Coming into the Country

Posted August 10, 2020 at 5:05 am by

Eagle, Alaska - Contributed photo

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

Dur­ing the sum­mers of the 1970s, a trick­le of new­com­ers of dis­parate back­grounds, wheeled into the time­worn town of Eagle, Alas­ka.    Less than twen­ty years pri­or, a sea­son­al road had been blast­ed and scraped to improve an old wag­on route thus com­plet­ing a con­nec­tion to the Alas­ka High­way.  The entire 165-mile track was char­i­ta­bly called the Tay­lor High­way.   About halfway along the wash­board jud­der, the scat­tered cab­ins and bull­dozed grav­el fields of large-scale plac­er min­ing wel­comed trav­el­ers to Chick­en, Alas­ka.  As the sto­ry goes, the ear­ly min­ers couldn’t agree on the spelling of Ptarmi­gan so set­tled on Chick­en instead.  A sign remind­ed that there was no depend­able gas or ser­vice in the next nine­ty miles to Eagle. 

Not well-trav­elled at the time, the nar­row, twist­ing one-lan­er got ‘wors­er and wors­er’ the far­ther you went.  Here and there, the upland scenery was nice enough, but chok­ing dust bil­lowed behind vehi­cles and hung for long min­utes.  If you had less than two spare tires and some extra gas, espe­cial­ly in a loaded rig, you wor­ried the whole way.  Old wild­fire burns marked huge expans­es with stand­ing black sticks and thick under­brush. A moose could be seen, muz­zle drip­ping in a pond or a black bear padding across the road almost any­where.  Or nowhere.  Skeins of ani­mal trails pat­terned the scree slopes of all the uplands as a stark reminder of an esti­mat­ed half mil­lion cari­bou in the 1920s.

Road main­te­nance bor­row pits were pocked with signs of camp­fires, beer and tar­get shoot­ing. There were no guard rails at all, even with count­less soft shoul­ders, sharp turns and hun­dreds of feet to tum­ble in abject ter­ror.  Rust­ed, balled-up vehi­cles were wrapped down in the trees, mon­u­ments to the day they died there, like cau­tion­ary mileage markers. 

Along the way creeks flowed gin clear or tan­nin-stained, but oth­ers roiled brown with mud near active plac­er min­ing.   Anti­quat­ed gold dredges rust­ed, where clank­ing buck­et-line and huge swing­ing stack­er went silent, leav­ing behind repet­i­tive arcs of age-old riv­er cob­ble that was once ancient val­ley bot­tom.  Road­side shacks and trail­ers clus­tered, land­scaped with rust­ed iron and stacks of emp­ty fuel bar­rels, on denud­ed ground.   More apoc­a­lyp­tic than bucol­ic.  Exhaust spew­ing heavy equip­ment put more rock (in some cas­es the state road bed itself), through large steel sluice box­es.  Unsmil­ing beard­ed men in grease-stained cov­er­alls smoked as they worked, hard­ly glanc­ing at pass­ing vehi­cles that they couldn’t hear over the din.  Not a good place to wear a Sier­ra Club hat.

On a hair­pin turn with a hand paint­ed sign herald­ing “Chick­en Creek Mine”, long runs of steel pipe used grav­i­ty to feed a pow­er­ful water-can­non, a cast iron ‘mon­i­tor’ that pow­er washed entire low­er slopes and bench­es into the creek, small trees and all.  ‘Over­bur­den’ was the euphemism for a liv­ing ripar­i­an zone. Tough luck if you lived downstream. 

