There is continuity between generations of rural Alaskans that defies time and the state’s vast distances. This was recently shown to me when I was corresponding with Judy Miller, mother of Capital City Weekly managing editor, Clara Miller.
Judy was born in the Territory of Alaska and grew up on a homestead towards the end of the Chena Hot Springs Road near Fairbanks in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up in the state of Alaska on the mainland across from Thorne Bay on Prince of Wales Island in the ’80s. Yet our childhoods are mirror experiences.
She talks about living far from quick access to grocery stores and how her parents worked hard to establish gardens and greenhouses, protecting them from the depredations of the animals — only to have the fledgling produce fall prey to another predator.
“I would crawl on my belly down the rows so Mom wouldn’t see me,” Judy confesses. “When I pulled up the carrots and shook the soil off, I’d munch away, they were so tasty. The strawberries were my next favorite.”
I can relate. My oldest brother Jamie used to have us kids sneak out of the house at night and go on midnight forays into my dad’s gardens to ransack and pillage them with Viking thoroughness. Our young bellies bloated up with raw vegetable revenge, but it was worth it.
Judy notes that her dad bought a sawmill and used it to build a house which didn’t have plumbing or electricity for a while.
My dad bought a sawmill and with it we built a six bedroom house on the shores of a salmon creek and it, at first, had no plumbing or electricity either. Like Judy’s, our home was heated by a woodstove, lit by kerosene lamps, and had windows covered in sheets of visqueen plastic.
What about wildlife encounters? Judy remembers the time her mom was making jelly and the scent of it drew in a bear.
“My older siblings hid behind the couch and boxes and watched in fear and amazement. Mom grabbed a rifle, stuck the barrel out the window as the bear was coming up the steps. She was shaking so badly it’s amazing that she hit the bear, but then again, the bear was too close to miss. She wounded it fatally, but it had time to retreat. When Dad came home, he got together with others to track it. A wounded bear is a dangerous bear.”
My mom was terrified of guns, thanks to a traumatic experience with one as a teen, but she knew that guns were necessary near a bear-populated salmon creek. One day, when my dad skiffed three of us kids to school in Meyers Chuck, my sister Megan and my younger brother Robin were stuck at home with the flu. A brown bear left the creek to investigate the house. One entire wall was intended to be filled with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, but were at the time covered in visqueen plastic.
The massive bear approached the plastic and my mom sent my sister and brother upstairs to her bedroom, the room furthest from where the bear was. She remained behind with the gun and watched, shaking as much from holding the gun as from worry about what the bear would do. It paced back and forth on the other side of the thin, opaque plastic and the gun grew slippery in her sweaty hands. Finally the bear tired of the wall of plastic and left, but there was always another bear incident just around the corner.
There were more worries for our mothers than the wildlife, though, when you had young kids running around in the bush. The only way to cope was to impress upon us kids certain boundaries:
“Mom had boundaries for us,” Judy acknowledges. “The berm piles on the side, the road — we weren’t to even be around the sawmill, and were to stay out of the woods to the back of the house. There were deep pools about 15 feet across that were ‘bottomless pits’ and some ‘quicksand’ areas.” Her mom insisted that the kids stay alert at all times for all manner of dangers.
My mom tried to set down laws and rules and boundaries. Her No. 1 rule was that whenever we stepped outside of the floathouse, when we lived in it, that we had to have our lifejackets on. Her No. 2 rule was that we had to, at all times, stay within sight of the house. We followed the first rule. The second one … not so much.
It wasn’t all fear, work, and hardship, though. There was a lot of freedom and play growing up in rural Alaska.
My sister and I were recently reminiscing about the joys we had in poring over the Sears catalog with its promise of mail-order toys. To this day just the memory of the smell of new plastic sends a wave of nostalgia over us for the baby dolls and Barbie dolls of our childhood that we played with in the creek and cannery ruins. Once we had our Barbie dolls, with my sister’s caravan and my model horses fresh from the catalog, we’d go on an epic Barbie trek through the forest on the sun-dappled trail made from the sawmill’s sawdust.
Judy said, “Mom ordered our clothes from Sears Roebuck’s catalog. Us kids would drool over all the toys in the Christmas Wish Book catalog… About that time plastics were coming on the scene, so Barbie dolls, a yellow plastic airplane, a small brown toy tea set, and a baby’s distraction steering wheel with a horn were the only purchased toys I recall.”
Every email Judy sends me, when she talks about her childhood so far away in space and time, reminds me of my own. Because rural Alaska is where time and space and differences disappear.
“I thank God for letting me grow up with the best of childhoods,” Judy finished one email. I, and all of my brothers and my sister, would agree.
• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.