Saturday, November 9, 2013

More Adventures in Alaskaland

The other day, after posting about my time in Alaska, I realized there was more--much more.  Rather than make Thursday's blog post Alaskan-sized, I decided to cut the journal entries in two.  Here are some random journal entries from the second half of my tour of duty in Alaska with the 6th Infantry Division (Light) in the early 1990s.

* * *

Jan. 26, 1993:  This past week has been ultra-cold here in Fairbanks.  I think it's even gotten as low as -50.  I don't know for sure because our thermometer stops at -40 and because it's mounted just outside our kitchen window, it records some of the heat generated by our house and so the mercury has been permanently stuck at a steady half-inch of red showing along the scale.  Nonetheless, when I step outside, the skin on my face is seared by the cold, a cold so foreign I feel like I'm on an alien planet.  The only reality these days is inside our homes which pulsate with heat and bodies and voices.  No one speaks outside.  It's hard enough breathing.  The ice fog hangs heavy around town--the gas fumes, laundry chutes, steam plants, chimneys and the 20,000 breaths of people and animals are broken into particles and condensed into a dense white cloud that is practically impossible to see through while driving.

Breathing: it's like the difference between drinking water through a straw and pulling a milkshake through a straw.  One beauty of these sub-zero, sub-human temperatures is the trees.  There is not a breath of wind here and the frost on the branches makes them stand out in sharp relief like a paper doily.  Like ghosts through the ice fog, the birches and pines seem as delicate as snowflakes.

* * *

March 9, 1993:  Two days ago, we all drove out to Chena Hot Springs.  The kids complained about the long drive and I got irritated that they couldn't appreciate the beauty of the snow, the ravens, the broken, snow-heavy branches, the mountains pushing in closer to the road.  All they cared about was the here and now, let's do something, hurry, hurry, hurry.  I know they just need to get out of the house more often.

At the pool, there were men with long hair, ladies with unshaved armpits and one young boy with a nosebleed.

* * *

March 18, 1993: Tonight, after coming out to my van in the visitor's parking lot at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, I discovered someone had put a half-eaten cookie under my windshield wiper.  I started thinking about the person who had studied my car, then in full view of everyone, raised my wiper and stuck the chocolate chip cookie against the glass like a parking ticket.

* * *

May 22, 1993: We're at Hess Creek (mile 24) along the Dalton Highway.  The road is slippery with rocks.  All along, it's been lined with alders and dwarf willows which are coated with dust from the passing semi-trucks.  Tires, chains, plastic bags litter the ditch along the Dalton.

Earlier, along the Elliot Highway, we passed a hand-painted sign: "Joy, Alaska" at the head of a dirt driveway in front of a battered trailer and a pine-board general store, which according to the Milepost, started out as a lemonade stand run by the family's two little girls.  Along the Elliot and Dalton Highways, we played Barry Manilow tapes.

Later: we made it as far north as the Yukon River Bridge (the longest span across the river).  When we hit the bridge and the muddy slow swirl was beneath us, I said, "There's the Yukon River, boys."

"That's a river?" Deighton said.  "I thought it was a lake!"

"I thought it was an ocean!" said Schuyler.

We'd planned to camp at either Hess Creek or along the Yukon, but the air was too sharp with cold; our hands stung after only a few minutes outside.  So we came all the way back down to Whitefish campground, along the Lower Chatanika River.

We weren't here 10 minutes (at an ideal grassy spot among the trees) before a guy wearing (a 6th ID star patch on his shoulder) drove past with his window rolled down.  "I'd keep your kids close," he said.  "I just saw fresh bear tracks about 100 yards back."

Immediately, the power of suggestion started suggesting things.  But we made it through the night without any interruption.  Nonetheless, I rehearsed with the kids what to do in case we saw a bear.  "If I wake you up at night and say there's a bear right outside our tent, don't make a noise.  Your voices would sound like a rabbit or a little squirrel and he'd tear right into our tent."

"I'd freeze," vowed Schuyler.  "I wouldn't move one muscle."

Later, Deighton and I walked the muddy bank but didn't see any bear tracks, just the prints from a large dog.  We both agreed the guy in the car had been trying to scare us.

* * *

June 20, 1993:  We've been camping at Williwaw Creek (2 miles west of Portage Glacier) since yesterday.  We got a perfect site among the pine trees, mossy roots and large-leafed ferns and cowsnip parsley.  Fifty feet away is the creek, glacial and gray, yet clear, blurring the rocks in the current and bluing slightly in the waist-deep pools along the banks, where we can see the roots suspended in mid-water and even the bright green moss on the inside curve of the thigh-shaped roots.

