Growing Up Alaska: Drowning

As I have mentioned in previous postings, growing up, I worked on a mine in one of the more dangerous positions; manning the sluice box.

My family was working a narrow valley on the North Fork of Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. The width of the valley not only concentrated the pay dirt, it also lent itself to smaller operations.

We’d set up a modified sluice box that would work well in such places as it didn’t take a lot of room but still ran a good amount of dirt each hour. It was stacked with a feeder mouth at the top that pushed the dirt over punch plate that allowed the dirt to drop to the single sluice run that ran perpendicular to the plant. Gravity helped move the rocks down a steep steel chute and into the settling pond below.

Where the rocks piled up, the water was only about 6 feet deep, but it dropped off quickly to twice that depth. The loader operator would have to move the big rocks every three or four dumps into the mouth.

I stood perched on a catwalk up near the mouth and regulated the flow of the water, helped push along any rocks that didn’t immediately slide down, and monitored both the sluice run and the pump. So much water sprayed around that even on a full sunny day, I didn’t always know.

We were about 7 hours into a 12 hour run. The job is very monotonous and the only change for me was when the pump would shut down and I would have to wave off the next load and run down to refuel it. I’d refueled the pump about an hour before and it should run the rest of the shift, or at least close to it.

I was cleaning up the mouth after a load of bigger material was dumped in. It had a lot of clay in it which caused it to stick together and I was doing my best to break it up as the clay was a good indicator of gold.

As I was pulling on an oblong rock with a special pry bar that had a hook welded onto it, my grip on the rock slipped and I slid backwards to keep my balance. Instinctively, I released the pry bar and grabbed for the railing.

Only I missed.

In that split second, as time slowed down, I realized that my rubber boots had slid off the edge and I was falling between the catwalk and the lower rail. My hands had clutched empty air and I fell, catching my armpit on the catwalk which sent me spinning and landing awkwardly on the steep dirt that lead to the rocks and settling pond below.

I managed to hit the rocks feet first, absorbing most of the impact, before somersaulting onto the pile. I lay there for a moment, dazed and dizzy. I couldn’t help but laugh as I groaned, checking to see what hurt the most and finding out if I’d broken anything.

Then I heard it.

Above me, the dirt had washed free and the rocks started their way down the chute to where I lay. There was no time to get up or run, so I did the only thing I could do, I rolled off the pile and into the water.

As I hit the muddy water of the settling pond with more of a gurgle than a splash, I heard the rocks smash into one another with the ear shattering sounds of a shotgun.

I am a pretty good swimmer since we had an Olympic sized pool at the Hot Springs that I swam in at least twice a week during the winter. I kicked for shore, the closest of which was the spit the pump sat on.

I kicked as hard as I could and could feel myself going under. My rubber boots had filled with water and they pulled me down like anchors. I frantically tried to kick them off and keep my head above water, but neither was successful.

I lunged to the surface, gasping and sputtering, muddy water coating my face and eyes. I splashed and blindly lunged for land, but knew I was no where near.

I went under.

I tried again to free my feet, but the boots were stuck. I splashed around and one hand broke the surface and I lunged again. I barely broke the surface and inhaled almost as much water as I did air.

My chest burned as I sank again. I looked up and saw that it was a sunny day, though the sun was a yellowish smudge in the water. I tired to swim towards it, but my hands didn’t break the surface.

I choked out precious air, trying my best to move towards shore, but in my panic, I was no longer sure which way that was. The pressure in my ears were getting strong, so I knew I was getting close to the bottom, so once I felt it, I pushed off, but hardly moved at all.

My head began to hurt as I gasped out the last of my air and stared up at the murky sun. Then I took in a gulp of water, setting my lungs on fire and realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to get out.

In that moment, the pain numbed and things began to calm. All I could think about was how mad my mom was going to be at my dad for letting me die. The pain it would cause my family.

Then it all went red and faded into black.

I woke up trapped over the 8 inch hose that ran from the pump to the sluice box and I was aware that someone was yelling at me from far off though I couldn’t hear them over the pump.

I spat out water and mud seeped from my nose. I tried to get up, but pain erupted across my body as I spasmed and coughed up more murky water. It was then that I realized that the voice was not far off, but the loader operator that worked for us was nearly to me.

