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.

Growing Up Alaska: Witching

When I was young, I thought my dad couldn’t read. I rarely saw him pick up a book and the ones he did were heavily illustrated. It turns out he had dyslexia, but he was absolutely brilliant. This made it difficult at times to know if he was pranking you or being completely serious. The following story is an example of this.

When I was a teenager, both of my older brothers were gone and this left me with a majority of the chores and responsibilities that they once had. This meant assisting dad whenever he went to work on one of his projects. On this particular occasion, it was drill testing some mining claims for a friend and a client.

I had spent many days of my youth assisting my dad out in the field and seeing some of the strange things that he did and rarely explained. So it was no surprise to me when dad set off through the brush before we started. He looked over the creek and checked the trees before returning to the trailer and unloading the drill rig.

It had been a hard year financially with a lot of setbacks and this drilling operation would help lessen the blow on the winter ahead. I saw dad’s expression as the owner of the claim drove up; he wasn’t expecting good news.

As he’d expected, the claim owner hadn’t been able to come up with the money for my dad to put down the 30+ holes to assay the claim. Like us, this miner had had a pretty rough year and was even thinking of closing his operation early since he didn’t have any good thawed ground to mine.

They talked back and forth and I watched my dad’s eyes narrow. He didn’t blame the man, but he was concocting a plan. The man offered to pay for my dad’s fuel and apologized profusely.

“Can you pay for six holes? I can find you good thawed pay within six holes. If I don’t, it will just cost you the fuel.”

The miner scratched at his head as he leaned on the front of our truck and I could see him thinking about it. After a few minutes he shook his head and said, “You can find thawed pay in six holes?”

“It’ll only cost you fuel if I don’t,” dad replied.

They shook on it and dad told me to prep the drill rig. He went around to the toolbox and pulled out a two inch steel washer and some string that he cut into a three foot length.

He tied the washer to the string as he walked off and the miner just stared after him. Many people had heard about what dad could do, but even after all he’d done, many thought it was luck.

“Is he serious?” the miner asked before turning back to his truck to get his jacket.

I just grinned and loaded the drill rig before taking off after dad. By the time I reached him, he’d cut a section from a young willow and was dousing, or witching for water.

I watched as he walked through the brush along the edge of a copse of spruce. I wouldn’t have believed that you could really find water this way unless I had done it myself. And sure enough, after a few paces, the twisted rod dipped towards the ground.

Dad tied a piece of survey ribbon to the nearest branch and moved off to another area. By this time the miner had shown up and we watched as dad worked for nearly 45 minutes until he found the edges of the main flow of water indicating where thawed ground could be.

With the area marked off, dad strode out to the middle of the claim, took out the washer and string and squatted down. He danged the washer about a half a foot off the ground and watched it.

The washer spun at first, one way, then the other, until the energy stored in the string was released. Each time it slowed down, dad stopped it by placing it on the ground.

Once it had stopped spinning, dad got really still and let the washer hang. We stared and the washer slowly started arching in a very shallow oblong circle. I couldn’t tell if it was dad swaying or something else affecting the washer, and the miner thought so too.

After a few minutes of us all staring in silence, dad stood up and said, “Not here.” He then marched off in the direction the washer had been swinging before repeating the process.

It didn’t take as long for the string to unwind, so dad grew quiet and this time the swing was obvious. It swung nearly half an inch in a very oblong circle. Despite the cool fall air, I could see dad was sweating from concentration.

His eyes followed the direction of the swinging washer and he stood up and walked that way. He hesitated after about sixty feet, then walked a little farther before squatting down.

Amazingly, this time, the washer swung the other way. It wasn’t as strong as the last one, but you could definitely see it. This time, dad moved into a different orientation and tried again. The washer slowly swung and it appeared to be shaking too.

Dad looked up and grinned and the miner remarked with skepticism, “You’re full of shit!”

Dad just grinned and stood up. “Matt, this is hole number three. Run and get a stake.”

I sprang up and ran to the drill rig and pulled one of the survey stakes out along with a hammer. When I returned, the miner and dad were discussing the drill plan. Dad was holding the willow stick again and was saying, “This should be the edge of the old creek bed with water at about 10-12 feet. The pay should stretch that way.”

I drove the stake in and ran to catch up. Dad stopped close to where he’d hesitated early and swatted down. This time the washer swung in a wider arch and off center from the other two readings.

He dug his heal into the ground and then paced off a few steps before squatting down again. He observed the washer, then made another whole with his heel before walking off in a different direction.

Again he squatted down, only this time, the washer didn’t swing as wildly. Instead it spun in a lazy circle and when it reached a certain spot, I could see the washer hop and wiggle before continuing on its arc.

Dad dropped the washer and pulled out the willow branch and tightened it. It bobbed and after a few seconds, he said to the miner who stood there with his mouth open, “This is the middle of the old channel. The pay starts at about 10 feet and the water starts at 12-15 feet.”

“This is whole number one,” he told me as he made an x on the ground with the heel of his boot.

“Are you sure?” the miner asked in disbelief.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” dad said as he and the miner walked back to the drill rig.

