My wife convinced me that if we ever wanted to see Alaska and the Northern Lights, we would have to go in the winter and we should do it before the kids got into high school. She was right and we did, spending a school year in the tiny crossroads hamlet of Gakona Junction (so small it would have said "Welcome" on both sides of the sign, had there been room for one), uphill from the Native villages of Gakona (which means "rabbit" in Athabaskan) to the northeast and Gulkana to the southwest.
In the best of times, life in Alaska, on or off the road, can be deceptively perilous. One should not travel without adequate emergency provisions and supplies in any season. The Copper River Valley, an area the size of West Virginia and bounded by mountains on all sides, can be particularly dangerous. There are no cities, and public services are few and far between. The new threat posed by the novel coronavirus, now pervasive world-wide, is no respecter of isolated communities. In fact, the few two-lane roads that traverse the region, while serving as a vital lifeline, also provide easy entry for the disease borne by in-state and international travelers. The people of the Copper Valley - its Native Ahtna and non-Native residents - have long relied on each other for support and sustenance. That spirit has remained true in the current crisis, although like everywhere else has had to be modified in execution. Leading the way is the Copper River Country Journal - www.countryjournal2020.com - a web-based source for news, information, and community cohesion. The original bi-weekly printed Copper River Country Journal was started in 1986 for just that purpose. It was discontinued in 1999, but its publishers, Linda and Jeremy Weld, now in their 70s, saw the need to provide those same services today, perhaps even more so, as there was no reliable, responsible local source of information. Unfortunately, they also published my cartoons from Too Far North, which may have reduced their credibility.
I created the black-and-white map in December 1986 for a wall calendar insert in the print edition of the Copper River Country Journal. I produced the second, updated version for the Country Journal 2020 website in March 2020 and further revised it in 2022. The staff from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve requested permission to post the updated version on their website. The map may also have helped persuade state officials to consider the Copper River Basin as a separate entity when publishing aggregated regional data and statistical findings,
Assuming you've got even more time to waste on this website, a la Where's Waldo, make a list of all the additions, subtractions (a few), and other alterations you can find in the new version.
Too Far North was a collection of cartoons I drew in Gakona Junction, Alaska, in the fall and winter of 1986-87, some of which were first published in the Copper River Country Journal as the Bush League cartoon strip. More were created to include in the book, which was published that spring. Most were drawn in the wee hours of the night after our five kids were asleep, on copier paper with drawing pen in our small cabin. We assisted our friends, Linda and Jeremy Weld, who published the Journal, in the production of the book, including flying in a small missionary plane to Anchorage to buy paper and printing, cutting, collating, and assembling the 1000 or so copies, which I then peddled to lodges and news services on the Alaska road system. We sold most of that first and only print run, and our portion of the profits paid for our car trip return to Virginia following the end of winter and the school year in Alaska.
In early 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, the Welds determined they needed to revive the Journal (which they had ceased publishing some two decades previously) to provide a source of information for their isolated Copper River Valley community with its small-town size population scattered within in small hamlets in an area about the same as that of West Virginia. Only this time it would be as a website. In the process they asked if they could use the old cartoons and the regional map in the new website. I decided to update the map and to add color to it at the same time. After it appeared on the site, it was picked up by the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve for publication on their website. The Welds suggested coloring the cartoons, as well. In the samples below you will see some of the originals, along with some of the recolored ones and one previously unpublished.
For more information, see "My Brush with Alaskan Humor... or What's So Funny about Running into a Moose?" elsewhere on this web page.
The book's 1987 cover; could have been subtitled, "The Joads Head North." Our van looked like this when we moved to Gakona Junction.
My Brush with Alaskan Humor or What's So Funny about Running into a Moose?
By David Mudrick, June 2007, revised June 2022
With selective memories of Gakona, AK - Until we lived there, I thought AK should have stood for Arkansas, but now I know it's the sound you make trying to inhale at minus 55 degrees F.
In May 2007 I received an email asking permission to use portions of my book, Too Far North, A Northern Cartoon Odyssey, in an exhibit of Alaskan sequential art (aka cartoons). We had produced it over twenty years before in Gakona, Alaska, with publisher friends Linda and Jeremy Weld, in the dead of winter. The exhibit was held in June 2007 in a small gallery between College and Ester, on the Parks Highway, "the road" that runs between Fairbanks and Anchorage. In the mid 1980s, this area would have been too small to call "podunk," especially in midwinter when there's not enough unfrozen liquid around to dunk anything, rich or po'. Nevertheless, I couldn't have been more honored, even if it were in the New York Museum of Modern Art. (Well, that's probably not true, but I don't have to worry about finding out.)
