We Live in Alaska
By Constance Helmericks. Epicenter Press, 2019. (A republication of the original, Little, Brown and Company, 1944, with a new preface by daughter Jean Aspen). 253 pages. $19.95.
Constance Helmericks, an early chronicler of Alaska adventure and commentary, published six books between 1944 and 1969. Epicenter Press has now reissued these classics with prefaces by the writer’s daughter, Jean Aspen, a writer herself.
“We Live in Alaska,” the first of the Helmericks books, tells the story of young Connie and her husband Harmon (Bud) when they first arrived in Alaska in 1941 and then, the following summer, undertook what they planned as a one-month vacation. The two paddled a homemade canoe down the Yukon River, “living off the land” and visiting in villages, missions and the outposts of lonely miners and trappers along the way. Months later, as winter closed in, they portaged to the Kuskokwim River and ended in Bethel. The book serves as both a fascinating adventure story and a well-observed account of that part of Alaska in that time, as experienced by a naïve, curious, spirited woman who was also a talented writer.
(This reviewer first read “We Live in Alaska” exactly 50 years ago, in 1971, when she, as a young woman herself, first ventured to Alaska. It was a formative book for her, infusing her with a romantic sense of the country and its possibilities, including that of storytelling.)
The 1940s were a period of great change in Alaska. The state was readying for war, improved communications and plane travel were altering the way people lived, and the lives of Alaska Natives were undergoing considerable stress and transformation. These are all captured, as Helmericks experienced them, in her memoir.
The backbone of the book, though, is the adventure. Readers may be impressed that the two young people, so ill-prepared, survived their journey and even came out of it with adventure spirits so intact they went on to homestead in the Arctic and live closely with the land, documenting their lives in words and film, for another decade together. (They eventually divorced.)
Bud Helmericks, his wife explained, had never even seen a canoe. From pictures in a borrowed catalog, he created a design and then a canvas-covered 19-foot, 130-pounds-empty craft. The two took off from Fairbanks, on the Tanana River, in mid-July of 1942 without even a tent, and with inadequate clothing, very little food and less than $10. Soon enough, to escape mosquitos and weather, they made a cover for the canoe and turned it into a sort of houseboat. They very nearly starved to death before learning to accept salmon from people along the way and to shoot ducks, geese, and ptarmigan; in those days there was very little game to be found in the hungry country that was Interior Alaska.
What a different story we would be reading — no story at all — if any of the miscalculations, poor judgments, inclement weather, dangerous river conditions and threatening situations Helmericks describes had terminated their journey, or their lives. Their resourcefulness, resilience and rapid learning, along with their love for the wild country they met with each river-mile, kept them going, as did the great kindness of people along the way.
The author saw herself as something of an anthropologist and a cataloguer of Alaska conditions. She wrote about what she learned along the way, and she obviously did additional research later to add to her understandings. For example, she explains how fish wheels work, what the hunting regulations at the time were, the prices of hay and milk, and the prevalence of tuberculosis and other communicable diseases in villages.
For a 24-year-old woman who was new to the country, Helmericks seemed remarkably confident in her knowledge and opinions. In particular, she had a great deal to say about the lives and circumstances of Alaska’s Native peoples. While she was interested in and sympathetic to those she met, she carried with her assumptions based on ignorance and the paternalistic attitudes common in the world she came from. She records numerous conversations with missionaries and Indian Service people along the way about the treatment of Natives and how they should be “helped.”
While it can be painful today to read sentiments about “primitive” peoples, “half-breeds,” and beliefs that Alaska Natives, however “happy enough,” were best served by adopting “American” ways, it is instructive to learn just what prejudices were widespread as recently as the 1940s. An understanding of that period can lead to more awareness of how the past has influenced the present and what it may mean for the future.
Towards the end, a fascinating part of the Helmericks’ journey involves their portage between rivers. They had, from the start, planned to cut over from the Yukon to the Kuskokwim River, a distance of about 100 miles through swamps and along windy rivers. For generations, Native peoples had made this passage, and earlier in the century mail had been carried across it, with the addition of rails and flatcars in some sections. By the 1940s the route had been largely abandoned. The couple was fortunate to find local men to guide and assist them. The ensuing travel, as ice clogged and then closed the Kuskokwim, heightened what was already a remarkable adventure.
Throughout, Helmericks writes a clear, descriptive, often lyrical prose which conveys not just the rigors of the journey but all she observed, especially the wonders of the natural world. Here, for example, she describes a flock of snow geese: “Out of the silent gray sky and low over the willows towards us stringed a great V of five hundred wild snow geese ... Held for just an instant, with the white lacy forest twigs against their solid gray background of winter sky, the fast-coming snow geese should have been impaled upon an artist’s canvas.”
True to form, the Helmericks then grabbed their shotguns.