I staked the spot and guided dad in to punch the first hole. The ground was thawed and it only took us about fifteen minutes to sink it. I sorted samples as they came up and just as dad had said, at about 9 1/2 feet we ran into old channel gravel and a couple of feet later we his water.

I classified the material with a screen and dad panned out the samples while I reset the rig. The top of the gravels held very little gold, but the layer just above the water had nearly 20 colors. Wet gravel doesn’t show as well as the gold tries to travel down, but we still got some color out of that pan and the gold was larger.

We drilled halfway between the first hole and the planned third hole. Each hole showed promise, though the third hole was a thin layer of pay gravel that only gave us 7 colors per pan.

The miner showed up as dad was figuring out the other three holes and dad showed him each pan, first starting with hole 3. The miner nodded grimly until dad showed him the second pan which had 13 colors and the miner explained that was what they had mined for most of the year.

Dad just grinned as he pulled the sample for the first hole. The miners eyes went wide and he asked, “Is that from the whole hole?”

Dad shook his head and showed him his notebook where he’d drawn the strata. “That comes from a foot above the water. Bedrock is at 19 feet and 8 inches. The rocks are bigger and so is the gold.”

The miner stared at the pans and talked excitedly to dad as they walked away. I loaded the drill rig and drove it back to hole one. The miner had run off and dad was witching the ground again.

We ended up drilling 4 more holes by the end of the day and the miner had returned with a back hoe to dig a test pit.

Dad laid out the maps for him showing the general direction of the old channel and the thawed areas. There would be more than enough good pay for the end of the season and to start the next year while the rest of the ground thawed.

Before we left, dad secured three more holes to dig the next day with the promise to get paid out of the next cleanup.

On the long drive home, I worked up the courage to ask dad if he’d been pulling the guy’s leg with the washer thing. He grinned and winked and said, “It worked.”

I felt disappointed until dad continued, “Witching isn’t a science. I don’t totally understand how it works, why it works and why sometimes it doesn’t work.”

It took him nearly the whole trip home for him to explain his theory behind it, but to sum it up, he believed that people find gold precious and are literally drawn to it. Gold actually repels magnetic fields and dad theorized the body is drawn to this lower magnetism in the earth causing you to sway.

We tested this many times and proved that it wasn’t the body swaying that caused the motion, because it only worked with a steel or iron washer. A plastic or aluminum or other metal washer didn’t work.

He assumed that gold does give off some sort of field that can change the magnetic field which we tried with compasses. Over known areas of gold in the ground, the needle would slightly wobble or be pushed up or down, but not normally to the side. The affect only happened when someone was holding the compass.

The same testing showed that the washer also had to be held on a string by a person and not just hung from a tripod or something.

To this day I can not explain what causes the washer to react the way it does, but my dad had read about it from a miners hundreds of years ago. It was laughed at as not possible, but on that day, and many other days afterwards, it worked.

Whatever the answer might be, I am still skeptical, not because I don’t think it works, I’ve seen and done it, but I am skeptical because I can not explain it.

Growing Up Alaska: Hop on and Hold Tight!

When we moved to Alaska, it was meant as a vacation that extended into a one year stay. That in turn became a permanent stay and we built a house near Circle Hot Springs.

Shane, my oldest brother, had a three wheeler, you know, those death machines. Being a teenager, it was his pride and joy and his freedom. He had very particular rules about it such as: Don’t ask to ride it. Don’t sit on it. And don’t look at it.

One day, I broke all three rules. This turned into my brother trying to intimidate me and a lot of whining on my part. And believe me, my eight year old self could whine with the best of them.

My mother told Shane to let me take it for a ride around the yard, which was fairly big. I don’t think this was really because she felt I should, after all, it belonged to Shane, but it was more to get me to stop whining.

This of course backfired as Shane started whining so now she had two of going. We had an understanding that personal belongings were out of control of our parents unless we misused them or were grounded. So this made Shane’s three wheeler out of bounds.

Shane finally relented and said I could ride it if I could start it. I sprang up from the table and bolted out the door.

This was an old style three wheeler without a fancy electric start and the only way to get it going was using the pull start or the kick start. Both were extremely difficult as you had to have the weight and strength to get the kick start to work and the pull start required a long reach that I did not have. So Shane felt pretty safe.

Only he didn’t know that I had watched my dad show my mom how to start the small generator with a trick. It too required a long pull, but if you pulled out about half the rope, the turns were smaller and you could get more force with a shorter pull.

I set the choke to half and pulled the cord out about half way, wrapped it around my hand and yanked. The engine sputtered, but didn’t fire. This did however get Shane’s attention as he bolted out the front door to stop me.

I yanked again and this time the three wheeler sprang to life and I was off like a rocket, Shane running in my wake yelling for me to start. He yelled for me to stop and I took off down the trail next to the house and didn’t dare look back.

I flew down the trail, the wind flying through my hair and I laughed. I rarely got to drive it and I was excited to have actually started it on my own.

The trail ended in about 3/4 of a mile and I went to turn around, but there was still snow on the ground here making it difficult. I gunned the gas in an attempt to spin it around, but instead of spinning, the engine died.

