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Photo of caribou near Toolik Lake in autumn, North Slope of Alaska (photo by Dale C. Slaughter)

                                         

SELECTIONS FROM PERMAFROST, A MEMOIR OF THE ARCTIC

Fairbanks 1977

 

The flight from Dulles was long and I was nervous.  What would Alaska be like?  Was it truly full of he-men and mountains?  Would there still be snow on the ground at the end of May?  We changed planes in Seattle. What a gorgeous place-all those islands and mountains and trees! Puget Sound glistened in the sunlight.  There was a huge snow capped mountain to the southeast that hovered over the city. I had never seen anything quite that big. That was Mt. Rainier, a dormant volcano.  Scientists have predicted it will blow sometime in the next 500 years or so. They still think so!

I fell asleep after we took off for an hour or so, then woke, looked out the window to see snow covered mountains and what I took to be glaciers as far as the eye could see. The pilot told us we’d see Mt. Baker and Mt. Wrangell. Finally, he announced, we were in Alaskan air space, having left Washington State and Canada behind.  Little towns glinted in the sun along the intricate coastline. But, something was missing.  Aha! It finally dawned on me-there were no roads connecting them. Christ, I thought, how bizarre is this? How do they get from place to place?

We landed in Anchorage maybe two hours later. It was still sunny and clear. Anchorage was surrounded by mountains-some snow covered (all the mountains to the west) and some not (most of the mountains to the east). The approach had been to the east, over the Chugach Range. To the north, you could just make out the Alaska Range and, could it be, was that Mt. McKinley?  I couldn’t tell because there were several peaks that were ALL humongous. To the west was what I would come to know as The Sleeping Lady, or Mt. Susitna, a mountain that to local Natives appeared to be a woman on her side. There was snow in the cracks and crevices, but she was not completely covered.  The mountain had soft, rounded edges that made her appear welcoming.  Indeed, Mt. Susitna is a welcome sight every time I fly into Anchorage. It means I’m home.

Last flight! We left Anchorage, heading north, directly into the Alaska Range. The pilot pointed out Mt. McKinley. People grabbed their cameras. I was dumbstruck as we flew past the highest peak in North America. Jezus! Glaciers flowed out of McKinley ever which way.  I knew people climbed this peak and that some never made it back. It was the unhappy duty of the National Park Service to either rescue climbers in trouble, or to bring bodies back to Talkeetna to be eventually reunited with loved ones thousands of miles away.  The scale of the mountain was breathtaking. I had heard that Mt. Everest was called the roof of the world, but I was certain I was seeing it now.

 All too soon, the land flattened out and we landed in Fairbanks, the “Golden Heart of the North,” an area of spruce forests and rolling hills. It was here that miners and pioneers came after the initial discovery of gold on the beach at Nome. As I waited to collect my gear, I tried to look cool, as if I’d been here a million times before. I looked around to see if there were any other obvious backpackers.  I felt alone.

I waited for my promised ride outside. My God, the air was clear. There was not a hint of pollution of any kind.  There was the sound of floatplanes taking off from the artificial lake next to the airstrip.  I had never seen one before. I found a quiet oasis of fir and aspen trees near the parking lot and began writing in my journal. I’m not good at journal writing-this may be the only day I actually wrote anything, but I had nothing better to do at the moment.

Then, there was a honk and a question, “are you here for the NPR-A survey?”  I looked up and responded, “Yes,” immediately.  A shortish bald guy with a big blond mustache and blue eyes hopped out of a beat up old (1940s?) faded green truck and ambled over to me. A cigarette was situated precariously between his lips. He wore a vest with many pockets, a torn chamois shirt and carhart jeans. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Dave Libby from UAF (University of Alaska-Fairbanks) “are you part of the NPRA tem?”   “Yes,” I yelled, quickly getting up and gathering my gear. “Well, hop in, I’ll give you a lift to the dorm.” Because I was the first to be picked up, I jumped in.  The door creaked as I opened and shut it. If other people joined us in the back, I don’t remember them. I was in a slight daze having flown so far and having seen so many oddities, Dave being one of them.  I finally asked, “What’s Alaska like? How will I feel at the end of this project?”  “Alaska is the Great Land. You’ll love it. You’ll have a good time, but you’ll look twenty years older.” Not what I wanted to hear….

