Stories are hidden in the river, as they are in history, yet the parts are greater than the whole. They do not deaden, discourage, despair. They come into view and pass out of view, usually unfinished, and their details offer a vertical dimension to the flow.
If I don’t look for names, search out the memory of particular people who have lived where I live, the forward movement of time erases definition and specifics, all the evidence of the deep vertical axis of my life. To avoid despair in the strong current of generations, I must uncover names, moments, old jokes I don’t understand. We have always been new things under the sun, each of us.
McGrath has been built at least three times. The first time, just after 1900, it was called McGrath after Peter McGrath, a U.S. Marshal, and it was up at the Forks, so called because that’s where the Nixon Fork runs into the Takotna River. That place was the farthest that boats from downriver could reliably travel toward the mining districts on the upper Takotna and the trailhead to Ophir on the Innoko River side. There was a warehouse at the Forks, owned by Archie Higgins from Takotna Village, and he had a gas boat that shoved a little barge up the Takotna River, but he had to wait until it rained so he could get his boat up over the shallow riffles.
After a few years, though, the boats that came upriver got bigger and the town had to move down to deeper water where the Takotna runs into the Kuskokwim. That’s where it was in 1917 when David Alvinza Ray, the wireless operator for the Army Corps of Engineers, fell off the tall wireless pole where he’d been repairing something and was killed. My friend Margaret, who has lived in one McGrath or another since 1929, told me about this wireless operator several times. When she arrived in McGrath, the story was polished but still fresh, told by many and connected in many directions across Alaska. Now she is its only storyteller, and in the version I heard her tell recently, the wireless operator had no name, only “the wireless operator who got killed.” The life of that story is nearly over, an empty frame.
But I know the wireless operator’s name because she used to know it and tell it and because the water was high enough this spring for us to get our riverboat over into Old Town Slough. The cabins have mostly been eaten up by mushrooms and rot and roses, but there’s an outhouse made from half of a round-hulled boat, green paint still clinging to it in patches, and David Alvinza Ray’s grave, with a small granite headstone. The grave still has a neat picket fence, though the white paint is all gone. This is about the only thing left of the second McGrath.
What would have been obvious about McGrath in the twenties and thirties would not have been David Ray or the outhouse made from half a boat but the big Northern Commercial Company warehouse and shipyard on the upstream side of where the Takotna ran into the Kusko. Margaret says there was a dog barn for travelers and mail carriers, big enough that you could drive your sled right through the middle of it. If you were the mail carrier, Carl Seseui coming in from Telida, you’d leave your sled in the barn all night and bed your twenty or so dogs down in the stalls on either side of the sled run. Every mail stop had a dog barn. You drove right up off the river and into it, Margaret said.
Old man Dan Sprague was a buffalo hunter from Montana who was a feature of the second McGrath. He had a homestead across the river, where the town is now, and he’d come over to what was then McGrath in the daytime with an unlit lantern so he could light his way home in the dark after an evening of poker. But the game would stretch into night and back into the short winter day before he’d whiskey-weave across the snow and back across the river to his home, lantern still unlit. In the summer, his farm was literally a one-horse operation. He’d borrow Vanderpool’s old white horse so he could plow his field. Vanderpool, the magistrate, lived one bend up the Kuskokwim, a mile and a half away, so they’d bring that horse up and down in a boat. Sometimes it wandered down through the woods on its own to be around people. When Margaret tells me about Dan Sprague, she often points to where his cabin used to be, a square of absent land off the end of the crosswind runway, long washed away by the shifting Kuskokwim. She said he was “a nice old man with long white whiskers” when she knew him in 1929.
The NC Company had to move their warehouse and store across to Sprague’s homestead in 1935, after the Takotna ate through its bank and into the Kuskokwim one bend above its old mouth, which silted in the very same summer and became too shallow for the steamboats. The rest of the town followed gradually, buying up lots from the NC Company. Now what you see when you look across the Kuskokwim from the boat slip is cutbank all the same height, but where the Takotna used to come out, the willows are a touch shorter, maybe thirty feet instead of thirty-five, and that’s how you know the river has hidden the channel and has hidden the town where the channel used to go. Rivers shift, and then towns drag their heels to new banks and wait to be washed away again.