And the pump was off.

I shook the cobwebs from my head and wiped the mud from my nose. It came back red as I was bleeding. I rolled over and sat up. The world spun and I still struggled to hear and see clearly.

“Where’s your boot,” was the first thing that I heard.

I looked down and saw that my left boot had come off. I also noticed that I was somehow in the middle of the ten foot wide spit that was 3 feet out of the water and laying across the hose so that my gut and sternum were pressed down.

As it turns out, the pump had mysteriously stopped. The loader operator had come to check because he’d seen the water had been off for a few minutes and thought I might be struggling to restart it. Only it wasn’t out of fuel and started easily.

To this day I do not know what happened between the time I blacked out and I woke up.

And I never found the boot.

Growing Up Alaska: The Race

Field trips for a rural school are a little different. Anytime we traveled, it was for more than a day since it was over 125 miles to the nearest city, Fairbanks.

When I was about 9, my school traveled by plane to Arctic Village. Arctic Village is even farther north than Central with no road access, but we were invited there as part of their pilot program for Native Cultural Studies.

We were there for a week which culminated in a festive party which included traditional foods and games. The game I was most interested in was the dog sled race.

I hadn’t driven dogs before. I had seen the mushers in my community along with the teams that came through my backyard during the Yukon Quest. I’d always wanted to run dogs, and this was going to be my chance.

They ran the races in heats by age level. My age level got just one dog to run a short 2 mile course out to the airport and back. After a few pointers from the mushers, 7 of us lined up for a sprint style start.

The race started with two dogs getting into a fight off the line and as we settled onto the trail, I was in fourth. I hung on for dear life as the sled flew and my heart raced. The wind whipped around me and I could hear it whistling in my ears.

It wasn’t long before we overtook the next team and moved into third. I wasn’t really guiding the sled, but hanging on for the ride. I could tell my dog was enjoying this as much as myself, if not more.

I could see the other two teams ahead of me and at first I wasn’t closing the distance. I tried to jump off and run like I’d seen mushers do and nearly fell. We were going way to fast and I drug along behind for a second before getting up onto one of the runners.

When I looked up, the other two teams were gone. I was puzzled for a moment before I saw the orange marker that showed the trail was turning left. I froze as I tried to remember the call to make the dog turn right, but she already knew and we flew around the corner.

The sled skidded around and luckily didn’t flip as we turned onto a narrower and bumpier trail. I tried to spot the other teams, but was jostled about so much I had to focus so as to not fall off the sled.

It was a short distance before the trail turned right up a short incline and onto the airstrip. My dog turned and we shot up onto the airstrip where we had to turn right again and sprint down the taxi way.

I could see one team ahead of us and we were closing in. The second team had failed to turn and must have run across most of the width of the runway before turning back to trail, so halfway down the side of the airstrip I moved into second.

By the time we reached the end of the runway, my dog was in a long stride, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily as we came up on the left of the lead team. We turned off of the runway and onto the road to sprint for the finish line.

It was still a ways, and as we turned onto the road, my sled went wide and I lost ground. The other boy was pumping one leg and with each stride I could see he was bobbing a little faster.

So I followed suit and quickly found a rhythm that let me pull up alongside. He jumped off his sled and began running, which I have to admit I found impressive after my near fall, but my dog had a longer stride and we soon passed him.

His dog slowed to a trot as we passed and I could hear the boy yelling for him to go faster, to no avail.

I could see the finish line. Just down this dip in the road and then rise up again and I would win!

I looked back and could see three teams along the road, but they were all well behind me. My dog had slowed her pace now that we had passed the others and it would be an easy trot across the finish line.

Then my dog slowed even more. Then she began running funny, her hind legs coming up into the air as she tried to sit down at the same time. I called for her to go, but she was soon squatting and I realized she was using the bathroom.

The second place team sprinted by and my dog tried to pursue them, but she was having a terrible time going to the bathroom.

Then the third place team sprinted by. My dog tried to run after them and I pushed the sled as best as I could to keep up, but my poor dog was still having issues.

I could hear the crowd cheering on the teams. I could hear them laughing at me and my dog. I had been so close.

The fourth place team approached and my dog finally finished and carried us across the line a few second before fourth place.

