the north face outlet store it’s people watching that is the best
LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska After giving a couple of programs on rural Alaska life at Camp Denali and North Face Lodge in early August, I joined a group of guests for the return bus ride through Denali Park.
“People come here to watch wildlife,” I commented to the bus driver. “But since I’m not around people much, I kind of like people watching!”
Since my sister Miki and I often split up, I frequently go a week or more in the company of sled dogs instead of people. A weekly trip to the local post office provides major socializing with the handful of longtime locals who are more like family than friends. Occasional trips to Fairbanks provide a bit too much humanity for my taste, and I arrive home with a sigh of relief and a long pause to hear the muted whispers of the Bush.
But every couple of years I get into the thick of society, doing programs on Bush life at lodges, libraries, mushers’ associations or the National Park Service. Although such endeavors leave me feeling fried, they also provide a major ego boost and a rare chance to study the behavior of people, especially on the bus ride through the park.
There was the athletic guy doing yoga at the Teklanika rest stop. A family crowding together for selfies with Denali in the background. The flakey, squeally woman who turned out to be a seriously dedicated environmental lawyer. The Arkansas ranchers complaining about the devastating invasion of feral pigs. The Maine couple visiting old friends before embarking on a Northwest Passage cruise that would carry them home via northern Canada.
I could never maintain the calm equanimity of the guides and bus drivers with their limitless tolerance and patience, week after week for the duration of the summer. (Saying, for instance, “No, you wouldn’t have seen an ivory billed woodpecker in Alaska. Maybe it was a magpie?” in the kindest tone possible.)
Although I’ve long been aware of modern humans’ depressing disconnect with the natural world, I’m always astonished at how easily visitors can be impressed with stories from Bush Alaska. Whether I’m explaining about winnowing leaves from buckets of blueberries by using the wind speed of the motorboat, or about how the morning sun trips over Denali to cast a shadow on high cloud layers in the sky, cries of amazement swell from the audience. Never mind the thrills from bear and wolf stories, or the shrieks of horror at the photo of a husky with a mouthful of porcupine quills.
I also enjoy sharing bits wisdom gained from a lifetime in the Bush. A few years ago when a group of bus riders wondered why a sow charged a big grizzly sloping toward her cubs, I explained that the boars often kill cubs. The perennial question about dealing with mosquitoes is easy: “Lots of DEET and a good attitude!”
One story that I usually share only with staff members starts like this: I get a kick out of watching park visitors spotting game from the bus and shouting and screaming, “Moose! Moose!” or “BEAR!”
In 1995, my sister Miki and I camped on the hillside west of the McKinley Bar on the final night of a brutal two week trek with three pack horses, a scruffy sled dog named Barki and a yearling filly that we were bringing to the road system to sell. After plowing through dense brush, crossing swift rivers and slogging across bogs and knee deep muskeg, we were really looking forward to crossing the McKinley River and hiking down the road a ROAD! to the filly’s pick up point at Kantishna Roadhouse.
As I sat with my usual complement of mosquitoes, gazing down at the magnificent river roaring toward Eagle Gorge, a movement on the far hillside east of the river caught my eye. I leaped to my feet and pointed.
“A bus! A BUS!!” I screamed. “AAAA! OHH!”
Three miles away, on a road hidden by brush, a bus trailed slowly along the high ridge: the first proof of the journey’s end, evidence of an easy 10 mile hike along the dirt road. Just like the bus riding tourists gawping at grizzlies, Miki and I stood craning necks and squinting eyes until the vehicle lumbered out of sight.
In the morning the glacier fed river had dropped and slowed enough for an easy crossing, and soon our crew emerged triumphantly on the park road. The smooth, hard packed surface was a dream to hike along after days of spongy moss and sucking quicksand.
Then the first bus came along. It stopped beside us. Cries of “Look! LOOK!” rang out as windows dropped and tourists leaned out, cameras cocked and firing.
Miki and I glanced nervously around. Was a bear loping up the ridge behind us?
But no. Wewere the attraction. One trail worn girl walking a scruffy red husky, another riding a small shaggy Icelandic horse and leading two pack horses with a bug eyed filly trailing behind. Although dumb founded at first, as more buses rumbled slowly past we began to enjoy watching the thrilled response of the frenzied tourists. Although too reserved to actually ham it up, we did wave pleasantly now and then, and delighted in viewing the excited, shining faces peering back at us.
That was people watching at its best, reciprocated by the excited tourists on the buses.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks. They live in Lake Minchumina.
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