Alaska Shorts: From Cold River Spirits, by Jan Harper-Haines

Jan Harper-Haines
When the Chena
River overflowed its banks in 1948, as it did nearly every spring, Fairbanks
took on the appearance of a slowly moving lake. The dirty brown water, dotted
with chunks of ice, logs, carcasses of dead animals, and other debris from the
long winter, spread across the little river town.

steadily, the floodwater crossed First Avenue and crept up the steps of the
Episcopal Church and into the Masonic Temple. It leisurely entered saloons on
Second and filled stores and houses all the way down Barnette Street past

On Garden
Island, the water hesitated at the steps of the Alaska Railroad depot like a
mannerly aunt unsure of her welcome. A moment later, it washed across the old
plank floor, covered the benches along the walls, and reached the top of the
ticket counter.

The river rose
fourteen feet as it flowed into truck stop cafes and smoky dives where the only
women were bleary-eyed hoostitutes.

The water
appeared smooth, even languid, but its rapid undercurrents and eddies swirled
with energy. The force was enough to carry away sections of wooden sidewalk and
cave in cellar doors all over town. With no hesitation it entered Louise Minook
Harper’s log cabin on Fifth, five blocks from the river.

A drunk wading
home from the bars on Second stumbled on a washed out section of sidewalk and
was swept into the river where he smacked his head on a passing log. His body
was found a few days later, tangled in the flotsam of a floating tree.

That morning
two other men died in a fight in the Nevada Bar over the timing of the Chena
breakup. A third man, clutching the winning ice pool ticket, suffered a black
eye and cracked his false teeth in the commotion. When two officers from the
Territorial Police arrived, big and blustery in their uniforms, the survivor
convinced them the two men had stabbed one another. This stretch of truth was
heartily supported by the bartender and other none too sober patrons.

When the river
receded a few days later, flood-weary residents reclaimed their homes and took
stock of the damage. Whites, Natives, hoostitutes, and prominent families
dragged muddied books, ruined mattresses, and unrecognizable whatall into the
street to be hauled away.

The sour stench
of mildew, river sludge, and dog poop gagged Louise when she opened the shed
door. “Chanh na hanh!” she swore, turning her head and blinking as she
propped open the door with a shovel and stood outside while the cramped space

Her glance fell
on Sam’s trunk in the corner. It was slimy with mud.

Holding her
breath, Louise grabbed the cracked leather handle. The muck made a sucking
noise as she pulled the trunk from the shed. Inside, Sam’s papers and notebooks
squished at her touch. His penciled words were blurred, and those written in
ink were a blue smear. Louise glimpsed the butt of a pistol wedged into one
side of the trunk.

She looked
around her small, muddy yard. Her house was already full of damp clothes,
smelly rugs, and bedding. There was no place to dry the trunk’s contents. On
top of that, the stove was filled with silt. The electricity was out and they
still had no drinking water.

“The trunk is
gone? Dad’s stories are gone?” Flora Jane tightened her lips to keep them from
quivering. Louise glanced at her oldest daughter and sighed.

Jan (Petri) Harper-Haines is Koyukon Athabascan, Russian, Irish and
Dutch-German. Her non-fiction has appeared in
First Alaskans Magazine, West Marin Review, Alaskan
Embers and Cirque. She is currently working on Jimmy’s Song, a
novel of suspense set in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley. This excerpt comes
from Cold River Spirits, a
biography of Jan’s Athabascan mother and grandmother and their lives on the
Yukon. It explores their rich cultural heritage and their heartrending, and
often humorous, struggles to transition from a life intertwined with nature to
a more fast-paced world. You can read more in the free Alaska Sampler 2014.

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