A Cheechako’s Alaska

Wanderlust has always been an integral part of my soul. My wanderings in the summer of 1975 found me in Alaska chasing my fortune, hoping to find a job on the Alaska pipeline. A day late and a dollar short, as usual, I found myself washing dishes at a truck stop in Glennallen, Alaska. Not quite what I had in mind but I figured I would make the best of it.

A promotion wasn’t long in coming in labor poor rural Alaska during the pipeline days. Soon I was the cook of a truck stop the health inspector hadn’t discovered yet. It was hard to wade through the grease to the food, and harder still to keep them separated once I got there, but I had a job.

Being from Southern California, the land of sunshine and pretty girls, I couldn’t imagine winter’s impending double-digit below zero temperatures that were soon to freeze my future. In this interior Alaskan town, the temperature in mid-winter could reach sixty degrees below zero. To get an idea of my future I would go sit in the walk-in freezer of the restaurant which was zero degrees. It was cold in there, however it could, and probably would, get sixty degrees colder. I thought, How was that possible? I was worried … so I bought me an Alaskan husky dog to keep me company, and hoped the two of us would stay warm enough through the long winter.

I wasn’t getting rich as planned, but I lived near the banks of the Copper River where I was never far away from trout or grayling streams and stunning scenery. I fell in love with Alaska. With twenty-four hours of daylight, I could go fishing day or night. There were no fences, which appealed to my wandering soul—I’d always had a problem with boundaries. I would look to the east and marvel at the fact that there was nobody out there for five hundred miles. It wasn’t that I could use that five hundred miles for anything, especially since the only way to access the land was by airplane. It was just nice to know all that open country was there.

As much as I loved the place, I appreciated the people more. I was an Alaskan Cheechako (newcomer, tenderfoot, greenhorn), but the sourdoughs (old timers) welcomed cheechakos with earnest sourdough ambitions. Everyone I met was either young and adventurous or old and adventurous—there was no in-between. It takes a special type of person to move to and survive in this rugged frontier. I found the Alaskan spirit was one to emulate. Alaska is a land of extremes. With Alaska’s boom and bust economy you can have several years of prosperity followed by several years of hardship. Even during prosperous times it can be financially hard in the winter. Adversity builds character and Alaska certainly is full of characters: gold miners, trappers, hunting and fishing guides, bush pilots and homesteaders. All of them had a pot of coffee on the stove, a story to tell, and a leg to pull.

Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. At the truck stop, I worked with a couple of people that left an indelible impression on me. Otto was our dishwasher—he must have been 80 years old and lived in the employee bunkhouse. He was too old to work and couldn’t see to clean the dishes but who could fire him? He was a pathetic figure who did nothing but sit on the edge of his bed and smoke. Gladys was one of the waitresses; Gladys was also way beyond retirement age and losing her memory. These two lost souls clearly hadn’t planned their lives very well, and my exposure to them influenced me to vow to have a home paid for by the time I was of retirement age. Thank you Otto and Gladys!

Autumn brought a brief but beautiful change of seasons. Within two weeks the aspen and birch trees turned from green to gold to bare tan branches. Their falling leaves rode the wind, whose chilly air blew them into the darkness of winter. Then the darkness came, and the cold rolled in. On September 10th it was eight degrees in the daytime. By November, it was reaching fifty degrees below zero. I found the cold wasn’t as bad as I imagined it would be (in the walk-in freezer, I hadn’t been wearing a jacket). All you needed was some well-insulated coveralls, a heavy parka to wear over the coveralls, a good hat and you could stand most any temperature. I just wished I didn’t have to sleep in them!

I was renting an eight by twenty-four foot travel trailer that wasn’t insulated—but it did have three heaters in it: an oil stove, a propane stove, and an electric space heater. I couldn’t warm that trailer up for the life of me. At twenty below the oil would start icing up and the stove oil quit flowing. At forty below the propane quit expanding. That left me with the 1,000-watt electric heater that was more ceremonial than functional at fifty below zero. When I woke up in the morning, I had to break the ice on the dog’s water dish that was placed directly in front of the electric heater. Thank goodness for the necessities: a good down sleeping bag, overalls, parka, hard head, heart for adventure and the love of a good dog.

If you don’t have a reason to go outside when it is minus thirty degrees, you probably won’t. I had to take Bud, my husky, for a daily walk so he could do his business somewhere other than my living room.

Daryl Hunter and team.

Daryl Hunter and team.

I found that it wasn’t the cold itself that bothered me; it was the mechanical failures that it caused. Heating a house with anything but wood was impossible. To start a car in the morning you had to plug in your engine heater and battery blanket so the engine didn’t freeze up. If you were going to park somewhere without a place to plug it in you just left the car running, locked the door and hoped you remembered your extra key. Everything would get brittle in the extreme cold. You could pull your car door open and the handle would break off in your hand. After sitting all night the tires on the car would freeze flat on the bottoms, then for the first half mile it felt as if you were driving down a riverbed covered with cobble stones until the tires re-rounded themselves. One night I came home when the temperature was somewhere south of minus sixty degrees. I tried to plug in the car and my plug-in cord shattered into a thousand pieces like glass. I vowed not to fix that S.O.B. until it was twenty degrees above zero, so I hitchhiked for the next three weeks. Up until then I thought that frigid air was the name of a refrigerator.

