We are the Nordic skiers of Alaska.
We wear our knickers down below our knees.
We don't sit in a bar at Alyeska.
We're on the trail and running on our skis.
Now we don't need a pair of fancy downhills.
Or boots that cost $100 a pair.
All we need is fortitude and courage.
And a dang good pair of legs to get you there.
The cheechakos find that the company of Mike Hershberger continues to be full of lore and information. They are out skiing with him their first afternoon, near dusk in a section of thin woods at the edge of Anchorage. Twisting trails, laid by the cross-country ski club, take them through a woodland that is silent and wild even though they are less than a mile from a split-level development. They ski easily. Mike talks of many things.
"The Alaska state flower is the forget-me-not. It should be reindeer moss. That'd be perfect. The state bird is a willow ptarmigan.... Ever seen a porcupine trail in the snow? There's one, looks like one track from a snowmobile, doesn't it.... I once saw a porcupine migration crossing a highway in Wyoming. Thousands of the little buggers...I also once saw a migration of tarantulas across a road in Nevada...got slippery as melted butter...."
They glide through the forest, gazing at the Arctic moss hanging from the trees, watching for wild animals—a bear, an elk, a moose.
"Ever hunt moose? They stand still in the woods, hardly ever move, it's like shooting a two-story house. They're fierce, though, if they have calves. Most dangerous animal in the woods with a calf...moose meat is good eating though.... A friend of mine uses a chain saw to clean and dress the moose he shoots. He drains out the motor oil and puts in Mazola for lubrication so the meat doesn't taste like petroleum. Takes about half the time with a chain saw that it would with a knife and hatchet...."
It is a relaxing trip. The sun is beginning to set and the snow is turning pale yellow, the shadows deep lavender. There are a couple of hills to climb. The older cheechako breaks a slight sweat. Mike Hershberger is at ease, certainly not short of breath.
"Know what a fool hen is? A fool hen is so dumb it'll sit in a tree and won't move no matter what. Cross-country skiers have been known to tie a rope noose on a ski pole and pluck a fool hen right out of a tree.... I have a friend who's a taxidermist and his name is Hunter Fisher—Hunter Fisher, can you believe it? He has a state permit for dressing moose killed by cars along the highways. He cleans 'em and brings the meat to orphanages and hospitals...There's hardly any land left to buy in Alaska anymore. The sheiks of Kuwait have been moving in and they own something like 60% of all the unsettled lands left...for oil exploitation, I guess...."
The cheechakos are smitten by this dazzling stream of miscellaneous facts pouring from Mike. "He knows everything," gasps the younger one. And so it seems as the ski trails wind on and on in the dusk.
"Hundreds of Eskimos cross the ice illegally from Siberia every year to visit with their relatives in the U.S. Kind of Eskimo wetbacks—'icebacks,' you might say.... Skis were never much use in Alaska except for recreation. The trappers used snowshoes or dogsleds and the gold miners couldn't work in the winter anyway. To pan for gold you had to put your hands in water and if you did that in winter—forget it, you're dead.... Evil Alice was a public health nurse in Anchorage during World War II. Her job was checking prostitutes for disease. She wasn't really evil at all.... You know what the very best cold-weather mukluks are? Human urine-cured sealskin mukluks. Sunshine Tuckfield, an Eskimo lady in Point Hope, makes the best of all. They're great when it's cold, but when it's warm—watch out. Phew! They can find you in the movies if you're wearing a pair of urine-cured mukluks, I'll tell you. Actually, most people buy rubber-soled mukluks made here in Anchorage by Mexicans and Japanese...."
Mike Hershberger and companions glide out of the woods in the gloaming. The weather is warm, about 28�, and the sky is hazy. There have been moose tracks everywhere along the trail, deep half-moon dents in the snow. But they have not seen a moose—or even a fool hen this day. Still, the skiing was exhilarating, and the educational aspects of the afternoon overwhelming.