I tried to start it, but it smelled of gas and I realized that the choke was still on half. I’d flooded the engine and it was going to be a few minutes before it could start.

I sat there and expected Shane to come down the trail at any moment, but he never did. I tried again after a couple of minutes, but it still didn’t start, so I waited a little longer.

After about 5 minutes, it started up and I made sure the choke was off and drove back home a little more slowly, enjoying the ride. I coasted into the yard and parked the three wheeler as Shane came running back out.

Normally his glare would have sent me running, but I was grinning from ear to ear. I slid off the seat and walked past him to the house. He removed the key and stomped after me.

When he caught up, he held the key out in front of me and said, “Never again.”

I kept on walking, my grin growing. When dad got home, I was going to have to ask him about what he would do if he lost the key to the snow machine…

Growing Up Alaska: Overflow

The names in the following story have been altered to protect those in the story.

One of the things us kids liked to do over New Year’s was to camp out. Yes, in the cold and the darkness we would camp out. It started off at one of our houses, but by the time I reached 15, we were putting our Arctic Survival classes to use.

It normally took use a couple of weeks to build snow shelters and a small structure on the edge of a lake that would become our bonfire. We did everything we could to be safe, including check ins with a radio.

I won’t say stupid things never happened, we were teenagers after all, but overall, things went well for the three years we did it.

Of course, afterwards, we showed our responsibility by cleaning up our mess as well. Most of the kids wandered home, but a few of us always stayed behind to haul stuff out and not leave a mess behind.

My friend Stan drove his snow machine and I drove mine while Grace, a friend of Stan’s cousin rode on the dog sled I was towing behind my machine. She laughed and yelled as we went over bumps and rounded corners.

We had been fortunate that it had warmed up during our camp out a couple nights before, but we had broken camp early because it had cleared up and the temperature had dipped below zero. The air bit into our exposed flesh, but we were bundled up as best as we could against it; this wasn’t even close to our normal cold for this time of the year.

Stan packed up the gear onto his sled, a wooden toboggan, and I tied down the tents and a cooler to my dog sled. It didn’t take long and we were heading back into town. I encouraged Grace to ride on the back of my machine so we could go faster, but she insisted on riding on the sled.

Stan took the lead and we traveled along slowly to keep the sleds from banging around too much. It was starting to get dark, though it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I slowed down on an exceptionally bumpy section of trail.

Grace yelled for me to faster, but I knew the wooden sled could take only so much of a beating, but I obliged her when we dropped down into a creek crossing which was much smoother. She screamed with delight and I looked back her as she waved.

That is when I noticed the trail was much darker and I looked back ahead and could see the trail that Stan had left. The trail was filling with water that had burst up through the ice that had fractured in the cold.

Now overflow is no joking matter and I only had moments to react and I could already feel my machine slowing. I stood up and hit the gas as hard as I dared trying not to cause Grace to fall off.

I looked back and saw her laughing, but okay. The crossing wasn’t very wide, maybe fifty feet from bank to bank and the overflow was mostly on the side we were approaching.

I sighed with relief when my skis hit the far side and I started up the shallow bank. Then the snow machine lurched and I heard Grace scream.

I cleared the embankment and looked back to find the dog sled on its side and Grace missing. I sprang off my machine as soon as it skidded to a halt and waved to Stan who had stopped just up the trail.

Grace was kneeling in the slush on her hands and knees. Apparently she had fallen in face first and was covered from head to foot in slush. I yelled for her to get up, but she only looked up at me in shock. She tried to get her footing and slipped back down into the slush with an audible splash.

I jumped in found the water only came to about mid calf, but I could feel the cold immediately. I yelled for Grace again, but she didn’t move. I tried to pick her up, but we both slipped and I went down on my knees to hold her up.

I got her back up on her knees and slowly stood up, trying to keep my balance. I hefted her to her feet, but she just slumped against me, having gone into shock. I wiped the ice from her cheeks and tried to get her to look at me. Her eyes just stared off and her head rolled to one side.

Her body shifted and I fell again, trying to keep her upright. She slumped across my shoulder and I scooted forward a few feet on my knees until I felt slush under me. I slowly got up and threw Grace into a fireman’s carry.

Stan had reached the bank and I yelled for him to stay back. His face had gone white and I yelled for him to go grab a sleeping bag. He vanished into the dark as I inched my way forward until I had cleared the overflow.

I was getting cold, despite the effort I was putting forth, and could only imagine how Grace felt. She was no longer responding in any way and I knew that hypothermia had likely set in.

Stan had the sleeping back rolled out and I set Grace down on the snow machine.

“We need a fire,” I said through chattering teeth. “Get her undressed and into the sleeping bag,” I ordered as I trotted off to the sled to grab the axe and some wood left over from the bonfire. There wasn’t much, so I went to chop up some small limbs and trees to get a roaring fire. I figured the physical exercise would keep my temperature up.

I carried the wood and the axe back to Stan and Grace and found her in the sleeping bag and Stan sitting on the snow machine.

“You have to get in there with her,” I said, almost incredulous as we had both been through the same training.

