KLM Podcasts – Episode 1 – Living with bears

KLM Podcasts – Episode 1 – Living with bears


I just knew I had
to cross the river which is about a mile wide. And I was going like in one direction down river. And I realised I cannot cross the river. Because if I cross the waves will just
go over my boat and I will be full of
water and if I if I turn it upside down I’m dead. So I thought ‘how am I going to do this? ‘how am I going to do this?’ This is Linda Nijlunsing. And in this very first episode of The Journey we take you along Linda’s odyssey around the world. A journey that led her to a life and death decision on a wild river in the middle of the
Alaskan wilderness… A defining moment of the trip
that defined her life. This is a story about the trip that changed everything! Hi, I’m Jonathan Groubert and this is The Journey. The Journey is an original podcast from
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines where we meet
extraordinary people whose lives are transformed by travel. This story starts in 1983. 1983.. Oh boy. Linda Nijlunsing is in
her mid-60s. Has short, gray hair a body that is muscular not like someone who
hits the gym but solid from physical labor. She served us tea in her
homey houseboat in the Dutch city of Groningen. And she told us that
back in 1983 when she was just 27
years old she worked as a
school teacher and… was not happy. I had a great job a wonderful job. But.. after my mother had died I kind of felt a little lost. And it felt like my
life was just getting up in the morning driving to work working with the kids and then go back. I didn’t feel real good. I was like.. unhappy. So then I thought, you know something needs to change. And.. how are you going
to change things? I.. couldn’t think of anything else than change my environment really. That’s what I did. So I left in… I think I left in nineteen eighty-four. Yeah. So Linda hit the road. The first port of
call was Cuba where she watched Fidel
Castro speak talked her way out of arrest and secretly saw the island. She panned for gold
in New Zealand. And partied with Maoris. She lived off her wits her muscles and her ability to
create good will in people everywhere. Linda says it was… …total freedom. Total freedom.. That’s the best feeling
ever that you… don’t know what’s
around the corner. That’s the best feeling. Yeah. Linda worked as a tour guide and for years she traveled to almost every corner
of the world. But Alaska… was different. There was a deep connection and she kept coming back. Again and again. Well, imagine clear skies stars pristine snow thundering rivers fresh fish a big salmon on your plate that you just caught the elements; winter, snow. Yeah, you feel alive. That’s pretty much it. And the people they also feel like one big family. Everybody’s there for a reason. And the reason mostly is they want to
get away from it all. One guy once said
to me like ‘I’m better off without the world and
the world is better off without me’. So they’re all looking for this
basic kind of lifestyle. Linda says Alaska will feed you make you happy and, if you don’t live by its rules it will kill you. Only the strong survive. And that brings us to the other
main character in this story. The mountain man with the moustache: Big Jim. Jim! Yeah! When did you meet Big Jim? Well that was… I think that was the Christmas
nineteen-ninety. I was living with Cathy and her husband and her child. And she’s a very sociable person and she has many friends. Hi Cathy. Yes. Can you hear me okay? Yeah, I can hear you okay. My name’s Jonathan by the way. Hi Jonathan. Cathy is probably Linda’s best friend
from her days in Alaska. And Cathy sort of set up
her friend Big Jim and Linda on a date. …You know he was always a bachelor. You know he was tall and for some reason
we thought they would hit it off. For some reason? Yeah, well, you know… he was living the lifestyle
that Linda had come to love. But you know they did
hit it off right away. For Christmas nineteen-ninety they had invited a friend that lived as a trapper on the Yukon River by himself for a long time already. For twenty years I think. And he was a friend so they invited him over and I was of course invited too. I got there and there he was outside waiting for me which I thought was really kind of stupid. Because it felt like, you know… he was looking for a woman. That was obvious, yeah. What did he look like? Ah, six foot four. One metre, ninety-six. Huge guy. Of course. Imagine a guy who’s
living in the bush in Alaska chopping wood and doing
heavy work all the time. So he looked pretty good except for his face. He had this terrible moustache. You know like the one
that sailors have sometimes? Like the drooping moustache. Right. Yeah. When Linda Nijlunsing met Big Jim it was NOT love at first sight. No way. No way. It was the opposite. It was like yeah I want to go there and I want
to learn everything but I don’t want you. When Linda says “go there” she means to the wilderness
with Big Jim to learn his way of life. Jim regaled Linda with tales
of his lonely but fulfilling life as a self-sufficient self-reliant hunter of pelts far away from civilization in the wilds of the
