The Making of Bo at Iditarod Creek

Bo at Iditarod Creek, is about dredge mining. My first book about Bo, Bo at Ballard Creek, was about life at a drift mine. There’s a huge difference between those two types of mining but there were, and are, lots of different other kinds of mining here in Alaska: little family mines, big open cut placer mines, hard rock mines, to name a few.

I was raised in a mining camp outside Fairbanks until I was six ,the Cleary Hill mine. This was a hard rock mine–the miners went into the mine shaft and there was a little train to carry the ore out. The miners made me a swing just like the one in the book. I remember it sailing way out over the edge of the tailing piles, a deathly drop. But that surely can’t be true.

At the bottom of the hills below the mine there was a dredge that the mining company worked as well. It was a fascinating monster.

I remember playing around on it when it was off season with a big boy whose dad worked at the mine, Jerry Hassel. He did wonderful tricks on the railings. There were lots of dredge mining operations all over the state–not only for gold, but platinum as well. So that’s what I wanted to write about after the drift mining in Ballard Creek.

Here you can see how the tailings pile up behind the dredge, which is how whole areas became covered with gravel, as they are in Bo at Iditarod Creek. Here you can see how the tailings pile up behind the dredge, which is how whole areas became covered with gravel, as they are in Bo at Iditarod Creek.

As usual, I modeled my characters on a lot of real people, and named others after people I’m fond of.

Doc Larue was a real character and everyone of us old-timers has a Doc Larue story. I remember him working on my teeth, a bit the worse for wear as his breath attested. Once when a baby was nearly frozen coming with her parents in an open bi-plane from Fairbanks to Ruby in the winter, Doc said no worries, and stuck the baby in an oven until she was the right color again. (I’m sure not with the door shut.) The parents told me this story so it must be true. Mustn’t it?

And it was said Doc often bypassed all the work of chopping and splitting wood, and would just stick a log in the stove and push it in further when the end in the stove burned down. Hmm. I’m sure these stories sound apocryphal but there are zillions more about Doc that are just as hard to believe! I always wanted to collect all those stories and write them up, but never did and now most of us who were weaned on these stories are dead. There’s a moral in this.

Flat, in the middle of Alaska, was a big dredge town, and I based a lot of this book on that place. There were nine Charlies at the dredge mines around Flat and Alfred Miller, who was raised in Flat, told me lots of other stories about people there. Bill Sather — an Irishman who was a friend of mine when I was a teenager–was a miner in Flat. His nephew was killed just the way Cherokee Charlie was in this book. And there actually was a lady with binoculars at Flat!

The Miscoviches who mined at Flat a long time were Croatian and hot hot tempered. Later they mined in Ruby and Poorman for a bit, and I can remember standing in the streets of Ruby and hearing them very clearly hollering at each other way up in the hills a good two miles away. Very loud guys. Edna in this book is based on a Miscovich girl, Eva, who really rode the houses when they were moving.( But otherwise she wasn’t at all like the terrible Edna!)

Terry Sweetsir, my kids’ uncle, told me the story of his toothache when he was out at the trapline, alone. He’s not the only one who had a toothache story..indeed, such a thing happened to seemingly everyone who spent the winter on the trapline. (Come to think of it, this is what happened in my book Winter Camp.) In those days you went out to the trapline, many miles from any village. By dogteam maybe,or more often in the 70s a bush pilot would bring you out there and drop you, promising to come back in two months or so. No communication, no way out. So it was do-it-yourself doctoring and dentistry.

The Sophia disaster took my step-father’s uncle Walter Harper and his new bride. He was an extraordinary person, Walter, and I’ve wanted to tell his story, but never got around to it. Another moral.

It was a big thing in the 30s and 40s for kids to have pen pals. I had two Japanese pen pals, Yoshihiro Ishikawa, a boy, and Michiko Matsunaga, a girl. Thus Yoshihiro’s name in the book. I wish I could find them and see how everything turned out for them. Imagine, it was only a few years after WWII and children of opposing sides were writing to each other, never giving the former enmity a thought. Even though I remember insults kids chalked on the Fairbanks fences and sidewalks before the war’s end about Tojo. (Who was Tojo,anyway? )

The good time girls at the mining camps were often..I don’t know why…medically savvy. One accident at a mining camp near Ruby Clarence Zaiser told me. ( He was the old miner I dedicated Bo at Ballard Creek to.) One of the miners was underground working and when he swung the pick up over his head a clump of dirt fell from the roof of the tunnel and drove the pick right through his neck and out the other side. One of the miners with him sawed off the pick handle so he could be carried through the tunnel and then they called for their good time girl/nurse. She pulled the pick-head out, packed the hole and they drove him over unbelievably bad roads to Ruby where they found a plane to take him into Fairbanks. ( He was back in a few days, none the worse for wear. The doctor attributed his good health to her skill and also to the fact that the pick had just been forged, and therefore was relatively germ-free. So that’s why my Carmen is the go-to girl in Iditarod Creek.

Bo has a gap in her teeth because of Ernest Borgnine, the actor. I fell in love with him when I was a little girl because of that big hole in his smile. It’s beyond knowing why that appealed to me, but it’s always been one of my favorite physical characteristics. Then when I was writing Bo my grandchildren and I were immersed in Torchwood, and the heroine (the lovely Welsh actor Eve Miles) has a gap like that. And that’s why Bo has a missing tooth.

