MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The Second John McPhee Reader
FROM COMING INTO THE COUNTRY
( 1977 )
[This is John McPhee's longest book, his most popular to date. It is about Alaska--Arctic Alaska, urban Alaska, bush Alaska, its inventive people, its incomparable places. What follows here is a montage of the people and the places, in segments of varying length. The montage begins with a sketch of Anchorage, where Alaska forms its first impression on visitors. "Just getting up there is a long do," McPhee has remarked elsewhere. "If you happen to leave Seattle at, say, nine o'clock some summer night, you fly out in darkness over the Olympic Peninsula. In an hour or so, you look down through total blackness at scattered points of light on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Another hour goes by. Now--if you are on the right-hand side of the plane--you look ahead and see what appears to be a small semicircle of intense blue light, like the end of a tunnel, hundreds of miles away. As you keep on going, that small concentration of light spreads laterally and becomes a thin blue band. More distance, and a pink band develops above the blue one. The farther you go, the more the bands of blue and pink expand upward into the black. Between midnight and I a.m., you land in Anchorage in daylight."]
If Boston was once the most provincial place in America, Alaska, in this respect, may have replaced Boston. In Alaska, the conversation is Alaska. Alaskans, by and large, seem to know little and to say less about what is going on outside. They talk about their land, their bears, their fish, their rivers. They talk about subsistence hunting, forbidden hunting, and living in trespass. They have their own lexicon. A senior citizen is a pioneer, snow is termination dust, and the N.B.A. is the National Bank of Alaska. The names of Alaska are so beautiful they run like fountains all day in the mind. Mulchatna. Chilikadrotna. Unalaska. Unalakleet. Kivalina. Kiska. Kodiak. Allakaket. The Aniakchak Caldera. Nondalton. Anaktuvuk. Anchorage. Alaska is a foreign country significantly populated with Americans. Its languages extend to English. Its nature is its own. Nothing seems so unexpected as the boxes marked "U.S. Mail."
[Juneau, in the Alexander Archipelago, is the capital of Alaska. In an on-again off-again manner, Alaskans for decades have addressed themselves to building an entirely new capital city in wild terrain in a more central part of the state.]
There are those who would say that tens of thousands of barrels of oil erupting from a break in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline would be the lesser accident if, at more or less the same time, a fresh Anchorage were to spill into the bush. While the dream of the capital city plays on in the mind, Anchorage stands real. It is the central hive of human Alaska, and in manner and structure it represents, for all to see, the Alaskan dynamic and the Alaskan aesthetic. It is a tangible expression of certain Alaskans' regard for Alaska--their one true city, the exemplar of the predilections of the people in creating improvements over the land.
As may befit a region where both short and long travel is generally by air, nearly every street in Anchorage seems to be the road to the airport. Dense groves of plastic stand on either side --flashing, whirling, flaky. HOOSIER BUDDY'S MOBILE HOMES. WINNEBAGO SALES & SERVICE. DISCOUNT LIQUORS OPEN SUNDAY. GOLD RUSH AUTO SALES. PROMPT ACTION LOCK-SMITHS. ALASKA REFRIGERATION & AIR CONDITION. DENALI FUEL ...
"Are the liquor stores really open Sundays?"
"Everything in Anchorage is open that pays."
Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders.
"You can taste the greed in the air."
Anchorage is sometimes excused in the name of pioneering. Build now, civilize later. But Anchorage is not a frontier town. It is virtually unrelated to its environment. It has come in on the wind, an American spore. A large cookie cutter brought down on El Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air. Anchorage is the northern rim of Trenton, the center of Oxnard, the ocean-blind precincts of Daytona Beach. It is condensed, instant Albuquerque.
PANCHO'S VILLA, MEXICAN FOOD. BULL SHED, STEAK HOUSE AND SONIC LOUNGE. SHAKEY'S DRIVE-IN PIZZA. EAT ME SUBMARINES.
Anchorage has developed a high-rise city core, with glass-box offices for the oil companies, and tall Miamian hotels. Zonelessly lurching outward, it has made of its suburbs a carnival of cinder block, all with a speculative mania so rife that sellers of small homesites--of modest lots scarcely large enough for houses--retain subsurface rights. In vacant lots, queen-post trusses lie waiting for new buildings to jump up beneath them. Roads are rubbled, ponded with chuckholes. Big trucks, graders, loaders, make the prevailing noise, the dancing fumes, the frenetic beat of the town. Huge rubber tires are strewn about like quoits, ever ready for the big machines that move hills of earth and gravel into inconvenient lakes, which become new ground.
FOR LEASE. WILL BUILD TO SUIT.
Anchorage coins millionaires in speculative real estate. Some are young. The median age in Anchorage is under twenty-four. Every three or four years, something like half the population turns over. And with thirty days of residence, you can vote as an Alaskan.
POLAR REALTY. IDLE WHEELS TRAILER PARK. MOTEL MUSH INN.
Anchorage has a thin history. Something of a precursor of the modern pipeline camps, it began in 1914 as a collection of tents pitched to shelter workers building the Alaska Railroad. For decades, it was a wooden-sidewalked, gravel-streeted town. Then, remarkably early, as cities go, it developed an urban slum, and both homes and commerce began to abandon its core. The exodus was so rapid that the central business district never wholly consolidated, and downtown Anchorage is even more miscellaneous than outlying parts of the city. There is, for example, a huge J. C. Penney department store filling several blocks in the heart of town, with an interior mall of boutiques and restaurants and a certain degree of chic. A couple of weedy vacant lots separate this complex from five log cabins. Downtown Anchorage from a distance displays an upreaching skyline that implies great pressure for land. Down below, among the high buildings, are houses, huts, vegetable gardens, and bungalows with tidy front lawns.Anchorage burst out of itself and left these incongruities in the center, and for me they are the most appealing sights in Anchorage. Up against a downtown office building I have seen cordwood stacked for winter.
BIG RED'S FLYING SERVICE. BELUGA STEAM & ELECTRIC THAWING. DON'T GO TO JAIL LET FRED GO YOUR BAIL.
There is a street in Anchorage--a green-lights, red-lights, busy street--that is used by automobiles and airplanes. I remember an airplane in someone's driveway--next door to the house where I was staying. The neighbor started up its engine one night toward eleven o'clock, and for twenty minutes he ran it flat out while his two sons, leaning hard into the stabilizers, strained to hold back the plane. In Alaska, you do what you feel like doing, or so goes an Alaskan creed.
There is, in Anchorage, a somewhat Sutton Place. It is an enclave, actually, with several roads, off the western end of Northern Lights Boulevard, which is a principal Anchorage thoroughfare, a neon borealis. Walter Hickel lives in the enclave, on Loussac Drive, which winds between curbs and lawns, neatly trimmed, laid out, and landscaped, under white birches and balsam poplars. Hickel's is a heavy, substantial home, its style American Dentist. The neighbors' houses are equally expensive and much the same. The whole neighborhood seems to be struggling to remember Scarsdale. But not to find Alaska.
Books were selling in Anchorage, once when I was there, for forty-seven cents a pound.
There are those who would say that the only proper place for a new capital of Alaska--if there ever has to be one--is Anchorage, because anyone who has built a city like Anchorage should not be permitted to build one anywhere else.
At Anchorage International Airport, there is a large aerial photograph of Anchorage formed by pasting together a set of pictures that were made without what cartographers call ground control. This great aerial map is one of the first things to confront visitors from everywhere in the world, and in bold letters it is titled "ANCHORAGE, ALASKA. UNCONTROLLED MOSAIC."
The first few days I spent in Alaska were spent in Anchorage,and I remember the increasing sense of entrapment we felt (my wife was with me), knowing that nothing less than a sixth of the entire United States, and almost all of it wilderness, was out there beyond seeing, while immediate needs and chores to do were keeping us penned in this portable Passaic. Finally, we couldn't take it any longer, and we cancelled appointments and rented a car and revved it up for an attempted breakout from town. A float plane--at a hundred and ten dollars an hour--would have been the best means, but, like most of the inmates of Anchorage, we could not afford it. For a great many residents, Anchorage is about all they ever see of Alaska, day after day after year. There are only two escape routes--a road north, a road south--and these are encumbered with traffic and, for some miles anyway, lined with detritus from Anchorage. We went south, that first time, and eventually east, along a fjord that would improve Norway. Then the road turned south again, into the mountains of Kenai--great tundra balds that reminded me of Scotland and my wife of parts of Switzerland, where she had lived. She added that she thought these mountains looked better than the ones in Europe. Sockeyes, as red as cardinals, were spawning in clear, shallow streams, and we ate our cheese and chocolate in a high meadow over a torrential river of green and white water. We looked up to the ridges for Dall sheep, and felt, for the moment, about as free. Anchorage shrank into perspective. It might be a sorry town, but it has the greatest out-of-town any town has ever had.
[This next scene is about eight hundred miles out of Anchorage, with not much between but black spruce and mountains and rivers and streams. With five other people, the author is near the headwaters of a Brooks Range river on a canoe-and-kayak reconnaissance trip. Three of them take off from the river one afternoon to make a long walk and have a look around. They are perhaps six or seven miles into that walk.]
