Stories of Old Time Alaskans by Edward M. May
I was born in Skagway May 1st 1948 in the old White Pass Hospital. My mother’s name was Ester. I never met my father. I was in Skagway until 1959 and then moved to Haines. In 1960, I moved to Sitka with a foster parent. In 1962 my foster mother got a job teaching with the State teaching in the bush and I spent 2 winters in Nikolai. It was a new experience. Lots and lots of fun, lots to do, we picked blueberries; we hunted moose and grouse and did just about everything you do in the bush. I snared rabbits just about the whole time I was there.
I got to see the real Alaska before it became what it is today. At the time there were only three ways to get to the village of Nikolai. You either flew in, took a river boat from Medfra or when there was snow and ice you dog sledded. Now, you can snow machine, they didn’t have snow machines then. I can remember when the first snow machine came into country I never did see it. I was there but it didn’t come to Nikolai.
The first snow machine that came into country came into Bethel. We heard about it from the sourdough net, a ham radio operator network. I was sitting in the radio room one day and this guy was talking about this dog-less carriage. It didn’t have a dog for it, it had a motor on it. It was an Arctic Cat with a steering wheel.
The post office and grocery store was in Medfra. I used to have to mush dogs 13 miles to get the mail. Dogs are nice they have their good qualities and bad qualities. The best part is when you’re running dogs it’s quiet, it’s peaceful there is nothing but the bark of the dogs and the swish of the sled runner, there’s nothing like it and until you’ve experienced it you have no idea what it’s like.
I’ve run dogs at night when the Northern Lights we’re streaking across the sky red green purple and all kinds of stuff. I’ve seen St. Elmo’s fire on the bushes in the Tundra. I’ve been out with the dogs when the northern lights have been moaning and doing their thing and the dogs would lie down in the trail and wouldn’t move. It scares them. You’re out in the middle of nowhere and trying to get home, that was scary for a young man wondering what’s going on. We moved from there to a little place called Nyac and spend a year there. Then we moved to Sand Point in the Aleutian Chain. I worked at a crab cannery and when I turned sixteen I went to work on a crab boat in the gulf. It was terrible; it’s the most hazardous job in Alaska, working the high seas. I did that for one season. It was too rough for this old gray duck.
After that I lived in Fairbanks till I got drafted. One time I went out hunting with a couple of friends and two of us decided to go back to town to get some supplies. When we got back we couldn’t find our partner. We got to look around, a bear had been camp and we found where the bear had killed him. We figured that the bear came into camp looking for food and our friend came back from the moose stand and surprised the bear and there was nowhere to go.
At the time I got my draft notice I was running a trap-line, it said I had to be in such and such a place at such and such a time. So I had to pull my traps, well I didn’t get a hold of anybody I just went to go pull my traps and when I got back the MP’s were standing at the door to take me to the airplane to get my physical, cause the state troopers weren’t going to chase me all over Alaska.
The law says if you’re going to leave your line you have to pull your traps, that’s just the way it is and I wasn’t going to break the law. I got escorted to the airport. I was twenty years old. I was in ‘Nam for two and a half tours. When I got to ‘Nam, I had one chance to grow up or die, that’s it case closed. You either grew up right now or that’s it. In boot camp they pumped us up so we thought we were invincible, we couldn’t die. I came back into country at Ft Lewis and then got shipped to Ft. Carson Colorado.
I didn’t know what to do with my life so I reenlisted like a dummy and I went into the Hercules missile field and worked for RADCOM. I got stationed in Minnesota and that’s where I met my wife Betty and we were married in 1971. Next, I got shipped to Seattle. Then when I was transferred to Korea that’s when I brought my family to Haines. I have 2 children Richard and Jane.
I was in Korea for four months when I found out my brother was dying of cancer so I took an emergency out and came back to Haines. I went to work at Schnabel’s lumber mill and was there for several years. One day there was a hang up in the conveyor. I shut it off, but I didn’t pull the fuse. I crawled into the conveyor to fix it, well there is another switch at the other end and while I was in the conveyor someone turned it on and got me hung up in the conveyor.
My leg went down between two tail drums and I was in there for four minutes before I got someone’s attention. It took them 20 minutes to cut me out. I went to Harborview Hospital and lost the use of part of my leg and hurt my back. I couldn’t do anything for quite a while.
Now I plow snow and run bobcat and basically pick up work wherever I can. I take photographs and do a little prospecting. During the summer I go out and look for precious metals gems, gold silver, and platinum. Platinum pays more. In the winter I go back to plowing. My daughter worked for a tour company and some tourists asked about prospecting and she told them if you’re looking for a pot of gold forget it, my dad’s been looking for forty years and hasn’t found anything yet.
There is one story from my childhood the old-timers used to tell about how Nikolai got where it was. During the gold rush years the military was going to put a telegraph line from Fairbanks to Nome and they were surveying the country. When they heard about the gold that was the end of the telegraph line and they let the horses go in that area.
One of the natives had traveled up the river on a moose hunt and he shot a horse he’d never seen a horse before he cut the tail off to go back and show the chief what kind of moose they had up there with these funny looking tails, so they moved the village up there and it has been there ever since. I don’t remember where the village was to start with; when you’re 12 years old what do you remember?
Here is the author Edward May’s website: http://www.insightpassagepro.com
Want to read more great stories of old time Alaskans? Here is one about John Schnabel: Old Time Logger by Edward May
You will also enjoy Robert Johnson’s Coming to Alaska in 1950 .