I felt embarrassed and angry at all the jeers and the pointing, but not so much for myself, but for my dog. She coward as I ran forward to grab her collar. Her ears down and tail tucked broke my heart and I loved on her.

And she vomited on my leg.

Despite being sick, and no one knowing, she had ran her heart out, not because she would get anything from it, but rather because she loved it. The musher who owned her apologized for giving me a sick dog, but I didn’t care. I would race again someday, not because I would get anything from it, but rather because I loved it.

Growing Up Alaska: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

As a kid growing up in a mining family I did all kinds of jobs on the mine. I ran heavy equipment, did clean ups and served as a Gopher. That is what my dad said when he told me to “Go for this…” or Go for that…” But the job I did most frequently was man the sluice box.

It doesn’t matter where you are on the mine, it is a dangerous place. We did what we could to keep us safe, but accidents always happen.

This particular summer I was working on a Pearson Box which had a loading area with punch plate, two side runs for fine material and a center run for large material. My job was to keep the water flow even and dirty. Clean water will remove the material and wash the gold down the box, so I had to keep a steady flow going while making sure the big material didn’t clog up the middle chute.

Working the sluice box was hard work and monotonous. Turn the flag for a dump, check the wash, pull the rocks, check the runs; then repeat. All the while, I have to deal with cold water spraying on me and the elements to my back that either made me on the verge of hypothermia or baking.

We’d purchased a larger loader that would help us move more material since we were also running a rocker box next to me which I didn’t have to pay much attention to it since it moved much slower than my box. The problem with the new loader is that had a lot more horsepower and was slabbing the bedrock which was jamming up my sluice runs.

These rocks could be up to four feet by three feet wide and up to a foot thick. My middle chute was only two and a half feet wide, so when one of these slabs ended up in my box, I would have to stand them up on their sides and roll them down the box. If they weren’t round, I would have to wrestle them onto the top of the middle chute and use pry bars to push them down to the end.

I had to do this quickly to keep a good flow of water and material down the side chutes where we caught most of the gold.

One day I got a large slab that was kind of in an almond shape. It was nearly five feet in length and was almost four feet at its widest. Luckily, it landed right in the middle of the loading area on it side, so I began moving it before the dirt washed away around it.

I got it into the middle chute, but because of its shape, it didn’t roll well, so I tried to pry it out to slide it down, but it was too heavy and oblong. I flipped it over the narrow end and the large end rolled easily and I got it about halfway down the chute when another rock got wedged under it.

I pried and prodded and even took a sledge hammer to it, but it didn’t want to move. I had one pry bar stuck on one side, propping up the rock, while I pried from the other. Rocks got wedged underneath and kept it upright, so I decided to cross over to other side and try prying from there.

The #1 rule when moving a rock like this is to never be below it. I was so frustrated that the rock was stuck, I ignored that run and crossed over below it using the jammed pry bar as a support as I crossed.

I heard it before I realized what was happening; dirt had slide down the loading chute sending a new pile of rocks down the middle chute. All that weight suddenly dislodged the slab and it rolled.

I tried to get out of the way, but fell backwards into the chute and it rolled down on my leg. Smaller rocks coursed around it and pelted me as the larger slab slowly rolled down, pinning my left leg just below the knee. I tried to slide back and when I did, the rock rolled even more and one of the pry bars worked free and came crashing down.

I covered my head and fell backwards into the chute as the pry bar clanged off the side of the chute before sliding away and off the end. Luckily the chute had protected me, but in the process, I had wedged myself in as I was pushed backwards down the chute a few feet.

The slab had also rolled and was now wedged agains my leg above the knee.

I struggled to pull free and the rock only rolled a little farther and I could feel it digging in and threatening to crush my leg. The slab had also turned crossways in the box stopping the flow of rocks and water which meant that all that pressure was building up with only my leg in the way.

Slowly, the rock and I would inch down the box, the slab no longer rolling but sliding along under the pressure of tons of rocks behind it. This was going to end badly. The rock would either roll and crush me or push me off the end for a fifteen foot fall onto a pile of rock with tons more rocks cascading down on me.

Then I heard them.

My dad had been driving out to the pit and had seen me fall. At the same time, the loader operator feeding the box had decided to come and check on me since it had been a couple of minutes since I turned the flag for a new dump. The mechanic riding with my dad had run to shut off the pump while the other two came down to free me.

