Chapter OneThe Ferry
November. A Friday night in late November; the week before Thanksgiving. A soft mist was drifting down upon the pier. This, apparently, was not unusual for Seattle. Through the mist, the lights of the Space Needle glowed; and the lights of glass-and-steel office buildings and of traffic on the multi-leveled freeways.
The ferry was supposed to leave at 9 p.m. But it had been announced that there would be a delay. The ferry was going to Alaska. To Ketchikan and Wrangell and Petersburg and Juneau and Haines and Skagway, which were towns in southeastern Alaska. Haines was the only one that had a road leading out of it that went anywhere. From Haines you could drive to Anchorage or to Fairbanks or to anywhere you liked. Haines was three days, by ferry, from Seattle.
Because it was November, there were not many people waiting for the ferry. There was room for 750 on board, but only 250 would travel. In summer, the ferries ran twice a week and carried tourists. There was light for more than twenty hours of the twenty-four, and retired couples and backpackers and schoolteachers on vacation could sit up most of the night in the big observation lounges, or could stand outside on the deck and look at the glaciers and the forests and at the mountains that jutted up from the sea.
But in November-late November-there was rain and wet snow and darkness came early.
The ferry ran only one day a week.
There were few tourists.
The people who rode the ferry in November were people who were going to Alaska for a reason.
On my way to Seattle, I had stopped in Washington, D.C., to talk to the congressman from Alaska, the only congressman Alaska had. He had come from California in the 1950s and had settled in Fort Yukon, an Indian village located directly on the Arctic Circle. Fort Yukon was a hundred fifty miles northeast of Fairbanks, and sixty miles north of Circle, where the nearest road, the road from Fairbanks, stopped. The congressman had been a schoolteacher in Fort Yukon.
"I believe," the congressman said, "that Fort Yukon holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in the state. Seventy-nine below. Went down there and stayed for four days. The next summer we set a record for heat-a hundred and one.
"Now I'll tell you a little story about the cold. One winter I'm up there and I'm out doing a little drinking with this friend of mine, another teacher. Well, you know how it is, dark all the time and real cold outside and you're never in a hurry to leave the bar. So it gets to be pretty late, finally, and I say, 'Hey, school tomorrow, we better get going.' Now I'm feeling pretty good but I guess he's feeling even better, because we go outside to his car-there's only a couple hundred yards you can drive around there, you know; no roads that go anywhere; but when it's that cold you keep a car just to drive the couple hundred yards. Anyway, he's got the keys in his mitten there-he got that all arranged while we were still inside-but then we get out by the car and damn if he don't drop the keys. Snow all over the ground, you know, and he drops the keys right in the snow. So, 'Goddammit', he says, and he takes off his mittens and squats down there and starts trying to dig the keys out of the snow. Well, like I say, I'm feeling pretty good, I guess, because I just stood there and watched him do it. Took me about twenty or thirty seconds to realize what the hell is going on. Soon as I did, of course, I yelled right at him: 'Hey, get your goddamn mittens on!' But it wasn't quite in time. He lost about three or four fingers altogether, as I remember. I guess that night it must have been sixty, sixty-five below."
The congressman inserted a cigar into his mouth and lit it. He blew a cloud of smoke across his desk. Maybe, I said to him, sometime over the winter, I would make a trip to Fort Yukon.
He grinned. "Well, now, I'll tell you. You're planning to go up there, you'd better let me know ahead of time. These little Indian villages aren't too crazy about people just droppin' in unexpected. Especially Fort Yukon. Especially if you happen to be a writer.
"See, we had a problem up there with a writer a few years back. Least this fellow said he was a writer. Plane comes in one day and he gets off and says he's from the Reader's Digest, and they're going to do a big story on Fort Yukon. Life on the Arctic Circle, you know; stuff like that. He says he wants to stay a while and really get to know us. And he says the Reader's Digest is sending his money up in a week or two. So, no problem, we find him a place to live and we feed him and all that, and he's got his tape recorder that he takes with him everywhere he goes, interviewing people. He must have interviewed half the town. Funny thing, though. I notice one day that even though he's always punching the buttons on this tape recorder and adjusting the microphone and all that, there isn't any tape in the machine. None of those-what do you call them?-cassettes.
"Well, this seems a little peculiar, but we just watch him a few days longer-nice, friendly fellow, you know-and then one day these two planes come in together and out jump these three or four guys in business suits, and then what must have been half a dozen state troopers. All of them with guns drawn. Turns out this fellow didn't work for the Reader's Digest after all. Turns out he had just killed three people in Chicago."
