On the Trail of Poppa's Alaska
Published: January 2015
By Ted Conover
Eighty years ago his grandfather set out to explore uncharted land on horseback. Then the horses ran off. Ted Conover and his father attempt to wrestle the same route
Smoke from an unseen forest fire cleared as we crossed the White Mountains through Windy Gap, our string of horses clopping toward a far slope. Ahead of me rode my father, and ahead of him our guide, Keith, and his assistant, Hans, each leading a pair of packhorses. The animals, with their slipping packs and saddles, had been a headache so far. But at Windy Gap I patted mine and praised the rest, for it was near here that my grandfather and his party, in 1915, had lost all their mounts and pack animals and been stranded—without cell phone or emergency locator beacon—a long way from anywhere. And our horses were still with us.
I had conceived of this trip, a retracing of Poppa's journey, as a tribute to my grandfather, as a way to spend some time outdoors with my dad, and as an introduction to that mythic land, Alaska. Of all the many places my grandfather explored in his life, Alaska—kept unspoiled by its vast distances and long winter, and by federal land ownership—was perhaps the only one that might be essentially the same 81 years later. It is still possible to travel there like a pioneer.
The far Northwest had intrigued me ever since, as a boy, I heard my grandfather recite the Robert Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee": "There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold…" But I didn't learn the details of Poppa's Alaska trip until I was in college, when he answered a letter I had written asking how he'd decided on his career as a mining engineer. The response, an 18-page typewritten epic, described how his geology professor had needed a field assistant for a summer expedition to the Alaska Territory, as it was then known. The U.S. Geological Survey sponsored the trip, because though gold had been discovered near Fairbanks and Dawson a few years earlier and miners were streaming in, large areas remained unmapped.
Near the end of my grandfather's life, I was given a photo album Poppa had made of his trip; when he died in 1993, I inherited the diary that went with it. Poppa was always scrupulous about details, and using these two documents I was able to chart his route fairly precisely on a present-day U.S.G.S. map. A Fairbanks-area backcountry guide, Keith Koontz, told me the trip would be feasible with his horses; Keith had homesteaded and lived as a trapper in the very White Mountains region we would explore—most of it now Bureau of Land Management country.
Keith proposed taking us by van from Fairbanks to the town of Circle, on the Yukon River (and nearly on the Arctic Circle), where my grandfather and his professor had alighted from a riverboat and hired a cook and a "packer." From there we would drive the Steese Highway—much of it a bumpy dirt road—back toward Fairbanks, pausing at the ruins of Miller House, an outpost where the 1915 party had hired four tired horses and three mules. Like my grandfather, we would then leave the main route, making our way on horseback and on foot to the gleaming White Mountains, some 60 miles away, and to Windy Gap, the pass that leads through a range of sawtoothed mountains.
On the far side of Windy Gap—I don't think it's a coincidence—the modern map shows a Lost Horse Creek. After my grandfather's party lost their horses somewhere nearby, they carried their gear in three trips to Beaver Creek, where they built two log rafts. Keith would leave my father and me at Beaver Creek with provisions and an inflatable raft. A week or so of floating would carry us to the confluence with Victoria Creek, at the mouth of which Keith's old cabin still stood. We hoped to spend the last night of our trip there. The next day, a bush pilot would land on a long gravel bar nearby and carry us out.
Dad and i were thrilled by the sight of keith's eight strong horses when we awoke our first morning. Keith and Hans, a 50-ish East German army veteran, had arrived late the night before, owing to truck trouble, and were still asleep in Keith's tall green tent. By noon, Dad and I were dying of impatience. Not to worry, Keith reassured us when finally he got up: "We'll be there by sundown!"
This, of course, in the land of the midnight sun, meant about 2 a.m., but we weren't concerned. Compared with Poppa's entourage, we had every creature comfort—waterproof boots, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, Gore-Tex gear, fishing rods, and small cameras. The horses carried a huge quantity of food, in addition to a Global Positioning System and a .45 Magnum to ward off bears. Soon it was sunny, with the temperature at 60 degrees. Best of all, Dad was in a great mood, in love with his little horse, Hannibal, and raring to go. I was proud and pleased that Dad, a robust 63, was willing to brave these mountains with me.