Unex­pect­ed head-on meet­ings and rock­fall on nar­row curves kept a dri­ver from enjoy­ing canyon sights. The descent on greasy mud down to the scenic Forty Mile Riv­er bridge fol­low­ing a drench­ing thun­der show­er, called for white-knuck­led atten­tion and some cussing.  In a lit­tle run­down place named Colum­bia Flats Bar, if it was after­noon you could join the state high­way crew hold­ing up the dusty bar, and quench your thirst beneath dozens of col­ored bras tacked to the ceil­ing.   Anoth­er spot to ditch the Sier­ra Club cap.  After that, notice­ably more beer cans and bot­tles were scat­tered in the ditch­es climb­ing to the tree­less expanse of Amer­i­can Sum­mit and plung­ing down into Amer­i­can Creek canyon.  More min­ing there as well as four nar­row wood­en bridges wait­ing to jack knife fuel truck­ers pulling a double.

Once you crest­ed the last forest­ed ridge, to look out over the leafy town­site of Eagle at the base of a promi­nent bluff of the same name, you could be lulled into think­ing you had over­come a test, passed through pur­ga­to­ry a cou­ple of times, and reached Eden.  A pleas­ant panoram­ic view blend­ed thick­ly wood­ed islands, sloughs, promi­nent bluffs and rum­pled green hills across the wide val­ley.  If you knew where to look, you could even see some of the US-Cana­da bor­der cut. 

The same scene in black and white pho­tos from twen­ty years ear­li­er might have depict­ed the last of the stern­wheel­ers tied fast at the shore.  The Klondike II made the last run from Eagle to Daw­son City, Yukon on July 4, 1955.  The ces­sa­tion of the rhyth­mic churn­ing and drift­ing smoke trails of dozens of boats meant the end of the wood cut­ter life­ways and aban­don­ment of sym­bi­ot­ic out­posts along the riv­er.  A his­toric riv­er val­ley gone lonesome. 

But the Alas­ka Com­mer­cial Com­pa­ny ware­house, along with sev­er­al oth­er peel­ing shiplap build­ings, still propped each oth­er up along a nar­row frontage road falling away into the Yukon, as if expect­ing new freight from a ghost fleet.  Well-kept his­toric build­ings leaned toward the bustling past on dirt streets shad­ed by shim­mer­ing birch and poplar trees.  At the upper end of the grass airstrip (once a parade ground) a few slump­ing log and frame build­ings clus­tered near a huge log mule barn, where Army Fort Egbert had sprawled in 1900.   Old vehi­cles, wood­en tun­nel boats and heavy equip­ment swam silent­ly in tall grass.  Smart­ly hat­ted old men, on their dai­ly walks, stopped to watch non-local rigs pass by.

Some of the recent new­com­ers were escap­ing larg­er towns to buy a tiny lot or two, hop­ing to build a place for sum­mer occu­pa­tion or a year around res­i­dence.  The for­mer relax­ing in the sweet lie of sum­mer and the lat­ter the masochism of many months of endur­ing crush­ing cold.  The high­way closed from Octo­ber until March.  Maybe there were 50 town res­i­dents in sum­mer.    Three miles upriv­er, sto­ic Han Atha­paskan peo­ple stood in the arc­tic entries of sun-dark­ened old log places watch­ing kids play along the nar­row road next to the river­bank in Eagle Vil­lage.  The end of the road.   Two dis­tinct com­mu­ni­ties, sep­a­rat­ed by three miles of road and about 10,000 years of cul­tur­al adaptation.

I am sure that folks relo­cat­ing there felt that it was a chance to turn the clock back in a bucol­ic lit­tle town.  More than a few men dreamed of some­thing big­ger than liv­ing cheek to jowl on small lots in town, but were unwill­ing to accept the risks of the evolv­ing legal­i­ties of tres­pass on fed­er­al, state or new­ly mint­ed native land selec­tions, to take the leap into the sur­round­ing bush.   They car­ried some anger and envy for those of us less con­strained.  Espe­cial­ly those of us with a grit­ty woman at our side. For sure, most embraced the scant prop­er­ty tax­es, lack of build­ing codes, con­ser­v­a­tive lean­ing val­ues and an absence of “big ideas” in town.  As was com­mon in small­er bush com­mu­ni­ties, there was no local law enforcement. 

