Alaska: A true story
“I’m leavin’ on a jet plane…”
In 1969 – when I was but a shy widow at the tender age of 22 – I met a military man.
We were engaged and planned to wed upon his return home from his stint in the cold, far north – Alaska. The government had stationed him at a remote radar site: “Takotna.” It was about 250 miles from the city of Anchorage, and few signs of civilization lay between.
My beloved would call me about once a week, and we would speak longingly of our dreams for the future – our future.
“It’s just too much living apart!” I lamented to him. “How about me just coming up there with you?”
He quickly agreed, with neither of us pausing to give any thought or consideration to the military’s rules, required applications and the undeniable truth that, particularly in those days, Alaska may as well have been a foreign country – a far cry from sunny, well-populated Florida, at any rate.
And so we made plans for me to fly to wild, unfamiliar Alaska, and he would find a cabin for us to rent. What could be more romantic? It sounded like a scene from a postcard.
I decided that before I left home, I had better buy a new coat – one with a hood and plenty of warm insulation – and some lined boots, too! So I did what all smart women like me did: got the “wish book” down, and found the perfect coat for me. It was green corduroy, lined with faux fur, and it had a hood lined with faux fur, as well. I also ordered a pair of black boots with zippers on each side – plastic of course.
Now I was ready, so I purchased my ticket, and three weeks later I took off in a large jet from the Tallahassee Airport, Alaska-bound – well, sort of. It was far from a straight shot. I figured I’d be disembarking on Alaskan soil by that afternoon. What a naive traveler I was in those days!:
The first stop was Atlanta – the busiest airport in the world (although, to be fair, at the time it was only the second busiest, with slightly less daily air traffic than Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport; Atlanta’s airport has since far eclipsed Chicago in terms of number of flights arriving and departing). Being such a busy airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield International was brimming with people – very cosmopolitan! A feeling of dread came over me, but since this was only my first airplane ride, I knew I would make it.
In Atlanta, I boarded another jet and flew, not north toward Alaska, but south to New Orleans, enduring a four-hour layover there. I was beginning to feel a little better, and decked out in my green coat and plastic boots, I felt very stylish. I went to the bathroom several times, bought a Coke and “people-watched” to pass the time. Four hours did not fly by; each minute dragged along slowly. Finally, another jet arrived to fly us from New Orleans to San Francisco!
Lots of passengers boarded along with me. Dinner was served, and I learned about the little collapsible tray located in the seat directly in front of me. The food was good, the meal trays were picked up, and so I folded the little tray back up flush with the seat ahead. Afterwards, I had to go to the bathroom – no easy task, given that I had a window seat with two gentlemen sitting next to me. They both had to get up for me to make my way through the narrow aisle to the plane’s lavatory.
When I came back from the loo, we went through the same thing again. Thankfully they were very nice about the inconvenient seat shuffling. We were shown a movie and offered a pillow and blanket. Finally, we touched down in San Francisco, and got off the plane for a while, per the instructions of the Captain. But soon, we were back on our jet.
Bumpy ride: To wilds of great white north by way of turbulent wild blue yonder
After soaring over the craggy mountain peaks, vast fields and endless open waters of the North Pacific that lay between California and Alaska, our jet was in its final approach to our destination: the City of Anchorage, Alaska.
As our jet touched down at the Anchorage Airport, it felt as though only 30 minutes had passed since we departed San Francisco. Outside the plane’s window, it appeared to be late afternoon. A light wintry mix of rain and snow was falling, and on the runway, moisture from a previous rain had formed a solid layer of ice.
Soon after landing, my fellow passengers and I gingerly descended the steps leading from the jetliner’s forward hatch, and as we stepped onto the tarmac, a frigid wind nearly blew the hood of my new corduroy jacket clean off my head, where I had secured it as protection against the bitter cold.
I pulled my coat more snugly around me as we headed for the front door of the airport and entered. Though it was – and still is – Alaska’s busiest air transport hub, the Anchorage Airport was not huge and cosmopolitan like its counterparts in Atlanta or San Francisco; it appeared to have been constructed from logs! I went to check on my next flight – yes, I still had a ways to go, a 200 mile flight, then another, about 50 miles, to the village of “Tacotna.”
I was told I had an overnight layover at the airport; my next flight would arrive in the morning. There were no motels, cabins, rest areas or any of the other modern conveniences we enjoy today at which I could rest my tired bones. There was, however, a moderately sized coffee shop with burgers, fries, soft drinks and beet! Thankfully, there were also (mostly) modern bathrooms.