My wife and I, along with our then five kids, were wintering in Alaska to see the Northern Lights, with plans to return to Northern Virginia after the school year and spring breakup. As winter progressed, we needed to raise enough funds to stay fed and get home. I had been drawing cartoons for our friends' new bi-weekly news magazine, Copper River Country Journal, which they published through their company, Northcountry Communications, Inc. We decided to publish the book, which was a collection of those cartoons and others. The cartoons were usually executed in ball-point pen on copier paper, by lantern light after the kids were asleep.
My greatest compliment at the time came from a Journal reader in Tok who wrote, "This is real Alaskan humor." If so, then, what is real Alaskan humor? Certainly, it runs the same gamut as any other humor genre, perhaps more often on the cruder side to meet the preconceptions of tourists. However, with the penetration of The Last Frontier by technology, just about anything can be had or viewed there, now, whereas when we were there, satellite broadcast was sometimes the only way to communicate. The satellite dishes were pointed almost to the horizon, which was a visual and visceral indication of just how far into northern latitudes we had come.
My cartoons focused on the more quirky aspects of rural Alaskan life as we experienced it. No, I never really saw a house made entirely of duct tape, but I suspect more than one exists. No, swans do not return for the summer in "S"s, but rather in the same "V"s as other migratory waterfowl. No, my kids never fought over the Sears catalog as a source of indoor recreation, but they did decorate the cabin with paper snowflakes and listened to the output of our home entertainment center, which consisted of an AM-FM clock radio that picked up two stations and a Fisher-Price cassette recorder. (The story of the gentleman phoning Sears to order a case of toilet paper, and when being asked for the catalogue number replying, "Lady, if I had the catalogue, I wouldn't need the toilet paper!" is probably anecdotal, but not too far off the mark.)
Alaskan humor reflects the same vagaries of the human condition found elsewhere, though Alaskans may be reticent to admit it. More than elsewhere, Alaskan humor must also pay homage to the larger population of two-, four-, and six-footed, pawed, clawed, winged, or otherwise appendaged denizens of the state, not to mention the finned or flippered river and sea folk. Unfortunately, like mosquitoes, puns can exist that far north. Even more unfortunately, but unlike mosquitoes, puns do not die off in winter.
Having a moose in it doesn't make it Alaskan humor, although having a flying saucer cross the galaxy, only to run into a moose on "the road," just might. This also was the only way I could work road kill moose into a humor context, since those encounters were often fatal for both the moose and the occupants of the vehicle. To add insult to injury or death, you or your survivors wouldn't benefit from the windfall of moose meat. There was a list of indigent families waiting to get a phone call that their moose was available, perhaps 200 miles away in Talkeetna. We had more than our share of close encounters of the moose and caribou kind, and they were only a laughing matter after the fact, if at all.
Oh, yeah, the Northern Lights. We did see them. They can stay almost motionless for hours and then suddenly start dancing at breathtaking speed, so you have to decide in advance just how long you will stand there watching. Otherwise, your brain might freeze and you might forget to go back inside. We also saw them from the doorway of our north-facing latrine. The door was no obstacle to viewing as it had blown off in the fall during a week of 100-mph Chinook winds. Of course, when using the latrine in the winter, you have to let the seat drop hard first to remove the two inches of hoarfrost.
Springtime was another source of humor, when kids would measure the depth of ice-melt puddles by wading into them. The water was always at least a half inch above the tops of their "breakup boots." By that time we were packing to return home, and the nights were now too light to see the Aurora, but the local fauna springing back to life all around our cabin sounded like a Tarzan movie. On the drive back "outside," after surviving the winter with little more automobile trouble than a broken valve lifter, we experienced a cracked windshield and a flat tire within two hours on the Yellowhead Highway, the first major paved road we hit in British Columbia: Good ol' Alaskan, or maybe just northern, humor.
Sorry, but we had to include the above cartoon, which is not from the book and probably isn't real Alaskan humor, either.
For penance, here are some better things to think about:
Tom Duck and Harry
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