The Odds are Good, But the Goods are Odd

Posted June 24, 2020 at 9:04 am by

Photo by Marc-André

FREEZER BURNED: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi…

In case you have nev­er heard this pithy phrase describ­ing a sin­gle woman’s chances of meet­ing Mr. Nor­mal in Alas­ka, I did not come up with it. Some form of this lament sure­ly has echoed every­where along his­tor­i­cal flood tides of fron­tier expan­sion in Amer­i­ca. After all, we call it Manifest Des­tiny.

In the ear­ly 1970s (pre-pipeline) the pop­u­la­tion of Alas­ka climbed, ignit­ed by WWII road con­nec­tion with the Out­side and con­tin­ued mil­i­tary spend­ing, but was only about 375,000 with about 46% of that num­ber liv­ing in Anchor­age.  Alas­ka is a mus­cu­lar 16% of the entire land mass of Amer­i­ca and at that time claimed less than .2% of the nation­al pop­u­la­tion. Lit­tle has changed in the last five decades with those rel­a­tive num­bers but today Wyoming, Ver­mont and North Dako­ta each have small­er pop­u­la­tions, but com­bined are 400,000 square miles small­er that Alaska.

In the minds of adven­ture seek­ers, peo­ple not of their own gen­er­a­tion who ache for per­son­al renew­al far from the madding crowd of post-mod­ern Amer­i­ca, bush Alas­ka is the real Alas­ka. The many “show me the mon­ey” immi­grants, sali­vat­ing about the lure of big wages and an annu­al Per­ma­nent Fund Div­i­dend check for each and every res­i­dent, are most­ly car­pet bag­gers. Then there are the hordes of mil­i­tary fam­i­lies post­ed to Alas­ka who return south at the ear­li­est trans­fer. As a result, there is a heady mix of delu­sion and self-pro­mo­tion in the image, as ardent­ly por­trayed by most urban Alaskans, that the entire­ty of the vast Alas­ka land­scape qual­i­fies as “The Last Frontier”.

With a pop­u­la­tion den­si­ty of rough­ly 50 peo­ple per 1,000 square miles amid a vast, road­less wilder­ness, the bush is a world apart from urban Alas­ka. Along the stretch of the Yukon that I know, each guy or cou­ple resid­ing out in the woods claimed infor­mal occu­pa­tion and use of an area, that in com­par­i­son to here, would equate to one res­i­dence in an area larg­er than the entire­ty of San Juan Island. So, it fol­lows that the arrows of a frost-bit­ten Cupid have very few human tar­gets of oppor­tu­ni­ty to begin with.

So out­side of the tyran­ny of low num­bers, why are the odds so slim with regard to find­ing that spe­cial some­one in bush Alas­ka? In what ways are the “goods odd” with men (and a few women) who march to a dif­fer­ent drum­mer and seek to live in anachro­nis­tic ways in the north woods? One of the only hopes some guys have is that they will attract the eye of a new teacher with man­ly charm and good deeds. Maybe even a bath and a trim. Giv­en fre­quent res­ig­na­tions, new bush teach­ers are pre­dom­i­nant­ly younger women, brave­ly step­ping off the mail plane in late sum­mer, blink­ing in the strong sub­arc­tic light. Some guys went into Fair­banks and used Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka con­nec­tions to meet women inter­est­ed in bush life. Some­times com­pan­ion­able love ensued.

The chal­lenges of liv­ing out and away from towns and vil­lages gen­er­al­ly means even few­er mod­ern ameni­ties. Alright, more like none. Per­son­al hygiene, stay­ing informed and con­trol­ling bad habits takes a lot of work any­where, but there are few folks around to even notice that a per­son is get­ting a touch weird. “Get­tin’ bushy” is a reac­tion to extreme social dis­tanc­ing and is decid­ed­ly unhelp­ful in find­ing companionship.

Find­ing a rela­tion­ship in a small town or vil­lage of 120 souls with two dozen more scat­tered out along the riv­er, can be fraught with unusu­al chal­lenges. Of course, there were plen­ty of affairs, dis­so­lu­tions, odd three­somes, some actu­al mail order brides, gay cou­ples, dif­fer­ences of 20 plus years in age, as well as the notable instance of a guy mak­ing off with a woman while her bear­ish hus­band was locked in the town well house. This nov­el strat­e­gy allowed for a roman­tic escape by dog team to a remote cab­in for a month or two. But they had to come back to town soon­er or lat­er, so there was more to this par­tic­u­lar drama.

