Natural first parents

Chuck and Sally Heath's lives emphasize an affinity with wilderness

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 18, 2007 

Editor's note: This story was originally published November 18, 2007

Think Gov. Sarah Palin is an interesting person?

You haven't met Chuck and Sally Heath, the Wasilla couple responsible for bringing Alaska's first female governor into this world. From hunting and hiking to fishing and skiing, there's very little Alaska's first parents have not tried outdoors. And at 69 and 67, respectively, they show no signs of slowing down.

"When it comes to taking advantage of all of Alaska's amazing outdoor opportunities, they seize those opportunities -- spring, summer, winter and fall," said Palin of her parents. "They go without a lot of sleep, I think, but they still have more energy than anybody else I know.

"You can't ever catch them just lying around. They're scrubbing a fossil or stuffing a bird or doing some kind of arts and crafts with fur they've found."

Even the Heath home on a quiet cul-de-sac off the Palmer-Wasilla Highway makes it immediately apparent that any contact is apt to be an adventure.

There is "stuff" everywhere. Chuck Heath is a retired schoolteacher and absolutely unable to discard things that might one day prove useful. The home is a natural history museum that also happens to house a couple of people.

In the front yard is a gigantic 20-foot tower the shape of a Christmas tree, made entirely of discarded moose and caribou antlers. Chuck has no idea how many -- at least a few hundred. The pile just sort of kept growing.

Along the side of the house leading to the garage are old floats, buoys, signs and other flotsam and jetsam the Heaths have picked up on their many adventures.

And there have been many.

They've trapped rats in the South Pacific. They've floated rivers in Africa.

They've shooed birds off runways in the Pribilofs. They've hunted moose off the Denali Highway. They've cracked apart massive rocks hiding intricate fossils inside.

Oh, yeah. They both are former marathoners too -- Chuck did the Boston Marathon, while Sally finished Anchorage's Mayor's Marathon.

FEELING AT HOME

On a sunny Wednesday morning, Chuck Heath sits at the bar in his kitchen, trading stories and sharing photos of a recent hunting trip with his longtime friend Adrian Lane. Lane, a former student when Heath taught in Idaho, moved to Alaska in 1984.

The two have been hunting partners since.

Sally Heath, always smiling, slid a plate containing a slice of carrot cake across the counter, followed by a cup of coffee.

Not one to let her guests go unattended, she keeps little snacks on hand -- tiny pigs-in-the-blanket, bits of chocolate, whatever small appetizer she may have. Guests in her home feel immediately welcome, invited to stay as long as they please.

The Heaths came to Alaska in 1964, hauling their belongings up the Alaska Highway from Idaho.

The future governor was just 2 months old. Her brother, Chuck Jr., was just out of diapers. Heather was still a toddler, and Molly was yet to come.

Chuck moved his family north because he wanted adventure. He'd always been an outdoors sort of fellow, and Alaska's mystique called to him.

"I had a fishing pole in one hand and a gun in the other," he said. "I guess I still haven't put them down."

At the time, Alaska was in serious need of educators. This was before the oil boom, and the sparsely populated state was growing.

"I applied all over Alaska but took the job in Skagway," he said. "We had three little kids and one on the way. It was interesting."

That's where Heath discovered trapping.

"One of my neighbors in Skagway would show off these animals and furs he had," Heath said.

Soon, Heath was out on his own, hunting sheep, moose and whatever he could target, as well as learning about trapping.

A few years later, the Heaths relocated to Southcentral, first in Eagle River and eventually in Wasilla. At the time, there was not much to Wasilla, and Palin said she remembers being outdoors was a big part of family life.

"We spent almost every Sunday in the winters up at Hatcher Pass, cross-country skiing, or ptarmigan hunting on cross-country skis," Palin said. "And summertime, because both my parents ran marathons, we spent on family runs, even running up Hatcher Pass.

"We really didn't have a choice and it never seemed like a burden or a bother, it was just our Sunday afternoon routine."

MAKING MEMORIES

Looking back, Palin appreciates the many adventures she had with her parents and siblings.

"Once in the early '70s, the six of us went caribou hunting and we had stripped the meat and hung the meat overnight right near our tents," she recalled. "I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the bears scratching on our tent and Dad hustling us into the car, an old Valiant.

"We spent the night there, all of us crammed into that car, watching the bear taking our meat."

Another time, when she was in junior high, Palin remembers her father waking her for an early-morning bird hunt. Bleary-eyed, she got out of bed and followed Dad to a lake and got into a canoe.

"He'd get us up at 3 in the morning, and we were sitting in the canoe and I remember shotgun pellets plopping all around us," she said. "He'd say, 'Alright, just duck, don't worry about it. You're not going to get hurt; they're just pellets.' "

Early-morning hunts were commonplace with Chuck. Another time, he dragged the kids out of bed to go moose hunting before school. He got one quickly and began butchering it, while Palin, then in high school, assisted.

"As he was butchering it, he asked me to hold the moose eyeballs because he was going to bring them into the classroom that morning (for a lesson), and I just couldn't do it," she said. "He was really sympathetic."

Remnants of those many outings are captured throughout the Heath home.

On a wall leading downstairs to the family room are photos of the Heath family camping, skiing, running, hunting, fishing and boating. In one, Palin is aiming a rifle at a faraway caribou. In another, big brother Chuck is posing with a fish.

In a third, Chuck Sr. is running a marathon.