On the short drive to campus, I rolled the window down and realized with some surprise, that I was actually hot. It must have been 80 degrees. Dave sensed my shock and told me that the temperature could get up to almost 100 degrees in July. I looked extremely puzzled.  “Think Montana or the Dakotas,” he said. “It’s a continental climate-really cold in the winter and really hot in the summer. But, where you’re going, it’s cold all the time.” “How cold?” I wanted to know. “well, it’ll be in the 30s and low 40s for the rest of this month and into July. Then, it may actually get warm-maybe hit 70 for a few days before the sun begins to set behind the mountains.  Then, it’ll get cold again. You’ll probably see snow again the end of August. And then there are the bugs. The mosquitoes will start flying around when the temperature hits 46 or so.  When it’s calm, they swarm all over you. You can’t get away from them. That’s when the wind is a relief. Of course, the wind makes you cold again. Add even a little rain shower to this and you’re cold, wet, and covered with bug bites.   Christ, I thought to myself, no wonder I’ll look 20 years older.

We drove up the west ridge of campus where the dorms and the USGS office are. He let me out at Bartlett hall, so named after an early Alaskan statesman.  It was plain, drab really. Post WWII “communist” architecture.  Of course there was no air conditioning.  There was a table with an exotic young 20ish woman behind it. She looked like a hold over from the 60s with her tie-dyed shirt, bell-bottoms, and kinky hair curling like a mass of vines out of her scalp-“kind of like Medusa,” I thought.  I gave her my name. She gave me a key. ‘You all are on the 7th floor,” she said, “and here, here’s a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.” A sleeping pad, I mused. I had had a sleeping bag in Girl Scouts, but had never heard of a sleeping pad. Now I had three things I had never considered owning-a Buck knife, rain pants and a sleeping pad.

I arrived at room 714 and unlocked the door. Stuffy didn’t begin to describe it.  I opened the window first thing.  I was the first in the room so I chose the bed nearest the window. There were no linens, so I became acquainted with my hollofill sleeping bag. It was a mummy bag that tapered to less than 12 inches at my feet.  Hmm, I thought, a little snug on a warm night like this.  The bag was also the brightest electric blue I had ever seen.  “Jeez, you could find this mother of a bag anywhere if it blew away, “I thought.  It was a color not known in nature.

I heard the key in the lock and turned around to meet my roommate, Chuck from Rhode Island.  I was not prepared to share a room with a guy but, “when in Rome,” I thought; “I guess things are not like back east, and I’m not in Kansas anymore. “ Chuck and I exchanged pleasantries. Chuck was married and in the doctoral program at Brown and a student of Doug Anderson’s, whom I greatly admired.  Chuck farted loudly, then took his somewhat clean handkerchief out of the pocket of his already dirty jeans and blew his nose loudly.   I hoped he didn’t snore. “What are we doing now,?” he asked no one in particular as he reached  into his knapsack and got our schedule out. “OK, we’re supposed to go to the cafeteria for dinner and meet everyone about 5.” It was now 4:30, so we ambled down the hallway scuffing up the already fading and cracked linoleum and took the elevator down. 

“The cafeteria is through the woods and down the hill here,” Chuck said. As we walked he told me he had been in Alaska a few times before and had worked on the pipeline just a couple of years ago. He proceeded to regale me with tales of his favorite site, Aniganigaruk, up in the Brooks Range kind of near where we were going, but to the east.  Little did I know that I would hear the same story over and over that summer until I wanted to seal Chuck’s mouth with duct tape and then rip it off when I’d had enough quiet time. I would hope to rip half of his beard in the process.