Alaskan forest. She was intrigued and he saw that. He said ‘well, why don’t
you come up and spend a couple of
weeks with me and I’ll teach you everything I know’. Because he’s a very smart man and he knew that I was
triggered by curiosity. And so he said ‘yeah, we’ll go hunting and we’ll go set some traps and…’ And cut to a few weeks later. Linda is an airplane flying to a tiny airport
somewhere west of Fairbanks just the first leg of the trip
to Big Jim’s cabin in the woods. The pilot lands. Dumps her pack out in the dark, cold runway and takes off again. No Jim. There were a few guys with a truck and they said ‘are you Linda?’ ‘Yes’. He said ‘well, Big Jim told us you would come so why don’t you jump
in the truck and we’ll take you to the village’. Half an hour later, [sound effect] there comes Jim. ‘Hello’. Not like ‘oh, I’m sorry for
not picking you up. Sorry for being late’. Nothing. No. ‘Ok, there you are. Let’s go’. “Let’s go” meant a raucous
snowmobile ride down the mountain in 30 degrees below zero to Big Jim’s camp. An utterly isolated place
known as Birch Creek. The center of it all
was Jim’s cabin. Jim showed Linda around
his lonely kingdom and then brought her
inside the main cabin. ….then he says ‘ok,
well this is where I live. This is the kitchen. This is my bedroom. This is my bed. And that’s about it’. So I looked around and said ‘ok, so where am I going to crash?’. He said ‘in my bed’. Said ‘oh, great, so where are you
going to sleep?’. He said ‘in my bed’. So I said ‘no, I
don’t think so. I don’t think that’s
an option.’ So he said ‘well, ok. Good enough.
You can sleep on the floor.’ And that’s exactly what happened. I got one of those little rotten little mattresses to sleep on and it was of course very cold. And so I’m in the sleeping bag
on the floor and he’s in his bed. Well, he obviously had
his mind set on having some good loving warmth and whatever goes with it, I guess. It sounds like you’re
talking about sex. Is that right? Yes, that must be it then. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Now you mention it, that was it. And when you told him, ‘oh, no Big Jim, that’s not going to happen’, how did he react exactly? Well he got a little pissed off. He said ‘well, why are you here?’. I said ‘well, I think we discussed it profoundly. Like you were going to
teach me everything and you were going to show
me things, how to do.’ Well it was not very pleasant situation. No. He was annoyed. He didn’t try to hide it let’s put it that way. And I got pissed off, of course. Well then there was a little bit
of argument going up and down and he said ‘ok, well
that’s the way you want it. Fine’. So that’s the way I want it. And from that moment
on it was great because then that was out of the way and so he was starting to
explain things to me how to set up a rabbit trap and we went to look at
the marten traps and he explained to me
about the greenhouse about the generator and how to conserve fish and all that. And we had a great time. And fun. I mean he had a really
fantastic sense of humor. So we laughed a lot. With the sexual tension
out of the way Jim and Linda got to
know each other. Jim was originally
from upstate NY and he fell in love with Alaska
during a trip there in the 60s. A loner by nature he hand built his little kingdom. About 10 days into her visit Linda realized something was
different between them. This was confirmed when she woke
up one morning to discover that the mountain man Big Jim rugged individualist had shaved off his moustache. It’s often like that when
men have moustaches and they shave them off then their face kind
of lightens up I find. And suddenly I thought like ‘wow what a nice face’. ‘Ha kind of attractive’. And we had fun. And then pretty much one night I made the move myself. Jim changed. He was more fun and open… He showed his vulnerability and he he was relaxed. He wasn’t trying to be macho or be this guy. He started talking about his loneliness. Oh I recalled a night,
yes we went on a trip. We went to go hunting; trapping. And that’s when we
spent a night in the in the trappers cabin. Imagine that you live in a cabin but when you go trapping you make a lot of miles, right. Because you could go twenty miles and you don’t want to go back in one
day because it’s a lot of work. I mean, you go really, really
where nobody goes. And there was a little lake all frozen. And there was this little cabin and you know, there’s nobody there. And he opened the door and you make a fire you unpack your gear and your food. And that night we started talking you know these conversations about his fears and about his hopes and his dreams and and why it was so difficult for him
to be with people. That’s the night that the northern lights came out. Yeah. We’d walk outside and you see this otter tracks and the northern lights come out. It’s brilliant. So you guys get together. Is it a passionate romance
at that point? Could I describe
it like that? Yes, yes, absolutely. It was very passionate it was very together it was very fun and I was completely
in love. I was smitten totally struck. And you know like the
feeling that you can’t stop smiling and all that. I really thought we were
