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Before the hunt comes the search for a good hunting rig

Hugo, an English setter, covered in mud just after we said, "Stop, stop, stop" because we knew we were about to load him up in the cab of the truck to go home. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

There were three ways I knew to access the Chickaloon Flats, located on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. I was reluctant to take the beach approach from the Captain Cook State Recreation Area at low tide. And, I didn’t have the financial means to charter a small plane to one of the three landing strips. The most feasible option was to travel by vehicle down 36 miles of the marginally drivable Mystery Creek Road.

I had heard a trip to Chickaloon required four-wheel drive, spare tires and, by some accounts, a lift or snorkel. I didn’t want to take the car I rely on for work.

These were my thoughts as I drove by the used-car dealership and a row of factory misfits caught my eye. Three vehicles in the $500 price range represented the low-end of a lot of cars bought at auction. The most redeeming feature of each vehicle was written in soap on the window. My eyes landed on “Runs Great.”

Inside the dealership, a boy was eating a hot dog from a paper plate. He squinted up at me with a look as worldly as his salesman father. I approached the counter and asked for the keys to Runs Great, a circa-1980s Mazda minivan. The lone salesman found the keys and handed them to me without suggesting any paperwork. By virtue of its low value, there was limited liability if I didn’t bring it back and a foreshadowing that insisted I would.

Runs Great started up without any trouble. But there was an incredible smell. It was the smell of a landfill on a hot summer day. I hurried to find the electric window switch. Luckily, it worked. No amount of air flowing through the vehicle exhausted the smell. I made four right-hand turns and pulled back into the dealership.

The boy was still sitting at the table, now eating chips.

“Whaddaya think?” the salesman asked.

“Runs Great,” I said.

“Smells Awful,” the boy said.

Great Price was next in line — a gray 1996 Bronco II complete with a tape player and a spare mismatched back door. It no longer had carpet, and the seats had the lumpy bounce of a bed that had been jumped on by 12 little monkeys.

I needed the kind of vehicle you could get into after a day spent on the duck flats, my clothes soaked with marsh muck and hip waders caked with tidal mud. I needed seats that accommodated wet and tired dogs, coffee spills and cookie crumbs without concern for the next morning’s commute to the office.

The aftermarket accessories made up for the fact that Great Price was a gas hog that tended to slip into neutral when going down hills. There was a plastic gun rack Gorilla Glued into the back window, drink holders duct-taped in enough places to host a party and upcycled mouse pads glued to the roof for a canoe rest and to the dash board to act as sticky mats for such objects as binoculars and spare magazines.

I started taking left turns as I imagined the possibilities. While other hunters were purchasing expensive side-by-sides, a $500 gamble on a time machine built for a world of back roads, beaches and swamps seemed like a good idea.

My mind wandered as I pictured the Bronco II as my version of the fictional model of car driven in the Mad Max movies. There were more lanes for motocross than for cars along the highway on my drive home from work, and I had seen plenty of off-road vehicles with creative aftermarket ideas — junkyard parts welded onto golf carts, tractors, riding mowers, forklifts and other recommissioned decommissioned vehicles.

If Great Price was mine, I’d be free to explore possibilities I’d never dare explore in my work rig. I could add a snorkel, front guards, wench, and even stow a sheathed knife on the underbody to protect myself from dystopic motorcycle gangs of the future. This would be the perfect vehicle for making the trip to the Chickaloon Flats.

Back at the dealership the boy had disappeared so I don’t know what two-word christening he would have given Great Price. I didn’t need to test drive Free Tires or inquire further, I was sold on what would be renamed “The Mule” for its gray exterior and stubborn motor.

Steve appeared impressed with my choice. He either appreciated my enthusiasm or was grateful that the truck he washed every other day would no longer be our hunting vehicle. For two years, The Mule proved more trustworthy than our schedules, and we never made the drive to Chickaloon.

I’m many years older now, and I’ve listened to stories from others who have made the drive to Chickaloon in better vehicles than the Mule. They’ve swamped their transmissions or had to use a come-along to get unstuck. Every year they swear the road is better and dare me to try it in my regular vehicle.

My first few years as a hunter came later in life than many who recall a childhood of hunting a nearby slough or taking their gun with them to school. But my enchantment with the dirt-filled world, miserable duck hunting weather and predawn rides to the flats in the Mule are my romantic version of what it is to begin the adventure of life on your own terms.

The Mule was my tree fort — my place to let my hair down and eat tacos without worrying about the upholstery. It was my rule-free zone. It was my first decision — good or bad — based on utility and not aesthetics. Many other decisions would follow, and they would get better.

In the ATV showroom, I looked around at all the beautiful backcountry machines. The seats were firm and ergonomic. The accessories were engineered for purpose — and expensive. This is where adults go to purchase toys, I thought. If I bought something so regular, would it come at the cost of lost imagination and ingenuity?

We sold the Mule for $500, and it now has fancy new rims and a lift kit installed by its new owner. I miss my first hunting rig. It may be true that you can’t go back in time. But maybe someday, I can actually make it to Chickaloon.

Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter who lives in Kenai.

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