On our way through the woods, we met several “outdoorsy” types about my age (25) who were likely members of the NPR-A gang.  A lively conversation ensued with Lynn, Carol, Ted, and John.  Like me, they were all new to Alaska. Unlike me, they all had camping and archeological survey experience. I felt like an idiot.  At the long dinner table, my newfound friends, plus others that joined us-Marcia, Brian, Teresa, Ross and Max (a woman from Texas)-talked about the projects they had worked on, who they knew, who they had slept with and what schools they attended. The only thing I could offer was my experience in a field school south of London (where I had lived in a house and bought a shandy at the local pub for lunch everyday), that I had been lured to the Arctic by my first mentor, Bob Humphrey at George Washington University, and that I was going to study with Bill Laughlin at the University of Connecticut.  My intentions of going to UConn amazed and surprised people because they thought I meant “Yukon.” “No, on,” I said, “that’s UConn as in Connecticut.” I felt a pang as I said this. My parents still lived in Westchester County, but just as I was about to return from DC permanently to continue my graduate studies, they were retiring to Florida.  When I headed home at the end of the summer, they would be leaving for good.

I was looked on, or so I thought, as a poor little middle class girl from the big city back east (either New York or Washington, depending on which stage of my life I was describing) who would likely die in the wilderness due to lack of experience. I’d probably get hysterical at the first bear siting, they were thinking, I knew it. I would try to fire a shotgun and blow my foot off or crease someone’s head. I wouldn’t know an archaeological site from my ass, they were thinking.   Christ, had I made a mistake? I felt like a fish out of water. These vibrant people had so many things in common, and so many connections and experiences. I had two schools on the east coast and two advisors that weren’t Doug Anderson or any of the UAF faculty.

We spent that week practicing Arctic survival skills. First, however, Ray Bane, who had walked all over the North Slope, inspected our gear.  He found us woefully unprepared for the Arctic.  I only had a down vest. That was a mistake. I needed a parka. My boots, however, were adequate-Sorrells with felt boot liners that the insiders call ‘shoe packs.’  I only had one sweater and 2 shirts. Wrong! I had two pairs of khaki pants. Also wrong! I needed thick jeans that bugs couldn’t bite through. None of us had “bear protection,” or noisemaker. Ray made us cut walking sticks from the woods behind campus.  ”You’ll need these,” he said, “trust me.”  So, I watched as others wrestled with tree branches. At some point, Harvey offered to help me.  He knew I was a fish out of water and he had remembered me from DC. I thanked him profusely. “Now take your buck knife and shape the ends; take the bark off so you can grab one end easily and you can stick the other end in the ground.” I felt rather dumb, but got the hang of the knife and was relieved to see a few others struggling like I was.

To correct our manifold deficiencies, we next headed downtown in a rag tag caravan of various people’s cars, including Dave’s old truck. I opened the creaky door and hopped in.   The drive along College Road and the houses, cabins and shacks reminded me of Dog Patch. This part of Fairbanks was a hodge-podge of odd, hand built houses and a few cheesy businesses and restaurants, none of them charming. We crossed over the Chena River into downtown.

The Chena struck me as a large meandering river, intersecting the town at so many points that it was hard to get oriented.  Fairbanksans went in for flowers, I could see. There were tons of pansies, morning glories and forget-me-nots (the state flower) hanging in baskets from light poles and planted along the river. It reminded me of Switzerland in that respect, but only in that respect.

We parked on the street and headed for the Rexall drug store where most of us bought whistles, space blankets and fire starter kits. It was a big place with everything under the sun, including a soda fountain, and displays of “Pilot bread,” a hard tack and a staple in the bush, one that I would quickly grow to love.

Under Ray’s leadership, several of us walked down the street to Big Ray’s (no relationship) Army/Navy store to stock up on extra clothing. I bought a couple of flannel shirts, blue jeans, and extra socks (Harvey was fond of saying “You can’t have too many socks,” something I believe to this day.] Ray was advising a couple of people on buying new boots, an unintended and costly expense, I was sure.  We floated in and out of the two stores, with only a minimum of time to “tour” downtown. 