meant for each other. Yeah. I thought so. He said, you know ‘I want you’. So we got married
six weeks later. It was a whirlwind romance
and marriage and everyone was happy. Even Linda’s family…. My name is Mary Ann and I’m the sister of Linda. I was glad for her because
she really liked the guy and she was happy. So… well it was good news. This was the first time she did that, in that way. Ja. And so Linda Nijlunsing of the Netherlands and Mountain Man Big Jim had found each other. And Jim helped Linda
find a side of herself she didn’t even
know she had. I became a bigger person. I mean I was daring things and I was learning things and I was… yeah, we were partners
doing things together. Hold this, get that let’s make some moose meat. We had a lot of
fun together. We’d sing songs together. And he would listen
to my stories and I would listen to
his stories. And of course he was impressive and he knew all these things and I was learning and… of course you’re also alone. Just the two of you. So yeah good company. Daily life followed a fixed
pattern of hard work. Fixing stuff smoke fish and cut trees. And then of course there was hunting for
pelts and skins Big Jim’s stock in trade. There were the rabbits
and martens. The Salmon. The occasional moose for meat. The bears. And then there was the time a wolf got caught
in a foot trap. It was alive. And it made painfully clear
that Linda and Jim were still in two totally
different worlds. And the wolf is laying
there because he can’t go anywhere. And then you have
to kill it. You get off the Snow Go and you pick up the gun and Jim would wait for the animal
to not move and the animal is just fixated
on you because he knows this is
going to happen. And the wolf kind of jumps up and
falls down and blood streaming out
of his mouth and foamy blood. So then you have
to go there but you don’t know
how dead is he, because he’s not dead he’s breathing, he’s like [gasping sounds] heavily breathing. And so we walk up there carefully and Jim tells me to stand
on his neck so he can give him the final shot. So this animal’s laying there and I’m standing on his throat to suffocate him so he won’t move, yeah with my full weight. And he’s breathing blood. And I remember that he was getting up under my feet. I mean I’m not a light person. But he was like getting up so strong. And then Jim shot him from close range and he killed him. Yeah, that was not
a fun experience. So he said ‘I don’t need you to
come with me next time’ because he wasn’t emotionally involved. He was just happy. He got a wolf. Mercy killing wolves notwithstanding, Big Jim started off as a very good husband. Sometimes if it was a very
nice summer evening for instance we’d get in the boat and we’d take our fishing rods and we’d just go
across the river and beautiful. You’d see beavers and it’s quiet and we go fishing for pike. He loved being out there. Me too. I loved it too. As long as… pretty much as long
as I was with him I was happy. Despite this wedded bliss something happened that led Linda to wonder if she’d made the
right decision. So one day we would have
some fishing nets in the river and one day I would go with the boat and check the fishing nets and take out the salmon. The next day he
would go out. And so we kind of swap. And one day it was my turn and the river was really, really, really rough. I mean, there were big waves and it was cold and the wind was blowing. And I kind of looked at it
and I thought then I said ‘I don’t know I don’t feel like going
on this river’ and… so I was looking at
him thinking like surely he’ll say like ‘yeah, let’s give it a miss today’ or something. But he didn’t. So when I said like ‘well, I guess I’ll
be going then’. And he’s kind of ‘Yeah, ok’. Not responding. So I went into the boat and I tried to cross the river but it was just so dangerous because there were big waves. And and I just knew I had to cross the river which is about a mile wide. And I was going like in one direction down river. And I realised I cannot cross the river. Because if I cross the waves will just
go over my boat and I will be full of water and if I if I turn it upside down, I’m dead. So I thought ‘how am I
going to do this? ‘how am I going to do this?’ So I’m going like down river and I figure if I pass the net just wait and then turn around
real fast and then go back with the
waves the other side I can make it. So that’s what I did and then I got there
and it was so wild. And I was going up and down and it’s cold water and the salmon have
really big teeth. So my hands were bleeding and the water’s pulling on the net and I get stuck. It hurts. So I must have been busy
for an hour working, trying to get the salmon out and then go back home. Which was scary. So I got back home and I did the cut and
all that cutting. And the next day the river was kind of quietening down some. And he wasn’t getting
ready to go and do the nets. So I asked him ‘well, when are you leaving? When are you going
to check the net?’ He said ‘with this weather,
I’m not going. I’m not crazy’. And that really pissed me off. And I said ‘what? Yesterday it was way
worse than this. You let me go’. He said ‘yeah, well, you know. I thought if she thinks
