Alaska Bush Tales

AlaskaBushby Anniel5/5/15
Russia was involved heavily in the Crimean War, fought from 1853 through 1856, and had incurred hefty war debts. Maintaining the Territory of Alaska had become a further financial drain, so the Russians offered Alaska for sale to the United States in the late 1850’s while Abraham Lincoln was still living. The U.S. Civil War interfered, and the turmoil following Lincoln’s assassination meant the offer was not accepted by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Henry Seward until March 30, 1867.

The United States paid the grand sum of $7.2 million for 586,412 square miles of land, or about 2 cents an acre, for what was called “Seward’s Folly.” The vast, largely unexplored, territory remained under military control until May of 1884 when civil government was installed and the area became a District of the United States. Alaska became the 49th State of the Union on January 3, 1959.

For many years the only way for people to reach parts of Alaska was by steamship from Seattle to Seward, then by rail to Anchorage, or to travel with a fishing fleet. The Yukon Gold Rush, which began in 1896 and lasted for 3 years of incredible hardship, brought thousands of prospectors, miners, gamblers and assorted camp followers into the Territory through Canada. River travel and the building of small railroads and bridges opened up more territory where rich ore sites of silver, copper, tin, basalt, and other minerals were discovered, always leading to more growth.

In 1899 gold was discovered in the sands off Cape Nome, where it was easier to travel and also transport the gold by ship, so that gold rush lasted about 10 years, or until 1909.

Bear’s grandmother and Swiss grandfather, Otto, had met and decided to marry while they were both living in San Diego, but Otto had promised his mother that he would not marry until he first returned to visit her in Switzerland. He told his fiancée he would be gone about a year. Grandma Leila must have been a very remarkable woman because she told him fine, but she was going to head for Cape Nome to work while he was gone, and she did. As far as we know she was the first on either side of our family to come to Alaska, although others were right behind.

It was the coming of railroads, built along rivers and streams, along with steam and paddle boats, that opened the Interior of Alaska to mining, homesteading, settlement, and all the commerce that came with settlement. The brief history above leads to stories, of course.

Life on the Tundra

Two of my favorite people are Tony and Caroline. Tony is from a village called Kiana (i = “eye” ), inland from Kotzebue Sound, part of the Chukchi Sea. People who don’t live near there insist on pronouncing it Kot-ze-boo, but natives pronounce it with a U sound at the end. Kotzebue and Kiana are above the Arctic Circle and Kiana is on the banks of a stream near the Kobuk River. It is a place of muskeg and flat tundra, which means the subsoil is all permafrost and only small bushes and bramble can grow in the topsoil. There is not a mountain or tree in sight. Lots of edible berries, though.

Tony and Caroline met and married while he was attending college in New Mexico. When he got a job teaching in Juneau, they invited his mother to spend some time with them there. She had never been anywhere near a mountain, and Juneau, which is surrounded by mountains, absolutely terrified her. She finally would not even go outside because she thought the mountains would fall on her, and she didn’t like trees, either. She was so frightened and unhappy Tony had to take her back home.

When Tony got a job in Kiana, Caroline told me she wasn’t too happy because she didn’t want to live without a dishwasher. Tony’s mother didn’t understand the problem because, she said, she did have a dishwasher. It wasn’t until they were moved to Kiana that Caroline learned the “dishwasher” was a 14-year-old girl who came every night, went down to the river for water and heated it to do the dishes.

Tony learned to grow vegetables in greenhouses in order to interest his
students and native neighbors in healthier eating. He has done much for his home village. Whenever we meet anyone from Kiana they turn out to be some relative of Tony’s.

One spring on a trip to Kotzebue, Bear and a friend watched while the sun was setting over the ocean and the Northern Lights were dancing in the pinkish sky. They still speak of the sight with awe.

Selling Black Underwear

My old boss, who went by the name Mac, first came to Alaska in the early 1930’s selling dry goods and clothing in little villages and settlements all over Alaska. He walked railroad tracks and traveled rivers and streams to reach his customers. By that time Anchorage had become the Railroad and commercial hub of Southcentral Alaska, so it was Mac’s hub, too.

