Fascinating People

58

Alaska is arguably the most beautiful place in the world…for about three months in the summer.

I’ve always been a pretty trusting guy. I find that if I treat people the way I would like to be treated, then most of life turns out rosy. For the record, I’m not the guy who came up with that idea.

This worldview manifests in scads of little ways. It is sometimes unsettling to ponder the times I have transferred money to some total stranger I met on GunBroker in the expectation that he might ship me some old gun in return. However, gun nerds are almost always good folks. We’re the kind of people you’d willingly loan your pickup to or have check on your house when you’re on vacation. Dozens of these transactions later, I’ve yet to be burned.

Sometimes, blind faith in my fellow man has taken me to some interesting places. In 1986, it was to the wilds of Alaska.

Northern Warfare School was just a ton of fun for a young
Mississippi redneck with a diagnosable wanderlust.

Background

You meet some of the most fascinating people in some of the most unexpected places. I was an ROTC cadet dispatched one summer to the NWTC in Alaska. NWTC is milspeak for the Northern Warfare Training Center. Over three fun-filled weeks we learned mountaineering, river operations, and arctic survival. Northern Warfare School was my first real introduction to the US Army.

All action-oriented Army schools keep you fairly busy. However, this part of Alaska in July enjoyed a great deal of sunlight. When the training day was completed during rock week, the mountaineering phase, I found myself unable to sleep. This seemed a simply spanking opportunity to do some exploring.

I actually lived in Alaska for several years about a decade after my stint at the NWTC and became quite enamored with the place. The Alaskan interior is arguably the most beautiful place in the world…for three months in the summer. You really pay for that during the winter. The coldest it got when I lived there was 62 degrees below zero, and we were in the field. I still shiver a bit thinking about that.

In 1986 I was too naïve to appreciate risk. Like most young males, I was bulletproof and immortal. The predators in Alaska are as big as Volkswagens. Regardless, I got my bearings based upon the sun and struck out from the Black Rapids Training Center looking for trouble.
Alaska is almost unimaginably huge. A popular bumper sticker reads, “If You Cut Alaska in Half, Texas Would Be the Third-Largest State.” I was soon deep in the middle of no place.

Serendipity

I bumped into the guy as I negotiated a steep drop into a nameless draw. I was by then several miles into the wilderness. The man was a caricature of a classic Alaskan.

The guy was huge with a beard that had clearly required years of investment. He wore threadbare Carhartt overalls repaired in places with duct tape. He had a gigantic german shepherd for company and was packing a GI M14 rifle. I should have been terrified. Instead, I offered my hand. “Hi, I’m Will.”

There resulted a simply splendid ad hoc friendship. I tussled a bit with his hound, and we enjoyed some spirited conversation. The guy even let me shoot his rifle. He obviously didn’t get a lot of human company.

I explained that I was from Mississippi and there for military training. In return I asked him for his story. The big hairy man then grew a bit cagey.

He explained that he had suffered some unpleasantness back in the world and felt it best if he moved to Alaska for a while. He clearly was not terribly interested in elaborating. He said he lived in a cabin of his own construction a few ridges over, and that he dearly loved the Alaskan wilderness. We chewed the fat for maybe half an hour and then parted company friends.

In retrospect the guy likely ate his family or something. Back when I lived there, some 30,000 people listed their address as the Alaskan bush. That was about the same number of folks who lived in Fairbanks.

People retreat to the wilds of Alaska for a variety of reasons. Some are enamored with the natural beauty. Others just like their space. A few, however, flee to the hinterlands to escape something unpleasant. It turns out that even that last sort can make for good company if you’re friendly and a bit unduly trusting.

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