Second Avenue, I learned, was called “Two Street” by locals and consisted primarily of bars and drunks, both Native and non-Native.  People had a habit of making a ton of dough up on the Slope over a 2 week shift, then came ‘to town’ for a week-most of their earnings went up in smoke or went down the hatch as alcohol.  My favorite dive was Tommy’s Elbow Room, a dirty, dingy, grimy hole.  I stuck my head in and saw a couple of people sitting at the bar, stewed at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and sucking on Lucky straights, I think.    “Wow,” I thought, this is really the frontier, and the frontier has a seedy aspect to it. 

One night, we discovered the UAF “The Pub”.  This was the student hangout where beers were cheap as was the meat going into the hamburgers. It was everything a campus hideout should be-wood paneled, dark, with cigarette stains on the countertops, an old fashioned juke box at each table, and lots of booze behind the bar; some good, some not so good.  A bunch of us piled in there after a thrilling cafeteria dinner bent on drinks, beer nuts and pretzels. Most of my new friends were beer drinkers, so I figured, ‘what the heck,’ and ordered what most other people had-Coors beer, from Colorado.  It had a nice mellow taste. I could almost hear John Denver singing  “Rocky Mountain High” in the background. Then, I got into Olympia beer, fondly known as “Oly,” to the cognoscenti. By the time we had run out of  Coors, most of us were loaded.  It seems I always had to pee just about  the time discussions were getting interesting.  Alas, I missed contributing to the many intellectual conversations going on by being in the loo. 

It was pushing midnight, so the group decided to call it quits-the next morning we had to be up early for ominous sounding Arctic survival training at Fort Wainwright. The first person to the door, Tim, opened it wide.  Christ! It was broad daylight! And the sun was as bright as a light bulb is when it’s six inches away from your eyeball. We staggered up the west ridge to Bartlett Hall. I believe I took the elevator.  I could not have walked. After I had relieved myself yet again, I sauntered back in the hall because the din told me a few people were still carousing.  I ran into Craig, one of the boss. I hesitated, but then thought, why not mingle with him when he had a bottle of Scotch and he was offering me a plastic cup?  This guy was funny.  What kind of funny?  He liked to tell obvious, moronic jokes, often of the ethnic variety.  He was in to one-liners with zinger punch lines-stuff that I could remember, at least for awhile.  One of his punch lines was “You get laid in your coffin,” which I thought was hilarious.  I have no idea what the story leading up to that punch line was. If you do, let me know.

I was immediately attracted to Craig. Tall, dark and good looking, he sported a wonderful beard that I would had loved to have run my fingers through.  He told me he loved folk music, played guitar and banjo and was very fond of Ian and Sylvia. Between the looks, the bawdy sense of humor and the love of music, I was hooked. “We’ll have to play music in Umiat. A couple of folks have their guitars and want to sing. It’ll be great,” he said. He was a match made in heaven! Was it my imagination, or was he looking at me with great interest?  Then, I saw the wedding ring, and I wrote him off. But, what the hell, we could still laugh, sing and drink together.

I don’t remember who woke me up. Perhaps it was my new roommate, Chuck. I just remember feeling a tad under the weather and dragging my ass down to the mess hall.  We were to have some free time this morning to recheck our gear and purchase candy, postcards and chap stick at Wood Center, the student union.  I was trying to quit smoking, but if they had cigarettes….. 

Oh my God, they had cartons of cigarettes for five dollars and NO sales tax. I was in hog heaven. I bought three cartons of Mores, all I could fit in my backpack and my newly purchased yellow daypack. I loved Mores. They were thin, 120 mm long, perhaps oval in cross section and definitely brown in color. I thought they were quite sophisticated. Plus, a rumor was going around that cigarette smoking kept mosquitoes away. That’s all I needed to NOT quit smoking.

Back at Bartlett, I stuffed my stash into my “luggage” then headed downstairs for the Army bus waiting to take us to Fort Wainwright.  I still marveled at how clean and crisp the air was. I wore my red down vest because, even in June, it could be chilly in the morning.  We were marched into a barracks that served as a classroom and heard about plant identification, bird identification and so on. Ray Bane, however, was the person who gave us the most useful piece of advice:  “Do not eat any white berries-they are usually poisonous.”  One bit of further advice: “If you’re starving, eat the white berry and hopefully, you will be found in time by someone with a first aid kit that will give you something to throw up and then feed you.”

