ALASKA IS DIFFERENT

Here is a collection of anecdotes about Alaska, collected from longtime Alaskans. Donít worry  - while the stories are true, only two real names are used. 

Innocent

            A judge from Southwest Alaska told me he presided over the case of a man who had taken a beaver out of season. His plea was that he had lost his false teeth, and as beaver teeth are famous, he thought....

I asked the judge what he did. He declared a recess, retired to his chambers, and laughed till he cried.

President Harding visits Spenard

            When Warren Harding, the first United States President to visit Alaska, came in 1923, the whole territory was naturally excited. Elsewhere Iíve talked about his Sitka visit, but he also came to Spenard, that grungy little town now part of Anchorage.

            This was before the term ďSpenard divorceĒ became popular through so many unhappy spouses there shooting their husbands, so this is about a roadhouse.

            Roadhouses were quite innocent places scattered along the trails of Interior Alaska; merely inns where travelers could have a meal and a place to sleep. However, this was Spenard, so this was a rather shady roadhouse. It was run by a couple with three children. There was a partner in the business, an old family friend who had one hand and a hook for the other.     Apparently he was fine unless he got drunk and then he threatened people with the hook as a good sport. Sadly, he was drunk most of the time, but that was easy since the roadhouse also had a still.

            The oldest daughter was engaged and lived with her fiancť in a cabin near the home place. The middle daughter had a new Brownie camera and loved, dearly loved, to take pictures. Nothing was said about the youngest daughter, so she probably did nothing noteworthy.

            For whatever reason, the local civic leaders decided to make the roadhouse part of the Presidentís tour. This caused consternation in the couple. Nothing could be done about the still and its pungent odors, but what about the partner? Oh dear, old Slim would likely get drunk and think it hysterically funny to threaten the President with his hook.

            So they loaded Slim with booze until he passed out, then carried him outside and covered him with leaves.

            In the meantime, perhaps out of nervousness at the imminent visit of the eminent entourage, the daughter and her fiancť suddenly began quarreling, hurling obscenities at each other at the top of their lungs. The father took charge and told them to get in the skiff and head out into the lake if they were going to scream at each other. He also told the middle daughter that under no circumstances was she to take any pictures at all.

            Harding and his party drove up and all was serene. The tall, stately President (someone has said his chief qualification was that he looked Presidential) uttered pleasantries and strolled around. As he obviously didnít smell the still, no one else did either. Sadly, the couple continued their quarrel, forgetting how sound carries over water. Harding didnít notice that either.

            Middle daughter seized her chance and took dozens of pictures.

            Fortunately, Slim did not wake up until they brushed the leaves off him after the distinguished group left.

            The pictures are extant and show an idyllic scene. The quaint roadhouse with antlers over the door, the sweet couple sitting in the skiff out on the placid lake, a large pile of leaves, the honored guests, and the proud couple. Those golden years of innocence.

Contributor: Larry Hibpshman, bon vivant, archivist, and expert on the Anchorage area.

Car repairs

            A very young man in Juneau has a car. Itís not much of a car, but itís his joy. Somehow the front door rusted out and fell off or was torn off or something, so he improvised with Vizqueen and duct tape and fixed it quite neatly.

            Recently a visitor noticed a small hole in the Vizqueen with duct tape across it. Oh my, what happened to the door?  Sam explained, “I accidentally locked my keys in the car.

Vizqueen, Visqueen, Vizquine, Visquine, or....

            Vizqueen is an Alaskan staple. Itís right up there with duct tape and 55-gallon oil drums as a necessity. Itís a clear, heavy plastic sheet, suitable for a makeshift shelter, storm windows, indeed, emergency windows if oneís broken and thereís no glass around, a tarp for a sleeping bag, or anything ingenuity can devise. The most interesting thing about Visqueen is that in my forty years in Alaska I have seen it spelled in all the above ways, and always with the respected copyright capital "V". I have never seen it for sale under that name by any spelling, but all writers know it is a copyrighted name and oblige.

Bear stories

            There are hundreds of Alaska bear stories, most of them rather repetitious recountings of bears meeting people, or men with guns shooting bears, or chance encounters of bears by men with guns. It takes an amazing bear story to thrill an Alaskan.

            A group of people were at the famous McNeil River, bear-viewing. They were walking, all carrying binoculars and cameras (guns are forbidden) out to the observation deck where Brown Bears can be seen fishing when salmon are in the stream.

            One couple was outstanding. They were from a large city and he obviously was living a long-held dream. She was not interested; it took longer to put her make-up on and do her hair in the damp climate.