Alongside the walls were a row of benches. I slept on one of them, using my purse as a pillow. The next morning, I awakened to another cloudy day, albeit clearer than the day before. My plane had arrived, and as we boarded, I noticed lots of new people – different from those with whom I had flown in. There were lots of “Eskimo-type” fur coats, pants, and short, wide, stubby shoes called “muck-lucks,” I’d later learn.
As we began to accelerate down the runway I noticed one more thing: this was NOT a jet. There was no turbine to be found – this aircraft was powered by propellers. As such, it couldn’t climb as high as a jet – to calmer altitudes, well above most weather systems. Our prop-plane could go through some clouds, at least, but the wind turbulence at these lower altitudes was intense – the plane would go up and down, up and down.
The propellor plane also lacked the advanced cabin pressurization of a modern, high-altitude jetliner; as a result, there was nothing to shield us from the dramatic changes in air pressure as we climbed up into the atmosphere. We would climb just high enough that the air pressure in my ears was truly causing me pain. But as soon as the pressure would level out, a patch of turbulence would cause the plane to drop rapidly, only to level off again. This constant shifting of atmospheric pressure caused me to have a rough time with my ears the entire flight.
In addition to decent cabin pressurization, I noticed another thing this plane was sorely lacking: a bathroom. Oh well; it would only be two hours before we arrive at the next little town. TWO HOURS!? Oh my! Fortunately, there was no shortage of barf bags onboard, and they were well used!
Finally, thank God, the plane landed – on a frozen, cleared river! We came to a stop and once again disembarked. Once again I noticed that a lot of people were wearing the “Eskimo coats” and shoes, a.k.a. “muck-lucks.” This little town appeared to be a trading area, where people bought, sold and bartered for things. It looked like someone had designed it for a television show. But it was real. The trading post had groceries and supplies for sale – coats, ropes, hammers, screws, tools, shovels and much more.
Eventually, I was able to locate my plane and pilot. He showed me the aircraft on which we’d fly the final leg of my long journey – a tiny, single-engine “bush plane.” The pilot quickly loaded my two pieces of luggage and helped me aboard the plane. He strapped in both my possessions and me quite securely. I had seatbelts over both my shoulders, my torso and each individual leg.
Strapped in tight, we took off down the makeshift runway. He flew very low; I could now see the pristine beauty that was Alaska of that time. We flew over a herd of elk, and at one point I even witnessed a moose galloping away on the ground beneath us. It was all snow, ice…and cold! The mountaintops were blanketed in white from pinnacle to more than half-way down their rocky slopes.
The towering peaks emanated a deep blue hue – the entire landscape was an artist’s dream.
Then, the pilot turned the plane upside down. Suddenly, there I was – hanging from all my seatbelts, feeling like a puppet on strings. I screamed, and he flipped the plane back over. It was then that he spotted our destination. I looked out and saw a log cabin with smoke curling out from its chimney – a scene straight out of a Christmas Card. So romantic! The plane landed on a frozen river, which doubled as an airstrip during the long winter months. I thanked the pilot, then he unloaded my luggage, and there, down from the cabin walked… my espoused.
Living in a postcard – in the land of the midnight sun
After disembarking the small bush plane that brought me to this remote corner of Alaska, stepping onto the frozen river “tarmac,” there he was: my beloved, walking down from a postcard-perfect cabin.
I admired the cabin he had rented for us. He took my luggage and my hand and led me up to the cabin. Beloved opened the door to the walled-in front porch and then threw open the front door to reveal an enormous oil drum, perched atop a drum holder, which was used as a heater. The fuel? Wood, of course! I toured the house and got the impression that it was solidly built and well-insulated. It had two furnished bedrooms but no electric lights. Also conspicuously absent was a bathroom.
My better half had a snack with me, then went out to cut wood. He chopped wood and split logs all that afternoon and all day the next day – a Sunday. Then, around 4 p.m. he said, “Well, I have to get going.”
“Going?” I said. “Where?”
“To work,” he replied. “You know – Air Force, remote duty, radar site…”
“But what about me?” I asked, nervously.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, assuredly. “You have – and can light – a Coleman lantern. You have a porch full of wood, you have heat, you have food…you’ll be fine!” Clearly less confident about my circumstances than my backcountry-experienced beloved, I asked, sheepishly, “But what if I have to, you know… ‘go?’”
