On the road to life in rural Alaska.
[by Nick Jans]
SWEATING INSIDE MY JACKET, lumbar nerve grumbling, I trundled another two boxes up the loading ramp. I’d been packing up the 27-foot rental truck since early morning, and the clock had slid past midnight. I didn’t have a choice in the matter; the state ferry was leaving in six hours, and I’d be driving this rig on, stuffed with the burgeoning clutter of our Alaska lives—books, clothes, tools, fishing rods, furniture, and so on. Behind the truck, I’d be towing my jet skiff, likewise overflowing with gear, lumber and ladders strapped on top. This was just the first of several trips, and, as the falling leaves reminded me, the seasonal clock was ticking down as well. Cold autumn rains had already set in, and early snow might not be too far ahead.
After 14 years in Juneau, my wife, Sherrie, and I were moving on. We had good reasons—her wanting to retire after 30-some years of cleaning teeth (go figure); the accumulated gray sogginess of rain forest life; the need to downsize; and our dwindling tolerance for the bustle and noise of semi-urban Juneau. Sure, the capital city was wild and secluded by most Lower 48 standards (no road in or out, population 32,000), but increasingly, not by our own.
“…compared to my 20 years in remote Inupiaq villages of the Northwest Arctic (where “running water” meant grabbing buckets and running down to the river), our new digs were luxurious.”
Neither of us had come to Alaska to watch stands of old-growth trees give way to big-box stores and housing developments, or to listen to the unceasing racket of straight-piped pickup trucks and tourist helicopters. Though life in Juneau had been both wonderful and kind, and we’d miss our familiar trails, good friends and the drop-dead gorgeous Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding mountains, it was time to move on in search of a new adventure.
Not out of Alaska—hell, no. In fact, we were headed north: 70-odd miles by ferry up the mountain-edged fiord known as Lynn Canal to Haines, and then another 26 on the Haines Highway to Porcupine Crossing, onward to a gravel road and our new homestead: five acres of old-growth black cottonwood on a high bench a half mile off the Klehini River, a few miles short of the Canadian border.
This narrow, high-sided valley had a distinctly different feel. Winters were colder and snowier, summers much drier and sunnier, and neighbors (at least of the two-legged variety) much fewer and farther between.
We’d been casting around for at least two years before we found this place, and from the first it looked and felt familiar enough to call home. By most folks’ thinking, it probably wasn’t much—a stout, thousand-square-foot, post-and-beam horse barn with a 450-square-foot apartment upstairs, and, 200 yards down a brush-lined trail, a 24-foot-diameter yurt—basically a circular, semi-permanent tent on an elevated spruce deck.
But compared to my 20 years in remote Inupiaq villages of the Northwest Arctic (where “running water” meant grabbing buckets and running down to the river), our new digs were luxurious: not only electricity and phone, but something I’d never dreamed of in my youth: a good well, indoor plumbing and hot water, including a shower. No septic tank meant no indoor john, but that was no big deal. I’d lived with outhouses half my life. The main thing was, when we stood outside and listened, we heard the soughing of leaves, twitter of birds, whir of the river and a deep, ringing quiet beyond. We’d be back to the Alaska we knew best.
Sure, we’d miss the convenience of driving five minutes to pick up some fresh cilantro or a sheet of plywood, or to catch the next jet to Seattle, but there was good news, too: I’d go back to cutting and splitting my own firewood, tinkering and puttering on my own schedule, brewing my own beer and exploring rapid-studded rivers in my jet skiff. Sherrie would have time for gardening, beading and stained glass, and volunteer work with baby critters at our friend Steve Kroschel’s wildlife park, several miles up the road. The dogs would get to learn new country and its denizens; they knew bears and porcupines, but had never seen a moose.
At the edge of 60, Sherrie and I were hitting the reset button—by my reckoning, not a moment too soon. As for winter, well, Sherrie was a born Floridian, and we had a similar-feeling, though less-remote place a mile off the Suwannee River, where we’d both be doing the same things 4,000 miles south, five months a year. And I still planned to head back to the Arctic each season in pursuit of unfinished business. But first, we had this move to knock off—which I figured would be no different from any other move anywhere else, except in the details.
A month later, I sat behind the wheel of our SUV, stuffed to the roof, towing Chance, our 22-foot fiberglass cabin cruiser, crammed to the brim—so much weight that the rig squatted as if it were about to pop a wheelie. The deck crew on the ferry made their disgust no secret as they backed me into place; one said he was sure I’d never make it up the ramp in Haines on my own.
Sherrie had already driven on in our van, even more jammed full with our belongings, with a huge load of lumber strapped on the roof rack, but absent the horrible weight of the towed boat. But at the end of the run, up the ramp the Explorer went, boat and all, and north up the Haines Highway past cottonwoods festooned with bald eagles. The widebraided Chilkat River on one side, and abrupt mountain slopes rising on the other. We’ll forget about the moment, 15 miles from the homestead, when the 10-horse outboard kicker somehow came free of its mount on a set of narrow S-turns and cartwheeled down the road, bashing the cowling and tiller handle to pieces, but somehow miraculously escaping total destruction. Otherwise, the haul was a total success. We were somewhere around halfway done with our big move.
The following morning, I stood at the stove, making morning coffee as I watched a red squirrel skitter up a spruce in our new backyard. “Do you think there’s any bears around?” Sherrie asked. “Well, most are along the river, eating salmon,” I replied, “but one could show up anytime.” As if to emphasize the point, a robust, very respectable-sized brown bear strolled up the outhouse trail, the very path I’d walked just five minutes before. He casually sniffed around the bottom of the steps, taking in our strange new scent, then sauntered off into the woods as we watched, open-mouthed. No doubt about it: we’d found our way back home.