Outdoor Focus Autumn 2017 - Page 9

Wordsmith Kev Reynolds The Man with the World’s Best Job www.kevreynolds.co.uk The Man From Alaska W he’d entertain himself by playing Rachmaninoff on the piano that he’d transported into the wilds by buckboard. When our journey across the mountains was over, he gripped my hand tightly, looked me in the eye and said: ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ We did, and for several years I treasured each letter that arrived. ‘Winter is just around the corner,’ he wrote in one. ‘This afternoon I canoed to the far side of the lake to cut winter wood, and broke ½ inch ice some of the way; coming back towards evening, my earlier passage breaks were skimmed over with new ice. I feel that will be my last canoe trip of the year … Northern lights may be in store for tonight.’ In another he described how ‘the mercury has slipped into the “far belows” as we call it -50 or better.’ He told of the caribou having left early for the Yukon, that moose were his most prominent neighbours that winter, and how he’d ‘spotted wolf tracks out on the lake.’ When he was 70 Fred made a three-month trip ‘outside’ - meaning outside the State of Alaska. He described spending a month of it along the coastline of Vancouver Island, ‘kayaking from island to island, enjoying side trips to homesteaders, inland lakes for warm water swimming, dining on clams, mussels, oysters and fish about the evening campfires, bathing in hot springs and walking some of the beaches on the Pacific Rim.’ Fred was a man whose love of the natural world was infectious, so with his agreement I planned to take a film crew to visit him. What an inspiration he would be! But as with so many well-laid plans, it came to naught when the independent film company was taken over by executives with no interest in a man who lived alone in the wilderness. Eventually we lost touch. My fault, not Fred’s, I was racing hither and yon trying to earn a living, stumbling from one financial crisis to the next, moving home and losing things. But though our correspondence ended, I never forgot the man from Alaska. More than 25 years after we’d first met, I had a yearning to get in touch again. By now he’d be in his nineties… Tapping his name into Google, up came Fred’s smiling face, illustrating his obituary. My friend Fred had died three months earlier. Now began another correspondence, this time with someone who’d known Fred much longer and far better than I did, and who could tell me a whole lot more about the man who’d lived a life I could barely imagine. He was not the lone wolf I’d pictured. Instead he was a friend to many, drawing admirers from all walks of life with his natural warmth and humility, and who became so well-loved and respected that the State of Alaska honoured him by instituting a ‘Fred Rungee Day’. So I was not the only one whose life was enriched by an encounter with the Man from Alaska, and I shall cherish the memory of our walk in the Alps, and never recite Call of the Wild again without hearing his voice…. e were running short of breath when we finally reached the Sefinenfurgge, but having climbed 1800 metres since breakfast, we could be excused for that. Resting on a convenient rock, Fred mopped the sweat from his brow, then turned to me and said in that soft North American drawl of his: ‘I guess you bein’ a writer, you might like a bit of poetry?’ I nodded. ‘Does the name Robert Service mean anythin’ to you?’ he asked. Grinning, I quoted back: ‘Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there’s nothing else to gaze on?’ Fred took up the next line: ‘Set pieces and drop curtain scenes galore,’ after which we completed in harmony the first verse of Call of the Wild, that classic hymn of praise to the wilderness. With that, our friendship was established, and over the next few days as we trekked the central section of the Alpine Pass Route together, I gradually got to know something of the life of this quiet man from Alaska, and the more I learned, the more I grew to respect and admire him. A gentle, thick-set man of medium height, Fred Rungee was 67 at the time, and making a nostalgic return to Switzerland which he’d last visited as a four-year old when his father, a composer, had spent a year there with his family. Fred inherited his father’s love of music and trained for a while as a classical pianist, but fate had other plans and as a conscientious objector he became a smokejumper during World War II, after which he moved from Connecticut to Alaska where his love of the wilderness took root. For the rest of his working life he was a smokejumper for the Bureau of Land Management – that is, a fire fighter who would parachute into remote regions to combat forest fires. He and his crew would land with a backpack of survival and fire-fighting equipment, and cut breaks to prevent wildfires from spreading. It was exciting, dangerous work, of course, but well paid. Finding he had an affinity with the wilderness, Fred saved his money, took early retirement and bought a parcel of land on the edge of the Wrangell-St Elias National Park, where he built a cabin in which to live overlooking Carlson Lake, about 4km from the nearest road. He grew vegetables, ate berries, caught fish from the lake, drew his water from a nearby spring and because of bears, had to carry a rifle whenever he stepped outdoors. His home, he told me, was on a caribou migration trail, so twice a year immense herds would wander past, sometimes destroying his vegetables on the way. On occasion he’d shoot a moose to keep him in meat for a year or more. There was no boasting with Fred. He’d answer my questions with enthusiasm and honesty, and as the days went by I began to build a picture of his life of self-imposed solitude in which there was no room for loneliness. I sensed his disciplined humanity; he was a man at peace with himself and the world around him. Submerged as he was by nature in the raw, he would mesmerise with tales of close encounters with black bears, but would contrast such excitements by quoting numerous authors, reciting poetry and telling how He was a man at peace with himself and the world around him... 9