Volume 13
An Online Literary Magazine
February 15, 2019


The Queen of Fairbanks


Carol Newman


Around us rise the high banks of the Nenana Gorge on one side and the Denali Highway on the other. Created by glacial flow, the Nenana River runs right through the Alaska Range. Photo by Diego Delso.


t a remote wildlife refuge in Alaska, I stand, uneasy, in front of a bald eagle. She sits there behind a wire enclosure, alarmingly lopsided with one wing gone, and stares back at me. Her eyes are dark and accusing. I think how can she survive? Why doesn’t she just give up? But now I get it. She’s Alaskan.


Up here, the residents call the rest of us the lower forty-eight. This derisive slur seems to imply something more than just geographical separation. My husband and I, along with our daughter and son-in-law, are here to see what it is that makes Alaska so different. With the highest ratio of men to women in the country, Alaska is a so-called man’s world of rugged terrain and harsh conditions. Its history is rich in stories of men who came to make a new life: the trappers, the loggers, the gold diggers; the speculators and the opportunists; the outlaws and gunslingers; and the women who followed them. It’s the women who interest me. Women like Belinda Mulroney, who at the height of the Gold Rush in 1886 had the foresight to see a market for items like silk underwear, bolts of cotton cloth, and hot water bottles; and Harriet Pullen, who hammered tin cans into pie pans and started a restaurant and hotel dynasty.


The first thing I buy is a T-shirt with the message Alaska, where men are men, and women win the Iditarod, a reference to Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher, the first women to win the brutal one-thousand-mile dog sled race. Susan Butcher went on to win a total of four times.


It’s mid-July, rainy and cold, and all our destinations are miles apart with difficult access. Our trip to Denali National Park is four hours in and four hours back out in a steady drizzle, most of what we see obscured by mud-coated bus windows. The peak of Mount McKinley, now renamed the old Indian name of Denali, day after day remains elusive, hidden under relentless cloud cover. We’re told that there are people who live here who have yet to see the peak. With the mud, and the mist, and the rain, our photographs of two grizzlies and several moose in their natural habitats could be of anything, taken anywhere.


We hike several miles out a rocky path to stand beside a glacier, its white-blue expanse of permafrost streaked with muddy snow mobile tracks. Standing there, teetering on the edge, we contemplate the antiquity of this place, and close up, the uncertainty of a world that from here seems to be seeping away into a pool of muddy water.


As we drive the seven hours between Anchorage and Fairbanks, we notice that many of the houses have yards filled with junk, much of it for sale. If something has outlived its original purpose, the rule is to hang on to it or pass it on; nothing seems to be thrown away. Sled dogs sleep comfortably in old hollowed out washers and dryers, and corn, in two months of summer, grows eight feet tall in the bottoms of old plastic barrels. We pass a flea market where rain falls steadily on makeshift tables of uninteresting and seemingly useless merchandise. A cardboard sign reads CLOSED. A bigger sign says: OPEN. An official marker on a scenic walking trail warns Airplanes Have Right of Way.


We stop to eat in small towns, remnants of logging camps and mining outposts where there isn’t much beyond a post office, a gift shop, and a microbrewery. Menus consist of wild game, steaks, salmon, and giant burgers with sides of French fries, home fries, and fried bread. Even deep-fried vegetables. The healthiest option on the menu is usually soup made from cheese and beer. Some of the waitresses wear furry boots up to their knees and fur hats that make them look like mythical creatures, half young woman, half animal. They stomp from table to table to the beat of blaring music. Every restaurant and gift shop displays some form of taxidermy: seven-foot-tall grizzlies, musk ox, jackrabbits, moose, and caribou. Wolves, coyotes, raccoons, and various birds of prey peer around corners and down from shelves, and I begin to feel as if I’m in the middle of one of my students’ fantasy fiction pieces.