He just stared at me and it took me a moment to realize that he hadn’t undressed her.

I threw down the axe and wood and flopped onto the ground beside her. She was turning blue and her lips quivered. I pulled off her hat and sat her up and started removing her wet coat.

“Go grab another bag!” I yelled at Stan who jumped up and ran off.

He came back a minute later with another bag and began opening it. He laid it on the ground next to the now soaked one as I unzipped it and started peeling off her clothes.

Stan just stood there before turning his back as I removed her shirt and pants. I knew I should remove her underclothes, but I was even too abashed to do that.

I took off my coat and my sweater and used it to dry her off as much as I could before slipping her into the dry sleeping bag.

My hands were now wet and numb and I looked up to Stan who still wasn’t looking. “You need to crawl in and warm her up.”

Stan just shook his head and said meekly, “I can’t. You do it.”

I wasn’t in much better shape than Grace was, but I was better than nothing. “Get the fire started,” I said hoarsely as I began to undress.

Stan started on the fire and I could feel myself clinging to edge of consciousness. I was so warm, but I shivered so violently. I knew this was the delirium of hypothermia.

Grace’s body was so cold and I mustered all my energy and tried to warm us up. Stan got the fire going and I scooted us as close as I dared, at one point melting a patch on the outside.

I was shivering and so was Grace. A little color had returned to her lips, but her skin was still cold. My legs had gone fairly numb, though pin pricks of pain let me know they were still there.

Our would hadn’t lasted long and I told Stan to unload his toboggan and pad it. While he did that, I crawled out of the sleeping bag and put on my now thawed Carhart snow pants and mukluks, which were amazingly dry on the inside.

We lined the sled with the wet sleeping bag which had pretty much frozen by now, along with another sleeping bag. We carried Grace over and set her in the toboggan and covered her with another sleeping bag and raced home as quickly as we could.

It was nearly a half an hour before we made it to Stan’s place. The house was dark and no one was home. My snow pants had frozen into a sitting position and I had to work to get off the machine.

We carried Grace to the stairs leading down to the basement and I had to sit down and scoot down the stairs since I couldn’t really bend my legs. We got her inside and into the guest room. I couldn’t get back onto my feet, so I had to scoot across the floor on my knees.

I told Stan he had to get Grace into bed. He turned bright red and shook his head. I wanted to smack him, but I was too exhausted and asked him to help me get her onto the bed and then go get one of his sister’s night shirts.

He did and I removed her from her from the sleeping bag. He hands and toes had curled up and I knew that was not a good sign. Stan returned and called from the hallway, unwilling to come into the room.

He tossed the shirt in and I scooped it up and began dressing Grace. She stirred a bit as I put her arms through the sleeves and got her under the covers. She was better off, but she wasn’t out of the woods yet. She needed a lot more heat, so I told Stan he needed to get in bed with her and warm her up.

He refused and ran off upstairs. I slumped to the floor, feeling myself slipping in and out of blackness, the little voice in my head screaming for me to get up and get out of my wet clothes.

I was suddenly aware of Stan flopping something down onto the bed as it brushed past my head. It turned out to be his mother’s electric blanket that he covered Grace with and plugged in.

I crawled to the bathroom on my hands and knees, despite the fact that my pants had thawed, I couldn’t feel my legs or feet.

The journey seemed to take forever and I remember telling Stan I was going to take a shower and him saying he was going to find his mom.

I undressed and turned on the water. It quickly steamed up the room and I was aware enough to turn the temperature down before climbing in. I sat on the floor of the shower and let the water fall on me.

I could feel the blood moving in my legs and for some reason, I’m not sure if it was something I’d read or thought was wise, but I propped my feet up onto the wall and lay in the bottom of the shower.

I woke and found that the water was now tepid at best as I had used all the hot water. My legs screamed and in the light I could see little bruises all up and down my legs. The hot water on my skin and been enough to damage it.

I turned off the water and weakly got up. My clothes were still wet and I hoped Stan had some I could borrow. I wrapped a towel around my waist and called for him, but no one answered.

I was weak and stumbled to his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. I went and checked on Grace. She was still pale, but the color had returned to her lips and she breathed more easily.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I checked her pulse which was still shallow, but steady.

The room began to spin and I laid down for a second.

I woke up with Grace cuddled up next to me, though her hands were still curled up. I was aware of someone shaking me and looked up to see Stan standing there.

I immediately looked down and thankfully my towel was still on.

Stan had found his mom and she was going to be taking Grace to the hospital in Fairbanks. She recall her saying what a great job we had done and that our actions likely saved her. I wanted to tell her that her son had been a coward, but I was too exhausted.

I got some sweats and a shirt from Stan before getting my stuff and driving home.

My legs hurt for over a week until the little bruises started to go away and I held those painful memories for months to come.

Stan and I were never the same either. Our relationship was already strained and we only grew farther apart when he took credit for saving Grace. He was already in a bad place and I thought the attention might help him recover, but we both knew it was a lie.

