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Before The Pipeline: Ritchie Musick

By | June 12, 2014 - 5:55 pm

Fairbanks didn’t attract a lot of young, single ladies in the ‘60s. Ritchie Musick was 24 when she first came to Alaska to escape city life in southern California. She found all the adventure she dreamed of–hauling water, mushing, and moose in the backyard. Fifty years later she has the same frontier spirit, though she finally got plumbing.

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Ritchie Musick at her first cabin in Fairbanks in 1966.

Ritchie Musick at her first cabin in Fairbanks in 1966. (Photo courtesy Ritchie Musick)

Ritchie Musick is standing outside the rustic trailer in Ester Village where she raised three kids without running water. Out the backdoor is a giant playground of aspen, trails, and other mysteries.

“You teach your kids here to be aware of three things: bears, amanitas, and mine shafts,” Musick said.

In 1964 Ritchie drove her Volkswagen Beetle up the Alcan from Los Angeles – over 1,000 miles of dusty gravel road riddled with frost heave. She and her girlfriend drove all over Alaska, seeing otters in Prince William Sound and buildings broken in half by the earthquake in Anchorage that year.

“And then on the way home I took a curve too fast and flipped the car,” Musick said. “Bounced three times off the highway and ended up upside down, but we were not hurt.”

They left the car hanging on a tow truck in the Yukon and caught a ride with a paratrooper to Denver. Back in California, she kept dreaming about Alaska. When she was offered a teaching job in 1968, she packed up her Mustang convertible for another big road trip.

“There was a big bullfrog, there was a big boa constrictor, there were two dopher snakes, one king snake, and an iguana,” Musick said.

The reptiles were in boxes in the backseat. Her friend was in the front.

“Somewhere along the way, the king snake escaped and went slithering across her ankle as we’re driving up the highway. She was not one happy camper,” Musick said. “He disappeared and we never found him until we unpacked the car in Fairbanks and he was under the backseat.”

Ritchie Musick in Ester with her first daughter Michelle  (Photo courtesy Ritchie Musick)

Ritchie Musick in Ester with her first daughter Michelle (Photo courtesy Ritchie Musick)

She rented a dry cabin for $100 a month, pumping water out of a garbage bin to shower and wash dishes. She tried to get a job with her zoology degree.

“There were only two women with Fish and Game and I could not get hired,” Musick said. “When they sent the women into the field it made front page.”

She ended up teaching high school science for 22 years. When she started in 1968, there were about 10 guys for every girl in Fairbanks. One night in 1970 she went to a party in North Pole.

“Mike and I just kind of fell in love that night, even though I was there with somebody else,” she said.

They started dating in the fall, just before Mike left for Mexico. Love letters flew back and forth that winter.

“He came back in April and we set the date to get married six or seven days later,” Musick said.

Ritchie had wanted to see gorillas since high school. For their honeymoon they flew to Germany and bought a Volkswagen camper bus. After 6 months touring around Europe, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and spent a year driving across Africa. When they got back to Fairbanks, the pipeline was in full swing. Mike got a job surveying between Salcha and the Yukon.

“All of a sudden you were reading about people being murdered here and there,” Musick said. “We’re at a stop sign one time, I’m driving and he’s in the car, some gal’s leaning in the window propositioning him.”

Ritchie started mushing with a hand-crafted children’s dog sled and a black lab, and gradually acquired sled dogs. One day she was running her team on a trail south of Ester.

“I had just started out and it got kind of narrow and I kind of freaked out, put my foot on the brake when I shouldn’t have. And when you cut a corner with a tree, it flipped me over,” Musick said. “And so I’m being dragged behind the sled thinking, ‘Oh no I’ve got 30 miles to go.’ And I saw the tree. Somehow I was stupidly trying to push my sled against the tree but it got me right in the face.”

Her face was shattered and she needed reconstructive surgery. She touches below her right eye.

“I still have a plate and 16 screws under this eye,” she said. “For awhile I had metal here but they took it out because the screws kept popping out of my nose.”

Ritchie and Mike still live in the log house they built in 1986. They have three kids and four grandkids here. Fairbanks has grown in the 50 years since Ritchie’s roadtrip. But it’s still the Last Frontier for a girl from Modesto.

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