In Seattle, I visited a man who had been blinded by a bear. He lived alone, in a small white house at the edge of the city. The bear had attacked him fifteen years earlier, when he was seventeen, while he was walking in the woods, a mile and a half outside of Juneau, the capital of Alaska, his home town.
He was a small man, neatly dressed. He wore dark glasses. There were many scars on his face-scar tissue behind the edges of his glasses, and scars running from temple to jaw on either side of his face. There also was a heavy scar that curved from the right side of his nose across his cheek and back to the corner of his mouth. He spoke in a fiat, toneless voice from which significant emotion seemed to have been drained long ago.
The bear had blinded him with one swipe of a paw. Then, he said, the bear had circled, had charged again, and, the second time, had bitten through his skull. Later, during surgery, the bear's tooth marks had been observed on the brain. The attack not only had left him blind, and in need of plastic surgery which would require years to complete, but also had deprived him of his sense of smell.
He had lived in Seattle for years. He said he could never live in Alaska again. Not because of bitterness, and not because of fear, but because his memory of the beauty was so strong. It was not so bad, he said, being blind in Seattle. Seattle was only a city. It was not so bad when what you could not see was the Space Needle and the glass-and-steel office buildings and the traffic on the multi-leveled freeways. But in Alaska it would be different. He knew. He could remember. And to live amid such beauty-while no longer able to experience it-would, he said, be asking too much of himself.
The next morning I went shopping in an Army-Navy store and bought long underwear and flannel shirts and blue jeans and a duffel bag and woolen socks and a woolen face mask. Then I went to Eddie Bauer and bought a down parka and down overalls and down mittens and two woolen shirts. I also bought two pairs of boots. One pair was made of caribou hide and had thick rubber soles and removable felt liners. They were said to keep the feet warm at temperatures down to 20 below. The other pair was made of white rubber and had valves that, when properly adjusted, would trap a layer of warm air next to the foot. These boots had been developed by the United States armed forces in Korea. They were extremely heavy and clumsy, and cost almost a hundred dollars per pair, but they were said to keep the feet warm at 80 below.
At lunchtime, I walked down to the waterfront. There was hazy sunshine and, for November, the day was unusually warm. I sat outdoors and ate some clams and drank some beer. Then I went back to my hotel and took a nap. In the evening, I went back to the waterfront. This time by taxi, with all my bags, ready to board the ferry for Alaska.
An instrumental version of "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" was playing through the loudspeaker system inside the terminal. Word circulated that the delay was due to a Coast Guard inspection. Since midsummer, when one of the boats had slipped into gear while still tied to the Ketchikan dock-taking half the dock with it out to sea-the Coast Guard had been paying closer attention to the ferries that went to Alaska.
There was a long line of vehicles waiting to board. Campers and vans and pickup trucks, and bigger trucks, loaded with produce and construction materials and machines. There were very few ordinary cars. Ordinary cars, it seemed, were considered not big enough, or tough enough, for Alaska.
Many of the vehicles carried the new Alaska license plate, which showed a bear on its hind legs amid the numbers and the letters. There also were many license plates from Texas. And plates from Oklahoma, and from Oregon, and from California, and from the state of Washington, and from Idaho (Famous Potatoes) and Montana (Big Sky Country), and even a couple from North Dakota (The Peace Garden State). I did not see any license plates from eastern states.
Eventually, the Coast Guard completed its inspection. The line of vehicles began to move, slowly, through the mist, down a ramp and onto the ferry. Those passengers without vehicles-such as myself-boarded from a separate ramp. There were no porters. Some people-such as myself-had to make five and six trips back and forth, from the pier to the ferry, carrying bags.
The ferry was named the Malaspina, after a glacier in southern Alaska that is larger than some European countries. There had been a period of Spanish exploration of the waters along the Alaskan coast, and a number of Spanish place names-Cordova, Valdez, Malaspina-survived. During the Klondike gold rush, some people believed that the easiest route to the gold fields lay across the Malaspina Glacier. They were wrong. Many of them died on the glacier, and others were crippled by frostbite or permanently blinded by the glare of snow and ice. The gold had not been easy to get to no matter which way you went, but across the Malaspina Glacier had been the worst.
The ferry pulled out at midnight, three hours late.
The first stop-Ketchikan-lay a day and a half to the north.