In a gift shop in Fairbanks, I buy a postcard of sourdough Irene Mary Sherman. At 76, Irene glares right into the camera, her gray hair escaping from a battered hat, her hands and face welted with blue-black scars. The story is that she singlehandedly rescued her family from their burning home. “I’m the Queen of Fairbanks,” the caption reads. Maybe it’s my bare-armed tank top, open-toe sandals, and white shorts when everyone else is wearing GORE-TEX jackets, sneakers, and jeans, or maybe it’s the way I always worry about things like lipstick on my teeth, or if my hair has separated in the back, but I begin to squirm under that steely gaze.


Now, we’re back at the lodge, and I’m ready to curl up and read about Alaska’s pioneer women. “Wait a minute,” I say. “Did you just say white-water rafting?”


“Yeah,” my daughter Heather says in that jeez-mom-don’t-you-know-anything voice, “even babies can do it. You wear a wet suit, so you don’t get all that wet.”


I run my mind over what little I know about white-water rafting, and babies don’t fit anywhere into my vision of roiling water, white-capped waves, and a wildly spinning rubber raft filled with screaming people. I try to imagine a baby in a wet suit.


“All you have to do is hang on. No one expects you to paddle or navigate,” Heather tells me.


“I don’t think I can do this,” I say, citing a life-long love/hate relationship with large bodies of water. I can’t swim. I get violently seasick, and, alarmed, I realize that my hair might get wet.


When Heather was a little girl I took her with me to exercise classes; she rode her bike while I ran, and together we stretched our way through Richard Hittleman’s 28-day yoga program. Now, she runs marathons, teaches yoga, kickboxing, and something called Boot Camp. One of her classes had T-shirts made that say I survived Heather’s spinning class, and in her sports conditioning class grown men have been known to throw up. The last time we were athletic equals was when she was about nine.


I try to think positive. Most people look really good in those wet suits, all that form-fitting spandex and Lycra that squeezes everything in. Maybe it won’t be so bad. I listen to the guide, Cee Cee, a woman about my age who wears a baseball hat pulled down low over her eyes. She has to tip her head back to see us.


“Most Alaska rivers are Class III and above,” she tells us.


I have no idea what that means, but I’m sure it’s not good. My previous small-craft water experience has, up to now, been some canoeing on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania in July. There, the ratio of paddling to dragging the canoe through shallow water is usually about fifty/fifty.


“First you have to suit up,” Cee Cee says, peering out from under the bill of her cap. She slaps a pair of rubber boots onto the counter and drags out what looks like an adult-sized pair of rubbery footie pajamas with a thick cross-body zipper. The sour smell of mildew wafts up as I lift the suit, as stiff and damp as a dead alligator—and almost as heavy.


“These are called dry suits,” Cee Cee tells us. “The suits have to be unzipped all the way to the crotch then the booties pulled over each foot.”


Cringing, my feet reach down into the dank interiors. I pull on the boots, struggle with the thick zippers on the sides.


“Make sure you visit the bathroom before you zip up,” Cee Cee says. “We don’t want anyone to pee in the suits.” I think she’s joking, but already my socks are damp.


Cee Cee, and Rory, a guy who turns out to be our navigator, come around to help us zip ourselves in. Cee Cee tells us that Rory is a certified, world-class navigator with experience on the world’s toughest rivers. Rory is thirty-five-ish, ruggedly good looking with an athletic physique; exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to see standing up in a raft—Indiana Jones without the hat—and he’s the only one wearing spandex.


Now that the bottom of the suit is on, we have to squeeze our heads through a neck opening that looks like a section of old black tire inner tube. Halfway, I start to panic. “I can’t do this,” I mumble, but no one can hear me. Finally my head goes through, leaving brush burns on my nose and a rubbery taste on my lips. I feel slightly disoriented, as if I’ve been spun around on the playground. Someone straps a life jacket around me, and Cee Cee begins to cinch up all the straps.


When she’s done, Rory comes over and says, “Can you breathe?”


“Yes, but barely,” I say.


“Then you’re not tight enough,” he says and cinches me a couple of more notches. He pulls and pulls then jerks hard on all the straps, lifts me right up off my feet and sets me back down like a chainsaw sculpture.