And I am glad to say that Grace recovered. I saw her a couple of times over the next two years, and she said she didn’t remember much other than me carrying her out of the ice, then awkwardly trying to climb into the sleeping bag with her and waking up and cuddling with me and crying because her hands hurt so much. She’d had to do some physical therapy, but the last time I saw her she was on the cheer team for her school.

Hypothermia is no joke and I am surprised we didn’t come out of it worse.

Growing Up Alaska: The Bed Unmade

When I was 5, my family returned to Alaska on vacation so that my two older brothers could see where they were born. Through a series of events, that vacation turned into staying over the winter and I never left.

One of those events that allowed us to stay here was the fact that my dad took on a carpentry project of restoring an old hotel at Arctic Circle Hot Springs. All the kids were put to work doing chores around the hotel and one of my duties was to help clean the rooms after the few guests that we had left.

The overall winter was quite boring and I don’t remember a whole lot except for a few events that have been seared into my brain.

At night, when all of us kids gathered in the lofts to sleep, the older kids would tell stories that of course made it difficult to sleep. Many of these stories were centered around things that went bump in the night, including the ghost of Mrs. Leech, the original owner of the hotel.

One thing that I noticed when the stories of Mrs. Leech came up, there was no laughter or loud screams to scare you, they were all done in hushed tones. The older kids would turn pale and grow quiet whenever her name was mentioned. Even the adults wouldn’t exactly deny the existence of something strange at the hotel.

It seemed like everyone had a story. Most were of strange sounds or the feeling of being watched. Some ranged to manifestations or things being moved, but they were often scoffed at, but never denied.

This is mine.

We’d had three rooms vacated and the linens needed to be changed. The manager had three daughters, and I honestly don’t remember their names, except for Brook. I was assisting the oldest daughter who was 16 I think and I don’t remember her name, but I will refer to her as Brook.

The rooms were on the second floor of the hotel and we methodically were cleaning them. Brook would pull the covers and sheets off and bundle them before setting them in the hall. I would then carry them downstairs to the cart where we would later wheel them over to the laundry.

While I was doing this, which was a chore since I was only 5, Brook would vacuum each room. On each return trip, I would grab the new sheets and blankets for the bed and deposit them in the room before taking down the next load.

There was a communal bathroom for the floor which was luckily someone else’s job, so we put fresh towels and washcloths in the chest of drawers in each room.

We had finished the cleaning and were putting the beds back together. I’m not sure how much help I really was, but Brook was always kind and was one of the few older kids that seemed to genuinely enjoy my assistance.

All the rooms were next to each other and were on the front side of the hotel, so we started with the one farthest away and worked our way towards the stairs. We finished the first room and Brook marked it off the checklist and we moved on to the next room.

We were almost done with the middle room when we heard a thump. I finished tucking in the blanket while Brook stuck her head out into the hall. She came back in and shrugged and we finished up the room.

We had just moved into the third room when Brook’s mom came upstairs to check on our progress. Brook indicated we were done with the first two rooms and we were moving on to the last one.

I was putting the pillow cases on while Brook was laying out the fitted sheet when her mother yelled for Brook from down the hall. Brook rolled her eyes and looked out into the hall.

“I want both of you to come here now!” she called.

I followed Brook down the hall and followed Brook’s mother’s very agitated gaze into the room. My jaw nearly hit the floor and I looked to Brook.

The blanket on the bed was pulled down and hanging off the front side of the bed. I also noticed a towel on the floor and the top drawer open.

Brook’s mom stared scolding her for not doing her job properly, but I was trying to figure out who did this. We’d heard a thump. There was only one stairway, and we hadn’t heard anyone walking up and down the halls. Besides, kids weren’t allowed on this floor unless we were working…

I bolted for the common bathroom and busted through the door, expecting to find my older brothers in there. But the room was empty.

I started back down the hall and checked the next two rooms on the backside of hotel. They were empty as well.

“Matthew, what are you doing?” Brook’s mom demanded. “Those rooms haven’t been used in over a month.”

I looked up at her and I could hear the whispers of the older kids at night and the hair on my neck stood on end. “We made the bed.”

Her eyes narrowed for a second, then she responded, “Obviously not. I don’t know what game you are playing, but it isn’t funny.”

She grabbed Brook by the arm and the walked to the second room and I ran to catch up. She opened the door and stood there. I peeked around and found the room perfectly fine.

“Now go back and do the first room right,” she said herding Brook down the hall. “And you go finish what you were doing in the last room.”

I scurried off and went back to fitting the oversized down pillows into their way to small pillowcases. The whispers kept haunting me. I could sense something and my little heart raced.


I screamed and threw the pillow and spun around expecting something to spring out at me.

There was another thump and I ran for the open door.

Brook and her mother had come out of their room and her mom glared at me. “What were you doing?”

I looked back into the room and stammered, “I was ma-making the the b-b-bed.”

She started for me and I was ready to bolt, but she stopped in front of the middle room and slowly opened the door. She stood there and I could see her hand tremble as she paled.

Brook reached her before I did and she gasped. I slid under her mom’s arm and looked inside. The mattress was turned and both the blankets and sheets were in a pile on the floor. Both pillows had been tossed across the room and all four drawers were pulled out of the chest of drawers, the top one on the floor.

