Sooner or later, ever ardent outdoorsman wonders what it would be like to live in Alaska. The attractions are obvious: the best big-game hunting and some of the best fishing, both freshwater and salt, left in North America. But the imagined detractions are equally powerful. Climate aside (and the oldtimers did not call it Seward's Icebox just for fun), what would the year-round outdoorsman, however ardent, do for kicks when he wasn't clouting brown bear, moose and mountain sheep with his trusty .338 or cranking in salmon, steelhead and Arctic char on his featherweight fly rod? It is one thing to love the raw, bleak beauty of a hunting ground as a visitor, to prefer the babble of a trout stream to the gabble of a cocktail party when you hear the former only a few times a year. It could be something else to live permanently in the middle of a strong, silent, impartially murderous gamescape where everything either bites or freezes.
As good a place as any for the cheechako (Alaskan for tenderfoot) to check out his adaptability to the sourdough life is the logging-and-fishing village of Yakutat (pop. 531, including bears), situated about midway up the Gulf of Alaska coast between Juneau and Anchorage. Tucked away beneath the frosty brow of Mount St. Elias, hemmed in by brooding glaciers and dense forests, fronting on the North Pacific whose swells roll in uninterrupted all the way from Japan, Yakutat is as remote as any 19th century American frontier outpost. The only access is by ship (infrequent at best) and plane (Alaska Airlines flies in every day, fog permitting, which all too frequently it does not). No television, no movie theater, no McDonald's—why, when a young couple wants to go sparking of an evening in Yakutat, they drive to the local dump and park, drive-in-movie fashion, to watch the brown bears grubbing through the garbage. Aha, thinks the cheechako, this is it!
We shall see. This particular visit to Yakutat was supposed to include a float trip down the Situk River at the height of the fall coho salmon run. We would catch silvers by the score, kick bears off the sandbars to get at the better hot spots, watch wolves and eagles and otters at play along the sunny banks. Everything the ardent outdoorsman imagines in his Alaskan pipe dreams would be at our disposal. As it developed, a one-day downpour laid nearly eight inches of rain on Yakutat just before our arrival, turning the Situk into a murky torrent unnavigable even by salmon. Thus our introduction to sourdough life was a wet one, both externally and internally. It became, in effect, a float trip down the Alaskan psyche. Along the way, we got to know Yakutat.
Yakutat is nothing like Skagway during the gold rush, nor is it anything like what Valdez will be once the pipeline starts pumping. Yakutat is nowhere near as big as Ketchikan, which has 18 bars and 20 churches, and nowhere near as tough as Kodiak. (When the king crabbers come in and congregate at Solly's, there is no town in the world as tough as Kodiak.) Practically every town in Alaska has its own character, except for Anchorage, which is really an upward extension of the lower 48, kind of a San Diego on the rocks.
All you have to do is look at the rain forest surrounding Yakutat—a coniferous jungle of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, alder and willow, cottonwood, red cedar and Alaskan cypress—to realize that this is not Seward's Icebox. Further investigation confirms the judgment. For all of 200 days a year, Yakutat is frost-free. Thanks to the midnight sun, the mean July air temperature is a relatively tropical 55°, and the year-round average an amazing 36°. This despite the fact that the region receives an annual downpour of 133 inches, fully 100 falling from September through April, in the form of sleet, snow and icy rain. Though Yakutat is surrounded by some of North America's largest remaining glaciers—like the glowering, 1,500-square-mile Malaspina and the hulking blue Hubbard, whose falling bergs punctuate dawn and sunset with awesome roars—the stabilizing and warming presence of the Gulf of Alaska, just outside Yakutat's front door, keeps the weather temperate. "If you're really stupid, you can die of the cold up here," says one of the locals, "but it's unlikely that you'll freeze stiff."
Yes, indeed. The difference on the thermometer between freezing (32°) and fine fettle (98.6°) is great enough to permit a limp death by hypothermia. Any cheechako who forgets his slicker when he goes out duck hunting on the wind-whipped flats of Yakutat, or salmon fishing on the fast, brown streams below the glaciers, learns the difference soon enough. Continued exposure at 40 above can kill you just as dead as 40 below. The only advantage is that the bears who clean up your carcass won't blunt their teeth on frozen meat.
So that's the outside—warm enough if you keep your rain gear zipped and your wits about you. Inside, it is warmer still. The social center of Yakutat is the Glacier Bear Lodge, a tidy motel-cum-restaurant-cum-saloon opened in late 1973 by Doug Ross, the town's leading lumberman. If you have to come in from the cold, Glacier Bear is as good a place as any. The lodge is named for Yakutat's finest hunting trophy, a rare, gun-metal-blue variation of the common black bear (Euarctos americanus) that is found in the chilly glacial moraines between Yakutat and Glacier Bay, 150 miles to the southeast. Ross has two of the beasts mounted in the round. They dominate the snug, pine-paneled lodge and, viewed through a haze of whiskey-colored light haloed by tobacco smoke, with the electric music pumping out of the juke, they seem to be posing for clothing ads. But their tailor is Jonas Brothers, not Brooks Brothers. On the walls flanking them are nailed the hides of another glacier bear and a big brown bear, a close relative of the grizzly (Ursus horribilis), complete with heads, jaws agape.
