Friday, March 9, 2007

The Homesteaders

The town of Eagle, Alaska, sits on the banks of the Yukon River, very close to the Candian border. Today, it is one of the checkpoints of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Most of us know Eagle, however, not from the Quest, but from John McPhee’s classic 1977 book, Coming into the Country. The book's most memorable section recounts the lives of an intrepid group of twentieth century pioneers in and around this bend in a very wide river. The writing is so steeped in its timeless landscape that its residents also take on some of this same quality: townsfolk and river people learning they can live off the land, stories of caring, sharing and squabbles in a place where people are scarce. For those of us who got to know Joe Vogler, Ed and Ginny Gelvin, Dick and Donna Cook and many others, they live on, wild in all of the wild’s many meanings. Therefore it comes as a kind of shock to open the pages of a more contemporary voyage. Alaska writer Dan O’Neill's A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River, reveals that the life described so unforgettsbly by McPhee has been all but forgotten. What flourished during the seventies is no longer there. Only a few disintegrating and burned cabins bear witness to the once colorful lives of the river people, and these, too, will soon be gone

A new community has come to the Yukon River in the form of Yukon Charley National Preserve, one of the most pristine and least visited parks in the national park system. Signed into existence on December 2, 1980, its creation was one of the last acts of the Democratic Carter Administration before Ronald Reagan changed everything. If I prefer the old conservationist politics to the new market driven world, this is not to say that the conservationists have always been right. Both sides see a divide between humans and animals. If the market forces try to calculate habitat in terms of viable minimums and potential liquidity, the conservationists seek their own type of quarantine. In the words of author Barry Lopez, “In the Wilderness Act humans are construed as aliens, urged to make their visits relatively brief and to leave no track of their passage. There are good reasons for this. . . .But there is something unsettling in this kind of purity. To banish all evidence of ourselves means the wilderness is to that extent contrived. We are not, in fact, aliens.” (1

It reminds me of folks, both secularists and fundamentalists, who seek to close off the Bible. The Bible is good, but God is not confined to its pages like a Dall Sheep in a National Park. Such distinctions, as sacred and secular or nature and culture have, in part, come to divide us. Not everyone sees us as such boundaried creatures. When Europeans came to the New World, or so the story goes, the indigenous people were taken aback at the very concept of wilderness. “How can you call this wilderness?” they asked. “When we live so comfortably here?"

The best of the Alaskans want a living room and a wilderness. Some of the subsistence trappers who’d homesteaded along the river asked to stay after Yukon-Charley Preserve was created. The Park Service was not pleased. The trappers were mostly Euro-Americans, products of the back to the land movement of the sixties and seventies, disaffected children of the suburbs gone north to find something authentic and difficult. They were neither sourdoughs nor Athabascans, not the folk that the government usually allows to stay on its preserves. If one believes Dan O’Neill, the trappers tried to work with the Park Service. They agreed that they would live as the guests of the government; ownership of the land had never been the point anyway. But even this did not work. Fishing days for salmon were limited, not to days when the fish were running, but to arbitrary days on the calendar and hours within the day. Sometimes on an allotted day there would be no fish, while on off days the river would be thick with them. The homesteaders had to deal with intrusive patrols. When they protested, they were told that rules were rules. But one of them poked around – this group is nothing if not resourceful – and he discovered that huge quantities of fish were being taken at the mouth of the river by commercial interests and the wildlife managers were concerned that if they continued to be caught upstream there would not be sufficient left over to spawn and maintain the life cycle. The back to the landers were the losers. They fit none of the accepted categories of life in the lower 48: commercial interests, urban and suburban whites, indigenous tribespeople, productive miners.

It makes me sad when my definitions of people are smaller than the people themselves. Where I live, if a person doesn't fit the mold, the person, not the mold, seeks treatment. Our children are trained from earliest infancy to live up to others’ standards: height, weight, training, small and large motor, reading, mathematics, athletics. Mastering these skills is important to success. No one says anthing about being able to follow a caribou or read the sky for signs of weather. We have NOAA to read the sky and our roads are carefully demarcated with traffic lines.

I live in a world so distant from the Yukon that even the thousands of miles that separate us are insufficient to express the distance. I only know one homesteader who spent her childhood at the foot of the Brooks Range during the late 1960's and early 1970's. Her brother was drowned in the river during a June flood and it was not until 2001 that any of them could go back. Living on the land is never easy. In a culture of convenience, it is hard to imagine why anyone would chose danger over security, would feel themselves more a part of an empty wilderness than of the “normal” world of television and shopping malls. Certainly, people will take risks on vacation: mountain climbing, ice caving, running rapids, but that is recreation, not life.

Like many children whose parents wandered off the beaten track, my friend grew up in a world in which community meant survival. Today, she works getting poor people into housing. What would have happened had the government thwarted her family’s dreams? What do we fear from folk such as these?

1) Barry Lopez, “Yukon-Charley” in Crossing Open Ground, New York, Vintage, 1989, p. 87

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