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A Cheechaco’s Alaska ~ a retrospective

Published in Mushing Magazine Jan/Feb 2013

Mushing Magazine Article, Daryl L. Hunter

Mushing Magazine Article, Daryl L. Hunter

Mushing Magazine Article, Daryl L. Hunter


A Cheechaco’s Alaska

Wanderlust has always been an integral part of my soul. So during the course of my sojourn following my lust 1975 found me in Alaska chasing my fortune hoping to find a job on the Alaska pipeline. A day late and a dollar short, as usual, I found myself washing dishes in at a truck stop in Glenn Allen Alaska. Not quite what I had in mind but I figured that I would make the best of it.

Promotion wasn’t long in coming in, labor poor, rural Alaska during the pipeline days. I was promoted to cook of a truck stop that the health inspector hadn’t discovered yet. It was hard to wade through the grease to the food and harder to keep them separated once I got there but I had a job.

Being from Southern California, the land of sunshine and pretty girls, I couldn’t imagine winters impending double-digit below zero temperatures that were soon to freeze my future. In this interior Alaskan town, the temperature in mid winter would reach sixty degrees below zero. To get an idea of my frigid air future I would go sit in the walk in freezer of the restaurant which was 0 degrees, It was cold in there; however, it could still get 60 degrees colder. How could that be possible?

Considering rural Alaska’s ten men to one-woman ratio the prospects were poor for finding a companion to offset the chill of winter. Chances were if companionship was in my future I would have to buy it. The local ladies of the night serving the pipeline camp put too high a value on themselves for a faulty product so I bought me a husky dog.

I wasn’t getting rich as planned, but I loved Alaska. With 24 hours of daylight, I could go fishing day or night, I was never  far away from a trout or grayling stream and the scenery was stunning. There were no fences which appealed to my wandering soul that had always had a problem with boundaries. I lived near the banks of the Copper River, I would look to the east and marvel at the fact that there was nobody out there for five hundred miles it was a great feeling. It wasn’t that I could use that five hundred miles for anything as there were no roads or anyway to get in there except airplane, but it was just nice to know all that wild country was right there, A wild subjective ethereal ambiance crossed the Copper River and enveloped me.

As much as I loved the place I appreciated the people more. I was an Alaskan Cheechaco (newcomer, tenderfoot, greenhorn) but the sourdoughs (old timers) were welcoming of cheechacos with earnest sourdough ambitions.  Everyone I met was either young and adventurous or old and adventurous, there was no in-between. It takes a special type of person to move to and survive on this rugged frontier. I found the Alaskan spirit was one to emulate! Alaska is a land of extremes, Alaska’s boom, bust economy you can have several years of prosperity followed by several years of hardship and even during prosperous times it is financially hard in winter. Adversity builds character, and Alaska certainly is full of characters, Gold miners, trappers, hunting and fishing guides, bush pilots and homesteader’s all of them had a pot of coffee on the stove, a story to tell, and a leg to pull.

Of course, there were exceptions to the rule. At the truck stop I worked with a couple of people that left an indelible impression on me. Otto was my dishwasher, he must have been 80 years old and he lived in the employee bunkhouse. He was too old to work and couldn’t see to clean the dishes but who could fire him? He was a pathetic figure who did nothing but sit on the edge of his bed and smoke. Gladys was one of my waitress’; Gladys also was way beyond retirement age and was losing her memory.  These two lost souls clearly hadn’t planned their lives very well, and my exposure to them influenced me to vow to have a home paid for by the time I was of retirement age. Thank you Otto and Gladys!

Autumn brought a brief but beautiful change of seasons. Within two weeks the Aspen and Birch trees turned from green to gold to bare branches, their falling leaves rode the wind blowing them into the darkness of winter. Then the darkness came, and the cold rolled in with the darkness. September 10, it was 8-degrees in the daytime. By November, it was reaching fifty degrees below zero. I found that the cold wasn’t as bad as I imagined it to be. In the walk in freezer, I wasn’t wearing a jacket. All you needed were some well-insulated coveralls, a heavy parka to wear over the coveralls and a hard head and you can stand most any temperature. I just wished I didn’t have to sleep in them!

I was renting an 8×24 foot travel trailer that I couldn’t heat up for the life of me. The trailer wasn’t insulated, but it did have three heaters in it, an oil stove, a propane stove, and an electric space heater. At 20 below the oil would start icing up and the stove oil quit flowing. At 40 below the propane quit expanding. That left me with the 1,000-watt electric heater that was more ceremonial than functional at fifty below zero. Upon awakening in the morning, I had to break the ice on the dog’s water dish that was placed directly in front of the electric heater. Thank goodness for a good down sleeping bag, overalls, parka, hard head, heart for adventure and the love of a good dog.

If you don’t have a reason to go outside when it is minus thirty degrees, you probably won’t! I had to take Bud my husky for a daily walk so he could do his business somewhere other than my living room so out I went. Day after day, frozen poop that made me wonder about all that frozen waste, day after day the frozen accumulation mounting. This place will be a mess come springtime.

I found that it wasn’t the cold itself that bothered me; it was the mechanical failure that it caused. Heating a house with anything but wood was absurd too impossible.  To start a car in the morning  you had to plug in your engine heater and battery blanket whenever you parked the car so that the engine didn’t freeze up. If you were going to park somewhere there wasn’t a place to plug it in, you just left the car running, you locked the door and hoped you remembered your extra key. Everything would get brittle when it got real cold, you could pull your  car door closed and the handle would break off in your hand. After the car would set all night the tires would freeze flat on the bottoms, then for the first half mile it felt as if you were driving down a riverbed covered with cobble rocks in a 4×4 until the tires re-rounded themselves. One night I came home when the temperature was somewhere south of -60-degrees, and I went to plug in the car and my plug in cords shattered into a thousand pieces like glass. I vowed not to fix that S.O.B. Until it was 20 above, and I hitchhiked for the next 3 weeks. Up until now I thought that Frigid-Air was the name of a refrigerator.

