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About Gail Howard’s Alaska Travel Adventures

Gail Howard begins her life of travel adventures in 1956 when she talks her parents into letting her spend the summer in Alaska. On her flight to Anchorage aboard the “Vomit Comet” (her first flight ever) she meets four college students who become her companions as she hunts bear, skis down glaciers and dances rock ‘n roll on icebergs.

Gail partakes of raw seal blubber (oogruk) and pickled whale’s tail, and fishes for salmon with her bare hands. Naturally, Gail pans for and finds gold. In her inimitable style Gail lands a job with the very man who inspired her to go to Alaska and gets to fly for free all over the territory.

She runs into an old rich eccentric one-time Gold Rush dance hall girl who rummages though garbage even though she owns half of downtown Fairbanks. In Kotzebue, delighted children teach Gail some native phrases in their Eskimo village 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, though the words they teach her are not exactly what she was looking for. The parents are not at all amused and she is hastily escorted none too gently from the premises. Unfortunately, her adventures become more dangerous as she is nearly raped under the midnight sun. Luckily, her fighting spirit saves her and her determination to see the world is unabated.

Gail Howard's Territory of Alaska Travel Adventures Before Alaska Was a State

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In 1956, Alaska was a wild, rugged, wonderful out-of-the-way place, a territory, and not yet a state. It was a final destination for a flight, not a pit stop on the way to the rest of the world as it is now.

As I excitedly devoured the pages of Lou Jacobin’s Guide to Alaska, little did I know then that Lou Jacobin would be sending me all over Alaska—with pay. My parents agreed to let me summer in Alaska if I agreed to return in the fall and finish college.

In 1867, Imperial Russia sold Alaska to the United States for $7,200,000—or two cents an acre. It was called Seward’s Folly at the time because no one thought Alaska had any value. On January 3, 1959—three years after my summer sojourn there—Alaska became the 49th state.

To save money, I took a train to Seattle from my hometown in southern California, and then boarded the flight to Anchorage. It was my very first plane ride. The plane was a DC-6B, the latest state-of-the-art aircraft, affectionately known as the Vomit Comet. Those little white baggies were indispensable, fair weather or foul.

Cabins were not as pressurized then, so landing guaranteed partial deafness that disappeared the next day. In spite of those small discomforts, flying was glamorous. Passengers were a flying elite.

On the flight to Anchorage, I met four college students from USC who were to become my “four brothers” in Alaska. We went everywhere together—bear hunting, skiing down Portage Glacier in our tennis shoes, dancing rock ‘n roll on icebergs while tourists shouted warnings of danger as they snapped photos of us.

We ate oogruk (raw seal blubber) and pickled whale’s tail, panned for gold, flattened pennies on railroad tracks as trains roared by, fished for salmon with our bare hands, and enjoyed the majestic beauty of wilderness backed by snow clad mountains.

Before we all found jobs, we made day trips by car exploring areas a short distance from Anchorage. Many of the cities on the Alaska map turned out to be only one building—a café or a store. The town of Hope (11 miles off the Seward Highway, population 40) was built in the 1880s. The General Store still stocked some of the old medicines and schoolmarm collars. The old Norwegian who owned the store arrived in 1901 and hadn’t been “outside” (stateside) since 1923.

From Hope, we turned off onto Sterling Highway, a gravel road badly in need of grading, and drove for an hour along the Kenai Burn of 1947, where 421,000 acres of trees had been burned on both sides of the highway. In Kenai, people still lived in many of the old buildings from the 1800s.

At Eklutna, we crawled into a loosely boarded-up Russian Orthodox Church built in 1846. Nearby was a graveyard with little spirit houses built over the graves, where natives brought food and weapons for their departed ancestors.

On another trip, we drove to Girdwood, where we hiked through an old abandoned mine shaft. After exploring it and climbing over a mountain of broken shale, suddenly we found ourselves in a beautiful valley with bright refreshing air and waterfalls everywhere—a fairyland paradise.

After a few days exploring Alaska together, my four brothers landed jobs in the bush and I got a job selling advertising space for Lou Jacobin’s Guide to Alaska and the Yukon, which entitled me to free flights to every town in Alaska serviced by Noel Wien’s Alaska’s Arctic Airlines and Noel Wien’s Alaska Airlines. Lou Jacobin had published his well-known Guide to Alaska every year since 1946, so ad sales came easily.

On various trips to Fairbanks, I would often see a disheveled old woman dressed in rags rummaging through garbage cans for food. I was amazed to learn that she owned half of downtown Fairbanks.

Several months after I returned to California, Lou Jacobin sent me a newspaper clipping about the woman’s death on February 21, 1957:

“Recluse Dies in Alaska With $500,000 on her. Death has ended the stranger-than-fiction career of a wealthy Fairbanks recluse who prowled trash piles while carrying titles to $500,000 worth of property in her shopping bag. [Half a million is $4 million in today’s dollars.]

“Tiny, ragged Mrs. Hulda Ford, 83, died in a hospital in Fairbanks of malnutrition. A dance hall girl in the Gold Rush days, Mrs. Ford was one of the few to parlay her earnings into a fortune. She was Alaska’s richest woman.

“Mrs. Ford was born in Minnesota in 1873. Answering the alluring call of the north, she went to Nome with the gold stampeders of 1900. She was a dance hall girl there and purchased a hotel. She named it Sheldon, after Sheldon Ford whom she had married in Spokane, Washington. They later were divorced in Nome.