We passed first through stands of fireweed, and then over ground that was wine-red with the leaves of bearberries. There were curlewberries, too, which put a deep-purple stain on thehand. We kicked at some wolf scat, old as winter. It was woolly and white and filled with the hair of a snowshoe hare. Nearby was a rich inventory of caribou pellets and, in increasing quantity as we moved downhill, blueberries--an outspreading acreage of blueberries. Bob Fedeler stopped walking. He touched my arm. He had in an instant become even more alert than he usually was, and obviously apprehensive. His gaze followed straight on down our intended course. What he saw there I saw now. It appeared to me to be a hill of fur. "Big boar grizzly," Fedeler said in a near-whisper. The bear was about a hundred steps away, in the blueberries, grazing. The head was down, the hump high. The immensity of muscle seemed to vibrate slowly--to expand and contract, with the grazing. Not berries alone but whole bushes were going into the bear. He was big for a barren-ground grizzly. The brown bears of Arctic Alaska (or grizzlies; they are no longer thought to be different) do not grow to the size they will reach on more ample diets elsewhere. The barren-ground grizzly will rarely grow larger than six hundred pounds.
"What if he got too close?" I said.
Fedeler said, "We'd be in real trouble."
"You can't outrun them," Hession said.
A grizzly, no slower than a racing horse, is about half again as fast as the fastest human being. Watching the great mound of weight in the blueberries, with a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around, I had difficulty imagining that he could move with such speed, but I believed it, and was without impulse to test the proposition. Fortunately, a light southerly wind was coming up the Salmon valley. On its way to us, it passed the bear. The wind was relieving, coming into our faces, for had it been moving the other way the bear would not have been placidly grazing. There is an old adage that when a pine needle drops in the forest the eagle will see it fall; the deer will hear it when it hits the ground; the bear will smell it. If the boar grizzly were to catch our scent, he might stand on his hind legs, the better to try to see. Although he could hear well and had an extraordinary sense of smell, his eyesight was not much betterthan what was required to see a blueberry inches away. For this reason, a grizzly stands and squints, attempting to bring the middle distance into focus, and the gesture is often misunderstood as a sign of anger and forthcoming attack. If the bear were getting ready to attack, he would be on four feet, head low, ears cocked, the hair above his hump muscle standing on end. As if that message were not clear enough, he would also chop his jaws. His teeth would make a sound that would carry like the ringing of an axe.
Like pictures from pages riffled with a thumb, these things went through my mind there on the mountainside above the grazing bear. I will confess that in one instant I asked myself, "What the hell am I doing here?" There was nothing more to the question, though, than a hint of panic. I knew why I had come, and therefore what I was doing there. That I was frightened was incidental. I just hoped the fright would not rise beyond a relatively decorous level. I sensed that Fedeler and Hession were somewhat frightened, too. I would have been troubled if they had not been. Meanwhile, the sight of the bear stirred me like nothing else the country could contain. What mattered was not so much the bear himself as what the bear implied. He was the predominant thing in that country, and for him to be in it at all meant that there had to be more country like it in every direction and more of the same kind of country all around that. He implied a world. He was an affirmation to the rest of the earth that his kind of place was extant. There had been a time when his race was everywhere in North America, but it had been hunted down and pushed away in favor of something else. For example, the grizzly bear is the state animal of California, whose country was once his kind of place; and in California now the grizzly is extinct.
If a wolf kills a caribou, and a grizzly comes along while the wolf is feeding on the kill, the wolf puts its tail between its legs and hurries away. A black bear will run from a grizzly, too. Grizzlies sometimes kill and eat black bears. The grizzly takes what he happens upon. He is an opportunistic eater. The predominanceof the grizzly in his terrain is challenged by nothing but men and ravens. To frustrate ravens from stealing his food, he will lie down and sleep on top of a carcass, occasionally swatting the birds as if they were big black flies. He prefers a vegetable diet. He can pulp a moosehead with a single blow, but he is not lusting always to kill, and when he moves through his country he can be something munificent, going into copses of willow among unfleeing moose and their calves, touching nothing, letting it all breathe as before. He may, though, get the head of a cow moose between his legs and rake her flanks with the five-inch knives that protrude from the ends of his paws. Opportunistic. He removes and eats her entrails. He likes porcupines, too, and when one turns and presents to him a pygal bouquet of quills, he will leap into the air, land on the other side, chuck the fretful porpentine beneath the chin, flip it over, and, with a swift ventral incision, neatly remove its body from its skin, leaving something like a sea urchin behind him on the ground. He is nothing if not athletic. Before he dens, or just after he emerges, if his mountains are covered with snow he will climb to the brink of some impossible schuss, sit down on his butt, and shove off. Thirty-two, sixty-four, ninety-six feet per second, he plummets down the mountainside, spray snow flying to either side, as he approaches collision with boulders and trees. Just short of catastrophe, still going at bonecrushing speed, he flips to his feet and walks sedately onward as if his ride had not occurred.
His population density is thin on the Arctic barren ground. He needs for his forage at least fifty and perhaps a hundred square miles that are all his own--sixty-four thousand acres, his home range. Within it, he will move, typically, eight miles a summer day, doing his travelling through the twilight hours of the dead of night. To scratch his belly he walks over a tree--where forest exists. The tree bends beneath him as he passes. He forages in the morning, generally; and he rests a great deal, particularly after he eats. He rests fourteen hours a day. If he becomes hot in the sun, he lies down in a pool in the river. He sleeps on the tundra--restlessly tossing and turning, forever changing position. What he could be worrying about I cannot imagine.
His fur blends so well into the tundra colors that sometimes it is hard to see him. Fortunately, we could see well enough the one in front of us, or we would have walked right to him. He caused a considerable revision of our travel plans. I asked Fedeler what one should do if a bear were to charge. He said, "Take off your pack and throw it into the bear's path, then crawl away, and hope the pack will distract the bear. But there is no good thing to do, really. It's just not a situation to be in."
We made a hundred-and-forty-degree turn from the course we had been following and went up the shoulder of the hill through ever-thickening brush, putting distance behind us in good position with the wind.
"It's amazing to me," Fedeler said. "So large an animal, living up here in this country. It's amazing what keeps that big body alive." The barren-ground bear digs a lot of roots, he said--the roots of milk vetch, for example, and Eskimo potatoes. The bear, coming out of his den into the snows of May, goes down into the river bottoms, where over-wintered berries are first revealed. Wolf kills are down there, too. By the middle of June, his diet is almost wholly vegetable. He eats willow buds, sedges, cottongrass tussocks. In the cycle of his year, roots and plants are eighty per cent of what he eats, and even when the salmon are running he does not sate himself on them alone but forages much of the time for berries. In the fall, he unearths not only roots but ground squirrels and lemmings. It is indeed remarkable how large he grows on the provender of his yearly cycle, for on this Arctic barren ground he has to work much harder than the brown bears of southern Alaska, which line up along foaming rivers--hip to hip, like fishermen in New Jersey--taking forty-pound king salmon in their jaws as if they were nibbling feed from a barnyard trough. When the caribou are in fall migration, moving down the Salmon valley toward the Kobuk, the bear finishes up his year with one of them. Then, around the first of November, he may find a cave or, more likely, digs out a cavern in a mountainside. If he finds a natural cave, it may be full of porcupines. He kicks them out, and--extending his curious relationship withthis animal--will cushion his winter bed with many thousands of their turds. If, on the other hand, he digs his den, he sends earth flying out behind him and makes a shaft that goes upward into the side of the mountain. At the top of the shaft, he excavates a shelf-like cavern. When the outside entrance is plugged with debris, the shaft becomes a column of still air, insulating the upper chamber, trapping the bear's body heat. On a bed of dry vegetation, he lays himself out like a dead pharaoh in a pyramid. But he does not truly hibernate. He just lies there. His mate of the summer, in her den somewhere, will give birth during winter to a cub or two--virtually hairless, blind, weighing about a pound. But the male has nothing to do. His heart rate goes down as low as eight beats a minute. He sleeps and wakes, and sleeps again. He may decide to get up and go out. But that is rare. He may even stay out, which is rarer--to give up denning for that winter and roam his frozen range.
Another two miles, descending, and we were barefoot in the river, with pink hot feet turning anesthetically cold. We crossed slowly. The three others were by the campfire. On the grill were grayling and a filleted Arctic char. The air was cool now, nearing fifty, and we ate the fish, and beef stew, and strawberries, and drank hot chocolate. After a time, Hession said, "That was a good walk. That was some of the easiest hiking you will ever find in Alaska."
We drew our route on the map and figured the distance at fourteen miles. John Kauffmann, tapping his pipe on a stone, said, "That's a lot for Alaska."
We sat around the campfire for at least another hour. We talked of rain and kestrels, oil and antlers, the height and the headwaters of the river. Neither Hession nor Fedeler once mentioned the bear.
When I got into my sleeping bag, though, and closed my eyes, there he was, in color, on the side of the hill. The vision was indelible, but fear was not what put it there. More, it was a sense of sheer luck at having chosen in the first place to follow Fedelerand Hession up the river and into the hills--a memento not so much of one moment as of the entire circuit of the long afternoon. It was a vision of a whole land, with an animal in it. This was his country, clearly enough. To be there was to be incorporated, in however small a measure, into its substance--his country, and if you wanted to visit it you had better knock.