Went to Indian Creek.  Tried to fish, lost two flies and no sign of fish.  Gave up and we all waited for the bore tide (a great hissing and roaring wave up to six feet high) to come in as the tourist brochures had promised.  The daily tide table said 4:47 p.m., plus or minus 30 minutes.   Jean sat and read a book.   The kids threw rocks into the mud flats.  I counted the minutes.  Five o'clock passed.  Finally, Jean closed her book and said with a sigh, "Now I know why they call it a BORE tide!"

* * *

Feb. 22, 1994:  Saw the aurora when returning home from class last night.  As I drove down the Steese Highway, it arced over my head like a rainbow.  It's so hard to compare the northern lights to anything, to find the right metaphorical language.  I want to say it's like a curtain, transparent and shimmering because someone backstage has bumped it slightly and it now it will continue to wave airily back and forth on its folds for a long time, maybe it's caught in the invisible current of a backstage fan.  Then I think the aurora borealis is like a giant green S, a great calligraphic letter painted in watercolors and someone has accidentally tipped over a glass of grape juice and now the S is bleeding across the darkening page.

* * *

April 3, 1994:  Easter Sunday.  Took Jean and the kids to Chatanika Lodge for the buffet and Easter egg hunt.  Every inch of wall in that place is covered with taxidermy.  Bobcat heads, antelope heads, coyote heads, white ptarmigans in a glass case, a wolverine skin.  And Christmas lights!  Christmas lights everywhere.  The wiring is so intricately woven among the taxidermy, they leave the little colored lights up all year round.  The bison above our table had red lights in its eye sockets and up its nostrils.

* * *

April 27, 1994:  The first day of fishing this season.  We in the military had a federal holiday today, declared by President Clinton to honor the memory of President Nixon who died last Friday and is to be buried today.  So, in honor of Tricky Dick and in keeping with the spirit of WATERgate, Captain Phillips, Master Sergeant Kuhns, Major Rheinlander and I went to Piledriver Slough.  We went at an hour when even the fish are still asleep--5:30 a.m.

I guess they never woke up.

We saw a few rings from their small, quiet rises but no strikes and no vigorous activity.  I wore the pair of old rubber chest waders I'd bought from a friend three years ago.  That slow small leak just below the left knee never really bothered me until today when I stepped into 20-degree water.  I wasn't ten feet from shore, fifteen seconds in the water, when it started to feel like I was walking across a bed of cold nails.  Within twenty minutes, the numbness was climbing my leg along my sciatic nerve.  I dragged myself from the water, thinking, "That was close--another five casts and my heart would have stopped."  I sat on the bank and wrung out my left sock.  We drove to another spot along the slough where the snow was still hanging in big sheets along the banks.  The captain loaned me a pair of neoprene waders and I stepped into the water.  My foot didn't take on any more water, but the damage had already been done and now this subzero water was really going to work on my foot.  I stood out there knee-deep in the slough for nearly half an hour.  I could hear the snow separating from the shoreline.  It made a crunching sound, as if a moose was walking along the banks, breaking through the crust.  Once, a sheet of slushy ice the size of my kitchen table slid into the water with a hiss and floated over to me and knocked me in the knees.  When I climbed out of the slough, scrambling to mount the melting snowbank, I really felt the cold set in.  I could actually hear the bones in my ankles crunching as I walked back to the car.

* * *

July 22, 1994:  Left Fairbanks today, headed for the Great Hot Unknown of El Paso, Texas.  It was emotionally turbulent leaving Fairbanks.  Though at first, two-and-a-half years ago, I couldn't imagine ever loving this place with its flat, treeless geography, I did grow attached to it and it became a part of me.  It's not the prettiest place in Alaska, but it's one of those that easily slips into the function of the comfort of home.  I always breathed easier when we came up the Parks Highway, rounded the bend past Ester and there, spread out on the valley floor in front of us, was the bright white buildings of the campus and, farther east, the smokestacks of the Ft. Wainwright power plant.  I doubt I could have lived here forever, but it sure was nice for the moment.

And now we're driving down the Alaska Highway, the state is rolling back behind us.  With every bounce of the road's frost heaves, it seems Alaska just doesn't want to let us go.

We're passing through taiga forests dotted with hundreds of lush green-blue ponds.  Jean and I turn to the kids and chant: "Lions and taigas and bears--oh my!"

If you're in Anchorage, I'd love to see you tonight at the Great Harvest Bread Company (570 E. Benson Blvd.).  That's where I'll be reading from Fobbit, starting at 7 p.m., courtesy of the good folks at the 49 Writers Center.

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