Some folks found fel­low­ship and solace in a fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian group, trans­plant­ed from Glen­nallen, bent upon sav­ing their way­ward neigh­bors while they await­ed sal­va­tion.  By any mea­sure, a big task.   At the old Epis­co­pal church in the vil­lage, bel­fry intact, sweet hymns car­ried out over the riv­er on Sun­days.  The town was offi­cial­ly dry, or more accu­rate­ly “damp”, in that booze could be drunk but not sold.   Hence the emp­ties tossed into the ditch, after “runs over the hill” to the bar at Colum­bia Flats to stock up on Amer­i­can beer or cheap whiskey.  Blood suck­ing boot­leg­gers oper­at­ed in both com­mu­ni­ties. Many acci­dents and trag­ic deaths came to mark that lone­ly road and expand the vil­lage graveyard.

In con­trast, a cou­ple dozen seek­ers arrived in pick­ups and old bus­es over sev­er­al sum­mers, loaded with gear, dusty win­dows gauz­ing the search­ing eyes of beard­ed men.  Most­ly sin­gle men, a few cou­ples and a hand­ful of chil­dren aimed to find the sweet spot of their dreams out on an unclaimed stretch of the riv­er or a gold-bear­ing creek.  Soon­er, rather than lat­er.  The back to the land move­ment had reached sub­arc­tic Amer­i­ca. But notions of rolling into town and slip­ping out on the riv­er unno­ticed, evap­o­rat­ed after being around for a few days ask­ing about a myr­i­ad of things prac­ti­cal that shift­ed the rumor mill into warp dri­ve.  Locals with a humor­ous bent pur­pose­ly plant­ed weird rumors just to see how man­gled they could get before com­ing back around.

We unwit­ting­ly became part of a trend in the arrival of con­fi­dent younger folks yearn­ing to move out into the sur­round­ing bush.   A few were Alaskans, but most immi­grants hailed from the “low­er 48”, and odd­ly one cou­ple was from Ger­many.  We soon became an expan­sive new chap­ter in town gos­sip, “the riv­er peo­ple”, replete with wild spec­u­la­tion and run­ning com­men­tary by nosey folks who had been there a life­time or just a cou­ple of months.  These new folks were char­ac­ter­ized as “end-of-the-road­ers” or “social mis­fits” but main­ly “hip­pies,” with a hard­ly con­cealed note of dis­dain by most locals.  The native vil­lagers tend­ed to be more accom­mo­dat­ing than critical.

In fair­ness, there was plen­ty of fod­der for old timers whose views were won­der­ful­ly pre­served in the amber of Old Alas­ka, giv­en some of the out­ward behav­iors and ram­pant gos­sip about the new­com­ers.  Unmar­ried cou­ples, earthy groom­ing habits, long hair, weird grains and herbs, an obvi­ous dis­dain for con­fus­ing laws, rumors of naked­ness, an atti­tude of ear­ly retire­ment from work­ing for wages and most of all, lit­tle regard for the ‘way things were done’.    End-of-the-road­ers who hung around town were of greater con­cern as some wore fringed buck­skins with absurd bowie knives at the ready, built domed blue tarped hov­els, hun­kered in pan­el trucks at the edge of town, pil­fered stuff,  packed large revolvers, or turned out to have war­rants for their arrest.  Even the promise of severe win­ter tem­per­a­tures did not deter some of these folks.

Fur­ther back in Old Alas­ka you were either a ‘cheechako’ or ‘sour­dough’ while most res­i­dents lan­guished in lim­bo some­where in between.  The phrase “com­ing into the coun­try” was picked up as a title by author John McPhee in a New York­er mag­a­zine series he wrote in the late 1970s.  The com­i­cal­ly prick­ly and judg­men­tal views of many Eagle res­i­dents liv­ing in close prox­im­i­ty, yet sur­round­ed by mil­lions of acres of wild coun­try, became the per­fect quirky back­drop for a sec­tion of that mas­ter­ful­ly craft­ed three-part por­tray­al of the mount­ing pres­sures of tec­ton­ic change in Alaska. 

