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Moving to Alaska


Jack Mann

These hot Texas summers were getting to be more than I could stand so I decided to move to Alaska where it is even cool in the summer. I had heard that you could homestead 160 acres of land and if you lived on it for two years with improvements, it was yours to keep. Being 22 years old and full of energy, I started laying out the plans for my great adventure. In 1965, being single in Waco Texas could be pretty boring so I quit my job, sold everything I had except my 1952 Volkswagen, paid off all my debts, and started packing all the warm clothes I could find. I always figured I could put on more clothes than was legal to take off. 

At 6 A.M., Monday, February 13, I started out with a full tank of gas and $75.00 in my pocket. Gas was only 23 cents per gallon and my car got 38 miles per gallon so I figured I was in good shape. I got almost to Dallas before my generator went
out. Six hours and $27.00 later I was on my way again.

I made it all the way to Washington State before I blew out a tire and had to walk about ten miles to the closest town. It was just a wide place in the road but there was a filling station there. I gave $2.00 for a used tire and rolled it all the way back.  About 100 yards from my car, somebody stopped and offered me a lift.

Three days later I pulled into Anchorage, Alaska. What a beautiful place it was too. Snow capped mountains everywhere you looked. Being the middle of March, it was still pretty cold but that is just the way I liked it. 

After living on candy bars and sleeping in my car for four days, I needed a place to clean up and get a hot meal. After checking with the nearest storeowner, I learned there was a boarding house a couple of blocks away so I headed for it right away. It didnít take long before I found out that everything here cost a lot more than it did down south, so I needed a job fast. Well that wasnít as hard as I had thought. Just down the street was a trucking company with a sign out front that read ďDrivers WantedĒ, so I made my way down there post haste. I was hired on the spot and couldnít believe that it paid $600.00 per week and I only had to drive 10 miles round trip, once a week. At this rate it wouldnít take long before I would have all the money necessary to homestead a place in the wilderness. 

I was a little suspicious about the sign on the side of the truck but for $600.00 a trip it didnít bother me much. After all, how bad a high explosive could it be? I knew TNT and dynamite were pretty safe as long as you didnít carry any blasting caps in the same truck. What I did not know was, it was not either of those.
It was 100 pounds of nitro glycerine. Now that was just about enough to vaporize a small city and you didnít need a cap to set it off. A 3-ounce shock or a quick change of temperature would do the job. It was shipped in very thick glass jars with glass stoppers that were packed in something that looked like Jell-O. There were 10, 2.5 pound bottles to a case and the four cases were placed on a net that was tied to the sides of the truck. It wouldnít have been so bad but I had to take it over the top of a mountain to a gold mine. After the third trip, my nerve ran out and I just couldnít do it any more. The employee turn over must have been pretty high for this job. With $1800.00 I should be able to buy all the supplies necessary to head for the hills.

By now the days were getting warm and the mosquitoes were everywhere. It seemed like they grew an inch a day and they were as big as silver dollars to start with. We didnít have any that big in Texas. It made me wonder what they were eating, besides me, that would make them grow so fast.

I went to the land office and told the clerk that I wanted to homestead some land. He pointed to a large map on the wall and told me to take my pick of which 160 acres I wanted. The map had been sectioned off into 160-acre increments with red, blue and yellow pins all over it. He told me yellow pins were where no one had ever tried to live, the red pins were where someone had tried to live but couldnít take it so they left and the blue pins were presently occupied. The red pins also meant that there was an abandoned cabin that you could move into without having to build one. Not wanting anyone's leftovers, I picked out a new spot with a mountain stream running through it and staked my claim. 

After acquiring all the supplies needed for this endeavour, I caught the next train out of Anchorage heading for Nome. I told the conductor the number of the claim I had and he said he would stop the train at the closest point and let me off. After a while, the conductor came by and told me to get ready to get off the train when it stopped. In a few minutes the train stopped and I got off with all the equipment I brought with me. As the train pulled off, I realized that I was alone in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain a hundred miles from civilization. It was a very lonely sight to see the train disappear in the distance. I had been given a map with my claim marked with a red pencil so I loaded as much of this junk as I could carry and headed South. It was getting late and I still had about twenty miles to go. 