[Coming into the Country consists of three separately structured compositions. The first describes a journey in Arctic Alaska, the second has to do with the search for a new capital, and the third describes the people and terrain of the eastern interior. In Alaska, the term "interior" refers to the country that lies between the Brooks Range and the Alaska Range, the highest mountain range in North America. The interior--divided and drained by the Yukon River--is the warmest and the coldest part of Alaska. In the eastern interior, a great deal of gold mining has occurred--on Mammoth Creek, on Mastodon Creek, on the Fortymile River. Next door is the Canadian Yukon (Bonanza Creek, the Klondike). The great gold rushes occurred in the eighteen-nineties, of course, and soon after the turn of the century the numbers of people fell away. Remarkably, though, miners have been in that Alaskan country working the creeks in every year of every decade since 1893. In Alaska, there are ten or twelve small communities along the Yukon in something above a thousand river miles. The first two--Eagle and Circle--are a hundred and sixty miles apart. Their combined population is under three hundred. A very small number of people, spread out, live in the country between.]
With a clannish sense of place characteristic of the bush, people in the region of the upper Yukon refer to their part of Alaska as "the country." A stranger appearing among them is said to have "come into the country."
New miners come into the country every year--from Nevada, Montana, Oregon, wherever. They look around, and hear stories. They hear how Singin' Sam, on Harrison Creek, "hit an enrichment and took out nuggets you wouldn't believe." They hear about "wedge-shaped three-quarter-inch nuggets just lying therewhere water drips on bedrock." They hear about a miner in the Birch Creek district pulling nuggets from the side of a hill.
"I have always been mining, always preparing ground. I'm not telling you how much money I've got ready to dig up. She's in the bank. Trouble is, there's too much gravel with it."
In tailing piles left behind by dredges, people hunt for nuggets that were too big to get stopped in the sluice boxes and went on through the dredge with the boulders. People reach into their shirt pockets and show you phials that are full of material resembling ground chicken feed and are heavier than paperweights. Man says he saw a nugget big as a cruller tumbling end over end in the blast from a giant hose. It sank from view. He's been looking for it since. Man on Sourdough Creek, working for someone else, confessed he had seen a nugget, and reached to pick it up, and found it was connected by a strand of wire gold to something much larger and deeper. He broke off the nugget and reported nothing. He could hardly mark the spot. Later, he went back to try to find what was there--he knew not where.
To stories of such nature Stanley and Ed Gelvin have not always been immune. Son and father, deep-rooted in the country (the one by birth, the other since long before statehood), they live in Central, a community with a Zip Code and a population of sixteen, so named because it was the point on the Birch Creek supply trail from which the miners fanned out to the gulches. Some went surprisingly far. Both Stanley and Ed Gelvin are, among other things, pilots, familiar with the country from the air; and some years ago they became more than a little interested in certain conjunctive stream courses in high remote terrain, where they saw aging evidence of the presence of miners. The site is--they request that I not be too specific--somewhere in the hundred-plus miles of mountain country that lies between Eagle and Central. Along a piece of valley floor more than three thousand feet high they noticed, among other things, a wooden sluice box weathered silver-gray, a roofless cabin, a long-since toppled cache. The old-timers did not build cabins, caches, and sluice boxes just in hopes of finding worthwhile concentrations of gold. Having found it, however, they lacked the means toremove anything like the whole of what was evidently there, even when they dug down in winter into places where flooding would stop them in warmer weather--thawing frozen deep gravels with fires and hoisting it up in buckets for sluicing in the spring. Under the stream beds were soaked unfrozen depths known as live ground, where the old-timers could not have worked at all. While some Alaskan streams freeze solid, most continue to run all winter under phenomenally increasing layers of ice and snow. The phenomenon is overflow, which has so often been lethal to people travelling streams on foot--soaking themselves, freezing to death. Water builds up pressure below the ice until it breaks through a crack and spreads out above. When the pressure is relieved, the flow stops and the water becomes a layer of ice. Before long, snow falls, and compacts. More pressure builds, and water again flows out on top. Through a winter, these alternating layers of snow and ice, white and blue, can build up to great confectionery thicknesses--but the stream below remains liquid to bedrock. With appropriate earthmoving equipment, Stanley pointed out, a guy could go into that live ground and scrape up what lay on the rock. No such machine had ever reached these alpine streams, as a glance at their unaltered state confirmed. They were much too far from the mining road and the dredged and bulldozed creeks of the district. It was almost too bizarre to imagine--a bulldozer in the roadless, trail-less wilderness of those mountains. The price of gold, on the other hand, had lately quintupled. Maybe going in there was worth a try. Over the Gelvins' kitchen table, father and son kept talking, and a program gradually evolved. Attention became focussed on the family backhoe. The first necessity would be to sample the deep gravels and see what was there. That long steel arm and big steel bucket could reach many feet into the bottom of a stream. If a guy wanted to have a look at what was lying on the bedrock, that backhoe would be the thing. Maybe a guy could fly it up there. The backhoe was a modified tractor that had once belonged to the United States Air Force and had hauled bombers around in Fairbanks. It weighed five thousand seven hundred pounds. A guy could take it apart. Reduce it to many pieces. Fly it, in the family airplanes,like birds carrying straws, nut by bolt in fragments into the hills.
When I first met the Gelvins, in the early fall of 1975, pieces of backhoe were strewn all over the ground beside the airstrip behind their cabin. The machine itself was still recognizable but was fast melting away under the influence of the wrench. The airstrip looked like a dirt driveway scarcely ten feet wide, with weeds upgrown on either side almost to the level of a Cessna's wings. The runway had a dogleg. Every so often, Stanley or Ed would stuff some parts into an airplane, roll off in a plume of dust, disappear around the bend, and reappear eventually, rising, to clear a backdrop wall of spruce. Stanley--tall, lanky, still in his middle twenties--being of the country, was a gold miner almost by nature. His father, Ed Gelvin, was more diversified. Over the years, he had become, it seems safe to say, as much as anyone in Alaska an example of what Steve Ulvi has in mind when he speaks so admiringly of "the man of maximum practical application." Mining, as it happened, was what first drew Ed and his wife, Ginny, into the country. In the early nineteen-fifties, he worked some claims on Squaw Creek, near Central. He moved a lot of gravel but not a lot of gold. They liked the country, turned to other things, and stayed. Trapper, sawyer, pilot, plumber, licensed big-game guide, welder, ironworker, mechanic, carpenter, builder of boats and sleds, he suffered no lack of occupation. I once asked him if there was anything that could go wrong around his place that would cause him to seek help from elsewhere. He looked off into the distance and carefully thought over the question--this compact and gracefully built man of fifty or so with thick quizzical bifocals, a shy smile, a quiet voice. Finally, he said no, he guessed there wasn't. Ginny hunted with him, and ran the traplines as well. They raised a son and three daughters, who were so fond of moose and caribou they never much cared for beef. Over all the years, meanwhile, and despite the multifarious activities which followed that first attempt at mining, Ed had more trouble getting gold out of his mind than he had had getting it out of Squaw Creek. He had contracted gold fever, the local malaria; and he passed it on to Stanley.
If they were teased by the sight of the old relics they saw inthat high nameless valley, there were stories around that were stimulating, too. Old miners in the district said they had always heard it was shallow ground up there, with good colors near the surface--and not much developed by the real old-timers. It had been the valley of, among others, Pete the Pig. That would be his cache lying on its side. Pete the Pig Frisk was a savvy prospector, an efficient miner, not one to waste his time where there was no pay. He found a good pay streak there, and not a few bears. He was a clean, attractive man, Pete the Pig--but he grunted while he worked, while he rooted for gold. When he opened his mouth to speak, he grunted first. When he got old, he went to the Sitka Pioneers' Home. From time to time, the miners out in the country saw a published list of who was there. One year, Pete Frisk's name was gone from the list. In 1962, a man named Brown--from Oregon or "somewhere down near there"--had had himself flown to Pete Frisk's valley in a helicopter. He had a partner with him, two pet Airedales, and a set of miniature sluice boxes that were innovative and effective as tools for prospecting. He also had a .357 Magnum for grizzlies, of which he killed three. When the partners left, they attempted to walk out, by crossing mountains to the Yukon. Because the creeks and streams of Alaska have a geminate quality that can fool even people who know them well, the two men thought they were on Coal Creek headed for the big river when in fact they were on Hanna Creek headed somewhere else. Brown's partner came out weeks later, with an injured leg, floating on a raft he had made on the Charley River. Brown, for his part, "stayed" in the high country; that is, he apparently died there. He was never heard from again. His partner said they had separated after the injury, as Brown went on for help. All that was ever found was the carcass of an Airedale, butchered out as for the table, but uneaten. Possibly, a bear ate Brown. His widow suspected something worse. She thought there had been more than just colors found up there in Pete Frisk's valley.
A dozen years later, Stanley Gelvin, in his Aeronca Champ with its dunebuggy tundra tires, flew so low he skimmed the dwarf willows, hunting the valley for a place to land. Thirteen treelesssummits, each about the height of the high Adirondacks, surrounded the three confluent streams there, and down from this nippled coronet ran sweeping tundra fells deceptive to view. They appeared to be as smooth as fairways, but with their sedge tussocks and fissured soils they were in fact as rough as boulderfields. Flying near stallout speed, Stanley followed one creek and another, studying the ground. Finally, he saw a place he thought he could get out of if he were to set the plane down. The walk would be long if he couldn't--not to mention what to do about the plane. Rising, circling, returning, he gingerly put his wheels on the ground and jumped back at once into the air. Felt pretty good. He circled again. He rolled his wheels on the tundra twice more. It was thumping rough, but it seemed negotiable. He set the Aeronca down.
