Vo l . 6 N o . 2 felt like a little boy locked into the candy store overnight. A frantic flurry of letter writing ensued with a few fortunate candidates. And bit-by-bit, as I got to meet their souls—and they mine—the choice became clear. Monique was a French woman living in Albuquerque, a lover of literature and a painter. I personally prefer Edward Abbey’s rants to Simone de Beauvoir, and much of photographic realism strikes me as uninspired. But I felt I had to make some concessions. Monique had divorced her husband—a former salvage diver— when he turned into a couch potato. My kind of woman exactly. As I could not make out her soul’s apertures in the diminutive photo she’d sent, I asked for an enlargement. The watercolor self-portrait that promptly arrived in the mail showed nothing but a pair of hazel cat’s eyes afloat on precious paper. Long lashes, and brows arched like calligraphy sent harpoons straight into my chest. Perhaps too soon, we swapped phone numbers; but the first time her sweet, melodious lilt bridged the distance between us, I could have gobbled up the phone receiver. When she finally walked through the gate at the Fairbanks airport, my heart danced a little jig: she looked like a French version of Audrey Hepburn. Except, with her delicate 5’4 frame, she was shorter than I expected— about half the size of a glass-encased grizzly bear, which flanks the Alaska Airlines counter. Monique had told me her height, but it had never quite registered, and I am bad with numbers anyway. (In my self-portrait that translated into concerned with quality rather than quantity.) She knew, however, that the way into the heart of a Taurus is through his belly. In my modest kitchen nook, she went straight to work, preparing a dish of braised scallops, green asparagus, potatoes au gratin, smothered in a killer sauce of heavy cream and Cognac (no cheap brandy for her)—something with a nasal-sounding name I can’t quite remember. That first night, we slept chastely apart: myself in the stuffy loft reached via ladder and hatch and Monique on the floor of my domicile, which tilts slightly, because I live on permafrost, in the muskeg surrounding town. We spent our first full day together doing touristy things. Aboard the sternwheeler Discovery we plowed the silty flood of the Chena River, while the theme music of Love Boat played in my head. We stopped at Susan Butcher’s place, and the famous musher welcomed us from her backyard. Leaning on the rails of the big white riverboat, we watched Susan’s handler race her Iditarodwinning team. The huskies looked a little hot on this subarctic summer day, as they pulled a sled around the
19 yard, their driver barely visible behind clouds of dust. “But there is no snow,” observed my lovely companion. “We Alaskans do things differently,” I reassured her. We spent a pleasant-enough evening at the Malemute Saloon of the old Ester Gold Camp. Monique got her first glimpse of Alaskan manhood and mores from the player of the upright piano—a token Sourdough dressed in nineteenth-century garb—who kept spitting with great relish into the sawdust that covered the floor. During my weekly soccer game Monique sat at the sidelines. Our team was called Buns on the Run, and our sponsor, a fast food breakfast place, had donated tight shorts with the business name emblazoned on their backsides. Instead of watching the odd goods milling about on the ball field, Monique chatted with the wives and fiancées of my teammates. While I appreciated having a trained nurse in attendance—we were losing, and things were getting a bit rough—a shadow of domesticity fell onto my soul. I imagined that scene as a replay of my Mom watching my Dad kick a pig’s bladder around some German pasture, thirty-two years ago. It had happened that way. I had happened that way. The day after, a small plane delivered us to the banks of the Koyukuk River, north of the Arctic Circle, where its turbid waters skirt the village of Allakaket. Our great adventure was about to begin. Surrounded by piles of gear, I wrestled with the Klepper, the collapsible double kayak made-in-the-oldcountry that was to be our craft. I remembered that the brand name is a Teutonic term for a nag ready to be sent to the slaughter. Out of their packsack, the canvas deck and rubberized bottom, the keel, ribs, thwarts, gunwales and rudder parts more closely resembled the remains of a butchered seal on shore. I could not make sense of the gibberish of the German instructions, even though I am normally fluent in that language. (Manually challenged was another trait that never made it into print, because it clashed with self-reliant and down-to-earth.) With the help of my fine-boned visitor from the high desert and advice from a number of Eskimo and Athabaskan spectators, I eventually figured out where all the Flügelmuttern and Kreuzschlitzschrauben needed to go. We assembled The Thing and shoved off. “Should we look for a camp, Mai-kel?” Monique now warbles from the bow of the boat. I just love the way she pronounces my name.
A Journal for the North Pacific Rim