she can do it you know. I wouldn’t go out with
that weather’. And that’s when I that’s when I thought
this is really strange. I could’ve died there
on that river easily. If I hadn’t had all my wits together I would’ve died that day. And we had an argument
about this. I said ‘well, I can’t understand how you how you take that risk with me’. So that’s pretty much the first
time that I thought something’s wrong here. Linda grew slowly discontented
with her life. This only got worse when
her sister Marion and her husband
came for a visit but left early. There wasn’t so much
to do for visitors because you couldn’t just
walk off the ground because then there
were those bears. Black ones. Yeah after a few days there was not so much
for us to do because Linda and Jim were working very hard. It was in the summer time so they had to
do a lot of jobs everything to prepare for
the winter time again because they have a very
short summer in Alaska. Linda says her sister’s sudden departure
held a mirror up to her life and it wasn’t pretty. She saw her life was
one of heavy repetitive labor and danger. And then Linda announced she was pregnant. I had this little thing the blue stick and I thought he was going
to be happy and I was driving back
home real carefully because I didn’t want to
go bump, bump, bump. And he was not too happy. No. And he reacted. Exactly what did he say? Can’t be. Can’t be. No. Not possible. Not possible. I have had women in my life and I’m sterile. So it can’t be. And pretty soon after that
it was like it’s not mine. It can’t be mine. So like I would be sleeping with
other men or something. That’s pretty offensive
to hear that. Big Jim even suggested she get an abortion. No way I’m going
to get rid of it. So that’s when I left. That’s when I left him and I went to live in the village. And that’s when I spent the three
months of my pregnancy alone. And then he came to see me and he he told me he had
thought about it and he had kind of come to terms
with the idea and that it was ok and we were going to make it and we would work it out. Jim and Linda went
back to the camp and continued along like
nothing had changed. No baby bed came. No birth plan. Jim continued to live his life. He’s not not very much into
your needs. And pretty much doing
his own thing and you can come
together with him but he’s not going to change his ways because of you kind of thing. I thought love would
conquer all that. I thought, you know,
once you’re together you’re a team. So you both adapt. But it turned out that I was
adapting to his lifestyle and he was not adapting
to my needs. I just accepted him
for what he was and the way he was. And.. I adapted myself and that worked out really good for him. But then when your life changes as in becoming a father and a mother a family then that asks for
different skills. Close to the due date Linda went to town
to a cheap hotel close to the hospital to wait for the contractions
to start. She wanted Jim to come too. He didn’t want to go. He said ‘there’s lots
of work to do and this is the busiest
time of the year and I have to get stuff ready and don’t you understand and da, da, da, da, da’. So that was already
not very nice. But I made him go. So he arrived two days before I actually gave birth. And imagine you have to stay in a hotel. And he didn’t like
to spend money, so I was in this dungy not very clean nasty hotel room, having my first contractions. He was there. And he didn’t want to come as I said. So you’re in the hotel room. I’m having contractions and he’s saying to me ‘can you keep it down
a bit. I can’t sleep’. And here I’m trying to
keep my voice down while I’m having contractions, right. Because he wants to sleep. So he was dragging
his feet all the way. And finally go to the hospital and it turned out that I was so muscled strong. Like your pelvis has to give way for the baby of course, but I had muscles like iron
cables more or less. It was really slow and it was really painful. It took two days. Linda required a lot of stitches and a long recovery time. Big Jim was not pleased. They stayed with some
friends a few days and then moved back to
Jim’s cabin in Yukonville. The cabin is closer
to civilization but just barely. You need to cut firewood and get water all things Linda was
in no shape to do. She was still recovering
from her stitches when it became clear Jim was getting ready to leave… And so we’re in this village in this crappy old rotten cabin without any water or firewood. And I see Jim packing his gear. And I ask him like ‘what are you doing?’ He says, ‘I’m going home’. I said ‘you can’t go home. We agreed to stay here. I need you to stay here. I need you to get water. I need you to cut firewood. I need you to do everything’. And… Oh… Yeah. Yeah, so I begged him I begged the man not
to leave me alone because I was I was completely… Well I was devastated. I was completely devastated. And I begged him not
to leave me and to help me and take care so that I could
just survive there. He turned around he got his gear and he left. And so I stayed behind with… I had to cut firewood which I couldn’t because