Taking off successfully, he went home and told his father, and they began to advance their plans. First, they should improve the landing place. They had a little Ranger--a diminutive tractor, like a Cub Cadet--which they had used to like purpose when they built a cabin on the Charley River years before. Ed cut the Ranger in half. They flew it to the mountains, and he welded it back together. The backhoe before long followed, and when it was at last reassembled they scooped into the center of a stream. Bedrock was eight feet down. Even at six, they panned the colors they had hoped to see.
They had intended to spend the whole of the following season ranging with the backhoe around the claims they had made, trying out pieces of seven miles of streams, but early results were so encouraging that they sharply foreshortened the tests. To put it conservatively, a pay streak appeared to be there, and what was needed now--since the backhoe was just a fifty-seven-hundred-pound shovel--was a means of moving gravel in a major way. The Caterpillar Tractor Company produces the eponymous Cat in seven sizes--styted D3, D4, and so on to D9. Most gold miners use something less than the largest, but the Gelvins--forming a partnership with two friends in Fairbanks--decided to go all the way. The supreme Cat, twenty-seven feet long, eleven feet high,with a blade of fourteen feet, could sweep forty yards of gravel before it--possibly a hundred dollars a shove. Ed Gelvin went to Los Angeles to shop for a used D9.
With his partners in Fairbanks putting up the money in return for a half interest in the claims, he paid forty-seven thousand five hundred dollars for a ten-year-old machine--D9, Series G. In the fleets of general contractors, it had spent its lifetime ripping raw California land, making freeways, and preparing building sites on beaches and deserts. Who, watching it there--clanking, dozing, wheezing, roaring, grunting like Pete the Pig--could ever in farthest-fetched imaginings have guessed where it would go? It went to Seattle by train, and by barge to Whittier, in Prince William Sound. There the Alaska Railroad picked it up and took it to Fairbanks, where, in early April, a lowboy hauled it up the dirt road north. Forty miles from Central, the haul stopped--blocked by the still unbroken winter snows. The road had been smothered since October. Ed Gelvin, who was observing from the air, landed on the road and with Stanley put the blade on the Cat. The weather in a general way was warming. Snow was melting. Ice was beginning to rot. If the D9 was going to move up frozen stream beds and climb into the mountains, it had to keep going now. If the road was closed, the Cat would open it.
When Stanley Gelvin was a small boy and did his elementary-school work by correspondence from the kitchen table in Central, he was from time to time required to draw a picture. When the choice of subject was his to make, he always drew a Cat. He operated one before he drove anything else. Now, with a Cat all around him, he knew where things were. He sensed like an athlete the rhythm of the parts--the tilt cylinders, the blade-lift arms. A good Cat skinner is a Cat mechanic, and, from the torque converter to the sun-and-planet gears, he knew what was making the moves. "I know what's inside the thing--everything--and what makes it work. My father knows how the stuff goes together, too. If the thing needs work, we do it."
The snow-obscured road leading on toward Central was--even at its best, in summer--a tortuous trail. In several high places,it traversed the flanks of mountains as a fifteen-foot shelf with no rail of any kind and a precipitous plunge on the outboard side. On the last of these mountain passes, twenty miles from home, Stanley encountered drifts that were thirty feet deep. To keep going, he had to bite into the snow, doze some to the brink, send it avalanching down, then turn and bite some more--all the while feeling for the road, feeling with his corner bits (the low tips of the blade) for the buried edge where the road stopped and the plunge began. A D9 is in some ways the most difficult Cat to operate. "You've got so much iron in front of you you can't see what you're doing." It is also his favorite size, because it is so big it does not bounce around. This one weighed a hundred and ten thousand pounds. Its balance point was ten feet back of the blade. Repeatedly, Stanley moved the blade eight feet over the edge. He knew where it was. If he had gone off the mountain, he would have raised one fantastic cloud of snow. Instead, he trimly dismantled the prodigious drifts and dozed on down to Central.
To the pads of the track Ed Gelvin welded ice grousers. They would keep the Cat from sliding. They were small pieces of steel, protruding like hyphens from the tracks. Ed and Stanley had built a steel slick plate and a steel sluice box, and Ed had rearranged them as a huge loaded sled--eight feet wide and twenty-four feet long: I-beams, H-beams, three-sixteenths-inch plate. He had made a thousand-gallon fuel tank. It was full and on the sled. Here and there, he slipped in snowshoes, gold pans, a twohundred-amp generator, a welding tank and torch. Finally, he secured to the top of the load a plywood wanigan--that is, a small hut, with three bunks, propane, and a cupboard full of food. The rig, composed, weighed about twelve tons. When it was hooked to the D9, Stanley left for the mountains.
He crossed low terrain at first. His mother rode with him. His father hovered in the air. Then he changed passengers, taking on a friend named Gary Powers, and they began to move up Woodchopper Creek. His altitude at the start was nine hundred feet. The highest point on the trip was well above four thousand. Theytravelled five days, fourteen hours a day. There was plenty of wind. The highest temperature they experienced was zero. They stopped to cut their way through trees with a chain saw (fearing to doze them because the wanigan might be crushed). The Cat fell twice through rotting ice. With no difficulty, it climbed out of the water. There was some luck in the conditions, but not much. With less ice in Woodchopper Canyon, Stanley might have been stopped. But successive overflows on the creek had built the ice thickness in places to thirty feet. Nearing the head of Woodchopper, he moved the Cat slowly up a steep slope of ice, slid back, crept again, slid back, and thought for a while he wouldn't make it. Without the grousers, the big rig would have been stopped, but they held just enough, and gradually he crawled out of the head of the creek--only to move into snow so deep the D9's steel tracks spun out. Stanley thought it wise to stop for the night. For one thing, all this was happening in a blizzard. Next day, the sky was clear, the air colder, and Stanley moved on a contour through the deep snow until he found an uphill route. Steadily, he climbed ridges, sometimes in little snow, sometimes in seven-foot drifts. At one point, the going was so steep that he disengaged the sled and tried first to clear a trail. "I knew that ridge was too steep to go over, because it was almost vertical. So I went around to the right. Without them ice grousers, the machine would have slid sideways and straight to the bottom as if it was on skates. Gary was scared to death. I went real slow now, and slipped some, and then went down to a dead crawl. I had it idled as low as it would go. I went on a half a mile or so. When I saw it was possible, I went back for the sled."
Landing on skis, his father would fly him out, and the D9 would sit idle in the mountains until summer. Meanwhile, there was one last ridge to cross. "One side was sheer, and the other had deep snow and was very steep. It must have been forty-five degrees. A guy could have maybe gone around one side--if you'd left the wanigan, dug the snow, and plowed a road. But I didn't want to make a horrible-looking mess. I moved slowly up. The track did spin a bit. I couldn't go straight up. It was too steep. Icouldn't go sideways too well. I couldn't go back, because I had the sled. I'd have been afraid to back down. You can cut a road into the side of a mountain if you want to with a Cat like that, but I just inched up the thing, and over. I didn't want to dig up the country."
[What follow are three fragments of the winter and the summer.]
When I have stayed with the Gelvins, I have for the most part occupied a cabin toward the far end of the airstrip--a place they acquired not long ago from an old-timer named Curly Allain, who was in his seventies and went south. He had no intention of returning, but he left his cabin well stocked with utensils, food, and linen--a tin of coffee close to the pot, fifty pounds of flour, five pounds of Danish bacon, firewood in three sizes stacked beside the door. Outside, some paces away, I have stood at a form of parade rest and in the broad light of a June midnight been penetrated in the most inconvenient place by a swarm of indecent mosquitoes, and on the same spot in winter, in a similar posture at the same hour, have stared up in darkness from squeaky snow at a green arch of the aurora, green streamers streaming from it all across the sky. At home, when I look up at the North Star I lift my eyes but don't really have to move my head. Here, I crane back, lift my chin almost as far as it will go, and look up at the polestar flirting with the zenith. The cabin is long and low, and its roof is loaded white--mantled eighteen inches deep. Its windows are brown-gold from the light of burning lamps. The air is so still I can hear the rising smoke. Twenty-two degrees below zero. Balls of ice are forming in the beard. I go back inside and comb it off, and jump into a bag of down.
The spruce in their millions are thick with snow, but not heavy snow--a light dry loaf on every bough, with frost as well, in chain crystals. Just touch one of these trees and all of its burden falls, makes craters in the snow of the ground. The load is so delicately poised a breath can break it, a mild breeze denude the forest. Day after day, the great northern stillness will preserve this Damoclean scene, while the first appearance of each February dawn shoots pink light into the trees, and colors all the blanketed roofs, the mushroom caps on barrels and posts. Overhead, sometimes, a few hundred feet above the ground stillness, the wind is audibly blowing.
Brad Snow said that if the canoe were to tip over, it would have to be abandoned, because the river, even now, in June, was too cold to allow the usual procedure of staying with the boat and kicking it to shore. "Keep your clothes on in the river. They provide some insulation, and you will need them later on. It's a good idea to have some matches tucked away in a dry container. We would need a drying fire." With luck, and fair probability, the canoe would go into an eddy, he said, and might be recovered there.