“Oh, there is an outhouse out back,” he said, calmly. “It’s new, too! Just remember, if it’s snowing use the twine.” When I asked why, he responded, “Just tie one end to the doorknob and take the spool with you.”
“What for?” I pressed.
“Well,” he said slowly, “some people can’t see in a heavy snow and lose their way back to the house and freeze to death. But if you have the twine, you’ll be fine!”
“Well, see you next weekend!” he continued after a brief pause.
“What? You won’t be back for a week!?” I implored.
“Well, yeah – unless the weather gets bad and I get put on lockdown, where I can’t leave,” he said, matter-of-factly.
A sinking feeling began to pour over me. I started to suspect that I had, perhaps, made a very bad decision in coming to this place – this frozen, backcountry wilderness. I feared I might fall in the snow and freeze, and no one would be able to find me until next spring, after the snow thawed.
The days dragged on and on, seemingly with no end in sight at the beginning.Thankfully, I had brought some books to read in case I had down time. I was, indeed, able to light the Coleman lantern. I just had to keep the fire going – which put put out the heat, but also ate up the wood!
Suddenly, it dawned on me that I was in this strange place between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I wondered why there wasn’t more snow when I arrived, but that should’ve been the last thing on my mind. It snowed A LOT at night, and some during the day.
I dipped some water out of my big old milk carrier and noticed it was getting low. Soon, I would have to get more water somewhere.
“Where do I get water?” I wondered to myself. There were no neighbors to ask, after all.
“I can always catch some snow!” I reasoned. Little did I know it takes an awful lot of snow – mostly air, as it turns out – to melt for enough liquid water to refill my can. Further complicating the water situation, when full, the can was too heavy; I couldn’t move it! I would use water sparingly, I resolved and when my “honey” came home on Friday, he could help me.
And speaking of days of the week: “what day is this?” I caught myself wondering. Working out my mental calendar, I glanced at the clock. it read 9 p.m. My sweetheart had been gone only a day, which would make today Monday and tomorrow, Tuesday. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught light peeking in from behind the heavy window coverings. It was nighttime, yet it wasn’t dark out. The sun was out, in fact. What?
Then I remembered – I was in the land of the “midnight sun” – so close to the earth’s Northern Pole that during certain times of the year, the sun never fully set. I had heard of this phenomenon in some distant past.
“Well, dang. I never would’ve believed that,” I murmured to myself. It was all-too true, though. And in order to sleep, I had to make my own “night” indoors by covering all the windows in heavy drapes – too thick and dense for the sunlight outside to penetrate. I also slept with my watch on my wrist so I could keep up with the time and calculate the passing days.
And, pass, they did. Slowly…
Cold isolation, burning anticipation
The cabin felt a bit cool, so I checked out the fire – still burning, though not as hot as it had been.
Intending to remedy the impotent flames by tossing another “log” on the fire, I checked the cache of wood my beloved had painstakingly chopped over two whole days and realized it was quickly being depleted – too quickly, I feared. My “man” – still away at his Air Force assignment – would have to cut more.
Though the boundaries between day and night were quite blurred in the land of the midnight sun, I reasoned it must be about Thursday, in the a.m.
“Tomorrow! Tomorrow!” I whispered to myself. “He will be here tomorrow!” I decided to fry up an egg to celebrate. A far cry from a champagne toast on New Years, but the occasion felt every bit as much a reason to celebrate. And in the stark tundra just north of the Arctic Circle, an egg was something akin to fine bubbly – rare, hard to come by and precious.
And speaking of “frozen tundra,” a funny thing happens with eggs in that part of the world, I discovered. I walked out to fetch an egg from the “cold cabinet,” brought it in and gently tapped the brittle white shell – just as I had done countless times before. No luck. The egg didn’t crack, and I quickly discovered the reason: it was frozen solid. So I opened a can of tuna and ate it with crackers, instead. No eggs for me – celebratory or otherwise – today.
The day passed, and I marveled at how odd it is when the night appears just as bright as day – each phase all but indistinguishable from the other. This was a result of earth’s unique axial tilt and seasonal variations, as you likely learned in grade school. To put it simply: there is nothing to divide day or night! I remember praying, “Oh, God! Please help me get through this!” I meant it, too.
