Jul 10, 2015

Me And Rog

By: Jim Pat Patterson

Back in 1972 Me and Rog went to Alaska.  Our wives, Mary and Sylvia were our companions.

Our “quest,” or our journey, in search of adventure came about as a result of Rog’s other next-door neighbor’s son driving into his mom’s driveway in a pick-up truck with a camper on the back.  A friend of his was with him driving a similar truck and camper.  As it turned out, both of the fellows were in the Air Force and stationed in Alaska.  They were in the process of delivering these trucks, after picking them up in Michigan, to a dealer friend in Anchorage.  The son decided to stop by and say “hi” to his mom and dad on the way back to Anchorage. 

As it happened, the fellows were able to fly “stand-by” on a military plane to Michigan, pick up the trucks and campers, and then drive them to Anchorage.  The guys explained that it was significantly cheaper for the trucks to be picked up in Michigan, driven across the plains of the United States, up through the Yukon Territory and Alaska and on to Anchorage than to ship them by truck or rail to Seattle, and then by auto ferry through the Inside Passage to Anchorage.  The dealer compensated them for fuel, food and other expenses plus some bucks for their pockets.

So, one day the guys and Rog are standing in the driveway and talking about this delivery deal they have worked out and upon listening to the guys describe the “deal,” Rog said, “Hey guys, you think you could set me and my friend Jim up with that deal?”  “Well,” they said, “We’ll see what we can do for you fellows.”

Me and Rog got pretty excited thinking and talking about this prospect. Imagine being able to drive the road to Alaska, for free!  No, not free, actually get paid for it!  The visions of the beautiful Alaskan mountains, catching lots of big Alaskan salmon and trout, and the whole experience of getting there cross country, from Oshkosh, Wisconsin popped into my mind and I’m sure, Rog’s too, throughout the winter of 1971.

Then, one spring day in 1972, Rog came hurrying over to my house, opened the back door, hollered, “You who, anybody home?” and came right into our kitchen.  (In those days folks didn’t necessarily lock their doors, we didn’t.)  Rog was pretty excited and he said he had “big news.”  He had received a letter from the boys in Alaska. They said that they had talked with their truck dealer friend and he was ok for us to deliver a couple of trucks for him.  Details to follow.  From that point on we were making plans for driving to Alaska, seeing Alaska, and getting home from Alaska. 

The dealer would cover all expenses and give us each, Rog and me, one hundred or so dollars for being the delivery boys.  That helped buy one plane ticket home, anyway. 

We got real lucky when a friend of the neighbor’s son said we could use his truck after we dropped off the trucks to the dealer!  There was only a couple of conditions he presented to us, “Leave me some gas in the tank when you’re done,” and “You cannot drive the truck on the road from Anchorage to Fairbanks, because the road is paved with rocks, not gravel.  Last week I cut two tires so bad in just a few miles I had to get two new ones.”  Me and Rog agreed that was a reasonable request, and said, “Hot dog!”  We had gained transportation while we were to be in Alaska.  Sightseeing, here we come and maybe some fishing too!  We’ll camp out, have a great time and keep an eye out for bears too, you know.

So, we began getting things in order, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks etc.  We each had children to be taken care of and our families helped us out with that. We were close to ready.  The day finally came when we were informed the trucks and campers were ready.  “Go get ‘em.” 

Roger’s brother, Phil, helped us out by going along with us to Michigan and then driving the car home, as we had to drive the trucks to Oshkosh.

Our families were pretty excited to see the trucks and probably, finally realized dad and mom were going to be gone for quite a while.  (We figured one month, total.)

The Anchorage truck dealer was (“as always,” the boys said) very concerned that the trucks arrived in as good a shape as possible.  After all, they were already “sold” and the customer is counting on getting a “new truck,” not a beat up one.

Rog being the handyman, that I am not, designed and fabricated some hardware cloth shields that fit over and covered the windshields, headlights and window of the camper, hoping to keep the rocks and stones, (that we were told will surely come our way), from breaking these items at the dealer’s expense.  They worked, as we arrived in Anchorage with headlights and windshields intact.