Every table and shelf space is crammed with natural history specimens -- evidence of one adventure or another.

There are tables of fossils Chuck and Sally found on four-wheeler outings near Gunsight Mountain.

There are glass floats they have salvaged off the Prince William Sound shoreline.

"These glass balls we found in Port Heiden," he said, pointing to one that is purple, not the aqua green that many people find these days. "I researched it, and found that the purple balls are from Norway. The rolling-pin shaped ones are from Japan.

"Korea," he said, holding up an amber-colored ball, ". . . (it) is made from recycled sake bottles."

Hanging along the railing of the house's loft are enough furs to keep a village warm.

Chuck Heath can identify each one -- and its origin. There are seals, otters, foxes, wolves, beaver and wolverines. Even a cougar.

There's a story in almost every item. The antlers with the scratches? They're from squirrels, which gnaw on the hard antlers for nutrition, he said.

The chunk of what looks like petrified wood? It's a mammoth femur. Right next to it is a mammoth jaw with two upper teeth, two lower teeth. The massive animals used those jaws to grind their food with unimaginable force.

HANDS-ON LEARNING

Sam Gardener remembers Chuck Heath as one of his favorite teachers.

"He was my sixth-grade teacher at Chugiak Elementary," said Gardener, who now runs Hilltop Recycling in Eagle River. "He liked to get us outside doing projects. He was an avid hunter and used to bring in hides and horns -- he'd fill tables and put them on the walls."

"His teaching style was always outdoor-oriented," said Lewis Bradley, who taught with Heath for years and whose son, Travis, had Chuck as a teacher.

"I remember they killed a turkey one year and fixed all the trimmings for Thanksgiving as part of their class. They'd never let you do that nowadays, but it motivated (Travis) and made him want to learn more.

"Life for Chuck and Sally just seems to be one adventure after another."

Bradley, who taught physical education, said he admired Chuck's way of teaching.

"He's always looking for things that are out of the normal," he said. "History and science are what he's really into."

Today, Chuck Heath occasionally fills in as a substitute teacher, and his passion for using nature as a classroom hasn't subsided.

"He'll take his skull collection or other outdoors things into the schools," Bradley said. "A girl might get squeamish and have to leave the room, which is unfortunate. Just to see a skull is repulsive to kids these days."

Education was the focal point of the Heath household.

"Every kid should be so blessed with an elementary school teacher for a dad," Palin said.

She remembers the family had only one old black-and-white television set that could barely pick up a signal.

"He didn't want us watching too much, so he built an addition on the house but didn't put any heat in it," she said. "If we wanted to watch TV, we would have to build a fire in the wood stove, and, of course, we were always too lazy. So we never watched much TV."

ALLURE OF LURES

The Heath garage is now a monument to one of Chuck's favorite pastimes.

Fishing lures, collected over the years from such big rivers as the Susitna to smaller streams like Willow Creek, take up the far side of the garage wall. They are sorted and collected in old glass gallon- and quart-size jars -- more than 100 of them lined like soldiers on shelves Heath built.

"I'll come in here sometimes and there'll be a five-dollar bill or a half a case of beer and a note from one of my buddies, 'I took some lures,'" Heath said.

Heath picks up a jar of pixies, all color coordinated and sorted in a giant glass jar. He's counted them before -- there are about 220. At $2 a pop, that jar alone is worth quite a bit.

"Those fishing lures, when you pick them up, it's like finding two or three dollars at a time. On 'Monday Night Football,' my buddies would come over and we'd sort them while we watched the game. Don't ask me why I do it. The same reason people collect stamps, I guess."

In the basement, Heath has a lure collection that reveals the mentality of many a strong-willed Alaska angler.

One lure is made with a spare key. Another is fashioned out of an old spoon. And there, tacked onto the board, is one made of a bolt, tied to a line and attached to a hook. Others are made out of old tin scraps, a Budweiser can and pieces of bright orange surveyor's tape.

Sally Heath said she's long since given up on controlling Chuck's obsession with collections. For the most part, she accompanies him on his forays into the wilds. She often serves as camp cook, trip organizer or just trail companion. That suits her just fine.

"Chuck and Sally both have got extensive experience in the outdoors, not only hunting and fishing and trapping for their own needs, but they've also been involved in guiding," said Corey Rossi, supervisor of The Wildlife Services Program, a federal agency that operates under the USDA and often provides wildlife control programs for other agencies.

That's why he has assigned them to challenging trapping and other animal-control projects ranging from New York City's ground zero; to Palmyra Island in the South Pacific; to the Pribilofs.

"They also have got a very personable, communicative style about them, which makes them perfect for jobs in remote locations."

"Sally's tough," Bradley said. "She does a lot with him that most women would never do."

UNCHANGED LIVES

Having a daughter as governor hasn't changed the Heaths much. Chuck still goes out lure hunting and driving his four-wheeler in search of the next great fossil.

Sally accompanies him most of the time, and spends time processing the meat he brings in. The family eats much of it, she said. The rest they give away.

They haven't slowed down, despite their age.

This is their life, they said, and they wouldn't change a thing.

"I'm beyond the killing stage with hunting," Chuck said. "Now I'm likely the last one to shoot. But adventure is any undertaking that is dangerous and could result in death. I don't do the real risky things anymore, but I have to be outside. It's a way of life or a tradition. It's what being an Alaskan is."

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