On August 15th I celebrated the anniversary of my arrival here. If the definition of Cheechako is someone who has not yet spent a year in Alaska (most versions don’t make it that easy), then that marked the end of my days as a Cheechako.
The cool, rainy summer teases us about once a week with bright, autumn-brisk days. We’ve had our first aurora and our first hard freeze: it got down to 20 degrees earlier this week. Blueberry season is urgent: I’ve canned just five quarts. The berries are growing soft on bushes now brittle with sunset-hued leaves. Night has come to mean darkness; the moon made its first appearance in months amidst clouds in the early days of August.
“Look, there’s a weird light coming from the East!” I shouted excitedly.
“It’s the moon,” Gary replied, sighing.
“Oh.” What a Cheechako.
I felt like a Cheechako still when on August 16th we visited what had been Gary’s main home for over 20 years. It’s reachable only by train and a mile-and-a- half hike.
Boarding the local, we hefted our backpacks onto the baggage car; Gary jumped in behind them. Ella and I entered by the passenger door, making ourselves comfortable on the plush seats while Gary chatted with the trainmen and former neighbors, helping pull baggage of friends and strangers alike up into the car. At an hour and a half it was long for a twenty-five mile ride, stopping as it did to give me and the handful of tourists time for scenic views and photos of beaver dams, rivers and pools filled with red salmon, flowers and fields and gaping Hurricane Gulch. The train also stopped for passengers flagging it down from the side of the tracks, as we would do on our return.
When we reached our stop, the trainman opened the door and settled a yellow metal stool on the gravel, offering a hand. Ella and I debarked in style; Gary pulled our backpacks from the rail car and jumped down. From trackside we stepped into an arctic jungle: ferns, fireweed, raspberry, high-bush blueberry, thorny devil’s club six feet high, dewberry, watermelon berry, birch and elegant-looking shelf mushrooms growing on downed trees and stumps.
A short hike brought us to a series of ropes tied to birch trees, leading almost straight up a few hundred feet. Gloves on, we hauled ourselves up the rope while Ella bounded to the top easily, carrying her own pack. On flatter terrain we followed a nearly indiscernible path. It was all I could do to keep sight of Gary and Ella; even 20 feet ahead of me they could disappear in a flash. Before long (though it seemed long that first time) I spied a building.
“It’s not ours,” Gary said of the cabin, anticipating me.
We were nearly an hour from our destination still. At one point Gary warned me and Ella away from his path: bees! It took a week to get the stingers out of his hand. Finally, a cache about three stories high heralded our arrival at Gary’s cabin. Six rotting wooden ladder-like steps led to the porch.
“Always keep the door shut, even if you’re right there,” Gary told me as he unlocked the heavy front door. “A bear can get to the porch faster than you can imagine.”
As an afterthought: “And it’s best to pee from the porch. Just hang your butt over that edge there,” he said, pointing to the side that had an eight-foot drop.
The alternative was to go down the rickety steps into high brush in bear country, so when the time came I found the handhold at the porch’s edge and hung on.
We stepped into the arctic entry—a sturdy, insulating mudroom—and opened another huge door into a second shallow room, with workshelves and windows to the right, and a small work room tucked away to the left. A box of pink zinfandel, mostly full, hung from the ceiling. Closer inspection revealed it was best before November 1995, four or five years before Gary moved. Best must have been pretty awful but it was perhaps too dear to waste, as most things are when provisions are so hard to come by. Everything in this house and the materials to build it were hauled on the train and up the hill by snowmachine and sled or backpack.
The third room, with its bedroom half-loft, was at one time the entire cabin. Oversized windows face hilltops frequented by caribou. Wide wooden counters with shallow shelves below, like those we have at home, lined the greater part of three sides of the room, creating space and views perfect for artists at work. The kitchen was comprised of a tiny sink – smaller than our little sink at home – surrounded by a countertop not much bigger than a cutting board. Pans hung on the walls, a roll of paper towels hung from the ceiling, and a bowl of utensils tipped intermittently from the counter into the sink. Kitchen sponges hung over the small wood stove, together with random mittens and dog booties long since dried and abandoned. The loft above is accessed by a ladder steep enough to require the steadying support of the rope hanging beside it.