Nothing much was going to turn us over, though. Only at one or two points in a hundred and sixty miles did we see anything that remotely suggested rapids, and these were mere drapefolds of white in the otherwise broad, flat river. Sleepers were in the water--big logs flushing down out of Canada and floating beneath the surface--but they were going in our direction and were much less dangerous than they would have been had we been heading upstream. The great power of the Yukon--six and more fathoms of water, sometimes half a mile wide, moving at seven knots--was unostentatiously displayed. The surface was deceptivelycalm--it was only when you looked to the side that you saw how fast you were flying.
From the hull, meanwhile, came the steady sound of sandpaper, of sliding stones, of rain on a metal roof--the sound of the rock in the river, put there by alpine glaciers. Dip a cupful of water and the powdered rock settled quickly to the bottom. At the height of the melting season, something near two hundred tons of solid material will flow past a given point on the riverbank in one minute. Bubbling boils, like the tops of high fountains, bloomed everywhere on the surface but did not rough it up enough to make any sort of threat to the canoe. They stemmed from the crash of fast water on boulders and ledges far below. Bend to bend, the river presented itself in large segments--two, three, six miles at a stretch, now smooth, now capped white under the nervously changeable sky. We picked our way through flights of wooded islands. We shivered in the deep shadows of bluffs a thousand feet high--Calico Bluff, Montauk Bluff, Biederman Bluff, Takoma Bluff--which day after day intermittently walled the river. Between them--in downpourings of sunshine, as often as not--long vistas reached back across spruce-forested hills to the rough gray faces and freshly whitened summits of mountains. Some of the walls of the bluffs were of dark igneous rock that had cracked into bricks and appeared to have been set there by masons. Calico Bluff--a sedimentary fudge, folded, convoluted in whorls and ampersands--was black and white and yellow-tan. Up close it smelled of oil. It was sombre as we passed it, standing in its own shadow. Peregrine falcons nest there, and--fantastic fliers--will come over the Yukon at ballistic speeds, clench their talons, tuck them in, and strike a flying duck hard enough (in the neck) to kill it in midair. End over end the duck falls, and the falcon catches it before it hits the river. As we passed the mouth of the Tatonduk, fifteen ducks flew directly over us. Brad Snow reached for his shotgun, and quickly fired twice. Fifteen ducks went up the Tatonduk. Above the Nation, steep burgundy mountainsides reached up from the bright-green edges of the river, then fell away before tiers of higher mountains, dark withspruce and pale with aspen, quilted with sunlight and shadow. Ahead, long points of land and descending ridgelines reached toward one another into the immensity of the river, roughed now under a stiff wind. Filmy downspouts dropped from the clouds. Behind the next bend, five miles away, a mountain was partly covered with sliding mist. The scene resembled Lake Maggiore and might have been the Hardanger Fjord, but it was just a fragment of this river, an emphatic implication of all the two thousand miles, and of the dozens of tributaries that in themselves were major rivers--proof and reminder that with its rampart bluffs and circumvallate mountains it was not only a great river of the far northwestern continent but a river of preeminence among the rivers of the world. The ring of its name gave nothing away to the name of any river. Sunlight was bright on the mountains to both sides, and a driving summer rain came up the middle. The wind tore up the waves and flung pieces of them through the air. It was not the wind, though, but the river itself that took the breath away.
Dick Cook has sometimes handed the sled over to me for two and three miles at a time, he and Donna walking far behind. On forest trails, with the ground uneven, the complexity of the guesswork is more than I'd have dreamed. We come to, say, a slight uphill grade. I have been riding, standing on the back of the sled. The dogs, working harder, begin throwing glances back at me. I jump off and run, giving them a hundred-and-fifty-pound bonus. The sled picks up speed in reply. Sooner or later, they stop--spontaneously quit--and rest. Let them rest too long and they'll dig holes in the snow and lie down. I have learned to wait about forty-five seconds, then rattle the sled, and off they go. I don't dare speak to them, because my voice is not Cook's. If I speak,they won't move at all. There are three main choices--to ride, to run behind, or to keep a foot on the sled and push with the other, like a kid propelling a scooter. The incline has to be taken into account, the weight of the sled, the firmness of the trail, the apparent energy of the dogs, the time since they last rested, one's own degree of fatigue. Up and down hill, over frozen lakes--now ride, now half ride, run. Ten below zero seems to be the fulcrum temperature at which the air is just right to keep exertion cool. You're tired. Ride. Outguess the dogs. Help with one foot. When they're just about to quit, step off and run. When things look promising, get on again, rest, look around at the big white country; its laden spruce on forest trails; its boulevard, the silent Yukon. On a cold, clear aurorean night with the moon and Sirius flooding the ground, the sound of the sled on the dry snow is like the rumbling cars of a long freight, well after the engine has passed. According to Harry David, dogs run faster in moonlight, because they are trying to get away from their shadows.
[This is about Harry David and his sons Michael and Minicup.]
By a campfire near the boundary--the north-south Canadian boundary--Michael John David reads aloud to me and to his brother from "Lame Deer Seeker of Visions." It is one of several books he carries in his pack. Around us are tall spruce that Michael means to cut and float six or eight miles down the Yukon to become the walls of his new cabin. He is the chief of Eagle Indian Village. "'I think white people are so afraid of the world they created that they don't want to see, feel, smell, or hear it,'" he reads. He has turned with no searching to what is obviously a favorite passage. "'The feeling of rain and snow on your face, being numbed by an icy wind and thawing out before a smoking fire, coming out of a hot sweat bath and plunging into a cold stream, these things make you feel alive, but you don't want them anymore.'" He pauses to chuckle, to flash a grin. "Do you like this?"
I tell him he hasn't read enough of it to me. The book was written by John Fire/Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, and is dedicated to Frank Fools Crow, Pete Catches, George Eagle Elk, Bill Schweigman, Leonard Crow Dog, Wallace Black Elk, John Strike, Raymond Hunts Horse, Charles Kills Enemy, and Godfrey Chips. Such names are as unfamiliar to Michael as they are to me, for they belong to the Minneconjou Sioux, in the Lower Forty-eight, and he is of the Hungwitchin of the Athapaskans. His family came into the country in immemorial time. Long before their settlement became known as Eagle Indian Village, it was known as David Camp. David, Juneby, Malcolm, and Paul are the four major families of the Village now. Michael throws a stick onto the fire and continues: "'Living in boxes which shut out the heat of the summer and the chill of winter, living inside a body that no longer has a scent, hearing the noise from the hifi instead of listening to the sounds of nature, watching some actor on TV having a make-believe experience when you no longer experience anything for yourself, eating food without taste--that's your way. It's no good.'" He laughs aloud--a long, soft laugh. His voice is soft, too--fluid and melodic, like nearly all the voices in the Village. The contrast with my own is embarrassing. No matter how I try to modulate it, to experiment with his example, my voice in dialogue with Michael's sounds to me strident, edgy, and harsh. He is twenty-five years old. His body is light, his face narrow, his nose aquiline. His hair, black and shining, passes through a ring behind his head and plumes between his shoulder blades. He wears a khaki jacket, patched pink denim trousers, leather boots, a belt-sheathed jackknife. He may be an Indian, but he looks like a Turk. On his head is a fur hat that has the shape of an inverted flowerpot--a long-haired fez. His thin, Byzantine mustache droops at the wing tips. He has a miniature beard, scarcely a quarter inch long, tufting from the point of his chin. His brother, Minicup, teen-age, wears bluejeans, a red headband. Minicup is taciturn but obviously interested and even inquisitive, his eyes moving back and forth between Michael and me. He was baptized Edward David. Minicup is a name he gave to himself years ago.
We are finishing dinner, a common enterprise. It began, after making camp, with a mutual presentation of what each of us had to offer. Michael and Minicup set out Spam, Crisco, Sanka, fresh carrots, onions, and potatoes. I set out tins of beef stew, and corn, tea, sugar, raisins, nuts, chocolate, and cheese. Michael, opening the Spam, said, "I remember when it cost a dollar." Between us there has been a certain feeling out of ways and means. It is my wish to follow Michael's lead, to see how he will go about things in the woods. To some extent, he seems to want to do the same with me. It was he who chose this campsite--a couple of hundred yards into the forest and away from the Yukon's right bank, on flat ground covered with deep sphagnum, close to the edge of a small, clear stream. Wicked thorns grow out of the moss on long roselike stems. We hacked at them with our knives until we had cleared an area big enough for my small nylon A-frame and the brothers' wall tent--an orange Canadian affair that Michael, for privacy, often stays in at the Village. Before building the fire, he turfed out the moss, cutting eight inches down and removing a five-foot square. Even so, he did not get to the bottom of the moss. I then, automatically, without pausing to think, went off to the river for rocks. I brought back two or three in my arms, like loaves of bread, and dropped them on the moss. I returned to the river. The brothers followed. We all collected rocks and carried them back into the woods--gathering, in several trips, more than enough for a fireplace. I was about to begin building one but checked myself and relinquished the initiative. Why should I build the sort of three-walled fireplace I would make in Maine? I wanted to see what they would do. I fiddled with my pack and left the rocks alone. Michael and Minicup laid them out singly--one after another, scarcely touching--in the closest thing possible to a perfect circle. I could not see what the purpose of such a circle might be. It could not shield the fire from wind, nor could it support the utensils of cooking. Possibly it was to retain the spread of smolderings through the moss, but it seemed awfully large for that. Why had they made it, unless purely as an atavistic symbol, emplaced by what had by now become instinct?
