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I have traveled for over 40 years on budgets ranging from less than $4 to, well, more, per day. In general, I have found that the less money you spend, the more you learn. The following story reflects my experiences when, as a 19 year old student, I first hitchhiked the Alaskan Highway.Marc Fishman, MD
The Okanagan Valley can be pretty lonely for a hitchhiker. Some called it “the hitchhiker’s grave yard.” So, when a 2 seated convertible MG stopped I was more than a little surprised.
“Which way you headed” asked the stranger?
“East. Back to Montreal,” I responded.
“Too bad. I’m headed north a few miles up the road.”
I thought for just a moment, then said “north’s fine.” In fact, after hours of standing in one place, anywhere would have been fine. Anywhere but here.
Jim didn’t talk too much, so we sat in silence as the miles passed. The road narrowed, and the dark forest seemed to encroach on the highway.
Finally, Jim asked “What’re you doing out here?”
“I’m a student. Just seeing the country.”
“Bad answer” he said. “Up here that means you’re a hippie. An Eastern hippie. People up here don’t like hippies. Not good to be a hippie up here.”
As we continued north the towns got smaller, the cars and people fewer. Leaving one small town Jim spoke again.
“This is lumberjack country. The lumberjacks don’t like strangers. They don’t like hippies. Anyone asks, you’re looking for work. No work back east.”
“That’s true. There is no work back east.”
“’course, people might not believe you. People like short hair up here.”
More hours passed. Then Jim said “you know about Hell’s Angels?’
“Sure,” I responded.
“A few years back they had a jamboree up here. Hundreds of ‘em came screeching through the town scaring the women. That night the Angels lit fires in their campsites. You don’t light fires in the dry season – not in the forest, not where the lumberjacks work. You know what happened?”
“What?” I answered.
“The lumberjacks saw those fires, and they went out to the campsite and beat the shit out of the Hells Angels. You won’t see any Hell’s Angels up here.”
When Jim turned off onto a dirt road leading to a distant homestead, I figured I had 2 choices: go back the way I came, or keep going north. Actually, there was a third possibility I hadn’t considered. As the hours passed and not a single car went by in either direction, I began noticing the bear tracks in the gravel road.
I wondered where I could go after dark. There was no shoulder by the road, and all I could see was tall grass. Not a good place to lay your sleeping bag. I looked up the road where Jim went. He said it was 50 miles to his place. Too far. There was nothing the way we came, so I started walking north. After a few miles I came upon a clearing, with a barn in the distance. No houses, no animals, no people. After dark I spread out my sleeping bag in the clearing, using my backpack for a pillow, and slept under the clear, starry skies. I must have slept well, because I didn’t hear a thing until an old man said “What’re you doing here?”
I opened my eyes. The first thing I saw was his dog, and then the old man with a shotgun pointed at me.
“What you doing!” He asked again.
“Looking for work. There’s no work back east.”
“There’s no work here” he responded. “I suggest you get goin’. My dog don’t like strangers.”
I packed my stuff, and started walking up the road. Finally, someone stopped. “You going to Dawson City” he asked.
“Yes,” was the only answer I could think of. So I continued north.
I saw my first gold dredge a few miles out of Dawson City. The surrounding area seemed like a moonscape, with piles of rock and rubble tracing the stream bed. The dredge was like an enormous monster, at least 3 stories tall, boxlike, with protruding appendages.
"The dredge crawls up the stream bed, scoops up rock, sorts, keeps the gold, and spits out the remains. That’s why the terrain looks like this. Been like this more than 50 years,” Andy informed me.
“You mean that thing moves.”
“Used to. Not anymore. No more gold.”
I walked the last few miles into town. Dawson City looked like a set from an old western movie, with wooden sidewalks, boarded up buildings, and a main road devoid of traffic. After a time I saw a young woman leave a building. I approached her and asked about rooming houses in Dawson. As she was directing me, a skinny, weather beaten old man walked up to us. Turning to me he said,
“I’m a Klondiker. One of the last. Climbed the Chilcoot in ‘98 with a 100 pound pack on my back. Almost froze that first winter. I learned one thing from those days. Want to know what it is, son?”
“Sure” I replied.
He said “Take off your backpack when you’re talking to a lady,” and walked away.
I figured I’d spend a few days in Dawson, but a fellow in a jeep saw me with my backpack laying the road. He stopped and asked if I was headed north. I knew better than to say no, so I got in his jeep, and we left.
Orphaned at a young age, Dan was brought up in an orphanage, but left when he was about 12. He lived on the streets for years, educated himself, and worked when and where he could. He said he must have made an impression on someone, because he inherited a small fortune when he was in his 20’s. He could only guess who left him the money. He bought a place on the ocean in Carmel, opened a shop, and lived well. Some years later he decided to see the world, and was now driving to Alaska.
The first night along the Alaskan Highway we slept in our sleeping bags on a hill by the side of the road. I’ve always wondered what the legendary Alaskan mosquitoes ate, because there was nothing for miles around. In any case, they sure started feasting on us. At first Dan said he didn’t believe in killing any living thing, and that mosquitoes were just a part of nature. He wouldn’t even use my bug spray. The Alaskan mosquitoes, however, can be pretty convincing, and in less than an hour Dan was swatting and spraying the attacking hordes.
In the middle of the second day Dan said he was heading off to a remote northern town. I was welcome to continue with him, but I decided to head to Fairbanks.
