Coming into the Country

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.















Posted on August 10, 2020 at 5:05 am by

Categories: Around Here, Freezer Burned

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