I still loved Alaska though. I would look around me and wonder why. It must be that when things are covered in snow they are so pretty. I couldn’t put my finger on it. There were only three colors, the white of the snow, the dull green of the trees and the blue of the sky. Then I realized everything was rounded off and visually softened by the snow. The hoar frost crystals sparkled in the 4 hours of sun. You can see forever because there isn’t any atmospheric haze, all the moisture in the air freezes and falls to the ground. Overhead the northern lights dance in the sky and in the absence of the northern lights; every star in the sky glowed in the clear night air. It was dark all right, but it didn’t take very much moon to light up the snowy landscape. On the horizon was the Wrangel Mountains dominated by Mt. Sanford a 16,000-foot volcano venting a steam plume into the Arctic air. And a breath of frigid air was invigorating as long as you were warm. It must be because that I was from California, and I had never experienced a change of seasons, and now I was witnessing some of the most radical season changes on earth. I realized the sameness of California’s “perfect weather” was pure boredom.

Since my home was colder than a gravedigger’s heart, I fell into the habit of spending all my waking hours at the Smittie’s Bar. I became friends of the manager, and we worked out a deal where I could drink for free if I would run the shuttle service. I would sit there and drink until someone needed a ride home or back to the pipeline camp, then I would charge them $1.00 per mile for the service, and I got to keep the money. When the bar closed at five in the morning, I would load up my car with people going to the pipeline camp and drop them off for $5.00 a head; it was right by my house. A drunk delivering drunks service, only in Alaska.

It didn’t take long for me to see the flaw in this lifestyle. I needed a winter hobby. I went ice fishing once, and the ice on the lake was six feet deep. I threw out my line, and my bobber quickly froze into my freshly dug hole. With my aversion to digging ice fishing didn’t appear to be the answer that left x-c skiing or dog sledding. The thought of doing the number one aerobic exercise at 40 below zero had about the same appeal as skinny-dipping in my ice hole. Dogsledding however, sounded much more romantic; images of Jack London’s “Call Of The Wild” ran through my mind. So dog sledding it was.

I had come to find out that my “Call Of The Wild” had called me  to the coldest part of Alaska and that most of Alaska wasn’t fifty below on a sunny day in January so I brilliantly deduced I ought to move to a warmer Alaskan local especially if I planned to spend a great amount of time behind a team of huskies.

The summer of 76 found me living in a tent in Valdez while I tried to get a job out of the Teamster’s union hall there.  Here I met a wild Alaskan woman, Marjorie Moore. Marjorie took me for my first dogsled ride, and I was instantly in love with the sport. It was summer so Marjorie had wheels attached to her dog sled, the ride was a blast but the thing that sold me on dog mushing was how much the dogs loved it. The realization that dog mushing amounted to spending a beautiful day out in the wintry landscape with eight or ten of your best friends was too cool! Marjorie who was working on the pipeline refused to live in the free lodging at the pipeline camp so she could camp out with her dogs, Marjorie was a testament to the indomitable Alaskan character I spoke of earlier. Since I hoped to soon have the money to settle in a better part of Alaska, I asked Marjorie where the best dogsledding conditions were and she Xed the spot on the map for me.

Through persistence and payola I finally scored a truck driving  job on the Alaska pipeline up in Coldfoot where they  film ‘Ice Road Truckers, I soon banked enough cash to buy a small cabin and to pay my bills through the winter. I chose the Matanuska Valley for my new home, an X on a map where I didn’t know a soul. The Matanuska Valley is a more temperate climate than Alaska’s harsh interior. Oddly enough upon my arrival to Alaska I had taken the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks and as this California outsider starred out the window of the train upon the desolate forests of Matanuska Valley and the shacks that were along the way I couldn’t help but ask myself “Who in the hell would want to live here?” The irony of the answer with the help of a little evolutionary assimilation was me.

My cabin was a 300 square foot A-frame plus a loft and had no running water or electricity, bare basics but it was mine. Since I had to build an outhouse I went out and dug and dug and finally got down to the ground. I decided that was deep enough for me.

I started collecting dogs that no one wanted or would sell cheap, so it wasn’t long before I had a dog team (and I use the term loosely) because it wasn’t any team! What I had acquired was a hodgepodge of slow, lazy, unruly, fighting dogs without a leader. I had my work cut out for me.

My mother came out for a visit and as he had coffee looking out my picture window upon my dogs and the vast landscape she asked: “Don’t you get lonely out here?”  I replied: “There is a difference between loneliness and solitude.”

One evening on my way to hitch up the dogs I saw all my dogs looking at the sky. They were watching a dazzling display of Northern Lights. I was surprised to realize that people aren’t the only creatures that enjoyed this phenomenon of the north.

Out of necessity I became the leader and top dog of the team and by winters end I had the team heading mostly in the same direction, simultaneously, and with a sense of satisfaction I  could glide noiselessly through the Alaskan woods in the shadows of the Sourdough, the Northern Lights shooting across the sky. Not only did I feel like the star in a Jack London novel,  I felt like a part of Alaska.


What I do now


Talkeetna on Dwellable

2 thoughts on “A Cheechaco’s Alaska ~ a retrospective

  1. Deby says:

    Great story Daryl! What an adventure that must have been. You’ve lived a thousand lives…

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