“That can’t be our boat,” said Janet’s cousin, Karen. “It looks too small.” Indeed, it did look small, but it was our boat. And the 18' aluminum outboard, coupled with the skills of our skipper Mark, proved more than up to the task of transporting seven of us 15 miles or so down the Susitna River, and bringing us safely back.
We’re at Deshka Landing. Mainly because so few roads exist in this enormous state, it’s one of the few public access points to the Susitna. Cousin Karen worked diligently with local archeologist Fran who arranged this trip down river to visit a place called Susitna Station–the place where Grandpa Cy lived in 1910-11 and where his eldest son, Karen’s father, was born. Mark navigated the braided channel of the Susitna at high speed, watching intently for snags, rocks and sandbars–carefully avoiding things that weren’t obvious to the rest of us. Just before our arrival he took us to Seal Island at the mouth of the Yetna River, and sure enough four or five Harbor Seals lolled on the gravelly bar, a good 20 miles from Cook Inlet. He said they followed the salmon up the river.
Captain Mark and we walk what's left of Susitna
At our destination, Mark grounded our boat on the river bank, then jumped ashore, climbed up the bank and set an anchor in the ground to which the vessel was tethered. The only evidence of human occupation apparent to most of us, a small, corrugated metal-sided warehouse, looked to date from the appropriate time period. As we tramped through the bush we recognized more signs of wildlife than people, including fresh bear and moose droppings and evidence of recent large animal (bear?) “beds.” In the undergrowth Fran finally spotted some depressions. She called them cache pits–cellar-like spaces dug beneath houses to store food. This, she said was evidence of human settlement. There once were several houses here on a small bluff above the river.
More tramping through denser bush, including thorny Devil’s Club, finally led us to another structure–an outhouse. Here was an impressive two-seater, of carefully–fitted logs hand-hewn with axe and adze, purlins supporting the gabled roof, plank door still attached, if askew. Clear evidence of human, and Fran said non-Native, habitation, though the date of construction remains uncertain.
Mt. McKinley View from the river and Susitna location
Back in Grandpa Cy’s time no roads penetrated this wilderness. They traveled by dog sled in winter, shallow-draft paddle wheelers in summer, and, as he would have said, “Shank’s Mare” when necessary. Though travel is easier today with snow machines, ATVs and bush planes, much of Alaska is nearly as isolated today as a century ago. We needed a boat, or to hire one, plus a skilled skipper to get here, whereas Grandpa and family may have arrived by dog sled and departed via scheduled river steamer.
Ruminating on our experiences during a return journey shrouded in the sound of the outboard, we convened at the first outpost of civilization where we chewed over our journey with Fran around a table in a coffee shop. For Karen perhaps it was especially meaningful to stand in the remote and beautiful place where her father began life on this planet. For the rest of us perhaps we got a measure of the immensity and remoteness of Alaska, and a reinforcement of our appreciation of the self-reliance, resourcefulness and confidence required of our grandparents. And etched in everyone’s mind, an unobstructed, 100-mile sunlit view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) from the river.
We parted from Fran with our thanks and drove back to Anchorage in our rental SUV on a modern highway in an hour. We all turned-in early, in anticipation of tomorrow’s early-starting journey on the Alaska Railroad, to Denali.
Happy Travels, Janet and Stu