Like the Tlingit Indians who occupied Yakutat before them, the locals respect and revere the brown bear. Very few are killed by hunters, since the people of Yakutat look upon them as company of a kind—it's a real thrill to be walking out to the garbage can and find a tall, brown, shaggy visitor there before you. You either stop stock still or run for the nearest tree. Yet no one in Yakutat seems to bear any malice toward the bears. When they destroy an expensive set of garbage cans, the locals merely shrug and buy a new set.
One recalls the old tales of miners during the gold rush, men beset by cabin fever, who welcomed the arrival of wolves, bears and wolverines to their cabins—anything for a little excitement. Here, perhaps, is a whole town infected with cabin fever....
It is nowhere near freezing out there, maybe 42° at the coldest, yet coming in from the hard, steady west wind thick with rain we are shaking like Sam McGeejust before they touched off the pyre. Bobby Fraker heads straight for the coffeepot.
"How'd you do?" asks Maggie Brown from her favorite seat just under the head of the brown-bear skin. She is drinking coffee with Kahlua in it.
"We got wetter'n we got ducks," says Bobby.
Bobby's dad, old Bill Fraker, comes out of the kitchen. He walks with that bounce you see on the feisty little dogs they run after the bears up here, coming up on the balls of his feet, elbows out, shoulders swinging. He rubs his hands on the apron and smiles his tan smile.
"You dummy," he says to his son, not without affection. "I told you to take along those slickers. I told you to take along that thermos of coffee. Sunny this morning, sleet this afternoon. So you didn't get no ducks or geese, you only got cold, you dummy."
That is Bill Fraker's favorite form of address. He uses it the way other men use the word "pal." He is small and wiry, with a great gift of gab, and he does not care what anyone thinks of him. He thinks enough of himself to get away with it. If not, he is ready to fight you. He is 55 years old and counting.
"I didn't say that we didn't get nothing," says Bobby, gritting his teeth against the shivers. "We got some birds. But we got darn wet, too." It is hard to tell which was making him shake worse, the soaking or his father.
"Where was you?"
"Up on the Ahrnklin. There was plenty of birds, but we couldn't get close to them. When you came up on them, even behind the brush, they spooked on out of there before you got into range. I got two geese and he got six ducks. Teal and sawbills."
Maggie gets up and walks over to the bar for another sweetening of Kahlua. She is a tall, rawboned blonde, with hands as big and hard as a man's, and a voice that has earned her the nickname "Maude." She is 53, born in Cloverdale, Ore. and came to Alaska in 1961. "I toured, first Ketchikan, then Petersburg, Juneau, Sitka, most of the Southeast," she said. "Came to Yakutat two months ago. Since then I've been in a car wreck and fell through the kitchen floor, plus a guy who was snitching booze out of the cold room Sunday-punched me." Maggie is the lodge's chief cook and bottle washer, an excellent performer in the kitchen whose hard-boiled, hash-house-waitress conversational style belies her talent as a cook, particularly when she is working with the fresh bay scallops for which the lodge is justly famous.
It is Friday evening, the start of the magic weekend. Down in the lower, softer America, where most people work indoors, the concept of The Weekend as a bacchanalian blowout—a wild, alcoholic, hard-knuckled outburst against the rigors of the work week—has faded in recent years. Not so in Yakutat. These people have spent five mean days hauling salmon nets from the glacial water or wielding chain saws in the dripping, moss-floored forest. They have been out there among the seals and wolves and bears, the silence and the wet. What they want now is music and wine—the madder and stronger the better—and plenty of people around them.
Fortunately for this weekend's prospects, the fog had lifted just long enough for The Music to fly in from Anchorage. The Music is so important an element to the weekend that there is no need for the people of Yakutat to elaborate the concept any further. In this case, it is a country-and-Western singer named Nancy Lee and her two sidemen. Nancy Lee is a plump prima donna, easily given to piques of foot-stamping and tears. (Nothing ever goes right for celebrities.) Her sidemen, it seems, are certifiably blind, though the taller, fatter one apparently has some residual vision, shadows and shapes perhaps. It is curious to watch him leading the shorter, blonder one around the lodge compound. They are both young and jolly, and whenever they fall off the porch into the icy mud or crash into one of the mossy stumps that surround the lodge, they laugh heartily. Between sets they drink a lot and tell jokes that set the room roaring. The music itself is pretty good—Nancy Lee has a hard, whiny voice that cuts some of the syrup from the country lyrics, and the blind boys have nimble fingers.
