Freezer-burned: Tales of Interior Alaska
“Freezer-Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska” is a regular column on the San Juan Update written by Steve Ulvi.
The Allure of Gold, Part 1
A road-weary group of nine swayed in their bench seats down a narrow trail, leafy tree branches scraping the bulging, tarped roof rack and long rows of dirty windows. The 165-mile Taylor Highway into Eagle, the last leg of a trying journey, had just about done them in with switchbacks, narrow bridges and no guardrails on cliffs. But they had seen the two-story, rock pelted bucket dredge beside the road resting for eternity and miners gouging gravels out of Jack Wade Creek for a water spewing wash plant by a muddy settling pond. Gold Country!
The two-track they followed after finally arriving in Eagle, was a suggestion by a person they engaged in the busy government campground where they felt like the oddity they were. They crossed the grass airstrip past the old FAA house to drop down to end abruptly at the riverbank at the old town boat landing. The small man at the big steering wheel eased the bus forward in granny gear like he owned the place. He sighed deeply, relaxed his shoulders, then turned the key off to a welcome silence.
They all stepped out to the riverbank and stared as if the huge roiling river might be a mirage. Hitch-hiking brothers, Barney and Jake, wasted little time gathering up their tent and sleeping gear to find a flat spot. They rolled smokes and nipped at a flask looking out over the river. Neither one of them had ever found any use for children. No more long days cooped up with five of ‘em! After a few minutes, the Scoggins family clambered back into the bus swatting bugs, hugged a bit longer than usual praising the Lord, then shuffled to their bunks to sleep easily, embraced by the Big Quiet. The only noise was the periodic sound of bladders released into a plastic bucket up near the driver’s seat.
When they awoke early on their first Eagle morning, sun already high, they could hardly believe the expanse of the famous Yukon River lapping a few feet away. It was a dream come true heralded by boisterous robins and other bird trills they didn’t know. Large woody debris, even entire trees sailed by with urgency. They were surprised to see big white gulls so far from the seashore. A place imagined, each in their own way, so many, many times.
They scrounged up a campfire, arranged folding chairs and began heating water. The large white wooden cross that stood high above them on Eagle Bluff just had to be a confirmation from the Lord. A slight upriver breeze riffled the nearby river eddy and thinned the voracious mosquitos. Their full-sized school bus with muddy Idaho plates was parked to provide some shelter, some familiarity of scale, given the vast, overwhelming scene. The five look-alike kids took turns backing away, rubbing their reddened eyes as the pungent smoke swirled among them.
Their full-bearded father was seated and smoking his pipe, grinning as each bowl-cut kid winced, faces contorted. He whittled some, then said, “Jacob, I told you that thar wood from that drift pile right thar ain’t no good! Best for smokin’ out bees and twon’t never hold a far”. Pointing his folding knife to the poplar woods he directed “Best you and yer sister find us some dry stuff in thar. Bring ‘er hatchet”!
Pappy naively believed that they would hardly be noticed by the busy inhabitants of the picturesque little town on the eve of the Nation’s Birthday. Of course, the backfiring, gear whine of the bus down the hill into the nosey little town backlit by the endless evening twilight, had been noticed. Women were baking pies for the upcoming festivities and finishing up dirty pots and pans by open screened windows. Rumor-mongering and creative conjecture were immediately ignited on the CB radio network.
Sturgill and Erline Scoggins had planned this life-changing journey north for years, seeking guidance from the Lord Almighty frequently and from topographical maps or public information occasionally. A couple of years earlier, “Pappy” Scoggins had paid 2 bits for a 1950s era book describing placer mining in the wilds of Interior Alaska along with a pocket paperback titled Call of the Wild. Over the ensuing months, they spent many an evening squinting and marking interesting creek names and roads. Sturgill coughed often and worried over the black lung disease felling other coal seam miners he knew.
Erline slowly read the tales of the Klondike Gold Rush era, her tongue fumbling terms like ‘cheechako’ and ‘mal de raquette’, for a dog-tired Pappy and kids before bed. They imagined that others would flock to the same end of ‘their rainbow’ if they asked too many questions or talked of their dream to anyone. The lure of rich, overlooked placer gold in the historic Eagle Mining District outside of the small town of the same name, grew to draw them from West Virginia to a lengthy Idaho stop to work a month or two for wages.
After negotiating the winding mountain highway north through the Idaho panhandle to a quiet border crossing in June, officious Canadian inspectors took a skeptical view of the bus and its stoic inhabitants. They required a $250 cash deposit that would be returned once the Scoggins’ reached the Alaska border weeks later at Beaver Creek. Pappy asked “what for, Surs” and one of them said “we don’t want any more abandoned, broken down buses in Canada and people on public assistance”. That sum was nearly a quarter of the small bills they had stuffed into a couple of tobacco cans. The backpacking brothers they met outside a café and gas station back in McCall, Jack and Barney, sneaked around the border crossing through some woods that night to rejoin them in order to avoid issues with “nonsense records of mischief”.
