Coming into the Country

Posted August 10, 2020 at 5:05 am by

Eagle, Alaska - Contributed photo

Click to enlarge photo.
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.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can support the San Juan Update by doing business with our loyal advertisers, and by making a one-time contribution or a recurring donation.

No comments yet. Be the first!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

By submitting a comment you grant the San Juan Update a perpetual license to reproduce your words and name/web site in attribution. Inappropriate, irrelevant and contentious comments may not be published at an admin's discretion. Your email is used for verification purposes only, it will never be shared.

Receive new post updates: Entries (RSS)
Receive followup comments updates: RSS 2.0