Story Time: Cantwell, Alaska

I went to fill up the gas in the rental car. In Cantwell, you have two choices. You can pick the Tesoro south of the Denali Highway junction, or you can choose the Chevron north of the junction. I had previously gone and picked up some food at the Chevron, so I decided to go south. I filled up the tank and the machine didn’t give a receipt, which I need for work, so I went into the store.

I walk in and no one was there. Shelves are half empty, things are rather dusty. There were three big display coolers which had a couple gallons of milk, a few soda choices, and energy drinks. This blocks the other half of this large room to where I could hear a basketball game playing on TV.

Out comes this old Ahtna (Athabascan) man. He literally stumbles toward the counter. I thought he was drunk. But then he starts up a conversation and I realize that was just an 80+ year old man trying to get his footing. Every time I’m ready to leave, he comes up with a new story. He told me three that stuck with me:

1) In 1928, his father-in-law built a cabin in the woods to the southeast of the Denali Highway junction. One day they visited, did their thing and left. The next time they came back, someone had tagged on the side of the cabin, “Who’s been in my cabin. This is my cabin!” Clearly it was not this person’s cabin and they were squatting. He came up when they were there and threatened them at gunpoint. So, being a Native family, they go back to Cantwell, they round up all their family from Cantwell to Copper Center to Anchorage, one of these included a cousin who is nearly 400 pounds, and they all made the trip back to the cabin.

The story ends where the squatter got the ever-loving-shit beat out of him. The gas station attendant said that he doesn’t think he died, but he’s never seen that guy again.

2) This gas station sits right at the southwest junction of the Parks Highway and the Denali Highway. One day while working, this guy saw a small car come off the Denali HIghway and get creamed by a giant semi that was probably going a little too fast through town. Apparently something flew out and away from the car. He was sure it was the driver. He ran over there to find that it was the car’s engine that got ejected. The gas line was leaking so he pinched that off and found the driver still in the vehicle. He said he thought he was dead because he was all purple, but that he was still alive and continued to be so until he was taken away to the hospital. He is unsure whether the person made it or not. This is probably why the speed limit through town is 45 mph.

3) History lesson! Prior to 1971, if one were to want to go to the Denali National Park (prior to 1980, it was Mount McKinley National Park), one would have to drive out of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway, go north from Glennallen to Paxson, then head east along the Denali Highway to get to Cantwell. From there it’s just a half hour drive north. This was about an 8.5 hour drive, and probably even longer considering the advancement of road conditions over the years.

In 1970, George Parks Highway construction began. This ultimately cut the travel time in half from Anchorage to Cantwell or Denali National Park. The car attended said that one day he woke up to see surveyors come through his yard. They were marking the new road. He said he talked to their boss who said they would look into it. He never heard back from them again. He also looked into getting a lawyer, but that proved fruitless. So the road was built and it cut right through his land, where on the east side of what became the highway, he owned up to a half mile down the Denali Highway.

I’m sure he gets a lot of traffic due to the new road, but it doesn’t seem like he got much or any compensation for the road being built over his property. He just kind of laughs about it now, but man, Alaska was really the last frontier back then. You could almost get away with anything.

Asymptote’s January 2012 issue is out!

Our fifth issue marks our first anniversary as a journal dedicated to publishing translation and translation-related work from the world over. Legendary Taiwanese artist Hou Chun-Ming’s work illustrates this issue, which also debuts a revamped Visual section. Some other important highlights are:

  • an extensive Special Feature on literature from Taiwan
  • a brand new essay by Reality Hunger author David Shields
  • an excerpt from a newly translated novel by Bohumil Hrabal
  • poems in and translated from the Ahtna Athabaskan language of interior Alaska by John Smelcer, one of the few people who knows this endangered language
  • the first ever English rendering of Bruno Jasieński’s murderous I Burn Paris

We’ll be taking you through the issue section by section this week, so keep a look out for our posts. Meanwhile, do browse around the issue and spread the word.

Thank you for being our readers and supporters,

The Editors,

Dead languages? Not at ASYMPTOTE.

The Ahtna Athabaskan language of interior Alaska is currently one of the most endangered languages in the world. John Smelcer, the son of an Alaska Native father, is the only living person who can read and write in this language. More than a year ago, I was thrilled, as Poetry Editor, to discover Smelcer’s strange and impossible poems. We published three in our January 2012 issue. In this small way, we hope to help keep Ahtna alive. This is one of many reasons I love working at Asymptote: every day I think about language and life, that maybe there is no such thing as a “dead language” if we can sense somehow that it exists, or once did.

And this is one of many reasons why I am asking you to consider donating to our Indiegogo campaign. In these last few hours, we’re inching toward our goal. We appreciate all the help we can get. (Plus, we have presents for our lovely supporters!)

Aditi Machado
Poetry Editor
Asymptote Journal

PS If you love new words as much as I do, you’ll want to check out Smelcer’s Ahtna Noun Dictionary as well.

Indian River Flats: Ahtna Hunters, Caribou Lookout & Corral

I bought a piece of art today. I never buy art. I’m very particular about what I’d pick up. But this one grabbed my attention. I found it when I was in Glennallen a couple of weeks ago doing an interview in a small coffee shack. On the walls were pieces of art of scenes from around Alaska. The coffee shop owner said his wife made them all.

Her process is that she collects historic photos and replicates them. However, the shop owner says her method is to look at the photograph through a mirror while painting them. This apparently stimulates a different portion of the brain than normal while creating the art.

I liked this piece because I am very interested in the corralling of caribou by either land or water. Since this is based on a historic photograph it is rather accurate. The tool in the hand of the one hunter on the left is a classic Athabascan dagger. The spear looks to have a copper head, which is appropriate for the Copper River Basin.

The children are also helping corral the animal. Ethnographically this was done with strips of hide or twigs. A leader of the hunt would dictate the activities of those corralling the animals. The person waving the skin or plants could do so in a slow, methodical manner, slowly leading the caribou to the preferred location, or they could frantically wave to spook the animal into making quick movements. Much care was taken into the harvesting of caribou as it was one of the most important resources on the landscape as it offers meat for food, hides for shelter and clothes, and bone and antler for tools. 

Song for the Return of the Sun

At midwinter, an old man from Slana River burst out singing.
He kept singing a song for the sun to return.

After three days, the sun rose and shone brightly on the land.
That evening, his face burned, the old man wrung sunlight from his clothes.

This poem was written by John Smelcer in the Ahtna Athabaskan language of interior Alaska and then translated into English by the poet. Ahtna is an endangered language; only a handful of people still speak it, let alone write in it.

Asymptote’s latest issue features this and two other poems by John Smelcer. We are privileged to be able to help keep this language and its literature alive, albeit in a small way.