Friday came at last, and I could hardly wait until “honey” arrived back at our rustic backcountry cabin home. I fired up the propane stove and cooked up a country fried steak, which I had retrieved from the “cold cabinet” and defrosted in the kitchen sink. Oh yeah – did I forget to mention we had a kitchen sink? Just no running water.
I cooked supper, made coffee, and a pie for dessert. The propane stove and wood-burning heater produced a heating synergy that kept the place nice and toasty. But no one ever told me how quickly propane burns up when you cook with it. But before I could begin fretting over our dwindling propane supply, I heard a noise outside.
Could it be…? My honey? Yes, indeed it was! He was back at home, but he didn’t arrive alone. Accompanying him to the door was a man, woman and little girl with big, blue eyes. In spite of the surprise guests, I was never so glad to see anyone in my life.
“Easy, honey. You OK?” he asked.
“Yeah, fine,” I replied, beaming with a smile that stretched ear to ear.
Then he introduced me to his friend, his wife and daughter…
Reunion and introductions
Finally, he was back.
After days of around-the-clock daylight, cold and snow, this lifelong Florida girl’s introduction to Alaska was nothing short of a trial-by-fire – or perhaps more accurately, a trial by ice. And except for the first couple of days, I did it alone. My beloved had gone to his Air Force post for the week – far away from the cozy little log cabin I now called home. But I made it through – safe, sound, all by myself.
In spite of my solo success, the vision of my beloved walking along the path to our cabin door was pure bliss. He had finally returned, and he wasn’t alone. A man, woman and little girl with big blue eyes – all unfamiliar to me – were in tow with my returning Airman. For the moment, however, I forgot all about the trio of strangers. My attention was laser-focused on my one-and-only; never before in my life had I ever been so glad to see anyone. I was ecstatic – and it showed.
“Easy, honey!” he said as I greeted him in jubilation. “You OK?” he asked, matter-of-factly yet genuinely.
“Yeah, fine,” I said, trying to downplay by exuberance. Our enthusiastic reunion out of the way, my beloved introduced me to his friend – the man accompanying him up the path to our cabin.
“Meet our landlord, Rick. And this is his wife, Sherri, and daughter, Michelle,” my beloved said. and our land. They all seemed very nice. Rick told me that he worked for the telephone company and was stationed at the Air Force radar site where my beloved was assigned. Rick and his wife had another house similar to ours, except for a couple of modern upgrades added by Rick – a well with running water and electricity, via generator.
They also had a “ski-mobile” – essentially a motorized vehicle on skis. The self-propelled conveyance gave Rick and his family the ability to venture out to places too far to trudge in the Alaska snow, over the vast, unpopulated expanses of permafrost. Sherri, Rick’s wife, told me she would come over early the following week to take me to a hole that had been cut through the solid ice capping the nearby frozen river. I asked her how we would get the water container there and back.
“We’ll take the ‘sled,’” she replied, confidently.
“Good deal,” I thought assuredly to myself. “I wonder if she has horses to pull the ‘sled?’” she said, we’ll take the “sled”
Meanwhile, my man and his friend set out to gather more wood. Watching them as they walked away, I noticed there was only one tiny pine tree in the direction they were headed.
“Where were they getting the wood?” I thought to myself. I quickly dismissed the perplexing thought, however, asking myself, “Why do I care where they get the wood? Just so long as we get it!”
I enjoyed a nice visit with Sherri and their little girl, sipping hot coffee and devouring sweet, soul-comforting pie in the warmth of our cozy cabin. About two hours passed before the men folk showed up once more – stepping up onto the front porch, burdened down with a substantial load of wood! Our visitors said their “goodbyes” and headed home. As for honey and me, we were so exhausted we fell fast asleep on the sofa.
It was my first good night’s rest in a week!
Town of many taverns, few prayers
While my beloved was home, we had time to walk around, exploring the snowy, stunningly beautiful Alaskan countryside.
He spoke of hunting, fishing and other outdoor exploits. He said during the previous summer, he and some Air Force friends had gone fishing near the radar site where they were posted. They caught several lovely wild Alaskan salmon, then took them back to the radar site, where they cleaned the plump, pink-fleshed fish and cooked them for supper. The salmon was delicious, he recalled, adding there was enough to feed all the people on site.