 Then, we were loaded back into the bus and taken into a remote section of Fort Wainwright. Our task here was to rappel down a cliff.  I heard Harvey ask one of the sergeants, “Why are we rappeling  down a cliff? There are no cliffs where we’re going!” The sergeant  responded that it was all part of the program so we had to. I got suddenly very nervous. Rappel down a cliff? Me? I hadn’t even climbed up a fence and down the other side.

The sergeant advised us on how to  handle the rope: “We’ll give you leather gloves so you won’t skin your hands. Keep one hand in front and position the other hand at your butt where the harness is. Keep that hand in a fist and kind of ‘sit’ on it. So you’ll climb up here, we’ll harness you up, and you’ll push off. Got it?” Not really, I thought.

Then I heard something amazing. Harvey had decided not to go up the cliff and launch himself into space even if it made him look silly. “I’m not great with heights. I don’t feel safe doing this. So, I’m not doing it.” Every woman within earshot, including me, decided she wanted to be on Harvey’s crew because he was careful. He’d keep us safe.

I had to do it, however.  I had to prove myself, being the city slicker plucked from a future career in editing and proofreading in DC. And deposited in the Arctic as a fledgling archaeologist.  I dutifully followed the others up the cliff, reaching the Corporal at the top. He had hooked someone up to a harness, Lynn, perhaps, but I don’t quite remember. He was telling her to lean back and push off. I My anxiety increased. My hands were sweaty.

Soon, it was my turn. I was hooked up to the harness and handed a pair of gloves. “Sit back. Sit on your hand and lean back. Don’t worry, we do this all the time.  You won’t fall.  We’ve got you both up here and down below.”  I looked terror stricken. Then the corporal looked me in the eye and said to me something I shall never forget: “Trust your equipment.”    That phrase had a calming effect. I leaned farther back and pushed off into space.  It was exhilarating! I was doing something I never had expected to do!  It was an amazing ‘flight,’ except that my pushing away with unequal weight on both feet took me at a diagonal rather than straight down.  But, the guys had it under control.  They talked me back into the middle of the rock face and soon I was on solid ground and oh, so proud.

After a grimy ride back to campus, a shower and dinner in the mess hall, we had a meeting in one of the dorm common rooms.  Our first surprise was mail call.  Already, some people were getting cards and packages from home. I sat on the floor reading a postcard my college friend Tom had sent me. He had gone to Rome and taken his sister along and had visited this neat place on the Via Veneto-the catacombs of the Capuchin monks. I stared at the front of the postcard mesmerized. There were several monks, long dead, standing in long purple robes.  They were completely skeletonized. Interesting, but not as interesting as the ceiling-it was decorated with row upon row of human vertebrae. The effect was that of birds flying in formation criss-crossing the ceiling.  It was ‘art,’ but how tasteful it was is questionable. There were also the usual skulls and crossbones propped up against the wall. Skulls were stacked high against the walls framing the monks in carefully laid out archways.  Some radii and ulnae punctuated the skulls. These and the vertebrae formed a light, almost lacey, pattern.

I became aware that I was not the only person engrossed in the postcard. Marcia, sitting in a chair behind me, head tilted to take it all in, puffed on her cigarette and asked, “Where is that? What is that? What the Hell?”  I told her my friend and I in DC had a very odd sense of humor and were into disaster and death postcards. “OK,” she said, “Cool.”  I knew Marcia and I were going to be friends, then.  She didn’t think I was nuts.

