North to Alaska

It was early spring of my freshman year in college when I received an exciting call from my older brother. He was attending college in another state and presented me with a thrilling proposition: let’s go to Alaska and work in the salmon industry for the summer. I imagined making piles of money and living like Lewis and Clark!

It was actually a much more rousing notion to me than my brother, as he had paved the way and spent the prior summer in an Alaskan bush village working at a fishery. But this year would be different. My brother hatched a plan whereby we would buy an old car, fix it up and drive 3,400 miles north to the Last Frontier. Just the thought of it made my blood surge! I already had a bad case of wanderlust that a few hitch-hiking trips around Wisconsin (at the expense of my classes) hadn’t begun to cure.

We found a 1968 Ford Fairlane and bought the car for around $400. It was a little-old-lady rig with faded paint and a bunch of miles on it, but we were confident she’d be up for the challenge. We spent a few days performing basic maintenance tasks like changing the oil, replacing brake pads and putting a couple new tires on the classic beauty. (current age and nostalgia leave me wishing I still owned that old Ford)

During preparations for the journey, we had an ongoing debate with our dad about whether we should insure the car or go without coverage. Dad was adamant about the issue in the days leading up to our departure. We were both broke from a year in college and a couple hundred bucks were critical at the time. We asked him why and he gave one of his typical, old school answers like “it’s just what you do” or “it’s the right thing to do.” He rarely gave lengthy explanations of his rationale, but in the end, we complied and bought a cheap policy to cover worst-case-scenarios.

We launched out early one morning in late May and I was more excited than perhaps any other moment in my young life! Moving away from home for my freshman year of college was a thrill. Heading out on my hitch-hiking trips around Wisconsin was exhilarating too. I played sports and had some huge games and moments in recent memory. But this! North to Alaska? I was taking a leap way beyond anything people in my circles were attempting at the time.

I recognize adventure and risk are relative to each person and that God makes all kinds of folks. Some people get psyched up to fly on an airplane or go to the dentist. Other’s will strap into a bungee harness and jump off a bridge without a second thought. Everyone grows up with such varied experiences, families, and models to follow. I’ve come to believe that people’s preferences and boundaries generally end up like the ones they’ve watched and learned through the childhood and adolescent years.

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Not that our suburban family was particularly brave or daring by any stretch. But I can see now the patterns and markers that built an inner confidence and strong foundation in me and my siblings. A stable, consistent family life with two parents in a safe environment. An emphasis on faith and attending the same church each week for our entire pre-adult lives. If you missed the bus you walked to school. If you shot an arrow through the next-door-neighbor’s pool liner, you didn’t leave the house until you apologized. (my younger brother held out for two weeks!) We did chores, made our own money delivering newspapers, and walked or rode bikes to all our sporting events throughout the elementary and middle school years.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but adult vision and a lifetime of experience lends itself to clearer hindsight and self-evaluation. I watch kids and families grow up in all kinds of circumstances that are extremely different from my upbringing. I’m not drawing better-or-worse lines mind you. Life can be difficult and we don’t get to choose the world or family we’re born into. But there’s no doubt in my mind that our childhood environment and experiences most certainly shape the adults we become. At least initially, in the tenuous years of late-teens and early twenty’s.

So anyway - off we went! The plains of the upper Midwest and Saskatchewan were grueling yet beautiful. Minot, North Dakota is a real place. The Canadian Rockies were exhilarating to this thrill-seeking flatlander! The week-long drive became an adventure in itself…and at times I lost sight of the fact that this was just the beginning of the real mission. We drove through the night a few times. We stopped and camped just any ole’ where we wanted on that lonely Alcan Highway.

The daylight hours lengthened as we trudged northward. Have you ever driven into the sunset at 10:30 or 11:00 at night? Have you ever baited a hook, without a flashlight, sometime around 11:30 PM? Have you ever heard the term “land of the midnight sun” and skimmed over it without notice?

It’s hard to describe the affects and sensation of the extended daylight. You don’t want to go to sleep for fear of missing something special. It emboldens you to go and do and try. Like spinach to Popeye. Suddenly, you only need 3 to 4 hours of sleep at night. (did I tell you about the time I worked on a fishing boat north of the Arctic Circle in the middle of summer? We worked such long hours that sometimes, especially with light cloud cover in the sky, I lost track of whether it was 10:00 AM or PM!)

It took us six full days to reach downtown Anchorage and cruise 4th Avenue in our dusty, war-torn Fairlane. The city is always bustling in early summer as tourists fill the downtown streets and vagabonds from all corners of the world roam this out-of-place metropolis. People with heavy laden backpacks and scruffy faces hike the pavement at a hurried pace, scanning maps and plotting their course.

A log-cabin-style building sits humbly next to a five-story glass business center. The mountains loom in the background and you get a peek here and there, depending on the angle and direction you’re facing. Cook Inlet brings a breeze and the light odor of salt air. Native Americans meander along, Asian tourists snap pictures of everything, while seniors stroll the shops, glancing at their watches to make sure they’re back to the bus on time.

We only had a day or two before flying out to a bush village in the southwest corner of the Great State. We were caught up in the collective excitement that can only be found in a transient city like Anchorage. We couldn’t bear to go to sleep and were fully enamored by the daylight that lingered and faded into the midnight hour. My brother was also scrambling to sell our faithful Ford or find a responsible place to store it. Our plan was to fly back home in late August, just in time to start the next year of college.

Our travels led to the legendary Spenard District on the south side of town, home to the fabled Chilkoot Charlie’s and Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant. My head was on a swivel as we drove, trying to take in the sites of this urban frontier. The city clearly shares the same untamed spirit that wilderness Alaska is known for. As we were driving, I vaguely remember my brother trying to interrupt my tour and asking if it was “all clear” in the lane next to us. Apparently, I was distracted or uninterested, because just after I responded with an insincere “sure thing,” WHAMMO! He changed lanes and we took a direct hit in the rear quarter panel from an oncoming car! It was around 11:00 at night, clear as day and my brother was both hoppin’ mad and completely disgusted that he had trusted me. As you can imagine, the entire mood was dampened like a wet blanket. An hour-long fiasco ensued, information was exchanged, and we made our way to a cheap motel for the night.

Life’s greatest lessons are learned the hard way I suppose. The insurance issue was one of my first “father knows best” moments as a young adult. I was still at the know-it-all age in that season of life. Dad’s lack of explanation was quickly appended with all the reasons why. And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a car accident qualified for about ten thousand words in those formative years.

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My decision to “go north” was fateful and serendipitous to be sure. This was the start of a lifetime adventure, the annuls of which would require several volumes. I struggled and floundered, thrived and explored. I gained self-confidence and learned that I didn’t know much about anything at all. I met characters who just didn’t exist in the Midwest and learned that the hearts of men could be both good and evil, selfish and kind, ruthless and forgiving. And to make a really long story short, I also found a great job, a wife and a couple of kids. But that’s a tale for another day…