We have had a quiet night at the White Moose Lodge in Healy, 11 miles north of Denali Park, after a rousing happy hour at the Totem Inn. There are photos in the Lodge office of baby moose traipsing along the porch in front of the rooms, nibbling on the hanging flower baskets. Down the row of rooms from us are two van-loads of Russian nationals. We noticed German-speakers in the transport line at the Park yesterday. We all share a similar mission no matter our language. Healy is a coal-mining town, made more famous recently because of the Stampede Trail. It was off this trail that the story behind the notorious “Into the Wild” book and movie occurred.
It’s an overcast, misty day. The Great One is nowhere to be seen, and neither is a single critter, along the road to Savage River in Denali Park. If I were a critter, I’d be hunkered down in a dry spot today, no matter the photo ops that humans want. Before we get to the River turnaround, I’ve convinced Pete this is a waste of time. “We ought to change our plan and go to Fairbanks today. We’ve got one more day, and perhaps the sun will be out and we’ll see the mountain tomorrow.” I’m happy he is agreeable, as it’s more than 100 miles to Fairbanks.
We have some concern that there could be trouble along the highway. Heavy downpours and flooding had closed it along Nenana and Fairbanks just a few days ago. The confluence of the Tanana and Nenana rivers had long been a natural gathering place for the Athabaskans, but it is prone to regular flooding. As we cross the bridge north of Healy, most of Nenana’s business district is under receding water. This was the site where the first Iditarod serum run by dogsled began. The life-saving serum was brought by rail from Seward, and a relay team of 20 mushers passed it along the trail to Nome in 1925. Up and down these rivers throughout history, there were Native camps set up to harvest the salmon. Fish have been dried and smoked here for thousands of years.
After Nenana, the road begins to climb. There are many pull-offs from which to savor the views. In ancient days, the Tenana River valley was a grassland that extended across Russia toward the European continent. UA Fairbanks has a display of the incredible range of mammals from those times: woolly mammoths, musk oxen, mastodons, giant sloths, saber tooth tigers. I try to imagine what it would be like to roam on foot throughout this vast, rich land. It feels as if it would be a forever walk through the plentiful valley.
None of this ancient or newer history we know as we hurtle along the ridgeline. We begin to see the switch-backs of the river in the valley below. We are far, far above. Fair must have been these banks to the settlers looking for their fortune, I think, after a long hard trip. The sunlight we have wished for turns the ribbons of water into shimmering gold. I later find out that E. T. Barnette was summarily kicked off a riverboat here because of low water levels, and Fairbanks was born by this accident before gold was struck. Mining is still done at Ester Creek, with active producing claims over more than 4 square miles.
Fairbanks was a wild, frontier town of hardy souls throughout the first half of the 20th century and beyond. As we drive through its oldest neighborhood along the river, we see tiny little houses dating from those times. They must’ve seemed snug at the beginning of winter, and certainly were designed to conserve heat. Winters here are long, freezing and dark. You plug your car in to keep your oil and transmission fluid from turning to mud. You work on projects that get deferred from summer. And you do your best to ward off the intense symptoms of cabin fever. You might read, paint, tinker, play music, do crafts, or gather with friends. Anything to beat back the dark in a tiny house just below the Arctic Circle.
We will be going no farther. We will find that we are welcomed with generosity and warmth, and we will be leaving too soon.