I never thought of following in my father's footsteps. I wasn't going to be an outdoorsman, a woodsman, a trapper; my mother, Mary, saw to that. Her boy would wear a coat and tie to work -- although she could only guess what he might do when he reached the office.
Fabian may not have agreed about the coat and tie, but as the voice of experience, he told me to find a career other than trapping. "Those days are gone, Michael." By those days he meant a time when a man could make a living on the trapline. After World War II, a trapper at the top of his game could bring home $4,000 a winter from the woods -- a better income than many Alaskans earned working year around in town. (In 1946, the median income for the United States was under $2,800).
I think Fabian also discouraged me because he had regrets about the work he chose, trapping in the winter, construction in the summer. Seasonal employment produced irregular paydays. Fabian was broke some months, especially April, which is after trapping season, before construction season and the heart of IRS season. In the spring, he tossed his incoming mail on the living room desk and wouldn't open it until a payday arrived. Bills and dunning notices provoked draining thoughts of the road not taken. He became grouchy. "What are we, sole support for the municipal utilities?" he asked after coming home to find lights burning in every room.
Soft fur prices and the rising cost of fuel, dog food, and supplies led Fabian to warn me the economics of trapping were "dismal." But not only had the economics of life in the woods changed, expectations had changed too. Bush people now asked: Why shouldn't we have the comforts and conveniences enjoyed by city people?
The Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs made the fruits of post-war American affluence available by mail. Television spread the culture associated with affluence. Maybe the Alaska Range interfered with transmission from Anchorage, maybe the screen was at times a black-and-white pulsating blur and the audio an annoying buzz yet this was television, and television was expected to follow the path of radio. Early radio had been unreliable, but after World War II, just turn the knob and you had battery-powered news, music, and soap operas. The long-haired trapper who visited town every two years became an endangered species. When Fabian and I walked into Kenny Granroth's cabin at Lake Minchumina one summer morning in the early, '60s, he shouted, "Hey, you're just in time for the ball game" and turned on the television.
Unlike Fabian, I wasn't a particularly talented woodsman despite all the tools of the trade and guns in our house. I mastered the basics but lacked the desire to go further. I had friends who were serious fishermen. They would stand on a log jam in a downpour, soaked, fishing for Chena River grayling. I preferred the warm cabin a half-mile away where I listened to the rain pounding on the tin roof and the crackle of the fire in the wood stove.
I was a healthy kid but not a tough kid: There were numerous tougher kids in Fairbanks. By tougher, I mean in shape to walk all day, pack all day, climb all day. I enjoyed reading about the mountain men but didn't aspire to become one. Fabian knew this. I wasn't going to snowshoe six straight hours breaking trail for a dog team or sleep in a tent at 30 below 30 miles from the nearest neighbor. Nor would I be willing to spend six weeks in the woods away from my family as he did in 1948.
In the fall of 1963, I prepared to leave for my freshman year in college in New York state. I wanted to escape; I wasn't staying home to attend the University of Alaska. Escape what has never been exactly clear. The world as I knew it, I suppose, and the supervision of my parents, the tension in their marriage, too. I was, however, dependent on them. I worked that summer of '63 but my mother borrowed most of the money for tuition and board through a college plan offered by her employer. I was dependent but wanted independence. I struck a compromise telling myself it was OK to go east on family money -- as long as my mother got her money's worth from my schooling. I promised to study, a promise I kept, although an 18-year-old freshman raised on moose meat was bound to have head-scratching moments with Oriental philosophy.
One Sunday before I left, Fabian asked me to spend the day with him. Fall was well advanced in Interior Alaska, but the Tanana Valley was resplendent under bright sunshine that brought temperatures into the fifties. We drove north toward the tiny community of Fox, through Goldstream, where Fabian worked on the gold dredges in the '30s as a greenhorn. Dredges were still in sight, but their work was done. Tailing piles left in the '40s and '50s extended for miles.
We passed Fox and Pedro Creek where Felix Pedro made the find that set off the Fairbanks stampede. Pedro, an Italian immigrant, discovered gold, became briefly wealthy, married unhappily, died in his early fifties. As Fabian and I began climbing into the hills on our way to Chatanika -- a few buildings along the road -- he told me these hills had been covered with miners sinking deep shafts in their search for gold. They dug everywhere, including on unpromising benches and former creek beds, driven by the mining maxim "Gold is where you find it." Their energy was prodigious, and sometimes the results matched the effort. Miners at Cleary, near Chatanika, took out millions of dollars worth of gold before 1910 using little more than picks and shovels. Now little remained of Cleary, which an early district attorney once warned was home to a horde of sporting men and women fleecing the miners.
Fabian parked on a hillside and said "Michael, the world these men made was almost gone when I got here. Now it's all gone. This was an Alaska we have never seen before, never will again. Gone. Soon you will be gone too." He believed once I left Fairbanks I would never come back -- hence, the farewell tour of the gold fields that gave birth to Fairbanks. My life did not turn out as he expected. I returned, but after years in the east, I was no longer the young man who boarded a plane for New York with Fabian's final words in his ears. "Good hunting, kid."
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.