He also told me of a moose hunt they had been on. One of the largest land animals – both by weight and size – in North America and notoriously aggressive, a moose is no easy foe for even the most skilled hunters. Nonetheless, my beloved and his hunting party managed to bag one, after which they field dressed it and prepped it for eating and meat storage. I was entranced as my beloved recounted the procedure for cleaning a moose – a giant by all big game standards.
But Alaska wasn’t all fun and outdoor adventures for my sweetie; after all, he was a United States Airman and had a serious, important job to do at the radar site. It was the height of the Cold War, and America was as suspicious as ever of our communist foes in the Soviet Union, which was only a matter of miles from the western shores of Alaska. Only the narrow Bering Straits separated Siberia (the wild eastern frontier of Russia/USSR) from Alaskan – and, hence, Amerian – soil. As such, military leaders of the time considered it a likely route of attack, should the Cold War turn warm and the Soviets decide to invade.
It was in this precarious global political environment that my beloved was posted at the Radar Site. His job: monitoring for incoming ballistic missiles, which could potentially carry a deadly nuclear payload. Even still, his time at the Radar Site wasn’t all deathly serious. My beloved told me that he and his fellow Airmen were also responsible for spotting Santa Clause every Christmas and reporting the location of his reindeer-guided sleigh!
As we walked and talked, we wandered into the nearby village, passing by numerous charming locales that seemed as if they were frozen in time – straight from the days of rough and tough prospectors; fearless frontiersmen; and wild, rugged cowboys. We saw the “trapper’s cabin,” with its fur skin nailed to the door. He also showed me the old liquor store and even the local “house of ill repute.” I’m not sure how he came to know about the latter!
“Why, no church here?” I asked.
“I don’t think any of these folk want to pray,” he replied, a half-cocked smile on his face. “As long as they can drink, they seem to be happy. Besides, it’s so cold here!”
“Yeah, but I would think they would want to pray, especially, here!” I retorted.
We talked about the cabin where we now lived – how he had worked on weekends to help Rick, our landlord, build it. They had initially intended to outfit the cabin with all the modern conveniences and advantages, but the snow and cold chased the summer away earlier than anticipated, thwarting their plans to modernize the rustic log home.
“Hey! Thanksgiving is only a week away; we will celebrate when you get home!” I said, suddenly remembering it was already mid November. With around-the-clock sunshine or dark – depending on the time-of-year – it was easy for time to slip away from you.
“Ok,” he said.
“We’ll need a few groceries,” I continued.
“Like what?” he asked, his eyebrow raised. I began listing all the traditional Thanksgiving essentials: “Well, a turkey, dressing, a festive tablecloth, sweet potatoes and the makings for an apple pie. Also bread, bacon and eggs; some canned tuna, saltine crackers, peanut butter and jelly – oh yeah, and another bottle of propane!”
But gathering such holiday staples wasn’t as simple – or affordable – as it was back home in sunny Florida, I soon realized. My beloved explained that not only was the price of food inflated in the far north where we were, you also had to hire a bush plane just to pick it up and bring it back home.
“And he charges $75 for the trip!” my beloved said of the local bush pilot’s fee.
How much all that cost, plus hiring of the bush plane to
“Things here are expensive!” he continued. “That’s the reason most people hunt and kill their meats around here – to keep their grocery bills down.” Unfazed, I asked, “Where do you hire [the pilot]? I will give you $175 from my trip money!”
“Well,” he said, “I can make contact with him on the radar site and put in the order. He is pretty honest.”
“Will he deliver?” I asked.
“Well he may, if I can’t get in contact when he comes back. Look for him next week,” my beloved said.
“Ok, I will!” I quickly replied, feeling a child-like sense of excitement rise up in me at the thought of having groceries flown in by bush plane.
A long day of walking and catching up behind us, we enjoyed a simple supper and began to doze. We had talked ourselves to sleep…
Thanksgiving on the way, and not a Piggly Wiggly in sight…
My first Thanksgiving in Alaska was only days away, and I was growing increasingly excited at the thought of my holiday groceries being flown in by bush plane – a necessity in this frozen remote wilderness, where highways are almost nonexistent and those that were available are inaccessible most of the year.
As exciting as my airborne grocery gathering experience was, it was anything but cheap. Even before you calculated the cost of hiring a pilot and plane to pick up the items on your list from a distant town and return with them, the food prices were far higher than what I was used to back in Florida. This would prove to be hands-down one of my priciest Thanksgiving dinners ever! But it was well worth it – to have a nice meal with my beloved in this charming winter wonderland. But Thanksgiving was still days away, and there was no time to dream of romantic scenes of candlelit dinner with my sweetie and such. There was still much to do unrelated to holiday matters – the daily chores necessary to eek out a life in this wild, undeveloped frontier.