How­ev­er, becom­ing excep­tion­al­ly bushy takes its finest form in sin­gle men who were maybe a brick short of a full load at the out­set. Most of us were mis­fits of sorts; square pegs in life’s round holes, etc. Believe me, a lot of time alone in the woods can bend or even shat­ter real­i­ty in some­what nor­mal fel­lows, too. But a few guys seemed bent on par­tic­i­pa­tion rib­bons, if not full recog­ni­tion, in the Dar­win Awards.

Shab­by Char­lie lived as though it was still the era of Rocky Moun­tain fur trap­pers. Call­ing him a min­i­mal­ist doesn’t do the term jus­tice: he spent decades of win­ters liv­ing up a remote riv­er using slump­ing old cab­ins with lit­tle more than a rusty rifle, sev­er­al mangy dogs, ani­mal skin clothes, a cou­ple pots and pans, a bag of beans, a lot of steel traps and plen­ty of grit and deter­mi­na­tion.  Bare­foot in sum­mer with bro­ken toe nails and thick sole pads like leather, no bug dope or net­ting with hordes of mos­qui­tos, sleep­ing curled under a tree and wear­ing stained levis that could stand up alone in a cor­ner, was his cho­sen way year after year.

The cycle of his sea­sons was a throw­back to gold rush sto­ries. After dogged­ly work­ing a trapline all win­ter in iso­la­tion, he would make his way to dis­tant Fair­banks with a few thou­sand bucks of fur mon­ey wadded in his pock­ets, to spend night after night at a strip club drink­ing and tip­ping the gals who were glad to relieve him of his cash. Inevitably he found his pock­ets emp­tied. Char­lie then made his way back to the banks of the Yukon to pass time around the tiny town. He star­tled many poly­ester-clad tourists, step­ping down from their large RVs ready to click a cou­ple of des­ti­na­tion pho­tos of the Yukon after endur­ing 160 miles of wash­board and dust. Many had the mem­o­rable expe­ri­ence of see­ing Char­lie rise like a grub­by appari­tion from a pile of rags under a pic­nic table, squint­ing through the fog of a hang­over into the glar­ing mid­night sun.

Char­lie was prac­ticed at swap­ping sto­ries for free drinks and could smell an uncorked whiskey bot­tle from a hun­dred yards off. He also had a cringe-wor­thy habit of re-chew­ing snoose until he could buy anoth­er can. I came to know his unset­tling habit of iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple approach­ing his camps by look­ing at them through his rifle scope. He would make some mon­ey, often at a gold mine near his fish camp, wad­ing into the ice-cold water pour­ing through a large steel sluice box, bare­foot, to toss out larg­er rocks for hours at a time.  He then bought basic sup­plies and bummed a boat ride 40 miles back upriv­er to then line his loaded canoe 50 miles up to his win­ter cab­in before the ice began to flow.

Stan the Man lived sim­ply in town after fail­ing to estab­lish a life out on the riv­er. A large fel­low with gen­tle eyes and demeanor, he expressed faith in Christ with any­one who would lis­ten. He devel­oped a para­noia about neigh­bors liv­ing on small adja­cent lots. He metic­u­lous­ly lined his cab­in walls with alu­minum foil to block mind-alter­ing rays of some kind that he was con­vinced were aimed his way by a par­tic­u­lar­ly vex­ing neigh­bor. He often set up bat­tered lawn chairs in his tiny, clut­tered yard in the heart of town next to a very dusty street, to read from his bible for a hand­ful of curi­ous tourists look­ing for sal­va­tion amid their Alas­ka travels.

Dump Dave was said to be an army vet who pushed the enve­lope of being an “end of the road­er”. He just appeared one day and made camp in a copse of poplars very near the town dump off the grass airstrip. A busy area in a qui­et lit­tle town. This seemed odd since he suf­fered from anti-social demons. After minor (and most­ly imag­ined) trans­gres­sions, he would begin shout­ing and fire off his rifle at the roar of air­craft tak­ing off or chain­saw use near­by. One day he shot up a fab­ric-cov­ered Super Cub air­plane tied down along the airstrip in ret­ri­bu­tion for some imag­ined threat. State Troop­ers flew in a cou­ple days lat­er to take him away for eval­u­a­tion. A month lat­er, with win­ter com­ing on, he was back, to the con­ster­na­tion of all.

