“May I have your attention please, a polar bear sow and her two cubs are outside of E Wing, we’re requesting all guests and residents remain indoors until they leave the area. Chef Wayne will be serving breakfast in the cafeteria. So we suggest you stay in, relax and have breakfast instead of becoming someone else’s. Have a nice day.” The loud speaker squawked at the end of the announcement.
“You don’t think that’s for real do you?” asked Eleanor laughing at the thought.
“Well, the mosquitoes here are large,” I said pointing at the window between our beds, “but not that large.”
Eleanor moved to the window in time to see three white butts disappear around the end of the building.
“Ah, I’m sorry I didn’t have my camera ready.”
“You can take a picture the next time you’re at the zoo, unless you feel the need to be on the menu?” I said smiling. “I’m sure the mama wouldn’t mind an easy meal.”
“Naw, I think we should hit the cafeteria, I’m in the mood for bunny shaped pancakes, less dangerous.”
Two hours later, taking our last pictures of the Caribou Inn before it closed forever I said, “I must admit, I’ve never stayed in a hotel made out of Atco trailers before.” Looking at the rows of trailers stitched together. “I can’t imagine what it must be like here in the winter.”
We boarded the bus for Fairbanks.
“We have a few announcements before we leave,” said Wendy, our driver. “We will make one last stop at Prudhoe Bay for anyone wanting to get pictures, the ice broke this morning. Then we are going to take the Dalton Highway to Fairbanks. It will take two days, the road is in pretty rough shape and we can’t drive faster than 25 miles an hour.
We’ll be stopping at pump station four for lunch and a break at the top of the pass. Keep your eyes open for bears when we stop, you don’t want to become another statistic for meals on wheels.”
Nervous laughter followed the announcement.
The bus pulled into a narrow parking lot leading to the beach.
Wendy stood at the front of the bus, microphone in hand. “One last warning folks, we aren’t kidding about the Polar bears, even though I am carrying,” she said pointing to the side arm strapped to her hip, “I am going to run first and shoot second. If you see me running, don’t stop to take pictures, move your ever loving ass back onto the bus. We leave in 30 minutes.”
Eleanor and I looked at each other nodding.
Walking to the water’s edge Eleanor removed her shoes. I stuck my finger into the frigid water. She waded in. Lacking any momentum to form a wave, the water reflected my image. Below the water’s surface rusted bits of metal dotted the rocky shoreline.
Eleanor climbed up onto the closest ice floe. “Hey Fannie, can you take my picture?”
“Sure, just be very careful when you come back, there is metal debris everywhere.”
Behind my left shoulder I heard someone running. Clutching the camera, I froze in panic. Matt ran passed me in his skivvies. He leaped into the air, caught his trailing foot on a rock and landed face first in the water.
He jumped up from the water. Taking a bow he said, “I’m all right, I’m all right.”
Wendy handed him a towel as he walked back up the beach. “Nice move, Slick.”
To the rest of us she said, “Okay everybody, time to get back on the bus.”
Unpaved gravel road, possibly the inspiration for the design of the washboard, lead the bus toward Fairbanks. Caribou raced over the rolling hills keeping pace with the bus, heralding our passage. We followed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for two hours before we saw another motor vehicle.
Rounding a bend in the road, pump station four came into view.
“Okay folks, we will be pulling off here. At the end of this spur road is a small park with a great view of the mountains,” said Wendy over the intercom.
The bus turned right onto another gravel road, passing an air strip and maintenance buildings. A caribou wandered between the vehicles parked at intervals near the maintenance building. No sign of the human inhabitants.
Half a mile passed the station, kitchen sink sized potholes spread across the road. Wendy slowed the bus, steering around the obstacle coarse. The bus jerked and bounced in protest to the rough road. It caught a pothole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The front driver’s side tire burst. With enough momentum to clear the hole, Wendy brought the bus to a stop on a level stretch of roadway.
“Well folks, it looks like we will be having lunch here while I change this tire. It’s your choice to remain in the bus or go outside and stretch your legs, just stay close and pay attention to your surroundings.”
The first off the bus, I snapped a picture of the wounded tire.
Looking around, low rolling hills spread out in every direction. Facing south we saw the blue hills forming the Brooks Mountain range.
Wendy examined the tire. Shaking her head, she opened the compartment next to the tire. She removed the spare tire and a hydraulic jack.
Placing the jack under the bus frame she pumped the foot pedal. A high pitched whine accompanied each pump. Her shoulders sagged. The jack failed. She radioed for help. No response.
“Bob, why don’t you try calling AAA,” said Marlys, one of the passengers, nudging her husband.
“I already thought of that, we haven’t had cell service since we left Prudhoe,” he said.
“It looks like we’re going to be here a while folks. Whatever you do, don’t wander off to far and use the buddy system. I’m going to get the bolts on the tire loosened up so we’re ready when help does arrive,” said Wendy.
We stood around looking at each other.
“Fannie, what do you think about getting everyone to sing Bear in Tennis Shoes to keep the crowd entertained?” asked Eleanor watching the crowd growing anxious.
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” I said. “Hey everybody, I want to take a quick survey of the group, can you please gather around.” I said winking to Eleanor.
“How many of you went to summer camp as a kid?”
Half the group raised their hands.
“How many of you wished you got to go as a kid?”
The other half raised their hands.
“Okay, then I want to enlist your help with a little project of mine,” I said looking at the group. “Welcome to Camp Tundra, I’m your camp counselor, Fannie, and we’d like to welcome you to camp. How many of you know the song Bear in Tennis Shoes?”
Eleanor raised her hand.
“Not to worry, it’s really easy to learn. I am going to sing a line of the song and you’re going to sing the line back to me. Once we’ve completed four lines, we’ll sing them all together. You’ll catch on. Don’t worry if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, we’re at camp not auditioning for American Idol,” I said. “At the end of the song, we’re going to shout the words, ‘The End’. So lets give it a try, give me a ‘The End’.”
The group said, “the end.”
“Come on you guys, I know we can do better than that, let’s hear it again, remember, you’re at summer camp. ‘The End’.”
The group shouted, “THE END.”
“Much better, are you ready?”
“The other day. . .”
“The other day,” they sang back like ten-years-old.
We sang every verse. Just as we shouted, “THE END,” A plane landed at the airfield.
“I’m going to walk to the airfield and see if whoever just landed can help us,” said Eleanor, “does anyone want to come?” Matt, the swimmer, volunteered.
Twenty minutes later we could see dust rising from the road. The pump station mechanic arrived to help us.
“I hear you have a problem with a jack,” said the mechanic walking up to Wendy. “Can I have a look at it?”
After examining the jack he said, “I can fix this, but I have to take it back to the shop. It shouldn’t take more than half an hour.”
Forty minutes later the mechanic returned with the jack. “Shall we give it a go?” he asked placing the jack under the bus frame.
Wendy pumped the jack. The bus rose off the ground. Loud cheers erupted from the group.
Forty minutes later we boarded the bus and did a head count. Forty-two people left the bus, forty people returned. After thirty minutes searching, the mechanic got into his plane.
He radioed, “Wendy, I’ve spotted your missing passengers. They are sitting on the rock by the junction to the main road.”
“Thanks for your help, Jeff, we’ll take it from here. Over,” said Wendy anger spreading across her face.
We turned the bus around. At the junction of the main road we picked up our two strays.
One of the strays said, “We figured you had to pass this way eventually and it was too far to walk back.”
Let’s just say, our missing passengers will never wander away from the group again.
Two days later we arrived in Fairbanks. Rain poured from the sky like a waterfall. We huddled on the train platform under the shelter. Bodies pressed together trying to stay dry.
The loud speaker over head squealed. Everyone winced. “Sorry folks, we have some bad news, the train is going to be delayed. One of the passenger cars caught fire. The fire is out, but we need to get a new passenger car attached before we can leave. The snack bar is open if you’re hungry. It’s going to be a couple hours.”
The groan spread across the platform. Somewhere in the back someone shouted, “Hey Fannie, how about an encore of Bear in Tennis Shoes?”