Sourdough Autumn

He dipped the two-gallon bucket into the spring and set it on the bank.  With both hands, he grasped a spruce limb to force protesting back and knees erect.  He paused to survey the twenty yards to the top of the bank.  Three times he set the bucket beside the trail to draw deep breaths.

A dozen paces from the bank’s crest, the sod-roofed log cabin nested in white-barked birch.  From up-pointing tips of caribou antler nailed to the frame, a two-by-five-foot door hung from buckskin hinges.  A sixteen-inch, four panel window let light inside.  Beside the door, rip-sawed from a fourteen-inch diameter birch, a three-foot long bench rested on wooden legs.

He set the bucket on the packed earth, dropped the sweat-stained, brown, felt hat on the bench, pulled a blue bandanna from a rear pocket, and sat.  He mopped the mat of white hair, broad forehead, ominously kinked nose, leathery cheeks, and full beard.  Laying the bandanna aside, he reached for a tin cup on a nail beside the window.  In long gulps he drained two cups from the bucket and returned the cup to its nail.

From a pocket of a dun Felson jacket hung beside the window, he retrieved the stub of a pipe and red tin of Prince Albert.  He scraped the bowl with a twig, tapped it against the bench, and blew through the stem.  He packed tobacco with a forefinger, struck a wooden match against the bench, let the sulfur burn off, drew short puffs, and watched the tobacco glow.     

At under six feet tall, after decades of wicked Alaskan winters and torturous summers scant evidence remained of shoulders and arms which, day after day, had driven a single-jack against the butt of a star-drill in a quartz vein.  Now, forearms and biceps hung like empty leather pouches. 

There had been fishing, hunting, some trapping, but always it was only about getting the gold!  On Upper Willow Creek pea- and a hen’s-egg-size nuggets nested in a pan of glittering “fines.”  On the Little Su a coffee can filled with coarse gold and one palm-size nugget!

Winters were one of twelve, $10-a-night steel cots, mattress, sheet–$11 for a laundered sheet—blanket, and pillow, in a twenty by thirty-foot room at  the Palace Hotel.

By spring Anchorage’s Montana Club, High-Hat, D and D, and The Outpost, Seven Card Stud, cheap likker, slow-eyed women, and shifty characters, left barely enough cash for a handful of caribou jerky, flour, coffee, salt, and bag of beans. Fish, rabbit, ptarmigan, with luck a caribou, would feed him through the summer. 

Each fall, after cashing in his bullion, he stuffed an Alaska Railroad roundtrip ticket to Fairbanks in the empty pouch at the bottom of his pack.  When “breakup” ice clogged Cook Inlet, in Robert Service’s words, “skinned to a finish,” 30-30 slung over his shoulder, pack on his back, he boarded a rail coach north.   

Between Anchorage and Fairbanks the Alaska Railroad enjoys the distinction of a score of unscheduled stops where Dreamers and Madmen plunging into or escape from “The Bush.”  At one of these he got off to paw his way through Devil’s Club, Wild Rose, and alder to a rock overhang where, camouflaged under a 6 by 8 foot canvas tarp, his pick, shovel, pan, and bedroll lay cashed.  It was time to pan another lonesome stream and pick away at another craggy outcrop.   

From his hilltop perch, the old prospector surveyed a hundred miles of spruce, birch, alder, meadows, rivers, streams, lakes, and muskeg bogs.  On the hazy horizon, like a ragged igloo, the Koyukon people’s Deenaalee, “high one,” Chechako’s “Denali,” dominated a pristine sky.

On the polar route from Oslo, Delta Flight 243 drew a chalk line on the blue slate, ten thousand feet above the summit.

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