The Adventure Begins
The twin engine Piper Navajo banked as it cleared the mountains and descended into the wide river valley below. Thermal updrafts buffeted the plane and I smacked my forehead on the passenger window as I tried to peer down into the wilderness. Tall dark spruce trees clawed above the tundra soon gave way to stands of birch and aspens as we neared the river.
The pilot adjusted his course and in the distant I could see the morning sun glinting off of windows from stubby office buildings that made up the small city of Fairbanks, Alaska. Dirt roads that cut through the forest soon became interlocking ribbons of pavement with tiny toy cars zipping along.
Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska with a population of only 30,000. Compared to my hometown of Central, population 100 minus 1, Fairbanks is a metropolis.
We circled as the pilot lined up for the runway and brought the mail plane in to land with barely a bump. I had hitched a ride with the Warbelow’s Air which served as mail and passenger service between many of the small communities and villages in the interior of Alaska.
Disembarking, I shook the pilot’s hand, hefted my military surplus duffle bag, and jogged across the tarmac to the terminal. I checked my bag in with the Alaska Airline’s clerk before boarding my continuing flight to Anchorage.
The MD80 was a much different experience. I had grown up flying in small bush planes, but I had only been in a jet a half dozen times. The 300 mile flight took about an hour and soon I was sitting in the terminal in Anchorage waiting for my ride.
Shawn, the coordinator for the summer internship program I was participating in was supposed to be picking me up and getting me to my host family for the couple of days I was spending in Anchorage before continuing my trip to Larsen Bay with a survey crew from the Bureau of Land Management.
I stared out the window at the expansive city. With a population of 300,000, Anchorage was the largest city in Alaska and hosted nearly half of its population.
My duffle bag arrived on the belt and I snatched it before finding a seat near the display of the standing brown bear where Shawn had told me to meet him in the one brief phone call we had had a few days before.
I squirmed a bit uncomfortably because I needed to use the restroom, but I did not want to miss my ride either. I checked my watch and noted Shawn was already late. I gave him fifteen more minutes before I dug a notebook out of my duffle and found Shawn’s number written in it.
I found a pay phone bank along one wall and dialed the number. After a few rings, the call went to an answering machine. I left a brief message and went back to my spot and waited.
There was no way I could know if Shawn got my message of for Shawn to call me as this was before the time of cell phones. After another ten minutes, I could wait no longer and headed to the restroom hoping I would not miss him.
Relieved, I went back to my post and waited.
And waited some more.
To pass the time, I watched as tourists and others came and went from the baggage terminal. I tried to guess where they might be from by listening to them talk, the clothes they wore and the amount of tan they had. Alaskans tend to be a pasty white unless you are native. I then wondered where they might be going and what they might be doing. Perhaps visiting family, going sightseeing, maybe even fishing.
Nearly an hour had passed and I still was sitting.
I began to fidget and I checked my watch, 4:07. I knew his office closed at 5 and it was a Friday so no one would be in on the weekend. I was sixteen years old, away from home by myself for the first time, in a city where the only person I knew I had talked to briefly on the phone.
Beginning to feel panic, I hurried over to the phone bank again. Dialing the number, I waited. This time however, a female voice answered and I asked for Shawn. She informed me he was out of the office for the day. I explained who I was and there was a short pause before she replied that she would call his pager. She put me on hold and I fed more money into the payphone.
I was down to a dime and nickel before she came back on and told me that Shawn had been at the airport and could not find me. She told me to make sure I was standing next to the Brown Bear.
I hung up the phone and hurried back to the bear. I took a couple of breaths to calm down the irritation and panic that had set in.
I watched as the time slowly crept towards 5, then slip past and continued on. I had been at the airport for nearly three hours and had not eaten since breakfast.
A young man walked by and I was certain I had seen him before. He wore a gray jacket and stood about six feet tall. Though he did not look much different than most, what I remembered were his shoes. Despite the black slacks and tie, his shoes were running shoes with a neon green swoosh down the side.
I was not sure if this was Shawn, but why else would I have seen this guy walking around nearly an hour before?
Standing, I grabbed my duffle and made sure he could see me by the Brown Bear.
He wandered a bit down towards the baggage claim before turning and heading back towards me. He pulled something from his pocket and shook his head. I had never seen a pager before and did not know what it was.
As he looked up, he squinted and quickly weaved his way through the crowd towards me. As he approached, he slowed and asked hesitantly, “Matthew?”
I smiled with relief and stuck out my hand, “Shawn.”
He took my hand and shook it slowly. “You’re not native.”
Puzzled, I look down and replied, “No.”
A look of shock came across his face and he just stood there for a moment. “Uhh. Okay then. Let me make a phone call.”
He cursed under his breath and headed for the phone bank. He pulled out a pad of paper from his jacket pocket and dialed the number. No one answered, so he slammed down the phone and dialed a different number. He talked in hush tones for a few minutes and I kept my distance to give him privacy.
Hanging up the phone he turned apologetically to me and said, “There was a mix up and your host family will be in to pick you up in an hour. Have you eaten?”
I shook my head no and he asked me, “Do you like pizza?”
That of course was a dumb question, because who does not like pizza, so he told me he was going to take me to Godfather’s Pizza and their all-you-can-eat buffet.
As we walked to his car and while I stowed my duffle in his trunk, he asked again, “You’re not native?”
Again I told him no and he asked how that was possible.
“Both of my parents are white. White families do not tend to have native babies.”
I found out on the ride that he was not being rude. He was new to Alaska and had, like many people, assumed most people who lived in the bush communities and villages were native. On top of that, the program I had signed up for was an internship program for native students funded by native corporations.
I informed him that my principal had gotten the paperwork and I was only one of two kids in the school that qualified. Nowhere on the form did it ask my ethnicity.
After dinner, we drove to a store parking lot and waited for my host family. They showed up in a big truck and Shawn asked me to wait in the car. He went to the window and they talked for a moment before he motioned for me to join them.
I grabbed my duffel bag and exchanged handshakes with a tall dark headed man who introduced himself as Mike. It turned out he was also the operations manager for the project I was going to be working on over the summer.
“That is if I can smooth things out on Monday,” Shawn said.
I looked at him puzzled and he continued. “I am not sure if you qualify for the program. I need to make sure they will fund you.”
I got a bit heated and said, “What do you mean qualify? I filled out the paperwork, I did the interview, I planned for the whole summer.”
Mike placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about this now. There are hiccups in paperwork all the time. We can work something out.”
Shawn went to his car without a word and sped away.
The ride back to Mike’s house was nearly an hour and I had plenty of time to mull over my predicament. I normally spent the summers mining with the family, but we had made other arrangements. I could not imagine a summer of just sitting around.
Hiccups in paperwork. Little did I know at the time how ominous and prophetic those words would be for the summer ahead.