Alaska Winter Tales

The citizens of Anchorage wince at the idea of winter in Fairbanks, 360 miles to the north, and the people in Fairbanks shudder at the very mention of Coldfoot, a truckstop 260 miles up the road, inside the Arctic Circle. But such distinctions are lost on the rest of us, for whom the difference between Coldfoot’s worst-case winter windchill of -100°F and Fairbanks’ relatively balmy -40°F is a number that conveys no understanding. “Human beings are not meant to inhabit this part of the earth,” says an Anchorage nightclub owner. Yet inhabit it they do: some 540,000 souls at last count, living year-round in a state more than twice the size of Texas and enduring temperatures that may huddle for months in brain-numbing negatives, only to soar over 90°F during Alaska’s brief, verdant summer.

To keep their spirits up through the seemingly endless winter, Alaska’s Yup’ik Eskimos on barren St. Lawrence Island used to tell stories of a place where “young men could go for long walks and see a tree.” More urban neighbors have developed their own storytelling tradition; humorist Tom Bodett describes the tall tales that turn “ditch diving”—or skidding off the road on winter ice—into a winter sport with extra points for swerving to avoid a school bus. What kind of people can laugh in the face of this deep freeze? To find out, PEOPLE went to Alaska.

The darnedest things fall out of Cliff Hudson’s planes. The 62-year-old bush pilot, who has been plying Alaska’s northern reaches since 1948, recalls the time some years back when a customer developed a hankering for eggs. Unfortunately he lived 60 miles from the nearest grocery store and even farther from an accommodating hen, so he radioed Hudson to fly in low and drop a carton out the window. “I packed ’em real good and let ’em go,” says Cliff, “and I’ll be damned if that box didn’t roll right up on the guy’s front porch.” Moreover, all 12 eggs survived the fall unbroken. Another time, Hudson recalls, a frisky sled dog hit the door handle of Cliff’s plane. The husky fell 1,000 feet into deep drifts and bounced up onto the snow. Hudson, unable to put down at the spot, found the hungry, frightened animal four days later and was able to land and fly him home.

A former steeplejack, Hudson came north from Yakima, Wash., in 1947 to join his bush-pilot brother Glen (who died in a plane crash in 1951). They worked out of tiny Talkeetna (pop. 264), about 30 Cessna minutes north of Anchorage. “In those days,” says Hudson, “you didn’t get anywhere in Alaska unless you flew.” Today, though, trappers and miners often travel by road, and many of the customers for Hudson’s $185-an-hour services are sportsmen and climbers bound for 20,320-foot Denali, otherwise known as Mount McKinley. It can be tricky landing on the glaciers, trickier still to reach the summit on foot. A few times a year, Hudson may bring a customer out in a body bag. As for his own remarkable record, flying the back country for 40 years without a serious accident, Hudson says, “Mother Nature smiles on some and frowns on others. I never question her. I never hurry.”

Hello all mariners, this is WBH 29, Kodiak. “Peggy Dyson, 58, leans toward the mike in the back bedroom of her home on Kodiak Island. Scanning her maps and the latest National Weather Service printout, she begins her twice-daily broadcast to the tugs and fishing boats, freighters and supertankers battling the hurricane-force winds and 45-foot waves that often rake this mean northern ocean. “There’s a drama on the seas in winter,” says Dyson. “When you’re fishing folk, the weather dictates your life.” Already this year, two of the 500-plus boats in the Kodiak fleet have gone down, killing seven.

Peggy began broadcasting in the ’60s to stay in touch with her fisherman husband, Oscar, 71, now retired. Soon, other boats were tuning into the clear signal of her 1,000-watt transmitter, listening for the weather reports—and much more. “I’d get calls from fishermen, ‘Pay my electric bill or I’ll be cut off,’ or ‘It’s my wife’s birthday, and I need you to send flowers,’ ” Peggy says. “In all the years I’ve been advancing them money, no one has ever reneged.” In 1975 the Weather Service made her official with a small stipend. “When you’re out on the water,” says fisherman Jan Messersmith, “you’re just glad she’s there.”

Fur trapper Jim Smith, 51, has “a lot of time to think” at the tiny cabin that he built for himself in the foothills of the Alaska range. In the single room where he eats, sleeps and skins animals, a copy of The Joy of Cooking sits next to his Remington .270 rifle. In the evening he sips herb tea and reads Edgar Allan Poe, or contemplates the waving ribbons of the northern lights in the night sky. Trips to Fairbanks, 50 miles to the north, are infrequent. He goes there just two or three times a year to sell pelts, buy supplies and “look at girls,” he says. The life-style is “not for everybody,” he concedes, which is probably a vast understatement.

Smith had a wife once or twice and has five children in all, but he almost never sees them. Years ago he tried commercial fishing and building log cabins, but his distaste for people, and a bad divorce, sent him back into the hills to stay. A few women have found him there, but not for long. “You get moody when you’re alone,” says Smith, who even advertised once for a companion, with no success. “You want to see someone and you don’t. You become difficult to live with. After a time, the women wander.”