She carefully pushed us back and closed the drawer. She seemed like she was going to say something, but then she closed her mouth and herded us down the hallway. “Never speak of this,” she whispered.

She excused us from our chores and waited a couple of hours before going back upstairs and fixing the rooms.

At first we didn’t say anything, until the kids began to ask question after we were banned from doing our chores on the second floor for the week. The other kids began to ask questions and Brook finally broke and told them what happened.

Of course the others laughed quietly and played it off as a joke. But I will always remember how quiet they would get when something would thump or knock on the wall downstairs.

Was it a guest or was it Mrs. Leech examining the rooms?

Growing Up Alaska: Don’t Feed the Wildlife

Whenever I was 16, I spent the summer on Kodiak Island with a survey team of four. It was an interesting summer in the wilds of Kodiak and I have multiple stories from that summer, but this one comes from the near end of my time there.

We were in Olga Bay and had travelled by boat to do the third and final job in that area. We had been there for nearly 8 weeks with limited food supplies that had run out a few weeks ago, and we didn’t have communication with the outside world.

This job was an easy one and took us less than a day, so Sam and I went to go catch some fish while our boss tried to get the radio working at the abandoned Ranger Station there. Two large creeks flowed into the bay here and they were both filled salmon….and bears.

The creek literally teemed with fish and Sam decided we should have some fun. Most of the silver salmon pooled up in the bend in the creek to allow the salt from the ocean to wash from their gills and Sam challenged me to catch a fish with my bare hands.

We waded out to the bottom end of the pool and the fish scattered, but after standing there for a few minutes, the fish started swimming around us again. More fish came up stream and there were so many that they began bumping into us.

We stood perfectly still, then Sam slowly lowered his hands into the ice cold water and snatched up a salmon! He held it up as it flopped about, sending the other fish scattering again. Now that he had the fish, he didn’t know what to do and tried to wade across the stream. He didn’t make it and the fish eventually wiggled free and plopped back into the water.

It was all very funny and we went back to try again.

After a couple of minutes, and my feet starting to go numb, the fish returned. Sam scooped up a second one, but this time, instead of trying to carry it to shore, he tossed it up on the embankment just above our heads. It cleared the edge and we heard it flopping around in the grass.

Laughing, we noticed the other fish hadn’t been spooked and Sam announced that the score was 2-0. I hadn’t realized that we were keeping score and it took me a couple of tries to scoop up my first salmon. I didn’t get it to shore and as I tried to toss it, it wiggled free and plopped back in the water.

We decided that each fish we grabbed was one point and each fish we landed was two points. It took us a few more tries before Sam was able to toss another up onto the bank taking a commanding lead of 7-3.

Now we really only needed the two fish for dinner and breakfast, and our hands and feet were growing numb, but it was now a contest and there were so many fish I figured on scooping up as many as I could and not worry about the bank.

After about another fifteen minutes, Sam was still in the lead, though neither of us had landed another fish and I could feel my body starting to shake from the cold. Sam announced that the next person to land a fish would win the game, so I waited for a good grab.

The fish swam right between my boots and I scooped it up and tossed it before it could react. Sam caught one at the same time and tossed it too, cascading me with cold water. We watched as the fish sailed through the air and over the bank….

…And into the mouth of a waiting Kodiak Brown Bear. He lay there, his front paws dangling at the edge of the embankment, shredding one of the first fish we’d tossed up there. He continued chewing and watched nonchalantly as two more fish landed beside him. With a mouthful of fish, he looked down at us as we splashed to the other side of the creek.

We only paused long enough to grab our gear and stumbled numb footed back to the boat. And as we hurried away, I looked back at the bear who I could have sworn had a disappointed look on his face.

Growing Up Alaska: Who’s Driving

When I was fifteen, the last year that we ran our gold mine, we were operating on Harrison Creek in the interior of Alaska. We were reaching the end of our last season, of which we were unaware of, and my uncle Jim came to visit.

Harrison Creek sits in a narrow valley with a one lane road that snaked up the north side of the creek to the only other mining camp of two old men who had already given up for the year. The upper end of the creek was above the tree line and the low bush blueberries painted the tundra in a swath of red and purples.

And most importantly, this attracted both bears and caribou.

Everyday, uncle Jim would drive this old Jeep up the valley in search of something to shoot. The Jeep was outfitted for driving off road with massive mud tires and a low transmission that barely allowed it to reach 40mph wide out. He loved driving it and we could hear him coming from a mile a way, especially in that narrow valley, and I wondered how he ever saw any animals.

But he did. They would often be up on the ridges and seemingly oblivious to the noisy Jeep. A small part of the Fortymile caribou herd had come up the next valley over and my uncle was excited about to very promising bulls that he hoped would linger in the area until the season opened in a few days.

Uncle Jim loved hunting, but a series of accidents meant he couldn’t get around well, so he needed something close to the road to hunt as there was no way he was going to be climbing those steep, slippery slopes.

