In present-day Alaska, attorney JOLON LAKE is on an inward journey to find significance in his career and satisfaction in his love life. Adrift in a sea of indecision and melancholy, he tacks from case to case, and woman to woman, unable to commit to a career or a relationship. He finds potential salvation in beautiful and intriguing “Dena’ina” ALEX NICOLAI. However, he meets FLAIRE, an intellectually and physically gifted ex-stripper with a marriage as open as her cleavage. He is attracted to her intellect, sensuality and surprising vulnerability. He commences a complicated and dangerous liaison. Under the guidance of unscrupulous political power broker GUS CABNER, a cabal of greedy Alaskan entrepreneurs, lame-duck governor TOM CLARK, and nefarious Korean business interests, has its sights set on developing Sultana Lake into a northern Mecca for gambling and vice. Governor Clark and the Cabner law firm manipulate the legislature toward passage of legislation granting the governor the powers to carry out their hidden agenda under the guise of protecting communities from cultural and environmental degradation. Only Lake and an unlikely alliance of village and urban activists stand in the way of the ruination of a treasured and vulnerable community.
The old pickup sped through the night like a spaceship in the void. The only contact with reality was the faint whir of studs on frozen asphalt. Lake felt disembodied — a vagrant thought alone in the dark. He loved night travel when reality only occasionally interposed in the form of a long-haul trucker or startled moose.
The truck veered toward the shoulder as he passed through a dense bank of wind-swept snow. Jolon old boy, you’d best slow down or you’ll be airborne before you even get to the Talkeetna airport!
Lake chuckled to himself. His mother wouldn’t be happy with his use of his middle name. To her he was, and always would be, “Prestwick” — too big a name for a kid, and too pretentious a name for an Alaskan — especially an Alaskan attorney. He had never revealed to her that he had dropped his first name for all except the most formal documents, and was now simply Jolon Lake for virtually everyone that knew him.
The old truck shimmied as he slowed below fifty. When he emerged from the fog, he was at Eklutna Village. The couches where the "Couch People" sat throughout the summer were covered with hoarfrost. Silhouetted against the faint starlight, they looked like tombstones. The somewhat eerie sight started him musing about the villagers who sat on these discarded sofas along the Eklutna hillside. In the long summer twilight, they watched the city folks dashing back and forth.
We must seem like aliens — going nowhere like a bat out of hell. All locked up in our steel and plastic capsules while the short and splendid summer slips away.
These so called “Couch People” exuded an almost mystical quality. They appeared as silent sentinels on the frontier between Anchorage and the “real” Alaska. The sofas and couches that defined them sat on a ridge about a hundred yards from the Glen Highway. Because of this distance, and the speed of the passing traffic, it was impossible to discern the features of the individuals who occupied the couches: but you could feel their eyes. Lake had often felt a mental contact as he passed; neither probing nor bonding — a touch, a presence — benign yet disturbing.
I always feel like an alien around here, he thought. Maybe we are. It is strange how many people returning from the Valley mention the people on the couches. But despite the odd circumstances, nobody jokes about them. Well, reincarnationists and “new agers” argue that our spirits gradually evolve over many lifetimes. Maybe the Couch People are "evolved" and just sit there watching us citified critters rushing painfully through another lifespan.
Lake winced, and thought of his ex-wife. Rita, Rita, Rita, you got me thinking like you, dear! But there's no one to tell. The tug of loneliness was quickly pushed aside by acceleration and thoughts of village life.
Lake often marveled at the Inupiat elders in northern Alaska who could reach a consensus with little or no verbal discourse. He wouldn't exactly characterize it as telepathy, but it was certainly communication that required little if any speech. He wondered if the Couch People stripped of abstraction and distraction, somehow made a mental contact with passersby as easily and naturally as inhaling the salt sea breeze from off Cook Inlet.
Lake knew, without investigation, but with certainty, that the Couch People were elders. He could feel their eyes; the melancholy eyes of age and wisdom. He supposed that the people in Eklutna knew them. They certainly had names, and families — and histories that should be known to all in the village; but perhaps not. The village was close to Anchorage, and many of the villagers had undoubtedly adopted the pace and complexities of the city.
With the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the subsequent formation of Native regional and village corporations, some villages near urban and governmental centers had rushed into modernization and the business world. In these Villages, Lake had watched the elders retreat into a quiet world of reflection. They acted as mentors to a chosen few, but largely ignored everyone else — Native and non-Native. However, if one were patient, respectful, and silent (especially silent) — tough enough for a white man, let alone a lawyer — wisdom would be shared; sometimes with quiet resignation, often in sadness, but never in anger — and always with reverence for the past, and the web of continuity that binds Native people with their history, and the physical and spiritual world around them.
The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service declared an area in Northeastern Alaska near abandoned. This determination was made because the Native people of that region, the Kaktovikmiut, no longer maintained dwellings there. Lake knew that the Native people, however, considered the country fully occupied by the spirits of those Kaktovikmiut who had lived there previously — those that were — those that are — those that will be — all part of a tangible whole that transcends religious and philosophical abstraction. Like most highly evolved spiritual phenomena, it is totally incomprehensible to modern white people.
Evolved spirits? Yes, in many ways. And Jolon, old boy, when was the last time you were patient — or silent for that matter?
Oblivious to ice fog, moose and frost heaves, he accelerated out into the Eklutna Flats. In the emptiness and cold the present had no special hold. The past, present and future were all equally accessible. He drifted in a silent world devoid of physical features, where demons and dreams skirted the edges of reality. Having lost its moorings, his mind sought refuge in memories of happier times, when he was filled with life, love, and the silence born of awe and inspiration.
The Eklutna Flats were less than ten miles long. But in the winter darkness — cloaked, as they invariable were, in drifting snow or ice fog from the Knik and Matanuska Rivers — they seemed endless. Lake pressed on. In a newer vehicle Lake would have feared falling asleep at the wheel. His old Ranger pickup made this unlikely. It yawed and veered continually as it hit frost heaves and slipped in and out of the grooves worn in the ice and asphalt by the studded tires of vehicles with a narrower wheel base.
The gusting winds, a constant presence on the Flats, added to the instability — and the cold. At ten below zero it didn't take much of a breeze to depress the chill factor to dangerous levels. The boot on the pickup's four-wheel drive transfer case was missing, and only Lake's army surplus "bunny boots" saved his feet from frostbite. As he approached the midpoint on the Flats, the road was glazed from ice fog. Between the ice and gusting winds, Lake felt like he was in a sailing vessel — tacking to and fro, just barely in control.
Lake was looking forward to visiting Sultana Lake. It had been seven years since he had been involved in rural affairs. Except for reputation and his old pickup, he had precious little to show for his stint in private practice. Lake did not feel good about himself or his work. To be sure, there were little victories, and the goodwill resulting from the services that he provided to a small group of cherished clients. But by and large he was unfulfilled — personally, professional, socially — you name it. Only his hockey sustained him — it had not always been so.
The decade Lake spent providing legal services to villagers throughout Alaska as a staff attorney for Alaska Village Advocates had been the happiest and most professionally fulfilling period of his life. Of course, it was no longer the "bush" — to be politically correct it, was now "rural Alaska." Lake chuckled — I'll bet it still looks like the bush — no cows, no orchards and no tractors! Most village youngsters still found cows, pigs and horses to be the "exotic" animals at the zoo. Moose bears, and caribou were commonplace in Alaska — but a Holstein — now that was far out.
Or "phat” — or "awesome" — or whatever the hell kids say nowadays. God I must have been an officious pain in the ass when I was younger! It's probably a good thing that I burned out when I did. Too much "relevance" is bad for the soul. Not to mention the wallet.
Maybe I should have gone back to Minnesota. Yah sure — by golly — you betcha!
Lake chuckled to himself. Nobody ever went back to Minnesota. Not from Alaska anyway. It was too damn cold in Minnesota.
* * *
The Kashwitna Roadhouse smelled of steam, sweat and sourdough pancakes. It was just the sensory jolt that Lake needed after four hours of mock space travel. The dining room was crowded, but there was a small unoccupied table crammed into the corner near the entrance to the kitchen. Lake threw his parka on top of the pile of coats under the full coat hooks, untucked his flannel shirt, and pulled off his bunny boots. He was already sweating and didn't want to freeze once he got back into the truck; yet another reason to avoid the dreaded long johns.
As he squeezed behind the table, the reason it was empty became quickly apparent. The steam wafting from the kitchen bore the overpowering odor of Pine Sol and Clorox. Lake's taste buds, which had blossomed at the smell of fresh sourdough, instantly withered in the presence of these universal bush disinfectants. He glanced at the coffee-stained menu, more out of habit than interest. Other than the prices nothing had changed in years. The white out under the prices looked a half an inch thick; a testament to the stability of ownership and the decline of the dollar.
As he tried to get the attention of the waitress, Lake made brief eye contact with a young Native woman. She quickly looked away. She was seated with two male companions at a table under a stuffed moose head. The moose had a cigarette wedged in its mouth that made it look almost as ridicules as the famous smoking camel.
Normally Lake would have lapsed into a mental lament concerning the tackiness of stuffed animals in general, and moose in particular, but he was again diverted by the attractive, and intriguing, Indian woman who kept glancing his way. He noted that she had a pretty, if somewhat gaunt, face, that was framed by luxurious raven-black hair that fell to her waist. Her figure was concealed by bulky winter clothing, but her face augured slenderness. She looked to be in her early thirties; not entirely out of Lake’s relationship range. Her male companions were thin with shoulder-length black hair. They appeared to be about the same age as the woman, and possibly related.
Lake's observations were interrupted by the waitress, a big woman who would not be rushed, even if she were capable of it. She was what some of his less couth hockey buddies would describe as a "no knuckle woman." Lake ate here often during the fishing season, and he knew her laugh was as big as her girth. Besides, in the bush dependability and endurance always counted for more than speed and appearance. She had been here almost as long as the menus and was equally as well entrenched.
"How you doing, Sal?"
"Without as usual — you offerin?"
"Sure — but you better feed me first. I'm feeling pretty puny!"
"Aw, you're too skinny for me anyway, Big City! What'll it be?" She took his order for a short stack of sourdough blueberry pancakes, poured thick black coffee into a stained mug, and departed.
As soon as the waitress left, the Native woman came over to Lake's table. She did not look him in the eye while she addressed him — a mark of respect in many Native cultures that Whites often misinterpreted as timidity or deviousness.
"Hi. Our car broke down and we need to get to Hunter Creek. Can you help us out?"
Lake was surprised. He didn't think there was a Native community at Hunter Creek. It was possible that they had a land allotment in the area. It was also possible they merely had a vehicle parked there. It didn't matter — he wanted to accommodate her, and by Alaskan custom would have given them a ride if he wanted to or not.
"Sure — but I've got an old pickup. It'll be a tight squeeze to get you all in."
"We don't mind. It sure beats walking. Where you headed?"
"Talkeetna, but that's okay."
Hunter Creek was about fifteen miles farther north than the Talkeetna spur road, but Lake didn't mind doubling back. He would enjoy the company.
"Well, we sure appreciate it." She paused and crinkled her nose. "It smells kinda bad over here! Why don't you join us?"
Lake had always been attracted to women who could wiggle their nose — this was no exception. He also welcomed the opportunity to get away from the kitchen odors. Doubly delighted, he grabbed his coffee and followed her back to her table where she introduced her companions.
"This is my brother Daryl." Lake shook hands with the man to his left.
She pointed to the young man on the right.
“This is my cousin Clarence." Lake shook his hand. He had a light but firm grip like his cousin.
"And I'm Alex."
Smiling, she extended her hand. She had a firm but nonetheless feminine handshake. Her eyes met his and held. It was he who looked away as he slowly released his grip. He found himself totally disarmed.
"I'm Jolon Lake."
He instantly regretted using his full name. It was needlessly formal and made him feel like a lawyer. And he hated feeling like a lawyer.
“My friends call me Jolon.”
Okay, Jolon — compound the error, why don’t you? He did.
“Calls me Jolon that is.” Duhh — from snob to buffoon! Lake could tell he was on a roll — all downhill.
Lake took the open chair next to "cousin" Daryl and tried again.
"Is Alex short for something else?"
"Alexandra — but Alex is what everybody calls me, Mr. Lake."
Ouch! Lake considered asking her whether the "Mr." was for age or status, but thought better of it. This was not the time for word games.
"Did you all grow up at Hunter Creek? There doesn't appear to be very many people there."
"We grew up in the area. I've been away off and on — to college and for work on some jobs in Anchorage and Juneau — that kind of thing. The guys commercial fish, but we always end up back here.”
“Was there a ‘Tanaina’ village in this area?”
Lake was curious but hoped she didn’t think he was trying to impress her with his knowledge of the Native groups.
“There were several around here,” she replied. “They moved around a lot in the old days. ‘Tanaina’ is more a word for anthropologist though. I prefer ‘Dena’ina.’ We’re from the ‘Dunena’ band from the middle Susitna River.”
“That’s good to know about ‘Dena’ina.’ I’ve seen maps that have most of Cook Inlet and the Susitna Drainage marked Tanaina.”
“Maps are okay for showing lands and rivers and things — not much good for people,” she replied. “Up near Talkeetna you had the Mountain People, the ‘Dghelay The’ana,’ both ‘Dena’ina’ and ‘Ahtna.’ People around here don’t know about this stuff. Don’t care really — you from Anchorage?"
"Yeah. Does it show that much?"
"A little bit — not much though. I wouldn't call you ‘Big City’ — but I don't know you. Are you?"
Lake was pleased that she had been interested enough to ease drop.
"No. I'm from rural Minnesota originally. I hope some of it stuck. I certainly don't want to get too citified."
"It doesn't matter. If you were from around here, I wouldn't have asked you for a ride — and you probably wouldn't have given me one if I did."
Lake considered delving into the reasoning behind her last statement, but the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of his pancakes. The look of censure in Sal's eyes as she curtly slapped his bill on the table provided an obvious explanation for Alex's statement. On reflection, Lake had never seen a Native person in this establishment. Now he knew why.
Lake had received similar looks in Tok years ago when he had tried to check into a lodge with some of his Native clients following a regional meeting of village elders. He hoped this attitude would pass — there obviously was a way to go.
Despite his verbal fumbling, Lake felt some magic in meeting Alex. It was gone now. He turned to his pancakes. They were excellent, but no amount of coffee or syrup could get them down. He resolved that they would be the last things he would ever buy at the Kashwitna Roadhouse.
* * *
The Wells Air Beaver used surprisingly little of the Talkeetna runway before laboring into the air. Heavy and stubby, the Beaver did not have the streamlined look of a Cessna or Beechcraft, but it got up in a hurry with a heavy load and was a trusted bush workhorse. This particular plane had seen six decades of service in Alaska and would undoubtedly see several more — that is, if it didn’t clip a mountain top or belly into the muskeg.
The airplane's reputation for performance and reliability was lost on Lake, however. Strapped in the co-pilot’s seat, he was reliving a nearly disastrous landing in a Beaver that had occurred during his hunting trip in the Copper River area the previous fall.
Lake and four hunting companions had been weathered in at a moose camp at a small lake near the Bering Glacier. Wind and fog had prevented their departure for five days beyond their scheduled pickup date. On the sixth day the fog lifted enough for the air taxi service to land a Beaver on floats. Since he had a trial the following day, Lake had prevailed upon his companions to let him accompany the moose meat out on the first trip.
As they lifted off the lake, the weather was closing in again. By the time the Beaver arrived at Cordova, the winds at the landing site on Eyak Lake were gusting in excess of sixty knots. Because it was on floats, the Beaver could not land at the Cordova Airport. To exacerbate an already dangerous situation, it did not have enough fuel to travel north to Valdez. The pilot had no choice but to set down in the heavy seas and pray that the floats, if they were not ripped off by the impact, would not dig in causing the Beaver to violently nose over into the water.
The whine of the engine as the pilot adjusted the pitch of the prop momentarily brought Lake back to the present. The Beaver bounced and yawed in turbulence over the Susitna River. As Lake looked down into the braided black waters and gravel bars, he had a vivid recollection of the feeling of helplessness that swept over him that past September, when he had looked down into the cold and angry waters of Eyak Lake with disaster imminent. He had wondered then how he'd ever get his large ass out the Beaver's tiny door when he was upside down and under water.
The pilot had been a young Cheechako out of California whose sloppy landing and takeoff at the moose camp had done little to instill confidence in his passenger. It was not, therefore, totally unexpected — although still terrifying, when the pilot began muttering a short death mantra of, "Oh my God we're gonna die - we're gonna die - we're gonna die!" At this point Lake felt light in the head and weak in the bladder — and very much alone. “Extreme unction” came to mind — as did the melody to the "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Just as the plane's floats were poised to touch down on top of a frothing swell, it was hit by a gusting crosswind that thrust the starboard wing high into the air. The moose meat that had not been properly secured rolled onto the left side of the plane. This further depressed the port wing and it commenced to skim the wave tops. As Lake braced for the expected impact, the plane pivoted tightly on its port wing and miraculously righted itself when struck by the wind as it came around 180 degrees.
The Beaver smashed into a wave top cracking both floats and Lake's nose. A lesser plane would have disintegrated under such punishment, but the Beaver held together, although it took on water in both floats. The pilot, who apparently had little to do with the landing in light of the fetal position he had assumed just prior to impact, was able to pull himself together enough to power the Beaver onto a nearby rocky shoal. He and Lake bailed out into pounding surf from which Lake escaped with a sprained ankle and skinned knee, to go along with his broken nose.
Lake had gotten way drunk that night — too drunk. He had taken a young Native girl he had met in the hotel lounge back to his room. She had been as drunk and willing, as he was drunk and needy. Somehow through the alcohol haze, he realized that he did not approve of old white guys taking advantage of young Native women. Unable to give into his carnal needs, he had pulled back at the last possible instant, leaving her feeling rejected and miserable and he sordid and mean. Stumbling over stereotypes, he had attempted to maintain political correctness, and instead had perpetrated a personal affront.
The entire trip had been a disaster. Even the moose meat turned out tough and rancid. Some disasters can be savored, and upon reflection, enhancement, and seasoning, they become treasured adventures that live on in family lore. This was not one of them. The whole affair was a blight on Lake's soul.
Lake was suddenly jolted into the present as the Beaver banked into a hard-left turn. He fought to swallow his stomach which had seemingly risen somewhere between his throat and the plane’s right ski which was looming over his shoulder. The pilot pointed out the left-side window that was now below Lake.
“Look at those sons a bitches! Fucking miserable ruthless bastards!”
He pulled into a tight figure eight so that Lake could take a look. In the center of a small clearing, or frozen lake, that was surrounded by stunted spruce, a bull moose stood with his legs splayed and his head down. There were six canine figures lying in a circle around the exhausted moose. Wolves! In all of his years flying or hiking in the bush, Lake had never seen a wolf pack. He had caught a glimpse of a solitary animal on a few occasions, but nothing like this. The scene below was at once appalling and enthralling.
“I’d buzz the bastards but that old guy’s a goner anyway.”
Lake agreed with the pilot’s assessment. The snow was red with blood that streamed from the bull’s hind legs. His hamstrings had undoubtedly been severely damaged by the wolves’ sharp canines ripping at his flanks. The wolves were patient. They sensed that the moose would soon succumb to fatigue and loss of blood. There was no need to risk injury. While the bull had shed his antlers, his slashing hooves could still do damage.
“It’s disgusting — a Fucking shame! I know a dozen guys who would pay ten thousand bucks for the rack that bull would carry next fall!”
Ah money, that’s what it always comes down to! Lake thought. He merely shrugged. There was no sense in starting an argument. The pilot took Lake’s gesture as agreement and swung the plane back on course toward Sultana. Besides, Lake didn’t like what he was observing either.
Since moving to Alaska, he had been fascinated by wolves and read all the available literature about them. Aside from the scientific treatises by naturalists like Olaf Murie, the literature separated out into pro- and anti-wolf factions. The anti-wolf books focused on the depredations of wolves on domestic and “game” animals. The pro-wolf books featured the nurturing habits of families and the amiable social lives of the wolf pack. Scenes such as that being played out in blood-stained snow below were not included in the latter category.
Lake doubted that the bull would make it until spring anyway. It had been a bad winter for moose. The emaciated condition of this one indicated that the unusually deep snow had taken its toll on his condition. Rutting bulls entered winter with their energy reserves low and were more susceptible to starvation and wolves than cows or young bulls.
Perhaps it would have been better to be blown away by a well-placed 220-grain slug. However, Lake had seen few one-shot kills on moose and had himself gut shot a moose that stepped forward just as he pulled the trigger. That was indeed a disgusting sight, and one that, in spite of his fondness for moose meat, had ended his moose hunting for good. There is no easy way for wild animals to die, and he did not want to be another loathsome alternative.
Lake stared out the window. The bull’s harem was dispersed throughout foothills. Each cow was carrying his genes — nature’s consolation to the breeding bulls that made it to the rutting season without being shot. In this respect starvation and wolves were a far better option for the species than a rifle slug.
Well shot, starved, or ripped to death by wolves — there’s no easy way for a moose to die. Sorry big guy!
Trying to put the desperate scene out of his mind, Lake focused on the stark mountains on either side of the small plane. Staring at the bleak landscape, a deep yearning arose within him. It was a feeling of awe and emptiness, tinged, as well, with melancholy and loneliness.
Robert Service called this feeling of love, longing, and dread, the “Spell of the Yukon” — a spell that transported men into reverie, melancholy, and often, madness. Not every person feels the spell, only those who are touched by the country and feel their spirits leaking out into its vastness. On lonely lakes throughout the Interior, the summer call of the Arctic loon echoes in these stricken souls. Locals say that once you have heard this call, you will forever return. Lake had heard the call many times. He wondered if it was a blessing or a curse.
His mind turned to the young Dena’ina woman at the Kashwitna Roadhouse. A missed opportunity. He wished he could replay the whole scene, but life moved relentlessly forward. In many ways this was an outcast land. It was stark, beautiful and deadly. He was not sure he chose it, or it chose him. He knew that if he allowed himself to drift, he was doomed. Salvation was not in law or politics. Without a quest, the sourdoughs of yore were lost. The woman was an oasis of warmth in a frozen wilderness of his own making. He resolved to find her. He had his vision, and his quest.