Shortly after arriving in Holy Cross we were visited by the Principal Teacher with some unexpected news. A family with five children moved to Anchorage the week before we arrived and the school was now at the number of students that made it a three-teacher school. I now had no job. It was unusual for families to leave rural villages. No one had predicted this change. The Principal was working with the administration to see if he could hire me as a teacher assistant.
At first Jed and I just sat there for a few minutes thinking. It was the end of August and there were no other Alaska jobs we could switch to now since they were all assigned. We both agreed with only five days until the start of school we felt an obligation to Holy Cross. We continued to unpack boxes, but a feeling of ‘now what are we going to do’ lingered in the air. We were broke.
Traveling in and out of Alaska was expensive and not covered in teaching contracts. Furthermore, we had learned from fellow rural teachers over the summer that Alaska’s State-Operated School system was in turmoil. The tentative contracts we had been sent by our Regional Superintendent in early May were not solid, verifiable agreements because the state school system was crumbling apart. At the time we received the contracts, we didn’t know any of the issues the state was confronting. We knew a concern about the lack of education past eighth grade was creating a stir in the 1973 legislature. We certainly agreed with that issue, but figured nothing would happen about it any time soon. We were so wrong.
The baby must have sensed the tenseness in the air because he was restless. He needed to sleep but was wide-awake and crying. I knew that if I put him in his carrier pack that snuggled him close to my belly he would go right to sleep. I asked Jed if he wanted to go for a walk. Since school was starting in a few days he declined and said he was going to find Joe and ask him about the classroom arrangements. After strapping Zach in the carrier, I leashed up Hidalgo and we headed out. The wonderful thing about small Alaskan villages is they are easily laid out. As we flew in, I saw the Yukon and knew if I headed back along Ghost Slough I would be close to the Yukon. The road would lead me through the village toward the airport. I knew Holy Cross was small, but I also knew I easily got lost.
Hidalgo was a black Labrador retriever that weighed 85 pounds and loved to run free. I had learned the hard way the importance of exercising big dogs. Labradors always seem to be a little hyper, requiring plenty of exercise. When we had our first Lab, Mr. Jack (Daniels), he had wrapped his leash around me and took off after another dog. The result of my ‘hyper dog’ education was knee surgery. Rural airports were typically flat, open fields, a good location for dogs to run free as long as there weren’t any planes landing or taking off. The mail plane had come and gone and I would hear a plane if there was one landing. So off we went toward the airport.
A few people in the village waved to me as we walked along the road. Holy Cross was a mixture of Athabascan Indians and Yupik Eskimos. The impact of the Catholic Church and missionaries over the years had resulted in Holy Cross having access to running water, a sewer system, electricity in homes, and more of a Western cultural influence. Marshall’s background and modernization were limited in comparison, creating a slower pace community than Holy Cross. We had heard in our earlier visit that more people in Holy Cross traveled into Anchorage and on to Seattle than in Marshall.
Along the Yukon River smoked salmon was hanging and drying in the sun on poles made from strong tree branches. I loved the smell of the oily salmon fish jerky, often referred to as fish candy. The wood smoke helped to create the smoky taste, which wafted across the road on a gentle breeze that touched me as I walked along singing quietly to my baby and securely holding Hidalgo. I took a deep breath and pulled in the crisp smoky air.
In full view was the mighty Yukon. I thought I knew it well from watching it the year before from the window in the Marshall house and from my classroom. Now, in another location, it looked so different, even bigger and vaster. We couldn’t see the Yukon from our new trailer home, so I had a feeling walks to the Yukon would be necessary. As my father-in-law had stated after seeing the Yukon last year, “There is something mystic about the Yukon that draws one.” During my stroll a comfort settled over me, I realized not being a full-time teacher I would have more time with my baby and visits to the Yukon.
Hidalgo had a great run at the airport and was ready to head home when I called him to leash up. As we headed back to the trailer, I saw something on the Yukon that was puzzling and difficult to clearly define. The closer we got I could see it was a raft with a sail, only it was huge. It was larger than the fish wheels I was familiar seeing on the Yukon gathering the last fish of the season.
Zach was beginning to wake up. My focus returned to the present moment, which included feeding a two-month old, unpacking boxes, figuring out dinner for Jed and me, and trying to settle into the new situation of Holy Cross. I was certainly glad that I could turn on a water faucet to have a glass of water and clean up the kitchen. After living without running water my appreciation for having water at my fingertips was much greater.
