Musher shares mountaintop with Miller High Life

EAGLE, Alaska Atop American summit, at 1,026 metres, sits a tiny cabin buried in snowdrifts. Twenty-nine kilometres from Eagle, Alaska, it is…

EAGLE, Alaska

Atop American summit, at 1,026 metres, sits a tiny cabin buried in snowdrifts.

Twenty-nine kilometres from Eagle, Alaska, it is accessible only by snowmachine, dog team or helicopter.

Inside is a black dog named Casey, a caretaker named Bailey and about 500 cases of Miller High Life.

“We used to have Budweiser too, but we ran out,” apologized Bailey.

“It’s kinda’ like predicting the weather — last year we had all this Bud left and no Miller, now this year it’s all Miller and no Bud.”

Bailey supplies alcohol to brave souls from Eagle who are willing to climb the steep switchbacks to his cabin, usually by snow machine.

Eagle is a damp community, residents can bring in alcohol to the tiny hamlet, but it cannot be sold there.

“It was decided by ABC, the Alcoholic Beverage Control, not to sell booze in Eagle,” said Bailey.

But up on the summit, he is out of city limits.

“Only people within a five-mile radius would be able to complain and stop me,” he said.

And Bailey’s only neighbour is Quest musher Wayne Hall.

“He tells (his wife) he is going for a run (with his dogs) and he comes over here for a beer,” he joked.

Hall uses his cabin on the summit to train dogs during freeze-up, when the lowlands are still awaiting snow.

“It snows up (on the summit) early,” said his 14-year-old son Garf.

“And our trapline starts up there.”

There are nice long roads up there for training too, he added.

The Halls spend two to three months of the year on the summit and the rest several kilometres downriver from Eagle in a cabin powered by solar panels and windmills.

They moved to the area 13 years ago from the Bering coast.

“It wasn’t nice weather there and my Mom wanted a place where she could skijor,” said Garf.

After much persuasion, Scarlet Hall convinced her husband to attach a sled to her skijoring dogs.

Wayne has been mushing ever since. And Garf sometimes joins his father on 160-kilometre training runs, mushing as many as nine dogs of his own.

This year on one of the long summit runs, Wayne and Garf were caught in a blizzard.

“I could just see my leaders, and the glow of my father’s headlamp through the fog and wind,” said Garf.

“But the dogs know it good up there.”

And they got home.

Garf also traps with his dad, bringing home wolf, wolverine, lynx and marten.

“The marten is the most high paying,” he said.

In Eagle, Hall had a cheering committee standing around the checkpoint bonfire waiting for their hometown favourite Wednesday night.

But he didn’t arrive till Thursday, coming in at 7:40 a.m.

The dogs were pretty slow on the river, Scarlet said.

“But once they got close to home Wayne had to stand on the brake the whole way into town.”

Running bigger dogs is a lot harder, especially in this warm weather, said Wayne.

He has had to drop three dogs so far, one for a shoulder injury, one for a wrist problem and one because the crusty snow has damaged the pads on its feet.

“They’re happy to be home,” he said.

But will they be happy to keep on going?

Wayne isn’t sure.

Garf volunteered at the checkpoint, guiding dog teams into resting areas and just generally helping out.

Up on the summit, Bailey was drinking Miller and waiting for the mushers to drive by.

“Last year they never even stopped in here,” he said.

When asked about this, standing Quest champ Lance Mackey grinned.

“Well hell, I had no idea there was a bar up there,” he said.

“I damn sure would have stopped.”

He didn’t think he would stop this year, but then thought about it some more.

“Well, it is a long ways till I gets there,” he said smiling.

Bailey spends a lot of time listening to the wind, and hanging out with his dog. But Casey doesn’t like it up there, he said. “There ain’t no trees to piss on.”

When the Quest mushers drive by, Bailey always hopes they’ll stop in.

About three times a week he gets visitors looking for beer, usually Dennis Volkheimer, the self-proclaimed “only Eskimo in Eagle.”

Volkheimer regularly drives up the mountain on his snowmachine with a big Rubbermaid container bungeed to the back.

On a torn envelope sitting on Bailey’s plywood table is a list of orders from thirsty Eaglites waiting below.

But they’ll have to wait awhile.

Volkheimer was enjoying a snow-chilled High Life while chatting with Max, an older gentleman who was born and raised in Eagle and joined Volkheimer for his run up the mountain.

“Did you see that floating coffin last summer?” asked Volkheimer.

“I had to push it off shore, it got caught in the bend.”

Yup, this sparked a few questions.

Apparently, a coffin decorated with moose horns was spotted floating down the Yukon River last summer.

Pinned on its lid was a sign that read, “If you find me on the bank, please push me off because my destination is the Bering Sea.”

So, Volkheimer did what he was told.

“It must have come from one of the villages upriver,” said Max.

Asking around Eagle the next day, many people had seen or heard about the floating coffin.

And that is not all that was spotted in the river.

“I was standing on the bank one day, and I saw something floating down river,” said a local prospector and trapper known as Cobb.

“It was a guy in a full suit, white shirt and all, sitting in a barrel with a hole cut in it, with little barrels on each side to balance it.”

Cobb wasn’t sure what the guy was up to.

“I said hello to him; he just went into town, did his business then got back in his barrel and left.”

Eagle, population 146, is by no means an ordinary town.

Accessible in winter only by air, snowmachine or dog team, the tiny city is full of old cabins and quaint buildings.

A wood stove heats the library, and the old school, which acts as the Quest’s checkpoint, is the only known building to boast an indoor outhouse.

Mushers enjoy Eagle because the locals are hospitable, and virtually the whole town comes out to support the Quest.

Maybe, this year, some mushers even got a liquid reward when the reached the top of American summit.

Only Bailey and Casey would know.