In the "stronger wine" department, Stan Rowsey is the chief innovator. A driver of dump trucks and road graders for the State Highway Department during the week, Rowsey comes into his own as an alchemist of alcoholic beverages during the weekend. "You get bored drinking just whiskey or beer," he says. "Why not play around with the ingredients?"
With Bobby Fraker performing the mixing honors behind the bar, Stan orders up round after round of his favorites. The subtly destructive White Cadillac (Galliano and cream) is, in Rowsey's phrase, "the baddest good drink going—it makes you fatter and drunker and sicker than anything imaginable, except maybe a cod-liver oil and kerosene cocktail, and it's so expensive that only an idiot would order more than one."
Then there is the Black Irishman (cr√®me de menthe and cr√®me de cacao), prescribed for those pauses in a long, hard night of drinking when remorse sets in: "Order a Black Irishman and you'll get the conversation moving again, and maybe even a fistfight."
And finally the Rowsey masterpiece, the so-called Red Brick. A blood-red concoction of vodka, tequila and sloe gin, topped with a cherry and a slice of lime, it looks good but tastes dreadful. "That's the beauty of it," says Randy Burbridge, another bearded wildman who is Rowsey's partner in destructive potables. "You think it's going to be one of those sneaky-sweet lady's drinks, you take a big swallow, and pow!"
"Yeah," says Dale Firestack. "The people up here have strange ways of amusing themselves." At the age of 47, Dale is Yakutat's top bush pilot. He flew in 17 years earlier on a chance mission, up from Washington state, and never left. "I'd just gotten divorced," he says, "and the only thing I owned was my airplane. When I landed here, a guy asked me to fly him up to Dry Bay—he'd pay me well for the job. 'Where's Dry Bay?' I asked him. 'Don't worry,' he said, 'you fly and I'll show you.' It was money in my hot little hand, so I did it. After that the jobs came in so thick and fast that I've never been able to get back down south to Washington." Small, wiry, gray and scarred from many minor crashes, Dale is currently married for a third time, to a warm and lovely schoolteacher named Betty, and between them they have 10 children.
"Strange ways of amusement," chuckles Betty. "A couple of winters ago, the highway guys pushed all their snow—from the plows, you know—into a big hill right near our house. It must have been nearly 200 feet high, and the bank running up it was probably 75 degrees steep. All of these yahoos had to see if they could run their snowmobiles over it. Everyone in town turned out. The more they ran up it, the tougher and twistier it got, with new angles and alleys developing as the snow was compressed into ice. Some of the guys made it over, but poor Homer Ogle. Remember that, honey? His snow machine flipped right back over on top of him. Cracked a few ribs. I guess he was lucky."
Doug Ross ambles up to the bar. Under his checked cap, cocked back on his high forehead, and his loose woolen lumberjack's shirt, his long face and sloping shoulders give a definite ursine impression; he is as harmless a bear as those whose hides adorn his establishment. Doug is worried about the fishing. Only four salmon in as many days. He wants his customers to be happy. Maybe by tomorrow the weather will be better.
"Let's go outside and take a look," he says.
We walk out the front door and stand at the edge of the snag heaps. Fog swirls and snakes around the lights in the parking lot while Doug stares upward at a sky that cannot be more than two feet over his head. Inside The Music pulses madly and we hear the raucous laughter of Rowsey and Burbridge, inventing new drinks, no doubt. That, thinks the cheechako, is the true Call of the Wild.
"Yep," says Ross finally. "It'll be clear tomorrow. I'll send you out with someone who'll get you into fish."
A likely story....
By the following morning, wonder of wonders, the weather had cleared. Walking out of the lodge, one could see the whole fanged horizon—a world rimmed by mountains almost Himalayan in their thrust and gleam. The great blue glaciers actually seemed to be moving, and it was suddenly easy to see why the early Germans, observing similar phenomena in the Alps, called them eisw√ºrmer—ice dragons. Even the heretofore glowering, moss-hung forest and the tangled snag heaps surrounding the lodge wore an aura of animation.
"The river should be down now," says Roy Bowman as he bounces his Datsun pickup over the gravel road toward the Nine-Mile Bridge of the Situk River. "Salmon should be up and eager to hit." Bowman, the accountant who plays Johnny Inkslinger to Doug Ross' Bunyan, is a mild-mannered, bespectacled little sourdough who lives for salmon and steelhead fishing. He is, in the local vernacular, an "egg fisherman," eschewing artificial lures to go after his prey with gobs of sticky salmon spawn. The technique worked well enough two springs earlier to procure him a 17-pound steelhead and a congratulatory "trophy plaque" from the Alaska Fish and Game Department. It hangs in a place of honor in the lodge, beside the coffeepot.