We were now ready for our “journey” and headed out across the great plains of America, which was uneventful. The exception being that it is always a thrill to see the wonders that our country has to offer.

We crossed the United States/Canadian border and headed for Calgary, Alberta and Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks.  They were not on the direct route but we felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up and we would make up the time by driving longer days.  It worked out, but the truck dealer did say to us that he was beginning to “wonder what the hang up was.”

The only Canadian “thing” that occurred was when I was paying for my gas with “American” money and the grouchy attendant didn’t want to accept the American money.  He finally did, but he wouldn’t give me the money exchange difference, which was significant at that time.  Rog was the smart one because he was using a credit card with all its advantages.  He encouraged me to use one in Canada, but I said, “Nah, I’ll get by,” which was not always the case.

From Calgary, it was north to Alaska.  We headed for Dawson Creek, British Columbia and the beginning of the Alaskan Highway, mile “0” and 1523 miles of gravel road.

The little town of Dawson Creek wasn’t anything fancy, but we did find a laundromat and it even had showers.  We needed them by this time on our trip.  The only problem, they were expensive, but if we doubled up with our wives, we could get two for one, which is what we did. The shower stalls were pretty small and the shower turned into quite an experience… Enough said about that.

We thought it funny at first, then interesting, that practically every vehicle parked on Main Street had a shattered windshield.  It was as if someone had walked down the street with a shotgun and blazed away at every vehicle on the street.  A local fellow we mentioned this to said, “We just drive ‘em like that.  We can’t get windshield or glass insurance in the Yukon Territory.”

So, now we are clean, our clothes are clean, we have two full tanks of gas, some groceries and are ready for the Alaskan Highway.

Note:  Each truck had two fuel tanks. Regular tank plus a saddle tank, which could be

accessed with a flip of a switch.  The trucks also had 10-ply tires and many additional things were heavy duty.  Rog’s truck was a manual transmission, mine    was an automatic.

The Alaskan Highway in 1972 had a speed limit of 35 mph.  However, you did not want to go that fast!  It was hundreds of miles of gravel, then dirt, then mud, then maybe large sharp stones and then back to gravel again.  It wound around and around, up and down, had blind curves and all the while you are driving on a perfect washboard surface.  It was a good thing we were young, for as the saying goes, “That road would have rattled our teeth right out of our heads.”

The big semi-trucks were a challenge.  They took the middle of the road and those big dually tires would throw rocks big as baseballs.  No lie.  We found ourselves ducking our heads thinking one of those rocks would surely come thru Rog’s hardware cloth shields and beam us or our wives.  However, none did. One morning Rog said, “I’m getting tired of those truck boys playing chicken with us, and forcing us to take the shoulder and fight the steering wheel to stay on the road.  What do you say that for the rest of the way we take the middle of the road and see who’s really chicken?”  From that point on we did just that, and by golly, it worked.  It worked every time, with the big boys moving over.  Me and Rog figured that those truckers pegged us for some scared tourists and took the shoulder themselves.

One morning the road was just terrible, muddy and so slippery that a person could hardly walk on it.  It had rained hard all night, but we had an obligation to get those trucks to Anchorage in a decent amount of time.  After a short discussion, we realized we couldn’t just sit there along the road all day waiting for the road to dry up. Who knew how long it would take to dry up anyway.  So off we went, cautioning each other to “be careful.”

Later in the afternoon, we came upon a line-up of trucks, cars, and motorhomes stopped on the top of a hill.  The downslope was at least one quarter of a mile in length and then the road, almost immediately, went up the hill at least ¼ mile.  The problem was the muddy, slick, road and the road construction vehicles.  Me and Rog got out of our trucks and looked the situation over.  The road graders, as they always do, had graded up a mound of dirt at about 20 inches high down the middle of the road and it ran all the way down the hill and then all the way up the other hill.  In addition, there was heavy equipment all over the place doing their thing.  (Construction never stops in Alaska or the Yukon Territory, because of weather.  If it did, they would never get any work done.)