The morning of hunting season arrived and my uncle was as giddy as a school child. It was cold and frost had covered the grass, so we bundled up and climbed into the Jeep. My little brother was only six and this was going to be his first “hunt,” so we sat in the back of the Jeep, me holding the rifles, while my dad and uncle sat up front.

The Jeep didn’t have a cover on it, so the wind chilled my ears causing me to flip up the collar on my jean jacket as my uncle drove a little faster than comfortable for the narrow road.

We parked at the upper end of the valley while my uncle and dad scanned the hillsides for caribou. We spotted a couple of cows high up on a ridge, but we didn’t spot either of the bulls my uncle had spotted the day before. So we sat for nearly an hour, hoping they would show up, before we decided to head back to camp since my dad and I had to work.

We drove back much more slowly as my uncle was keeping an eye out for caribou. We reached a section of road that was extremely narrow and cut into the mountainside with the creek dropping off below on the other. I hated this part of the road since there was no room for error, so I focused on the mountain ridge above me in hopes of spotting a caribou.

The road was bumpy here and my brother and I got jostled back and forth. I ducked to keep my head from hitting the roll cage and the small willow trees that grew over the road from the creek below. We were picking up speed, though we were coasting, when a branch smacked me behind the ear and I turned to yell for my uncle to slow down.

Do you ever have those moments when the world slows down as your brain tries to figure out what’s wrong? I mean, it knows something is wrong, but you don’t really comprehend it or believe it?

I watched as my uncle held onto the steering wheel of the Jeep, only it wasn’t in front of him, it was between him and my dad who was pushing it back to my uncle. They were yelling, but it was all a jumble and hard to hear over the Jeep and the sound of the wind whipping by as we continued to pick up speed.

The next couple of moments, which seemed to be at least a minute, was a scene from a Laurel and Hardy sketch as my uncle yelled and waved the steering wheel around, my dad with one hand on it and trying to get my uncle to put it back in place as the turn in the road ahead quickly approached.

“Jump!” my dad yelled and the world snapped back in to motion.

Sadly, this was not the first time I would have jumped from a moving vehicle, but in one motion I grabbed my little brother and tossed him screaming onto the embankment where he landed on the springy tundra. Then I tossed the guns up there as well before planting my foot on the edge of the Jeep and jumped as well.

The embankment made a quick height change and I didn’t clear the edge, so my feet struck the loose dirt and I twisted my ankle as I rolled and grabbed for the brush and the tundra in an effort to keep from sliding down the embankment.

I partially failed and landed on my butt and slid part of the way down the bank as I watched in horror as my dad and uncle continued down the road. My dad couldn’t easily jump clear because of the trees and the drop-off to the creek and my uncle wouldn’t be to jump because of his condition and the embankment.

They were still pushing the steering wheel back and forth when I saw my dad take the steering wheel from my uncle who seemed to be looking for a way to jump. The Jeep’s tires caught the embankment and it started up before jumping back down into the road and appeared to be heading over the side and down into the creek.

Then it suddenly jerked back towards the embankment before the brake lights came on and the Jeep jerked back to the right before coming to a stop.

I checked on my little brother who was crying, more out of fear than any bumps or bruises, though he did skin his knee. I helped him down to the road before returning to the Jeep, limping on my twisted ankle.

My dad was searching the floorboards for the nut that had come off of the steering wheel and my uncle was laughing and holding up a pair of vice grips that he had clamped onto the steering column in an attempt to steer the Jeep, or in the least, to keep it from veering right when he applied the brakes. The vice grips had been used on the instrument panel to keep it from vibrating since one of the screws had been stripped.

My dad found the nut and they used the vice grips to reattach the nut. I loaded my little brother into the back, along with the guns and decided to walk back since I had to go start the pump for the wash plant anyways so we could start mining.

Now, every time I see a Jeep, I think about that comedic scene of my dad refusing to take the steering wheel from my uncle and wonder how I ever survived my childhood.

Growing Up Alaska: A kid, a briefcase and a hundred drunk people

Every business in Central, Alaska had some sort of bar attached to it. Of course, we really only had three businesses and consequently had three bars. And by law, kids were not allowed in unless accompanied by a parent.

This also meant that there wasn’t much else to do in a small community like this, especially during the winter, so weekly dart games popped up at the establishments as a means to get people out and of course, to spend money. Twice a year, there would be a tournament in which people from Fairbanks, 125 miles away, would come for the weekend and give our little community an economic boost.

The kids would often hang out and play, and if we were lucky, we could step in to fill an empty spot on a team. Few of the kids liked to play and some of the older kids weren’t allow to play because they weren’t liked very much because of their attitudes.

Fortunately, most of the adults liked me, or at least tolerated me, and as I grew older, I was asked to play more frequently. Also, as I grew older, fewer families brought their kids, so I was often left to read a book in the corner.

One night, while reading, I found a National Geographic on the little round table I was sitting at. Picking it up, I found a darts magazine that had been left behind from the last dart tournament. Looking through it, I found a cool set of flights for my darts and wanted to order them, but the fine print said I had to spend a minimum of $25 to ship to Alaska. The flights I wanted only cost 75¢.