By mid-afternoon the horses carried us up a wide valley of spruce stands and meadows, over a stream capped with late-melting, crusty snow, and across a forest floor strewn with fallen logs, bluebells, pink wild roses, and white Labrador tea. The difficulty of the Alaska backcountry also revealed itself: thick underbrush that our mounts strained to pass through; the wet footing of mossy muskeg; and dense clouds of mosquitoes. ("To fit any more into the same space," Poppa had written, "you would have to make them smaller.") I was fairly well protected by repellent, but a swipe along my horse's neck left my palm red with blood.
In the golden light of 11 p.m., we climbed past the timberline, losing the mosquitoes to the breeze and altitude, and ourselves to a stunning view of green-brown mountaintops succeeding one another in the distance. Three caribou caught sight of our train and gamboled along for a quarter-mile or so, looking like big, awkward dogs off a leash. Poppa's group, upon seeing almost any animal, had unholstered their guns and aimed to get supper; we, in possession of canned cattle from lower elevations, could afford to appreciate the caribou just for their looks.
Unfortunately, we didn't make camp until 3 a.m., when all of us, not least the horses, were exhausted. Having searched quite a while for a better place, we settled on a small, grassy patch amid big clumps of willows that left one feeling hemmed in. My father, despite our being outdoors in the most sparsely populated state in the Union, awoke at 7 a.m. with an attack of claustrophobia. It was caused partly by our tent, partly by the willows, and largely, we soon agreed, by the feeling that we were trapped by our guide.
Keith, it became increasingly clear, had a somewhat fuzzy memory of the terrain. The brush was thicker than he'd recalled, and in setting the itinerary he had significantly underestimated how long each day's travel would take. This meant we'd have a lot of long days.
Impatient and distracted, Keith proved unwilling to let us know when he was about to mount after a break. As anyone who has ridden in a string of horses knows, the animals don't appreciate being left behind—they'll try to keep up with their fellows whether there's a rider in the saddle or not. This put Dad and me in a bad spot, because we were often slow to climb aboard. The second day, after half an hour of grazing the horses, Keith and Hans disappeared up a heavily wooded slope before Dad could mount. I kept my horse, Clem, back as long as I could, the animal rearing and neighing over his lost companions. Finally, Clem charged ahead, unwilling to wait any longer.
"Why the hell can't you give us two minutes' notice?" I shouted to Keith. Nonplussed, he said only, "You gotta learn to hold your horse back." A minute later, Hannibal arrived without Dad. I was livid. I dismounted, walked back, found Dad, and led him to the group. He was fine, he said as we walked—he'd just given up in the face of overwhelming odds. Keith was like a ski instructor, Dad said, who took his beginners to the top of an expert slope and then skied off without them.
Despair ensued but soon faded: there was nothing for it. One boon was the constant comparison with how things had been for Poppa. Every morning, seated around a cook fire sipping coffee and wiping clean our metal plates of bannock bread, eggs—and, if there was a stream nearby, breaded grayling—we read from the pages in Poppa's diary that matched where we were. We could figure out that their animals had terrible saddle and cinch sores, that everyone's boots were constantly soaked, and that the weather was cold—but Poppa hardly complained. "In morn. Prof. B. and I started down the creek. Found some fragments of Cambrian trilobite, first fossils in this part of country…spent most of morn. cracking them out. Cold drizzle…found a few more fossils& pretty near froze getting them out with wind blowing thru us. Made fire to warm up, then went back to camp…A.& M. had moved camp over to spruce grove& put up fly& made a swell table of logs."
With each fresh comparison to our experiences, the diary took on new life: Poppa battling mosquitoes with citronella; the hardtack and tea and rationed lumps of sugar that constituted his breakfast; the blued screws he put in his boot soles for traction; and the climbing and note-taking he did with his professor in addition to the daily trek. My grandfather's exuberance was fabulous to behold. I wondered if at age 19 I could have kept up with him.
