Unchanged Alaska

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(HOST) Each year, at the end of March, commentator Peter Gilbert recalls a trip he took in Alaska, which combined romantic adventure with history, new and old.

(GILBERT) In February 1989, I flew to Dillingham, Alaska on the southwest coast of that massive subcontinent. There I met up with Chris, an old climbing buddy from Vermont, to go dog-sledding. He had the expertise and the dogs; I was the companion – since mushing 1100 miles to their cabin near Ambler in the pristine Brooks Range of northern Alaska wasn’t something his wife wanted him doing alone.

First, we had to finish building the two sleds. Fortunately, by the time we were ready to go, the minus-54-degrees-below weather had moderated substantially. We harnessed up the dogs. They were barking and leaping, frantic to run and pull. Standing on the back of the sleds and holding on tight, we pulled our snow hook anchors and were off like a shot.

On Day Two, our dogs were attacked by a rabid fox, and Chris had to use the rifle stashed atop his sled. On Day Three, I took a plunge into an ice-covered stream.

The five-and-a-half-week-long trip took us past crystal mountains and barren lands glowing in the golden light of a sun low in the sky. Most nights we camped in a canvas tent, heating water and food for the dogs before cooking our own dinner. Some nights we stayed in tiny native villages accessible only by boat, plane or snow machine – or dog sled. We’d roll our sleeping bags out on someone’s floor, or someone would fetch the key to the elementary school and we’d sleep there.

One deceptively picturesque town of 200 – log cabin homes with smoke rising from the chimneys, snow glistening on birch and spruce – had had five fatalities in the previous 18 months, all alcohol-related.

The most dangerous weather was not the cold, but the warmth: It was the 38 degrees with fifty-mile-an-hour wind and rain as we mushed up the delta of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Rivers, with ice pressure ridges ten feet high and open holes in the ice hidden under six inches of standing water.

Mushing up the mighty Yukon River, with its rich history, I wished that I’d been there a hundred years earlier. Now, that would have really been something, I thought. But then I realized that, in some ways, things had changed little since then. The starkly beautiful landscape looked essentially the same. In fact, if anything, during the Gold Rush in the late 19th century, there were road houses perhaps every 20 miles along this stretch. Not any more. How lucky I felt to see this great land apparently largely pristine and preserved.

At the end of the trip, I flew from Anchorage out over Prince William Sound and back to the lower forty-eight. The date was March 24, 1989. I didn’t know that, early that morning, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez had struck a reef in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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