 Friday was our last day “in town.” I remember one detail with horror to this day. We had to load the 30 ought six shot gun with a slug and shoot a hill of dirt. Shooting just isn’t my thing. I hate loud noise. Actually, I am afraid of loud noise-thunder, fireworks, guns, and I HATE kids with balloons that are about to pop and make us both cry.  I was nervous all day. First, we shot a .22 in a rifle range. Piece of cake, I thought. Then, when the instructor, a he-man outdoors type from campus, led us over to the pile of dirt and showed us the shotgun, I thought I would pass out. I wanted to run away. It was huge. It looked heavy.  He wanted each of us to load a slug in the damn thing and shoot the fucking hill. “Hold it tightly-the recoil can knock you down-and cock your head over the barrel so you can look down the site. I held my hands over my ears as each person took their turn. Teresa , a petite blond from Alaska, was blown off her feet and on to her backside. Oh, God, there was no one else left but me.

Why did I do it? Because I’d already rappelled down the cliff. That’s the only reason I sauntered up there, took the shotgun in hand, lifted it up gingerly, and tried to unlock the safety. But therein lies the rub! I’m a lefty and most rifles, pistols and shotguns are made for right handers. The instructor told me to wait a sec. He walked over, stood behind me, and, encircling me, grabbed my arms. “Hmmm,” he said, thoughtfully, “you’ll either have to shoot right handed or reach under to unlock the safety.  I did the latter. I breathed in ever so slightly, eased my finger back on the trigger, and KAPLOW! I had never heard anything quite so loud. As the ringing in my ears gained intensity, I handed the shotgun backed to the guy and walked away. I couldn’t say I was proud of myself. I was stunned.

On this our final day in town, we picked crews just before our last real dinner at the chow hall. I was with Harvey, oh joy of joys, and also with Brian and Teresa (who were actually married), Chuck, Virginia, Terry and Marcia. It was a great crew for a cheechako like me-only VA, Marcia, Terry and I were new to Alaska.  Ken had a good crew, too. He had been in Alaska and one of the gang, Kathy, lived in Alaska and had years of field work experience.  Kathy and I liked each other immediately.  She was from Manhattan and is still the only person I know who says “aks” instead of “ask.”

That evening, I stopped packing long enough to run over next door to Skarland cabin where Craig, Ken, Dana, Harvey and Dave were throwing us a little goodbye party. Skarland cabin got its name from Ivar Skarland, a visiting anthropologist from the 30s.  His kids had drawn dinosaurs in pastel colors of chalk on most of the walls.  They were ‘sacred’-no one would dare erase them.  Ever since Ivar and family lived there, the cabin had become Department of Anthropology “property,” with every visiting anthro professor living there since then.  It was an honor to live there  in this typical Alaskan cabin made from big logs with a peaked roof, lots of hanging baskets of flowers, and just two rooms.  I don’t think there was indoor plumbing, but I could be wrong….There was plenty of Oly and Coors, pretzels, chips, a bottle of Scotch that came out later, whatever. 

A plumpish woman sitting near the fireplace was staring at me. Someone said, “Georgeie, Stephanie’s been wanting to meet you.” I mumbled hello-I didn’t know this person from Adam. Then she launched into her story-she had been dating Richard when he met me in DC and he had then dumped her. She wasn’t happy. “Well.” I said, trying to think of something witty to say, “He dumped me too!” She still wasn’t happy, but I didn’t care. I was leaving the next day for the North Slope, Terra Incognita, the Ultimate Thule, etc, etc. I left Stephanie to stew in  the corner.

Chuck was three sheets to the wind. I found out that he was a groper.  But, I thought, aren’t I supposed to sleep with the first person I meet on a project like this?  Dave said we made a good looking couple.  Chuck was swaying back and forth by now. His upper arm was entirely black and blue from the recoil of the shotgun.  Eventually, he left and went back to our room.  When I got back, Chuck was passed out on his bed, snoring. I finished putting my stuff in my day pack and back pack.  I guess I didn’t have to sleep with the first person I saw after all!.

