This summer I’ll be working for the National Park Service, on the maintenance crew at Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. (I’ll have limited internet access there, but will try to write at least a couple of blog posts to let you know what it’s like.) It will be my first experience in Alaska’s Interior, and also will be the farthest north on the Places I Have Lived list. The park headquarters and my employee housing are in Eagle, a small town (pop. 86) on the Yukon River. The U.S./Canada border is about 6 miles to the east as the raven flies, or 12 miles upstream.
The job starts in late May, but I’ve been doing research for a while into how to get myself up there. And perhaps more importantly, or more complicatedly, how to get my stuff up there. Eagle is accessible by road, a 950 mile drive from Homer. I don’t have a car, so that’s out. Another, more intriguing transportation choice is to go old-timey gold miner style. Float downstream on the Yukon River from Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada — but this would require a passport, a car, AND a boat. Finally, the only practical way is to go by plane. I’ll fly on a four-legged journey: Seldovia-Homer-Anchorage-Fairbanks-Eagle.
Each time you get on a plane around here, they weigh all your stuff. Freight from Seldovia to Homer is .41 cents a pound. From Fairbanks to Eagle it’s .73 cents a pound. Think about that: to transport a ten-pound bag of flour costs $7.30, not including the cost of the flour itself.
I’d love to travel light, but it seems like I’m never able to do it. This kind of field work is not a vacation where you throw a bikini and a sarong into a mesh bag and hop on a plane. A print-out of my packing list is three columns of 9-point font type and includes a down coat, mittens, rain gear, rubber boots, sleeping bag, trail tools, binoculars, camera, first aid and sewing kits, and camping equipment. A song runs through my head while I collect all my stuff:
John Muir walked away into the mountainsIn his old overcoat, a crust of bread in his pocketWe have no knowledge and so we have stuffStuff with no knowledge is never enoughTo get you thereIt just won’t get you there– From “Two Little Feet” by Greg Brown
Books. Books are heavy, but I love to read, and there are some reference books I just can’t do without. Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds, for example. Should I ship my own copies up there, using a Priority box? Or I could buy used copies online from AbeBooks, get free shipping directly to Eagle, and donate the books to the library at the end of the season so I don’t have to transport them back home. Or maybe it’s time to invest in a Kindle.
Coffee. It would be handy if I could break my coffee addiction, or at least learn to drink Folgers or whatever might be available in the bush. But no, I have to have my Organic Rainforest French Roast. So the other day I bought six pounds of whole beans at Save-U-More in Homer, ground it on their machine, paid freight (.41 cents a pound) on Smokey Bay Air back to Seldovia, borrowed a friend’s vacuum packer to reseal it all into bricks, and then will ship it to myself in Eagle by Priority mail. Gosh, I hope six pounds will be enough? Too bad I am not more like Olaus Murie, who wrote this of his travels in Journeys to the Far North: “My hosts thought I should have a thermos of hot coffee in my pack when I was away all day up Maidman Creek. ‘No thanks,’ I assured them, ‘All I need is a sandwich for lunch. When I get thirsty I just chop a hole in the ice.’ They couldn’t understand that, but saw that I meant it.”
Groceries, toiletries, & household goods. Ok, so I guess you could argue that food is the most important thing to strategize about, even though I listed books and coffee first. There is a tiny store in Eagle, but based on my research and experience so far, I doubt it will have everything I need. Generally, I find that I’m way too picky to be satisfied with the choices offered anyway (see Coffee section above). I like toothpaste that doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners. I like unscented laundry soap. I like dark chocolate. I like unprocessed, whole foods: natural peanut butter, not Jif or Skippy. Tiny stores in the bush tend to stock the kind of items you’d find at your local gas station/convenience store. So, guess I have to ship stuff to myself.
I will try to make my own granola (that’s what the peanut butter and maple syrup are for), and bake my own bread…. and this leads to some ridiculous computations. Do I really need a whole pound of yeast? It’s so nicely packaged in its vacuum-sealed block, I’d hate to open it and repackage it. How many loaves of bread can you make from a pound of yeast, anyway? The package says it contains 144 teaspoons, my bread recipe requires 1 1/2 Tablespoons, so…
Sixty-four loaves of bread? I’ll be in Eagle for about 140 days, so that’s half a loaf of bread per day! Ridiculous. Why don’t I just capture some local yeast once I’m in Eagle and start a batch of sourdough instead. If only I knew how to do that.
Similar calculations apply to toiletries. I wouldn’t want to haul, carry, or ship more toothpaste or contact lens solution than I’ll actually use in my 20 week stay, but who knows how long it takes to go through a tube of toothpaste? Why would you ever bother to really pay attention – just run to the store to get some when you run out. Doesn’t work that way when you’re in the middle of nowhere.
Seems crazy, but now I know that I’ll need three tubes of toothpaste and four 12 oz. bottles of contact lens solution to get me through the season.
I gained quite a bit of weight this winter, just through sheer laziness and lack of will-power. Too many hours spent reading or watching DVDs during all those rainy days. But now I’m starting to think it was a brilliant strategy. The air service that flies to Eagle doesn’t weigh their passengers, although there’s a 30-pound limit on baggage. Anything over that, and you pay the .73 cents per pound. Maybe I can just live off my own fat reserves for a while, instead of shipping groceries to myself. I should be able to hold out until about the Fourth of July, which is when the king salmon make their way up the Yukon, and soon after that the berries will be ripe.