As happens every few visits to Alaska, this is a wet one. While the Lower 48 is in drought and heat waves, Alaska is a soggy mess. I like rain. Heck, I love the rain. I live in the Pacific Northwest! But all the rain makes it difficult to really enjoy what Alaska has to offer—other than my family of course.
I’m looking forward to my birthday party this weekend, which I’ll share the celebration with one brother-in-law, whose birthday is a few days after mine. The party has turned into a small reunion of sorts, since a lot of family from all over the state is converging on the farm. (My folk’s place was originally a 40-acre homestead, and has been cut up into parcels, but only family lives and builds on those plots of land. We all still say we’re going to the farm if we’re heading to my mom’s or my sister’s place.) And no, we’re not hippies or anything of the sort. This is just kind of the Alaskan way…our way.
My family is huge and scattered all over the state. Brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. It all started in 1949 when, on April 1st—just in case it didn’t work out they could say it was a joke—my dad and his first wife, pregnant with their first child, headed to Alaska on the newly built Alcan highway, leaving their families in Nebraska
The stories of adventure, some of them lost forever because those first pioneers of the family are no longer with us, are countless. Dad loved the land and convinced a lot of his siblings to relocate here, and his mother, too.
Life is undoubtedly easier now than it was more than a half century ago when they lived off the land, hunting and fishing to fill the freezer for the winter, taking what jobs were available. My dad ran a courier service, was a mailman for the US Postal Service, was a bush pilot, and eventually owned a feed and livestock store until people stopped raising their own chickens and pigs for food.
Now, my family careers range from the artistic—one brother is a carver who sells his bone and antler carvings during the summer months to art enthusiasts who can afford his work—to a sister who is an RN and one who is a firefighter. Another brother is a contractor who employs several family members and sometimes hundreds of Alaskans, and another sister who is in her 60’s and spent her life devoted to her children as a stay-at-home army wife and mother. I have brothers who are pilots, fixed wing and helicopter, and a cousin who runs a trucking company and actually drives the Alaska Ice Road.
But I have to say, in my opinion, my most intriguing relative, when it comes to Alaskan history, is one aunt who was born in Fairbanks. Her grandmother was a madam why back when there were a lot of little whore houses around town, catering to men in search of a little company after spending months in the bush, on the rivers, searching for gold. And my sweet aunt, a woman I have adored for as long as I can remember, started smoking when she was in her fifties, because she could, damn it. But the coolest thing about her, the proof that she’s got to be the most Alaskan person in my family, is that my dear sweet aunt (who can’t be 110 lbs soaking wet) was already a grandmother when she ran in the Iditarod sled dog race, just to prove she could do it. And she won the Red Lantern prize—coming in very last but crossing that finish line. She’s in her seventies now and serves up the best biscuits in Alaska in her gorgeous little B&B.
So, you can see why I return every couple of years. My home isn’t here any longer, but a big part of my heart is. I come back to sit and listen to stories. Old stories I’ve heard a hundred times and new ones about the kids and grandkids of my siblings as we all get older and the next generation grows.
Sitting around a camp fire, out on the old Denali Highway in a spot my family has gone to since long before me, the baby of the family, was born, watching my sister’s grandkids play in the mud—because it rained there too—we had to laugh. When the family first came to that little patch of land, once flattened out by a road crew building that rutted, gravelly highway that we pray never gets paved, we’re now the older generation. I remember fishing in that stream with my uncles and dad—so old to me back then—teaching me how to cast my little fishing rod. We’re that generation now, watching the little ones grow, teaching them to fish, to be Alaskans.