Excerpt from Life at Fifty Below Zero: An Alaskan Memoir on Teaching and Learning

by Christina Reagle

Running off to Alaska to teach in a small village on the Yukon River sure seemed like a good idea in March. Now the reality of what that meant was staring us straight in the face. It was late June 1972 and we were headed to a village accessed by small airplanes or boats with no running water, no stores, no television, no daily news, and limited mail service. A week before we left we calculated the travel time from San Jose, California to Fairbanks, Alaska. The distance was less than three thousand miles, but the information about the roads and highways confirmed they weren’t the normal interstate.

Going up the ALCAN

We left Dawson Creek, British Columbia (BC) early the morning of July 2 to start the big drive up the Alaska Highway, also known as the ALCAN, the Alaska-Canadian Highway. Relentless road reconstruction and modifications in the early years changed Milepost #0 several times. Dawson Creek was currently noted as the ‘true’ starting point of the ALCAN.

The ALCAN was originally constructed as a military highway to connect Alaska with the contiguous lower 48 states. Road repairs were a constant occurrence in rerouting, straightening, and changing sections, sometimes done by Canada and other times the United States. The extreme cold weather often caused gaping holes or major road lakes, which made it difficult to drive through or around.

The ALCAN looped through Canada’s British Columbia and Yukon territories, as well as Alaska. Signposts were in kilometers and miles. The accuracy of the miles or kilometers weren’t always current with constant repairs, detours, and changes. We started on pavement in Dawson Creek, but it was to change. The MILEPOST we purchased was considered the Bible of North Country travel since 1949. Published annually it provided mile-by-mile guidance for Alaska Highway travelers. The price was $2.95 and was worth every penny.

Despite improvements the ALCAN was famous for a rough and challenging drive with many legendary stories. Rocks cracked our windshield three times; the first one at Milepost #230, followed by two more at Milepost #269, and this was day one of a typical four-day ALCAN journey. Despite ‘being prepared’ another part of day one was a flat tire at Milepost #269! All of this happened while traveling at the break neck speed of twenty-five to forty-five miles an hour.

Thirty-five miles after the flat at Milepost #305 we called it a day at Fort Nelson, BC. We were exhausted and felt it was a good spot to set up the small tent we purchased in Dawson Creek for a night’s rest. While paying for our campsite bill the clerk mentioned, “In early July we often get electrical rainstorms.” Heading to our tent site I looked up at the high dark clouds and wondered if he was correct in his prediction.

When I awoke in the middle of the night to dripping of water and the buzzing of a mosquito, I swatted at each time it came within ear range I knew he was right. The saturated feeling was getting worse as each drip landed on my forehead, my feet, and three to four places in between. Luckily, Hidalgo, an eighty-pound black Labrador retriever, was cuddled up in the Toyota Land Cruiser with our Siamese cat, Soltar. If he were in the tent more dripping would occur because of the enthusiastic wagging of his tail. He loved water and at this moment I knew he was drier than me.

The torrential downpour we were experiencing was more rain than either of us had ever experienced camping. Maybe the mosquitos that joined us in the tent also felt it was more rain than usual for them. How can a microscopic size creature be so annoying? The long night taught me swatting mosquitos in a small tent shared with another adult resulted in constant dripping.

We were both exhausted from a long frustrating day with unplanned events. And now when we needed rest to rejuvenate, mosquitos had other plans. My normal drifting off to sleep tricks weren’t working. Each time I heard the aggravating buzz my eyes popped open. I wanted and needed to be the winner over this mosquito invading my privacy.

July in the far north was certainly different than California, Oregon, and Washington. At midnight in Fort Nelson, BC the sky wasn’t dark, but maintained a glow of soft light across the horizon that lasted two to three hours. Alaska magazines borrowed from the library explained about endless days, but now the reality was more than I imagined. I found it difficult to sleep when it was still light. I loved summer, but this was bizarre and the adjustment was harder than I thought.

Here I lay exhausted and soaked to the core on my way to empty honey buckets in a remote village of less than two hundred people somewhere on the Yukon River. Getting wetter and wetter by the minute, made me realize I agreed to this adventure so it was time to put on my big girl pants and become positive. Counting the raindrops and trying to drift off to sleep I figured there were four more days on the road before reaching Fairbanks. I decided it was time to relax, not worry, and enjoy the journey.

The author dog mushing through Alaska wilderness.

Life at Fifty Below Zero is a memoir on teaching and learning in Alaska starting in 1972 through 2005. Christina was fortunate to be in Alaska during a time of tremendous change in education, as well as social and economic shifts in a state of vast wilderness and majestic quiet. If you are interested in purchasing a book please email her at: [email protected]


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