Around 4, our landlord, Rick picked up my sweetheart on his “ski-mobile.”
“See you soon, honey,” my man said. It was a lighthearted, albeit bittersweet moment. I was sad to see my man go – back to his post at the Air Force radar site – but I was also looking forward to the possibility of Rick’s wife coming over the next day to help me fetch water from the river to drink, cook and clean with in our plumbing-less cabin. I even made up a little song about it; and though I can’t convey the melody in text, they lyrics went something like: “going to the river to get pure, pristine water!”
In the meantime, I was straightening up the house, keeping the heater alight and stoked up, adding more wood to the fire. As I was always busying myself with one task or another, Monday came rather quickly.
It was clear outside, but cold! Though I was sound asleep as it fell, a thick blanket of powdery, pure white virgin snow suggested a pretty good snowstorm the previous evening. I decided I had better dress warmly, so I layered up – wearing a shirt over jeans with two pullover sweaters on top of the shirt. My fur-lined corduroy jacket provided a resilient, cozy outer shell. But it was beginning to look a little limp compared to its “pre-Alaska” condition. It had been through a lot since I arrived in the great white north, after all. Nevertheless, it would undoubtedly suffice for a short excursion down to the frozen “water hole.”
I heard a noise outside. It was midday; I looked out the door, and in she came: my “water buddy” – i.e. Rick’s wife – and her daughter. She rode in on a sled – a big one – with a large leather handle.
Life-giving hole in the ice
After dismounting her sled, our landlord’s wife-turned-my-new-water-buddy asked me to fetch my water storage receptacle, which happened to be a recycled milk can. “Used up” items that seem like trash in most parts of the country often have tremendous value when you’re in the frozen wilds of northern Alaska – days away from the nearest Wal-Mart.
I went over and dipped out probably half a gallon, then I began attempting to lift up the heavy metal can. Straining against the weight of steel and the remaining water – sloshing about, not making things any easier – I decided I may as well try to lift a refrigerator. So Sherry, our landlord Rick’s wife, came over to lend a hand. The two of us dragged the makeshift cistern out the door and loaded it onto the hulking sled.
“Whew!” I exclaimed, wiping the sweat from my brow before it froze in the subzero air. Sherry began pulling the sled over the slick, newfallen snow, and I walked alongside as we trekked toward the frozen river where we’d load up on water rations.
“How far do we have to walk?” I asked.
“It’s about a half-mile to the hole,” Sherry replied, referring to the gaping portal that had been cut through the thick river ice for the purpose of accessing fresh, drinkable water.
“Thats pretty far!” I noted, my worried expression likely obvious to the more experienced outdoorswoman.
“Naah!” Sherry said. No longer trying to suppress my concern, I looked back at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. “You just have to get used to it,” Sherry added, sensing my doubt.
I figured she was probably right. But there was one thing about which I was sure beyond doubt: I did not enjoy walking in warm, mild weather, and I certainly had no intentions of spending the rest of my life trudging back and forth across the snow-packed permafrost, from our little cabin down to the frozen river – just to dip river water out of a hole in the ice to fill up an old metal milk can: our only source of hydration in a primitive backcountry cabin with no plumbing.
My man – the one and only reason I had relocated to this landscape of tundra, tough living and trials-by-ice – had better get his “tail” out of the Air Force. And quick! Far away from the remote Alaskan radar site where he was stationed and to a place with infrastructure and the basic amenities of a civilized people. I wanted modern things like electricity; treated, purified water; indoor plumbing with flushing toilets; central heat and air…
No wonder this tiny village has a tavern, a liquor store, but almost nothing else! They don’t drink water – they drink the “devil’s brew!” A pint of beer or shot of whisky was a whole lot easier to access here than water – liquid, flowing, not-frozen water, at least.
Until my beloved’s Airman’s was up, however, here I was: standing on six feet of ice, staring down into a gaping hole just big enough to fit a small cooking pot through. And that is how we filled my milk can: potful by agonizingly small potful. In all, it took about an hour to get our milk can filled. I thanked Sherry for all her help, and as we were walking back to the cabin, I asked, “Do you have to walk far to get your water?”