He sold regular wool underwear, all white long johns at first. The miners liked the warm long johns, but said they got dirty too fast. Then Mac talked the Utah Woolen Mill Company into making black underwear for their Alaska customers. The miners loved the new black long johns because they didn’t have to wash them. They were probably pretty ripe at the end of the winter season. Mac put himself through college and Law School on the money he made each summer.

Mac told me that one summer he was walking on the railroad tracks hauling his sample case when he looked up and saw a grizzly headed right down the tracks toward him. He said it was no contest. His sample case went one way off the tracks and he went the other. The bear took the middle of the tracks, as is only proper.

So how were the purchased goods delivered? Bear and I have been studying the history and maps of early Alaska and there seems to have been regular trade routes down the main rivers, the Yukon, Nenana, Kuskokwim, and Chena, for instance. Then the goods would be off-loaded to smaller paddle wheel boats, and they made delivery to the main camps on the secondary rivers and streams. Word would go out that a boat was in and men were sent from the smaller camps to take their own deliveries. Barges still haul fuel and goods along the main rivers and it is possible to travel as a passenger on barges, particularly on the Yukon.

After graduating from Law School Mac, now with a wife, returned to Anchorage for good just before WW II and started his law practice. He thought of becoming a Coast Watcher when the war started but the Japanese also began their war along the Aleutians, the Thousand Mile War, before that could happen, so he was in the Home Guard.

He went on to become an Alaska Federal District Judge before returning to private practice. All the old timers who had bought black underwear were his best clients.

When I worked for him he had collected all kinds of exotic animals at his Anchorage home, including things like pheasants and peacocks, and kept a few of his favorite breed of horses, Tennessee Walkers. It was fun to visit, unless he expected help cleaning the barn.

FLAT

Flat, a town located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area of Western Alaska very near Iditarod, was once a thriving gold mining town, founded in 1908 with 6,000 residents. That was before the greenies and the EPA got their pristiner-than-thou hands on it. In 2010 it became a census-designated-point with a population of, TA-DA, exactly 0, and is now officially a Ghost Town.

My older brother, Chuck, came to Alaska in 1961, a year after I did. He got a job running a cat at a placer mine at Prince Creek, just out of Flat. He worked there almost every summer for Rich and John, two brothers who had been born in Flat and grew up mining with their father.

After Chuck’s first summer of work, Rich told him the miners in the area had a bet going how long he would last since he was not a native and would probably find the work too hard and be lonely for some excitement.
Chuck laughed and said, “What do you mean? This is just how I grew up.”

In the summer of 1969, Chuck asked me to bring his 5-year-old son, Sean, to Flat for the big 4th of July celebration and to stay for a week or so. The 1st of July Sean and I got a small bush flight to McGrath, and then an even smaller plane to Flat. The Town Hall was the only community building still in good repair. I’m guessing that there were around 100 people or so living in the area, and there were at least 24 million mosquitoes for every resident (but only the females bite.)

That first afternoon I met the man who kept the town running, Johnny Miscovich. He shook my hand and peppered me with questions. When I told him I worked for Mac his face lit up in a big smile. “Tell him you met Johnny Miscovich and he’ll know for sure you’ve been to Flat.”

“I suppose you bought his black underwear?” I asked.

“Of course, best damn underwear I ever had!”

I’m not certain I believed in black woolen underwear until that moment.

About ten years after I met him, John Miscovich would invent a nozzle that revolutionized high pressure hoses so that the direction of flow could be torqued down and the direction of the spray controlled. It tamed hoses and helped out firemen everywhere. He became wealthy but returned home to Flat every summer as long as he was able. All the old-timers loved the place.

The strangest character I have ever met had been living in Flat for a number of years. Although he was white he claimed the name of William Geronimo Burns, and said he had been raised by Geronimo himself. Billy Burns was semi-bald and gray, tall and thin and had the most enormous red nose I have ever seen on any human being. He had been everywhere and done everything and loved to talk about it. Chuck told me to take his stories with a grain of salt. But I can tell you that he eventually had to move into an old folks home about 6 miles from downtown Anchorage and he walked those 6 miles and back again every single day, including the day he died at the age of 104.