Margaret has lived on both sides of the river because she came up to McGrath on the steamboat Tana in 1929. She saw the second town go down and the third one rise up. People and events flow through her talk so you can watch them, coming and going. We drink tea, couch and chair angled toward each other, and are surrounded by the hardware and mementos of a wilderness life, a river life. Nameplates from steamships, log tongs, lanterns. I am amazed by Margaret’s varied enterprises—her trapping, freighting, and cooking for mining crews—and by her stories of her father, the steamship captain. She knows a trick that turns canned milk into a caramel-tasting flavoring, but you have to use a stove with plates, not burners. I like the big garden she still grows in the deep river dirt of Dan Sprague’s old homestead and the delphiniums as big as blue trees above us when we sit outside in the summer. Margaret can’t remember if she or Dorothy Stone brought the first delphinium seeds to McGrath, but now they’re in every yard, and sometimes a stalk or two leans up out of the wild grasses and bedstraw along the road, invisible until it blooms.
Margaret helps me to resist the temptation to view my own life as a solid thing, just one kind of thing, or to get too far away from it, trying to see it. My mother would say, “It’s an angry river,” because in the experiences of her life, rivers do not have any specific dimension except for danger. If it is a flat, shiny river like the Snake, it’s hiding something. If it is swift and silty like the Kuskokwim, it’s angry. Its character, like its mood, seems to her an immutable fact. It’s easier to think about rivers and even whole people and whole lives in this way, never looking any closer, as if we all are just one thing, one kind of person, one kind of life. This kind of looking is a shorthand for being conscious, and I practice it incessantly. Although people are kind or cruel or smart or dumb one right after another, it seems like I know each of them, and myself, to be just one thing. When I think this way, there is no “give” to the way I treat others, no idea that we all could break through into another channel anytime, out the other end of even this moment, leaving expectations behind like a vestigial circle of slough.
I met Ted and Margaret in 1991 when an ice jam downriver brought the Kuskokwim out of its banks and through the town. We were renting one of the few houses that didn’t flood, though we had water over our top step, and we sat with our feet in it and handed out coffee and cake to people who were driving up and down the streets in their motorboats. Across the street, Margaret and Ted brought everything they could up out of their cellar and off the floor of their house and stored it in old barge containers up on blocks that looked to me like railroad cars. Then the two of them waded around in rising water, tying empty barrels together as a breakwater to keep all of the lumber and boxes and boats in their own yard—fifty years of stuff to try and keep from floating away. We hadn’t collected anything that needed saving, so I watched Ted and Margaret and the other neighbors struggle, wanting to help but not knowing how to grab ahold of anything.
All day, kids got canoes stuck in willow thickets. There was a break-up party at the Alaska Commercial Company boat slip in the afternoon. The ice was gone by then, even if the river wasn’t. We cooked hot dogs and hamburgers and drank beer and pop, standing in icy water and trying not to make waves that would wash over the top of our breakup boots. In the morning, when the water was going down, I took some hot biscuit cake out to the barge container where Ted and Margaret had found a dry place to sleep. The flood made us friends. I’ve been thankful, as I listen and grow close to them, as their lives open in stories I hope will last the winter.
After the water went down, people went into their houses and scraped out the inches of mud, peeled the carpets off the floors so the boards wouldn’t rot, and moved back in. Most of the kids were disappointed that the water went down so fast. They looked at their old town in a new way for a while because it had done something surprising.
Sometimes when you come down to McGrath, across the Kuskokwim from the Takotna mouth, it is a smooth mirror, and you see the little pointed tops of the AC store and warehouse reflected in the water. At the moment, the storefronts are dark green with big white signs and red letters. They peer at you across the runway because there were already airplanes landing at McGrath in 1935 when the town moved, and the old NC Company built a runway in front of its store. Main Street runs alongside this old runway. The buildings along Main Street—the stores, the electric company, the cafe, the radio station, the FAA—all have to squint to see the river, but they do it. They are still curious to see who is coming across.
Details of our lives cross the flowing length everywhere. Each lived moment divides the current and makes the river new. Each story ties us up for a moment to another life and opens—briefly and out of time—a view of what we are to each other and to the earth. When I look across the glassy mouths of rivers, seams invisible, I want to go close to the bank so I can see who’s coming and who’s passing.
Draw up a chair with me on a nice day.