every time I raised the axe my stitches would come undone. And I had to get water and I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have anything to transport the baby because I wasn’t going
to leave the baby alone. So I had an apple box. I remembered it because
I have a picture of it. It says ‘apple box from
New Zealand’. And there was an old truck. But the truck was… the windows were broken
and it was burning oil. So and there was no upholstery in the in the seat. So I would tie my baby in the box and to stop it from
breathing the oil the burning oil I put a blanket over it. And I tied it down with
electrical wire yeah, to get water. Kathy saw Linda and
Jim’s relationship unravel right in front of her eyes. I was shocked. It was appalling. You know, because they
seemed to get along. He seemed to really love her. And the fact that he now is not into
being a father and he left her in this village with a newborn baby and no firewood, I was totally shocked. Linda suffered alone
for two months. So she called home to her sister. I thought this is bad news because I only had my first
child half a year before so I knew how much you need the father of the child when you’ve just given birth. Yeah, it was bad news. Her being alone in that village without anybody to help her. I remember it very well how
it is to have a child and how much you need
people around you to help you take
care of a baby because you have no experience. We had phone calls during several weeks maybe two weeks or so. And it didn’t change. Things didn’t get better. So I think in the end I said ‘well be wise and come back to Holland. We can take care of you and you’re better off in Holland’. When Jim finally returned
to the cabin Linda asked for a divorce. All she wanted was the baby. When the judge heard her story he was outraged. He granted her the divorce the baby and 10 thousand dollars. And then… Linda headed home. When you got on that final plane
home to The Netherlands with your baby and your life with Big Jim and
the hut and the deprivation and all of it behind you what’s the first thing that
went through your head? Failure. Failure. Didn’t work. Yeah. I tried. Didn’t work. Linda’s family had a house
filled with food and baby articles and warmth waiting for her. After years of travel
and adventure home was no longer a
place to escape from it was a safe haven
for Linda and her new baby. It was just happy. Yeah. Happy also sad. I think there must
have been tears. Can’t imagine anything else. I mean there was sadness because of the fact
that it didn’t work but there was… I was so grateful to have electricity to have running water. Small things like that. They.. They had a house for me. They filled it up with a baby
bed and a baby bath and wine and eggs and coffee and sugar. And I remember turning
up the heater and this feeling of.. happiness. Like warmth without work. Water without work. Light without work. I could just relax. More than two decades
have passed and Linda has her new life. She lives in a lovely
old boat on a canal in the northern Dutch
city of Groningen close to her family. She went back into education but also lectures about her
life in the wilderness, proudly holding up a wolf pelt and a marten trap. And her son Michael has grown
into a handsome young man. He’s big like his father. And has a powerful wanderlust like his mother. Big Jim has come to
visit over the years. The visits didn’t go so well. He gets here and he’s
completely lost. He panics. He has panic attacks. He can’t drive a car. He can’t… He cannot deal with this… Does he have a relationship
at all with Michael? Ha. I asked him one time about his
relationship with his father and he said ‘we never talked we built houses together’. Closing questions. If you could do it all over again would you? Of course. Seriously? Of course! Bad experience is experience too. I had a great time. I learned many things. I have great friends. I have a fantastic son. Why regret something like that? No. A big love in my life. A good experience. It has made me more humble more understanding of other people. It has taught me what grief is. So I have better understanding
and empathy with other people. I’ve grown as a person. I’ve seen fantastic things. No. No. No. Not one second. It was worth it? Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, no doubt about it. Linda Nijlunsing. At Linda’s request we changed Big Jim’s name and a few details regarding
his whereabouts to protect his privacy. We’ve tried to contact
Jim for an interview but we weren’t able
to reach him. Linda wrote a wonderful
book about her travels and her life with Jim called Wilderness Years. We’ll link to it on our website: podcast.klm.com. You’ve been listening to The Journey. An original podcast brought to you
by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. For more background on this story and to hear more stories about the
trip that changed everything go to podcast.klm.com. And why not review us on iTunes. It helps other listeners
find this podcast. Thank you for listening. I’m Jonathan Groubert.

8 thoughts on “KLM Podcasts – Episode 1 – Living with bears

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *