The Bush People
John McPhee wrote a masterpiece book, Coming Into the Country, describing a loose assembly of individuals living in isolated cabin sites scattered along the banks of the Yukon River downstream of the community of Eagle. These mostly young men and women arrived in Eagle over a period of several years in the early-to-late 1970s. They were seeking the opportunity to follow a “pure” lifestyle of living off the natural environment with minimal reliance on or interference from modern society. This group collectively became known as “The River People”.
Every year there are people who arrive in Alaska seeking a classic early frontier-type experience. Over some three decades we came to know several of what we called the “Bush People” particularly in and around the Brooks Range and its major drainages. I would fly our small plane over their log cabin homes to drop mail or deliver supplies. When conditions permitted I sometimes landed to visit with a bush resident or occasionally to render emergency assistance.
The great majority of the “Bush People” we personally knew were non-Natives, although some had Native spouses and partners who accompanied them into the wilds. Most followed their dream of independent wilderness living for a few years and then decided to return to a more conventional life. Some took the middle ground moving into small communities on the edge of wilderness areas where they could still continue to experience some degree of independent bush life. A very small percentage toughed it out and were able to carve out a long-term sustainable lifestyle. Advancing age, children, health care and economic concerns were among the factors that contributed to decisions to retire from the isolated lifestyle in the backcountry regions of Alaska. It is also a fact that humans are naturally social creatures innately wanting and needing interaction with others. Self-imposed isolation can contribute to emotional stress, as Robert Byrd describes in the book, Alone, about his own experience in Antarctica.
In the book, Our Perfect Wild, we go into detail to relate interactions with two particular bush residents, Blondie and Hog River Gary. Both went off into the wilds to live out their dreams of being the modern version of mountain men. I also acted as a representative of the National Park Service making contact with scattered bush residents to inform them of the changes the designation of new national park areas in Alaska would bring to their lives. This duty took me into some of the truly remote regions of Alaska where I worked with individuals who often had little tolerance for legal restrictions. I understood their desire to live a truly free life, but I also knew that the new parks belonged to all Americans and had to be managed in the interests of the general public. It was a delicate balance.
Many of the bush residents had no formal legal claim to the cabins they built and occupied and could not assert actual property rights over traplines, fishing sites, wood cutting areas, etc. Special regulations were written to accommodate their basic needs, but there were limitations that came with them. I recall many nights spent in small, candle lit cabins and tents talking with individuals about the changes taking place and listening to their concerns and wishes to continue a special lifestyle. I tried to carry their message to Park Service administrators in hopes of finding middle ground. Most had to be told that they could never legally own the land and cabins they occupied, because they were located on public lands that now had become a national park. An interesting side note of this story is that several Bush People eventually went on to work for the National Park Service as rangers, maintenance employees and in other positions. While I never considered myself to be a full-fledged member of the Bush People, my wife and I did live a modified bush-type life for many years, and I also eventually joined the National Park Service.