But the big sto­ry McPhee clev­er­ly antic­i­pat­ed was the unfold­ing impact of vast land trans­fers being heat­ed­ly debat­ed and drawn up, and drawn up again, in Con­gress.  His por­tray­als of peo­ple and ver­ba­tim quotes were like a com­mu­ni­ty proc­to­log­i­cal exam, with find­ings mailed in month­ly install­ments dur­ing the oppres­sive grip of win­ter.   Bun­dled res­i­dents stood in the small postal lob­by, chat­ting about the weath­er with the avun­cu­lar post­mas­ter, and perus­ing the lat­est rev­e­la­tions in the New York­er with raised, frost­ed eye brows and mut­ter­ing I didn’t say that! 

The demise of many of the ways of old Alas­ka built through a sequence of mon­u­men­tal leg­is­la­tion ham­mered out in far-away Wash­ing­ton, D.C.  Estab­lished home­stead­ers, gold min­ers, hunt­ing guides, fur trap­pers and out­doorsy locals as well as new­er “riv­er peo­ple” were accus­tomed to the idea of un-fet­tered use of a vast land­scape, but ‘the times they were achangin’.  The Great Par­ti­tion­ing of Alaska. 

In short, the dis­cov­ery of vast oil reserves on the north slope in the 1960s neces­si­tat­ed an autho­riza­tion of 700-mile pipeline con­nec­tion from the North Slope to the ice-free Port of Valdez.  To accom­plish that required a long over­due set­tle­ment of Alas­ka Native land claims. A spe­cif­ic sec­tion of that land­mark law pre­sent­ed a grand oppor­tu­ni­ty for the nation to set aside an unprece­dent­ed array of huge wildlife refuges and nation­al parks that would con­clude, after nine tem­pes­tu­ous years, in 1980 leg­is­la­tion.  The engi­neer­ing mar­vel of 48-inch pipe, vis­i­ble from space, began pump­ing hot crude in 1977.  Near­ly every­thing was in flux and pre­car­i­ous while Con­gress made very big sausage.  Lit­tle did we know that this sleepy lit­tle his­toric town would soon become one of sev­er­al statewide hotbeds of anti-fed­er­al “lock up” anger and pub­lic protest.

Impor­tant­ly, the Alas­ka Home­stead Act essen­tial­ly end­ed in 1976.    On the riv­er pri­vate­ly owned parcels were few and far between, awash in a vast land­scape loose­ly man­aged from a dis­tance by the fed­er­al Bureau of Land Man­age­ment.  Exten­sive plac­er min­ing claims had been staked and worked since 1900 but were not nec­es­sar­i­ly com­plete­ly legal.  Aban­doned cab­ins and road­hous­es sat in dis­re­pair, and his­toric trails on topo maps appeared to be unmain­tained sum­mer roads, but were in real­i­ty sum­mer quag­mires pass­able only in the win­ter.  Peo­ple had tak­en up year around res­i­dence in out­ly­ing cab­ins on fed­er­al land and built oth­ers.  Rumors crack­ling over the air­waves about the like­ly trans­fer of over 2 mil­lion acres, close by between Eagle and Cir­cle City, to the “jack boot­ed thugs” and “blood suck­ing Nazis” of the Nation­al Park Ser­vice, fueled years of bit­ter­ness, con­fu­sion and angry protest that sim­mers even today.

“The squares seemed to be mov­ing as well as the check­ers” observed John McPhee when he wrote about the vast changes in Alas­ka 44 years ago.  But as old dreams dis­si­pate, new dreams are inspired through adap­ta­tion, just as must hap­pen here in the islands as the cli­mate cri­sis looms.















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