Monday, October 1, 2012

20 years and counting.

A wood-burned barnwood plaque hanging on a wall of my cabin proclaims "I wasn't born in Alaska, but I got here as fast as I could."   20 years ago this month I left Washington (the state) in an overloaded Toyota pick up truck carrying a rack full of tipi poles, an array of woodworking tools, a couple of muzzle loading flint-lock guns, a trailer carrying 2 canoes,  Accompanied by a 4 month old yellow labrador retriever puppy I drove north to Dawson Creek, and every inch of the Alaska Highway to land in the Interior of Alaska.  I was starting a new adventure and chasing a dream that began when I was about 12 years old.

My grandfather divorced my grandmother while my own Mom was was less than 1 year old.  He bounced around the Oklahoma and Texas oil patch for a time, and then enlisted in the Army at the onset of World War II.  The Army sent him to Anchorage, where he served the last 10 years of his career before retiring here in Alaska.  He remained in Alaska until 1959, when his heart began giving out.  With no significant V.A. health services available up here, he moved to Western Colorado where he had access to the V.A. Hospital in Grand Junction.

Meanwhile, my Mom was working as a stenographer for the Social Security Administration in Grand Junction.  When his paperwork came across her desk she put two and two together, arranged a meeting, and developed a close relationship with my grandfather.

 I was just a 12 year old lad with jug-handle ears when I first met my grandfather, as can be clearly seen in this photograph that appeared with the article above.

We visited my grandfather often, and even today I can clearly remember riding in the back of a 1948 Dodge pickup truck, chilled to the bone, as we traveled from our place in Clifton, Colorado to my grandfather's home in Eckert.  I spent a lot of hours listening to his stories, reading Jack London novels and the poetry of Robert Service.  

Throughout my maturation, vague dreams of living in Alaska were present, though they stayed fairly low on the priority list of life as I set out on my own, bouncing around the oil patch of Wyoming, working underground at the Climax molybdenum mine in Colorado, and then running ambulance calls in Denver, Colorado Springs and Crested Butte.  During those years of learning and practicing my trade I covered a LOT of miles.  I've served in all three emergency services disciplines including EMS, fire service and law enforcement.

I was married and divorced, and later remarried.  I experienced the birth of my daughter, who has grown to become a most capable and admirable woman. 

When we lived in Crested Butte my second wife put her own EMS career in the background while I managed the EMS Division of the Crested Butte Fire Protection District.  When Shiloh took a job in Skagit County, Washington I willingly followed and focused on working a couple of different EMS gigs and pursuing my own business as a rural EMS consultant.  My consulting business brought me to Sitka for a job, and later to Anchorage as a speaker at a State EMS Symposium.  I fell in love with the State, and when Shiloh (my wife) had an opportunity to work for the Interior Region EMS Council I encouraged her to apply.  That was, of course, 20 years ago and I'm still here.

"Alaska will challenge you during your first year." a new friend had advised, and he was right.  The winter of 1992 was a tough one up here.  The first heavy, sticking snow fell in the middle of September.  To this day I run my dogs on trails marked by huge birch trees bent nearly double by the snow load of that winter.   While Shiloh was settling into her new job I was 'hustling' for a living, writing as many magazine articles as I could sell, transferring my professional credentials so I could work as an EMS instructor, volunteering time with North Pole Fire Department and Interior Region Emergency Medical Services, and shoveling snow off of roofs.

One of my teaching gigs sent me up the haul road to the village of Wiseman.  The folks up there had received a community development grant from the State, and elected to spend it by providing every adult in town with advanced first aid and CPR training, along with some needed equipment and, if I recall correctly, a new foot bridge over a creek that runs through the village.  While up there I was housed at the truck stop at Coldfoot, a few miles south, where I met a Wackenhut Security courier (either Bill or Bob Hogan).  While chatting over coffee and burgers I told him why I was there, and he encouraged me to apply for a job as security officer and paramedic.  

I put in my paperwork, but meanwhile fell into a seasonal triple-role job as watchman, safety technician and medic at a salmon processing plant in Kenai.  I was working at that job when I got the call from Wackenhut to interview for the job I've been doing ever since.

