is a collection of anecdotes about Alaska, collected from longtime Alaskans.
Donít worry - while the stories
are true, only two real names are used.
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....
Harding visits Spenard
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.
was before the term ďSpenard divorceĒ became popular through so many unhappy
spouses there shooting their husbands, so this is about a roadhouse.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
daughter seized her chance and took dozens of pictures.
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.
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.
Visqueen, Vizquine, Visquine, or....
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.
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.
obediently laid down on her stomach.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
T. Williams takes over
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fred puts on his serious face and tells us about his home country:
Copper River Basin, Alaska
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
few stories I have heard or read:
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.
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.
found this story in an old diary of one of the Ninety-Eighters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lake Louise was named, or rank has its privileges
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.
cat, the dog, and the dynamite
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
talk to the owl
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.
Rights of Spring
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.
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.
any good true stories of your own? Send them along. Thanks!