Soooo, Rog says, “What do you say Jim? We’ll drive over that berm in the middle and then pass all these sissies sitting here waiting for something to happen, then we’ll give ‘er hell down this hill, then keep givin ’er hell going up the far side. If we let up on the gas, we’ll probably end up slippin’ and sliddin’ and not make it up.  What do you say?  Should we give it a try?”

I said, “Let’s go Rog, but you got the lead.”  Not that I wouldn’t have taken the lead, but his truck was already in front of mine.  It was quite a ride.  Every time Rog shifted gears, his truck would do a little dance, and I would be talking to no one in particular, saying “Hang in there, Rog.”  Well, the construction boys saw that me and Rog were going to try and make it up the hill and they gave us a courtesy by pulling their machines out of the way, kind of shut them down, and then turned on their seats to watch, to see if we were going to make it up this mess of a hill.  We did!  As we slithered by them, several were applauding and smiling.  That sure made us feel good (and a little cocky).

As we continued up the road we ran into another interesting problem.  A bridge had been washed out that had spanned a river and now, even though the river was at a low level, it was too much to just drive through.  As we stopped at the river’s edge we noticed that some hardy and inventive souls had constructed their own bridge.  It consisted of four logs, two fastened together for one wheel alignment and the other two for the other wheels.  The logs were staked along both sides so they could not separate or slide apart as you drove your vehicle across the river on them.  The river was, as I mentioned, too deep to drive through.  The logs reached from bank to bank and were maybe a foot or so above water level.

Here again, Me and Rog had a little conference regarding the “do we,” or “don’t we” cross on these logs.  We agreed that if the locals could drive across we could too.  So, I walked across on the logs, lined Rog and his truck up on the logs and he carefully drove across.  No problem.  Then it was my turn and again, no problem. 

There were always surprises on the highway and one day we came onto a classic.  On a curve of the road a fellow had obviously been going too fast and he hit the shoulder, lost control and rolled a time or two down into the ditch.

Me and Rog were first on the scene so we hit the brakes, jumped out of our trucks, as did our wives, and ran down to the vehicle to see what aid we could provide.  As it turned out, no one was seriously hurt.

It was a Jeep Wagoneer type vehicle and there were nine people in it.  Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and five kids, somehow or another jammed into it. Eventually other folks stopped to help also. 

The vehicle is upside down, the windshield is flattened into the roof on a 45-degree angle and numerous other “problems,” as you might imagine.

The gathering group is now contemplating how we might help these folks and someone in the crowd said, “Let’s push her back on her wheels and see if she’ll start up and run.”  And that is what we good Samaritans did.  Someone said, “Hey dad, get in there and see if she’ll start up,” which dad did. The vehicle started and the smoke screen it blew out, from all the oil that had drained into the cylinders, was something to behold.  Then someone suggested, “Let’s push him up to the road.” That’s what we did. We all stood around talking about what had just occurred and, while we were talking, that family climbed back into their vehicle and away they went, arms waving good-bye and hollering “thank you” out the broken windows, as they continued heading to Alaska.

Traveling the Alcan was one beautiful, fantastic view after another.  We came across several sites that had been abandoned, log cabins, stores, small settlements, that I’m certain have become commercialized or have rotted into the ground by now.

Whenever there was a gas pump at a byway we filled up the tanks, even if we had not switched to the saddle tanks.  You just never knew where the next gas pump would show up.

We camped along the road for the entire trip.  Come evening we would begin looking for a nice place, usually along a river.  We needed water.  Not for drinking but to clean off the backs of our trucks that were so covered with dust and mud we couldn’t work the door latches to open the doors.

I don’t recall what we used for buckets but we would fill the containers at the river and throw the water at the back of the campers several times to get rid of the crud on the door so we could gain entrance to the camper.

We saw bear tracks several times but never had a bear problem while we camped.

Finally, Alaska and Anchorage.  We delivered the trucks, and the dealer was happy because they were in great shape.  He settled up with us for the trip expenses and our “pay” and we were free to take in some additional sights and sounds of Alaska. 