It was not as if Alaska had always been there, lurking, in my mind. I had scarcely given a thought to the place until the spring. Then, one night, a friend named Peter Herford came to dinner and we got to talking about mountains, and he said the best mountains he had ever been in-the finest mountains he had ever seen-were in Alaska. He had lived in Anchorage for a year; his first wife, in fact, had been weather lady for an Anchorage television station. He said the mountains-and the glaciers and lakes and miles and miles and miles of open tundra-started about half an hour from downtown Anchorage and just kept going, in all directions-north beyond the Arctic Circle; west to the International Date Line; further than the mind of an urban Northeasterner could comprehend.
I was by no means a mountain climber; nor, in fact, an outdoorsman of any sort. But I had hiked briefly, a few years earlier, in a small section of the Canadian Rockies, and had once walked, for a month, through the Alps. Those experiences had made a lasting impression. Now I was told, by a man who also had seen the mountains of Canada and Switzerland, that, by comparison, Alaska was a different dimension. It was, he said, a wild and raw and stimulating land; like no place else he'd ever seen. It would, he suggested, change, in some way, anyone who ventured there.
About a month later, a copy of the National Geographic magazine came in the mail-an issue devoted almost entirely to Alaska. The magazine was accompanied with a map which was almost wall-poster size. I am a person who likes maps. I read maps for pleasure. Sometimes, on a rainy evening, I will pick up a road map instead of a detective story. Once, after browsing through a map of Pennsylvania, I drove for hours to a town called Oil City, a place I had discovered on the map. I just wanted to see what a town called Oil City, Pennsylvania, would be like. The map of Alaska, however, was like no other map I'd ever seen.
It could not really be called a road map, because, in Alaska, there seemed to be hardly any roads. The state was more than twice as big as Texas-it was, in fact, one-fifth the size of the whole rest of the country-yet contained fewer miles of road than did Vermont. There was not even a road into Juneau, the state capital, which was accessible only by sea or air.
Juneau was also two time zones removed from Anchorage and Fairbanks, the two largest cities in the state. Alaska was so big that it contained four time zones; yet its population was smaller than that of Columbus, Ohio. There were fewer than 400,000 people living in the state, and half of them were in Anchorage. ]he rest were scattered like dots in a connect-the-dots picture in which no one had connected the dots. Alaska was so vast that if a map of it were superimposed upon an identical-scale map of the Lower Forty-eight, Alaska would extend from Canada to Mexico, north to south; and, east to west, from Savannah, Georgia, to Santa Barbara, California. If Alaska's population density, even with Anchorage included, were applied to New York City, the population of the borough of Manhattan would be fourteen.
I spent a long time looking at the map. At the place names: Dime Landing, Farewell, and Ruby. King Salmon, Talkeetna, Yakutat. And at the mountains: the Brooks Range, located entirely above the Arctic Circle, the northernmost mountain range in the world; the Wrangells, parts of which were so inaccessible that they contained peaks of 10,000 feet and more which not only had never been climbed but had not yet even been named. And at the Alaska Range itself, with Mount McKinley as its centerpiece. The highest mountain on the continent; with a vertical rise, from base to summit, which was the greatest of any mountain in the world.
And as I looked I tried to imagine all the empty space; all the darkness; all the cold. And tried to imagine the people who would choose to live in such a place. Alaska was, clearly, a land which one would have to choose. Not a place one just happened to stumble across. In this generation, except for the Natives-the Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts, who made up 20 percent of the state's population-the adult population of Alaska was comprised almost entirely of people who had decided to leave wherever it was they had been, and whatever it was they had been doing (and, in many cases, whomever it was they had been doing it with), and start over again in a place about which, if they knew anything at all, they knew only that it would be cold and dark and lonely much of the time, and-all of the time-radically different from the place they were leaving behind.
Who were these people? What were they looking for? Or: What were they running from? And what had they found, once they arrived in a land that remained, to a degree unimaginable in any other part of the United States, unchanged by the presence of man?
I knew only two people who had moved to Alaska. I had worked with them on a newspaper in Massachusetts ten years before. One summer they had just upped and went, and I had heard nothing from them, or of them, since.
Eventually I put the map away, but the notion of Alaska lingered on. It began to grow, in fact, and spread: through the spring and into early summer. What was it like up there? What would it be like to be there? I had spent most of the previous couple of years cooped up inside a stuffy little workroom in New Jersey, writing a book that had turned out to be mostly about the inside of my head. I was hungry for something different: something big, something fresh, something new, like Alaska.
I imagined it as a vast and primal wilderness: an immovable object of sorts; frozen in time. But under attack now-under sudden and vicious assault-by the irresistible forces of big business, modern technology, and greed.