In the summer of 1998, when I was eleven years old, my grandparents took my older brother and me on a road trip from Soldotna, Alaska (far down south, by the Gulf of Alaska) to the Yukon, the legendary goldfields made famous in story and history. We loaded up their motor-home and set off.
My grandfather made his career as an Alaskan trucker in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This resulted in habits of fast travel time and more stories than snowflakes in a blizzard. It was prime opportunity for learning the history and legends of my home state, since the stories we heard were more personal and applicable than what was sped through in class. It takes a lot to keep two pre-teens occupied during a road trip, but with Grandpa’s stories and Grandma’s ideas, they did it.
One of the first things I learned was that my grandfather was one of the truckers who first used the Haul Road, carrying hundreds of tons of pipe for the famous Alaskan Pipeline. We traveled that very road with all its twists and turns on the side of the mountains, and learned of the dangers waiting for truckers who could not make it up the icy winter roads. The Haul Road runs through the side of the mountain, with a cliff running hundreds of feet deep. The metal rail may do well enough for cars, but a semi slipping on the ice could be through it like wet paper.
Along the way to the Yukon we stopped at museums and infamous Gold Rush towns such as Dodge and Skagway. We saw old trapping cabins converted into landmarks. Thecabins there in the middle of the town kept their original roofs – sod with fresh grass every summer. Some of the cabins even had small spruce trees growing from their roofs.
All tourists were on the lookout for wildlife – we saw black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, mountain sheep, caribou and more. Most of the time the mountain sheep stayed as fuzzy white spots on the mountain, but one day a large flock of them decided to block the mountain road. The honking of the drivers did not seem to bother them.
My favorite museum was the Beringia Museum north of Fairbanks. It was dedicated to Alaskan history and filled with skeletons of mammoths and a giant sloth larger than a modern Kodiak grizzly. I still remember two of the guides who took us outside in the heavy wind, so my brother and I could try our hand at ancient spears and spear-throwers. (I still grin remembering that I killed more wooden cut-outs than he did.)
When we finally made it to the Yukon, it became blindingly obvious that ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ is no exaggeration. When I woke up and saw the clock shining 12:00, I had to be told that it meant midnight and not noon. Looking outside one would never know the difference. Since it was both too bright and too hot to sleep, we ate ice cream and enjoyed the view.
That summer was one of the best of my life. It helped me to understand my history (personal and national) and that made me value it. It gave me pride in who I am; an Alaskan descended from Alaskans, in culture and in love for the land we live in.