North To Alaska

Where the river is windin’, big nuggets they’re findin’

North to Alaska go north the rush is on [mush]

North to Alaska go north the rush is on. [mush].

In 1960, Mike Phillips wrote it and Johnny Horton sang it, and “North to Alaska” became an all-time great country hit. The song topped the country and western charts from Jan. 9 to Feb. 13, 1961. The lyric tells of Sam McCord and his partners and how they crossed the Yukon River and found the bonanza gold below that old white mountain just a little southeast of Nome. Yes, Sam McCord was a mighty man in the year of nineteen-one. The song was voted one of the Top 100 Western Songs of All Time in a poll of country and western songwriters. I play very little country on my radio program, “American Pie,” on WOMR-FM. My genre is American rock ’n’ roll from the golden era of rock ’n’ roll, 1955 to 1972. But requests for “North to Alaska” keep coming in, so I keep playing it. Johnny Horton was no “one-hit wonder.” He had struck record gold in 1958 with “The Battle of New Orleans” and the next year with “Sink the Bismarck.” A well-known remark around Midland, Texas is that “school kids learned more America history from Johnny Horton than they ever did in school.” Horton married Hank William’s widow in 1953 after William’s untimely death at 29. Johnny Horton was well on his way to being one of the nation’s biggest country stars when he was killed in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in November 1960 in Milano, Texas. Johnny Horton was only 35 at the time of his death. He never lived to enjoy the popularity of his greatest song.

Well, we never crossed the Yukon River, but my wife and I traveled to Alaska several weeks ago with two other Chatham couples. We experienced no hardships, and we found no gold. We did have a wonderful time and we found that Alaska and its economy are not unlike that of Chatham and Cape Cod. Like so many local economies, Alaska’s economy is like a three-legged stool. Each leg has a key role in supporting the stool and Alaska has two of those legs that are the very same as those supporting Chatham. Fishing, salmon fishing in particular, brings in tremendous revenue in southern Alaska. The Pacific salmon is an amazing fish. It is born in fresh water up in the cold water streams, it then migrates to the salt water of the open ocean and then returns to fresh water to reproduce. How a fish can be a fresh water fish, then a salt water fish and somehow return to being a fresh water fish is a mystery to me. And add to that the concept that the salmon returns to the stream of its birth to reproduce. The many intricacies of nature are far beyond the limited workings of my brain. We enjoyed no salmon in Alaska. The fresh salmon had not come in yet, and the state law prohibits serving farmed salmon. Salmon is a great cash crop for the fishermen of Alaska.

Like Chatham, the second leg on the stool is tourism. Our tourists arrive by car and bus, their tourists come on the tour boats. Our boat was small, just 370 passengers, but some of the cruise boats held 3,500 to, and their arrival overwhelmed the small Alaskan towns. Imagine several large tour boats docking at about the same time and disgorging 6,000 to 7,000 tourists on a town of 2,000 to 3,000 people. Hordes of aggressive tourists let loose from their cruise ship. It’s a frightening picture and it happens five times a week. Fortunately, those tourists are anxious to spend, and like Cape Cod, the peak season is short. The revenue supports lots of Alaskans and so the situation is acceptable.

Perhaps there is a lesson for the people of Chatham and their love/hate relationship with tourists. Alaskans tend to be friendly and helpful as if they know that tourist dollars are of crucial importance to their well-being. Some of us could consider being more friendly and helpful when we see a tourist in distress. It might pay off in the long run.

As a person always concerned with being warm enough, I brought every form of heavy clothing to Alaska only to discover that in early June, it was warmer in southern Alaska than back on Cape Cod. My heavy clothing sat idle in my closet as each day was bright with 60 degrees and no rain. Chatham was enduring November in June with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees and each day had a stiff breeze putting the wind chill in the 40s. For those in Chatham, the idea that one day soon summer would just arrive had to feel remote. And yet, that is what happened. A week ago, brave summer visitors in shorts and tank tops on Main Street were pretending that 50 degrees was 70 and that the early summer was going as planned. With no warning, the next day reached 80 and they headed to the beaches.

This is no unique happening. Actually, it happens almost every year. And not a minute too soon. The old Cape Cod expression that “by the time we reach the Fourth of July, the summer is almost over” has a lot of truth to it. July and August race by and if you haven’t stopped to smell the roses, it’s Labor Day.

So slow down, do some smelling, and enjoy your summer. As Ira Gershwin once wrote, “Summertime and the living is easy/Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” Cotton is hard to find in Chatham, but I think you know what Ira meant. The summer is why a great number of us love Chatham. Let’s have a good one.