Right cup improves coffee and friendships

Seth Kantner

My first Internet date was with a guy named Mike.

(I assume that got your attention.)

I received an email from this stranger, asking how to build plastic sleds. I responded, told how I did it. A few weeks later another note came, asking how to make the hitch.

The sled hitch, that is. I sent a photo.

A third email offered to help find snowmobile parts, if I ever needed. That was a mistake -- who in the Bush doesn't need snowmobile parts? "Yes!" I replied, "Bearcat 440 parts."

"Picked you up one today," came the reply. "$600. Train crushed the front end."

Crap, I thought, this is out of hand. I owe $600 for a wreck? Where in Alaska is this guy? Who is he? His next note was worse. "Got you another Cat, 1995, 10,000 miles, $600 -- I'm thinking of driving it up to you."

Right then my wife got involved. "Who is he? Where does he live? Does he know where we live? Is this guy crazy?"

I slunk around all guilty, having no good answers to defend myself. No, I hadn't asked his name. He lived, uh, somewhere. He has a sled!

Maybe a wife, or a dog.

Stacey was not impressed. I started heaping up camping gear -- beaver mittens, ax, dried caribou, my enamel cup. Whoever this guy was, I wasn't going to let him drive across Alaska without me.

At the Anchorage airport I waited with my duffle bags and warm parka. After a couple hours, a blue Dodge rumbled up. A guy leaped out. "Hi! I'm Mike. Sorry I'm so late!"

He was lanky, dark haired, moved a lot and was filthy -- his jeans streaked with black grease. His hands looked like he'd been cleaning a stove. "I blew a tire. Look!"

Hmmm, I thought, long ways to Kotzebue.

By the time we left Alaska Industrial Hardware we'd found something in common -- a liking for bungee cords and rope. In Wasilla, at Fred Meyer's, he popped the big question: "We bringing anything to drink?"

"Well, I've been trying to quit," I said. "This would be an opportunity."

"Probably not a good idea." He pulled out an opaque Ziploc bag -- his wallet. "We might get grumpy."

That night, by snowmobile from Talkeetna, we arrived at Mike and his wife Molly's log cabin. I was tired, but carefully looked over the two running Arctic Cats and the two sleds he'd made, and then I walked around admiring his amazing log work. The only way I could imagine building a house like theirs was if I found a magic lantern and rubbed it, and then told the genie to do it.

"Come see my shop," Mike said.

His shop might have been equally impressive, I didn't notice. Inside, I spotted a row of white porcelain mugs hanging on nails. "Where'd you get those cups?" I said.

"Oh, somewhere. See that ridge beam up there?"

"Yeah?" I walked over to the mugs. They were beautiful, the kind you can heat on the fire, and as big around as lynx feet, and white on the inside too -- I believe coffee tastes best hot and in a cup that's white on the inside.

The next day, his friend, Brian Okonek, drove us to Tanana and we unloaded in cold evening air and started for Kotzebue. We got on the wrong trail, in endless willows, and it wasn't until the third day that we made it to the Yukon.

It soon became apparent that this guy was at home in the trees and on the ice, effortlessly comfortable in the wind and setting up the wall tent. He'd climbed Denali more times than he cared to count and liked to laugh. His last name turned out to be Wood, which made sense, considering his timber frame work and infatuation with trees we passed.

North of Huslia, in the dark and blowing snow, we were grateful to find half of a gas can on a willow, marking the shelter cabin. We got a fire going and warmed up. I admitted to lusting after one of his white mugs, and we had a good laugh.

The next evening we got to Ambler just as Don and Mary Williams were pulling a chicken out of their rotisserie. It wasn't a very big chicken, and we were happier about our timing than Don was. It was during introductions that I made the connection -- Mike had the same last name as Clarence Wood, the legendary Eskimo hunter who lives in Ambler and spent a lot of time on our bearskin couch when I was growing up. Mike wanted to meet him, but he was out hunting, of course.

We headed on to Kotzebue, and I helped him sell his sleds. The following March, I worked with scientists from Southwest Research and NASA at the Kobuk Sand Dunes. They rented Clarence's cabin there, and Mike Wood came up to help me wrap up the project.

The last morning, at 7 a.m., we heard a snowmobile on the river. In my tent, Mike and I had just made coffee and were drinking it -- out of two big white mugs he'd brought along. "That'll be your Inupiaq uncle," I joked. "He's on his way to Noatak. Two hundred and some miles. Each way. You know, he's only seventy-some." I hurried out of the tent, my mug of coffee in hand.

Clarence pulled up to the cabin. He stood, wordless, thawing huge black frostbite scabs on his face, breaking ice off his mustache.

Mike hurried up the trail, bringing along his coffee, excited to finally meet the famous hunter. I introduced them. Mike's face was friendly and open. Clarence squinted. He didn't say anything. He pursed his lips, glanced at the mug in my hand. "Got more coffee, kid?" His voice was gruff.

I handed him mine. He took a sip, looked thoughtful, eyeing the white mug. "Where you get this kind?" he said.

I grinned at Mike. "See. I'm not the only one."

Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives with his wife and daughter in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.