We tend to get TV programs months–sometimes years–after they are shown on TV in the United States, so we are just now enjoying Sarah Palin’s Alaska on the Travel and Living Channel. Even if we were not Sarah Palin fans, we would still watch the show for nothing else but the beautiful scenery.
On the last show, they attempted to go camping with Kate Gosselin and her eight young children. Though I have heard of Kate Gosselin, I had not seen her before. To be honest, she did not come across very well, and I cannot imagine spending much time in her company. Her children, on the other hand, seemed to be a delight, as most young children are.
The show, and her children, really stirred up memories. Though I have never been to the particular neck of the woods the Palins took Kate and her kids to, the scene reminded me of my father’s favorite fishing grounds out by Willow Creek, Alaska, where we used to go when I was a very young child.
My father was an Air Force sergeant. We were in Biloxi, Mississippi when he got orders for Elmendorf, so he bought a tent, an ice chest, a camp stove, and a Coleman lantern, and packed us up in a sedan to drive to Anchorage via the ALCAN. This was in the summer of 1966, and I was four.
I do not remember much of the trip except puking in the back seat of the car. I was too short to see out the windows, and the road was quite bumpy, so I often got car sick. I do have good memories of a wall of license plates glittering in the sun, an old Indian graveyard where people were buried in miniature houses, two old paddle wheelers rusting and rotting on the banks of the Yukon near Whitehorse, a hot springs, and an assortment of ghost towns, including one with an outhouse which had five holes–each a different size and each labelled with the names of a family member, from the father to the smallest child.
One incident on the trip involved me, though I do not remember it. We were camping somewhere in the Yukon and my brothers and I were taking a nap in the tent while my mother was fixing dinner at a picnic table in the woods. Neither my mother nor my father could see the entrance to the tent from the picnic table. Suddenly, my older brother came tearing out of the tent in terror, exclaiming that a big brown “dog” was in the tent with us.
The big brown “dog” was of course a large brown “bear” rummaging for food. Between my bear-sized father and our little brown dog (a Dachshund), they were able to drive the bear away and no one was injured. Despite the commotion, I did not even wake up.
By a twist of fate, we did not qualify for base housing on Elmendorf, and had to live on Fort Richardson, the nearby army base, instead. I began kindergarten at Fort Richardson, just one street over from the elementary school. I looked for my house on Google Earth recently, and was surprised to see that the house (or at least, a building with its same footprint) was still there–it was old and shabby when I last saw it many, many years ago, so I cannot imagine what it is like now.
Since the school was so close, we always walked there ourselves. It seemed safe enough. We were on a small military base. What could go wrong? Well, there was the moose feeding on grass between the houses one morning. She must have weighed 800 pounds, but all of the little school children were gathered around her, petting her snout, and no adults were present. I have little doubt that moose kill more people every year in Alaska than bear, but here we were–about eight or nine little kids–loving on this moose as it munched away.
My sister came from Alaska. She was born to an Eskimo woman on the south side of Bristol Bay. Abandoned at birth, she was taken care of by an old, half-blind spinster who had also been abandoned. The old woman took care of the baby as best she could until the state came in and discovered that the two of them were dying of pneumonia and starvation, so they airlifted my sister out to Anchorage. My sister arrived late one night at our front door. My mother had always wanted a daughter and had tried to adopt several times, only to be disappointed, so she dropped out of the foster care program and refused to take care of any other kids. But there were too many kids in need and too few foster parents, so “won’t you take care of this baby for one night?” the social worker asked. My mother agreed, and my sister stayed with her until the day my mother died of cancer, some thirty years later.
I remember days so dark that we could barely see each other on the playground; looking down from a wooden bridge at sockeye salmon running in a small creek, glistening red, silver, and golden in the twilight sun; and riding snow machines on a frozen lake near Denali. I did not discover that a snow machine was really a snow mobile until some years later.
The largest building in Anchorage back then was the J C Penney building. I got lost inside it once and they had to page my mother. And yes, there was the Iditarod. They had to bring snow into Anchorage in order for the dogs to run, as the snow had melted early that year. (Wikipedia tells me that this was in 1967, and that this was not a true Iditarod, but was actually called the Centennial Race. I just remember the snow and the dogs.) The Earthquake had just happened a few years before, and Earthquake Park was still full of broken buildings and broken dreams.
One year we spent a week or so in a fishing camp somewhere in western Alaska. We flew in on a Cessna and landed on a wet beach at low tide. Since I was still too small to see out the windows, I suffered motion sickness again to horrific results, as it was a small plane and the windows in the back were shut. At the fishing camp, they used drift nets to catch salmon, hauling the fish into their skiffs and then taking them to a processor ship out on the ocean. My father especially enjoyed this time, as there was a lonely river nearby and the area was so remote that there were no Fish and Wildlife officers to bother him, and no fishing competitors except for the bears. He caught about sixty large salmon in one day just using a reel and a hook. We canned these and had enough salmon to last a year. The plane coming to pick us up hit a bit of dry sand on its landing and nosed into the beach. No one was hurt, but we had to spend another day in paradise while we waited for another plane to arrive.
Of course, my fondest memories were Willow Creek, between Palmer and Talkeetna (if Wasilla was a town back then, we did not notice). Wikipedia says that there were no roads up there until the early 1970s, but this certainly is not true–the roads may not have been paved or smooth, but they were good enough to drag a camper over in the summer. Even back in the 1960′s, on a typical weekend the river banks would be covered with day trippers from Anchorage fishing for salmon–and when the salmon was running, the glint of the hook alone was often enough to catch a fish. Though the fishing was good at Willow Creek, the scenery was even better. Between the ages of five and seven, this was where I spent my summers when my father was free.
I cannot think of a better place in the world to spend one’s childhood. It takes an adult used to comfort and suburbia to complain about such a life. Children do not notice the rain, the cold, the mosquitoes: Their world is the mountains, the rivers, the fish, the crackle of a campfire, the musty smell of a canvas tent, and the comfort of a sleeping bag as they try to fall asleep in a world that knows no night.
My wife and I spent a summer in Homer, Alaska shortly after we married, but I have not been back since. My own photos were thrown away by a friend whom they were entrusted to after we left Japan. My father and mother have passed away, and whatever wonderful photos and mementos they might have kept were either throw out when they died, or are now in a storage box somewhere in Florida.
All I have left of Alaska are my memories. But what memories they are.
(Photos below are from the Internet.)