Next morning, Dave and some other campus folks drove us to Fort Wainwright. We were going to be flown up in the Bureau of Land Management’s DC-3, and the BLM offices were right next to the runway. I don’t know much about planes, but I can tell something that has a lot of wear and tear on it.  It gleamed in the sun like a huge chrome hood ornament on the front of a1940s sedan.  There were a few dents here and there. We piled in with our day packs and walking sticks. The seats were old, dirty and had a mildew smell to them.  I got in the plane anyway and buckled myself in. I was sitting next to Virginia, who had just a little more field experience than I did. Our faces were full of expectation, excitement and anxiety.  The last one in, Craig, slid the one side door closed.  The props whirred to life, drowning out any conversation. We taxied out to the runway, began to roll, gaining momentum,  and finally lifted off to the north, taking us to our final destination, the old WWII camp at Umiat, in a bend of the Colville River on the North Slope of Alaska.

MY 26TH BIRTHDAY, JULY 7, 1977


Our last day along the Aniuk was July 7, my birthday.  I was 26.  My birthday was a group event.  I was allowed to sleep in and was served breakfast in bed - pilot bread with jam and butter, and a cup of Suisse Mocha coffee.  There were presents waiting for me, too - a pack of Winstons, a box of raisins, two packets of cocoa, cotton balls and a small vial of Bonnie Bell astringent to wipe the dirt off my face at the end of the day.   These treats were wrapped in comics.    

Marcia had created the presents, Teresa the sumptuous breakfast. Harvey gave me the gift of a few moments of extra sleep. I momentarily reflected on this strangest of birthdays. When I had turned 25 the year before, my friends in DC had taken me to a Chinese restaurant for Peking duck  One of my roommates had substituted smutty fortune cookies for the real thing, much to our amuseument and that of the kitchen staff.  

This birthday was also a fieldwork day.  Teresa, Marcia and I surveyed north along the Aniuk covering low and high terraces, finding nothing.  It was an uneventful day with the obvious exception of it being my birthday.  We pondered the 'nothingnness' along the Aniuk and took consolation that  Howard Pass would contain the mother lode of archaeological sites. Of this we were quite sure.

My birthday ended with a banquet. Brian and Chuck caught greyling out of the river.  We built a fire and roasted them to perfection.  Virginia made an attempt at corn chowder out of freeze-dried corn and powdered milk.  My cake was a stack of thick Krustee’s sourdough  pancakes with "an icing" of wild berries, jam, water and sugar.  To top off  the day, we heard the whine of an airplane engine.  Soon, we saw a floatplane set down on a nearby lake.  As fast as we could amble across the river and the tussocks, we got to the plane which was now coasting toward the shore.  You can imagine the surprise on the pilot’s face and on his passengers' faces.  The man and woman had never been to Alaska before.  They were going to float the Aniuk to the Noatak in Zodiacs where they would be picked up in a week.  The last thing they expected to see was a group of six rag tag campers in the middle of nowhere.  The last thing we expected to see was a floatplane and three people.  So, there was surprise all the way around.  When the float plane pilot asked how it was going, Brian said, “We've had a great day, and besides, it’s her birthday,” pointing to me.  

 

DICK THE COOK


I liked Dick the Cook. I never knew his last name. To me his real name was always "Dick the Cook" and and none of us ever referred to him any other way. He had an air of grandeur about him; it did not come so much from his own sense of importance, but simply from the fact that he was the cook. As such, he was one of the most important people in Umiat. Everyone recognized him.and wanted to know him. "Hi, Cookie," they'd say entering the mess hall, " What's for dinner?" Dick the Cook would recite that night's menu, invariably receiving "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd lining up for chow. Wednesday night was roast beef night, complete with horseradish sauce and "au jus," pronounced "oh juice." The correct question in any chow line in wilderness Alaska was, and still is: "Would you like some oh juice with that?" Dick the Cook delighted in ladling the thin gravy onto the plate of a grateful recipient.

Friday was fish night, usually fresh salmon flown up from the Yukon or Prince William Sound. On hot evenings, the salmon was cooked outside on large grill-like affairs made out of 55-gallon drums split in half. Sunday was steak night, with steak grilled to order. The steak inevitably covered the large plate it was flopped onto. Steak and roast beef were accompanied by baked potatoes, onion rings, mushrooms, and large stalks of fresh broccoli. Dessert was always delectable. Dick the Cook was not a pastry chef, as some cooks at other remote camps were. But, he made something called brownie pudding cake that is recalled reverently by anyone who had the great fortune to inhale it. You stuck a fork into a large brownie to discover the center was mostly liquid chocolate. Pudding cake was always served warm. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, you forgot you missed home.

