Telling the Truth

Tour guide covers the real Bush landscape

Posted: Monday, June 27, 2005

FORT YUKON - Richard Carroll Jr., owner and operator of Alaska Yukon Tours, is happy to show visitors around his village - as long as they're willing to hear the truth.

Located 8 miles above the Arctic Circle, Fort Yukon sits in the center of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, a land of white spruce and wide, slow-moving rivers.

But this journey isn't just about natural beauty.

Carroll's one-hour bus tour around the village is a cultural crash course in the economic realities of life in the Bush.

The 49-year-old Gwich'in Athabascan Indian provides a running monologue on life in the village from behind the steering wheel of the powder-blue school bus that serves as his classroom. He rattles off statistics that paint an accurate picture of the hardscrabble life here:

• The Alaska Department of Commerce estimates nearly 50 percent of adults in the community are unemployed. Carroll puts that number closer to 80 percent.

• Nearly a third of local homes are low-income houses built with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

• Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in, the federally recognized tribe of Fort Yukon, has 1,200 tribal members but more than half have moved to Fairbanks and other urban centers in search of employment.

• $3.53 for a gallon for gas.

• $4.85 for a half gallon of milk.

• 46 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity.

• $1 a pound for outgoing freight.

Carroll delivers the information with plenty of humor, but he's deadly serious about educating visitors.

"It was always more of an educational thing than anything else," Carroll said as he cleaned out the bus after a recent tour. "I've refined the tour so that they learn more in an hour with me than they do in three days in Alaska."

Episcopal Diocese Bishop Mark MacDonald, who jumped on the bus on a recent evening to welcome the tour group, praised the message Carroll was spreading.

"It's absolutely critical because people tend to romanticize or demonize life in the bush," MacDonald said. "He shows them the reality and sends them home with a better understanding of life here."

Ed Peebles, marketing manager with Warbelow's Air Ventures in Fairbanks, which has partnered with Carroll for the past eight years, said that's exactly how the airline represents the tour to potential customers.

"We tell them it's a chance to do what we do every day," Peebles said. "It gives them the chance to see what life is really like here."

There's not much of the real world the tour doesn't encompass: The five-year sewer project is on the tour, as is the city-owned liquor store, the community's three churches and the residences of his immediate family.

"They drive through and see my house and say, 'what a dump.' I have to tell them there is no extra money to spend on the exterior," Carroll said.

The tour doesn't dwell on the negative, though. Carroll makes sure visitors learn about the local wildlife and subsistence lifestyle and history of the Gwich'in.

"There is great beauty and great challenges in rural Alaska," MacDonald said. "Richard does a good job of balancing the two."

There's also plenty of local lore for the curious.

He shows them the grave of the Rev. Hudson Stucks, an Episcopal missionary and explorer from England, who became the archdeacon of the Yukon in 1905 and the first man to reach the summit of Mt. McKinley.

Dog mushing is big in the village and, of course, Carroll is the reigning champion.

"Just by nine seconds, but that still counts," he tells visitors.

Carroll maintains a sprint team of 21 dogs in a wooded lot across the street from his house. It's on the tour.

And then there's the weather. Carroll waxes lyrical about the winter of 1991 when a low-pressure system locked the Flats into a deep freeze that lasted seven weeks and bottomed out the thermometer at 86 below.

"I try to end on a positive note," he said with a laugh.

Response from visitors to Carroll's real-world approach has been mostly positive.

"It was fascinating," said Pamela Miller, a wilderness guide and environmental consultant from Anchorage. "I learned so much that I never knew about Fort Yukon."

Leona McSparrin, of Alabama, had her doubts about the tour initially.

"I was a little skeptical at first," she said, "but after five or 10 minutes I was really enjoying it."

Carroll understands that experiencing the reality of life in a rural village - something completely foreign to most visitors - can be a shock. He tries to size up visitors as they get off the plane in order to tailor fit each tour.

The tour is offered as an optional evening activity from Fairbanks for visitors on packaged tours. The tour costs $279 with air transportation from Fairbanks on Warbelow's Air Ventures. About 2,700 tourists take the tour between May 15 and Sept 15.

Carroll has been operating the tour company for 21 years. He inherited his business sense from his father, Richard Carroll Sr., who ran the first air tour above the Arctic Circle in 1952 in partnership with Wien Air.

"He's been successful in helping find a livable future for the people from their past," MacDonald said.

Carroll mostly limits visitors to the bus to minimize impact on the community.

"I understand how it is. I like my privacy too," he said. "Everybody is still waving at the bus with all five fingers and I want to keep it that way."



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