Now Michael, finishing his dinner, has a question for me. He says, "Why did you go get the rocks?"
A few days ago, when I heard that Michael was going up the Yukon for cabin logs, I went to ask if I could join him. In a canoe, I approached the Indian Village, which sits on the left bank--twenty, thirty feet above the river. It is a linear community: cabins spaced along the river a third of a mile, facing, across the water, a six-hundred-foot bluff. In front of each cabin, the steep slope of the riverbank glitters with broken glass--micaceous flakes, the Indian midden. I kept the canoe close under the bank, sliding below the Village. When the youth above are drinking, they like to shoot over the river at the bluff--a. 30-calibre declaration of joy. That is what they were doing at the time, so it was prudent to be under the bullets. Harm, of course, was not intended. In 1898, one Angus, who lived up there, organized what he hoped would be a massacre of the whites of Eagle, but, like many projects that have got started in the Village, it was not carried out, it was merely conceived. The Hungwitchin appear to be characteristically passive. When and if they do go on what Michael likes to call "the warpath," their preferred weapons are legal briefs and lobbies--supplied by the native regional corporation that stands behind them. I went up the bank and found Michael alone in a cabin, sober and disconsolate, sitting in a chair, looking straight ahead. His face seemed less alive than cast. The cabin was spotless and almost empty, with psychedelic posters on the walls. It is shared by Village bachelors, of whom he is one. He was anxious to go upriver and to get back well in advance of the next session of the Village Council, he said. It would be of great importance to him, because it would have to do with control of alcohol. When I left him there, he was still staring straight ahead, listening to the reports of the rifles.
A door or two away was the cabin in which Michael grew up. Like most cabins in the Village, it is essentially one room, twenty by twenty feet, with a storm vestibule full of dog harnesses, guns, mukluks, parkas. In the main room, all furniture is against the walls, which are insulated with carton cardboard ("Burger KingFrozen Shoestring Potatoes"). There are three beds, a bench and a table, a tall oval heat stove, a propane oven and range. Cordwood, stacked waist-high, is inside the cabin as well. Yet the first two impressions the cabin gives are a sense of neatness and a sense of space. Michael, three brothers, and two sisters are grown and away now, if not altogether gone. So his parents, Bessie and Harry David, have only four children at home with them still. The beds touch like dominoes. The three youngest sleep in one, parents in another, Minicup in the third. Clothes are in boxes under the beds. A broom hangs by the door. Coming inside in winter, you sweep your legs free of snow before it melts.
No one seems to knock. People just come in and sit down and don't say much until something occurs to be said. Harry, on the bench by the table, may be slowly sharpening a saw, Bessie pouring cups of tea. A radio plays rock. Charlie Juneby, big as a bear, comes in with a frozen mop, and without explanation sits and drinks tea. He is joined later on by his brother Isaac. Stay in one place long enough and almost the whole Village appears and visits and goes. If consumed time is the criterion, visiting is what the Hungwitchin mainly do. They tell about hunting. Jacob Malcolm impressively describes himself stalking moose on snowshoes--successfully running them down. In the phenomenal stillness of the winter air, he lights a match to see how the flame may bend, then he chooses his direction of approach. Jimmy David comes in, and drops a pair of bloody white ptarmigan on the floor, presenting them to his mother. A fresh snowshoe hare already hangs from a wire on the wall. Bessie wears slacks, has a ready grin. Her hair is tied behind her head. Her oldest child is in his thirties, her youngest is eleven. She is some years younger than Harry. Harry is as trim as a coin. He is short and grayhaired, wears glasses. He is intense, and is known for working hard. "I work hard, come in, take a god-damned good shot before I eat. I like coffee, too, soon as I get up." Harry is the kind of man who shakes Tabasco on his beans. "At home, I'm kind of hazy like, don't feel very good, no satisfaction with anything. I enjoy myself outside, across the Yukon River, feel fine, feel fullof hell and vinegar, full of life, energy--lots of energy." So saying, one February day he went out of the cabin and walked seven miles in the snow. I went behind him, in his tracks. We are the same size; he has a rolling gait, a shorter stride than mine, but he made the going easier for me. He wore rubber boots, rubber trousers, a blue down jacket, a dark-brown leather hat. In his cheek he had a dip of Copenhagen snuff. When he stood still, to talk, he leaned forward. We walked some distance on the Yukon River, which, under the snow, was now smooth and now mountainously jagged where the ice floes at freeze-up had jammed. Gradually, we crossed over, and then went up a crease in the bluff--Harry without the slightest pause, as if he were ascending stairs, when in fact the snow on that precipitous ground was underlaid with ice, and a slip could mean a long fall down. He carried a stick. "This is a good place to go up from the Yukon River," he said, reaching back for me with the stick. Beyond the top, he had cut a maze of trails, miles through a forest burn. He works six and seven days a week cutting cordwood for sale. He does not use a power saw. "John Borg lost his way one time, coming to get some wood, and he said, 'God damn it, Harry, you got too many trails up here'--but he got a good trail to here, don't kick about that." We passed a large pile of whole spruce trunks--up to thirty feet long, their bark blackened--that Michael had cut and had stacked by himself. "He's a young boy. By God, he handle it," Harry said. "He's a well-liked boy. The girls are crazy for him. He is the chief. He has done his country good. By talking, you know--making everything go nice. I think he's got a little college in him. He studies the right way for his people. He like to see people get along together, make no enemy with nobody."
Fifteen years ago, Harry was the chief. "Anyone interfere with our country, we got a right to pitch in and kick like hell about it. You white people butt in, take our traplines, our fishing. That's what we try to stop."
"How do you feel about independence for Alaska, Harry?"
"That's the best way to look at it."
Making a long loop through the burn, we came out eventually at the highest part of the bluff, directly opposite the Village: a panoptic aerial view, of such height and distance, taking in so much river and mountain land, that it emphasized the isolation and the elongate symmetry of the Village by the river and--what is not apparent up close--its beauty. For Harry, this was obviously the supreme moment in the country--the sight of his village from the air. He was born, he said, far down the Yukon River, at the mouth of the Kandik, in 1913. "They kept on moving in those days. They don't stay one place. They lived off the country. They lived in tents, ten by twelve, the biggest they ever had. They just keep on moving. They don't stay in town all the time, like we do." Harry's father, Old David, died when Harry was six, and he was raised for a time by Chief Alec, at Fortymile, but when "the flu came up the river" Chief Alec died, and so did his wife, Mary Alec. Harry was returned to his mother, at Eagle, and lived with her until she died. In the same year, his stepfather drowned. Harry was by now a young man. He hauled wood for the riverboats, and he worked aboard them, too, until they stopped running, "when the Jap tried to take Alaska." At Moosehide one time, near Dawson, he met Bessie. "She is what they call a Crow, I think. One day, I bought two bottles of Hudson Bay rum--a hundred and fifty proof--and a keg of beer, and I married her." Looking across at their cabin, in miniature, in the third of a mile of cabins all touched with smoke, he said he had cut its logs by Eagle Creek and floated them down the Yukon River. For a time, he made his living as a trapper and in summer fished, with a wheel, on Goose Island. He pointed. "That is Goose Island, in the Yukon River--there." He soon went to work, seasonally, for the gold-mining operations at Woodchopper, Coal Creek, and Chicken. "For many years, my work and unemployment just connected." His and Bessie's children were born in the cabin--Michael in 1951, "clever, too, just like Howard, quick." Harry pointed toward the school, at the upstream end of the Village, and said Bessie taught Han there. Han is the language of the Hungwitchin. There are about thirty people in the world whospeak it. A few are upriver, in the area of Dawson, but virtually all of them are in Eagle Indian Village. Han is one of the smallest subdivisions of the great Athapaskan language family, which reaches contiguously from Nulato and Koyukuk, in western Alaska, to southern Alberta and east to Hudson Bay--and makes a surprising jump, as well, across twelve hundred miles to the isolated Southwestern enclave of the Apache and the Navajo, which, among Athapaskans, are by far the most numerous. High on a pole outside the school we could see a small, dark movement--the flag of Alaska flying. The flag, as it happens, was designed by a native. It is lyrically simple, the most beautiful of all American flags. On its dark-blue field, gold stars form the constellation of the Great Bear. Above that is the North Star. Nothing else, as the designer explained, is needed to represent Alaska. It was the flag of the Territory for more than thirty years. Alaskans requested that it become the flag of the new state. The designer was a thirteen-year-old Aleut boy.