We duck walk out the back door. Down at the river the water seems angry, like a really pissed-off two-year old. It churns down then thrusts itself back up in tantrum-like bursts. Chunks of trees float by. They bob and roll, disappear in the water, then drift back up like corpses.


Rory goes through the survival lecture. “If you go overboard, swim to the raft and keep your legs up.”


Swim? He says swim? I imagine myself drowning, my lungs clogged with chalky glacial run off, or worse, washing up downstream in this suit.


“Don’t try to stand up or your legs will be broken by the thrust of the river against the rocks,” he tells us.


The image of my broken body wedged between two rocks swims up into focus. I look around for an escape route but there is only the angry river in front of me, and a horde of insanely laughing tourists dressed in dry suits behind me. Then Rory demonstrates a rescue using Heather as a model.


“Pretend you’ve gone overboard. What’s the first thing you do?” he asks.


“Keep my legs up,” she says right on cue.


He looks around to make sure we are all paying attention.


“So, what do we do if she’s trying to get back into the raft?” he asks.


“Grab her?” someone asks. This is good since it’s my husband—her dad.


“Yes, grab her,” Rory says and does just that. He yanks her by the shoulder straps and tosses her, head first, into the raft.


“Drop and roll,” Heather says, as if it’s just what she expected.


Cee Cee’s hat comes into view. She pulls a sailor’s wool watch cap down over my head. I want to believe it makes me look like Patti Smith, all cheekbones and burning poet’s eyes, but I know it’s more likely river rat. With her head tipped back so she can see me, Cee Cee puts both hands on my shoulders. For a minute, I think she’s going to toss me into the raft!


“I sense some real fear from you,” she says. “I’m putting you with Rory; he knows you’re the weak link and he’ll keep an eye on you.”


Weak link? Me?


Climbing into the raft is easier than I expect. Rory sizes us up with an experienced eye and positions us according to weight, and in my case, according to fear factor. I’m in the middle, right in front of Rory’s spandex-clad legs.



Carol Newman and family in Alaska.
Around us rise the high banks of the Nenana Gorge on one side and the Denali Highway on the other. Created by glacial flow, the Nenana River runs right through the Alaska Range forming a natural path for highways, pipelines, and microwave stations.


At first, it’s smoother than I expect, almost relaxing. Rory tells us that the rapids have names like Coffee Grinder, Two Rocks, and The Hole, and that the ride is eleven miles long. I remind myself that eleven is my lucky number. Then Rory lists the dangers of following the wrong braid, overhanging trees, logjams, and the peril at the river mouth of being swept into the Tanana River. From there, he tells us, it will be impossible to exit until Manley Hot Springs, a hundred miles farther downstream. I sit perfectly still, my hands behind me as instructed, in extra-large neoprene gloves, and clutch the rope that’s threaded, somehow, around the raft.


Ahead of us, the river turns sharply. We go up, then down, and my stomach dips. Rapids, the color of milky coffee edged with frothy foam, grab the raft, yank it forward and spin us around. The first wave nearly knocks all of us out into the roiling river. When it hits, it’s cold—arctic cold. The wool cap sponges water, and buckets of ice-cold river sluice down over me, penetrate the rubber neckline, and soak the thin blouse I’m wearing. We all scream and spit chalky water, our noses streaming. Mascara stings my eyes. I open my mouth for air, but there is only water. Wave after wave hits, and I know this has to be what drowning feels like.


Finally, through a film of dirty water I see the high banks and the mountains beyond. I tense up for the next rapid, resigned by now to riding it out—or a watery death—whichever comes first. Then—just as the river begins to pull the raft upward into another spin—I think of that eagle sitting there in the refuge with her one useless wing, and I think of Irene Mary Sherman, the Queen of Fairbanks, and all the other women who didn’t let Alaska beat them, and my fear drains away in an adrenalin rush. I find myself riding the rapids, adjusting my breathing, actually holding my face up to the onslaught when it comes. The river grounds me, pulls me into its rhythm, and sets me free.


Carol Newman recently retired from teaching creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. Her previous publications include Chautauqua Magazine; Written on the Water: Writings on the Allegheny River; and Far Out: Poems of the 1960s.







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