Earl the Athabascan

 

Tok, Alaska

My trip to Alaska proceeded uneventfully but not unremarkably. A huge forest fire raged near the border of Alaska and the Yukon Territory, such that I gave serious thought to stopping to see if they were hiring. I decided that my mid 40’s, white collar body wasn’t up to the rigors of firefighting and continued on to Tok, the first ‘city’ in Alaska. I eventually arrived in Fairbanks, where the road north literally ends; if you want to go farther on, you do it by plane. While I didn’t have a particular desire, I felt the need to see the more remote parts of the 49th state. At the RV park laundromat, I saw advertisements for plane trips into the ‘bush’. One of them was to Ft. Yukon, which was billed as being inside the Arctic Circle and home to the largest concentration of Athabascans.

“Hmmm, Athabascans”, I thought. “It isn’t a coincidence that I’ve come across these people again on this trip. This must be what I should do.”

So the next morning at 7:00 am, I showed up at a hangar at the Fairbanks Airport. The lobby of the place was packed – there must have twenty-five people in the room. The flyer had mentioned that this service also flew to Gates of the Arctic, a new national park. I figured that some of the folks were probably heading there. The rest of us would fly to Ft. Yukon, where we would spend the day with Dr. Harry Redbird, an Athabascan Indian and anthropologist who would give us a day long tour of the town and its history. Ft. Yukon was billed as the oldest Athabascan settlement in the Western Hemisphere.

It wasn’t long before a voice over the loudspeaker announced that the flight to Gates of the Arctic was departing. I watched as everyone stood up and moved to the exit door! I sat there in disbelief, wondering why no one wanted to go to Ft. Yukon.

Now alone, I berated myself for my choice. Eventually the voice announced that the flight to Ft. Yukon was ready to board. Determined to make the best of it, I walked out on the tarmac. To my surprise (and delight), my ride was a DC 3! This dual prop plane had a legendary history in aviation—a true workhorse. It had also been frequently used by drug smugglers hauling large quantities of marijuana from Latin America, landing on remote southern airstrips at night to avoid detection from the authorities. It was only because they occasionally crashed while trying to land on those poorly lit fields that the rest of the world knew how creatively the DC 3 was being used.

White Mountains Recreation Area, Alaska

 As I was their only passenger, the crew let me sit in the jump seat behind the pilot and co-pilot, affording me a spectacular view of the White Mountains. We landed all too soon and I walked through the cool but warming morning air to the Quonset hut shaped hangar. A woman manned the only desk inside and her voice echoed slightly as she asked me if I was there for the tour.

“Are there any other people coming?” she asked.

“Nope, I’m the only one.”

“Okay”, she said, her voice dropping, “I’ll call Dr. Redbird and let him know you’re here. You might want to have a seat; he could be a while.”

With that, I sat in a chair across from her while she dialed the phone. I heard her say ‘one’, then looked my way. She then turned away and I couldn’t hear anymore of her conversation. Instead, I watched a lone Indian looking fellow move boxes, apparently from the plane, on a hand truck through the building. After a few trips, the woman spoke to him.

 “Ask your brother when he’s coming.”

If he heard her, he made no outward sign of acknowledgement. I pulled out my copy of Michener’s Alaska and started reading. A half hour or so later, the Indian returned and walked through the building without a word. After a few minutes, he came back, pushing a hand truck loaded with more boxes. The woman called out to him.

“Is he coming?”

 “No,” came the reply.

She looked over at me with a wan smile and shrugged. I got up and walked over to her desk.

“What does this mean?” I asked.

“Well, I guess Dr. Redbird isn’t coming,” she offered, somewhat lamely.

Just as I was about to get indignant at this affront, the Indian appeared again, pushing the now empty hand truck. As he passed us, and without looking our way, he said:

“You can come with me.”

I looked at the woman for an explanation. 

“Earl is Dr. Redbirds’ brother. You should go with him.”

I nodded somewhat numbly and waited for him to return.

“Do you want to come with me?” he asked without stopping.

“Yeah, I guess. I sure don’t want to sit here all day.”

“C’mon then.”

With that, we left the building, and I followed him as he pushed the hand cart to a van that he’d loaded with more boxes. I put my camera bag down and helped him load a few, then jumped into the passenger seat.

“My name is Doug, by the way.”

“Earl Redbird,” was his response.

“Well, thanks for the offer. What are we going to do today?”

“Make deliveries,” he said with a shrug. With that minimal explanation, we were on our way.

Our first stop was a package store of some kind that sold various goods; the customers though were lined up to try their hand at the fresh lottery scratch-off tickets! Indigenous women of all ages eagerly bought their tickets the moment the boxes Earl put on the counter were opened. Giggling with the anticipation of winning, the women scratched away determinedly, although none won. While I enjoyed observing them as they chatted and scratched, it was only later that it occurred to me that they were gambling away their scarce funds.

Ft. Yukon, Alaska

After a couple more deliveries at various establishments, during which Earl hardly spoke, we stopped in front of a ramshackle house in a residential neighborhood, though not the kind I was used to seeing in the lower 48 states. Alaskans clearly didn’t believe in, or abide by, zoning restrictions, and every kind of structure imaginable existed in this particular community. Earl announced that we were at his sister’s house.

“Come in, I want you to meet them.”

We went in and I was introduced to a heavy-set woman whose name I don’t recall. There were a couple of young kids running around and a man napping on a couch in the living room.

