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Flirting with fame in Bush Alaska

Steve Kahn

The chrome scrollwork on the side of our cookstove was a bugger to clean. I pulled a rag through the ornate openings. Back and forth with the cloth, dirt and grease surrendering to shine. My wife, Anne, swept cobwebs from rafters. We repainted an interior wall. Dust rags traced picture frames and bookshelves. We wiped the dog nose smudges from the front window.

We were getting a visitor, but we weren't about to make a fuss-you know, put on false pretenses regarding the rustic way we really live, which is, well... a tad to the casual side of meticulous. But the cabin did need a little sprucing-up.

The gloomy dark of November and December often tests our resolve to appreciate each day-in what is, ten months of the year, a truly beautiful spot on the north shore of Lake Clark. A visitor would create a wonderful diversion and provide a chance to talk to someone besides each other. No stranger had ever set foot on our property this late in the season.

The genesis for the spic-and-spanning was an early November email we'd received from an acquaintance introducing us to a reporter from the New York Times. The reporter wanted to do a feature about people living far off the grid in Alaska. For the sake of this story, I'll call the reporter Sarah-which may or may not be her real name-and since I'm fond of alliteration, if not clearly defined anonymity, the photographer assigned to the story shall go by the name Stuart.

Except for giving in to the modern convenience of satellite Internet service years ago, we have most of the bush-life merit badges: outhouse, woodstoves, solar panels, jars of salmon and moose stacked under the cabin, no close neighbors, no telephone, no washing machine. We might even get a ribbon or two for being lifelong Alaskans and living in a National Park and Preserve.

"Remember that magazine editor who wanted to visit us four years ago to do a similar story?" I asked.

Anne gave me a fat-chance-anyone-is-interviewing-us-ever look. "Oh yeah, what ever happened to that?"

"Exactly nothing, that's why I'm not going to put a lot of effort into a response."

Of course, I did put in some effort. I selected photos, wrote captions, and drafted an overview of our lifestyle. Then swoosh, off the message went through the ether to New York. I thought that would be the end of it.

But in a few days came a reply "...what would you say to the possibility of a little visit from a New Yorker (me!)...?"

Dumbfounded, we looked at each other then slipped too easily into pragmatic (read: pessimistic) frames of mind.

"We really need to tell her this is a terrible time of year to travel."

"There might be steam fog."

"Not much daylight."

"Likely too much ice for boating and not enough for a snowmachine."

"What if the wind blows for days?"

Anne was suddenly silent, then she shook her head, "What are we THINKING? We need to say, 'We'd love to have you visit!'"

It was crazy to be discouraging. Even though we enjoy living far from crowds, we still like people.

But the major duh stupid aspect of being anything but optimistic about a visit was that we are writers-and this was the New York Times! The book we co-authored on Lake Clark National Park and Preserve had just been released (though we hadn't seen it yet). I had a book coming out in the fall and Anne's latest was scheduled soon after. Could our allotted fifteen minutes (or do couples qualify for thirty minutes?) actually offer itself at such a fortuitous time? Sure, the weather can be nasty, but there are nice days too. Maybe it was our turn to get lucky.

With metaphorically open arms, we invited Sarah to our home, slipping in a few benign caveats about leaving an extra day or two for travel because of weather. And, given that fog and wind would likely be more of a problem as the solstice neared, we suggested that sooner would be better.

A long silence followed-apparently we'd been dropped. Then Sarah wrote that she was heading north December 8. That was weeks away — so the cleaning and organizing momentarily slowed.

Late the next day, Sarah moved the visit up a week.

Time to get busy. We gave each other haircuts, scrubbed the foam outhouse seat, and cleaned our respective piles of pencils, magazines, paper, and books off the windowsills nearest our favorite chairs.

In the following two weeks, whenever I was walking alone or splitting firewood, I thought about how to answer questions about our lifestyle. I'd never been interviewed before. Should I look up and pause before answering a hard question? Should I strike a Rodin chin-resting-in-hand pose?

Does the taking of life necessary to live a subsistence lifestyle trouble you? What is the best thing about living remote? Do you worry about your safety? My practiced responses were unsatisfying. Not heartfelt enough. Not pithy enough. Sometimes, instead of the thoughts echoing in my head I wanted to hear a human voice, my voice, resonating in the crisp air. I practiced out loud. I wanted to sound intelligent, but the practice was unsatisfying. It only led me to resolve not to allow Sarah to catch me rehearsing answers in front of a splitting stump.

