From the porch of the two-story cabin he had built years before with his father, Jeremy steadied himself through what must have been a thick alcohol haze, leveled the enormous bear rifle at one of the dozens of empty gasoline cans littered about the yard, and fired. "You can kill an elephant with this shit," he said cheerily. He had offered to show us the real Alaska, what life was like beyond the gravel safety of the Haul Road, and we had eagerly accepted his invitation. But by the time we arrived at his cabin hours later, our hopes of an interview were vanishing precisely as fast as the fifth of whiskey in his back pocket and we were a long way from home.
We met Jeremy in the small store he runs with his mother in the parking lot of the Yukon River Camp. The store, accurately named "Mainly Birch," was a small shack of souvenirs and knick-knacks carved from the wood of the Birch trees that populate the area. Each item was uniquely crafted and delicately painted: keychains of woven wood, bracelets decorated with individually hole-punched bark bits. The gift shop supplied their income, she told me, in addition to the wildlife boat tours that her son offered shuttling tourists up or down the Yukon River for donations. When we first met Jeremy, he told us about his miles of trap lines and the cabin he had built upriver with his father where he and his mother lived. The waitress in the camp cafe told us his father had passed away four years earlier. He said he'd love to show us around and we eagerly agreed.
As we zoomed up the river in his tiny fishing boat, barely afloat under the weight of all six of us, he told us about himself as he drank from a plastic handle of vodka. Tales of life in the wild and wild living, his time in prison, women he'd loved and lost. He told us about his father - the original "bad-boy" he said - whose misdeeds had forced them to move around frequently. Despite the trouble he sometimes created, he had loved his wife and son a great deal. He had been a pillar of strength for their family, Jeremy told us. The two of them had built the cabin out in the woods decades earlier by themselves, before the cancer, the first fire, the second.
People who decide to make the Alaskan wilderness their home have a palpable sense of pride about them. Jeremy wears the claw of a bear he shot around his neck, equal parts badge of honor and backwoods amulet. He swore like a fit of turrets amplified through a loudspeaker and swilled liquor like his tongue was on fire. We watched in disbelief as he raced his snowmobile in circles around the house, assassinated empty gas cans with an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, felled Birch trees with his body weight; what I imagine a Yukon Olympics might look like if all the athletes were half pickled. Exhausted, Riley finally asked him if we could just talk to him instead, if we could be real with him.
"You wanna see some real shit?" Jeremy yelled, and started off into the scorched landscape behind the cabin where a fire had raged months earlier, new growth sprouting up amidst charred trees. We followed him a few dozen yards to a small hill, the only thing in sight that the fire hadn't burned. At the crest, we found ourselves circled around a coffin-shaped piece of sunken earth with two birch branches twined together in the shape of a cross stuck in the ground at the grave's head. Jeremy broke the silence, "Can't burn my dad," he said.
I didn't take a picture of Jeremy's fathers grave, I don't think the thought even crossed my mind. There's a chance that that hill will join the other beautiful, undocumented moments filed away in my memory as missed opportunities, though I doubt a photo could do justice to the power and surreality of that moment. My mind grasped at rational explanations as it is prone to, chalking the whole thing up to beautiful coincidence or scientific anomaly. My heavy-laden heart conjured up images of Jeremy shouldering the weight of his father's body up the hill just as he'd soon have to shoulder the man's responsibilities if he and his mother were to survive out here. I couldn't help but imagine myself standing in that very spot as the fire raged all around me, sunken grave at my feet and birch trees ablaze for miles in every direction. I don't need a picture of that hill, to have seen it is enough.
It's still not clear to me whether a life lived on the fringe of society made Jeremy wild, or if perhaps like he said, this was the only place for a man like him. "Can you see me in the city? No way, brother." I don't think that any of us are sure what we learned from Yukon Jeremy, really. The interview we got certainly wasn't the interview we were looking for. What I am sure of, and what I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by, standing on that hill looking out on the Alaskan wilderness, is that this is why we are here. We pedal south to see for ourselves and bear witness.