When you’re rafting in Alaska and you hear a backwoods banjo …


IT IS as you’re rafting down Alaska’s ice-cold Talkeetna River that something snags at your senses. Amid the confusion of the rushing water, the creak of the rowlocks, the straining of sinews as the oars cleave the current, there’s something else.

Something surreal.

Gradually the sound becomes clearer. It’s a banjo.

And, yes, you’ve seen Deliverance. It’s just your brain playing tricks. Movie by association.

And yet, and yet… As the raft rounds the bend in the river, you do a double take.

Because there, sitting on the bank, plucking his banjo under a rainbow-coloured umbrella is Steve Durr.

He’s come down from the hills for the summer as he has for, well, as long as anyone round these parts can remember.

At the age of 74, he strolls from his camp in the woods, hunting rifle and banjo over his shoulder, whenever a raft hoves into view, and breaks into song.

But then this is Talkeetna, a pioneer town deep in the Alaskan backwoods.

Yes, this is the one-street shanty town that spawned television’s strange Northern Exposure – think Twin Peaks with humour – and where the town mayor was until recently a cat named Denali.

That’s a cat as in the four-legged variety. Yes, really.

Even that comes with its conspiracy theory. The previous mayor was a cat called Stubbs, and there are those who fear that the feline first citizen may have passed before his time.

It’s a piece of information worth storing away for the pub quiz. It even figured in a question on Richard Osman’s House of Games TV show the other week.

“I write about the people and times I’ve known these last forty years in Alaska,” says backwoods banjo man Durr. “I don’t write for ‘markets’ like the kids do these days.”

(Apart from the raft market, presumably. It’s a niche thing. Not many other musicians have to watch out for bears when they’re setting up).

Talkeetna, you see, is a town of free thinkers, big pick-up trucks and even bigger beards. Wacky baccy is legal here, there are stills in the woods.

And in the back room of the Denali Brewing Company, Led Zeppelin’s Going to California jangles from a cassette tape deck.

This is where former mountain guide Sassan Mossanen and Shawn B Standley, late of Anchorage institution Humpy’s Alaskan Alehouse, brew up the likes of Mother Ale, Blues & Wheat and Slow Down Brown.

“I got to know Paul when I was at Humpy’s and he used to bring in the odd keg,” he says. “We got to talking and we got to be friends. I’d always hankered for the rural lifestyle, and I came here for a visit and just stayed.

“This is Alaska as it used to be back in the day.

“Sure, life here can be tough at times but it’s a real community. And when the kids go off to college, they come back and work in the family business.”

As Robert Plant gives way to REM’s Michael Stipe on the playlist, there’s chicken lentil soup, turkey sandwiches, sweet potato fries and good old-fashioned conversation. 

River guide Andrew – never did catch his last name – is resplendent in shades and shirt that, he says proudly, were fished out of the river by one of the other rafters.

It pays to watch out, he tells our six-strong group as we suit up. The river can be bountiful – and he’s not talking just about salmon.

“You find all sorts in the river,” he says. “It’s living the dream out here, although I take folks out three times a day and don’t get through til seven. But it’s the freedom people stay here for. That, and the wildlife you see every day.

“We see bald eagles most days; there are beavers everywhere; the other day one of the guys saw a bear and her cub down by the riverbank, then she just slipped into the river and swam across to the other side. Where else are you going to get that?”

On a clear day you can see Denali, the mountain formerly known as McKinley. Don’t count on it though. Such is the changeable weather that it’s estimated that 70 per cent of visitors never get to see the towering peak, the highest in America, at all.

A wander down the high street – the only street, in truth – is a trip back in time, the part-made road lined by frontier porchfront stores. It could be a Disney set stripped of saccharine sweetness but this is the real thing. 

“Welcome to beautiful downtown Talkeetna” reads a hastily thrown together wooden street sign, its wording agreed by the town council on behalf of the 800 or so people who live here, or in the woods that surround the place.

There’s the picket fenced Roadhouse lodgings; Village Arts-n-Crafts offers ivory, gold and furs; Mostly Moose is a gift shop; the Flying Squirrel bakery cafe boasts fast service; Talkeetna River Guides runs out of a yurt.

An un-named shopfront advertises herbal cures… with a smell of the sixties in the air.

Edwin, meanwhile, is busy chinwagging with the local ivory carver – and has got his teeth into a matter of no little importance.

“So how easy is it carve walrus tusk?” he asks. “It’s reckoned to be the hardest there is.

“Thing is, I’m thinking about a new set of teeth. These new-fangled dentures have a habit of breaking, and walrus could be the way to go.

“I’m figurin’ on sticking them in with Gorilla Glue…”

At the head of town is the railroad, a mighty Alaska Rail locomotive resting on the tracks as if it has somehow lost its way.

It’s easy to lose yourself in Talkeetna…

  • I visited Talkeetna as a guest of Princess Cruises during a land and sea cruise package in 2017. For latest cruise routes and Covid advice see www.princess.com

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1 comment

  1. Thanks for sharing your balanced views of Talkeetna

    Been there a number of times but mostly stayed out of “downtown”
    too many tourists and RV’s.

    Like

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