It took both of them to lift the rock off of me and we were all surprised that I was able to get up from that. I was cold and numb, but otherwise okay.

I was supposed to end my shift in a half an hour anyways, so my dad sent me back to camp while they shoveled out the box.

My leg was numb and my back hurt, so I took a hot shower and after dinner, went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I crawled out of bed and fell face first onto the floor.

I was paralyzed from the waist down. My left leg had swollen so much that my sweats were tight. Despite the lack of pain, the receptors in my brain told me I was hurt and I nearly passed out.

I pulled myself to the trailer door and after flailing to get it open, I called for help. Dad found me and got me back into bed before calling for help.

Terry, one of our operators and a trained physical therapists, came to check on me. We iced down my back and the swelling went away before I was taken to see a doctor. X-rays revealed I had compressed three of my vertebrae in my lower back.

I didn’t work the sluice for the last two weeks of the season and for the next few months would often wake up with my legs tingling or numb, though that eventually stopped.

I was lucky that day.

Growing Up Alaska: 23 Bears

When I was 16, I spent a summer in Olga Bay on Kodiak Island, home of the Kodiak Brown Bear. I worked on a survey team and we had many adventures and misadventures over the summer.

This story takes place on July 4th. We’d already been in Olga Bay for 5 weeks with a little over 2 weeks worth of food, so we were tired and hungry and living off of the land. But that is another story.

On this day, we’d tried to finish up the main survey by placing the corner posts in hopes of finding our way back to the civilization that through a series of events, we’d been cut off from. It took us sixteen hours to finish the survey which found us on a ledge on the side of a mountain.

Below us, the tide was coming back in and we had a long trek back to the boat. The other issue is that between us and the boat was a large stretch of grass and brush and bears who’d come to feed on the incoming salmon. The grass and brush were so high that you could easily run into a bear before you saw him.

We decided to divide into two groups. My boss and another 16 year old, Sam, would hike down the mountain and head for the boat while we guided them by hand held radio. From our vantage point, we could see the bears pretty well and would hopefully be able to steer them around them safely. Then they would take the boat down the coast to a place were Mike and I could climb down and go through a narrow stretch of brush far from the creek teeming with fish.

This also meant I had to carry all of the big equipment and the pack frame so Mike could carry the gun and listen to the radio.

Amazingly, we guided them through the grass and brush safely to the boat. Along the way, I was able to count out 23 different brown bears heading to or fishing along the creek.

Once we saw them push the boat off the beach, Mike and I headed down the steep mountain side. My pack and boots made it a difficult trip as I slid down the slope in many places because of the long grass. I had to use my shovel to help slow me and keep me from tumbling head first.

Exhausted, we reached the brush between us and the beach and began making our way through it. With all the gear it was tough and Mike didn’t help much when he let go of limbs and they smacked me in the face or the thighs.

We cleared the brush to not find the beach as we’d expected, but another patch of tall grass and more brush beyond that.

We repeated the process only to find another grassy area and more brush beyond that. Only we could hear the ocean now over the din of mosquitos and gnats that threatened to eat us alive.

Then I smelt it, the pungent smell of bear. I couldn’t tell how close it was, but I knew which direction it was, to our left and somewhere in the grass. We stumbled onto a well worn path devoid of grass from the hundreds of paws pf bears that had ambled by on their way to fish.

This gave us a start and we didn’t hang around to see if the smell got any closer and plunged headlong into the grass and brush beyond.

The trip had already taken at least twice as long as we’d expected and this batch of alders was tight and thick. I often had to stop and let down the pack frame and lift it through the knot of trees or untangle it from the branches. This only slowed us down and with each snap of a limb, Mike’s eyes got big as he was sure a bear was tracking us.

So it should’ve been no surprise when the radio on his backpack growled and squawked, he let out a scream and bolted through the brush leaving me behind.

I yelled after him, but he didn’t look back and I was pretty certain who wouldn’t hear me over the waves anyhow. So, after considering leaving the gear behind, I methodically made my way through the brush, shuffling gear forward before going back and getting the rest.