I spent the next four days hauling all the equipment to my new home. I was beginning to wonder if I really needed all this crap!  After getting everything moved, I found a good spot next to a stream for my cabin. I knew that the summers were short up here so I didnít have much time to get a cabin built before winter set in. All I knew about building a cabin was the Lincoln Log set I had when I was a kid so I started cutting down trees with my chainsaw. After three weeks, I had what resembled a log cabin. I packed all the cracks with a grass and mud mixture to keep the wind out and built a fireplace out of rocks held together with
clay. The cabin was about twelve feet square and half of that was porch. It seemed a bit small but that would just make it easier to heat. I spent the rest of the summer chopping wood and getting ready for the long winter. Every couple of weeks I would hike back to the railroad tracks and catch the train into Anchorage for a little R and R and supplies. I was also able to pan a small amount of gold dust out of the stream that gave me some income. 

We were on the gold standard at the time so it was only worth $35.00 an ounce. The Japanese would pay up to $500.00 an ounce on the black market but that was illegal so I didnít sell to them too often. I didnít know it at the time but I would have been better off in jail because the cell is bigger, someone else has to do all the work and there would have been plenty of people to talk to. If you made inmates do what I was doing, it would be considered cruel and unusual punishment!

I caught what I thought was a humming bird but it turned out to be a grand daddy mosquito. These things were big enough to eat if you could figure out how to skin them.

I found a stray dog someone had abandoned so I had something to talk to. I always felt pretty stupid talking to myself. One night old Rover woke me up barking and it seemed there was a Grizzly Bear scratching on the front door. I shot him through the door with my 270 Winchester. I donít know if the bullet killed him or if it was all the lumber blew out of the door, but he was dead. He wasnít real big, about 400 pounds but the skin looked good on the wall of my cabin. The meat tasted like something a skunk would puke up and was so tough that Rover couldnít chew it but if you cut it up in small enough pieces and held your nose, you could swallow it whole. It would keep us alive in case the Elk meat ran out and that wasnít much better.

The meat would freeze solid over night if I put it in my homemade icebox. An icebox was a ventilated container sitting on top of a 15-foot pole that had all the bark removed. Black bears can climb trees if you donít remove the bark. I still wasnít sure the mosquitoes couldnít carry it off in the middle of the night. 

The next time I went into town, I was sitting in a bar drinking a cool Bud and telling the guy next to me about the big Grizzly bear I killed. I didnít know they were on the endangered species list and the guy was a game warden. He arrested me and made me take him to my cabin where he confiscated the bearskin and meat. I was only fined $100.00 because I was protecting myself but since I didnít turn in the bear I got fined. I could have got 10 years in jail and a $10,000.00 fine.

One afternoon I noticed these dark clouds moving in from the North so I figured I would soon have the snow I wanted to see. I always thought that Texas had the biggest of everything. Well, the mosquitoes had already proven that wrong and I was about to find out that I didnít even know what a snowstorm was. I sure did sleep well that night. With a fire in the fireplace and 4 blankets over me, the howling wind just made it easier to fall asleep. Old Rover was curled up in front of the fireplace on a rug made from the skin of some varmint I have yet to identify. It took a couple of days for him to get used to it since he wanted to fight it but when it wouldnít fight back he gave up and started to sleep on it.

The next morning I awoke to find the snow had completely covered the cabin. I was stuck in this 6 x 12-foot room. Since all the meat and firewood was outside, I had to get out of there somehow. I couldnít open the door or shutters because they were frozen shut and packed with snow and it was unbelievably cold. I finally had to climb up in the rafters and knock a hole in the roof to get out. All I could see of the cabin was the chimney sticking out of the snow. The next 6 months was one very cold nightmare. At least the giant mosquitoes had gone south. Those hot Texas summers started sounding better all the time. As soon
as spring came and the snow all melted, I got the heck out of there and went back to Texas. 

Nice weather weíre having this summer, donít you think!

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