This. This place. “The Interior” of Alaska. Gold country. Cold country. Whether traveling over or through it, regardless of the means of transport, one must admit that it covers a vast area. An area that is very largely devoid of infrastructure. There are few roads and most of them are rough, many not passable in winter and dubious in inclement weather. There are rivers and lakes and highlands that afford means of transport, but the continuity of these passages is convoluted. In some areas it is so dry as to be a veritable desert; a sub-arctic desert. In others there is so much water, the boggy marshlands seemingly have no end.
It is a land of permafrost, of tundra and taiga, of long and bitterly cold winters countered with hot and dry summers. The environment can be so harsh and unforgiving that one simple mistake can be fatal. It is sparsely populated, and for all we can tell, has always been so. It has been described as “a hungry country.” Yet, this place is, in many ways, magical. In my time there, I often found myself on the edge of wonder, amazed at what the place can be when one stops to look.
The Interior is marvelous; subtle, unassuming, intricate, treacherous, bountiful, hungry, raw yet refined. When exploring it, it can seem both very old and very young at the same time. It is a place that I lived, either in or near, for over 20 years. That said there was a defining period in the not so distant past where I had a series of experiences that caused me to gain a more significant and deeper appreciation for it.
It was the spring of 2012. Life had just taken a major and mostly unexpected turn. I fled into the woods as has often been my wont when under duress. I went first to a favorite camping spot out on the Chatanika River with my stalwart companion, the dogface; an aging sled dog that had been with me on many adventures, through thick and thin. The next day brought reluctance to return home, questionable as my welcome seemed to me at that point, and so I turned left on the highway instead of right, and ventured further out. I ended up driving a road I had been by, but never had followed to its end and it was remarkable …
* * *
Driving over US Creek road into the Nome Creek valley is a genuinely spectacular drive, (though often a particularly nasty road) and one I had undertaken several times. I like the White Mountains in general and most places there, out the Steese Highway. But I had never taken that left turn after the bridge across Nome Creek to drive down to Ophir Creek. Maybe it was my state of mind, maybe it was the time of year, maybe there was something in the air. Who knows, but, on that morning, it was like driving back in time, crazy as that may sound.
The road is not quite in the highlands, but neither is it really down in the forest. It reminded me at first of being in Yukon-Charley National Preserve, a place that I am rather familiar with, but this was different. These grasslands felt, well, older somehow. And the further I went out towards Ophir Creek the more that feeling struck me. Something about the place seemed very old indeed. On a whim, seeing it there on the side of the road, I stopped at a trailhead and we hiked to Table Top mountain, through an old burn in the taiga (the land of little sticks) and up the great rocky promontory. The dogface chased the wind and the ptarmigan and looked even more like the wolves she was likely descended from. We were the only ones out there. The views from the top were spectacular and put the place in perspective. Aside from the narrow, gravel track we had been driving, there was no sign of human activity as far as the eye could see. It was wide open, untamed, rolling land; the Yukon-Tanana uplands, a remnant of the fabled Beringia. I stood there in the wind that blew across the distant grasslands and forested valleys and barren hills. A seemingly ancient wind that blew right through me, as if I were not even there.
* * *
I shook off my reverie, relocated and followed the rest of the trail back to the truck, and we drove the rest of the way on down to the Ophir Creek campground. We stopped only briefly as there were a few too many mosquitoes for my liking, despite it barely being early spring. An ominous sign to be sure. Rather, we headed back up the road to a pullout that offered a good lunch spot with a view. While there, the dogface discovered a trail that was mostly hidden in the tall grass just off the road and so, after lunch, we followed it.
Down it went, switch backing through the stunted, scraggly trees, and there, at the bottom of the hill, at a bend in the trail, was a grave. Marked with a simple wooden cross and bearing a name and a date. It looked newer than the date claimed and so I expected it had been reconstructed at some point. “Odd” I thought, and continued down the trail.
The trail ends at the creek and there stand the ruins of a small homestead. A sign described the frontier life of a solitary gold miner named “Two Step” Louie, the unfortunate (or perhaps not) fellow now laid to rest back up the trail. Turns out, old “Two Step” was one of those guys that came to the Great Land seeking his fortune; judging by the serenity of the place where he chose to spend his last days I would say he found it, but perhaps not in the way he was expecting. Funny how things turn out sometimes.
There was no boomtown out Nome Creek way. It was no Klondike or Coldfoot. Even the little dredge that once churned up the world back upstream was short lived. Clearly there was gold, but only so much apparently. “Two Step” found a place to call home, a place that he could mine on a seasonal basis and support a subsistence lifestyle of hunting and gardening. His is an amazing spot, at a small bend in the creek with stunning views of the valley to the south. I am no expert, but I do have some experience with old miner’s cabins and this one – this place – did not have that air of squalor or desperation. It was not just a shelter. “Two Step” lived here and you can still sense that in the place.
I guess as both he and those that laid him to rest sensed, even in his passing, he still lives here. He always will. I did not know him, nor could I have; he died long before I was born. I had never heard of him and had no idea that this place was here before I stumbled onto it. Yet in that place, after driving that road and climbing that hill and seeing that country I understood.
* * *
This is the Interior and there is no other place like it. “Two Step” may have found that, I do not really know. I do know that through him – and that place that he had called home – I certainly did. I think I found a lot of things out there that day, not the least of which was a way back “home”; back to my self. As I noted earlier, life had recently been turned a bit upside-down and I was unsure how to manage it. Something happened to me out there though that told me I had to find that out along the way. I had to discover it for myself. So too with life in general; we all have to make our own way and figure it out as we go along.
I am not going to tell you in any more detail how to find the place. I do not think I could really. Sure I could give you directions to go see old “Two Step” and his home, but to find the place? Well, I believe that can only happen through self-discovery. Like so many things really.
Christopher Houlette is an aspiring writer, baker, archaeologist, and once Alaskan wanderer. He has a fondness for small towns and big rivers, high mountains and wooded vales, open expanses and clear skies, and is primarily an observer and ponderer of his place in that world. He currently lives in east central Arizona with his Wife and Boy, 2 dogs, and 6 chickens. He sporadically keeps a blog, which you can find at akchrish23.wordpress.com. Photo by the author.