Finally, as I shoved my shovel through a tangle of limbs, it disappeared as it fell over the bank and crashed onto the rocky beach below. I hefted the pack and found a clearer patch of brush to push my through and thankfully emerged to the fresh breeze of ocean air.

The boat was drifting on the swells a few feet up the beach where I’d tossed the shovel through. Sam was retrieving my shovel and I spotted Mike lying in the boat with his foot propped up on a pontoon having apparently run off the edge and fell onto the rocks and severely sprained his ankle, if not broken it.

Even from that distance and over the sound of the crashing waves and boat engine, I could hear our boss berating him for leaving me behind.

Sam helped me lug the gear into the boat and I climbed in. Sam gave me the last of his smoked salmon and some water which I gratefully ate.

As we motored out into the bay, we spotted many more bears roaming the beaches and the embankments, some curious to the sound of the boat.

Despite the bumpy ride and the cold spray, I passed out and slept nearly the entire six mile ride back to where we called camp.

Growing Up Alaska: The Fourth

In the interior of Alaska, the summers can get stifling hot. It is hard for people to believe that 80+ temperatures are not uncommon and if the weather conditions are just right, it can reach a hundred.

This summer had been one that the weather conditions were just right. In the days leading up to the Fourth of July, the thermometer increased in increments until it rested pretty solidly at 95º. And since the sun is up for nearly 23 hours and there was no wind, the nights didn’t cool down that much.

In Central, Fourth of July is celebrated with a parade and a follow up community barbecue. Members of the 4H Club, of which I was one, often walked at the front of the parade carrying flags. This year I carried the Alaskan Flag.

The temperature rose as the sun beat down and the wind refused to blow. It was so hot that even the pesky mosquitos stuck to what little shade they could find under the shriveled, drought plagued trees.

The parade route was about a mile long and there was no shade. My friend carrying the 4H flag nearly passed out and one of the other kids had to finish the parade in his place. I too felt wobbly at times, but one of our other friends not in the parade ended up walking alongside with her water bottle and would squirt water into our mouth and over our heads before running off to get more.

Officially, the temperature reached 99º, but in the sun, it topped 120º and one guy was even partially successful in frying an egg on the road.

Crooked Creek which runs through the middle of Central became the hang out spot as people waded into the chilly creek that stayed around 40º, though slow moving water and pools were much warmer.

Sun baked and exhausted, I climbed into bed with only a sheet. My window was open, hoping for a cross breeze, but there was not wind outside and I found no relief inside.

No one in Central has air conditioning, we build our houses for the cold, so we all sweated and cursed the heat until, if we were lucky, we passed out.

I finally did and I slept in fits, imagining the snows of winter and building snowmen. So it was no surprise that when I woke up early in the morning, freeing, I was sure I was still dreaming. This was only reaffirmed by the big flakes of snow streaming past my window.

I closed my eyes and willed myself to warm up, or in the least, wake up. After a few minutes of shivering, I rolled over and closed my window since I didn’t need to freeze in my sleep.

I finally convinced myself that I wasn’t dreaming and got up. It was still warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly, but it was in fact, snowing. In July. Less than 12 hours from being a 100º!

It stopped spitting snow about thirty minutes after it started and the sky cleared up by mid morning with the temperature getting up into the low 80s.

The weather news channel we received on our one t.v. station reported on the phenomenon and explained that winds from the Bering Sea had been pushing up the Yukon Valley trapping the hot air there like a convection oven. As the lower level of air heated, it slowly pushed against the upper layer of air until it reached a point that it could escape over the mountains. This formed a siphoning effect that pulled a large amount of air out which was replaced by air from the north that pulled down the cold Arctic air.

This allowed for a short window of great moisture, cold air, and snow on the Fifth of July.

Growing Up Alaska: Timber

We heated our house with firewood, and since it was a big house, that meant a lot of firewood. On an average, in mild weather (20º above average) we would go through a cord of wood every two weeks. The colder it got, the more wood we would use, at the coldest time (-40º) we could go through more than a cord of wood in a week.

To understand that volume, one cord of wood is measured 4x8x4 feet. That is two standard size pickup beds of stacked wood. All of that needed to be cut, hauled, chopped and stacked.