“No,” she said. “Not anymore. Now we have water that comes into our house, through indoor plumbing.”
“Is that right?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said. Apparently Sherry’s husband – our landlord, Rick – had hoped to install plumbing in the cabin my beloved and I were staying in. But well-digging, pipe-laying and the like is summertime work. And needless to say, summers in Alaska are…brief. To say the least.
“Do you like living here?” I asked Sherry as we continued to walk.
“You get used to it,” she said, a half-smile on her face and clear “wink” in her voice. It was about then that I noticed Sherry’s daughter – who had accompanied us on our water-fetching outing – was skipping, dancing and otherwise playfully frolicking around us as we walked.
“She is such a precious child,” I said. “Does she attend school?”
“We purchase a curriculum, and I teach her,” Sherry explained. “It’s very rewarding!” I smiled and nodded approvingly, but in my head I was thinking, “God! I’m ready to go home right now!” I’m not so sure the man upstairs heard me, however…
Thanksgiving dinner…by way of bush plane
After slowly, painstakingly filling my makeshift water cistern cup-by-cup through a narrow hole cut into the solid crust of ice topping our nearby frozen river, Sherry – our landlord’s wife and my new “water buddy” – and I managed to trudge back to the cabin and get the sloshing tankard of water safely inside.
I thanked her, and we said our goodbyes. It would be the last time I saw her on this trip to Alaska. In the frozen, sparsely populated wilds of Alaska, ordinary things like fresh water take on a new kind of value, almost to the point of becoming a novelty. Having excess water around even proved downright inspiring for me. That evening, I took a mini sponge bath – savoring the luxurious feel of pure water on my skin – and read books by the warm, golden glow of my trusty Coleman lamp. It was a romantic scene, no doubt.
The following Wednesday, just before lunch, a red truck pulled up, and out of it, a man emerged, laden with packages. With his load in tow, he approached our cabin door. It was the bush plane pilot! He had finally returned from his grocery run, arriving at our front door as promised to deliver the Thanksgiving dinner provisions I ordered weeks earlier.
“ I have some groceries for you,” he said.
“Well, I’ve been expecting them!” I replied, a smile on my face. There were two sizeable bags loaded with goodies, plus one large propane bottle – fuel for the cook stove. Making polite conservation, the pilot-slash-grocery-delivery man said, “Looks like you’re cooking for Thanksgiving, huh?” “Yep!” I answered, enthusiastically.
“Well, I heard tell there’s supposed to be some very cold weather coming in later this week, so you be careful!” he added.
“You, too!” I responded. “And thanks!”
There was no charge; my husband had seen the pilot at the radar site earlier that month and paid him for the groceries then. The pilot left, and the very next day, his ominous weather forecast was proven all-too-correct. The skies grew cloudy and dark, and the wind was howling – blowing hard. Suddenly, snow started falling – looking like delicate floating down and feathers at first, then thickening up like pieces of white hard candy plopping on the ground.
I thought of “the twine” – my makeshift but all-too-real lifeline between the outhouse (our only “bathroom”) and the cabin; my jute fiber guide through blinding white blizzard conditions. I decided then and there that I did NOT have to go to the outhouse – neither now, nor never in weather like this.
Finally, I bundled up and went to bed. I needed my rest, after all, because tomorrow was Thanksgiving Day, and I had a whole turkey, dressing and all the trimmings to prepare – in a kitchen more akin to those used by 19th century pioneers than even the most sparsely appointed of their modern counterparts.
Farewell, my old frozen friend, Alaska; seems I barely knew ye…
As the snow fell hard, blowing white sheets outside our cozy Alaska cabin and accumulating in mountain-sized piles, I stood over my primitive backcountry kitchen, all the ingredients for turkey, dressing and all the trimmings spread out before. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I had groceries flown in by bush plane at great trouble and expense, so I could prepare a Thanksgiving dinner fit for an enormous family gathering back home in the sweet, sunny south of the lower 48.
As the turkey began to roast and the dressing simmered, delightful aromas filled the cabin – smells the likes of which had almost certainly never filled this backwoods cabin before, where canned dinners and frozen eggs were the norm through much of the year. My man was at his Air Force post at the radar site, and with the blizzard, turns out he wouldn’t be home until tomorrow, late in the day. So I wrapped up the beautiful Thanksgiving spread and just let it sit on the table. If I had stowed it away in the outdoor “cold cabinet,” it was certain to freeze, and I had neither the energy nor inclination to thaw out a holiday dinner’s worth of food using the cabin’s frontier days kitchen equipment.
