Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Yukon River Lodge: Part III

This is the final part of a three part piece. Part I, Part II. Click on images for a larger view.

Yukon River from YRL

Shortly after setting up home on the river, Sam and Tamara went in on a fishwheel with a native Rubyite named Dale. They split the fish and share in maintaining the wheel. Just what that might mean on a yearly basis became clearer to me late in the week. A few days of high water had multiplied the amount of driftwood on the river. A massive raft of it built up on, and under, the wheel and we spent a mostly unsuccessful morning trying to get it all loose. In the end, we pulled the fence and unhooked the spar, hoping that the wheel would drift in toward shore and the flotsam would be pulled past it by the current. With few fish and fewer days to harvest them, Sam is inclined to leave it as it lies.

Even in a short-run year, we enjoyed two meals of fresh King Salmon. Perhaps next year there will be more fish.

Over the course of the week, we have raised the exterior walls for the first floor above a walkout basement, and completed a fair portion of the interior framing as well. There will be no further upward progress, other than a three-gabled roof. Height is hard to heat.

Sam and Larry started the work almost two years ago. With a chainsaw, a portable mill and a John Deere tractor barged down the river from Fairbanks, they harvested the timber that has become the framing and cleared and dug the site for the foundation. A small cabin has been built for Sam and Tamara to winter in. A garden is planted. A pole barn is up. A frontier “home depot” of stickered lumber, rough-sawn from the jobsite, is nearly depleted.

Eventually these will be the walls of the Yukon River Lodge. There will be three guest rooms for up to six guests. There will be a cathedral-ceiling in the great-room, overlooking the river. There will be a screened-in porch on which to rock and watch the Yukon river roll by, and think about the fish to catch in the Melozitna: pike, graying, salmon. The Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge is just around the bend. The ghost-town of Kokrines still lies rotting under the hills. If you come, you may, like me, be lucky enough to know a grizzly was in camp the night before, without having first hand proof.

Tamara has a gift for writing. It brings her a little extra work here and there; a newsletter for the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, for example. In the Lodge’s online site, she gives her voice free reign in writing about her new home:
A morning of memories emerge from partly cloudy skies and pewter sheen logs that once drifted down the high waters of the Yukon River, now stopped short of their Norton Sound destination before me on the spit. The sun glistens off the river, shines warmly and exposes the deep greens of summer. And, finally, sitting in a pool of sunlight, I’m pulled out of the haze I have been in the last few weeks. It was cold last night - cold for Interior Alaska in July with lows around 39ºF or so here. Thankfully not cold enough for the garden to be frosted. Although the recent rains have left the garden well watered up on the hill off the river, I can hear the plants plead for more sun and heat as they reach that vital time of growth in the middle of a cooler than normal summer.
And what are they planting on that hill but the hope that you’ll come and a promise to welcome you in?

If Sam has been the muscle of this effort, Tamara has been the rudder. It is she who keeps the world aligned and people fed and bills paid. They like to joke that Sam, when he ventures to Ruby to run errands and pick up mail, is like a lost child—he needs a note pinned to his jacket: “My name is Sam Clark. I am supposed to go to the post office and mail two packages. Please be sure to give me a receipt." But Sam would never be lost for long. He can talk to anyone--even the stray BLM agent who, sadly, was born without a personality.

They make a wonderful, complimentary team.

Two years ago, Sam and Tamara had been living in Two Rivers, a community east of Fairbanks on the road to Chena Hot Springs. It was their sixth year in Alaska. Prior to moving to Alaska in February of 2000, they had been living in Orono, Maine. Sam was working part-time for a forest products company and completing his undergraduate in Forestry at the Univeristy of Maine, Orono while Tamara was working for the University library and taking graduate classes in Counseling. Work was frustrating Sam—there didn’t seem to be much opportunity. The winter previous, Tamara had talked Sam into buying some sled dogs. They had a short string— three pups—and ALASKA was still looming in Sam’s mind.

“I wanted to just quit and go, but Tamara wouldn’t go unless we had work,” said Sam. So they made a deal. If Sam could find them work, Tamara would agree to go. “That was a Friday. I got on the phone and by Monday I had us jobs at a lodge on Lake Minchumina. Eleven days later we were packed and on the road.” Minchumina is on the edge of Denali National Park, 150 air miles southwest of Fairbanks. Sam was to be a wilderness guide and Tamara would also guide during summer months and work in the office in what proved to be the ideal apprenticeship for each of them.

“We took a bush plane from Fairbanks to the lake. From the air, our boss pointed out the lodge, and he pointed out the trail to get there. Then he landed 6 miles away,” said Sam. “We got out, and he said, ‘OK, here’s the snowmachine. You know how to run one? Good. See you later.’ And he left. He was a throw-you-in-to-the-deep end kind of guy.” Three days later, Sam, who had never run a dogsled with more than six dogs, was guiding Lodge guests over snow-covered trails behind a 12-dog team. It was a baptism by ice, but they both weathered the storm.

It wasn’t the ideal work environment, though. The tech-bubble had burst and the lodge couldn’t guarantee them jobs for the summer. There were no other employers in that small community. After a year at Lake Minchumina, sadly, they moved to Two Rivers. Tamara got a job with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Career Services department recruiting teachers to work in Alaska’s bush schools. Tamara’s job gave them healthcare and allowed her to work on her masters again. Sam began to piece tree-work together for some summer money and in the winter he began working for a dog-food supplier. From a work perspective, that went pretty well. Sam is sharp, and he works hard, shows up on time. He was offered a manager’s role—more than that, actually. The owner was ready to turn the operation over to Sam entirely, and Sam was prepared to accept. It meant full-time work, security, the ability to live in Alaska with a reliable income and to mush dogs in the winter.

About a week before he was to take the manager’s role, Ann and Larry came for a visit. Ann asked, “Is this what you want?”


Well, what they wanted was to live in Alaska and run dogs. This was going to make that possible, so, yeah. It’s what they wanted.

Ann rephrased: “If you could do anything, what would you do?” Different answer.

“I would build and open a wilderness lodge on the Yukon River.” But that was out of the question. Sam and Tamara didn’t have the money or the time. It just wasn’t an option: it was a dream—like, “what if you won the lottery?” More a way to torture yourself than a plan.

Ann asked, “What if we helped you?”

Sam and Tamara pushed back at this: you can’t just wave money at this; this isn’t a thing to be done on a whim. This isn’t a thing to be done on a whim in a place like Maine, where you can get to the road, you can get to the hospital, and if things don’t work out you can stay with a friend. But in a place where everything you need that can’t be taken right off the land has to be shipped in by small boat or barge, a place that is pitch dark for half the year and so cold that trees crack and the creek freezes to its bed in 6 feet of ice—a hope, a dream, just doesn’t much matter. This thing takes time. And planning. And money. And work—lots of work. And even then…

But if there is something missing in our American hearts, then maybe it is in Alaska. Maybe it’s sitting on a bluff by the Yukon River, hiding in 40 acres of spruce and birch-stands, nestled under the Kokrine hills, waiting to be milled up, banged together, and roofed with steel against the winter storms.

For Tamara and Sam, that something lives in their sled-dogs as they raise a communal howl at an outboard motor still minutes down river from human hearing. That something comes in through the door behind them in the winter and settles around their table at noon in the dimness: The quiet immensity of the land; the breathing vastness of an arctic night; the strange liberty of space and emptiness, filled with life and empty of speech.

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting;
It's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.

From “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service, 1907

1 comment:

Petrie & Trixie said...

What a great story and adventure. Thanks for writing about it. I always enjoy your writing!