Alaska Shorts: The Great Alaskan, by Leigh Newman

Leigh Newman
The Great Alaskan

In the largest state in the Union, a state built on gold rushes and oil pipelines, 90-pound
king salmon and 20-pound king crabs, a lot of things come prefaced by the
phrase Great Alaskan. There’s the Great Alaskan Salmon Bake and the
Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and the legendary 8.6 Great Alaskan Earthquake
and, of course, a species of larger-than-life male citizen, who shall be
referred to from here on out as the Great Alaskan Dad.

Some identifiers:
The Great Alaskan Dad flies his plane on floats in the summer and on skis in
the winter. He hunts for caribou, moose, wild sheep, wild goats, geese, and
ducks, plus fishes for halibut, salmon, and trout. No matter where he goes, his
outfit remains the same: falling-down hip boots, patched wool pants, drugstore
sunglasses with Polaroid lenses for spotting fish underwater, and a Stearns
life jacket with a red plastic tag that reads PULL-IN-THE-CASE-OF-AN-EMERGENCY,
which has never been pulled, despite his frequent, always almost fatal
emergencies. A buck knife — the blade stained with dried unidentified blood and
slime — dangles from a lanyard somewhere on his person.

At one time or
another, he has suffered from an unforgettable — for all involved — case of
beaver fever, a violent lower-intestinal disease caused by drinking downstream
from an active lodge. At one time or another, due to a plane crash or bad
planning, he has had to live — for days, in the bush — off tasteless ancient
Pilot Bread and a jar of powdered Tang.

The Great
Alaskan Dad can sew on his own buttons, patch his own waders, repack his own
shotgun shells, and repair his own boat motor, even as the boat is filling with
water in the middle of the ocean. The Great Alaskan Dad can land a Piper Cub on
a 150-foot-long gravel bar, which is technically impossible according to all
aviation authorities. He can outrun a grizzly bear by running very fast or at
least faster than his hunting buddy (which, by the way, according to a Great
Alaskan Dad, is the only way to survive a grizzly bear, so don’t curl up, play
dead, and make yourself into a human meatball like those dopey forest rangers
advise) with a hundred pounds of freshly dressed moose on his back. He can make
a fire out of wet green wood, in the middle of the winter, just as the blizzard
starts, using his last match, which he strikes with his fingers nearly — but
not totally — paralyzed by frostbite. He can — and will — also defend the
veracity of the above three claims to the point of shooting saliva across the
room, should any family member dare challenge the few overly extravagant or
Jack Londonesque details therein.

In addition,
although he might not bring this up around the campfire, the Great Alaskan Dad
has invented a diaper out of alder leaves and garbage bags when all the Pampers
that the Great Alaskan Mom packed happened to fall out of the raft. The Great
Alaskan Dad has piloted a plane, while his airsick Great Alaskan Child
projectile-vomited inside the fur-lined hood of his parka. And he has — not
mythically or romantically or hyperbolically in the least — grabbed that same
child’s belt loop or leg right before that child fell into a raging stream or
fell out of the flying plane or slipped off the boat or wandered off a cliff or
tumbled down the crevasse of a glacier or ate the poisonous blue berries that
were not blueberries or sauntered directly into the path of a black bear with
two newborn cubs.

Where all this
experience might not help him, though, is in the land of toothbrushes and crustless
peanut-butter sandwiches, recommended daily vitamins and monsters under the
bed. In short, the world of domestic survival, which is where my Great Alaskan
Dad and I land the first summer after my parents’ divorce.

It’s June, the
first week of salmon-fishing season. For the past six months, I’ve been away
from Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up, in order to relocate with my mother to
Baltimore, Maryland, her childhood home. The first day I am back up North, I
find out that Dad has moved from our old house by the mountains into a new
house across town. The house is big and sunny and filled with lots of
wall-to-wall beige carpet — but no furniture.

It’s eight
o’clock at night. “Time for bed,” Dad says. He rolls out two identical down
bags — bags designed to keep you warm in temperatures up to forty below — on
the beige carpet. I hop in my bag, crumple up my jeans for a pillow. The sky
through the windows is a blazing, sun-heated white. We have no blinds or

“Shut your
eyes,” he mumbles.

I shut my eyes.
But I am eight years old. I squirm. I hum. I kick Dad, whispering, “I can’t
sleep. Can you sleep?”

“Tell your
brain it’s nighttime. Your brain will believe anything, if you say it over and

Leigh Newman was raised in Alaska by a Great Alaskan Dad…and in
Baltimore, Maryland, by A Great, Former Alaskan Mom, moving back and forth
between her two parents. As child, she learned to fish, hunt, curl up and play
dead in the case of curious black bears, and throw up artfully in the hood of a
parka while flying in a single prop plane. As an adult she regularly teaches
that same skill set to her two boys. Her essays have appeared in
The New York Times, Vogue, Real Simple, O The Oprah Magazine,
Bookforum and many other publications. This excerpt comes from her memoir Still Points North: An Alaskan
(Dial Press), forthcoming in softcover from Shorefast Books. 
You can read more from Leigh Newman in the Alaska Sampler 2014, a free eBook.

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