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Reading the North: A lost manuscript and traditional storytelling

Kathleen Macknicki

First Wilderness

Sam Keith (Graphic Arts Books, $17.99)

The blurb: A lost manuscript for 40 years, this prequel to Sam Keith’s best-seller “One Man’s Wilderness” is an armchair adventure into Alaska’s wilderness. This is the story of Sam Keith’s adventures -- at times harrowing, funny and fascinating -- and the genesis of his best-seller “One Man’s Wilderness.”

Sam Keith passed away in 2003. In 2013, his son-in-law, New York Times best-selling children’s book author and illustrator Brian Lies, discovered in an archive box in the family garage a book manuscript, originally written in 1974 after the publication of “One Man’s Wilderness.” Along with the original manuscript was a treasure trove of never-before-seen photos and excerpts from his journals, letters and notebooks. 

Keith explored the bountiful wilds of Southcentral Alaska while working on the Navy base at Kodiak, and later as a stream guard and enforcement patrolman. In his hunting and fishing trips, Keith found almost everything he sought. Through letters to his father back home, Keith chronicled his remarkable adventures in pre-statehood Alaska.

Excerpt: The courtship performances of the American goldeneyes or whistlers in the bay amused me. There they were, three drakes drifting around a hen. One of them would suddenly rock forward, throwing his head back until it appeared that his bill touched the middle of his back. You’d think he was enjoying a hearty laugh. Then the others would join in with broken neck advances. The hen swam unconcerned. What damn fools men can make of themselves in front of a woman!

Women. I still had no idea when I would find the right one, and guessed that my father was disappointed in regard to grandchildren. In one of my letters home, I wrote him, “I know I should have married long ago. I’m getting older, but dammit all, I don’t feel any different than I did 10 years ago. I’ve got another few years left before I have to get desperate.”
I did, didn’t I?

I had looked on the mountains for more than two years now. If any woman had a wardrobe to match the subtle color combinations the mountains wore throughout the seasons, she would be the absolute envy of all. 

Roy Lindsley, Fishery Management Biologist, and Jim Branson briefed us on past tactics of commercial fishing outlaws. Some worked in relays in close to the creek markers, keeping the stream guard awake until he finally had to give in to sleep. 

Then they slipped inside the markers and stole his fish. Sometimes they set submarine gill nets in the creek mouths. Since no cork lines were visible, they were difficult to locate. 
There had been instances where sugar had been put into the fuel tanks of outboard motors, and others much more serious where stream guards’ boats had actually been swamped as fishermen ran them down. Black smoke was often blasted out to screen illegal seining operations, and bluestone was put into the creeks to make the salmon dash back to salt water and into the meshes that intercepted them. 

The night operations of the Fish and Wildlife boat Coho intrigued me. It maneuvered into the bays with no running lights to surprise fishermen in the middle of an illegal set. It made me think of PT boats that used to hunt for Japanese barges at night in the Solomon Islands. 

“You’ve got to remember,” summed up Roy, “we’re a threat to a livelihood. Most of the fishermen are square shooters, but it’s like everything else. The bad ones spoil it for the rest and bring on more regulations than should be necessary.” 

He continued, “We found that fines did little to discourage violations. Now we suspend violators for periods of time during the peak of the run. That hits them where they live.” 

Dreaming Bears

J. Michael Holloway (Epicenter Press, $17.95)

The blurb: When Southern-born J. Michael Holloway took a break from med school to explore the Arctic with his brother Ted and a college classmate in 1961, he had no idea he was making a lifelong commitment. Yet the rare bond he formed with two Gwich’in elders would change his way of thinking and touch many others in remote Alaska villages. 

Holloway’s memoir, "Dreaming Bears: A Gwich’in Indian Storyteller, a Southern Doctor, a Wild Corner of Alaska," begins with his plan to hike above the Arctic Circle. That plan’s demise comes when he realizes tundra tussocks are nearly impossible to navigate on foot. Instead, the young men chartered a plane to the isolated village of Venetie, where the tribal chief directs them to the remote cabins of Johnny and Sarah Frank, some 35 miles to the south. 

Johnny, a Native historian and former medicine man, and his gracious wife welcomed the trio, hosted them for the summer and introduced them to traditional Gwich’in ways to deal with the wilderness. 

“[Johnny] and Sarah were to become my mentors and adoptive grandparents,” Holloway recalls. “Their wisdom and generosity shaped my life.” 

Excerpt: Back at the cabin, Johnny was in a storytelling mood. Between eating, stoking the wood stove, and taking naps, he talked more of his own life experiences.

1897: That's first time I kill moose, borrow rifle, .44 caliber Winchester. First time I go to Fort Yukon. First time I see steamboat, too....

“Used to be lots of Indian people go to Barter Island. Before white man, too. Sometimes they got sheep, wolf, wolverine, good fur, too. Eskimo got lots of stuff, see? Trade with Eskimo. Sometime later, start to come the rifle. Expedition company, lots of ships, hunt whale. Lots of stuff. Seven dollar, new rifle.” 

“You ever go there?” 

“No. My father never go up, too. My father lived over by Middle Fork. That’s Di’haii Gwich’in. Arctic Village is Netsaii Gwich’in, talk little bit different. Some Old Crow people are Di’haii Gwich’in, too... 

“That time man is strong. Strong man, by golly. Run long ways, too. No tired. Sometimes (bands of) people come together. They scared. Lots trouble, see. Long time ago used to be trouble, see? Maybe war. One side stay over here. Other one over there. One man go out from each side, talk together. Not chief but somebody that talk good, make ’em laugh. They tell story, josh each other. If those two men get along, go to one side, talk more. Well, lots of men long time ago talk good. He tell ’em how many travelers come up there, how many go this way; he tell ’em everything there. If they like it, by and by the head guy says, ‘Okay. I think it be okay.’ 

“Everybody come together. By and by, got friends. Dance every day. Maybe stay one day, maybe one week. If get along good and got food, maybe one month. Sometime when they leave, somebody from one side stay with other. Travel, hunt, learn their story.” 
Johnny sat back for a while, then leaned forward. “My grandfather, Ditsii Giitl’uu, strong man, too. Take bear by neck -- just hold bear up. Bear get mad, holler; can’t do nothing! Strong man!” Johnny laughed heartily. 

“When did first white man come?” 

“Well, nobody mark it see? We don’t know calendar.” 

“When did people start to drink?"

“Start drink? 18 ... 1896, 95 -- something. Cheap, too. One big saloon at Circle. That time no wine, just whiskey. Lots of different whiskey, some strong. Dollar a quart; something like fifty cents for some. Me, I never drink. No good.” 

— Compiled by Kathleen Macknicki, Alaska Dispatch News