            Unnoticed, she had fallen behind the group; perhaps her shoes werenít suitable. At any rate, suddenly they heard loud screams. Turning as one, they saw a very large bear between her and the watchers. Not knowing what to do, they began screaming, "Play dead! Play dead!"

She obediently laid down on her stomach.

            Then the bear laid down beside her.

            The transfixed crowd stared in silence. The husband turned on his video camera.

            After how long - 30 seconds? A minute? An hour? A day? The bear got up and ambled off.

            The woman was catatonic and had to be carried back to the lodge.

            The chief speculation is over how the marriage will fare. Some say sheíll be grateful that the film proves it happened. Others brood over the reaction to a wifeís plea for help.

Aleutian experience

            A well-known archeologist had a lonely camp on the beach of a small bay in the Aleutians. There was no town within many islands, no living person for hundreds of miles.

            One afternoon one of the famous Aleutian storms came up, great winds whipping up mountainous waves, tearing the white tops off as fast as they formed.

            The researcher watched with interest, glad he was on shore. Towards evening he was delighted to see a small fishing boat come into the bay and an anchor run out.     He waved and ran along the beach, but no one came out on the deck.

            Hungry for some human companionship, he had an idea. He didnít have a skiff, but he had a wetsuit. He donned it and swam out to the boat, hoisting himself on board and shouting greetings. Nothing happened; the scream of the wind through the rigging and the pounding rain were the only sounds.

            The only thing to do was open the hatch and come down the companionway into the cabin. A fire was burning brightly in the stove and a man sat on a bunk, reading by an oil lamp. The man looked up and let out a scream as the black creature descended.

            They had a mug-up of coffee, laced with some rum to soothe the fisherís shattered nerves.

Cold Flight

            A Bush pilot was flying up in the Koyukuk country one winter. He had a favorite cabin by a lake and planned to spend the night there. Landing was no problem; he greased down on skis on the frozen lake and looked for a tie-down. This is not wooded country and he couldnít find any rocks, so, since a plane on skis is pretty heavy, he left it and went to bed.

            During the night he was awakened by an odd noise outside. He slept bare, but did put on his bunny boots before going out. The wind was blowing his plane down the lake. Running after it, he caught it, then realized it was only his weight that was keeping the plane from disappearing from view. The only thing to do was get in and get it started, then head into the wind.

            Sadly, thatís all I know of this story. The woman who told it to me got it from her husband, who is now flying cargo to Asia. She promised to send me the rest when he returned, but she must have forgotten.

            Obviously, no lasting harm was done, since they have a child, but it would be nice to not leave him stranded in the cold.

Crab is King

            When you live out in king crab country the rest of the world is remote. That means humor reverts to the earthy or at least fundamental.

            Take the case of a friend. When she was at work her biologist husband was offered five king crabs for $2.00 each. That was a bargain. He took them home and put them in the bathtub and closed the glass shower door, but did not call his wife. If you are not familiar with king crabs, you should know they can easily measure six feet across. Think of a blue crab in a horror movie.

            She came home, headed for the john, and reacted just as he would have wanted when she heard the clicks and saw the shadows behind the door. Finally recovered, she planned revenge and released the crustaceans before returning to work. The crabs had been lethargic but by evening, when hubby came home, they were quite lively and rather happy to see him when he opened the front door.    

Now Thatís Odd

            Years ago I asked a friend who had fished the Fairweather Grounds off Lituya Bay in Southeast Alaska for many years, what was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her out there.

            She thought for a bit.  There was the Emerald Fish from the great depths that glowed briefly before it exploded and the Wolf Fish they got a picture of, but most likely it was the time she was steering the troller while her husband tended the lines, and she saw something odd floating on the water. She steered the boat that way and they netted the object. It was a very fine, nearly new leather briefcase with nothing in it. Dropped from a passing small plane? Shrugs. Hadnít seen or heard one.

Fred T. Williams takes over

            Now Iím going to give you a treat. You are sitting around the campfire after a dayís travel. Dinner was good and now itís time for coffee with a bit of rum to warm you.

Fred has lived in the Copper River country for over forty years. Heís exactly what you think a seasoned Alaskan would be; rangy, tough, with a great deep laugh. These are the stories Fred sent along and Iíve kept his words. Enjoy!

            An early white settler in the Copper River  area was Nels McCrary.  He arrived in the area as a boy with his family, about 1900.  Among his many pursuits he ran the Black Rapids Roadhouse one winter.

            He settled in the lodge in the fall and soon realized that the wind in that area would soon be whistling through the many gaps between the logs of the building.

            So he built an artificial wall about two-feet out from the existing walls and filled the gap with horse manure. The result was a wind-tight, warm lodge and greatly reduced wood-cutting chores.

