When the Chena River overflowed its banks in 1948, as it did nearly every spring, Fairbanks took on the appearance of a slowly moving lake. The dirty brown water, dotted with chunks of ice, logs, carcasses of dead animals, and other debris from the long winter, spread across the little river town.
Lapping steadily, the floodwater crossed First Avenue and crept up the steps of the Episcopal Church and into the Masonic Temple. It leisurely entered saloons on Second and filled stores and houses all the way down Barnette Street past Seventh.
On Garden Island, the water hesitated at the steps of the Alaska Railroad depot like a mannerly aunt unsure of her welcome. A moment later, it washed across the old plank floor, covered the benches along the walls, and reached the top of the ticket counter.
The river rose fourteen feet as it flowed into truck stop cafes and smoky dives where the only women were bleary-eyed hoostitutes.
The water appeared smooth, even languid, but its rapid undercurrents and eddies swirled with energy. The force was enough to carry away sections of wooden sidewalk and cave in cellar doors all over town. With no hesitation it entered Louise Minook Harper’s log cabin on Fifth, five blocks from the river.
A drunk wading home from the bars on Second stumbled on a washed out section of sidewalk and was swept into the river where he smacked his head on a passing log. His body was found a few days later, tangled in the flotsam of a floating tree.
That morning two other men died in a fight in the Nevada Bar over the timing of the Chena breakup. A third man, clutching the winning ice pool ticket, suffered a black eye and cracked his false teeth in the commotion. When two officers from the Territorial Police arrived, big and blustery in their uniforms, the survivor convinced them the two men had stabbed one another. This stretch of truth was heartily supported by the bartender and other none too sober patrons.
When the river receded a few days later, flood-weary residents reclaimed their homes and took stock of the damage. Whites, Natives, hoostitutes, and prominent families dragged muddied books, ruined mattresses, and unrecognizable whatall into the street to be hauled away.
The sour stench of mildew, river sludge, and dog poop gagged Louise when she opened the shed door. “Chanh na hanh!” she swore, turning her head and blinking as she propped open the door with a shovel and stood outside while the cramped space aired.
Her glance fell on Sam’s trunk in the corner. It was slimy with mud.
Holding her breath, Louise grabbed the cracked leather handle. The muck made a sucking noise as she pulled the trunk from the shed. Inside, Sam’s papers and notebooks squished at her touch. His penciled words were blurred, and those written in ink were a blue smear. Louise glimpsed the butt of a pistol wedged into one side of the trunk.
She looked around her small, muddy yard. Her house was already full of damp clothes, smelly rugs, and bedding. There was no place to dry the trunk’s contents. On top of that, the stove was filled with silt. The electricity was out and they still had no drinking water.
“The trunk is gone? Dad’s stories are gone?” Flora Jane tightened her lips to keep them from quivering. Louise glanced at her oldest daughter and sighed.
Jan (Petri) Harper-Haines is Koyukon Athabascan, Russian, Irish and Dutch-German. Her non-fiction has appeared in First Alaskans Magazine, West Marin Review, Alaskan Embers and Cirque. She is currently working on Jimmy’s Song, a novel of suspense set in Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley. This excerpt comes from Cold River Spirits, a biography of Jan’s Athabascan mother and grandmother and their lives on the Yukon. It explores their rich cultural heritage and their heartrending, and often humorous, struggles to transition from a life intertwined with nature to a more fast-paced world. You can read more in the free Alaska Sampler 2014.
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