“I want to show you the garden,” Earl said, going out a back door.

Amazement is the appropriate word to describe my reaction to the garden crop. Earl pointed at a watermelon as big as a golf bag and laughed.

“They don’t grow them this big in Florida, I bet.”

No, they didn’t. Nor did they grow cabbages as big as garbage can lids, or squash the size of footballs, or green peppers the size of cantaloupes. And the tomatoes!

“Jeez Earl, these tomatoes are bigger than softballs! How do you do it?”

“It’s the rich soil and the long days. The sun shines 20 hours a day in the summer, and our produce grows big, real big.”

True, but it was still somehow an understatement. The freakish size of the garden’s fruits and vegetables still resonate with me today, having never been matched in any subsequent experiences.

 From his sister’s house, Earl wordlessly drove down to the banks of a raging, muddy river: the Yukon.

“It’s still high from snow melt. We’ve got to feed the dogs.”

With that, he loaded a bag into a john boat tied to the bank and motioned for me to sit in the front.

“Where are the dogs?” I asked.

 “On the island,” he answered, launching the boat.

I’d learned that that was about as much information as Earl would give up, so I didn’t ask for more. Besides, the prospect of being on this raging, legendary river was beginning to terrify me. Not to mention that the boat looked like something he’d built.

Earl deftly maneuvered his craft in the muddy, debris strewn water. The Yukon was as wild as its reputation; whole trees with leaves still on their branches floated by in the swiftly moving water. After a few minutes of pure awe and acclimating to ‘boating on the Yukon,” I settled in for the ride, enjoying the bright sunny day.

About then a large, man-made looking apparatus appeared a ways down the river; from a distance, it looked like a Ferris wheel.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

“A fish wheel.”

A fish wheel? What the hell was that?

Earl cut the motor as we approached and guided the boat alongside the structure. He expertly tied off next to a large plywood box. The ‘wheel’ was indeed homemade, a crude looking affair, but apparently effective. As the current of the river flowed through it, ‘paddles’ affixed to the spokes of the wheel caused the wheel to spin. The paddles were large and had three sides, with the open side facing the current.

“Look in the box,” Earl directed after he had done so.

I stood on his seat in the back of the boat and peered over the edge into the box: inside were five or six dead salmon of various colors and sizes. As the dying salmon drifted down steam after spawning, they were caught in the paddles of the wheel, lifted up and around the wheel and slid into the box before the paddle re-entered the water. Totally ingenious!

“Wow,” I said. “This is amazing! Did you build it?”

He nodded. “With my brother-in-law, the one on the couch. He works with me on Mondays and Tuesdays, gets drunk from Wednesday to Saturday, then sobers up on Sundays.” It was the most Earl had said to me yet on a single subject.

We collected the fish from the box and continued down the river, eventually approaching an island. We docked, and I helped him carry the fish up a path to a clearing. A tent was erected in the middle of the clearing, and scattered in 360 degrees around were dogs, Huskies, each tied to a tree, some 80 in all! Seeing Earl set off a cacophony of barking, which he made no attempt to quell. The tent was not for people I saw, but was a shelter for hanging, smoking and curing the salmon. We took the already cured strips off the racks and walked around feeding the grateful dogs.

Earl cutting fish strips

“Why do you have so many of them?”  I asked.

“They’re my sled dogs. I race in the Iditarod every year. You need a lot of dogs to race competitively.”

The Iditarod was Alaska’s famed annual dog sled race, run from Anchorage to Nome, about 1,100 miles. And these surprisingly gentle animals were the dogs that pulled the sleds. When we’d finished feeding them, Earl filleted the fish we’d brought, cutting them into long strips. Then we hung them on racks in the tent over a smoldering fire he fed. When we were finished, we got back in the boat and headed back to town. Earl, quiet as ever, took me to the airport where we shook hands solemnly.

“Thanks for rescuing me this morning”, I said. “I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Ft. Yukon, thanks to you.”

Earl smiled and simply nodded; I admired this man of few words. I said goodbye to the woman and went through the otherwise empty terminal onto the tarmac, where the same DC 3 waited to take me back to Fairbanks. When I went to bed in the motor home, under the midnight sun that ‘night’, I slept soundly and contentedly, having spent the day with an actual Athabascan.


Originally from Detroit, Doug Guido graduated from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, after cramming 4-year education into 6 years. Subsequently he set off on a ‘Siddartha’ journey through North America in a ’64 Corvair Greenbriar camper van, covering 20,000 miles in six months. After arriving in Houston Texas, he entered the homebuilding field in the roaring ’70’s and ended up in Tampa in 1981. He has written short stories over the past thirty years, reflecting on various incidents in his life that he hopes are entertaining.



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6 Replies to “Earl the Athabascan”

  1. That was such a wonderful story proving sometimes even ‘the best laid plans’ are sometimes replaced with better ones!

  2. Yes, thank you Doug! You captured the “stranger in a strange land” feeling one got in rural Alaska, back in the day. Reminds me of my own adventure, traveling alone to meet my “guide” who would take me steelhead fishing on Prince of Wales Island.

  3. Doug, wonderful, engrossing recounting of your adventures, both self-reflective and externally.
    Love the gigantic fruits and veg! Your use of dialogue sparkles, and the illustrations add significant dimension to your tale.

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