            Wisely, he moved out of the lodge the following spring before the summer temperatures arrived.

            There is no record of who the next lodge manager was or any observations he might have made.

Happy hunting

            Several years ago, Fred writes, I was on a float trip down the Kongkakat River with three companions. Two of us carried firearms while the other two for safety carried cans of bear spray, fastened to their belts.

            We camped two days and nights in a very beautiful setting along the river.     About 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by a noise in camp. From my tent I observed one of the bear spray advocates hunkered down, nude, in front of a bucket of water. He appeared to be washing his lower extremities. Thinking that perhaps he had experienced some sort of accident during the night; perhaps due to our bad cooking or a ďbugĒ in the drinking water I thought it best not to embarrass him so returned to my sleeping bag.

            The next day as we lolled around camp I noticed this same gentleman walking in a rather stiff manner, moving his legs somewhat gingerly.  Also there were articles of underwear adorning the willows near our camp.  No one asked.           

            Finally the gentleman in question said, "I suppose you wondered what was going on early this morning."

            We agreed that some explanation was in order, so the gentleman told us the story.

            Around 1:00 a.m. he experienced a very strong ďcall of natureĒ. Since he was sleeping with his trousers on it was very easy for him to slip on his boots and retire to a secluded area near the camp. At that point apparently he lowered his trousers and assumed a position adopted by mankind since before the Stone Age. Somehow in the process this simple physical exercise caused part of his body to hit the switch on the bear spray hanging on his belt.

            It is probably not necessary to explain in detail what happened except to say simply that the part of his body closest to the bear spray received a direct hit of red pepper and other heat-producing irritants. The rest is unwritten history.

            There isnít any moral to this true story but it does make one think about, and reassess, some of these marvels of science that are designed to make living easier, safer, and more comfortable.

            The two bear spray advocates were a continual source of interest and entertainment.

            The second day of the trip they lost their raft (later found) because they failed to tie it up adequately.  The third day they were chased by a Brown Bear (saved, I believe, by my putting a rifle bullet across the bow of the bear). The fourth day we were made privy to the improper use of bear spray.

            So I was somewhat put down when I innocently asked what we could expect in the way of amusement for the remainder of the trip. This request was answered by visual threats, glares, finger exercises, and some unrepeatable phrases relating to my anatomy and ancestors.

Now Fred puts on his serious face and tells us about his home country:

The Copper River Basin, Alaska

            The Copper River Basin is drained by the mighty Copper River, which flows into Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska near Cordova.  Actually, part of what the residents of the area consider as part of the Copper River Basin is drained by the Upper Susitna River and it tributaries. The Lake Louise complex of lakes and streams drains into the Tyone River, then into the Susitna River and finally Cook Inlet.

            The basin is surrounded by mountain ranges. The Alaska Range borders on the north; the Wrangell Mountains to the east; the Chugach Mountains form the southern boundary and the westerly border is formed by the Talkeetna Mountains and a portion of the Alaska Range.

            The Wrangell Mountain range has some of the highest peaks in North America; Sanford at 16, 237 feet and Blackburn at 16,390 feet. Mount Wrangell, 14,163 feet, is considered a semi-dormant volcano and steam frequently can be seen rising from its craters and vents. This phenomenon sometimes creates excitement around the basin, especially among people who are new to the area.

            Mount Wrangell was named by a Russian explorer for Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell who served as governor of Russian-America from 1830-1835. Mount Sanford was named in 1885 by Lieutenant Henry Allen, US Army, for his great-grandfather Reuben Sanford. Mount Blackburn was named for Congressman Joseph Clay Blackburn of Kentucky.

            The Copper River derived its name from a translation of the Indian name, Ahtna (Big River). The Copper is one of the largest rivers in Alaska. It originates from Copper Glacier on the north face of Mount Wrangell, sweeps to the west, then southerly to the Gulf of Alaska. The river is about 300 miles long and drains an area of 24,000 square miles.     It drops an average of 12 feet-per-mile from its origin to the gulf. The swift current averages seven miles-per-hour but is much faster in the canyon sections. The peak flow occurs in August and in 1981 measured 380,000 cubic-feet-per-second at a point about two miles below Chitina.

            The Copper River is noted (but not necessarily lauded) for the heavy silt load that it carries. This is an average of 65 million tons of silt each year, measured at Chitina. That translates into an estimated 20,000 acres of dirt one-foot deep. On a quiet day one can hear the silt sliding over submerged rocks. If this burden was measured at the mouth of the Copper River it would be much more.

            Very few people who drown in the river are ever seen again. The local theory is that the unfortunateís clothes fill up rapidly with silt and the person sinks to the bottom.