A former Army sergeant and a combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, Smith finds it disturbing that so much of his life still involves killing and death. Traveling by snowmobile in sub-zero weather, he tends 100 miles of line in the 30-square-mile territory he “farms” for wolf, fox, beaver and lynx. “Pain is pain,” he says, looking at a pile of carcasses lying in the snow. “I trap because that’s what I know how to do. If I could make baskets, I would.” He sets his first traps in late fall and checks them almost daily. “At the start of the season, I go like crazy, bent on slaughter,” he admits. “But you can only kill and skin so much.” Now, in late winter, he says, “when I go down my line and see how a wolf has evaded me, it makes my day.”

At R.J.’s Lounge in Fairbanks, Slo’ Mo and His Kayakers, a string band led by mandolin player Mo Samuelson, a Yup’ik Eskimo, has the regulars tapping their toes to moody Hank Williams medleys. Singer Robert Charlie wails a lament about cattle herds and lonesome cowboys, both conspicuously scarce in Alaska. Still, when the temperature hits—25°F, even mournful country tunes, mingling with a blue pall of smoke, can be heartwarming. Fur trappers and traders introduced fiddling to Alaska in the mid-1800s, along with some jigs and reels that have long since disappeared from the interlopers’ native Orkney Islands and Scotland but which live on in the subarctic. During the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s, square dances and the Virginia reel were added to the Alaskan repertoire. And Hank Williams? Well, back in the ’40s, some Texas radio stations had very powerful signals. Athabascan Indians like the Kayakers’ Johnson Moses, 63, are stars at the annual fiddling festival in Fairbanks. But Moses, who first picked up a fiddle at age 14, now wishes he hadn’t. “I’m always sorry I learned,” he says, “because I like to dance more than play.”

In the arcane sport of ice-climbing, it is considered very bad form to slip on a frozen waterfall and plunge hundreds of feet to your death. Even worse is to leave your axes embedded in the ice—shameful proof that you could have held on. Risks aside, ice-climbing is also uncomfortable, as in “hard, wet, cold, slow and generally insecure,” explains Dr. Andy Embick, 37. “You have to put up with a little suffering to really enjoy it.” Embick, a Harvard-trained general practitioner, tries to suffer as often as possible and is perfectly situated to do it. As one of three doctors in the port of Valdez (pop. 3,300), Embick has easy access to the mile-high peaks and dramatic waterfalls of the surrounding Chugach Mountains. From November to May, when even rushing water is frozen solid, macho mountaineers from all over the world descend on Valdez, known as the Switzerland of Alaska, to test themselves on these climbs, which bear colorful names like Dire Straits and Fang Gully.

Embick, brought up in Oregon, says he came to Valdez in 1979 just because he liked the idea of a small-town practice. “In Valdez,” he says, “you’re the orthopedic surgeon and the cardiologist and the obstetrician, so you don’t get bored.” But he did get lonely before he asked a former Pomona College classmate and family practice specialist, Kathy Todd, to sub for a vacationing local doctor in February 1980. Four months later they were married and now comprise two thirds of the local medical establishment.

A lifelong outdoorsman, Andy won a sculling championship in 1972 as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. In 1973 he qualified for the U.S. nationals in bike racing, and in 1977 he placed 25th in the national championships in the 50-kilometer cross-country ski race. Now an avid kayaker and alpinist, he has the strength, concentration and methodical nature suited to winter mountaineering. “Before you go out, you spend a lot of time anticipating what you’ll do,” he says. “And after it’s over, you spend a lot of time in the sauna.”

There are more caribou than people in Alaska, and as many as 6,000 wolves, one of the caribou’s chief predators. Without human intervention, these numbers could fluctuate radically over a period of years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game unit, based in Fairbanks, tries to maintain some sort of equilibrium in its 7,000-square-mile territory by putting radio collars on wolves in the winter months and studying their movements and hunting patterns throughout the year. Such information helps them set hunting limits as well as monitor disease and mortality rates in the wolf population.

Today, from a hovering helicopter in the Snow Mountain Gulch area, wildlife biologist Mark McNay, 36, expertly brings down two running wolves with tranquilizer darts. With his colleague Ed Crain, 40, he lands to measure, weigh and attach collars to the somnolent animals. Then they administer a wake-up shot, and the wolves race off to rejoin their pack. “There’s something about the way wolves look at you,” says McNay, a former flight instructor. “I still get a thrill.”

Barrow, Alaska, on the Arctic Ocean, is the northernmost point in North America. In winter, it is also one of the darkest. The sun set there on Nov. 19, 1987, and wasn’t seen again until last Jan. 23. Getting through 64 days of night isn’t easy, and this tiny nondescript outpost—home to 3,000 hardy hunters, whalers, lawyers and public employees—has one of the highest attempted suicide rates in Alaska.

But Barrow also has its own whimsical resilience: In January, when the first feeble rays of sunlight peeped back over the horizon, some Barrovians took to the ice to fly brightly colored kites in a jubilant celebration of the beginning of the end of the worst. Then they began looking toward those treasured weeks, still four months distant, when the sun will shine without setting for 84 straight days.

For even in Alaska, spring does come, followed by a spectacular if perishable outburst of summer lushness. It is hard to imagine a people who deserve it more.

Related Articles