Now I know what the poet Robert W. Service meant.
There’s the land (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know.
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe, but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth—and I’m one.
One day not long ago, I took a little trip. It started at 5:30 in the afternoon. I got back to my motel at 1:30 a.m. And it was still light enough to read a newspaper.
Everything around me was American. The people. The cars. The signs. The language. The money. But there also was a slight feeling of disorientation. This was a different America. It was late June but sometimes it felt like October. It looked like April. It looked a lot like Colorado but it was so much more than Colorado.
The mountains were higher. The rivers were colder. The valleys were wider, far wider.
One of the lodges where Nancy and I stayed will close on September 20, as would most of the businesses in the town, which will become so buttoned-up that the street lights would be turned off, not to be switched on for six months or so when the town would come back to life.
I had just been to two towns with a combined year-around population of thirty-two far off the beaten path—until a path was beaten to them.
This is Alaska and the last frontier really is here, sixty-five miles above the latitude that marks the beginning of the Arctic Circle.
Sixty-six degrees, thirty three minutes is the latitude that marks the Arctic Circle.
About two million people visit Alaska each year, about three times as many people as live in a state that is larger than Texas, California and Montana combined. At least that’s what they claim and I am beyond arguing with them. Less than one percent of those who visit Alaska make it above the Arctic Circle. So we went and we listened to a man there who has lived a life in that frontier that is so different from our own that this listener could not fully absorb it.
A sign on the Dalton Highway at the Coldfoot turnoff says, “Next Services, 240 miles (380 kilometers). No more services to the Arctic Ocean Coast.” The nearest Wal-Mart is in Fairbanks, 270 miles and about six hours’ worth of driving to the south on a partly-paved highway built for trucks taking supplies to Prudhoe Bay, where the pipeline begins.
The truck stop at Coldfoot is the only place for fuel, food, and lodging along the entire highway. 500 miles. You better have a big fuel tank and plan a very long day without a hot meal if you don’t plan to stop at Coldfoot, which was named by the few miners who stayed behind that first year when hundreds of others got cold feet and headed south.
Our driver on the way from the airport in Coldfoot to Wiseman told us there’s only one highway patrolman in the district, patrolling an area the size of the state of New York. With only one road going through the area and little population in that region, there’s no criminal activity to speak of so he spends most of his time making sure hunters follow state and federal wildlife regulations. He keeps his airplane at the airport.
Life in Wiseman and in Coldfoot, Alaska is called subsistence living and it better be something a person is completely committed to doing. The odds are long against survival without that commitment.
We met in an old miner’s cabin in Wiseman built in 1946 by a character named Harry Leonard, who had moved into the area in 1932 looking for gold. He died in 1989 at the age of 92. Harry arrived before there were roads and he and a lot of other folks in Wiseman didn’t cotton to the idea of a highway, even if it was gravel, disrupting their wilderness.
And they sure didn’t want any pipeline. Harry parked a tractor on what was then the pipeline road back in the summer of ’74 and blocked traffic for six hours, claiming the road was interfering with his mineral claims. State troopers finally convinced him to leave only to see him barge into a pipeline construction camp the next day, waving a gun around and telling the crews to get out. An AP story reported, “The matter was settled informally, typical of bush justice.”
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease,
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
The growing season is nearing an end in this region for people like Jack Reakoff, the Wiseman resident who spent the better part of an hour talking to us in Harry’s cabin, remembering days before the pipeline, days before the Dalton Highway, days before any kind of a paved road and who explained how one of the main focuses of living in a place like Wiseman is staying alive.
His narrative was nothing like television’s version of reality. What was so interesting was that he talked about his life within the Arctic Circle the same way we would explain our lifestyles here. Except we would talk about going to Wal-Mart or the mall for things or watching the grocery ads for bargains on groceries and he talked about spending 18-21 days chopping ten to fifteen tons of wood that keeps his home warm during the long winters, growing almost four-hundred pounds of potatoes in his 24×21-foot garden and the vegetables that will help feed his family (“I have about fifty, sixty pounds of carrots and other root vegetables, lots of leafy green things, lettuces and all that for salads. There’s no…green, leafy lettuces here in the wintertime so I freeze kale and turnip tops and spinach, stuff like that. And I put that in my 22 cubic foot freezer from late April through late September. The rest of the year the freezer’s turned off. And the freezer stays outside night and day.”), and going out even when it’s fifty-below zero to shoot the protein he and his family will need—moose (he’s allowed one a year), caribou, fox, wolf, bear, wolverine, rabbit, and lynx among the possibilities.
