Ma Kettle, that’s what I called myself in the little Alaska shanty cabin in the woods near Healy. With no measuring cups, I was failing at making pancakes. The mix to milk ratio was off. There was a sticky burned mess on the bottom of the pan. The floors were made of plywood and I, the barefoot queen, wore my shoes at all times as to not get splinters. I hated the way walking barefoot in this particular cabin made my feet feel unbearably dirty. I cringed every time I looked up at the ménage à trois sign that decorated the cabin overhead. It was difficult for me to imagine if the landlord in his cowboy boots and shorts, alligator cowboy hat, driving his Gator, ever had a legitimate shot at a ménage à trois with anyone– but he was nice enough. I tried to shake the image as he talked about long days at the coal mine. He only stopped by to see if the dry cabin needed water hauled in the evenings. For days I’d avoided using the shower tent, but knew that that time would soon be on the horizon: the grizzlies, the resident angry injured moose, and caribou, that’s who might see my naked ass in the shower tent amongst the black spruce. It was sweltering, late June, and almost ninety degrees. Who knew the interior was so hot? All things considered, the little Healy cabin was old but adorable. I walked out to the outhouse in my underwear toting a ten millimeter pistol. This was Alaska.
The locals called the lower Forty-eight the “outside”. As in, “I’m not going to be home for Christmas because I’m going outside”. It sounded funny. Denali wasn’t like the other national parks “outside”. It wasn’t accessible by car. The only way to visit was a ten hour bus ride down a well maintained gravel road. The ranger who drove the bus warbled over his loudspeaker, “Keep your arms in the bus!” The tourists were too engaged, sucked in to their DSLR cameras trying to snap photos of a grizzly bear to listen. The bruin lumbered through braided glacial streams. In my imagination, the pad of each heavy foot reverberated deep inside my chest. One step, two steps, three . . .gone– until she was covered in scrub brush. The ranger squawked louder, with unnecessarily long pauses between each word, “KEEP. YOUR ARMS. IN. THE BUS!” Apparently ensuring that the grazing giants were unexposed to human arms and voices was essential to deter later attacks on humans. Tourists spent the later part of the ride sleeping; the ten hour trip felt longer than they expected. Unlike most visitors who head into the Alaskan interior to see the largest peak in North America, we were able to see the mountain for the entirety of the day. Caribou, heads low from the weight of their antlers, congregated and walked the spine of the hills out of the bus window. The clear northern sky was the ultimate sign of the sparkling wonder that lay in store for us. Denali was the end of the road for most tourists headed north through Alaska. I constantly sought to be further and further afield from the swaths of summer visitors. Spending enough time observing the quiet wilderness quickly turns anyone into an observer of the hairline fine details. I closely observed every swirl of Rainbow Ridge, traced every spine that the caribou walked in the distance. If you aren’t a naturalist when you get to the far north, the transformation will happen organically before you leave.
Back at the cabin the funny farm and I exchanged looks. I had brought my Great Pyrenese and two cats along in my loaded down Subaru. All pets were alarmed because wolves congregated in chorus out in the valley. Worried, the dog came up to my face to make his eyes level with mine. A giant, he was as tall as I was when seated. His eyebrows twitched back and forth, looking left and right. The pack moved closer, sounding as if they were right in the yard. The screen doors were open to catch a cross breeze. And those doors? Immediately got closed.
We hadn’t done the typical cruise, train, tour, Alaska pairing. Typically about four percent of visitors decide to drive to Alaska compared to those that opt to fly or boat in. I can almost guarantee that none of them brought their Great Pyrenese and two felines. The animals and I were having a fabulous time. Not ready for our journey north to end, we decided to try extensively stretch the trip north 1,206 miles through the tundra to Deadhorse. Although I knew it was impossible, I had an unnatural burning desire to see all of Alaska. Read About My Road trip to Deadhorse here.