During that first summer up here I fell into some 'Bad Company.'  That would be Tim France, Jack Record and Bear Galloway.  At that time the discipline of historical trekking was just becoming popular among living history enthusiasts, and the four of us (and frequently a fair number of others) were very much 'into' going afield using only 18th or early 19th century technology while exploring the wilds.  At one of our State rendezvous a newcomer asked where to find one of our group, and was told he was "hanging out with bad company" while pointing to our camp.  As tends to happen in living history circles, the name "Bad Company" stuck.

John "Bear" Gallentine and I discussing something more or less important during a Bad Company winter trek.
Tim France at the 2003 Hick's Creek historical rendezvous
We had a lot of fun with the Bad Company name.  For example, we decided that we couldn't really be an organization, because organizations need leaders, but leaders need followers.  Since none of us could be described as followers, we couldn't have leaders, therefore we couldn't be an organization.  Consequently, Bad Company was a disorganization.  We did, however, have four rules to guide our historical outdoor adventures.

1.     Safety must never be compromised just for the sake of historical authenticity.
2.     Teach others that which you know.
3.     Learn from others that which you don’t know.
4.     Quit your bitching.  We got into this situation together and we’ll get out of it together.

Over the next few years, our disorganization grew quite nicely.  All one had to do to be a member of Bad Company was participate in one of our historical treks, and as I noted before, historical trekking was gaining in popularity among living history enthusiasts, especially up here.  We made it a point to organize at least 1 trek during each season of the year, and some of those turned out to be quite adventurous. 

In nearly all of those adventures I was accompanied by at least 1 dog.  Shunka, that little yellow Lab who made the drive up the Alcan with me, turned out to be one of the best bird dogs I've ever shot over, and she was a pretty good little "one dog" sled dog, hauling my gear over whatever snowy trail I wished to travel.  For a short time I had a big, strong Chesapeake Bay retriever named Jake who would willing pull a toboggan for hours on end.  After Jake's untimely death, Chinook, who still has an honored place in the kennel, became my one-dog team.

Through all those years and adventures I was fascinated and intrigued by dog mushing, but my work schedule coupled with Shiloh's ensured it was little more than fascination.  Every time I broached the subject, Shiloh's response was "You can have a dog team when we can afford to hire a handler to care for them while you're away." 

Shiloh and I at a Western National Rendezvous, many years ago.
Shiloh died on April 3rd, 2005.  With the encouragement of my friends I focused more attention on dog mushing, and began learning to mush under the guidance of Edie Forrest in October of that year.  I enjoyed it so much that I began putting my own team together, only four dogs, the very next year.  From the very beginning my goal has been to accurately portray any period of dog mushing history between the years 1763 and 1963.  Much of what has happened since is recorded in the archives of this blog.

So, I now have 20 years 'in country'.  It is frequently said that Alaska is a challenging place to live, and I have to admit that is so.  Many say that every single year one must make a decision to remain in Alaska or return to some place Outside, but I no longer agree with that.  I made the decision to stay a long time ago and see no reason to change it now.  I imagine I'll remain in Alaska the rest of my life, because I certainly can't envision myself living anywhere else. 

I don't know of anywhere else I can explore truly wild places the same way I do today, the same way that frontiersmen of past centuries faced during their own lifetimes.  Maybe I'll hunt up another barn wood plank and make a plaque to hang beside the one on my cabin wall.  If I do, the full display will read "I wasn't born in Alaska, but I got here as fast as I could - and I'll stay here as long as I can."


  1. Fun to read about your adventures. Glad you have found home.

    I'm interested to learn more about your first years of dog mushing, if you get a chance sometime. Your blog inspired me to find a mushing mentor two seasons ago. Last year I ran a 6 dog team and this year it is 8. Life has changed.

  2. Wow, Swanny! What a great comment on your blog by the previous commenter.

    Isn't it amazing the turns one's life takes?!

  3. Really cool. I like this one.

    Take care,
    Pete McKee