After a few days of a narrowing, frost-heaved pavement, they made Dawson Creek and the notorious unpaved AlCan traversing long stretches of forested nothing. When pulled in for the night, mosquitos tormented them despite burning “pics” in the bus. Tenting out, Jack and Barney fared better. Challenged by alternating billowing dust and thunderstorm mud and wash-outs the endless forest scenery slid by at a fairly steady 40 mph. On a lonely curve they had a stand-off with a dozen snorting Wood Bison. One bad washout required a chain tow by a provincial road worker on a D-8 cat that on first attempt ripped the heavy front bumper of the bus away.
Nearly always the first local to contact newcomers in Eagle, Sarge waved as he squeezed his jacked-up Ford truck past the bus, down to his open riverboat gently tugging at the shoreline. Two ragamuffin girls scowled from the front seat. After baling some water from the stern, he rummaged around his boat to buy time for information gathering. He stepped out and reset the spring pole that held the boat offshore as the water was dropping in the hot dry weather. His glances toward the bus missed nothing.
These latest immigrants could not have known that they were about to meet “telephone, telegraph or tell Sarge” as the friendly, self-appointed town crier checked the line of small drift logs he was collecting for winter firewood at the head of the eddy. He sauntered through the grass and hailed the family turning to him while they spooned up mush at the fire. Something told him that these folks would not appreciate even the most family-oriented of his hundreds of memorized off-color jokes.
“Mornin’! Where you folks come in from?” Pappy stood, tipped his floppy hat back with a smile and replied “Idyho, but our roots is in the mountains of Virginy.” Sarge was a fire hydrant of a man, his picnic ham arms were decorated by Asian crouching tiger tattoos as he stopped outside the ring of stumps. “Hi kids, whatcha eatin’ there? The younger ones looked down at their shoes but the older girl said “Hot mush and chitlins” and all of their eyes widened when Sarge boasted “well we just fried up some fresh king salmon with soppin’ toast”, spreading his arms wide to indicate a leviathan.
“There’s big doin’s today in our 4th of July parade and games just up on the airstrip there. If you like to shoot, we got a trap shootin’ contest from the riverbank and a rifle contest with a target on the island there,” pointing toward Belle Island. “Anyone’s welcome, so come on up. Gonna be slow-roasted pig for the picnic, too! I got some guns you can use. Never know but you might win a froze turkey”.
“Thankee friend, we may just do that after our prayers and a sing fest. No need anyway to borrow guns, ‘preciate it”. Pappy whittled on.
Sarge nodded, glancing around. The hard-worn brothers, sitting apart, pretty much ignored him and leaned in, earnestly talking in low tones. A short, aproned, curly-locked woman relaxed while sitting on the bottom step of the bus. She had a friendly, wry smile. A wooden rocker box, shovels, picks and gold pans were piled neatly under the bus. A lot of it shiny new. A galvanized tub of silty river water sat soaking some clothes next to a scrub board. Cardboard-cased musical instruments sat on a folding table with a Bible. He departed with a smile saying “Well folks, welcome to Eagle. If you’se need to charter a boat let me know” touching his Semper Fi ballcap, then grunting up into his truck to rev into a 4-part turn to slowly jounce past the bus and newcomers, scolding his yammering girls for something.
The local populace, including Han Athapaskan villagers from three miles away, converged at the flag festooned parade staging area on Main Street. Even a canoe of “hippies” who lived out on the river, motored in to tie up beneath the intrusive yellow bus, speculating as to its portent, as they walked up to town.
Meanwhile, at the nearby historic Wickersham Courthouse, a frantic last-minute search found the notes for a patriotic proclamation and rousing speech by the closeted gay mayor who stood on the wooden porch framed by red, white and blue bunting tied to the dusty railings. She did well until mentioning that the Bureau of Land Management (AKA Bad Little Men) had announced that it would be protecting and restoring the few remaining Ft. Egbert buildings at the edge of town. “Don’t need ‘em, don’t want ‘em”! and less printable statements were heard rippling among the crowd.
When the clapping faded old man Merkie, growing weary of balancing as Uncle Sam on very tall stilts, started things off by leading a few kids pulling red wagons followed by some shy native youngsters clothed in moosehide and beaded regalia. A couple rusty Model T’s, driven by old-timers waving, passed at glacial speed. A small chuffing tractor and then a modern truck pulled bunting clad patriotic floats of sorts. The only two horses within a hundred miles, ridden by Mike (looking like a heavily mustached Army scout of a bygone era), and his son, brought up the rear leaving fresh horse apples in the dusty road. The crowd of 125 people, mostly local, lined the central block hooting and clapping. It had hardly begun, then it was over. Enmities and grudges were set aside for the day, even if sidearms were not.
