Michael Carey: A shock of recognition, a feeling of loss

Photo courtesy The Pioneers of Alaska

A couple weeks ago, a friend in Fairbanks invited me to look at a collection of color photographs the Pioneers of Alaska obtained. The 500 photos originally were slides but had been computerized.

Annabeth Hanlon, a long-time Fairbanks schoolteacher, took them. She was teaching biology at Lathrop High School in the early '60s while I attended. I knew her but never was her student.

Mrs. Hanlon traveled Alaska for 30 years or more, taking photographs from the North Slope to Southeast. Her photos of Barrow in the mid to late '40s are exceptional, capturing a community in transition from the traditional world to the modern.

More than halfway through the photos, as I found myself tiring of the changing images, I clicked the computer mouse and there was my Dad, Fabian. Clicked again -- Fabian again. Clicked a third time -- Fabian once more. All the photos are of a small group of people along a river. I recognized only one other person: Annabeth Hanlon.

I had no idea these photos existed, had no expectation that while looking at hundreds of Alaska scenes filled with strangers, Fabian would appear. The shock of recognition soon gave way to a numb feeling of loss. Dozens of people are in Hanlon's photos. Who are they? Today, only a few Alaskans would recognize any of them. The men and women in the photos are dead, swallowed up by passing time, and so are most of those who knew their stories. The Alaska they lived in has disappeared too.

Fabian was just another face among the lost many until I put his name on his face. The shock, I later concluded, was of more than recognition: I had experienced an intense personal connection, triggering all kinds of memories, when I had no reason to expect any connection at all.

These three photos, obviously posed, probably were taken in the mid-'40s. Fabian is no longer the skinny kid who came to Fairbanks from Minneapolis in 1937. He's smoking -- a habit he developed from my mother, Mary, whom he met in 1940, so he's married.

The location is most likely the bank of the Tanana River or Yukon River. The scene is probably a small lumber mill where the fresh cabin behind the men was built. The old-timer in the suit on the left, who looks like a banker but might be a miner traveling in his best duds, is unknown. So is the man with the cap to his left behind the log. The man applying the Swede saw to the log is Frank Alba, researcher Joan Skilbred told me, owner of a riverboat that transported passengers and supplies along Interior rivers. There are several photos of Alba and his vessel, the Otter, in this collection.

This is the world Fabian chose, life as a trapper, riverboat man, woodcutter, miner in the Interior. He did not know this world was disappearing and that he -- like the people in Hanlon's Barrow photos -- would face unsettling social change as he aged. Just how unsettling he revealed to me decades later when he said, "I am living with strangers," Alaskans who had not shared his experience in the woods and on the rivers.

So let's leave him enjoying a smoke atop that log on the sawhorse. He is in the prime of life, in good sourdough company, and it's a warm, clear day. Dreams may be fleeting but in this moment Annabeth Hanlon captured, Fabian Carey is living his dream.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com. Carey would like to thank George Lounsbury and Joan Skilbred, both of Fairbanks, for their assistance with this column.