “Otto, there’s an airplane buzzing the cabin!”

He lifted his head and said, “Go to sleep. Your ears are ringing. You’ve got cabin fever.”

I went out and left the door open. Pitch dark. I stood listening. A light snow was falling and it was very quiet except for a slight breeze blowing in gusts. Just as I went back in I heard the buzzing again.

Otto hit the floor with a bang, yelling, “You’re damn right–there is a plane!” We got our clothes on as fast as we could.

“Hurry! Light the gasoline lantern!” he half screamed. I did that and started out the door.

“For God’s sake, don’t put it on the wood pile! He will land on the wood pile!”

He came running out with a pile of magazines under his arm and started shoving his feet into his snow shoes.

“I’m going down to build a fire on four corners of our landing strip so he can see to land between the fires.”

I suggested that we wait awhile until the plane came again. But no plane appeared. Back in we went with Otto still clutching the magazines. After a minute the sound came again, so loudly that the whole building seemed to vibrate. Out we ran. Quiet.

“He’s sure got a fast plane because he gets so far away so fast that we can’t hear him,” Otto grumbled to me. Finally we quit running out and sat on the edge of our beds, wondering what it could be.

Otto was still holding the magazines. Then I tumbled: the extremely long radio aerial tied from the top of a tall tree to a pole fastened to the end of the cabin! The gusting wind started the wire vibrating, making a hum inside the cabin. Otto’s magazines hit the floor with a flop.

“For God sakes,” he said. “Don’t ever tell anyone about this! They will think we are going crazy.”

That day I went to check my marten traps, set alongside the trail toward Flat for about five miles. I was near the end of the trapline when I heard the two Charlies coming. They were both feeling no pain, for they had been tipping the bottle all the way.

When they saw me, Charlie Uotila handed me Hildur’s telegram. Ray was born on December first and I didn’t get the good news until twenty-seven days later. It made me very happy to hear that we had a son and that both he and Hildur were fine.

Moore Creek was spotted ground so it was just by chance that we hit a rich spot with the drill. But on the strength of this we went to Flat and wired Gus and John in Seattle that we would buy their old dragline.

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