Our Pal Al
February 10, 1945 – February 13, 2015
The first ever full time, year around resident at the lake was our pal Al. We met him in 1996. He was caretaking a remote lodge through the winter and was our nearest neighbor. A benefit of the frontier is that money, status, and heritage are forgotten in a common struggle against the elements. Nature is a great equalizer, with Nature’s trump card—death—the greatest of all equalizers.
We liked Al immediately. He was upbeat and well read, interesting and interested in absolutely everything. He always had a plan.
On February 11, 1998, we left town late for a trip to the lake. A few miles before arriving, we found a snowmachine abandoned in the middle of the road. Footprints led away from it to the west. Clearly the machine had broken and someone continued the journey on foot. It was bitter cold.
We followed the tracks to Al, full of smiles and wearing a fox fur hat. We took a photo and offered him a lift. He said he was happy to walk, but we insisted. We had mail to deliver further on. It wouldn't be out of our way. He accepted a ride.
We visited Al in his cabin. It was neat and clean. He talked about opening a little coffee shop for snowmachiners in the winter. He mentioned he was having trouble reading. Dennis brought him a pair of glasses on our next visit. Al put them on, looked at the book, and said, “Whoa!” What a difference! He hadn't realized that his eyes were getting old!
We were amazed when Al told us he’d pulled out his own teeth! It sounded a little less painful when we learned they were already falling out.
We visited Al almost every time we went to the lake over the years, especially in the wintertime. He was always happy to see us, full of stories and thoughts about what he’d been reading. He made lists of books he wanted to read and gave us money to buy them for him. The titles were intimidating: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Thucydides, Ancient Civilizations, The Trivium, etc. He was getting a better classical education on his own than either of us had gotten in years of university classes.
Al was amazing with plants and animals. He adopted and domesticated a pigeon that flew in from somewhere. Before long, “Charlene” was living in his house and laying eggs, which he fried up for breakfast. He tamed the local foxes and shared with us delicious vegetables he grew.
He gave us a raspberry bush that thrives in our Anchorage garden. He kept chickens and rabbits for years. Free-range eggs are delicious!
When the property he was caretaking was put on the market, we wondered what would happen to Al. He said he’d be fine. He had a dream to live out in the woods. During a visit to our homestead on March 28, 2005, Dennis offered to let him build a cabin at our lake should he ever need to.
In 2007, we learned that Al was in the hospital at Providence. We went to visit. He was as upbeat as ever, entertaining nurses and doctors with stories of life in the Bush. Charlene had given him one final gift, he said. While he was being checked for unrelated symptoms, doctors decided to look at his lungs because he’d lived with a wild bird. They discovered lung cancer in its earliest stages and removed it. Al recovered his health. Dennis said he seemed to have more health and energy than the rest of us!
On a trip to see Al at Tangle Lakes in 2009, Dennis discovered visitors already there—Sarah Palin’s parents Chuck and Sally Heath. In 2010, Al told us he’d saved enough money to buy a computer and asked us to buy one for him. It was a joy to give him a few basic lessons on his first Mac and help him connect to the Internet. The computer opened a whole world of learning opportunities for him.
In 2011, Al moved to a remote spot in the woods with a line of sight to the telephone tower so he could access the Internet. Starting with Susan Boyle and Jackie Evancho, he fell in love with opera. One winter morning, a trapper camping some distance away awoke in his tent to a soaring aria and wondered if he’d died and gone to heaven. He traced the music to Al’s place and was invited in for coffee.
Troopers evicted Al from his wilderness hideaway on August 12, 2012. A National Geographic cameraman was along, filming for the “reality” show Alaska Troopers. They found Al’s truck parked by the road and inside, horror of horrors, was a rifle case! He must be armed and dangerous, delusional, a gun nut! Think Ruby Ridge! Unabomber!
We personally doubt anyone in his right mind would raise rabbits and chickens in the Alaskan wilderness without having a gun handy!
According to Al, he heard someone yell. He opened the door to see two Troopers with guns aimed at him. He laughed and invited them in. They evicted him. The story “Armed and Squatting” first aired December 16, 2012 (Season 4, Episode 10). A Trooper acknowledged at the end that a lot of people would probably really enjoy Al’s little piece of heaven.
So September 11, 2012, the day of the Benghazi attack in Libya, Al became our next-door neighbor, helping Dennis build an annex onto the bunkhouse where he lived through the first winter. He built his own cabin in 2013. Unfortunately, he no longer had line of site to the cell phone tower. Al had to drop his online classes—sentence diagramming, algebra and such. He rectified the situation with satellite Internet when his finances allowed.
When you think about it, Al did much the same thing Dennis did decades earlier. Al was a quintessential homesteader. His problem was the laws had changed. Al was just 18 when Dennis built his first cabin, too young to homestead and in an entirely different life situation, in prison, actually.
On February 13, 2015, friends stopped for a visit and found Al dead. His cabin was still warm. Half a cup of coffee remained on the table where he’d been sitting. The previous day, he’d driven his snowmachine 40 miles to pick up groceries. All seemed well. He was in the process of composing a letter in which he said, “It’s been a restorative and meditative winter. If I felt any better I’d have to be breaking the law!” His death was ruled natural. No autopsy was conducted to find a specific cause.
Al’s daughter wanted to come to Alaska to say goodbye, so we planned an August 22 memorial that turned into a highlight of our year. Twenty-three people came from near and far, including Al's good friends Chuck and Sally Heath, who have since become treasured friends of ours.
After a great day reminiscing, we watched the episode of Alaska State Troopers that showed Al being evicted from his wilderness hideaway. Everybody grumbled, knowing some of “the rest of the story.” The next day, we took our guests to the trail Al used to reach his camp in the woods. Lo and behold, a Trooper truck pulled up. It was the Trooper—the one who’d evicted Al on TV and precipitated his move to our property, the one who’d removed his body from the cabin, the one who’d tracked down his daughter to give her the sad news. The Trooper said he hadn’t been in the area for months. He just “happened” to drive by during the 20 minutes or so we were all there. He stopped because it’s unusual, to say the least, for a bunch of people to park and mill around in that particular location!
On a shelf in Al's cabin was an unfinished manuscript telling part of the story of his troubled past. I put it into a 123-page book and sent a copy to everyone in his address book. Al's story humbles me. It reminds me to appreciate my blessings, including most especially, my family and husband.
Click the title to read a PDF copy of Al's book: Choices: Battling the Beast Within.
Go on to read Subduing a Wayward Snowmachine
Source: www.SusanCAnthony.com, ©Susan C. Anthony