Chatanika, Alaska

I’m guessing that Ron’s full name is probably Ronald, but it is hard for me imagine him with more than a one syllable name.

June 21

A lazy morning. It was really nice. I had breakfast with Rick and Cherie before they headed off to work. I spent a couple of hours writing while wearing sweatpants (which as everyone knows, is when the best writing takes place). Then it was time to get down to business. Today was a day to check a place off of my list.

It had been 9 days since my experience in Gravelbourg, which is quite a dry spell. I won’t have many gaps in song places that are this long until I go south of the border. The destination for the day was Chatanika, just about 30 minutes up the road.

On the way I stopped for a picture of the pipeline I had seen briefly the day earlier.

Once I left the main highway, the road to Chatanika (Chat-a-NEE-ka) was a lot of fun. Steep elevation changes and tight twists and turns through forests of skinny birch trees.

Is this what you would call “taking a dump”?

I arrived at the Chatanika sign and got a good picture. Then I thought I would drive through town to get a feel for the place. I passed the Chatanika Lodge and then I saw…..oh wait…that was it? There’s not really a town to speak of. There was no other decision but to visit the lodge.

I’m trying to figure out how to describe what it was like to step in to this lodge…maybe overwhelmed/intrigued? Though there were not many people inside (around 1pm on a Wednesday), the decor was full of activity. One of the first things I noticed was the dollar bills tacked up on nearly every flat space.

Most of them had a person’s name and location. I meandered just a bit before talking to the lady behind the bar, telling her who I was and what I was doing. She gave me just a brief history of the place before interrupting herself: “…but I’ve only been here 14 years. You really need to talk to Ron.” She pointed him out in the room towards the back.

Ron is the owner of the Chatanika Lodge. What I found him doing was near the bottom of things that I would have ever expected: Playing bowling on the Nintendo Wii. His opponents were three guys in their 20s or 30s, one of whom was having a birthday. I never got the full story, but it seemed like they were maybe just stopping by over their lunch hour.

The trash talking never really stopped and it seemed to spur on Ron’s performance. I invited him to come back to Nebraska with me, a place where elders are respected. Each turn he would methodically raise himself from his chair amid a chorus of heckles. He threw with a quick flick of his left wrist, mostly registering strikes while I watched. I tried to talk to him a bit about my trip between turns, but his mind was clearly on the game. He ended up besting his three opponents and the vanquished went on their way.

(Note: If I ever needed a recorder for a conversation, it would have been this one. I will try to recreate the highlights of it as faithfully as possible.)

We sat across from each other in the table pictured mid-frame

“So what did you say you’re doing?” Ron asked once we had the room to ourselves. I reiterated the purpose of the trip and told him I wanted to know everything there was about the history of the Chatanika Lodge. “Well, that’s a long story….” His tone made me think that he was not very excited about talking about it. I thought it might encourage him if I were a customer, so I asked him how many beers long the story is.

“Well, how many can you drink?”

I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. I had the nice lady behind the bar draw me a mug of Alaska-brewed pilsner. The early parts of our conversation almost felt like two boxers feeling each other out during the early rounds of a fight. I was trying to figure out how to get him to open up while he was still being cautious with the snooping outsider sitting across from him. When he asked me what kind of bike I was on, I decided to throw a punch.

“She’s a 700cc Honda, and I made sure to park her right in front of your ‘Harley Country’ sign out front.” He cussed at me, but did so with a smile on his face. Eventually, slowly, Ron’s story began to come forth.

He grew up in the southeast corner of Iowa. After being drafted into the Army during Vietnam, he drove his T-bird up to Alaska. He bounced around multiple locations and occupations, learning how to tend bar at a secluded spot in the Yukon.

I’m still a bit unclear how he purchased the original building in Chatanika, but this first one burned down. “That’s why I always shoot squirrels on sight. No questions asked.” Apparently they were the cause of the electrical fire. There were still some buildings on site, so Ron tried to make do. He reopened the bar in a horse barn, which is still part of the current lodge. It was a small area, probably less than 20′ x 20′.

Ron became frustrated that I was not picking up on his general pointing of the original dimensions, so we moved tables to a spot up near the bar.

For years he slept in a recliner in the North corner (the front of the building faces SW), heated by an old stove in the West corner. Eventually he decided to expand. His method of expansion was moving over a hay barn to connect to the original horse barn. I tried multiple times to get him to explain the logistics of moving such a large structure, but was repeatedly answered with “you just move it!”

This new addition included a pool table, allowing Ron’s sleeping arrangement to become “high class”. He slept on the pool table, with his pad and covers rolled up and stuffed underneath during the day. This was his arrangment for a few more years, but cost him a couple of broken ribs when he rolled off in the night.

He never really talked about any sort of business plan or why the lodge was successful, but his continued additions showed that business was good. He added a cabin, still his residence, three sides of which are now surrounded by the lodge.

The dollar tradition began spontaneously when they added the kitchen in the 80s. They posted up the first two dollars the kitchen earned and other bills just followed.

By this point in the conversation he was opening up and seemed to even be enjoying the myriad of questions I was lobbing his way. I even felt comfortable enough to tell him that the corn from Iowa is a bunch of worm-infested rubbish, nowhere near the quality of the Nebraska product. 🙂

There was audible pride in his voice as he talked about this place that he had created, mostly with his own hands. “It took a lot of love,” he said, then repeated the phrase almost as a distant echo. When talking about the harsh winters, it was revealed that I have never seen the northern lights. I was told that I absolutely need to come see them from the lodge sometime. I asked him how I was supposed to get from the airport to the lodge.

“Well, shit, I’ll come get ya.”

I have no doubt that he would. He also invited me to pitch my tent on site if need be. When I asked about the future for him, he said he was ready to be done with the business. He is looking for a buyer for the lodge. Regardless of who the next owner is, I know Ron’s influnce will be apparent for decades to come.

My first wife is a redhead, my second wife is a blonde…..

Ron had an appointment to get to so our conversation had to come to an end. The last thing I wanted from him was a picture together. I was unsure how he would respond to this request, but he obliged without too much convincing. I gave my phone to a nice gentleman at the next table and scooted my chair next to Ron’s. Suddenly, a big hand grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me close, almost off of my chair.

I’m not entirely sure, but I think I may have made a new best friend today.

The only thing left to do was to find a spot for my dollar bill. I was given a sharpie and a staple gun for the task. I chose a less congested spot next to the walrus tusks, one of the first things to catch my eye.

I included shameless self promotion on my bill 🙂

The other thing Ron encouraged me to see was the old gold-mining dredge. It is across from the lodge, down a rocky trail. He thought I would be able to get there on my “rice burner.” The ride was the most technical of my trip so far. Large rocks can push you around in unexpected ways. Annie is not exactly a dirt bike, especially the way she is loaded down, but we gave it a shot.

Trespassing? Not sure. Surely Ron’s permission was enough.

There was a ladder leading up onto the dredge, so I did a little climbing.

This picture is dumb. I like it:

A view down the crane:

Time to leave Chatanika. What a neat little place. It is also the farthest away from home that I will be for quite some time, about 2,600 miles in straight line distance. The next time I will be this far from home is when I reach Colombia in South America.

The random nature of this song has already led me to some places that I would never have even thought of visiting. These sort of connections are what travel are all about. Nice to know that if I’m ever in a pinch, I can probably just give Ron a call.

$5 to the first person to send me a picture next to my dollar bill. 🙂


Author: BA


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