            In 1898 and 1899 some of the prospectors pulled their homemade boats up the Copper River from Copper Center to the mouth of the Chistochina River and then up that river to where they actively began seeking gold. It is doubtful that any present-day adventurer would even consider a task of that magnitude.

Fred continues:

A few stories I have heard or read:

            In 1898 a group of miners were camped at Peninsula Camp at the head of Klutina Lake. Two members of the party decided to go prospecting for a few days. They gathered up food and equipment and headed out for a small stream a few miles away. Eventually they arrived at their destination and made camp.

            When they began cooking their evening meal they discovered that all they had were their tin coffee cups. So they ended up cooking their bacon and bannock in the cups, holding them over the fire. The result was several scorched fingers and a lot of half-cooked food.  After a couple of days they ran out of undamaged fingers and returned to their companies in the camp on the Klutina. When they arrived they immediately began to blame one of the members of their party, who had stayed in the main camp, for not having the foresight to include a skillet in their gear.

            I found this story in an old diary of one of the Ninety-Eighters.

            In this day we look for some other person or government body to blame for our misfortunes but I didnít realize that people did the same thing a century ago.

            Addison Powell, explorer, prospector, and sometimes engineer-surveyor for the U.S. Army, roamed the Copper Basin and other parts of Alaska from 1898 to 1906. He wrote a book, Trailing and Camping in Alaska and in it quotes a fellow-wanderer who at last was able to differentiate between the Alaska mosquito and those in the Lower 48. According to this fellow the Alaska mosquito has a white spot about the size of a manís hand between its eyes.

            During the Gold Rush of 1898-1899 shoes and boots were in such short supply that many of the explorer-prospectors were reduced to wearing footwear made of burlap sacks wrapped around their feet.

            In 1898 over 90 per cent of the miners who came down the Klutina River in their homemade boats were ďshipwreckedĒ before they made it to Copper Center.

            Lieutenant Henry Allen, who came into the country in 1885, tells of running short of food quite often. On the birthday of one of his men they celebrated by eating a rotten moose roast with an Ahtna native who generously shared. Allen describes picking off wiggling maggots in clear detail.

            Before the days of electricity and auto engine heaters vehicles were commonly warmed up during the cold winters using Coleman lanterns and stoces placed beneath the engines. Quite often this resulted in a ďsemi-controlled burnĒ as the heat and flames ignited old oil dripping from the engine.

            During the winter one would sometimes see black smoke rising from the cemetery. This was sure sign that someone had passed away. Old tires were burned to thaw the ground so that graves could be dug.

            Oscar Craig once explained the difference between white man time and Indian time. If a meeting was set for 8:00 p.m. the Indian would show up at 8:00 p.m. The white man would show up at 8:15 p.m. Now nobody shows up until 8:30 p.m.

            During the rush of prospectors over the Valdez and Klutina glaciers in 1898 some people went over to the Tazlina River instead of the Klutina River to Copper Center.     After establishing camps on the Tazlina most of the prospectors built boats to float on down to the Copper River. These boats were made of green spruce whipsawed into one-inch planks. One ambitious boat building crew produced a craft fully 34-feet long. This took much hard labor and time to construct. According to witnesses the boat made it downstream approximately one mile before shattering on the rocks.

            An old Bush pilot, Al Lyle, now deceased, told of hauling miners into the upper Chitina River in his small plane back in the ‘30s. Two German miners amassed a huge pile of supplies and equipment to be flown in. Part of this was some lumber at least 16-feet long. Al carefully explained there was no way he could fit 16-foot lumber into a plane that had a cabin only six feet long. Al inspected his plane on the morning they were to take off and discovered that the miners had carefully tied the 16-foot lumber into a tight bundle and then to the tail of the aircraft. Al also said these ďminersĒ had failed to include a shovel so he loaned them one.

            In 1947 a friend of mine drove up the Alaska Highway from Portland, Oregon. He was anxious to get to Alaska so wasted as little time as possible. However, because of the condition of the road in those days it took him a full 30 days to arrive in Anchorage.

How Lake Louise was named, or rank has its privileges

            In 1898 Lieutenant Castner, under the command of Captain Glenn, was ordered to explore the territory from Knik Arm northeastly to the Copper River and beyond. This was a very hazardous and difficult undertaking. When Castner and his men spotted a beautiful lake, he named it Lake Adah after a pretty girl of his acquaintance. Later, at Captain Glennís suggestion, the name was changed to Louise, the name of Glennís esteemed wife.