While staying at Prince Creek I saw the daily back breaking work of placer mining and also watched a clean-up that involved about twice the normal workload. I give you my word that anyone who mines for a living deserves every penny they make.

THE BEAR

John, one of Chuck’s bosses at Prince Creek, had a teenage son who worked along with everyone else. He also had one younger boy named Eric, who was a little bit older than my nephew, Sean. The two little boys became great friends and ran around the camp everywhere, filthy, sweaty and covered with huge blood-smeared mosquito bites. They were told always to stay in sight of camp and no one worried much about them.

After the big 4th of July Celebration in town we all went back to our cabins at Prince Creek and prepared for bed. I heard some noise on the porch, and then a couple of rifle shots. John knocked on the door and said he had seen a bear trying to get into our cabin and he was going to get the tractor to drag its carcass up and over the hill. Sean, of course, was terrified and crawled into bed with me for the next few nights.

Some days of exciting terror for the boys followed as they kept crawling to the top of the hill to peek and be scared by the bear all over again.

Rich and I were peeling potatoes one night for dinner when I realized I hadn’t heard the boys for awhile and mentioned to Rich we should probably find them. We went out and called them and saw them giggling hysterically and running over the top of the hill where the bear carcass was dumped. Eric reached us first and yelled, “WE SAW THE BEAR, AND I KICKED IT!”

“YEAH,” shouted Sean as he panted up, “AND I PEED ALL OVER IT!”

Indeed, a feat guaranteed to vanquish all fears.

When we returned again to civilization I found that most things I had thought were so important no longer mattered. Maybe a mandatory hitch in the wild with Outward Bound really would cure many of society’s ills. • (1451 views)

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19 Responses to Alaska Bush Tales

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    An interesting series of tales. I will note that there is a good popular history of the Aleutian campaign of World War II, The Thousand Mile War by Brian Garfield. Of course, the history of the Yukon and Nome gold rushes reminds me of Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska”, though his history wasn’t very accurate.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    For many years the only way for people to reach parts of Alaska was by steamship from Seattle to Seward

    Living as I do on Puget Sound, Alaska seems like a near neighbor, both in terms of location and cultural connection. To the best of my knowledge, much of this area’s early growth (Port Angeles, later eclipsed by Seattle as the main port city…Tacoma sort of getting in on it as well) was due to the Alaskan gold rush and other economic opportunities (as you mentioned, fishing…and timber was huge as well) in the vast relative wilderness of the region, including British Columbia.

    Anyway, as a Northwesterner, this is surely one reason Sarah Palin is like a sister. You guys up there have many connections down here. Many a fellow has made some good money by enduring the hardships of fishing for a season. There is a definite connection to the way of life in western and northwest Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, and plenty of differences as well. We share mountains, great amounts of timber, open water, generally wet weather, a general similarity of Native American cultures and motifs, and a kind of (semi, now) cultural isolation from, say, the Beltway.

    She finally would not even go outside because she thought the mountains would fall on her, and she didn’t like trees, either.

    Oh, goodness. Not Northwest material, let alone Alaskan material. I love the idea of thinking the mountains would fall on her. I’ve got Olympics on my left and Cascades on my right and wouldn’t know how to live properly in a flat land without The Brothers (and other mountains) looking over my shoulder. They are always there, like the sun or the moon. No mountains? As Vizzini would say, “Inconceivable.”

    • Anniel says:

      Brad, I used to have a question in my mind about kids who grew up on the tundra. If you could knock them out and wake them up in a thick jungle what would they think? Then I read about people raised in jungles who are removed to an open landscape and have no spatial recognition. They put out their hands to touch mountains that are many miles away and they remain totally disoriented. Tony’s mother, bless her heart, was so disoriented she could not adapt. I’m with you about mountains, I don’t think I could live without them.

      Television particularly has shown the new generations of native village kids enough to have some idea of the wider world. But even then natives come to the cities totally unprepared for the culture shock of city life.

      I started writing a book about a boy moving from someplace like Kiana to the Midwest and being invited to a tree house with a couple of other boys. The second chapter tells how frightened he is by trying to climb the tree. Need to get back to that someday.