“With a poke full of gold, she came to Fairbanks in 1906 after the Nome gold rush petered out. She went into business in this new settlement with an early general store, then bought property and buildings in the growing town through the years.

“Old Sourdoughs described her as vivacious and beautiful as a young woman of the gold camp era. She became a recluse who lived in shacks, wore rags and gleaned from garbage cans.

“Tuesday Hulda Ford was found lying helpless in a room in an old hotel building. She was rushed to a hospital but her condition was beyond hope. Physicians asked her if she didn’t want to make out a will. She shook her head feebly and replied, “No.”

“Her death may lift the shadow of mystery from her fortune. For years she has been collecting rents from stores and disposing of expensive properties. A sister and niece in Seattle are believed to be her only heirs.”

“By coincidence, death came to Hulda Ford on the same day that the most famed dancing girl of Yukon gold rush days, Klondike Kate (Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell) died at her home in Oregon.”

From Fairbanks, I made a trip to Kotzebue, an Eskimo village 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Sled dogs were tied to stakes and salmon was drying on wooden racks. Lots of laughing children were running everywhere and almost immediately they surrounded me. A stateside woman was a great curiosity.

I told the children that I wanted to see the inside of a wooden hut to see how the people lived. But first, I asked them to teach me a few words in their native language so I could communicate politely with their parents, “please,” “thank you,” etc.

The children were absolutely gleeful to have the opportunity to teach this foreigner words in their own language. When they were certain that I had the pronunciation, accent and inflection correct, they paraded me like a trophy off to one of the huts.

As we entered the hut, I recited the words I had just learned, “How do you do?”

My reception by the elders was one of stony silence.

“Thank you for inviting me into your home,” I added, proud of my new language skills.

After saying those words, I was almost bodily thrown out of the hut by very angry adults. Outside, the children were collapsing in laughter. The words they had taught were the naughtiest ones in their language, which I had innocently repeated to the elders. I was shaken to the core by the experience.

Amazingly, on the edge of town lay a huge boulder of pure jade just sitting there in the middle of nowhere. The jade was meant to be carved into a life-size statue of Eva Peron. But when Juan Peron was overthrown by a military coup in 1955, the plan for the statue and the jade were abandoned. I’ve often wondered if that huge hunk of jade weighing tons, carelessly covered in a white shroud, is still there, and if not, what happened to it.

I flew again above the Arctic Circle to Fort Yukon (population 550—50 white and 500 Indian), a town settled by the Hudson Bay Company in 1847, and the oldest white settlement in interior Alaska. An actual fort had been set up there in case of trouble with the Russians trading down river.

All the gold I panned in Ketchum Creek near Circle Hot Springs, I sent home taped to my letters. It was exciting to find a few slivers of pure gold, even though they were the size of finger nails. I also picked up pretty rocks, which I carried in a shoe box.

A man helped me board the plane, and as he picked up my shoe box, his arm collapsed.

“What do you have in this shoe box?! Rocks?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “How did you know?”

Back in Anchorage, a handsome stateside fellow invited me to go dancing. We joined a table of his friends. A woman in the group—bosomy, dressed in pink satin, her face painted with a thick layer of makeup—accompanied me to the ladies room.

“You have such a beautiful body,” she said, “I’d like you to come to work for me.” She looked perfectly typecast for a movie role as madam of a brothel -- which as it turned out, she actually was! A madam of a brothel! I politely thanked her for the offer, but said I loved the job I had.

I left the party at 9 p.m. because I had to work the next day. Outside, in this land of the midnight sun, it was still daylight. On the way home, my dancing partner asked if I minded stopping by his hotel so he could get his jacket. I waited in the hallway as he disappeared into the darkened room to fetch it.

He reappeared suddenly, and in one swift movement, picked me up, carried me into his room, tossed me onto a bed and jumped on top of me. This nice stranger had turned into a madman rapist.

“Please let me go,” I begged. “Please!”

I wanted to scream for help but was afraid he might punch me out. I thought about kicking where it most hurts a man, but thought if I missed, he might kill me.

All I could do was keep my ankles crossed, my legs locked, the muscles in my legs rigid, and my adrenalin flowing. He pulled the sides of my panties down, but could not pull down the front. The taut muscles in my legs protected me from his sexual probing.

After what seemed an eternity, he gave up the idea of raping me and threw me bodily across the room against the wall. All the fight drained out of me as I huddled there whimpering, wrung out and limp. At that point, he could easily have taken me.

I quickly gathered my strength and bolted for the door. Outside it was still daylight. I felt abused, violated and vulnerable. As I walked home on shaky legs, I wondered how I could learn to be a better judge of people, so I would never again suffer such an ordeal.

Suddenly the would-be rapist was at my side, inviting me to dinner as if nothing at all had happened. He couldn’t understand why I never wanted to see him again...ever!

The last days of my Alaskan summer were spent up north. On the flight back to Anchorage, I watched the seasons change from the window of the plane. Tundra gave way to forests of trees, stripped of their leaves for winter. Miles and minutes later, we were flying over a panorama of a splendid array of autumn colors. As we approached Anchorage, trees were still green, as yet untouched by frost.

I had adopted four brothers, hunted bear, panned for gold, eaten seal blubber, made myself an Ugly American in an Eskimo village, been invited to work in a brothel, escaped rape, seen the midnight sun and watched great shafts of Northern Lights flicker and spread across the sky. It was time to return stateside. My travel itch temporarily scratched, I settled down to resume my education.

The End!

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