Though Dad was tired, he was tough, and in traveling together under difficult circumstances, we grew closer. Until the time I left for grad school we had done a lot together outdoors: bicycle tours, backpacking trips, even some freight-hopping. But in the years since, with me in New York and him in Denver, our shared experience had seen a drought. This journey was refilling the well.
It felt particularly so one afternoon, atop a mountain ridge after an especially hard climb, on a day when Keith for his own reasons had ceased speaking to all of us. Following a brief shower, the sun appeared and framed our route in a double rainbow: Alaska spread out on every side of us, the horizon so low, because of our elevation, that the world was 80 percent sky. Hannibal seemed to prance across the granite and turf, and Dad was ebullient. Nothing could overwhelm us now, we felt; the heavens were with us.
The final 50 feet we traveled with Keith proved disastrous. It was 10 days since we'd begun, and following a long afternoon on the western side of Windy Gap, we'd finally come down to Beaver Creek—its name a modest one for a surging river more than 100 feet wide, its banks lined with trees brought down during spring flooding. Between our packtrain and a meadow on the riverbank lay a wet gully maybe five feet wide. We stopped and waited as the horse Keith was riding gingerly slipped down the near slope of the gully, then scrambled up the far side. His second horse, however, attached by a short leash to Keith's saddle horn, decided not to walk but to jump. He made it, barely; the catastrophe began when huge Dolly, the third horse in the string, found herself at the brink of the gully without enough rope and was forced to jump. Dolly wasn't built for jumping, and I winced as I saw her front legs make the far bank, and then the huge weight of her pack boxes pull her backward, into the gully, as her rope snapped. The huge animal lay on her back in the mud, neighing pathetically as we looked on in horror and Keith looked on in disgust.
"Get down there and hold her head up so she don't drown," Keith barked at Hans, who soon was up to his thighs in mud. Keith ordered us to cross the gully at a narrower spot and bring our horses to him. Then, with his horse in the lead, he fashioned a multihorse tow system, tying the rope at the end to Dolly's harness. "Git!" he cried, whacking the rearmost animal, and the chain of horses strained forward. With a sucking noise, Dolly was slowly brought free of the muck, tilting forward in a motion I thought would break her. Then she popped out and was pulled up onto the bank; in a few seconds she was on her feet. Keith had brought her through, with not insignificant discomfort. Dad and I could relate.
Our adventure began in earnest when we boarded the raft at Beaver Creek. Even as Dad and I floated off, waving to Keith and Hans, we realized that our vessel was inadequate for the job; only eight feet long, it was barely big enough to hold both us and our gear. To sit on the sides, as planned, was absurd—even with the raft fully inflated, water rushed in, and on shallow stretches we scraped the river bottom. The first afternoon, my plastic paddle came apart from its aluminum handle, and just as we finished taping it together we noticed that the rear half of the raft was slowly sinking into the creek. We made a beeline for the shore to fix it.
But despite these worries, we felt a sense of freedom, for we could start and stop and sleep as we liked. We could eat a leisurely breakfast, pause for fishing, bathe in the evening (chilly!), and focus on each other's company.
And talk about Poppa. My favorite picture of him was taken somewhere along Beaver Creek (see ). Nineteen years old, my grandfather stands on a big log raft between Ashby, the cook, and Morton, the packer, who man the sweeps at either end. Behind them is the lost-horse fiasco; ahead are three weeks (more, for all they know) down an uncharted creek that they hope will reunite them with the mighty Yukon, and civilization. Morton and Ashby look strained. But my grandfather, during one of the most trying times of his young life, wears a big grin.
My father was like Poppa in many ways. Dad loved travel and the West and adventure, too—after all, he was game enough to try this harebrained journey. And accounts: in the back of Poppa's diary was the penny-by-penny expense list his father had required him to keep ("leggings 1.25, hdkchfs .25, tip .10, drayage and wharfage on trunk, .75"). My father had asked the same of me at college.