Michael went to high school in Tok, and he was "clever for anything," his father said. "With no trouble, he got into the Army. One day, he said, 'Dad, I'm going far to Anchorage with my friend.' He went far to Anchorage with his friend, and he got through the examination clean as a dollar. He went to California." Michael spent almost all of his two service years at the Presidio of San Francisco, where it never snowed, and he missed the winter. He also missed Sophie Biederman. She was a tall, slim, beautiful girl in brightly beaded moccasins. She had an outreaching smile, black hair, a complexion light and clear, notwithstanding that she went around with a can of soda pop almost constantly in her hand, and--eating virtually never--seemed to live on Coca-Cola alone. Harry told her she smoked too much marijuana. (Harry, for his part, does not even smoke tobacco.) Sophie's childhood had been roiled in her parents' troubles with alcohol. Nonetheless, she emerged with a joy in living, a fondness for excitement, a love of games. Her life and Michael's seemed to be spiralling upward through the summer of his return. Spilling Coke, she would dash into his arms. They planned a wedding,and he went to the North Slope to collect money to begin their married life. While he was there, she died of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide. "Michael got broke down over her."
[Even before the large expansion of national parkland in Alaska in 1980, the federal government tried hard to discourage new people, most of whom were in their twenties, from building or occupying cabins on Alaskan federal land. As a result, the following story came to be held in special regard by young people in the upper Yukon.]
The country is full of stories of unusual deaths--old Nimrod Robertson lying down on a creek in overflow and letting it build around him a sarcophagus of ice; the trapper on the Kandik who apparently knocked himself out when he tripped and fell on his own firewood and froze to death before he came to--and of stories also of deaths postponed. There are fewer of the second. I would like to add one back--an account that in essence remains in the country but in detail has largely disappeared.
On a high promontory in the montane ruggedness around the upper Charley River lies the wreckage of an aircraft that is readily identifiable as a B-24. This was the so-called Liberator, a mediumrange bomber built for the Second World War. The wreckage is in the dead center of the country, and I happened over it in a Cessna early in the fall of 1975, during a long and extremely digressive flight that began in Eagle and ended many hours later in Circle. The pilot of the Cessna said he understood that the crew of the Liberator had bailed out, in winter, and that only one man had survived. I asked around to learn who might know more than that--querying, among others, the Air Force in Fairbanks, the Gelvins, various old-timers in Circle and Central, some of the river people, and Margaret Nelson, in Eagle, whohad packed parachutes at Ladd Field, in Fairbanks, during the war. There had been one survivor--everyone agreed. No one knew his name. He had become a symbol in the country, though, and was not about to be forgotten. It was said that he alone had come out--long after all had been assumed dead--because he alone, of the widely scattered crew, was experienced in wilderness, knew how to live off the land, and was prepared to deal with the hostile cold. Above all, he had found a cabin, during his exodus, without which he would have died for sure.
"And the government bastards try to stop us from building them now.
"Guy jumped out of an airplane, and he would have died but he found a cabin."
If the survivor had gone on surviving for what was now approaching thirty-five years, he would in all likelihood be somewhere in the Lower Forty-eight. When I was home, I made a try to find him. Phone calls ricocheted around Washington for some days, yielding only additional phone numbers. The story was just too sketchy. Did I know how many bombers had been lost in that war? At length, I was given the name of Gerard Hasselwander, a historian at the Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. I called him, and he said that if I did not even know the year of the crash he doubted he could help me. Scarcely two hours later, though, he called back to say that he had had a free moment or two at the end of his lunch hour and had browsed through some microfilm. To his own considerable surprise, he had found the survivor's name, which was Leon Crane. Crane's home when he entered the Army Air Forces had been in Philadelphia, but Hasselwander had looked in a Philadelphia directory and there was no Leon Crane in it now. However, he said, Leon Crane had had two brothers who were also in service--in the Army Medical Corps--during the Second World War. One of them was named Morris. In the Philadelphia directory, there was a Dr. Morris Crane.
When I called the number, someone answered and said Dr. Crane was not there.
I asked when he would return.
"I don't know" was the reply. "He went to Leon's."
The Liberator, making cold-weather propeller tests above twenty thousand feet, went into a spin, dived toward the earth, and, pulling out, snapped its elevator controls. It then went into another spin, and the pilot gave the order to abandon ship. There were five aboard. Leon Crane was the co-pilot. He was twenty-four and he had been in Alaska less than two months. Since the plane was falling like a swirling leaf, he had to drag himself against heavy centrifugal force toward the open bomb bay. He had never used a parachute. The outside air temperature was at least thirty degrees below zero. When he jumped, he forgot his mittens. The day was December 21st.
The plane fiercely burned, not far away from where he landed, and he stood watching it, up to his thighs in snow. He was wearing a hooded down jacket, a sweater, winter underwear, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks, and felt-lined military mukluks. He scanned the mountainsides but could see nothing of the others. He thought he had been the second one to go out of the plane, and as he fell he thought he saw a parachute open in the air above him. He shouted into the winter silence. Silence answered. Months later, he would learn that there had been two corpses in the aircraft. Of the two other fliers no track or trace was ever found. "Sergeant Pompeo, the crew chief, had a hell of a thick set of glasses. He must have lost them as soon as he hit the airstream. Without them, he really couldn't see. What was he going to do when he got down there?"
For that matter, what was Crane going to do? He had no food, no gun, no sleeping bag, no mittens. The plane had been meandering in search of suitable skies for the tests. Within two or three hundred miles, he had no idea where he was.
Two thousand feet below him, and a couple of miles east, was a river. He made his way down to it. Waiting for rescue, he stayed beside it. He had two books of matches, a Boy Scout knife. He started a fire with a letter from his father, and for the first eight days he did not sleep more than two hours at a time in his vigilanceto keep the fire burning. The cold awakened him anyway. Water fountained from a gap in the river ice, and that is what he lived on. His hands, which he to some extent protected with parachute cloth or in the pockets of his jacket, became cut and abraded from tearing at spruce boughs. When he spread his fingers, the skin between them would split. Temperatures were probably ranging between a high of thirty below zero and a low around fifty. The parachute, as much as anything, kept him alive. It was twenty-eight feet in diameter, and he wound it around him so that he was at the center of a great cocoon. Still, he said, his back would grow cold while his face roasted, and sparks kept igniting the chute.
He was telling me some of this on a sidewalk in Philadelphia when I asked him how he had dealt with fear.
He stopped in surprise, and looked contemplatively up the street toward Independence Hall, his graying hair wisping out to the sides. He wore a business suit and a topcoat, and he had bright, penetrating eyes. He leaned forward when he walked. "Fear," he repeated. "I wouldn't have used that word. Think about it: there was not a hell of a lot I could do if I were to panic. Besides, I was sure that someone was going to come and get me."
All that the search-and-rescue missions had to go on was that the Liberator had last been heard from above Big Delta, so the search area could not be reduced much below forty thousand square miles. Needless to say, they would not come near finding him. He thought once that he heard the sound of an airplane, but eventually he realized that it was a chorus of wolves. In his hunger, he tried to kill squirrels. He made a spear, and threw it awkwardly as they jumped and chattered in the spruce boughs. He made a bow and arrow, using a shroud line from his parachute, but when he released the arrow it shot off at angles ridiculously oblique to the screeching, maddening squirrels. There was some rubber involved in the parachute assembly, and he used that to make a slingshot, which was worse than the bow and arrow. When he fell asleep by the fire, he dreamed of milkshakes, drippingbeefsteaks, mashed potatoes, and lamb chops, with lamb fat running down his hands. Awake, he kicked aside the snow and found green moss. He put it in his mouth and chewed, and chewed some more, but scarcely swallowed any. Incidentally, he was camped almost exactly where, some twenty-five years later, Ed and Virginia Gelvin would build a cabin from which to trap and hunt.
Crane is a thoroughly urban man. He grew up in the neighborhood of Independence Hall, where he lives now, with an unlisted number. That part of the city has undergone extensive refurbishment in recent years, and Crane's sons, who are residential builders and construction engineers, have had a part in the process. Crane, more or less retired, works for them, and when I visited him I followed him from building to building as he checked on the needs and efforts of carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers. He professed to have no appetite for wild country, least of all for the expanses of the north. As a boy, he had joined a city Scout troop, and had become a First Class Scout, but that was not to suggest a particular knowledge of wilderness. When he flew out of Fairbanks that morning in 1943, his lifetime camping experience consisted of one night on the ground--with his troop, in Valley Forge.
He decided on the ninth day that no help was coming. Gathering up his parachute, he began to slog his way downriver, in snow sometimes up to his waist. It crossed his mind that the situation might be hopeless, but he put down the thought as he moved from bend to bend by telling himself to keep going because "right around that curve is what you're looking for." In fact, he was about sixty miles from the nearest human being, almost a hundred from the nearest group of buildings large enough to be called a settlement. Around the next bend, he saw more mountains, more bare jagged rock, more snow-covered sweeps of alpine tundra, contoured toward another river bend. "Right around that curve is what you're looking for," he told himself again. Suddenly, something was there. First, he saw a cache, high on legs in the air, and then a small cabin, with a door only three feet high. Itwas like the lamb chops, with the grease on his fingers, but when he pushed at the door it was wood and real. The room inside was nine by ten: earth floor, low ceiling, a bunk made of spruce. It was Alaskan custom always to leave a cabin open and stocked for anyone in need. Split firewood was there, and matches, and a pile of prepared shavings. On a table were sacks of dried raisins, sugar, cocoa, and powdered milk. There was a barrel stove, frying pans on the wall. He made some cocoa, and, after so long a time without food, seemed full after a couple of sips. Then he climbed a ladder and looked in the cache, lifting a tarp to discover hammers, saws, picks, drills, coiled rope, and two tents. No one, he reasoned, would leave such equipment far off in the wilderness. "I figured civilization was right around the corner. I was home free."