Frustrated, I made a sandwich and went to bed.
As I lay in bed, the fierce north wind continued to howl outside my window. I tossed some more fuel on the fire. Fetching a couple more logs, I realized I was using quite a lot of wood. I would definitely need more when “Honey” returned home late this afternoon.
The snow continued, not so much falling as driving forward – blowing about in sheets and swirls, whiting out everything in sight. I waited anxiously for my beloved to emerge from the blinding white torrent, but no one came that Friday afternoon.
“My God,” I thought. “Honey did not come home. What am I going to do for fuel?”
At such northerly latitudes – within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle – running out of fuel for one’s source of heat, whether wood, kerosene, oil or other, was a grave matter, indeed – far more serious than a chilly inconvenience. Human beings are not built to live in such places; take away fire, warm clothing and the like, and death can come in a matter of minutes – first, pain in the extremities followed by the unnerving numbness of frostbite; then confusion, panic, followed by the ugly depths of hypothermia. The short path from there to one’s demise is too awful to mention, but if you’ve heard stories of lost explorers and mountain hikers, you know. Truly haunting.
I was becoming increasingly frightened – fearful of succumbing to such a fate, desperate to stave off the lethal cold.
Saturday arrived, and the weather began to let up. But still, my man didn’t show. Needless to say, I was extraordinarily distressed. What was I going to do? My wood supply was running perilously low. To conserve what fuel I had left, by Sunday I was wearing my coat inside the house. I was staring down my last load of wood; cold as it was and dire as things were becoming, I’d have been in as much danger staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.
Desperate, I began to think: “What can I burn?” I went out on the front porch and noted some of the wooden eaves were hanging carelessly, blown out of place by the violent wind. I pulled down the detached eaves and carried them inside, tossing each one on the fire. Like light emerging from heaven, the fire became a little brighter, burning a little hotter, and the frigid cabin became a little warmer.
“If I have to,” I thought, “I’ll tear down the whole front porch.” I had decided that I would do whatever it took to keep the fire going, but thankfully such extreme measures were never necessitated, as that afternoon – about 3 p.m. – two olive drab military vehicles pulled up to the house. A man I didn’t recognize emerged from one of the vehicles, followed by my Honey. My man walked through the front door, followed by the uniformed gentleman with whom he had arrived.
Overwhelmed with emotion, I fell into my Honey’s arms, and I cried out all the fear frustration toiling inside as he held me tight. I stopped sniveling eventually, and my love introduced me to the man standing off to the side.
“Colonel Marion B. Orleans,” he said. My beloved Airman’s commanding officer.
I shook the colonel’s hand and he addressed me in a soft, yet authoritative voice: “Mrs. Clark, you have to leave here with us tonight!” I was stunned.
“But I live here!” I protested. Before I could speak another word, the looming officer interjected, “The U.S. government does NOT allow dependants – wives and children and such – to live here. This is a remote radar site, where we watch for missiles coming in from other countries to shoot them down.”
“This is DANGEROUS TERRITORY,” Colonel Orleans continued, after a moment’s pause.”The Aleuts have rampant TB going around. YOU CAN NOT BE HERE.”
Following another brief, somewhat awkward stunned silence, the intimidating officer handed down my orders: “Pack your things. You will be going to the base with us until we can get you back home.”
He handed me a complete set of Arctic menswear, complete with fatigues, long underwear, knit socks and genuine leather men’s military boots.
“Put them on,” he said in a voice devoid of sympathy, but at the same time not cruel. It was a matter of fact. I complied with the colonel’s instructions – donning the heavy Arctic gear and tossing together the items I wanted to take back with me.
Softening the tension somewhat, the gruff colonel told me I looked lovely! Regardless of how becoming such gender-bending clothes were on a gal like me, I was certainly a lot warmer. The big coat they gave me was big, puffy – stuffed with down feathers, with a thick hood – just like the Eskimos wore! Except it wasn’t fur.
I deliberately left my prized green corduroy jacket on the bed. I also left behind all the food and half of the belongings I brought with me from the lower 48.
“Ok,” I said, followed by a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
-Patricia Ann Hinson Mordes
Read more from Jackson County columnist Patricia Ann Hinson Mordes every week in the Chattahoochee News-Herald & Sneads Sentinel