Despite the best efforts of the fundamentalist Christians in the dry town, some activities as the day progressed, were either spoiled or improved (depending upon one’s sense of fun) by alcohol-fueled revelry. Although quite sober earlier in the day, Junior Fedderman had foolishly shot a swan that haplessly landed on Belle Island just after the target match. Soon after two people rang up the State Troopers in Tok to report the infraction using the only town phone in the old store.
Sarge won the hand-thrown clay pigeon shoot once again. The coed softball game, mostly bare-handed, using t-shirts for bases in a rough diamond, played out at the river end of the grass airstrip. The raucous match had to be halted several times to allow small, single-engine planes to land or take off. One spluttering old T Craft used all the strip to get airborne at the lip of the high bank over the river, then dropped below view gaining speed, eliciting more than a few gasps from the sunburned ballplayers.
The sun seemed to sear from directly overhead in a washed-out blue sky all day. Emboldened by spirits, several burly men danced in an impromptu can-can line dressed in women’s clothing, wigs and red lipstick, massively bosomed, to the delight of all except the scowling, self-appointed scions of the little town. At the edge of things, two adult brothers wrestled and grunted in the grass over some unintended slight. The kid’s sawdust scramble was a great hit as good ol’ Casto, nattily dressed as always, had tossed in quite a few silver dollars. Two teens had to be remonstrated for trying to participate. A gap-toothed kid ran to his dad beaming with one of the big coins, thus giving up his lucrative place at the pile and any chance to increase his haul. Most of the kids burrowed with a determination that would have made a hungry badger proud.
Later, a visiting couple was disqualified after it was revealed that they had surreptitiously used a squirt of diesel fuel to get their fire started quickly in the seriously competitive tea boiling competition. A rumor of “troopers in town” circulated and the bootlegger skedaddled to protect his stock and tawdry reputation.
A kid who had been scrounging discarded C-rations and cut hose line from the recent wildfire crew demobilization, ran up hollering that there was a “brown bear” at the town dump. Several nimrods ran off to try to harvest the mangy beast while it searched the slope of trash within a stone’s throw of the parked yellow bus.
The well-attended community potluck followed several injurious sandlot volleyball matches. The traditional picnic was to be gastronomically elevated by a much-advertised pit-cooked pig. However, the tippling “pit masters” dug up the pig early. The half-cooked, greasy carcass with a little dirt on it had to be cut up on a tarp and barbequed amid jocular advice. Even worse, the locally raised hog had been “finished” not on corn, but dried salmon before death and tasted fishy. This was a great disappointment for those who remained sober enough to know the difference. The onsite EMS gal never did have to employ a stomach pump, although she dearly wanted to.
Pappy and his stand-offish family clustered around a picnic table on the edge of activities strumming instruments while singing old-timey mountain ballads and hymns. Erline was the heart of things vigorously strumming her large autoharp. An older native guy joined in with his guitar knowing some of the tunes that had been played for many decades at all-night dances when sternwheelers overnighted. The older daughter could really saw on a fiddle. Some kindly folks took paper plates of food and store-bought unripe fruit over to their table. The kids were freshly scrubbed, at least their hands and faces, barefoot and stunned by the ludicrous can-can dancing scene.
Over the next couple of days, visitors left and the little town quieted again. Pappy, accompanied by Jack and Barney, splashed across Mission Creek to take a first-hand look at the historic Seventy Mile Trail that led out to distant gold claims. On that windless, humid morning the mosquitos pounced. Pappy had thought of the “trail” as a narrow dirt road like those so familiar in the Appalachians. He knew nothing of permafrost.
Pappy’s grand plan all along, carefully guarded, had been to drive the bus out there without fanfare and settle in for a summer of finding gold where many others had failed. Only a mile out with twenty to go, they learned the hard truths of an ‘Alaska Winter Trail’ through summer creek crossings, steep cut banks, muskeg and permafrost flats that would quickly mire any mechanized vehicle.
It was a revelation, locals would say “a dope slap”, for Pappy who in extremis, again sought the benevolent guidance of the Lord while they rented an old cabin in town and played music on the sagging porch. Erline seemed happy. At least she laughed enough that you could see she had but two front teeth. The kids made some friends. Jack and Barney up and left town in a pickup belonging to the town drunk in the wee hours one morning after the rumor spread that one of them was a wanted man in Idaho for bank robbery. The shady brothers found and absconded with some of Erline and Pappy’s cash, a case of Dinty Moore beef stew and a few jugs of gasoline.
Then Pappy, in a heady mix of country can-do, gold fever and divine guidance arrived at a new plan. He announced that they would cut the top off of the bus, turn it over to make a boat hull of sorts, install the engine with a shaft and big prop, mount sweeps for steering, load up the kit and kaboodle and motor down the wide river, a hundred miles or so, to find a place to chip off some chunks of the Mother Lode.