Now, though, as we aged, roles were starting to shift; my father was ceding certain kinds of authority to me. How to handle Keith, for example: I had done the discussing, then the yelling. Which way to approach the rapids we encountered as the river meandered north, where to set up the tent—these, now, were my decisions to make. But in return, I had to keep my father well.
Animals occupied our attention as we drifted: a cow moose standing directly in our path (as nervous about a meeting, thankfully, as we were); a wolf that slinked off a gravel bar as we approached, then reemerged to appraise us as we drifted away; eagles that dive-bombed us. Our presence caused a herd of some 30 Dall sheep drinking at the river to dash uphill. Bears eluded us, though each time we stopped at soft sand it was marked with their prints.
Smoke continued to rise from the forest. Later we learned that 13 fires were burning along the western flank of the White Mountains as we floated by, some just a few acres large, some several square miles. They were part of a natural cycle, and most would run their course in a few slow-burning days—but the smoke they produced was dramatic. More than once we were unable to see across the river; twice we saw live flames licking the riverbank and a landscape of blackened, smoldering trunks beyond.
Finally, eight days down Beaver Creek, we saw our first sign of human habitation—a cabin, Keith Koontz's original homestead. We dragged our ailing raft from the water and looked around. The present owners had posted a sign on the door (next to strips of grizzly hide placed there to scare bears away) asking visitors not to stay in the cabin, but inviting them to use the smaller one a hundred yards away. We explored this offer and found it very much to our liking. It would be two and a half days before our plane arrived, and now we wouldn't have to spend this time in a tent dodging mosquitoes. Instead we read, fished, photographed, cooked, and talked. My father and I are poorer for the distance we live apart. These days in Alaska were money in the bank.
Poppa, to conclude his trip, had floated two more weeks down Beaver Creek. Lack of wind and the slow going made his party easy prey for insects, and their food dwindled to practically nothing. Finally, though, they reached the Yukon River, and were soon pleasantly ensconced in the stateroom of a steamer aiming for the Lower 48.
Our exit from the wilderness was more sudden. Outside early on the appointed day, we didn't have to wait long for our plane—and a sweet sight it was, for even with Keith's landmark to guide us, we were not absolutely sure of our whereabouts. The short, wide-winged plane buzzed over our gravel bar three times before setting down. The pilot didn't want to risk taking off with a fully loaded plane from this little strip, so he ferried us one at a time downriver to a safer gravel bar. He could have told us to sit upside down and we would have done it, so glad were we to see him.
Yet, as we shot over the mountains toward hotel rooms, cold beers, and hot showers, I felt a loss: the skills we had honed for Alaska would not be needed now. Dinner no longer would involve catching a fish. It would be weeks or months—perhaps forever—before I would spend this kind of time with my dad again. And part of me would yearn to be back on my grandfather's trail.
Your Own Wilderness Tour
Alaska is challenging and exciting enough without a difficult guide (the author's was hired through the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce). Here are six reliable, Alaska-based companies that offer guided expeditions.
- Alaska Discovery (5449-4 Shaune Dr., Juneau, AK 99801; 800/586-1911). Expeditions of 220 people, by sea kayak, canoe, and raft, throughout Alaska.
- Alaska Wildland Adventures (Box 389, Girdwood, AK 99587; 800/334-8730). Small-group tours at Denali National Park and Kenai Peninsula.
- Adventure Alaska (2904 W. 31st Ave., Anchorage, AK 99517; 800/365-7057). Excursions of four to eight people in south-central, southeast, and interior Alaska, the Inside Passage, and the Yukon.
- Northern Alaska Tour Co. (Box 82991, Fairbanks, AK 99708; 907/474-8600). One-day and multi-day excursions on Prudhoe Bay, the Yukon River, Arctic Circle, and Inupiat Eskimo villages.
- Denali Raft Adventures (Drawer 190, Denali Park, AK 99755; 907/683-2234). Day or overnight rafting trips for groups of all sizes on the Nenana River, at the eastern boundary of Denali National Park.
- Arctic Treks (Box 73452, Fairbanks, AK 99707; 907/ 455-6502). Backpacking, rafting, and base camping in the Arctic regions for groups of four to nine, including families with children.