The Situk was indeed down, a good two feet lower than the previous day's level, and looking from the bridge into the fast, brassy water one could see the dark, leg-long shapes of the cohoes holding in the faster riffles and in the strong currents that undercut the bank. Trouble was, the Dolly Vardens and cutthroat trout were there, too. No sooner would Bowman flip his weighted spawn sack into the stream, hoping to drift it under the bent noses of the waiting salmon, than a pursuit squadron of egg-hungry trout would appear and rip the offering to bits. A heavy, No. 4, orange-bladed Mepps spinner worked better, but the salmon it caught proved a bit too dark to keep. The longer that salmon have been in the fresh water on their spawning run, the darker, softer and weaker they get, thus the less desirable both for sport and eating. This one went back into the river to complete its biological mission, as did three more hooked later that morning during a hike upstream. Not so the predatory trout that we caught. "They smoke up real good," said Bowman, "and the river's got too danged many of 'em to begin with." They were hefty trout, averaging nearly a pound, with one cutthroat measuring almost two feet—obviously well-fed fish, feasting now on salmon spawn and later in the year on the tiny salmon alevins as they emerged from the redds.
Still, it had been a disappointing morning. Where were the great schools of salmon fresh in from the sea, their sides gleaming silver and studded with sea lice? The strong, reel-busting, line-popping newcomers that would justify a trip to this wild end of the world?
"I'll take you to 'em," said Bill Fraker that noon, back at the lodge. "You dumb cheechakos gotta be took by the hand and led right up to them salmon, don't you? Well, that's where I'll take ya." And he did.
The day was still bright as Fraker ran his 16-foot skiff at full speed up Tawah Creek. It was a narrow, shallow meander of mixed tidal and fresh water, its banks open muskegs in which grew marsh marigold and bog rosemary, Alaska iris and Labrador tea. Bald eagles perched vulturelike in the few spruce and hemlocks along the bank. Out of every deep hole flushed schools of salmon—above the bridge where we put in, at first, just small groups, but as we progressed farther upstream it seemed that at our approach the whole stream bed got up and moved, a roiling, black-and-silver convulsion.
"Didn't I tell ya?" cackled Fraker, his stained slouch hat pulled down tight above his beady blue eyes. "Didn't I tell ya, ya dumb cheechakos? Haw, haw, haw!"
We stopped two miles upstream and began the drift back down to the truck. The tide was ebbing now, and the boat moved fast through the pools. These fish were no easy marks—it took a long line to avoid spooking them and the rod held high to keep them from hanging up in the bankside snags or simply cleaning the spool with a steady, uncheckable run around the next bend—but in the first four casts, four salmon hooked up and three were boated. These were bright fish—silvery still, finely speckled, with plump, full flanks that heaved powerfully. They were jumpers, as were the rest we caught that afternoon, a total of 12 fine fish. Jumpers, runners, thrashers, boilers, greyhounding up and down the narrow stream that seemed far too small for so strong and large a fish.
Since we had no landing net and were using eight-pound line, it was often necessary to jump out of the boat while fighting a fish and ease it ashore onto the grassy margin of the bank. None of these fish weighed less than 10 pounds, and the biggest ran to 16, so we lost quite a few at the boat or along the bank. But no one was keeping count—there was no time to count, only to cast, rear back to set the hook, then start the frantic salmon ballet over thwarts and tackle boxes to the tune of a screaming drag, trying to keep the lines clear of snags and one another, with the skiff meanwhile drifting fast downstream through the bends, hanging up now and then on a gravel bar or a sawyer, the fish of the moment finally rolling, a silver flash close at hand, surging away again, then finally into the boat, thumping like a mad drummer as Fraker clubbed it to death.
It was as fast and furious an hour of sport as any light-tackle angler could wish, and it more than made up for the days of waiting out the weather, the drenchings of both rain and booze that constitute the price of admission to Alaska's silver salmon mine. When we got back to the truck, the weather had settled in again. A low, wet, soggy sky had replaced the topless blue of the morning. There was rain on the wind, just a misty edge of it, and the gleaming ice dragons had retreated to their foggy lair.
Wheeling into the gravel yard surrounding Glacier Bear Lodge, the cheechako noticed for the first time that the building had no windows. And simultaneously he realized why. Living in a land as bleak and strong as this, lashed by fierce weather and lashing out at the land's creatures to earn a living, is too intense an experience to be endured full time. Windows would only let that land look in on men and remind them that they would have to go out into it again quite soon. Fraker yanked open the door to the lodge and flashed his wolfman grin into the warm, smoky dark.
"Hey, you dummies!" he yelled. "Come on out here and take a look at these minnows we caught!"
The Music blared. Glasses tinkled and bottles chugged. Not a reveler moved from his bar stool. Maggie Brown gestured with her Kahlua bottle: "C'mon in, the weather's fine!"