The owner of the bar said that I could take the magazine, so I brought it home and a plan started forming in my head. Now mind you, I was only 12 or 13, but I decided to a little business where I sold dart supplies.

I showed my plan to my dad and he said he would loan me the $5o I planned to use as my start up. I had the money saved in a bank account in Fairbanks and promised to pay him back the next time we went to town.

I stocked up on flights and flexible shafts and flight protectors, most of which no one in our community had ever seen before, or if they had, it was at the big tournaments in Fairbanks or Anchorage. I calculated the price and purchased $43 in supplies as shipping was nearly $7.

In a couple of weeks, my dart supplies had arrived and I created an inventory, placed it all in my school bag and took them to the next dart night. The place was crowded and I was going to play very little this night, but as I went to sell my goods, I realized that I was in a business and didn’t have permission.

Dad tracked down the owner and I went to his office to propose my business venture. After my spiel, he agreed that I could sell my dart supplies. Behind the bar, he too sold some flights for darts, but those sales were rare, so I don’t think he expected me to do that well.

I offered him 10% of my profits for the night or 5 sets of flights. He sold his flight sets for $2 a pieces, so he took flights, not expecting me to make much money.

I’d brought about half of my supplies and sat at my table in the corner and laid some of them out. It was still early, so my dad, mom and I all threw darts while we waited, and many of the players commented on the new flashy flights we were using.

I made a couple of sales and the night proved it was going to be slow. That is, until my dad and another player were in a shoot out for control of a game and my dad’s dart slid right next to the other player who’d blocked the bulls eye with his own dart. My dad was able to do this, partially because of skill, but more importantly, the flexible shaft on his dart.

This was followed up by another throw that would have impaled my dad’s dart, but I’d given him a set of flight protectors that deflected the tip of the dart. People were amazed at the display of accuracy the two men were putting on and in the end, my dad lost, but it took five darts to do it.

His opponent joked that my dad had cheated with his dart upgrades, but he immediately came over and bought some for himself.

And by the end of the night, I had sold all the supplies that I had brought and walked out with a little less than a hundred dollars.

I paid back my dad and brought the rest of my supplies to the dart games the next week and nearly sold all that I had leaving me with nearly $125 and promises of orders.

I sunk all the money back into my business, paying a little extra for expedited shipping so I would receive my supplies before the next tournament.

The day before the tournament, my dad came to my bedroom with a leather briefcase that he kept in his office and told me I needed something better to keep my things in. He helped me set up the things so that they displayed well and I spent all day arranging and rearranging things and making signage and price sheets.

It was very rare for a kid to get to play in the tournament, though sometimes we could fill in for non tournament games, so I made a plan to sell. I checked that my agreement was intact and the owner said it was, but I had a curfew.

Over the weekend, I turned my $125 into nearly $4oo and another $200 in advanced sales for darts and specialized designs. I took $40 and set aside as spending money, gave $40 to the owner of the bar, put $160 into savings and purchased $160 in dart supplies.

There was only a month left in that season’s games, but by the end, I took that $50 dollars and ended with nearly $800. I’d put aside nearly $350 and had the same amount in supplies for the next year.

Not every place let me sell, but when I did, most nights I did well. I became the go to guy for dart supplies in the greater area. The dart supply magazine stopped charging me extra for expedited shipping and I became their top seller in the Pacific Northwest after securing a contract to supply new dartboards and backboards for one of the larger statewide tournaments.

After two and a half years, I had enough in savings to purchase a new snowmachine, remembering at this time a good work sled cost less than $5000.

Life was going well until I qualified for the Youth Dart State Championships and came in second which included an invitation to the Nation Dart Championships being held in Las Vegas that year. One of the rules was that you had to have a national sponsor.

I thought to myself, why wouldn’t the supplier that I have been buying from want to sponsor me?

I sent them off a letter and prepared for the tournament that was occurring at the end of the summer before school started back up. I practiced every day between my chores and work at the mine.

Then the letter came.

“We are sorry to inform you that we are already sponsoring two players in the youth tournament and are not permitted anymore.”

“Furthermore, we have to cancel our partnership with you as you are under the age of 21 which is a requirement per company policy.”

I had a big order in for a tournament in Fairbanks, so I called to make sure that the sale would not be compromised. I had a direct line to the sales office manager for the company and he assured me that they would complete the order, but that it would be the last.

They’d assumed that I was over 21 since “everyone” in the business was. I’d explained my business plan after my first couple of orders and they’d offered me a distribution discount as a representative for them assuming that since I was selling in bars, I was old enough to do so; though they would like to have me back when I turned 21.

Sadly, I never secured a national sponsor, so was not able to go to nationals. The next year I qualified third in state and played enough tournaments to qualify in the men’s category as well, but the youth national tournament was cancelled due to fears that drunk people were getting hurt playing darts and lawsuits.

I didn’t like the new plastic tipped darts and moved to Anchorage where youth couldn’t play, so I walked away from the game and never returned to dart sales. But I will never forget those two fun years of being the top salesmen in the Pacific Northwest; a kid with $5o, a briefcase and a roomful of drunk people.