It’s been a while now, so the details are hazy and I feel more emboldened than I otherwise would to add a bunch of extra adjectives.
As we do every summer, we packed coolers full of vegetables, drove to the airport, and took our questionable talents to Alaska.
Were we excited? We were excited. At least four of us were excited. Augie was merely confused.
Our compound is on a distant stretch of tundra far beyond the reach of roads or convenience stores. It is very hard to get there. And it takes a very long time. Getting there involves an overnight in Seattle. And so we bring a tiny tent and set up camp. August (still confused?) refused to sleep in the tent. Robbi refused to sleep at all.
One of the yearly rituals on our way to Alaska is stopping to pose with the largest grizzly bear ever to be shot and stuffed and posed in a threatening posture. It is a macabre ritual, and yet we cannot get enough of it.
This year we initiated a new ritual of posing with a brown bear and yak. I can hardly wait for the opportunity to look back on this moment with nostalgia a year from now.
I tend also to take photos of the lovely whitecapped mountains as we fly by. Here they are. We did not stop to climb them.
The part of Alaska where we live is not majestic in the white-capped scheme of things. It is majestic in the “sweeping open beauty of Siberia” scheme of things.
Our third flight brought us to King Salmon, jumping off place for various fishing ventures.
Alden, finally somewhat useful, hauled the coolers outside.
Augie, no longer confused, guarded them carefully while we waited to be picked up by our bush pilot.
We crawled into a tiny plane and took to the sky.
We flew low above the tunrda. At one point, we saw a caribou standing in the middle of a shallow lake. Apparently, on buggy days, they stand there all day long to avoid being bitten and pestered. I plan to remember this strategy for the next time I am stranded in the middle of the tundra.
Alden (useful, but not a trained bush pilot), terrified us all by steering for a while.
When we finally landed on the narrow gravel airstrip near our compound, there was general excitement. Cousin Raiden had been waiting for weeks for our arrival (apparently choreographing a dance routine while waiting).
Alden learned how to drive the 4-wheeler at the end of last season and seemed not to have missed a beat. She jumped right on and drove Auntie Maiko from the airport to our compound.
Our compound sits on a bluff above an inlet that leads from Bristol Bay to the rivers where the salmon go to spawn. The kids are big enough to roam and venture now.
They are old enough now to scramble on the heaps of scrap metal placed at the high water mark in a hopeful attempt to keep the tides from eating away at the bluff.
They are not old enough to ride the four wheelers by themselves. Especially Augie. But apparently he was confused when this picture was taken.
One of my favorite things about being in Alaska is running along the beach. Each year, the fate of this house becomes a little less encouraging.
Here is our house, nestled in a grassy clearing that is surrounded by Alders.
From the house, we have a commanding view of the tumultuous sky.
The children are not old enough to fish. And so they do speculative portraiture.
And build penguins out of Duplos.
And run outside every morning in search of grizzly bear tracks.
For years and years, the Alaska drill has been the same. Show up. Fish. Eat. Sleep. Fish. Eat. Fish. Sleep. Eat. Fish. Eat. Sleep. And so on.
This year, we had a bit of excitement. This year, we made a big decision. The big decision had to do with the hole in the side of this outhouse. Sort of.
I’ll get to the big decision later. For now, let’s focus on the hole. No one wants to use an outhouse with a hole in the side.
Something had to be done about it. And so…
And so we gathered pebbles from the beach.
Why? You will find out soon enough. For now just on the pebbles. We gathered them.
And I dug this hole? What does this hole have to do with the hole in the side of the outhouse? Almost nothing. But isn’t it magnificent?
Back to the outhouse. In order to get rid of the hole, we had to make it bigger. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But there you go.
To fix the newer, bigger hole, I had to use a saw, which does not come naturally to a writer like me.
Robbi had to use a hammer. Robbi, being a champion, handles a hammer as deftly as she does a quill pen.
We sawed. We hammered. We conquered that hole.
Was our work done. It was not. And why? Because the hole was not the only problem with the outhouse. The problem was a lack of a hole. Beneath the outhouse. The outhouse was on flat ground. Which will not do.
And so, we dug around in the high grasses until we found an empty oil drum.
And then I used a hammer and chisel to make a hole. Everyone knows writers are excellent with hammer and chisel.
To dig a hole beneath an outhouse, the outhouse must be placed on its side.
And then the hole can be dug.
And then the barrel can be placed. (The barrel is a hole-preservation strategy, there to keep the walls from caving in.
And then the gravel can be liberally scattered around the hole (to keep the tundra from encroaching on the outhouse).
But why were we fixing the hole in the side of the outhouse and digging a hole underneath it? Because Robbi and I have decided to move our operation a few miles up the beach next year and take up residence in a piece of property that Robbi has owned for some time but that we have been renting out for the past ten years or so. There is a cabin on the property, which will be our future home. Here it is. When we actually live on it, we will remove the plywood from the windows.
As for that previously mentioned, entirely magnificent, but until now unexplained hole?
It’s now home to a tall post atop which a wind generator will eventually be mounted. A writer on the tundra needs a way to charge his laptop, after all.
Like the current Behr family compound, our new cabin sits atop the bluff. The nice thing about this new location is that it looks directly down at our fishing sites, which will make the 3:00am fishing openings a lot more pleasant. It will make the 3:00pm openings a lot more pleasant, too.
We spent much of this season getting ready for next.
In particular, gathering lumber (we plan to build a bigger cabin at some point).
But we still had plenty of time for the other things that one does in Alaska. Playing on the beach.
Learning to drive.
Acting like lunatics.
Making rhubarb pies.
Attending 4th of July potlucks with good, old friends and one crazy chicken.
Filleting lots of fish.
Ferrying the lots of fish to the filleting table to be filleted.
Vacuum packing the fillets for the journey home.
Putting the packed fillets in the flash freezer for maximum freshness upon eventual thawing.
Enjoying the great big open wide sky.
Authoring books on scraps of plywood.
Shelving them in the tundra library.
Checking them out of the tundra library and admiring them intently.
Riding on the beach at sunset, which happens to be just after midnight.
Riding the four-wheeler to the top of the tallest hill and looking out over the water.
Taking the photo for the holiday card we likely will not send.
Noticing the wild surprising beauty of the sky.
The boys and I left about a week before the rest of the crew did. We were sort of in the way. And so we packed up and headed off. But not before snapping a photo of the three Behrs, who have fished together for a collective 116 summers.
This time, Augie was my wingman in the back.
This time, Kato played copilot.
As we took off from the airstrip and flew over our fishing sites, to dip our wing at Robbi and the others.
Three minutes later, Kato was asleep. Flying home from Alaska is exhausting.
We’re home again now, but I can’t shake the memory of those sunsets.
Or the vision of those endless snowy mountains.
I am dreaming already of another summer on the tundra and a new adventure unfolding as we set up shop in our brand new (very old) home. I have always been a great big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And now I get a chance to live my prairie homestead dream. Spend a summer fishing and living in a tiny plywood shack with no hot water, a hot plate, three children, and an infant?
Laura would be proud, I think.
1. Alaska 2017??? Calm down. You’re getting way ahead of yourself.
2. No Iggy???
Don: Thank you for dragging me back from the future. It was beautiful there. Flying cars. Free burritos. The here and now is dull.
Also: Iggy is arthritic and banned from Alaska. I thought you knew that.