My next ride was in the cab of the largest truck I’d ever seen. Glen told me it was an ore truck, too heavy for any road in the lower 48, but okay for the gravel Alaskan Highway. After a few hours, I felt a rumble in the truck. “Gotta flat,” said Glen.Sure enough, one of the 16 wheels was gone.
“It’s only a few hours to Fairbanks. Can we travel on 15 wheels until we get there?”
“Nope. We got to change that tire. I’ve got a spare.”
Universities are always a good place for travelers to get information on where to stay, where to eat, so I hitchhiked out to the University of Fairbanks. At the student union I met a teacher from New York who was working with the Alaskan Head Start program. Volunteers were teaching young Inuit from all over Alaska how to teach pre-school children. I was invited to participate with the program. During my short tenure with Head Start an Inuit suggested that I go out to Teller to visit his uncle, a reindeer herder.
That seemed like an interesting idea, so I bought a plane ticket to Nome and hitchhiked the “Teller Highway.” The trucker who picked me up explained that the road, which was not much more than a gravel path, was only passable in the summer. He figured that there was only one reason for the road, and that was because the local congressman owned the construction company that built it.
He let me off at the outskirts to Teller, a small Inuit community on the Bering Straits. The town had, perhaps, 100 one room houses made from planks of tongue and groove pine. Some were covered with tar paper while the others had holes of various sizes where the knots had fallen out.
It took less than two minutes to walk to the other end of the community, and out onto the corrugated steel runway on a spit of land protruding into the bay. I saw no one. I turned around and started walking back. There were no shops of any kind. The “Teller Electric Company” building in the center of town was a small concrete structure that appeared to be abandoned. At that moment I saw a child peering at me from behind a building. I turned, and he disappeared. Then a man approached me. “My name is Lincoln,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
I told him that I had worked with Annie Pealuk and that I was looking for Sam Pealuk. Lincoln then explained that Teller was the closest place in the United States to Russia. The FBI had warned the residents that strangers might come to try to get to Russia by stealing a boat. That was why everyone was hiding. He then invited me to his home, introduced me to his family, and asked if I’d like to stay with them. His home had 2 single beds and 2 spots on the floor for his children. They created a third spot for me near the door. There was no running water and no electricity, but there was a large oil fired stove to cook on and to heat the house during the long, dark winter.
Lincoln pointed to the stove and said that the government gave the Eskimos that stove because the winters are so cold. He told me that the new government houses were colder than the old sod houses because the wind blew right through them. So the government thought they were doing a good deed when they gave them the stoves. “Problem is” said Lincoln “now the young people have nothing to do in the summer. We used to have to walk the beaches for miles around to find driftwood for the winter. There’s no trees around here. Now, since the young ones don’t have to look for wood, too many drink alcohol. Not here, though. Teller is dry.”
A few days later word came that the reindeer herders had found the herd and were leading them towards the corral. Everyone got in their boats and headed out. I joined the women and children in the umiak. The community umiak was about 35 feet long, made of stretched walrus and seal hide over a wooden frame. The boat's captain told me that the only difference between this umiak and the boats of his ancestors was the wood. His ancestors used whale bone or walrus bone since there was no wood.
We traveled east over open waters for a few hours, then passed through a narrow gorge opening to a large bay. The corral was on the northern shore of the bay, near the foot of the mountains. By the time we arrived a small tent city had been constructed, and the men could be seen standing in a line by the largest corral. I walked over and watched as one reindeer at a time was released from a chute. The first person in line grabbed the antlers and wrestled the reindeer to the ground. The antlers were cut off, for later sale to a Korean firm to be ground up and sold as an aphrodisiac, and the ears marked with a tag. I felt foolish as the only male observer, so I joined the line and wrestled reindeer in turn.
A few of the animals were slaughtered, and the women skinned them with their ulus. With no food for purchase in Teller, I had completely run out of supplies. One fellow said I wouldn’t like the walrus stew, and suggested that I stick with the reindeer. That turned out to be good advice.
When we returned to Teller a trucker offered me a ride back to Nome. On the way he told me that the forest fires were the worst in years, and entire communities were being evacuated. They were signing up fire fighters all across the state. After signing up at the local office in Nome, I was advised to buy a pair of high boots, and be ready to fly out in 2 hours. Back in Fairbanks, we were bussed to a large staging area and broken into groups. I was the only white person in my group, so I was made straw boss, and given a raise. I could think of no other reason for my promotion, since everyone there knew more about the outdoors than did I.
A short while later helicopters picked us up. As we flew to our destination to the northeast, you could see huge palls of smoke drifting over Fairbanks. About an hour later we were deposited in a field and told that our objective was to protect a group of homes that had been evacuated. After establishing our home base, we spent 12 hours a day shoveling sand on fire. At the end of each gruelling day we cut wood to make a fire to cook our dinner, World War II C rations. Most of it was still pretty good, even though it was over 20 years old. At the end of the first week, everyone had a meal of fresh food, and offered another week’s work. I stayed a second week, trudging up and down the mountain sides putting out spot fires in the deep moss.
After 2 weeks we were bussed back to Fairbanks, and offered a trip back home. Since it was time to head east, the authorities gave me a ticket to Vancouver.
That year the courthouse steps were the city’s major hangout. I walked there, and sat alone on the steps trying to figure out why it was supposed to be fun to just sit there. Two men in suits walked by. They looked like Secret Service, but I figured they were RCMP. I heard one say, “See that one. He’s not like the rest. Look at those boots.” I glanced down at my boots, smiled to myself, and thought “I guess not.”