I still loved Alaska, though I would look around me and wonder why. It must be that when things are covered in snow they are so pretty, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it. There were only three colors: the white of the snow, the dull green of the trees and the blue of the sky. Then I realized everything was rounded off and visually softened by the snow. You can see forever because there isn’t any atmospheric haze, all the moisture in the air freezes and falls to the ground. The hoarfrost crystals sparkled during the four hours of sunshine. Overhead the northern lights dance and in the absence of the northern lights, every star glowed in the clear night sky. It was dark all right, but it didn’t take very much moon to light up the snowy landscape. On the horizon the Wrangell Mountains were dominated by Mt. Sanford, a 16,000 foot volcano venting a steam plume into the arctic air. And a breath of frigid air was invigorating as long as you were warm. It must be because I was from California, and had never experienced a change of seasons, but now that I was witnessing some of the most radical season changes on earth, I realized the sameness of California’s “perfect weather” was pure boredom to me.

Since my home was colder than a gravedigger’s heart, I fell into the habit of spending all my waking hours at Smittie’s Bar. I became friends with the manager, and we worked out a deal where I could drink for free if I would run the shuttle service. I would sit there and drink until someone needed a ride home or back to the pipeline camp. Then I would charge them one dollar per mile for the service, and I got to keep the money. When the bar closed at five in the morning, I would load up my car with people going to the pipeline camp and drop them off for five dollars a head; it was right by my house. A drunk delivering drunks service, only in Alaska during the pipeline days.

It didn’t take long for me to see the flaw in this lifestyle. I needed a winter hobby. I went ice fishing once, and the ice on the lake was six feet deep. I dropped my line, and my bobber quickly froze into my freshly dug hole. With my aversion to digging, ice fishing didn’t appear to be the answer which left cross-country skiing or dog sledding. The thought of doing aerobic exercise at forty below zero had about the same appeal as skinny-dipping in my ice hole. Dogsledding, however, sounded much more romantic; images of Jack London’s “Call Of The Wild” ran through my mind. So dog sledding it was.Click here to subscribe to Last Frontier Magazine!

I had come to find out that my “Call Of The Wild” had called me to the coldest part of Alaska. Most of Alaska wasn’t fifty below on a sunny day in January, so I brilliantly deduced I ought to move to a warmer Alaskan location—especially if I planned to spend a significant amount of time behind a team of huskies.

The summer of 1976 found me living in a tent in Valdez while I tried to get a job out of the Teamster’s union hall. Here I met a wild Alaskan woman, Marjorie Moore. Marjorie took me for my first dog sled ride, and I was instantly in love with the sport. It was summer so Marjorie had wheels attached to her dog sled. The ride was a blast, but the thing that sold me on dog mushing was how much the dogs loved it. The realization that dog mushing amounted to spending a beautiful day out in the wintry landscape with eight or ten of your best friends was too cool! Marjorie, who was working on the pipeline, refused to live in the free lodging at the pipeline camp so she could camp with her dogs. Marjorie was a testament to that indomitable Alaskan character I spoke of earlier. Since I hoped to soon have the money to settle in a better part of Alaska, I asked Marjorie where the best dog sledding conditions were and she X-ed the spot on the map for me.

Through persistence and payola, I finally scored a truck driving job on the Alaska pipeline up in Coldfoot where they have since taped the television show ‘Ice Road Truckers.’ I soon banked enough cash to buy a small cabin and to pay my bills through the winter. I chose the Matanuska Valley for my new home, an X on a map where I didn’t know a soul. The Matanuska Valley is a more temperate climate than Alaska’s harsh interior. Oddly enough, upon my arrival to Alaska I had taken the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and as this California outsider stared out the window of the train upon the desolate forests of the Matanuska Valley and the shacks along the way, I couldn’t help but ask myself, Who in the hell would want to live here? The irony of the answer, with the help of a little evolutionary assimilation, was me.

My cabin was a 300 square foot A-frame plus a loft and it had no running water or electricity. Bare basics, but it was mine. Since I had to build an outhouse I went out and dug and dug and dug and finally got down to the ground. I decided that was deep enough for me.

I started collecting dogs that no one wanted or would sell to me cheap, so it wasn’t long before I had a dog team, and I use the term “team” loosely. What I had acquired was a hodgepodge of slow, lazy, unruly, fighting dogs without a leader. I had my work cut out for me.

My mother came out for a visit and as she drank her coffee, looking out my picture window upon my dogs and the vast landscape, she asked, “Don’t you get lonely out here?” I replied, “There is a difference between loneliness and solitude.”

One evening on my way to hitch up the dogs for a run, I saw them all looking at the sky. They were watching a dazzling display of northern lights. I was surprised to realize that people aren’t the only creatures that enjoy this phenomenon of the north.

Out of necessity I became the leader and top dog of my “team.” And by winter’s end I had the dogs heading mostly in the same direction, simultaneously. With a sense of satisfaction I could glide noiselessly through the Alaskan woods in the shadows of the sourdoughs, the northern lights shooting across the sky. Not only did I feel like the star in a Jack London novel, I felt like a part of Alaska.

Daryl L. Hunter – Author/Photographer/Publisher/Guide has been widely published and resides in the Greater Yellowstone. Daryl publishes the Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide (www.greater-yellowstone.com) and blogs  and sells his photos at (www.daryl-hunter.net). Some of the richest four years of  my life was my time in Alaska.

Story by Daryl Hunter

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