So he stayed just a night and went on down the river, anxious to get back to Ladd Field. The moon came up after the brief light of day, and he kept going. He grew weak in the deep cold of the night, and when the moon went below the mountains he began to wander off the stream course, hitting boulders. He had been around many corners, but no civilization was there. Now he was sinking into a dream-hazy sleepwalking numbed-out oblivion; but fear, fortunately, struck through and turned him, upriver. He had not retraced his way very far when he stopped and tried to build a fire. He scraped together some twigs, but his cut and bare hands were shaking so--at roughly fifty below zero--that he failed repeatedly to ignite a match. He abandoned the effort, and moved on through the snow. He kept hitting boulders. He had difficulty following his own tracks. He knew now that he would die if he did not get back to the cabin, and the detached observer within him decided he was finished. Left foot, right foot--there was no point in quitting, even so. About noon, he reached the cabin. With his entire body shaking, he worked at a fire until he had one going. Then he rolled up in his parachute and slept almost continuously for three full days.
In his excitement at being "right around the corner from civilization," he had scarcely looked in the cache, and now he foundrice, flour, beans, powdered eggs, dried vegetables, and beef--enough for many weeks, possibly months. He found mittens. He found snowshoes. He found long johns, socks, mukluks. He found candles, tea, tobacco, and a corncob pipe. He found ammunition, a .22. In the cabin, he mixed flour, peas, beans, sugar, and snow, and set it on the stove. That would be his basic gruel--and he became enduringly fond of it. Sometimes he threw in eggs and vegetables. He covered his hands with melted candle wax, and the bandage was amazingly effective. He developed a routine, with meals twice a day, a time for hunting, a fresh well chopped daily through the four-foot river ice. He slept eighteen hours a day, like a wintering bear--not truly hibernating, just lying there in his den. He felt a need to hear a voice, so he talked to himself. The day's high moment was a pipeful of tobacco puffed while he looked through ten-year-old copies of The Saturday Evening Post. He ransacked the magazines for insights into the woods lore he did not know. He learned a thing or two. In a wind, it said somewhere in the Post, build your fire in a hole. He shot and ate a ptarmigan, and had the presence of mind to look in its stomach. He found some overwintering berries there, went to the sort of bushes they had come from, and shot more ptarmigan. Cardboard boxes, the magazines, and other items in the cabin were addressed to "Phil Berail, Woodchopper, Alaska." Contemplating these labels, Crane decided that Alaska was a fantastic place--where someone's name and occupation were a sufficient address. One day, an old calendar fell off the wall and flipped over on its way to the floor. On the back was a map of Alaska. He stared at it all day. He found Woodchopper, on the Yukon, and smiled at his foolishness. From the terrain around him, the northward flow of the stream, the relative positions of Fairbanks and Big Delta, he decided--just right--that he was far up the Charley River. The smile went back where it came from.
He decided to wait for breakup, build a raft, and in late May float on down to the Yukon. After five or six weeks, though, he realized that his food was going to give out in March. There waslittle ammunition with which to get meat, and he had no confidence anyway in his chances with the rifle. If he stayed, he would starve. He felt panic now, but not enough to spill the care with which he was making his plans. He had set off willy-nilly once before and did not want to repeat the mistake. He patched his clothes with parachute cloth, sewing them with shroud lines. He made a sled from some boards and a galvanized tub. He figured closely what the maximum might be that he could drag and carry. On February 12th, he left. The sled would scarcely budge at first, and snow bunched up before it. Wearing a harness he had made, he dragged the sled slowly downriver. Berail's snowshoes had Indian ties. Try as he would, he could not understand how to secure them to his feet. The snowshoes were useless. Up to his knees, and sometimes to his hips, he walked from dawn until an hour before dark each day. He slept beside bonfires that burned all night. Blizzards came up the river some days, and driving williwaws--winds of a force that could literally stop him in his tracks. He leaned against the wind. When he could, he stepped forward. Once, at the end of a day's hard walking, he looked behind him--on the twisting mountain river--and saw where he had started at dawn. The Charley in summer--ciear-flowing within its canyon walls, with grizzlies fishing its riffles, Dall sheep on the bluffs, and peregrines above it in the air--is an extremely beautiful Alaskan river (it has been called the loveliest of all), but for Leon Crane it was little more than brutal. He came to a lead one day, a patch of open water, and, trying to use some boulders as stepping stones, he fell in up to his armpits. Coming out, barging through snowdrifts, he was the center of a fast-forming block of ice. His matches were dry. Shaking as before, he managed this time to build a fire. All day, he sat steaming beside it, removing this or that item of clothing, drying it a piece at a time.
After a couple of weeks on the river, he found another cabin, with a modest but welcome food cache-cornmeal, canned vegetables, Vienna sausage. He sewed himself a backpack and abandoned his cumbersome sled. Some seven or eight days on downthe river, he came around a bend at dusk and found cut spruce tops in parallel rows stuck in the river snow. His aloneness, he sensed, was all but over. It was the second week of March, and he was eighty days out of the sky. The arrangement of treetops, obviously, marked a place where a plane on skis might land supplies. He looked around in near darkness and found a toboggan trail. He camped, and next day followed the trail to a cabin--under smoke. He shouted toward it. Al Ames, a trapper, and his wife, Neena, and their children appeared in the doorway. "I am Lieutenant Leon Crane, of the United States Army Air Forces," he called out. "I've been in a little trouble." Ames took a picture, which hangs on a wall in Philadelphia.
Crane remembers thinking, Somebody must be saving me for something, but I don't know what it is. His six children, who owe themselves to that trip and to Phil Berail's fully stocked Charley River cabin, are--in addition to his three sons in the construction business--Mimi, who is studying engineering at Barnard; Rebecca, who is in the master's program in architecture at Columbia; and Ruth, a recent graduate of the Harvard Medical School. Crane himself went on to earn an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and spent his career developing helicopters for Boeing Vertol.
"It's a little surprising to me that people exist who are interested in living on that ground up there," he told me. "Why would anyone want to take someone who wanted to be there and throw them out? Who the hell could care?"
Al Ames, who had built his cabin only two years before, harnessed his dogs and mushed Crane down the Yukon to Woodchopper, where a plane soon came along and flew him out.
Crane met Phil Berail at Woodchopper, and struggled shyly to express to him his inexpressible gratitude. Berail, sixty-five, was a temporary postmaster and worked for the gold miners there. He had trapped from his Charley River cabin. He was pleased that it had been useful, he said. For his part, he had no intentionof ever going there again. He had abandoned the cabin four years before.
Earl Stout, a former miner, is too old to be concerned with all the new government regulations, with settling ponds or enforcement orders or turbidity units in any form. He worked Sly Creek, Fourth of July Creek--and in 1959 he retired to his cabin on Crooked Creek, in Central. He eats potatoes. They are the fundaments of his breakfasts, his lunches, and his dinners. "I ain't too heavy on the meat situation. I never was. I get my outfit in the fall of the year. Potatoes." He is in ruddy health, white-haired, of medium height, a little stooped--eighty-five years old. He smokes a pipe. In his cabin are three calendars and three clocks. He gets up at exactly five-thirty every morning. Evenings, just before he goes to bed at nine, he goes to the calendars and crosses off the day.
This is a Friday in winter, as it happens. Sometime this morning, he filled his gas lantern. That is about all he has accomplished today. "In fact, I ain't done a whole lot since I retired in '59," he says, and in the silence that follows the ticking of his clocks sounds like the puffing of locomotives. There is an iron bed, a couple of chairs, and a big galvanized tub full of melted stream ice. When he needs more, he will cut it out of Crooked Creek and haul it on a go-devil behind his old Oliver Cat. In his Bean's boots, open wool shirt, and gray trousers, he sits and sleeps and reads--Newsweek, Popular Science, National Geographic, Prevention. On a shelf beside him is a book called "Upper Tittabawassa Boom Towns," in a couple of which (Hope and Sanford, Michigan) he grew up. He came to the upper Yukon fifty years ago.
On Fridays now, at precisely four o'clock, he goes down theroad to collect his mail. He could run this errand at almost any time and on almost any day. In good weather, the mail plane arrives three times a week. But Earl Stout likes to gather mail in weekly units. "What's the use of getting it," he explains, "before it's all in?" Saturday nights, he used to play pool at the Central store--stick in hand, cigar in mouth, brandy on the cushion. "That was until the old Chevy went out. Now I stay home. All the years I was on the Yukon, there was no place to go. The nearest person was five miles away. You got to get used to staying home." He sorely misses Bob. A black, short-haired mongrel, Bob was for many years Earl's only companion. Five wolves running on the creek overtook Bob not long ago. They left his collar and a small piece of his tail. After finding the blood and the fragments, Earl drank a bottle of rum. It is 3:45 P.M. He gets up and pulls denim overalls over his trousers. He ties strings around the ankles. He puts on mittens and a wool cap, and he says, "I can't take the cold the way I used to." The air outside is ten below zero. I make a move to leave. "You don't have to go," he says. "It isn't time yet. There's still ten minutes." He waits until the clocks say four. "Now," he says, "it's time to go."
Copyright © 1996 by John McPhee Introduction copyright © 1996 by David Remnick