The cat, the dog, and the dynamite

            Jack Wilson, well known bush pilot, now retired, told me this story many years ago and recently included it in a book he wrote, Glacier Wings and Tales. Jack was flying cargo from Cordova to McCarthy. Among other things his load included a cat in a sack, a small, feisty dog, dynamite and caps. Because of potential problems he put the dynamite in the back of the small plane and the dynamite caps in the passenger seat.

            During the trip some rough air was experienced and this apparently disturbed the cat. It began to move around in the sack and make strange noises. This caught the attention of the dog, which had not realized an age-old enemy was also on board. All of a sudden the cat found its way out of the sack and the battle was on.

            According to Jack the fur was literally flying as the animals careened from the front to the back of the cabin, locked in mortal combat. All this time Jack was trying to fly the aircraft through the turbulence and also prevent the animals from landing on the explosive dynamite caps. According to Jack, he would take a poke at them with his fist whenever they came in range. Eventually he was able to grab the cat and throw it to the rear of the plane where, astonishingly, it remained. Then he put a hammer lock on the dog and finally made it to the McCarthy airstrip.

            A similar story was related to me by a bush pilot who shall go unnamed. This gentleman was flying his aircraft in Kodiak. The cargo included some ladyís very precious cat. Apparently, as the plane gained altitude the catís ears became plugged and the pain caused the cat to go somewhat berserk. It was going around and around in the cabin, bouncing first off the windshield then the side windows, effectively causing consternation for the pilot. After the cat had made several rapid circles around the inside of the airplane the pilot despaired of ever calming the agitated feline. So he opened the window and when the cat came around again it hit the opening and the problem was solved. The pilot never did tell me what he told the owner of the cat when he arrived in Kodiak. I really donít want to know.

100 mile-an-hour tape

            We are all familiar with duct tape, a wide, usually gray, tape that generally sticks together or to oneís fingers better than to the object youíre trying to patch. The bush pilots discovered this Band-Aid material some years ago and soon put it to good use. It was used extensively for temporary (sometimes several years temporary) patches for torn fabric on their Super Cubs and other aircraft. This tape was found to stick to the fabric at airspeeds approaching 100 miles-per-hour, a speed those Cubs only rarely achieved.

Harsh treatment

            Early accounts of meetings between the Ahtna people of the Copper River and non-natives indicated that they (Ahtnas) were belligerent and warlike. However, most of these accounts were of Russian origin as a party of traders was killed in 1848. It seems this was in revenge for the abuse of the people by an early Russian group.

Generous people

            Many reports from both military and prospector sources speak of the generosity and honesty of the Ahtna people. At least one military surveying expedition was saved only by the willingness of the Ahtnas to take them in, feed them, and guide them. Accounts of miners trading goods and food with the natives do not mention or imply that there was any cheating or skulduggery going on. Some of the natives rescued gear and supplies from the Klutina River when prospectorsí boats swamped, a common occurrence. It is reported that the natives would pile the gear retrieved from the river on the banks so the miners could reclaim it later. From the many accounts I have read concerning dealings between Ahtna and non-native people they got along quite well. This is remarkable when you consider the great differences between the two cultures and the fact that they were thrown together quite abruptly rather than gradually, and the history of the unhappy dealings with the Russians.

Donít talk to the owl

            The owl is respected and considered special by the Ahtnas. It was considered bad form to talk or listen to the owl. A good friend of mine, Buck Roach, now deceased, told Tony Jackson that had talked to an owl while running his trap line and the owl talked back to him. Tony, now deceased, was a much respected elder of the Ahtnas and had warned Buck about talking to owls. He told Buck that because he had spoken with the owl and had flaunted tradition he would catch no more fur in his traps that winter. Josie, Buckís wife, told me that Buckís traps were empty for the rest of the trapping season.

The Rights of Spring

            The timing of this annual spring event was dictated by the weather. When the ponds and streams began to shed their icy coats the ducks would appear, flying in from their winter homes far to the south. Fresh duck was considered a delicacy after a long winter of tough moose and caribou meat.

            Although this spring duck season was never recognized by the authorities it was accepted as a God given right by many of the Interior Alaskans. The federal game warden, who resided in Anchorage or elsewhere, would make periodic tours of the Copper River basin. He would send word ahead to the various roadhouses, presumably to reserve a room for the night and to be assured of meals. However, it was generally assumed that the real reason for letting the people know his traveling schedule was to forewarn them so that no embarrassing duck feathers and other remains would be lying around the premises. This system worked to the satisfaction of everyone. The officer could sleep well, knowing that he was maintaining law and order by making his appointed rounds and the local people were able to enjoy the Rights of Spring.

Have any good true stories of your own? Send them along. Thanks!

Dee

 

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