July 23-24: Our Alaska Adventure is a sum total of the places, the events and the people. It all adds up. The tiny town of Nenana (50 miles south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway) provided yet another piece of the Alaska experience. Mind you, this is not at all a resort location. Actually, this is a barge town, supplying villages along the Tenana and Yukon Rivers when the river isn’t frozen. The history of the tiny town of 553 includes the Nenana Ice Classic, an annual event that yields a large cash prize for guessing the exact minute that the spring break up occurs on the Tanana River. This fund raiser dates to 1917, starting with a group of local railroad workers who bet each other when the ice would make its annual surge signaling the welcomed flow of the river for another season. There’s a picture here of the tripod that is placed on the ice and then wired to a tower so that when the ice gives way an ax hits the line, an alarm sounds and everyone can come to watch the tripod collapse and float away. The total prize last year was around $280,000. Of course, we did enter. Now our name will be in those record books they publish every year listing each ticket sold, the person’s name, date and time of their entry. Hopefully we’ll be in the record of the annual winnings. What a great way to celebrate the end of the long winter.
The uniqueness and friendliness of Nenana is just there for anyone to find. First of all, we were hungry and looking for a local eating spot to enjoy. Wasn’t difficult to find Brandi’s Cafe on Main Street and we had some great Mexican food. Yes, Mexican. The owners, Brandi and Bob, are formerly from Belen, New Mexico, another small town we know from our travels. It was great to taste the green chilis from Hatch, NM, one more time. Bob was a congenial guy, so we inquired about where we might park in order to experience Nenana. His answer: “Just drive down toward the cultural center and there’s plenty of room for you to park in the lot. That’s no problem with anyone around here.”
We followed his direction, drove about three blocks to the other end of town and found a nice area next to the river. Thinking it the courteous thing to do, we went inside the cultural center to let someone know we would be next door. That’s the next part of this short story. We met an interesting and cordial citizen who is the host at the Nenana Cultural Center, Russ Kesler. You know how it happens. We were just asking a few questions because we recognized that Russ is a native. Because he was willing to share, we talked about his grandparents’ and parents’ involvement in Nenana. He pointed out photos of them in the historical displays. We have been curious to meet someone that was Alaska born, older than 20 that is. Russ is the guy. He can trace his family’s history generations back in Nenana, where he and his family live today. Along with relating the past for us, he showed us a plan for the future roads system in Alaska. Quite extensive, whenever it happens. He even filled us in on some of the local oil exploration developments. Also, somehow we started a conversation about fishing. Can’t imagine that subject in Alaska, right?! (Ha, ha) Anyway, Russ is a subsistence fisherman. For anyone who is unaware, this is an allowance given to Alaska natives to catch fish for their own food over and above regular fishing limits. The state fish and game department announces the certain dates this fishing is allowed.
Russ was patient with our many curious questions, explaining that he was going out, along with a partner, at 6:00 that evening to set his nets to catch King salmon, pointing in the direction up the river a little, to “his spot.” The story is that they catch enough fish in a couple of weekends of this fishing to last the entire winter for both families. He noted that this is many pounds of salmon and fills several large freezers. In fact, he says they usually give away some of the catch, after everyone’s freezers are full. It takes the whole family and lots of friends to clean them all and package them for storage. He also mentioned that many qualified people do not take advantage of the fish allowances because of the expense and the hard work. The nets are heavy, boats take upkeep and freezing facilities and other equipment cost also. But it’s worth it to many Alaskans. By the way, Russ’s favorite is sockeye (red) salmon. We enjoyed sharing his personal Alaskan life experiences.
In town later we were looking for a bank machine. The ATM sign hanging on the outside of the Jester’s bar brought Jerry inside. I was waiting in the car. But….he was gone longer than it takes to get the machine to spit out your money. Soon, he came to the door to wave me inside. Turns out the machine was out of order. Alas, this was the only machine around….but the owner was busy with repair. We took a seat and had an Alaskan Amber while we talked with the bartender and a few local citizens. What can I say. That’s just how it goes. This is where we ran into Jack Coghill (among others that we could talk about later if anyone’s interested). Jack is an elderly man who just happens to have been lieutenant governor of the State of Alaska and among the writers of the constitution of Alaska, in addition to an entrepreneur in several respects. He’s one of those characters that make up the history of any place that any of us have been. In these small communities though, you might run into them more easily. Jack’s journey brought him back to his hometown of Nenana, to the apartment where he and his wife lived many years ago and where he built his rooming house, oil business and others. Now, he’s situated in the little town where he has so many good memories. The people are thrilled he’s back. He can take it easy, running the general store that he owns and being a business partner in this local pub. His dog can come inside with him. Everyone in town knows him. He has a history longer than anyone can imagine and the fortitude to pass along his wisdom.
Our last encounter in Nenana occurred over a yummy (late morning) breakfast back at Brandi’s. Chatting with a few fellow patrons and Bob and Brandi again, we learned about a regular customer named Camper Jack. The pelts adorning the restaurant wall were pointed out as his contributions. Bob very lovingly explained that Jack “ran out of runway,” but is a good friend and local citizen. A few minutes later the folks at the next table said thanks and adios all around. Then one more customer walked in and sat down. Yes, that’s right. It was Jack. We were entertained for about 20 minutes by the stories he had to tell of his life. He had me touch each fur, the lynx, the wolf and the fox, to see that the lynx was the coveted coat over all. He’s right. There doesn’t seem to be any comparison to the richness of the lynx. Jack was another person comfortable in Nenana with people with whom he likes to share coffee and stories.
The history in the cultural center, the railroad depot museum and other buildings of Nenana did relate many interesting stories of the town. But our encounters with these citizenry surely added some ‘special features’ to our Alaska memories that we wouldn’t have gathered if they hadn’t reached out to us.
We’re moving along again. Take care and stay cool if you are in the high temperatures we are hearing of in the lower 48. Talk to you later.