But once again iso­lat­ed and shunned, his lack of med­ica­tions, gross­ly inad­e­quate diet and aroused inner demons drove him to slip away to relo­cate to a crude tarp cov­ered lean-to along the shore with the lap­ping of the Yukon just yards away. A long stone’s throw from my cab­in and young fam­i­ly. As one might expect giv­en his diet of ravens and squir­rels, gen­er­al mal­nu­tri­tion and repeat­ed seri­ous frost bite to his feet, he became sad­ly unteth­ered. Even­tu­al­ly folks con­vinced the Troop­ers to come for him again just as a vig­i­lante group was plan­ning to vis­it him to enact fron­tier jus­tice if he again threat­ened any­one. He lost parts of his feet and spent months in treat­ment. We lat­er heard on the radio that he shot at State Troop­ers in a mind­less stand­off along a busy high­way near Fair­banks. Unhurt, he was arrest­ed and even­tu­al­ly con­vict­ed and sen­tenced to some years behind bars to our great relief.

Locals said that Lit­tle Joe was anoth­er wan­der­er who just seemed to appear in town from the road sys­tem. He timid­ly hung around the edges of things. There were short-term, cash jobs for any folks will­ing to work, but sup­port­ing him­self didn’t seem to be among his goals. But even in a dry town if a cou­ple of guys come up with the mon­ey, booze could be had from a boot­leg­ger. One evening of cheap whiskey and cards in the cab­in of the town drunk by the boat land­ing, end­ed in tragedy. In a boozy lam­plit scene, Lit­tle Joe of frail build felt threat­ened by a burly young fel­low, argu­ing ensued and devolved into a dead­ly shoot­ing. The drag marks down to the waters edge were clear but the body was not found until the riv­er dropped in the fall when a dog dug into the silt. Self defense pre­vailed and after a short time behind bars, Lit­tle Joe returned to live in exile in a filthy trail­er, with a cou­ple large dogs and no social life.

Anoth­er young fel­low, called John the Bap­tist, was said to have stri­dent reli­gious incli­na­tions, seemed res­olute to meet his mak­er, and suc­ceed­ed in doing so by starv­ing to death in his sleep­ing bag dur­ing his first win­ter of wilder­ness liv­ing. He had few pos­ses­sions and appar­ent­ly no one knew his last name or place of ori­gin. His pants and oth­er use­ful items were scrounged by the prac­ti­cal fel­lows who found him frozen stiff in his sleep­ing bag in the small cab­in they had sug­gest­ed he occu­py sev­er­al months pri­or. For some fam­i­ly some­where, John X had dis­ap­peared with­out a trace forever.

At the mouth of that same trib­u­tary riv­er a skin­ny, shifty-eyed fel­low called Dirty Fred by friends, occu­pied a small dingy cab­in off and on, and oth­er than a dis­dain for wage-earn­ing work, being in town or bathing, was known for con­coct­ing a buck­et of home brew and lay­ing in the rack, sip­ping it green through a hose until find­ing the bot­tom. Hal­lu­cino­genic drugs kept him from going around the bend I guess, but spawned some poor­ly thought out actions. One crisp fall, bur­ley, camo-clad moose hunters from Anchor­age returned to their ful­ly stocked camp near his remote cab­in and sus­pect­ed pil­fer­ing. What kind of varmint focus­es on booze? They set up and soon caught Fred sneak­ing into their camp like a shab­by Gol­lum to steal from their lav­ish stores. At gun­point they knocked him around pret­ty good, lashed him to a spruce tree and spent days loud­ly debat­ing his future. Shak­en, dehy­drat­ed, welt­ed by mos­qui­to bites but undaunt­ed, Fred man­aged to escape one evening and lay low until they decamped and left the area.

I thank my lucky stars that in 1974 my Cor­val­lis girl­friend, Lynette, was plucky enough to sojourn north to the Yukon wilds packed in an old truck with four wild-eyed guys, and ground­ed enough to stay with me through thick and plen­ty of thin. We tied the knot after a cou­ple of years, were blessed with two chil­dren and moved on to the out­skirts of Fair­banks after 17 years around Eagle on the Yukon. After anoth­er 17 years of north­ern liv­ing, she reluc­tant­ly joined me to retire here and build our “last home­stead”. I often remind her-only half in jest- that “I will nev­er for­give her for putting up with me for so long.

(next: The Kings of the Yukon River)

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One comment...

  1. I’m so glad I did­n’t read a report like this before I went to Alas­ka in the sum­mer of ’59 to begin my teach­ing career in a lit­tle town named Gle­nallen. While there I met a hand­some (and very clean) young man serv­ing with the army corps of sol­diers, the Alas­ka Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Sys­tem. Long sto­ry short, we were mar­ried in July of 1960 and spent almost 50 won­der­ful years togeth­er until he died in 2010. I’ll always think of Alas­ka with fond­ness for giv­ing me the best gift I ever received!

    Comment by Merilyn Bourland on June 24, 2020 at 6:55 pm

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