It was the "law of the land" that you ate well in the field. There wasn't much to do, so food was always a major topic of conversation.  If a cook were not talented, he or she did not last in the bush. Dick the Cook's talents were rewarded at the end of every meal with that compliment of compliments, "good grub, Cookie."  This phrase spoke even more highly than a belch, which was a compliment in its own right.

Dick the Cook was on the short side, with jet black hair, usually uncombed, and clear blue eyes. His hands were always immaculate, despite the fact that he handled grease all day long. He dressed  in white pants and a white T-shirt with an open pack of Pall Malls bulding from its pocket. He smoked when he cooked,  the cigarette dangling from his mouth while he cut the vegetables or stirred the gravy.  Once in awhile, he'd lay the butt on the window ledge in between puffs. He didn't have an ashtray. 

           A grease spotted white apron was usually wrapped around his middle. I watched him fling one into a pile at the back of the kitchen after lunch one day. He changed his apron at least twice a day. When he wasn't cooking, he was washing laundry. It was dirty, greasy work, and he had a certain cleanly appearance to uphold.

He was from Oregon, growing up around tall trees. I asked him once how long it had taken him to get used to the treeless tundra. "Oh, at first it was odd," he mused in his baritonevoice, as yet unaffected by the Pall Malls, "but I've been up here for so long that now it's the trees that seem strange, kind of claustrophobic, when I go home." How long had it been since he'd been home, I asked. Dick the Cook couldn't say precisely, but it was on the order of 16 months. I was incredulous. "The money's good up here," he exclaimed. "But," I asked, "isn't it boring up here in the winter and cold?" "Cold, yes; boring, no. Winter's when all the seismic exploration takes place. Umiat is jumping all the time."

"The thing is," he continued, "GSI and all the other seismic companies can't take their cat trains out in the summer because they'd sink in the tundra. They wait until everything is frozen solid, assemble their 'caravans,' and head out, testing the ground with some kind of remote sensing rechnology as they go But, as careful as they are, you can still see their track someplaces out here in the tundra because the equipment is so heavy. The tundra doesn't really recover; it doesn't bounce back. So, the tracks fill with water, freeze up again in the winter, and then thaw again next summer, getting bigger. They'll come up with something less damaging one day, but, that's what it is; that's what you see out there, those tracks." I'd noticed tracks of huge vehicles out in the bush, usually in low, boggy areas. There weren't that many, but the ones that were out there scarred the green tundra by filling with brackish brown water. I asked several more questions, then let Dick the Cook return to the tasks at hand, while I picked up my book again.

I spent most of that rotation in Umiat ensconced in the mess hall, enjoying the creature comforts of 'home,' and hanging around talking to my new friend. I learned that his girlfriend was not his kids' mother. His wife had been killed in a fishing accident eight years earlier during a vacation out of Seward. It had been hard on him and the girls for a very long time and he had blamed himself. For awhile, they had lived in Anchorage and Dick the Cook had worked in restaurants in town. When he found Sheree on a trip to his home town in Oregon, he fell in love with her, she with him, and the girls with her also. But, the money was up north, a place not suitable for families - no schools, no health clinic, bad company. The girls moved back to Oregon to live with Sheree in a little house bought with North Slope wages. There the girls had school, friends, a dog named Pete. Sheree worked in the library and went to PTA meetings. All they needed was for Dick the Cook to save just a little more money, get the Slope out of his system and settle down with them again.

 "Why don't you marry her?" I asked out of fascination with this story. Dick the Cook paused. "I lost one wife. Maybe if I don't marry her, she won't leave me like Donna did and the girls and I  won't be alone again" I was taken aback with this level of honesty and emotion. His feelings didn't make sense, but then again, they did. I formed a bond with Dick the Cook that day, and began to develop a friendship with him that lasted throughout the summer."