As I previously noted, our new friend was loaning us his pickup truck so we had transportation to use as we explored the countryside and whatever and wherever.  We mostly stayed near the coast, took in the various ports, fished around the docks and just played “tourist.”

One of the most fun things we did was fish for red salmon on the Russian River.  Well, I should say Rog did because my rod broke on the first cast and that was that.  The salmon run was “on.” Everybody and their cousins were fishing on the river.  The parking area was so full we were just able to fit the truck in between two other trucks and were barely able to open the doors and squeeze out of the truck.  The locals had occupied all the picnic tables, and brought their own tables from home as well. They were filled with pressure cookers, stoves, and all the additional pots, pans, knives and other kitchen utensils needed to “can” the salmon.  They were loading up while the “getting’ was good.”

The fishing required you to get to the “other” side of the river because the park side was white, creamy, muddy glacial water from the upstream glaciers.  Fish don’t swim or live in glacial water.  You had to get to the other, fresh water, side.  A local entrepreneur had designed and built a box that would hold several people. It was attached to cables, anchored on each side of the river and, when pushed into the river at an angle, the flow of the river would carry the box (boat) right across to the other side’s landing.  To return, you just angle the box in the opposite direction of the current and it takes you right back to the other side.  The fellow charged a “ferry fee,” Rog paid it, jumped into the box and went fishing for salmon.  The opposite shore was packed with fisherman, shoulder to shoulder, and they were all throwing these huge lead weights, tied to lines, that had a little fly tied to the end.  The salmon liked the little flies if you can believe it.  As soon as the lead and the fly hit the water, the current immediately took them down river, parallel to the shore.  Rog said it took a little practice before you got used to the little “tap” that meant you had a fish. When a person hooked one, they hollered “fish on!” and everybody retrieved their line “now” or the running fish would have everybody’s line tangled in one big mess. 

Rog caught several nice salmon, which we put in a cooler. They offered us several nice meals.  You just can’t beat “fresh caught” red salmon from the Russian River.

We had just met up with Sylvia’s sister and her husband, who had also driven up the Alcan highway with their pickup truck.  They slept in the bed of their truck, to save a few bucks, knowing that motels were few and far between.

One of the evenings we were together, we had a little cookout, with wine and Rog’s fresh caught salmon, along the beach of Cook Inlet, a major bay that stretches inland from the Gulf of Alaska. Dinner was delicious!!!  And you couldn’t beat the scenery! 

Earlier that day, we had stopped by the Salty Dog Saloon in Homer, Alaska.  We carved our names into one of the tables, but I’m sure they have been carved out by now by all the visitors the place gets.

We had now returned our friends truck and were traveling with Sylvia’s sister and her husband. The four of us rode in the back of the truck, taking in the sights.  In the evening, we set up our tents and enjoyed the pleasure of outdoor sleeping.  Only one night did we have a concern as a couple of locals were discussing whether “that bear would come back into the camp tonight.”

One of the last things we wanted to do was ride the White Pass Railroad from the town of White Horse to the town of Skagway.  The train was probably 90% flat cars loaded with recreational vehicles.  It was a beautiful, slow, twisting ride through the mountains and lakes of the Yukon Territory, down to that Alaskan town and port at the northern most point of the Inside Passage, Skagway.

It was at this point that Me and Rog and our wives split up for the last leg of the trip.  Rog and Sylvia stayed with her sister and her husband to do a few more things and Mary and I boarded a car ferry and headed down the Inside Passage to Ketchikan, where we boarded a World War II vintage “Grumman Goose” seaplane, for the short flight to an island that had the runway capable of landing large jet planes.  From there we boarded a 707 headed for Seattle, Chicago and then home. 

The end of our “Quest” had arrived. For us folks to say “it was quite a ride” would be an understatement.  As the saying goes today, “It was awesome!”

Note:

Rog was very enamored with Alaska and returned several times with his family.  He, of course, has many additional stories to tell about their experiences.  If you run into him sometime, ask him to tell you about the time a big ol’ bear pushed and pounded on their camper with him, Sylvia and daughter, Julie, inside.