      People who decide to leave Alaska frequently move to your area because of those cultural and commercial ties established so long ago. And the mountains, of course.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Yes, I’ve heard the same stories about tribes who have lived only in the Amazon jungle who had never seen any distance further than the next tree or so. Apparently when taken to an open space or high building, they thought people in the distance were ants.

        I’m not sure how much truth is in those stories. But certainly it might take a bit of getting used to to move from, say, flat lands to mountainous lands. But I must say, I love eastern Washington which is primarily flat, much drier, and has sparse vegetations. And yet I think it’s beautiful and refreshing in its own way. I never felt disoriented in the least. In some ways, it’s like coming home. Very refreshing.

        We tend to take the green for granted, so anything different is a marvel. And I can’t imagine mountains not being a wondrous marvel for anyone. But it takes all types to make the world go round.

        I doubt I could adapt (or would want to adapt) to what I view now as degenerate city life. Cities themselves are wonderful as cultural centers, entertainment centers, and just the sheer architectural footprint of the urban behemoths. But so much of city life now is predicated on the bizarre, the unreal, and the immoral. I know I may sound like a prude, but have you been to Seattle lately? What a wasteland of socialist/Marxist freaks, beggars, anarchists, and you name it. When things get rough, this will be the Northwest’s version of Baltimore. Seattle will burn as it did before in the WTO riots to a minor degree.

        I think your story about the boy afraid to climb a tree house might be interesting. But my instinct is that boys everywhere would take to a treehouse like a duck would to water.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Yes, I’ve heard the same stories about tribes who have lived only in the Amazon jungle who had never seen any distance further than the next tree or so. Apparently when taken to an open space or high building, they thought people in the distance were ants.

          I’m not sure how much truth is in those stories.

          I think this type of reaction is a result of more than simply growing up in a particular physical environment. No doubt the fact that Amazonian tribes are primitives, some stone-age types, has much to do with the reaction.

          Lack of contact with other cultures may have something to do with it as well.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            From what I remember, Mr. Kung, it was attributed, at least partially, to the lack of cognitive development of spatial depth. I think it’s been shown that babies, for instance, have to learn step by step that the ball further away is not actually smaller.

            I’m a bit suspicious of these kinds of tales because natives are notorious for making fools of the white man (Margaret Mead) and telling him stories he wants to hear or simply pulling the white man’s gullible leg. I would think any tribe living in dense jungle — particularly as often as they climb trees in their hunting and gathering — would have advanced depth perception.

            Yes, culturally, never having seen a distant stone or metal bridge, they might think it a twig. An understandable error of extrapolating from the known to the unknown.

            Funny thing is, we conservatives likely share a much more sympathetic and similar worldview to a tribe in the Amazon than we do with cultural Leftists who believe all sorts of strange things; who see, for instance, thugs looting and ascribe it to “white privilege” or something of the sort; who see icebergs melting (as they have always done) and declare a Chicken Little emergency.

            Let us tread, as I’m sure you do, gently around the cultural peculiarities of the Amazon tribe, for they have nothing on the Leftist tribe with its bizarre habits — even down to various types of scarification and mutilation of the body.

            • Anniel says:

              Brad, Kittens that are only allowed to see vertical stripes for the first month of their lives cannot see horizontal lines thereafter, and vice versa. Grisly experiments had been done to test neurological changes in vision when animals are very young.

              There is a true story about a young boy, blind at birth, who was born in the Ozarks. When he was in his teens his family moved to the city, and doctors gave him vision by removing congenital cataracts. His brain was apparently past the stage where he could develop the brain centers necessary for sight, so the light hurt, he vomited non-stop, lost his sense of balance and could not walk anymore. Adjustment was impossible. After all attempts to help him failed he finally had to be blinded again.