Maybe she'll ask if we need something from town? Organic eggs. Bananas. Broccoli. Avocados. The thought of fresh eggs, fruit, and veggies-not-from-a-can this time of year had us drooling. As time ticked toward the day circled on the calendar with no word from New York, we wondered once again if this was really going to happen. Was no news good news?

Preparation continued. We hauled a foam mattress, sheets, and pillows to the loft. I flew to Port Alsworth to get copies of our new book. Anne made cookies and I baked rolls.

On the day Sarah was to arrive in the state we received word that her trip was pushed back almost two weeks. Whatever happened to the sooner the better? But the next day we got a message from Stuart, the photographer. He was coming the following week. Heck, I didn't even know reporters and photographers sometimes travel separately.

Two days before Stuart was to arrive, fog started building above the open water of the lake. The fog thickened to that inside-of-a-milk-bottle stuff that clings to trees, cabins, and cache. It obscured the ridgeline across our bay. There was no wind to move it out. Much of Southcentral Alaska was similarly affected.

Stuart planned to fly to Port Alsworth, the nearest community, and catch a small plane across the water to our place. But the thick mass of fog grew denser and more widespread, and even the savviest pilots were grounded. Stuart was stuck in Anchorage. After his second full day of waiting, he wrote that he was heading back to Seattle to photograph the test flight of the new Boeing 787. The next day the fog lifted.

Five days later we got a message from the local air carrier that Sarah was arriving the following afternoon. Wood cookstove time: another batch of cookies, more rolls, a quick buffing of the chrome. We cleaned the accumulated piles off our windowsills again. In a small cabin anything resembling shelf space is quickly filled.

On the day Sarah flew from Anchorage to Port Alsworth, bad weather was brewing. Commercial jets were reporting wind shears and turbulence. The wind was picking up at our place, but the full force of the storm hadn't arrived. I kept listening for the buzz of an airplane, expecting any moment to scamper down the beach to meet our guest. Then the message came that the pilot wouldn't fly her in that day-too windy, was the official word. We'll be in touch.

We had arranged for Sarah to stay with a friend in Port Alsworth if she was weather bound, but we didn't know if they'd connected. Of course, staying in a remote community would be different from staying with us. Sarah would have access to a phone, airstrips, 24-hour power, a post office, over a hundred people. It bears repeating that we don't have any of those luxuries. No refrigerator, freezer, washing machine, indoor toilet or television, and I land my airplane on a rocky beach in winter.

The wind howled and shrieked the next day and the next. Torn branches rained down from the trees. Gusts shook the cabin and lifted watery spouts above the surface of the lake. If we walked down to the beach we could actually see past the whitecaps to the opposite shoreline thirteen miles away where she waited. At least Sarah was getting a real lesson about some of the difficulties of living in remote places.

On the third day the tempest blew itself out. I called a friend on the VHF radio and asked if he knew if Sarah was heading our way.

"No, she left yesterday afternoon."

Later we found out that she had stayed with our friend, attended a Christmas pageant in Port Alsworth, and chatted with almost everyone in town.

We tried to smother our feelings of indignation. Plans hadn't exactly worked out for Sarah and Stuart either. Their jobs demanded that they move on-Next assignment. Over the years steam fog, storm force winds, smoke, and even eruptions from two different volcanoes had altered our travel plans. We understood natural forces. But the main reason Sarah didn't stay one more day was because she wanted to get to Wasilla to interview Alaska's governor, the one who kissed her office goodbye and donned her designer spectacles for the big glossies. Fame, like hundred-year-old Scotch whiskey or absinthe, wasn't something I wanted as a steady diet, but I did wonder what a little taste would be like.

Of course, I wouldn't swap a week of my current lifestyle for any amount of popular acclaim, and at least we ended up with a clean cabin. But even when you're mature and middle-aged, the idea of spending a few minutes in the limelight has its seductive appeal. I groused a bit, then munched a handful of cookies and headed to the woodpile. It was time to get back to an obscure yet wonderful life.

With an axe in my hands I felt better armed to adjust to the loss of our little chance at the big time. Maybe at some point while splitting a gnarly chunk of spruce I would stop caring that our fame had been trumped by a jumbo jet, a "rock star" politician, and more than a fair share of good old kick-butt Alaska weather.

If not, at least I'd get some firewood split.

Steve Kahn is a lifelong Alaskan and author of The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship, and the Hunt and co-author with Anne Coray of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.