We would collect some wood over the summer between mining and running errands. Dad would often cut a tree and limb it, leaving it laying out to dry. This wasn’t for normal use, but would be collected in the fall and stored for shortages or extremely cold weather when we needed dry wood to burn hotter.

That meant that most of the winter, one of our activities was to collect wood. Some people who cut firewood would clear cut an area, but dad was always selective. We would go into an area and cut down mature trees and leave others to be harvested years, if not decades down the road.

Hauling wood was a chore as we never cut right along the road either. That meant it had to be carried out in lengths of 4-6 feet, depending on the size. That wasn’t too big of a deal with me and my two older brothers, but being 4-6 years younger, I had to work twice as hard to keep up.

I was around 10 and we were falling birch trees along the Ketchum Creek Road and packing them out through waist deep snow. Once we had a path somewhat beaten down, it wasn’t so hard. Dad was selecting trees about a hundred feet off the road and once he had a couple of them cut and limbed, we started hauling.

It would usually take 3-4 trees to fill up the truck, but dad often cut 6-8 trees and we stacked the wood near the road for others or for one of us boys to come back on a snow machine and haul out.

We were nearly done loading the truck and dad was in the process of cutting these extra trees. I was carrying two medium size logs, about 5 feet in length, one on each shoulder. This meant that I had the logs pressed against the side of my head, pressing my hat into my ears and didn’t hear the call of warning.

The tree had twisted, and instead of falling perpendicular to the road, had fallen parallel and right along the path I was walking. I heard the swoosh of air as the limbs ripped through it and was just turning when the top of the fifty to sixty foot tree crashed down on me.

I had no time to react as the tree struck me about ten feet from the top and slammed me face first into the snow. The world went black and I am not sure if I was knocked out or how long I had been down before I realized I was pinned and started thrashing, trying to get up.

It was all in vain as not only had the tree pinned me, the two logs I was carrying had crossed over my the back of my head and pinned me further. I felt someone grab one of my legs and pull, but I didn’t budge. Then I felt one of the logs shift and one of my brothers pulling at the same time and I scrambled free.

I knelt in the snow and breathed while everyone asked if I was okay. We’d had many near misses, but this was the first time any of us had been hit by a tree. Amazingly, I came away with nothing more than a few bruises and a long scratch on my cheek.

By what I am certain was divine intervention, the tree had fallen squarely on me and as I fell forward, the two logs I had been carrying had driven into the snow and crossed, taking the brunt of the force from the tree and likely saving my life, or in the least, serious brain injury.

We were always safe when we did things because we knew that the closest hospital was over a hundred miles away, but accidents did happen. It would be nearly a month before dad let us collect wood while he was cutting. This made the process a lot longer which meant we got a lot colder, but we were safer.

Growing Up Alaska: Aloha

At the end of the mining season, my dad had travelled to Hawaii to help out my uncle who was running a construction company. He’d gotten hurt on the job and needed someone to step in and foreman the end of the job.

It was only supposed to be a month, but when my uncle fell during recovery and hurt himself again, dad thought it would be a good idea to come to Hawaii for the coldest part of the year. We winterized the house and planned to join him on January 17th, but the temperature plunged to -50º and when it gets that cold, things don’t move.

We knew that the airlines didn’t fly when it got to -40º because it was hard on the planes and the fuel would start to congeal, so we waited in Fairbanks, checking the weather and flight status. On January 19th, the forecast promised the temperature would get up to -36º and the airline said that we would be on standby.

They towed the jet into a hanger and loaded the luggage there and we waited for nearly two hours. We were all elated when the airport sign displayed a temperature of -39º, but we still hadn’t received a call to load.

As we approached the third hour, one of the gate attendants announced that we had gotten a green light to load the plane, but we were going to do a “quick” load. They lined us up by row from the back of the plane to the front and instructed people to quickly find a spot for any carryons. If they couldn’t find a place, to sit down and the flight attendant would come and get their stuff while we taxied and would find a place to store it.

The doors to the hanger opened and as they backed the plane out, the pilot was already starting the engines. As the jet approached the gate, the gate attendant had people start filing down the boarding bridge to start boarding as soon as the plane was close enough.

The bridge’s walls had ice crystals and we all shivered as the blast of cold air hit us, many of us dressed for a long flight and a warmer climate. Many people, most complete strangers, passed coats back and forth to those that didn’t have one.

