I would like to tell you a bit about the making of the book SWIFT.
It all began many years ago, around 1975, when I was backpacking on the Appalachian Trail. I was getting to the end of my two week hike and had just crossed the Delaware Water Gap and started heading into Pennsylvania. A few miles in, I met another hiker named Larry. That day would change my life forever.
Larry had hiked to Pennsylvania from Maine, and was headed all the way to Georgia. Wow!
Here is a drawing of Larry.
When Larry got to Alaska, he heard that some land was opening up for homesteading, so he found a piece of land and put down a claim. And he has lived there ever since.
Here is a photo that Larry sent me, from his first year in Alaska. He wrote and told me to come up and visit. I wanted to!
Of course, Larry had to build a log cabin to live in. One day, while he was working on the cabin, a grizzly bear started to come in the window. If it got inside with him, Larry would be trapped! But Larry "dispatched" the bear and had food for the winter."You know, Rob," Larry once told me, "Grizzly bears are very dangerous." I believe him.
Here is what it looks like where Larry lives. Notice that it is already snowing up high in the mountains.
Over time, Larry got his cabin built, got married and had two children. I lived in New Jersey and made a lot of picture books.
One day, my editor said, "Where would you like to go to make a book?" I answered, "Alaska!" And so I went to Alaska, to see the Iditarod race and make the book AKIAK....and to visit Larry and his family.
Then, a few years later, when I went to Alaska to research TOGO and to visit village schools in Alaska, I made time to visit with Larry again. I always made notes on the stories he told me and of course I did a lot of drawings in my sketchbook.
Finally, in 2004, I made a special trip just to visit with Larry and his family. I knew it was time to make my homesteader book. I should have known it would be an adventure.
Here is a picture of the cabin Larry built- pretty nice!
Larry's house was very comfortable. Many people came by to visit and tell tales. The native folk sure tell great stories.
Usually, when guests come in, their gear is wet- so they put it right by the coal stove to dry it out
When guests come they are invited to dinner- and that's when they begin to tell stories. Lots of stories- about sled dogs or harrowing escapes from bad weather or even about bear attacks.
I liked to sit there and write the stories down as I drew the storytellers.
One day a man came by to visit. His he told me that his name was Gabe and said, "I am a Yupik Eskimo." Gabe told so many stories, and told them so well that I almost felt like the walls of the cabin were disappearing- and that I was out in the wilderness walking through his tales.
Then some travelers stopped by- and they told us a frightening thing: Someone in the area had shot a grizzly bear, but he'd only wounded it. That meant that there was a hurt, angry, nasty griz out there somewhere. "Rob," Larry said, "An injured bear is the worst kind of bear. A healthy bear might give you some warning- but an injured bear lies low, then suddenly attacks before you know it's there."
The homesteaders and their families now had a big problem.
My visit to Larry's homestead had suddenly turned dangerous. Somewhere outside there was a very big, angry grizzly bear.
The beautiful woods surrounding the cabin felt ominous, dangerous.
The kids were not allowed to go outside. At first they thought it was fun because they did not have to go to school. But as the days wore on, they got very bored.
Finally Mrs. lake told Larry and me to go and FIND THAT BEAR.
Robert wanted to go with us and he wanted to bring the dog. But his dad said that he could not join us because he was too young and had not passed the gun course. Instead, we'd get a homesteading neighbor to help.
Larry also thought we should leave the dog to warn the family if the bear came around. The dog was good in the woods, he was "knowledgeable," Larry said- but he'd be most valuable at home, protecting the family.
So Larry and I set out, went to get his neighbor and hunt for the bear.
We hiked a long time and then found traces of the bear. It seemed that he was headed to high ground.
"There will be snow up there," Larry said.
We traveled up to the high ground while Larry's neighbor searched for the bear down below on the ridge. The higher Larry and I went, the colder, more slippery, and snowier it got.
When we reached the beaver pond, I almost slipped and fell into the water. Larry said he'd fallen in the water when it was below zero. At first his feet itched, later it felt like he was walking on pins. Then his teeth started chattering wildly. But he kept walking for miles and miles until he made it home- he had to.
We searched the high ground for most of the day, then returned home to find out that his neighbor had found and "dispatched" the bear. Now everybody was safe, the kids could go back to school, and there was plenty of food for the homesteaders to share. And for all the worry, all the trouble, and all the snow and ice and cold...I had an idea for a story.
What if there was an injured bear around a homesteaders area?
What if a dad had to go and get it?
What if his son was a little bit older than Robert- and had passed the gun course? Then he could go!
What if they took their dog with them?
I started thinking about these things....