From The Arctic To Denali National Park

We hung out in Kotzebue (see previous post) in the arctic for the next day, hoping the smoke would clear so we could fly out to the Brooks Range. No luck. Working in the the hangar shed of our bush pilot was his son, doing whatever needed done: answering the phone, picking up customers in the battered Suburban, and more importantly, monitoring the radio network, the lifeline that connects bush pilots to small villages and outposts all over the western Alaskan arctic. Half Inupiat, half white, he’d been flying since he was twelve. Now fifteen, he was totally comfortable setting a little Piper Cub down on and taking off from a river gravel bar anywhere in the bush. By his estimation, he already had over a thousand hours of air time and hundreds of landings and take-offs under his belt. I asked him about a story I’d read about a Piper Cub in the Alaskan arctic that had its fabric flying surfaces shredded by a grizzly while the bush pilot was hunting. The story was that he’d repaired the plane with duct tape and flew out successfully. “Yeah, that story is true….that was my uncle.” He was waiting to turn sixteen so that he could (formally) get his pilot’s license. Sixteen is the age when you’re legally supposed to begin flying. Right. I told this young man (whose name will remain anonymous for obvious reasons), how lucky he was. “You’re going to be a bush pilot just like your dad, eh?” “Yeah…that’s what I’m gonna do”. “Ever think of doing anything else?” “Nope…” How’s school here in Kotzbue?” “Great.” “What’s your favorite class?” “P.E.” “What sports do you do?” “Cross-fit.” “Cross-fit?” “Cross-fit.” He was one of the most focused and relaxed kids I ‘d met in a while. I thought of all the teenagers back in California who where under great pressure and stressed-out by having to choose from about a million options what they were going to do with their lives. They need to be “successful”, whatever that is. This kid knew what he wanted. He was set. That was something I had not seen outside of places like Madagascar and Papua New Guinea – kids totally content with where their lives were going and unconcerned by the limited number of choices available to them. The kid was very low-key and soft spoken, but with a strong air of confidence in the way we’d observed other Inupiat were. If you offered him an all expense paid scholarship to Stanford, he wouldn’t take it. I say that because another woman in Kotzebue told us of her daughter who did have a full tuition/room and board scholarship to Stanford. I wondered what was in store for her.

Piper Cub Tundra Tires1

A Piper Cub in Kotzebue, above the Arctic Circle- ride of choice for many arctic bush pilots. Note the “tundra tires” – big and soft…”I can land on anything with those….” Many of these Pipers were bought still boxed as World War Two surplus. Seventy years on, they’re still flying strong. 

Flying back to Anchorage, we picked up the truck again and headed up the Parks highway towards Denali National Park. On the way we stayed at the Alaskan Host B&B in the hamlet of Willow. The Host is best be described as a place were sinful vegans might be sent as punishment in the afterlife. This place had a stuffed one of everything on the wall: a grizzly advanced from the corner of the living room. Dall sheep, moose, lynx, black bear, beaver, otter, ducks and jumbo sized salmon, pike and graying hung from every possible wall space. Jim and Kathy, the owners, were about as nice a folks as you’ll ever met. Jim was born in Morgan Hill, just south of what is now Silicon Valley. After World War II, his father, a machinist and restless veteran, read about homesteading in Alaska. One hundred and sixty acres. Free. All you had to do is clear part of the land and grow something “commercial”. Anything. He was sold. He bundled up Jim and the rest of their family, settling in the valley of the Susitna river about a hundred miles north of Anchorage. In the fifties, this was still pure wilderness (and it still mostly is…). Jim told us stories. “What about grizzlies?” “They won’t bother you unless you leave garbage around.” “But, one time a big moose came right up to the house…” Their dogs began harassing it. Before they could do anything, all thousand pounds of agitated ungulate crashed through their front-room window. Jim’s dad shot it before it could further advance towards his mom’s porcelain tea set.

In the morning, were were served, among other delicious things, moose sausage. It was fantastic. There is rarely an extended conversation among rural Alaskan locals that doesn’t include something about getting their moose. For Alaskan residents, it’s not too difficult to get a permit to take one moose a year, for many an economic necesssity. That moose will put hundreds of pounds of mild, lean, flavorful meat in your freezer – enough to feed a family of four for a year. If your neighbors didn’t get theirs, you shared yours. Moose steaks, moose ribs, sausage, burgers. You name it. Lean and healthy, with a complex flavor that speaks of the animal that browsed alder and birch and willow along pristine river lowlands. No feedlots here. You can’t buy moose in the stores, which is why we were glad Jim and Kathy graciously served us some of theirs.

Alaskan Host BB1

Jane and Jim discussing the finer points of the future of the Alaskan Bush. 

Next, on to Denali National Park….

Happy travels,

Bryan and Jane

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