The author, Allison Linville, poses with Greg, Dave, her dad, and Hendrik. She met the three younger men in Denali National Park, and they all traveled to Seward, where they found adventure at the Yukon Bar. Photo courtesy Allison Linville.
A lot of good things come from dark places. Sunrises, for example, emerge from every night. There are no sunrises in here, I think, squinting at the shabby wire-frame Victorian lampshades reaching down from the rough-worn wooden ceiling of the bar. Dollar bills stuck to the black-wood above us shudder as patrons walk under them. There are a lot of sunsets in here.
I’m squeezed against a post at the high table with Greg, Dave, and Hendrik. At the end of our table sit some new “friends,” a Ukrainian woman and a Portuguese guy, that we’re kind of bonding with by laughing at their jokes we can’t hear. We’ve evaluated their comprehension of English and are now openly debating if she’s a prostitute or not. Bets are on that she’s not—it’s just Alaska; so somehow, she got here, and he got here, and now here we are.
We’re kind of the same, having all met on the late bus for campers in Denali National Park. The four of us later made it to Seward on the same day when we got out of the park. Despite not knowing each other before the bus ride and arriving from four states and two countries, we bonded over some whiskey and instant mashed potatoes in the Denali backcountry.
We’re in the Yukon Bar, a gem of Seward. My aunt and uncle, 30-year residents of the town, would gawk in horror at the statement, but it must be true. We barely even looked at Google maps, walked into downtown, and it was clear where you go: the Yukon Bar. Inside, the blackish, rotting color of the wood around us makes it seem like it’s dark out, despite Alaska’s midnight sun.
After we each order drinks, Hendrik returns to the table with a pint glass of a mysterious tea-colored drink.
“What is that?” asks Greg, scrunching his face at it.
“Um, it’s an iced tea!” Hendrik says, in his bright German accent.
“Iced tea doesn’t have alcohol in it,” Dave comments, looking hard at the drink. “Oh my God, Hendrik, did you order a Long Island Iced Tea? You’re going to die here!”
We all laugh, Hendrik bellowing and slapping his thigh. “I guess, maybe!” He yells. “I just asked for a good drink, this is what she made me. The bartender said it’s her favorite—that she makes them the best!! Maybe I die now!” Uproarious laughter. Hendrik’s a German sled dog musher who completed the Yukon Quest race this February, which he explains is “like the Iditarod but with half as many aid stations and no trail.” He can’t die even if he tries.
Surprisingly, Hendrik finishes that Long Island and goes for another. The Ukrainian woman at the end of the table stands up on top of it to stick a $20 bill to the ceiling. “I don’t think she knows how much money that is,” Dave says, leaning into the table. “Should we take it down? Tell her? Give her a $1?”
Long Islands go down easily, and Hendrik starts the table talking about if they’d been married before, and why or why not. Live music blaring, we embarrassingly yell our answers a bit, things like, “We’ve been divorced for three years now!” And my response, “Never been married. Not sure why?!” The bouncer at the door keeps shifting his weight back and forth, crossing and uncrossing his arms. Sometimes he has some work to do.
The Morning After
The next morning, we have a 6 a.m. wake up call for the glacier tour, which is eight hours long and on a boat. I’m glad I’d stayed away from the Long Islands, but Hendrik’s pretty perky, grabbing snacks and water for the day.
“Where’d you guys go last night?” my aunt asks, as she suspiciously pours coffee in my cup.
“Uh. The Yukon Bar.” I say, trying to sound awake while also grabbing an Emergen-C.
“Ohhhhh….it ALL starts at the Yukon Bar,” she looks down at me from her six-foot frame. “You know.”
Back at it
That night, we head back to the Yukon. The live music is someone named Ukulele Russ, according to the chalk board over the bar. It’s a Sunday now, with more locals filling the place. Ukulele Russ has a friendly banter going, hollering back some questions at the crowd, some trash talk to his friends.
Sitting at the bar this time, Hendrik leans over as the bartender, a soft woman dressed up in a flowered dress with her dark hair curled, acknowledges him with a nod.
“I’d like…the same thing I had yesterday,” he says, grinning and charming her with his deep accent.
“Oh! You do? The Long Island? Ohmygod, I’m glad you liked it! Here you go.” She grabs liquor bottles with both hands, her dress and curves floating back and forth. It looks like she’s on a boat, rolling with the waves. It looks like choreography. She glances up at Hendrik as she pours the drink together. She loves him.
Her work is a big, flowing energy of hands and bottles and liquor. She sets the pint glass in front of him, another flowing gesture, with a wink. “There ya go,” taking his $20.
Ukulele Russ makes some noises into an autotune machine and then hollers at the crowd from stage as we turn in our bar stools.
“Hey, so you can sing about any damn thing you want and make it sound pretty cool with an autotune!” He yells. Someone hollers back, “YES, DUDE!”
Ukulele Russ is encouraged. “I bought this autotune for like 500 bucks and it’s a good deal.” He sits back on his wooden stool and strums a note. “Here, give me something to sing about—anything, I’ll make an autotune song out of it.” He looks up at the crowd, “What do you want me to sing about?”
Silence for a beat. Then, the back of the bar yells, “Climate change!”
“Okay, cool man,” Ukulele Russ takes this dry, divisive topic suggestion in stride. He plays a chord, then, “Ohhhh…it’s getting warrrrrmeerrrrr…”
Laughing, I turn back to the bar, where a guy with dreadlocks is painting a canvas at the end. The lady next to me leans in a bit to explain, “He paints here every week. It’s really cool.”
“Yeah, we have a great community,” says the bouncer, standing behind the bar and a little bored tonight. “This guy here,” he nods toward the painter, “he’s been in to paint for a few years now. One time some dude came in and was on drugs or something and tried to go after him and his paintings. Started fighting people and he bit a guy’s finger off. He’s 86-d but Mike here can still come in.” Mike is the painter, I guess, without introductions.
“Wait, bit his finger…like, off?” I ask.
“Yeah. Off.” The bartender wraps the fingers of his right hand over his left pointer finger to the middle knuckle. “Like, to here.” He springs his fingers away from the knuckle. I look at Hendrik to see if he also finds this story a little unnerving.
“Anyway,” the bouncer gestures with both hands wide, “we kicked him out and kind of helped out Mike, who still comes to paint. It worked out okay. And we’re such a tight-knit community that this stuff happens and we’re still good.” He nods once, crossing his arms again, like a command.
The bouncer’s right, though, things definitely happen here. Like the slightly crusty looking woman traveling around the bar, sitting on a few guys’ laps and getting drinks from nearly all of them. The table of slouchy-sweater and XTRATUF clad girls in town for the summer and trying to soak up the “culture.” The bartender’s Long Island Iced Tea dance. Things happen in Seward, and they all start at the Yukon Bar.