With dusk coming on, we needed to get water. The creek is down, way down. I put on a rough wooden backpack with a shelf just right for the large rectangular water jug. Gary packed another jug so we’d have water enough for a couple of days. Grabbing a rope, we lowered ourselves down the hill. We passed a few outbuildings, an old shed-like cabin, a broken-down greenhouse, a garden plot overgrown with fireweed, the remains of an outhouse, and a lovely full-sized cabin. After filling our jugs in the stream, we hauled ourselves and our water back up.
Nothing came easy; clearly, nothing ever came easy in this place. But this was an October-to-May home; I can see how a snowmachine and sled—and the absence of the high brush—would have been a great help.
“The floor is rotting in the outhouse, so just be careful. And there’s no seat, you know.”
“OK,” I replied, unsure just how to be careful; I really wanted to avoid an unexpected tour of the outhouse basement.
The train runs Thursday through Sunday; we arrived on Thursday and had to be trackside to flag down the train early Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, we needed to decide which of Gary’s belongings to take, which to abandon. A 60-pound cast-iron grain mill made the cut, as did a pressure canner and pressure cooker, two pairs of long snowshoes, a scythe over five feet long, a number of books, some artwork, a few out-of-print books, a handful of beautiful rocks and fossils, the curly-horned skull of a Dall sheep. We made a trip down each day, storing things in a shed by the tracks. Finally, that rainy Sunday morning as we finished packing, I started to cry. I couldn’t explain it to Gary.
“You must be picking up on what I’m feeling,” he said, holding me.
We headed out with our final load in time to catch the train. Ella’s pack had grown heavier each day; even so, after a few clumsy moments she could easily keep up with Gary, but stayed back to make sure I was following. I often lagged behind, which didn’t make Gary too happy given the enormous loads he carried; it was all he could do to get down the hill himself, much less wait for me. But he did.
As we started our final descent on the rope, he patiently showed me how to lean back with my weight on the rope and slide, walking backwards and pausing just long enough to make sure my footing was sound. I couldn’t do that and hang onto my walking stick, so I threw it down the steep slope. It made good progress, javelin-like, before heading off course. Ella wanted to retrieve it, but Gary was closer. Just as he regained the rope, the knot that tied it to my section of rope broke.
I turned to see him fall back, wide-eyed. Then I saw the Dall sheep’s skull, tied to the back of his pack. Again I saw Gary, again the skull, and then nothing but motionless ferns and berry bushes.
“Garrrrrrrryyyyyy!!” I cried. “Jesus! Are you ok?”
Ella looked at me uncertainly.
“Go get ‘im, Ella! Go get Gary!”
She ran down to administer tongue to face resuscitation. I followed as fast as I could, but was at the end of my rope (sorry) long before the slope began to level out. By that time Gary had pulled himself up, pack and all, and brushed himself off.
“Did the rope break or did the knot break?” he asked.
“Huh? Rope, knot, wha? I don’t care. Are you ok?”
He was fine. Gary has long experience in this sort of thing and seems to have developed a healthy flexibility for falling. After a brief discussion of whether I should or shouldn’t care about the root cause of the accident, we made our way down and set our packs by the rails while we retrieved the contents of the shed.
Gary flagged the approaching train with a wave of his hat. Friends and strangers helped pull our things aboard. The dry warmth of the train eased into me as I relaxed and enjoyed the view. My camera stayed packed away and I answered tourists’ questions like a local.
I may have looked the part, but deep down I know I’ll always be a Cheechako.
Sunrise: 6:38 a.m.
Sunset: 9:14 p.m. We’ve lost over three hours of daylight since the first of August.
Weather: High, 45°; Low, 37°, overcast with occasional rain.
In other news: Gary’s three-month scans came out clean, to our massive relief. Two more months of freedom before the next ones. I’ve sold my beautiful yellow snowmachine; we are packing to move, and plan to leave before the end of September.