              That story made me reflect on Jesus’ miracles and how much more profound they are than we assume. I mean doctors don’t tell us to “pick up our beds and walk.” they operate and/or send us for intense physical therapy in order to be healed.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                That last point is a very good one. Of course, in Henry the Sixth Part Two there is a nice counter-example of the problem of miracle cures.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                I believe that such cases are also mentioned in the various books by Dr. Oliver Sacks. Indeed, it would appear that language itself is one of those things that we are primed to pick up when we are young. But if we don’t (for reasons such as being a “wild child,” for instance…you might appreciate the astonishing book, Savage Girls and Wild boys), it is apparently then very difficult to then pick up a language. Conversely, apparently it is relatively easy for children to pick up a second language.

                Still, I think it’s best to have some sense of skepticism towards various claims. Dr. Sacks seems a reliable source. But the world has often run off half-cocked upon hearing what it wanted to hear, or has interpreted things that are indeed strange and unexpected, but misdiagnosing the cause.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I remember reading that John Stuart Mill had learned Greek and Lain at a very early age. This sounds very impressive until you learn that this is the age at which children naturally pick up any language they encounter sufficiently. With all the years I studied French in school, I never achieved true fluency — but then, I started in the 4th grade, too late for that.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Anniel,

    Keep the tales coming. It is good to have these things recorded for future generations as much which you describe is unimaginable for many younger people.

    How many could even begin to imagine people such as Tony’s mother exist?

    • Anniel says:

      Tony’s mother led a very interesting life, especially for a native woman of her time. Many native elders are now trying to save their villages, languages and culture by making sure no teacher encourages the children to leave for any reason, even for education. Teachers have been fired for teaching too well. The politics between Eskimos, Indians, Aleuts and whites is a real problem. I like to think about the very sweet and kind people I have met and loved.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Teachers have been fired for teaching too well. The politics between Eskimos, Indians, Aleuts and whites is a real problem.

        I’m not sure what kind of eduction is being offered to them. If they are resisting the gunk of liberal culture, I commend them. If they are resisting being made into just another variety of homo economicus (another cog in the mindless consumer/materialist machine), then I commend them again. But one wonders if there is a bit of racial-based separatism which would not be particularly flattering in regards to their motive to keep their children separate.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          There may be cultural aspects as well, depending on who it is who punishes good teachers. A friend of mine teaches history at Laredo Junior College (well, he was teaching until diabetes caught up with him; I think this was his last school year, if he could complete it), and he has reported on the problem of poorly educated Mexican-American students. Peons need little education in their culture.

        • Anniel says:

          There is a reason for all the drinking, glue-sniffing and illegitimacy rates and violence in Bush villages. For many villages there is simply no economic viability to their way of life and they are totally welfare dependent. They talk of their aboriginal “subsistence” lifestyle, all the while getting modern tools to live pretty well.

          We have a friend who for many years taught school on St. Lawrence Island. One autumn her husband was out preparing their children’s bicycles for winter storage. A neighbor asked him why he was doing that when he could just get new bicycles from the government in the spring.

          The liberals who create this lifestyle like to keep the natives living in a zoo. Sallie Jewel visited some Interior villages, smiling at one and all, patting them on the head and promising the moon. Villagers thought she really loved them and presented her with gifts when she left. Back in D.C. during a speech she told of the ghastly things they had given her, including canned salmon, that she had to throw away. To her the gifts were an insult. Her words really hurt the people who had tried their best to thank her. Oh well, just keep them in their place.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            This reminds me of the story of a politician visiting an Indian reservation village. He gave a speech making all sorts of promises, and was especially encouraged by their enthusiastic calls of “Hoya! Hoya!” Then, at the end of his visit, he had to cross a cow pastur to get to his car (following the road was much longer) and was advised that it would be perfectly safe as long as he didn’t step in the hoya.

            • Anniel says:

              Sallie Jewel must have felt like she had stepped in the “Hoya” as she tried to talk her way out of that one. I was taken “out of context,” and “misunderstood.” All the regular Hoya.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            As if living in zoo. You betcha. That perfectly describes the goody-goody, we-know-best, condescending caretaker attitude. And it shows that such people as the Eskimos (or blacks, or whomever) are there as mere props. Their function is to show people how damn much you care.

            Predatory compassion. Too bad George Bush labeled his “compassionate conservatism” and befuddled things even more.

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