Summer growing season is June and July at this latitude. He plants his crops in May and covers them with plastic to trap the UV heat that allows his vegetables to be showing above ground by June 1. He store his vegetables in his cellar which is dug into the permafrost and stays at 34-45 degrees. That’s a trap door in the middle of Harry’s cabin, for example, that led to his cellar.
This particular valley gets about nine inches of precipitation a year. Reaker calls it a frozen desert. How can he grow so many vegetables, how can the foliage be so green, with so little precipitation? It’s because the permafrost keeps the water from soaking far down into the soil. It’s why the trees in most areas are so small and thin even though they might be a century or two old—their roots are shallow because they can’t grow through the permafrost and don’t need to do so because the moisture remains near the surface.
And don’t believe some of the stories you hear or that you see on television. “You hear guys sitting in a bar drinking whiskey telling bear stories—The Alaskans have to tell these stupid bear stories which they’ve heard over and over. It’s like a rumor going around in a room. Pretty soon these bears have bulletproof pelts and bullets bounce off their skulls and it takes multiple…rounds to kill one of them. Anybody who tells you that it takes multiple magazine round is either really poor shot or they’re drunk and they don’t know what they’re talking about. Those bullets do not bounce off of bears and they’re easy to kill,” he told us, later showing a grizzly bear skull with a bullet hole between the eyes.
There’s nothing particularly colorful about Jack. He’s living in his environment and doing what he has to do to survive there—just as we do in our environment.
That’s just part of the stories we heard about life above 66 degrees 33 minutes. And there were many more from people below that line.
We think we have our magnificent areas here in the lower 48 in terms of mountains and valleys and scenic vistas. We found Alaska above and below the Arctic Circle to be all of that and many times more. Here are some things we did not know before we went:
America’s third largest river system is there—the Yukon, stretching 1,980 miles from British Columbia to the Bering Sea. Seven of our nation’s ten largest national parks are there. In fact, the largest one, Wrangell-St. Elias, covers 13,005 square miles. And the second one, Gates of the Arctic (which isn’t far from Wiseman), covers 11,756. Each of those national parks covers more area than the other three large national parks in the lower 48, COMBINED (Death Valley, Yellowstone, and the Everglades total just 11,094 square miles.
We visited a temperate rainforest in Ketchikan, where fire danger is always low, and forests in the inland national parks, where the fire danger was always high. We marveled at the seeming frozen power of glaciers and heard their crackings and poppings and boomings as they ground their way forward. We even flew out to one, the Mead, near Skagway, and hiked around on it for a while in special spiked overboots.
Glaciers are filthy with the debris of the ground they grind over. If you are familiar with Jefferson City, try to imagine a sheet of ice two-thirds as high as the Gateway Arch stretching from the double diamond interchange on the Whitton Expressway (Highways 50, 54, and 63) all the way north to the 54/63 interchange across the river, and covering everything east beyond Linn—and moving at five feet a day. Glaciers are forces of nature that can only be experienced by being among them. Their power—and their vulnerability—leaves one grasping for superlatives.
More than forty percent of the people in Alaska live in one place—Anchorage. Another four or five percent live in Fairbanks. The rest are scattered, and we do mean scattered, throughout the vastness of the place.
It’s a long ways and at least three time zones from Missouri to Alaska. Don’t go there if you want to see quaint and colorful people. Don’t go if you expect to see the massive herds of caribou that you see on television (Jack says Hollywood and even some of the depictions on the History and National Geographic Channels don’t reflect reality).
Go and be quiet. Go and listen. Go and soak in a place where only one-percent of the land is allowed to be in private hands. Go to see something gone in our part of the nation. Go to respond to another Robert W. Service poem:
Have you seen God in His splendors,
Heard the text that nature renders—
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew.)
The Simple things, the true things
The silent men who do things?
Then listen to the Wild—it’s calling you.
They have cradled you in custom,
They have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
you’re a credit to their teaching.
But can’t you hear the Wild?—it’s calling you.
Let us probe the silent places,
Let us seek what luck betides us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There’s a whisper on the night-wind,
There’s a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling….let us go.