The next morning I told Jed about the vessel on the Yukon that looked like a giant Tom Sawyer raft. He was headed back to the school to assess his teaching materials for the three grades Joe had assigned him. Since my purpose at the school was undefined I said I would go with him in the afternoon. After unpacking more boxes I decided to take Hidalgo for a short walk before lunch. My curiosity about the strange, floating craft drew me to back to the banks of the Yukon. Holding strongly to our water dog so he didn’t jump into the powerful current kept me moving forward and alert.
As we approached, I could see four figures on the raft moving around. After a quick ‘good morning’ and introductions we chatted about their journey down the Yukon. They shared they had arrived the night before, were just staying a few days, and were hoping to find a place to wash clothes and shower. Understanding the need for a shower and clean clothes, as well as the lack of places to do that, I offered our washing machine and bathroom. We made a time to meet at 12:30. I also explained our trailer was the one closest to the school. I wanted them to meet Jed. Zach and I could go with him to the school while the fellows cleaned up and washed clothes. They offered dinner the following night on the raft in exchange for our hospitality.
The next evening we boarded the raft and were stunned at the size and stability of the vessel. The four men, on an assignment for National Geographic Magazine, were each interesting in their own right. Their adventure had begun a year earlier in July 1972 by hiking the Chilkoot Pass to Bennett Lake, the headwaters of the Yukon. Their final destination was to be the mouth of the Bering Sea. All four of them had experiences and backgrounds valuable to their voyage. Their trip had already been full of hard work and challenging surprises. One fellow was a third generation logger originally from Oregon, one was a native Alaskan who shared his time climbing mountains and skiing on the US Olympic Ski Team, and the other two had spent several seasons in the backwoods of Alaska as land surveyors.
Jed and I had heard the Yukon draws adventuresome river travelers each year. Although the raft adventurers were our first encounter, they set the bar high. After hiking the Chilkoot Trail the year before, they had felled spruce and pine trees to build a sturdy, seagoing raft. The rough timbers were set crosswise, fastened by wooden pegs and then joined together to create the 32-by-22 foot platform of rugged logs. The raft had to be strong enough to maneuver through the canyons and rapids, as well as face the forces of the wind they would encounter in their journey. In order to ensure consistent movement down the Yukon, they built a 36-foot mast with tree trunks. They attached a surplus parachute for a sail. To make the raft habitable and guarantee some comfort they added a four-man wall tent, a small cast-iron stove and all of the gear they would need.
When they reached Whitehorse in September of 1972, they took the raft apart and stored it for the winter. As soon as the 1973 spring breakup weather allowed, the raft was re-constructed and they were once again on their way down the Yukon. The intended final destination was 50 miles below Holy Cross in Piamute, an old abandoned Indian village. In Alaska the start of winter could be as early as mid or late September. This didn’t happen every year but it did occur. Being prepared by finishing a trip on the river before it froze was critical to their lives and the usefulness of the raft.
The plan when they reached Piamute was to take the raft apart again, only this time the materials would be used to build a small cabin. They explained the final stage of the adventure was to reside in the cabin as they waited for the Yukon to freeze up. After the Yukon was solid with ice they planned to ski the final remaining miles to the Bering Sea. Wow! We were both envious and in awe.
The raft was comfortable enough for the six of us. Wooden boxes suddenly appeared for us to sit on. Someone in the village had gotten the first fall moose, which was shared with the rafting group, as well as others in the village. We were fortunate to be included in this traditional gift of moose steaks. The communal distribution of food happened in Marshall and once again in Holy Cross. When village residents went hunting and fishing they proudly distributed the bounty. Freezers were definitely more common in Holy Cross, but the habit of sharing food was still a strong cultural tradition. Drying fish and meat into jerky was a traditional and common way of preserving food that we saw in both villages.
Although not being much of a meat eater, I did enjoy the moose steak. The fresh moose meat was tender and had a wonderful smoky taste. But, the big treat for me was the cornbread made in an iron skillet on top of the small cast iron stove covered with butter and honey. I had heard about making cornbread that way, but had not seen it done. The logger from Oregon had learned the method while in one of the logging camps. It was a great evening and we hoped we would see more of them.
Want to read more about the raft National Geographic Adventure – Check your library for – Tryck, K. (December 1975). Rafting Down the Yukon. National Geographic. Vol. 148:6.