The plane was loaded in record time, less than fifteen minutes, before we were pushed away and taxiing down the runway. Flight attendants scurried about putting people’s things away and we all cheered, despite being able to see our breath in the cabin, as we got the go ahead to take off.

The flight was long and it eventually warmed up and I slept. Seven and a half hours later, we touched down in Oahu where the captain announced that it was a balmy 63 degrees and raining. That meant it was over a hundred degree temperature change during that flight.

When we exited the airport in jeans and a t-shirt, I could not help but be amazed to see people greeting family wearing the same kinds of coats we’d been wearing less than 12 hours prior. I am sure we got a few stares too, but it was so nice to be warm.

Growing Up Alaska: Here is how you learn to drive stick

I grew up driving various types of vehicles. My first solo drive was a Korean War Era ambulance when I was 6, but that is another story. I had my own snow machine when I was 7 and I drove heavy equipment at the mine. Many times I was entrusted to take the family truck to go pick someone up or get water.

But out of all the vehicles I had ever driven, I never really learned to drive a stick shift.

So when I was 16 and went to buy my first vehicle, upon the recommendation of my dad, I chose an S-10 Blazer with a manual transmission. Though I kind of knew how to drive a stick shift, I never had any real experience with them.

Dad drove my new vehicle to meet up with my mother who was finishing up the shopping. After loading up the truck and filling up with gas, we began the long drive home to Central.

At that time, about 50 miles of the 128 mile road was paved and traversed three large summits. Most of the road was gravel that was graded occasionally, but I had grown up driving on these roads and they didn’t really intimidate me.

My mother was concerned about the roads and my lack of experience, so she drove my blazer for me. I really wanted to drive, but I wasn’t comfortable yet, especially with those steep summits, and I enjoyed being a passenger in my new vehicle.

We crossed over the first summit and when we reached the bottom, my dad, driving in the lead, pulled over onto the shoulder. I assumed something in the back of the truck had shifted or a strap had come loose, so I didn’t think anything of it when my mom pulled over behind him.

She got out to see what was wrong, expressing her worry that something might be wrong with the truck as we had just had the oil serviced. She walked up to the driver’s side window and my parents talked, then she went to the passenger side and climbed in.

And they left me there.

I was still sitting in the passenger seat, trying to figure out what they were doing as they pulled away. I sprang out of my blazer and ran to the front, watching them disappear around the bend.

Stunned, I climbed into the driver’s seat and started the blazer. Ever so carefully, I let out the clutch and slowly accelerated. I shifted into second before I reached the bend, and then struggled with third before getting up to highway speed and cycled up to fifth.

About ten miles up the road I caught up to my parents who had pulled over on a long straight stretch. When they saw me, they took off again and I drove my blazer home.

It was strange hitting the gravel with a new lighter vehicle. I immediately discovered that the blazer reacted differently and I had to drive with a lighter touch as the back end wanted to sway a bit more as it tried to get a grip.

12 Mile was my first summit and I stalled out on the second big climb where the road switch backs on itself and I didn’t downshift correctly. I had to restart on the steep incline and after a couple of attempts, I made the corner and reached the top where my parents were waiting.

By the time I reached Eagle Summit, I was more confident in my shifting and though I did struggle as I downshifted, I didn’t stall out this time and it was smooth sailing home.

As we pulled into the drive to our house, I found a place to park and climbed out, grinning from ear to ear.

Dad was also grinning, proud that I had done it. “I told you I would teach you how to drive a stick shift!” he said with a laugh. “Anything else you need to know?”

There wasn’t. I’d already had the experience and now I had the confidence.

Growing Up Alaska: The Switch

I will admit that when I grew up, we got spanked. Seldom was it done when my parents were angry and was often done by the calmer parent. Sometimes it wasn’t….and some of those were well deserved and funny.

I will save the whole back story for another time and will summarize it for you.

It was a cold spring day (talking -30º) and the Hot Springs near our house was showing movies. We had convinced our mom to let us stay, but in order to that, one of us had to run home (about 2 miles) to stoke the fireplace.

My second oldest brother, Clint, was picked and he drove the snow machine home to do this as quickly as he could as he didn’t want to miss the movie. Mom reminded him to make sure to close the door and pull it to latch it.