More about true stories: My kids and I were driving on the little dirt road that goes from Ruby out to the mining camps when a mamma black bear crossed the road right in front of us, and behind her, the cubs. Five of them. The littlest no bigger than a rabbit. I think our sighting was unique and it’s a good thing the kids were all with me or no one would have believed it. Of course we concluded that they couldn’t all be hers, but what I’d give to know the whole story.

In our Yukon village of Galena, Bessie Wholecheese had 23 kids, no twins. I’ve never heard of more.

Buhac plays a part in all my books because it is important. We use the hard coils to keep the mosquitoes at bay, but there’s nothing like Buhac for instant results. Set fire to a little pile of Buhac and you have smoke and the room is cleared right away. Especially good in the outhouse where you don’t want to have to wait . Imagine our distress when we found last year that the Buhac plant had ceased operations. No more Buhac. I have two cans left on the shelf, which I will use sparingly, but I feel the ground shift under my feet.

About Jack and Arvid’s “school.” I never went to school by correspondence because my mother couldn’t see herself in the role of teacher. So we moved from the mining camp to Fairbanks. But many kids I knew had been taught by correspondence when they were living out of town, and I often saw the Calvert books with the eerie boy on the front.

I must have taught a hundred kids to read. Really. Well, at least 50. (Actually more like 79. I just tried to count them.) And I was always humbled by the stories of the old timers and the village people about how they’d learned to read because It seems that all the fancy techniques and admonitions I learned in college were a bit overdone. After all, how can it be a specialized kind of teaching when people have learned from each other since the beginning of writing. Mothers taught their children without being taught how to do it. People who wanted to learn just did it, one way or another, one word at a time, reading labels, captions, signs and so forth. Our Altona Brown, who was the model for Natasha in Toughboy and Sister, learned from the labels on cans.

(Language acquisition in any form fascinates me. I taught in Lime Village, tiny place about 50 people, and some people, especially the older ones, spoke five languages. Lime Village happened to be in a spot which was kind of a crossroads, where people of different linguistic groups came close together. So some of the village people, especially the older ones, spoke Yup’ik,an Eskimo language, three Athabascan languages–Kolchan, Tanaina and Ingalik. And English. One old couple learned English from the radio before there was a school there. I don’t have the slightest idea how that could be done. But done it was. )

I bear a grudge toward Dick,Jane and Sally which was the reading series everyone my age had to read in primary school. (In my book, The Year of Miss Agnes, Miss Agnes refuses to use them! ) We learned to read sitting in those little wooden chairs in the first grade room in Fairbanks with those flimsy little books clutched in our hands. I squirmed with embarrassment if I had to read Run, Sam run. Run, run, run. Worse was Oh! Oh! Oh! I was at that point inculcated with the strong feeling that written speech should be entirely, completely, believably natural. So I’ve made Bo actively rebel against the books. Which I didn’t have the guts to do when I was that age.

One very cold day in Ruby–way over -40–my boys went down to the post office with their sled to get the mail. They dumped the lot in the middle of my bed, which was the only place big enough for that kind of sorting. There was a little box from Kelly Painter, an old guy in Ruby who went Outside periodically to visit his family. The boys were sitting, half lying on the bed while one opened the box. Kelly sent us a toy snake, Kirk said when he had the box open. We peered into the little box,wondering what Kelly’d been thinking, when suddenly the toy snake moved and both boys were off the bed as if teleported. It’s alive!

Well, we put the snake in my classroom in an old fish tank and everyone in town came to see it…they’d never seen a snake before. But they stood in the doorway of my schoolroom to observe it, and never approached any closer. One day it disappeared and the other teacher, also an Alaskan who had never seen a snake, was terrified. She lived in the apartment attached to my classroom so she never slept a wink until the snake was found, camouflaged in the chalk tray under the blackboard. It was not a boa constrictor of anything: it was a garter snake. Maybe 12 inches long and not much thicker than a fat crayon. But snakes suffer from a bad press so it inspired all this terror.

Jack is always making donuts because in Ruby I always made donuts for every potlatch or for the bake sale we always held to make money for the Fourth of July races. But I was a piker compared to Jack. I never made more than 200 at a time!

We always got a case of eggs in the fall, kept it in the basement under the cabin, and used them all year til spring. When I was growing up in Fairbanks we had boat eggs..which came from Washington, and then up to Fairbanks on the train. That supply lasted in the N.C. Company storehouses all winter. Later, we got air eggs, which were flown in, but were still not exactly fresh from the chicken. The first time my mother took me Outside we had breakfast at my grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico, and the eggs had been laid that morning. I took a bite and gave my mother a horrified look. “There’s something wrong with these eggs,” I whispered. She informed me that that was the way eggs were supposed to taste. I never ate eggs again. Now I knew that our Alaska eggs were nearly rotten, and the fresh ones tasted far too alien for me to ever get used to, I was definitely giving them a pass.

Probably hard to believe that Cracker Jacks used to be one of the major joys of childhood in the 40s. I remember vividly my first box which had a red tin whistle. The next had a mottled blue plastic car that smelled funny, the first thing I think I ever saw made of plastic. (Before that things were made of Bakelite, which had no smell. And no color.)


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