I turned twelve in the summer of 1958, and was finally considered mature enough by my mother to accompany my father, Daniel, and my uncle Ezra on their annual trip into the Yukon Territory. My father and his brother learned to fly during the war, and after the war’s end turned their experience into a business. For eleven months of the year, they operated an airline that specialized in flying hunters and fishermen into remote parts of Canada. For longer than I had been alive, they had been flying Ezra’s Grumman G-44 Widgeon from our home in northern Idaho into a remote part of the Yukon for a month-long, outdoor adventure vacation. The Widgeon was modified to land on water, snow and even roads if need be. He could land on a football field, and once did that when he lost both engines in a storm. Occasionally, he would take me on one of his day trips, and if the weather was just right, he would let me fly the plane for a while. Mom threw a fit when she found out, but Dad convinced her Uncle Ezra would not risk his own life.
I began packing a week before we left. I started with close to a hundred pounds of gear, but by the time we left, my load was only twenty-one pounds. Mom made sure I packed enough underwear and socks. Uncle Ezra divided the flight from our home in Waskatenau, Idaho, to Iuka Falls, Yukon, into three days. He knew the best places to land and camp, and we were not in a hurry to arrive at our final destination.
It was on this trip I first met Malachi Amos. I had heard unbelievable stories about him my whole life, but I had never seen a picture of him. He lived in a one-room cabin on the side of the mountain above the falls which gave the town its name. To call Iuka Falls a town is somewhat misleading. There are three buildings in town. The largest one is a combination hotel, restaurant, general store, gas station and post office. The second is the home for both employees of the first building and the third is abandoned.
We landed outside of town in a clearing, and while avoiding a herd of caribou, taxied as close to the hotel as we could get. Ezra shut down the engines and I waited for Dad to open the door. By this time, I was used to the mountain scenery, so I ignored the falls and mountains surrounding the town, grabbed my bag and hopped out. I took three steps toward the hotel and stopped so quickly my father ran into me.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
I pointed and asked, “Who is that? He looks like a grizzly bear.”
My father laughed and replied, “Ah, you’ve never met Malachi.”
“I’ve heard stories, but never really believed them. I thought you and Uncle Ezra were trying to outdo each other with tall tales.”
We walked up to Malachi, and I kept glancing at him and the ancient-looking vehicle he was leaning against. My father shook hands with him and introduced me. I stared without saying a word. Malachi Amos towered over me and everyone else by at least two feet. His matted, brown beard and his uncut long hair helped give him the appearance of a true mountain man, but it was his clothes that intrigued me. He wore what appeared to be the fur of a bear, with pants made from buffalo hide. His leather boots had never been polished, and it was obvious he didn’t have to take a daily bath like me. He threw our gear in the back of his Willys Jeep, and we piled in wherever we could. The trip to his cabin took close to an hour though it was less than two miles from town as the crow flies.
We zigged and zagged up switchbacks, through one meadow after another, crossed a stream too many times to remember, and, eventually, turned onto a path too narrow to be more than a wildlife trail. We drove straight up the mountain for a hundred yards before he turned and stopped at the edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the Iuka Falls.
“Wow! This is amazing. How did you ever find this place?” I asked Malachi.
He grunted and replied, “I didn’t find it. I built it when I was eighteen.”
“How old are you now?”
“If this is 1958, then I turned sixty-one back in January. Time’s not as important here as you might think.”
For the next three weeks, Malachi guided us deeper and deeper into the mountains he called home. He taught me how to read the signs left by various animals. He taught me how to fish and prepare what I caught. He showed me the root cellar where he stored food for the winter. By the time I left Iuka Falls, I had gained ten pounds of muscle and could fell a tree and chop it into firewood faster than my father.
“If you come back next year, I’ll take you on a hiking trip to the top of that mountain.” He pointed at the tallest mountain I had ever seen. “It’s fifty miles from here, and from there you can see more glaciers than you can count.”
“I’ll come back every summer if I can,” I answered.
I looked at Dad, and he nodded.