As you can guess, he didn’t and my puppy who was left on the screened in porch opened the non latched door and got inside. So you can imagine how upset my mother was when she saw the door open and knew the inside of the house was going to be cold and would take forever to warm back up.

Now add in the fact that my puppy found the gallon syrup bottle and chewed on it and drug it around the house leaving a now frozen sticky trail everywhere.

She was yelling and screaming and stomping about and we all stood outside well out of her reach. Then she lit into Clint.

After yelling at him and having to catch her breath, which I am sure was painful in that cold air, she announced the feared punishment, “Clint, go get a switch.”

Now this was not uncommon and we knew what she meant. If we got a small switch, she would whack us all the way to getting another one, so Clint obediently went and found a willow switch.

He handed it to mom and she raised it and gave him a good whack on the backside where it promptly broke because it was frozen. She started to swing again, but the sound the shortened switch made must of caught her off guard as she stopped and stared before she tossed it aside and ordered Clint to get her another one.

Clint did and returned a minute later where my mother repeated the action and the switch broke again. She had started to calm a bit, but this sent her over the edge again and she yelled at Clint to get another, which he promptly did.

By this time the rest of us were trying not to laugh because not only was the switch breaking funny and my mother thought Clint was picking switches that would break, but Clint was still fully dressed in his winter gear and even if the switch didn’t break, he likely wouldn’t have felt it through the layers.

Clint brought mom a third switch and she got two swings before it broke. We were all now snorting and giggling, Clint as well and this made mom even more irate, so she just kept swinging the little broken switch until it too broke.

We all stood there in the dark out front of our house, doubled over and trying not to laugh and stared at our mother who just stared at the stump of a switch. Her body convulsed as she too tried to hold back the laughter and broke the small willow stick which should have been supple and bent.

The darkness erupted with laughter as we all just lost it. Mom smack Clint on his butt with her gloved hand knowing that it wouldn’t have done anything.

It took two days to clean up the syrup mess and mom was still upset for days, but anytime one of kids would get into trouble and mom called for a switch, we would have to hide our grins as we thought back to that day.

Growing Up Alaska: Dirt Floors

When we first came to Alaska, I was five years old and it was planned as a summer trip. My parents had already lived in Alaska for a few years in which both of my older brothers were born. This trip had been meant to show them where they were born.

As often happens with my family, one adventure led to another and we ended up staying much longer, thus these stories of me growing up in Alaska.

After a series of unfortunate mishaps that landed us in Fairbanks weeks behind schedule with a blown transmission and low on funds, dad found a job that would “extend” our vacation. He’d found work at an old hotel at a hot springs about a hundred miles north (closer to 240 by the way the crow drives back then).

Dad found a temporary place for us to stay for the month to month and a half we expected to stay. To help you understand, Fairbanks is a remote city in the interior of Alaska. Central, the closest community to the hot springs is so remote that most people in Alaska don’t know where it is at. Arctic Circle Hot Springs is at the end of the road that is only there to connect it to Central. The place dad found for us was beyond that, up a mining road along Portage Creek a few miles from the Hot Springs.

No electricity, plumbing, running water, well water and no one would hear you scream.

To call it a cabin would be generous. In fact, most called it a shack, which is even dubious. Built from logs, it was no bigger than 10×12 feet with a door so low that even my 5’9″ mother had to duck to get inside.

The inside was illuminated by two small windows on opposite sides of the “cabin.” There was a table under one window, bunk beds jammed in the corner and a “full” size bed along the other wall. This left just enough space for an “open” kitchen concept which included a narrow plywood counter, two “shelves” and wood burning barrel stove. The floor by the beds had wood, but the rest of it was hard packed dirt.

And in this tiny space, my mother had 3 boys, ages 5-12.

It was a small humble place that my mother made into a home. And what has always amazed me, besides my mother not killing us boys, was that she swept that dirt floor every day. Most people probably wouldn’t have cared that their dirt floor was dirty, but if this was going to be her home, she was going to make the best of it.

It is those little memories that most people would think are so insignificant that have always stood with me. That little shack in the middle of nowhere became a symbol to me of our family; it doesn’t matter where we are or what we have, we are family.

Life is seldom what you dream it to be, life is what you make of it.