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Sooner or later, ever ardent outdoorsman wonders what it would be like to live in Alaska. The attractions are obvious: the best big-game hunting and some of the best fishing, both freshwater and salt, left in North America. But the imagined detractions are equally powerful. Climate aside (and the oldtimers did not call it Seward's Icebox just for fun), what would the year-round outdoorsman, however ardent, do for kicks when he wasn't clouting brown bear, moose and mountain sheep with his trusty .338 or cranking in salmon, steelhead and Arctic char on his featherweight fly rod? It is one thing to love the raw, bleak beauty of a hunting ground as a visitor, to prefer the babble of a trout stream to the gabble of a cocktail party when you hear the former only a few times a year. It could be something else to live permanently in the middle of a strong, silent, impartially murderous gamescape where everything either bites or freezes.
As good a place as any for the cheechako (Alaskan for tenderfoot) to check out his adaptability to the sourdough life is the logging-and-fishing village of Yakutat (pop. 531, including bears), situated about midway up the Gulf of Alaska coast between Juneau and Anchorage. Tucked away beneath the frosty brow of Mount St. Elias, hemmed in by brooding glaciers and dense forests, fronting on the North Pacific whose swells roll in uninterrupted all the way from Japan, Yakutat is as remote as any 19th century American frontier outpost. The only access is by ship (infrequent at best) and plane (Alaska Airlines flies in every day, fog permitting, which all too frequently it does not). No television, no movie theater, no McDonald's—why, when a young couple wants to go sparking of an evening in Yakutat, they drive to the local dump and park, drive-in-movie fashion, to watch the brown bears grubbing through the garbage. Aha, thinks the cheechako, this is it!
We shall see. This particular visit to Yakutat was supposed to include a float trip down the Situk River at the height of the fall coho salmon run. We would catch silvers by the score, kick bears off the sandbars to get at the better hot spots, watch wolves and eagles and otters at play along the sunny banks. Everything the ardent outdoorsman imagines in his Alaskan pipe dreams would be at our disposal. As it developed, a one-day downpour laid nearly eight inches of rain on Yakutat just before our arrival, turning the Situk into a murky torrent unnavigable even by salmon. Thus our introduction to sourdough life was a wet one, both externally and internally. It became, in effect, a float trip down the Alaskan psyche. Along the way, we got to know Yakutat.
Yakutat is nothing like Skagway during the gold rush, nor is it anything like what Valdez will be once the pipeline starts pumping. Yakutat is nowhere near as big as Ketchikan, which has 18 bars and 20 churches, and nowhere near as tough as Kodiak. (When the king crabbers come in and congregate at Solly's, there is no town in the world as tough as Kodiak.) Practically every town in Alaska has its own character, except for Anchorage, which is really an upward extension of the lower 48, kind of a San Diego on the rocks.
All you have to do is look at the rain forest surrounding Yakutat—a coniferous jungle of Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, alder and willow, cottonwood, red cedar and Alaskan cypress—to realize that this is not Seward's Icebox. Further investigation confirms the judgment. For all of 200 days a year, Yakutat is frost-free. Thanks to the midnight sun, the mean July air temperature is a relatively tropical 55�, and the year-round average an amazing 36�. This despite the fact that the region receives an annual downpour of 133 inches, fully 100 falling from September through April, in the form of sleet, snow and icy rain. Though Yakutat is surrounded by some of North America's largest remaining glaciers—like the glowering, 1,500-square-mile Malaspina and the hulking blue Hubbard, whose falling bergs punctuate dawn and sunset with awesome roars—the stabilizing and warming presence of the Gulf of Alaska, just outside Yakutat's front door, keeps the weather temperate. "If you're really stupid, you can die of the cold up here," says one of the locals, "but it's unlikely that you'll freeze stiff."
Yes, indeed. The difference on the thermometer between freezing (32�) and fine fettle (98.6�) is great enough to permit a limp death by hypothermia. Any cheechako who forgets his slicker when he goes out duck hunting on the wind-whipped flats of Yakutat, or salmon fishing on the fast, brown streams below the glaciers, learns the difference soon enough. Continued exposure at 40 above can kill you just as dead as 40 below. The only advantage is that the bears who clean up your carcass won't blunt their teeth on frozen meat.
So that's the outside—warm enough if you keep your rain gear zipped and your wits about you. Inside, it is warmer still. The social center of Yakutat is the Glacier Bear Lodge, a tidy motel-cum-restaurant-cum-saloon opened in late 1973 by Doug Ross, the town's leading lumberman. If you have to come in from the cold, Glacier Bear is as good a place as any. The lodge is named for Yakutat's finest hunting trophy, a rare, gun-metal-blue variation of the common black bear (Euarctos americanus) that is found in the chilly glacial moraines between Yakutat and Glacier Bay, 150 miles to the southeast. Ross has two of the beasts mounted in the round. They dominate the snug, pine-paneled lodge and, viewed through a haze of whiskey-colored light haloed by tobacco smoke, with the electric music pumping out of the juke, they seem to be posing for clothing ads. But their tailor is Jonas Brothers, not Brooks Brothers. On the walls flanking them are nailed the hides of another glacier bear and a big brown bear, a close relative of the grizzly (Ursus horribilis), complete with heads, jaws agape.
Like the Tlingit Indians who occupied Yakutat before them, the locals respect and revere the brown bear. Very few are killed by hunters, since the people of Yakutat look upon them as company of a kind—it's a real thrill to be walking out to the garbage can and find a tall, brown, shaggy visitor there before you. You either stop stock still or run for the nearest tree. Yet no one in Yakutat seems to bear any malice toward the bears. When they destroy an expensive set of garbage cans, the locals merely shrug and buy a new set.
One recalls the old tales of miners during the gold rush, men beset by cabin fever, who welcomed the arrival of wolves, bears and wolverines to their cabins—anything for a little excitement. Here, perhaps, is a whole town infected with cabin fever....
It is nowhere near freezing out there, maybe 42� at the coldest, yet coming in from the hard, steady west wind thick with rain we are shaking like Sam McGeejust before they touched off the pyre. Bobby Fraker heads straight for the coffeepot.