Is Alaska Still The Last Frontier?

Is Alaska still the last frontier? ©

By Bob Grafe
The Gazette-Enterprise
 

Published July 16, 2009

Most senior citizens can look back on their life and reflect upon those “What if?” questions by answering with the emotionally soothing conclusion of “Well, it wouldn’t have made any difference in the long run anyway.”

In most cases, I would probably agree.

But, when the local summer high temperatures for the day reach into the 100s, day after day, the question of “What if I was still in Alaska?” absolutely required a decisive and honest response.

“Go north, young man!”

Well, OK. Make that, “Go north, old geezer!” was the clarion call recently heard repeatedly in my heart and mind. Or, as some prefer to describe it, “It was just another excuse for him to go fishing!”

Going north to Alaska these days means competing for nearly everything with the other 1.5 million or so tourists who show up on Alaska’s various doorsteps during the May through September tourist season — for everything from combat fishing along Alaska’s rivers and streams to stampede shopping at inside passage cruise ship stops.

Be that as it may … as we were on approach to Anchorage International Airport, I couldn’t help but absorb the beauty of Cook Inlet and the surrounding mountains with their slowly melting snow-capped tops barely melting into the background. I knew from past experience that the air was different near the top of the world — and I couldn’t wait to breathe it all in.

As I neared the baggage area once inside the terminal, I spotted my near-life-long friend, Wilton, who had driven in from Trapper Creek to pick up his fishing buddy from Heatwave, Texas.

After the usual pleasantries, it was time to get down to business, “I hear the Reds are running in the Russian. How’s the King run around the Susitna? Are you dip-netting the Copper River yet? What about the halibut derby in Seward?”

Wilton thought for a moment and just nodded knowingly and patiently saying, “We’ll have plenty of fish for smoking!”

As soon as we stepped outside the airport terminal’s walls, into the open air, it was clear to the memory of my youth and young adulthood that this was truly the last frontier … the land of the midnight sun. Alaska — I could tell it by inhaling the fresh, clean and brisk air.

It was also quite clear that Anchorage had rapidly become “Seattle North!”

“Is that a Starbucks?” I asked Wilton with a look of disbelief ending with an obvious grimace.

Wilton responded by noting that there were far too many “way too clean” SUVs in Alaska and that Anchorage and a few other communities in Alaska had now become too “citified” for his liking.

A couple of stops in town to pick up supplies, then it was up the road north where Wilton’s wife Carol was preparing supper. The over two-hour drive provided a passing look at parts of Alaska that now seem much closer to Anchorage than I remembered.

The agricultural center of Palmer, home of those huge state fair cabbage entries, now was an easy “freeway” drive from Anchorage. My comparison memory dates back to the 1960s and 1970s when the winter drive between the two towns was frequently impossible.

As we drove through Wasilla, I couldn’t help but look around a few shopping areas to see if I could spot Alaska’s governor. No luck. I also strained to see if I could get a glimpse of Russia from anywhere in town. No luck, again.

After passing by the familiar turn-off to Talkeetna along the Parks Highway, I couldn’t help but think back on those days of owning, but not spending much time at, my Talkeetna homestead.

Those were the good and the bad old days. Yes, I had the homestead — but I couldn’t afford to live there because there just were no jobs available.

Back then, my primary contact person in the Talkeetna area was neighbor trapper John Tolefson. He had retired from many years of work on the Alaska Railroad to live in his two-room cabin on Question Lake — fronting on the Talkeetna Spur Road.

No car, no power, no telephone, no running water except from a nearby year-around creek that fed into the lake — and no property, sales or personal income taxes. His only luxury items were good quality pipe tobacco and high-priced coffee that I would often replenish during my visits with him.

As Wilton and I drove on northward towards Trapper Creek, my mind began to play that inevitable, and often painful, “What if?” game.

The temperature was in the mid-60s. There was blue sky. The difference in the Texas and Alaska high temperatures for the day was nearly 40 degrees — with Texas posting the high score!

Passing across several rivers and creeks, I could tell that there were plenty of fish there just waiting to be lured. We were now driving into the Alaska that I remembered the most. My eyes could already spot a few moose feeding just inside the highway tree-line where most eyes would not spot them.

A quick stop at the Trapper Creek Post Office to check the mail, then down a couple of gravel roads, across Trapper Creek and onto the road that slides through the wilderness into the remnant of Wilton’s homestead.

A few years ago a drilled well replaced the hand pump well that provided water directly to the kitchen sink — the cabin’s only sink. Then came the composting toilet about ten years ago. It still has not been used since the outhouse “works just fine.”

The original wood stove still provides most of the heat but is supplemented with a wall-mounted propane heater. And the few propane lights were replaced a few years ago when the borough brought in electricity.

“Real progress.” Wilton remarked. Twenty years ago, we had no bills coming in the mail. Now, we’ve got about the same number as city folks.”

Carol’s grilled halibut was excellent that night — even though it seemed odd to re-heat it in the microwave oven.

As I climbed into bed that first night, with the buzz of mosquitoes circling my head, I recalled just how much I really didn’t like putting on that smelly insect repellent — just like 40 years earlier.

Falling off to sleep with nearly 22 hours of sunlight that first day made me think about “What if?” I had stayed in Alaska for a lifetime. I concluded that except for the air quality and pleasant summer temperatures, much about Alaska would be different today than what I was familiar with — perhaps except for the mosquitoes who have remained as aggressive as ever.

Grafe is a former managing editor of the Seguin Gazette Enterprise and a former chief juvenile probation officer for Guadalupe County.

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