Possibly Mike Hershberger does not really loose such a waterfall of Alaskan lore and outdoor trivia right there at the airport. But, as they would recall it later, the visitors were hooked, convinced for all time as they stood there on the first brink of the Last Frontier in the U.S. that Mike Hershberger showed himself to be an extra special friend, a truly splendid man who might possibly even know as much about wild Alaska as any ancient Indian chief.
Meekly, the newcomers trailed Mike out of the airport, determined to follow him to the deepest lair of the fiercest glacier worm.
Alaskans refer to everywhere beyond their own state as "Outside"—as if they were somehow living in somewhere snug and warm. They are not. Alaska is a frozen, brooding place in winter, God's own meat locker. The place is scarcely settled at all, with one person for every two square miles. So chill and bitter is the soil that sometimes the mountain timberline ends no more than a few hundred feet up from sea level. The rugged land is inhabited mostly by graceful caribou and clumsy moose wallowing neck deep in drifts, by bears, porcupines and furry-footed ptarmigans, by seals and large ravens that flap and squawk like sinister black roosters in the bare boughs of trees.
The Chugach Mountains that ring Anchorage rise in steep leaps directly out of the waters of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm. Both names were coined in dark circumstances: the inlet was named after Captain James Cook, who first charted those waters in the summer of 1778—the last place he explored before he returned to Hawaii five months later to be murdered on a sunny beach by angry natives. Turnagain Arm was so called because Cook's expedition sailed ever deeper into its 48-mile length in the enthusiastic assumption that they had, at last, found the legendary Northwest Passage of water between the Atlantic and the Pacific. When they were finally blocked by the wall of mountains at the end, they dispiritedly turned again. The waters of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm are steel gray and filled with ice cakes when the tide is in; when it is out, the bottom is revealed and blocks of blackened ice stand littered across the broad trough like crude Neanderthal statuary.
On clear days Mount McKinley's regal 20,320-foot peak peers at Anchorage from 187 miles away across a ripple of mountain ranges. Anchorage is not much to peer at, a new town built on mud flats along Ship Creek with a plastic boxy skyline of motels built in hopes of an oil boom. The population of Greater Anchorage is 126,300, far the largest city in Alaska. The city lies 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, 1,500 miles north of Seattle, 3,500 miles east of Tokyo and barely east and 2,800 miles north of Honolulu.
Anchorage has almost no history at all, no legends, little charm. In 1915 the town was laid out in grids, a repetitious though efficient set of intersecting right angles. Even the street names are from geometry: there is no Klondike Kate Street, no Evil Alice Avenue, no Sourdough Lane, only A, B, C, D, E, F Streets intersecting with First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth Avenues, and on and on. The oldest building in town was put up in 1915. It was a general-store owner's house and today it is a good restaurant, a warm and homey refuge with lacy tablecloths and a walk-in closet where you can hang up your sheepskin coat and take off your galoshes. It is called Myrtle's Club Twenty-Five.
Winter in Alaska is hard. It is only fully light from 9:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. in December and January. Bizarre moods prevail throughout the land. Perhaps it is the worst in the tiny villages isolated out in the bush. Suicides are common and constant. Drunkenness from December until April is not unusual; whole towns do it. Odd and vicious feuds develop. In the village of Wiseman (pop. 6) the population became divided in anger one winter; one faction took its vengeance against the other by perpetrating what is perhaps the most dastardly of all tricks known to men living far from civilization: they hid the mail.
Even in bustling Anchorage there is a desperate quality to the winter, a frantic search to find something to do. There are bowling leagues that meet at 4 a.m., curling competitions at 4 or 5 a.m. and many marathon bridge tournaments. Sometimes the old city dump is aswarm with snowmobiles cruising happily over snow-covered humps of garbage; the dump is the only place within the city limits where snow machines are permitted. There are five-mile snowshoe races and 1,000-mile dogsled races. Mount Alyeska, a good bald-mountain ski area 35 miles down the road from Anchorage, sometimes has weekend lift lines more than an hour long, literally hundreds of Alaskans queued up five and six abreast to force some recreation—any recreation—into the dark days of midwinter.
But best of all, there is the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club, an organization that has 1,800 members—the largest of its kind in the U.S., it is thought. As Mike Hershberger sums up the whole thing, "We have nine months of winter up here and people got to have something to keep busy. They'll join anything."
The Anchorage Nordic Ski Club is not just anything, of course. Not only is it large, active and full of good sports, it has its own song. The tune lies somewhere between On Wisconsin
and a Tlingit Indian war chant: