I was born at a gold mine. I was raised at a gold mine. I hate gold mining. When I was seventeen I joined the Marines so I would never have to work at a gold mine again. So, now, it struck me as kind of ironic that there was a pretty good chance I was about to be killed over a gold mine.
My grandparents came on the boat from Ireland. My parents were raised in Chicago and that’s where they lived until they heard about Alaska. They came here ten years before the Klondike Gold Rush and staked a claim at Fortymile. They didn’t get rich but they did make money. In fact, they never did get caught up in the Klondike madness. By the time the Klondike Gold Strike occurred, they were already experienced miners. They knew if you weren't on the site or very nearby when the discovery was made, you were unlikely to stake a claim that ever produced any real pay dirt. Besides they were already making money at Fortymile.
After the mine at Fortymile played out, my parents moved on to Tanana. After that they went to the Teklanika River. They struck gold again in Chena Shore. After that mine played out, they came here to a tributary of the Susitna River.
My parents staked this claim in 1917 while I was in Europe fighting the Hun. They worked it for a summer, made good money and decided to spend the winter in Chicago to visit family. They got there just in time for the outbreak of Spanish Flu, which killed both of them.
When I got back from Europe, I found I had inherited a mine that I had no interest in working. I drifted around Alaska a bit and finally settled in Chena Shore where eventually I became a US Marshal. Two years ago in thirty-six, I came across two out-of-luck miners, Abe and Charlie. I made them a deal. If they worked my mine, I would split the profits 50-50. That deal has worked out pretty well for all of us until spring of this year.
Four Chechakos bought out the claim next to mine and came to work it expecting, I guess, to get rich. Well, if they had asked me I could have told them there wasn’t any gold there, but they didn’t. As the summer wore on, they worked closer and closer to my claim until they crossed the boundary. Charlie and Abe argued with them until the guns came out and then they sent word to me. So here I was on a beautiful fall morning in the interior of Alaska. In front of me were four ugly, heavily armed men in a foul mood.
Of course, they had a right to be in a foul mood. I had just awoken them by beating on the door of their shabby little cabin with my fist. They came spilling out cursing and threatening. Three of them had sidearms, which were still holstered, and the fourth had a shotgun, which was still pointed away from me. They were angry, but not quite ready to start shooting, at least, not yet. I smiled my mean smile, the one I learned from my drill sergeant in boot camp.
“Good Morning, boys. I’m Jack Shannon. I expect you’ve heard about me.”
“Yeah,” shotgun man replied. “You are the law up in Chena Shore.”
On my left, one of the men with a pistol took a step to the side his hand resting on the butt of the gun. “You may be the law, but that don’t mean you can arrest us.”
“Actually that's just what it means. I'm a US Marshal and Alaska is a federal territory. This whole territory is my jurisdiction. So, yeah, I could arrest you if I wanted to, but I didn’t come here for that. If I arrest you, the judge up in Chena Shore will just let you out on bail. After all nobody has committed much of a crime, yet”
They began to spread out a bit. Shotgun man came closer. He seemed to be the boss. "Okay, what did you come here for?"
"I came here to reason with you."
He laughed at me. “Reason, huh? Can you think of any reason we shouldn’t kill you now?”
“I can think of one. Have a look at the stovepipe on the top of your cabin.”
Shotgun man glanced back at it. “What about it?”
I pointed at it and almost instantly there was the flat crack of a high-powered rifle. The stovepipe crumpled like it was hit with an axe. All four looked up toward the rocky slope off to my right.
Before I came over to introduce myself to my neighbors, I had taken some precautions. Having Felix on the hill with a 30.06 was one. The other was slung over my shoulder on a strap beneath my ankle-length duster. When they turned back toward me they were staring at the business end of a Thompson submachine gun.
I gave them the mean smile again. “Now boys, I wouldn’t recommend trying to kill me. In fact, if I were you, I would be putting my weapons on the ground, real gentle like. Right now.”
They set their guns on the ground carefully. I waved with the Tommy gun and they took a couple of steps back. “Thanks, now let me explain my reasoning and you tell me what you think. You gents seem a little young to have fought in the war, so chances are you haven’t had a chance to see a machine gun in action.”
I took a couple steps to the right to clear my line of fire and turned the chopper loose on their cabin. In about the time it takes to work up a good sneeze, I dumped half the drum into their shack. There wasn’t a whole lot left when I was done. The door was off its hinges. All the windows were shattered. The big .45 slugs had gone through both sides of the building. In some places I could see daylight.
I turned to face them, the chopper not quite pointed at them. “Alright boys, I know you’re new to the North. Let me explain some things to you. First about gold mining,” I pointed past my claim to the river in the distance, “Back in 1916, prospectors found gold in that river. By the time my parents got here all the claims along the riverbank were already taken. But a good prospector knows that rivers move. My father was a very good prospector. He knew that in a flat glacial valley like this,” I waved my left hand to encompass the whole valley, “over a period of thousands of years that the river would meander around the valley floor. He did some surveying and he did some guessing and he staked his claim. He got it right. Right there along the line where our claims meet is the outermost edge of the old riverbank. You dig down on my claim and you will hit the old riverbed and find gold. Dig here on your claim and you get the old riverbank and find mud. On a lot of claims between my claim and the river, miners found gold. Out beyond my claim none.”
Shotgun guy chipped in, “The guy who sold us our claim said you were taking gold out of your claim. Charlie and Abe are working every goddamned day.”
“That’s right; my parents only worked it for a short while before they died. Nobody touched it until Charlie and Abe got here. Everything else has been mined, but your claim never was worth the effort. There never was any gold there and there never will be.” I could tell they were starting to get it, to understand that all their work was for nothing. They looked frustrated, angry. I saw the guy on my right the checking the rocky slope looking for Felix. Things were about to go to hell, fast.
With my left hand, I pulled a small leather pouch out of the pocket of my duster and tossed it at the feet of shotgun man.
He looked at it. “What’s that?”
“More gold that you’ll ever get out of that claim and way more than it’s worth. I’m buying you out.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I can’t leave you here so I have to either buy you out or kill you. I’ve killed enough men. Don’t mean I won’t do it again, but it does mean I won’t do if I don’t have to.”
Shotgun man looked at the pouch, “How much is in there?”
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Nate, it doesn’t really matter how much is in there, now does it? It’s more than you’ll ever get mining your claim and you don’t have to bust your ass to get it. So what’s it going to be, you going to sell me your claim or am I going to bury you on it?”
As it turned out, they did listen to reason and sold me their claim. They packed up their meager belongings and began the long hike out to the railroad in Cantwell. I was somewhat surprised and pleased that no one had ended up dead.
Over the years I had bought out several of the other claims surrounding my parents’ original claim though I can’t say that I ever had to use a Thompson as a persuader before. For the most part folks were glad to get rid of their useless claims. Of course there are only so many gullible Chechakos running around Alaska willing to buy a worthless or played-out mine.
So now I had a spread of over a hundred acres surrounded by a whole lot of wilderness. A few years back, Felix and I had spent part of a winter mushing in supplies. Then that spring we had come down and built a nice tight little cabin on a hill near the center of my land.
That’s where I was now. Felix, Charlie, and Abe were sitting at the table. I was in my rocking chair. Against one wall was a small fireplace in which a nice fire was blazing. Against the other wall was an old Yukon stove which had probably been kicking around Alaska longer than I have. Between the stove and the fireplace, the room was warm and cheerful.
On the Yukon stove there was a large coffeepot from which, from time to time, we all filled our cups leaving room for a nice shot from the bottle of bourbon on the table. A kerosene lamp, also sitting on the table, shone on the faces of the men.
I was a bit tipsy. They were drunk. Felix was telling war stories. He was using his hands, moving them up and away, one hand following the other, showing the progress of a dogfight, the last dogfight we had been in back in the Great War. Felix’s story brought back those ugly memories with a sudden vividness that left me sweating a little. I shook my head and stood up. I wasn’t drunk enough to appreciate a war story.
I nodded to the boys, picked up my coffee cup, and stepped out onto the porch into the brisk night air. It was a glorious evening. The old aurora borealis flickered across much of the sky. Down south they call it the northern lights because the lights are usually seen along the northern horizon. Here in Alaska they can appear anywhere in the sky and can last for hours.
It looked like tonight’s show was going to be a good one. The lights were centered directly overhead, going almost from horizon to horizon. It looked like some ancient god had pulled a vast, green curtain across the starlit sky. I took a sip of coffee, leaned against the post of the porch, and looked north.
My cabin sits on a little hill so I had a good view all around. In the distance the Susitna River was a pale ribbon stretching across the darkened tundra. To the far north, the snow-covered Alaska Range glimmered against the night sky. I sipped my coffee and admired the world.
The door behind me opened. Felix stepped out closing the door behind him. He looked around and said, “Magnificent,” in that beautiful accent of his. Felix was born to great wealth in Puerto Rico. He lived there until he was twelve years old and then he was sent to a boarding school in Spain. When he was ready for college, his parents sent him to Columbia University in New York City. The war started soon after that and Felix joined up to fight the Hun. He speaks Spanish with a perfect Castilian accent. He speaks English with a Spanish accent that seems to make the women melt.
We met on an airfield in France. Felix was my tail gunner in almost every combat mission I flew during the war. After the war we kicked around Europe for a while. We were quite the pair in the salons of post-war Europe, the Yankee from Alaska and the urbane Spanish aristocrat. After we wore out our welcome on the Continent, I convinced Felix to come back with me and see Alaska.
We stood together for a moment in a companionable silence. Then Felix spoke into the darkness, “Does it bother you when I tell war stories?”
I shrugged, “Sometimes.”
“Because it brings back memories?”
“Sometimes, but actually today I think it was the gunplay. Something about the sound of a machine gun hammering away gets to me.”
Felix nodded, “But it’s better when the bullets aren’t coming toward you.”
I laughed, “Yeah, that’s definitely better.”
Felix turned back toward the cabin. He dug around in his pockets and pulled out some rolling papers and a bag of tobacco. In the light coming through the window, he proceeded to roll a cigarette, which he then passed to me. As he was rolling a second one, he said in Spanish. “You are soft like a little girl. I don’t know why I put up with you.”
I barked a laugh and replied to him in my broken Spanish. I described his mother’s previous career in a less than reputable line of work. He nodded gravely and placed the cigarette in his mouth. While he was searching his pockets, I struck a match against the porch railing and lit his cigarette while he inhaled. Then I lit my own. We stood there for a while enjoying our smokes and looking at the sky.
Suddenly a section of the green curtain faded and a bright red lance of light shot out from it toward the northern horizon. I caught my breath; Felix whistled. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “I never imagined there could be a place like this. I’m glad you talked me into coming here.”
The next morning dawned bright and sunny. I got up first, put some more wood in the stove, and got the coffee going. On my way to the outhouse, I paused a moment to take in the scenery. It was autumn in the interior of Alaska and the view before me was a riot of colors in shades from gold to scarlet. From the vantage point of my little hilltop, I could see much of the Susitna River Valley spread out below me. The landscape was divided between taiga along valley floor and tundra on the hillsides.
Taiga is an old Russian word meaning something like "little sticks". The taiga is basically a forest of little trees mostly conifers, spruce and pine, with some birch and aspen thrown into the mix. Because of the extreme climate none of these trees grow to their full heights. The conifers, of course, stay green all year round, but the birch and aspen turn golden this time of year.
You get tundra on land that has permafrost under it. The permafrost makes it virtually impossible for anything with deep roots to grow. So tundra is made up of shrubs and dwarf trees. This time of year, it is much more colorful than the taiga. The leaves of the tundra shrubs turn lots of shades of red and scarlet. It's like a mountainside in a New England autumn but in miniature.
To the north, the Alaska Range stretched across the horizon reaching impossibly high into the perfectly blue sky. This time of year the snow level on the mountains reached almost to their bases. The range was a wall of white, rearing nearly twenty thousand feet into the air. No matter how many times I saw it, I never got use to it.
After I finished my business, I got breakfast started. Sourdough pancakes and moose bacon were on the menu today. The sourdough starter was courtesy of Charlie; I borrowed some of his last night. When the coffee was ready, I poured myself a cup. About that time, Felix walked in from the bunkroom and without saying a word, took the cup from my hand and took a sip. "You're welcome," I said.
He waved me off and took a seat at the table. On the best of days, Felix was not a morning person. After a night of drinking, he was downright grumpy. Just as I was putting the first of the pancakes on a plate in front of Felix, Charlie and Abe walked in the door.
Charlie and Abe have a little cabin they built down on the flat below right by the claim they were working; it pays to keep a close eye on a gold mine. Abe had dismounted the scope and was carrying the 30.06 rifle over his left shoulder. He propped it up in a corner. They both came over, helped themselves to a cup of coffee, and took seats at the table.
I tipped my head toward the rifle in the corner. Abe nodded, "There's a grizz down on the bank down by the river, a big boar. It's better to be safe than sorry."
I nodded agreement. It was blueberry season. The bears were pretty content to graze on blueberries all day, so they weren't much of a threat. Of course, “not much of a threat” doesn't mean “no threat”. So, like he said, it’s better to be safe. You don’t get many chances to make a second mistake up here in the North.
The bears weren’t the only ones enjoying blueberry season. We had all spent a little time yesterday afternoon picking berries. I had mixed in a generous amount with the pancake batter so the flapjacks were especially tasty this morning. The boys were finishing them off as fast as I could get them off the griddle.
After a while, Felix got up and took my place at the stove and I took his place at the table. Pretty soon, we had all packed away about as much breakfast as we could hold. Then we all took our coffee cups outside and sat on the benches on the porch out front. Felix and I took the right-hand bench; Charlie and Abe took the other.
It was cool outside, just a few degrees above freezing, but we were dressed for it. Besides it was hard to stay inside on a day like today. I took a sip of coffee and said, “It looks like we're coming up on the end of the mining season real soon. Where are you boys at?”
Abe spoke up; he mostly did the talking for the two. “We finished digging last week. We figured another week to run everything we got left through the sluice box. Then, maybe, another week after that to shut everything down.”
I nodded, “You two planning on coming back next summer?”
They looked at each other a moment and then Charlie said, “Yeah, we figure one more summer and then it’ll be about played out. Assuming that’s still okay with you.”
“Everything has worked out fine for me. I’d be happy to have you back. I tell you what. In a couple of weeks I’ll fly back down. I’ll leave the tail gunner here behind.” I jerked a thumb at Felix beside me on the bench. “Then I can fly you both out one at a time to the railhead in Cantwell. Save you the walk.”
They both smiled. “Thanks,” Abe said, “We sure weren’t looking forward to that hike out.”
“Where are you boys going to winter over? Are you going Outside?” “Outside” is a purely Alaskan term for pretty much the rest of the world. So basically I was asking them if they were leaving Alaska.
Charlie nodded, “I’m from San Fran. We figured we head there. I’d visit my folks. Then we could find a couple of gals to help us spend some of our gold.”
Felix laughed, “If you’re looking for women to help you spend your money, San Francisco is a good place to look.”
I tipped my head toward Felix. “He’s speaking from experience.” They both laughed. Felix grinned. I continued, “About that bear, where did you see him?”
Abe spoke up, “We saw him down on the riverbed, looked like he was headed toward that claim you just bought. Are you going to shoot him?”
I shook my head. “Once we get airborne, I’ll just buzz him, chase him off. Ain’t no point in killing him if we don’t have too.” Charlie and Abe looked at me funny. “What?” I asked.
Abe shrugged. “We just thought since you’re from Alaska and all, you’d be a big time hunter, but you don’t show no interest in it.”
“When I was a kid I hunted quite a bit, you know, to put meat on the table.” I laughed, “And so I wouldn’t have to work the mine.” I shrugged. “After the war… Well let’s just say, I’ve seen enough of death and dying. More than enough.”
Beside me Felix spoke, “Amen to that.”
I stood up and emptied the rest of my cup onto the tundra. “Let’s get going. Time to quit talking about it and start doing it.”
Being a Marine taught me two things, I hate war and I love flying. I got hooked on flying after boot camp. The members of my graduating class were all on leave from Quantico in Virginia. Being so far from home, I had no place to go so I was killing time in the little town next to the base. One night at a local watering hole, I heard about a pilot using a farmer’s field as a landing strip and taking people on a ride for a dollar.
Norman Phelps was the pilot’s name. I took my first ride with him in a beautiful 1915 Curtis Jenny. For fifteen fabulous minutes we soared through the skies and buzzed neighboring farms. I spent the rest of my leave and all my Marine Corps wages taking my first flying lessons from Norman.
When America entered the war, I used every ounce of guile I had to finagle my way into Marine flight school. When I went to Europe in 1918, it was as an aviator for the First Marine Aviation Force. My assignment was to be the pilot of a De Havilland DH4 equipped for bombing and reconnaissance.
Let me say whatever you may have heard about the romance and chivalry of the air war in Europe, it’s a lie. It was murder in the sky. The best technique to shoot down an enemy’s plane was to slip up on the plane’s six and start shooting before the pilot even knew you were there. If you were lucky, he would be dead before he found out. It had all the romance of cutting somebody’s throat in a dark alley.
Every pilot I met in my squadron when I arrived in France died during the war most of them in the first year. I survived for three reasons. The first is luck, plain and simple. The second is I am a natural-born pilot. The third is because I drew Felix Alvarez as my tail gunner. If I was a natural-born pilot, Felix was a natural-born marksman. With a pistol, with a rifle, or a .30 caliber Lewis machine gun, Felix was the best shot I ever saw. Time and again, Felix shot down or scared off any enemy planes that came up behind us or above us. Together we survived a war that killed thousands of other crews like us.
You might think with all my ugly memories of the air war, I would never want to fly again, but you would be wrong. Even now after all the time I have spent in the cockpit of an airplane, it still gives me a little leap of excitement every time I see a plane, especially if it’s my plane. The Sanctuary was my plane and she was a beauty.
I said I was born at a gold mine and that’s true. I was born on the banks of the Teklanika River about fifty miles east of here. The Teklanika flows north draining parts of McKinley Park and eventually merging with the Nenana River. I was born right at the confluence of the Teklanika and Savage River, a smaller tributary. My parents were prospecting at the time and had found a promising stretch of the Teklanika. They built a little cabin there while they waited for me to arrive on the scene. I have named all my planes from the rivers around where I was born.
The first plane I flew in wartime France. I named it the Savage, which seemed appropriate for its purpose. The first plane I owned and the one Felix and I used to knock around post-war Europe, I called the Teklanika. The plane before me, I bought when Felix and I returned to the states. I bought it in Chicago and then we flew it up to Alaska. I named it the Sanctuary, which is also the name of the river that joined the Teklanika just a little further south than the Savage. That name also seemed to sum up how I felt about coming home.
At the bottom of the south side of the hill I built my cabin on, there is a little glacial pond. It was just large enough to land a floatplane on its surface. That’s where the Sanctuary sat tied up at a little dock I built for just that purpose. There was also a little shed there that I used to store extra fuel and maintenance supplies for the plane.
The four of had tromped down the hill after breakfast. Felix and I were headed back to Chena Shore. Charlie and Abe had tagged along to see us off. Felix had disassembled the Thompson and stored it in a small case for the flight. Since we were headed home, we didn’t have a lot of extra cargo. Felix and I were dressed for the cold. It was nippy here at ground level. At five thousand feet and with a hundred mile an hour wind, it was easy to get frostbite if you weren’t careful.
Sanctuary looked especially beautiful in the late morning light. Her fuselage and struts were painted a deep, glossy blue. Her wings and engine cowling were painted gold. All the lettering and trim was black. The propeller was natural wood with several layers of shellac. The leading edge of the prop was painted with little silver triangles pointed in the direction of the spin. We all stood there and admired her for a moment.
Charlie whistled in appreciation. “She sure is pretty. Is this the same type of plane you flew in the war?”
“It’s a DH4m, an updated version. The main difference is that it’s constructed of fabric over tubular steel instead of wood. It’s a lot tougher and more resilient.”
Felix laughed and pointed at a section of the upper wing in front of the pilot’s seat. He said, “The first model we flew during the war use to have an auxiliary fuel tank right there. If it got hit, it leaked gas right down onto the engine, which, of course, caught fire. The boys use to call them flaming coffins. I’m kind of glad they fixed that.”
I nodded, “Me too. The other change they made was just as important. The main fuel tank used to sit between the two cockpits. It made it difficult for the pilot to talk to the gunner. Worse yet, in a crash, the tank would slide forward and crush the pilot. So now they moved that tank forward so it sits behind the engine and the two cockpits are behind it and closer to each other. Of course, the worse thing of all is that it doesn’t have any guns. I think Felix still feels a little insecure without his Lewis Gun.”
Felix smiled, “Damned straight. I still find myself checking my six. Even after all these years.”
I put on my best British accent, “Good Lad, keep your head on a swivel.”
Felix nodded, “Old Captain Potter, I haven’t thought about him in a long time.” Charlie and Abe looked perplexed. Felix explained. “Potter was a R.A.F. pilot. The English sent him to us to help train us for combat. He used to say stuff like that.”
They didn’t look like they quite got it so I elaborated a little. “Potter was a little eccentric. He was also once a goddamned good pilot. Crashed his plane on takeoff though and got burned pretty badly. Also got his right hand crushed. So he got stuck with training new pilots.”
Charlie nodded, “Okay, but what’s that business about keeping your head on a swivel?”
Felix looked at me and shrugged, so I took the question. “Most new combat pilots got killed not because the other pilot was better, but because they let him sneak up on them. You’ve got to keep looking all around you from the time you take off till the time you land. You’ve seen the pictures of the pilots with the silk scarves.”
Charlie and Abe nodded. I continued, “Those scarves were there to prevent your neck from being rubbed raw by constantly turning you head back and forth. It was the only way to stay alive. Of course, it was a little easier for me because I always had someone else to check my six.” I put my hand on Felix’s shoulder. “Come on, Gunner, let’s get some air under our wings.”
There was a gold-colored windsock atop a pole attached to the roof of the storage shed. It showed me the wind was coming from the west. So I taxied to the eastern end of the pond and turned the craft around. Over the sound of the engine I shouted back to Felix, “Ready?”
“Let’s go!” he shouted gleefully and I gunned the engine. We skidded across the pond on our floats gaining speed as we went. With just a few yards of water left, I pulled back on the stick and we lifted off. I gained about five hundred feet in altitude until we were safely above all the local hills. Then I leveled off but left the throttle set at full.
We rapidly gained speed headed west. I kept an eye on the airspeed and when we were maxed out, I pulled back sharply on the stick. We went into a hard climb and then we tipped on over so we were now flying upside down going back in the direction from which we came. Then I performed a downward half-barrel roll so that we were now upright again still going east. I looked behind me. Felix was grinning in delight. He gave me a big thumbs-up.
Over the sound of the engine, I shouted, “Bear,” and pointed at my eye and then down. Felix nodded understanding. We were back almost over my cabin so I started into a slow downward and outward spiral. After a couple of minutes Felix slapped the canvas between the cockpits to get my attention. When I turned to look, he pointed down toward the shack I had machine-gunned yesterday. Behind it a big grizzly boar was digging away at what was probably their garbage pit.
I made a blade out of my left hand and pointed it downward letting Felix know we were going to dive. He nodded understanding. Then I nosed the plane over and banked left going into a steep dive between my claim and the one next door. I got a quick glimpse of Charlie and Abe standing on the top of the hill by my cabin watching us and waving.
We were already pretty low so it wasn’t a long dive. I brought the plane down right over the streambed maybe twenty feet high and twenty yards from the bear. Almost comically, the bear whipped around, took one look at the plane zipping by, and then turned and ran like hell away from my claim.
A grizzly bear may big and roly-poly, but they are incredibly fast. A grizz has been known to run down a quarter horse, so they have plenty of quick. This bear was using all he had.
I pulled the nose of the plane up and used the added speed to do a long lazy loop coming back around at about the level of my cabin. I saw Charlie and Abe standing there still, but now they were applauding. I waggled the wings of the plane in a quick good-bye and then started gaining some altitude. I leveled out at about two thousand feet.
One of the great things about flying in Alaska is that you absolutely own the sky. I could probably pick a direction at random, fly till I ran out of gas, and never see another airplane, but since I really didn’t want to run out of gas in the middle of the Alaska wilderness, I set a course for Chena Shore. I also didn’t really want to try to fly over the Alaska Range, so instead of heading north, I checked the compass and set my course for due west.
I flew in that direction until I got in the vicinity of Cantwell. Just before I got there I saw the Nenana River and the Alaska Railroad tracks running together beneath me. I turned north and followed them toward Broad Pass, the lowest place to cross the Range. As soon as I made the turn I looked west along the southern side of the Alaska Range. On the horizon rearing above some low-lying clouds, Mount McKinley reached high into the morning sky.
A great white pyramid of rock and ice with five separate glaciers creeping down its sides, McKinley rises over twenty thousand feet and dominates the southern Alaska skyline. It can be seen from as far away as Wasilla to the south or Chena Shore to the north. The natives called it “Denali”, which means “great one” or “high one”. More often than not, Alaskans simply call it “The Mountain” for it has no equal here in the North. I looked behind me. Felix was gazing off toward the “Mountain” as well. He caught my eyes, smiled, and gave me a thumbs-up. I guess his hangover was forgotten.
I followed the river and the train tracks right past the entrance to Mount McKinley Park. Then we swept through the pass the Nenana River that cuts through the Outer Range, passed by the little coal-mining town of Healy, and then we were out on the vast open plain that lies between the Outer Range and the Tanana Hills.