South to Alaska:
From the Heartland of America, to the Heart of a Dream.
Born in the dusty heart of Oklahoma in 1916, ten-year-old Melvin dreams of living in Alaska. More than forty years later he constructs a 47-foot boat in his backyard and begins a 10,000-mile watery journey from Arkansas to Alaska by way of the Panama Canal.
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South to Alaska
After years of dreaming of living in the north country, Melvin Owens’ journey begins in 1968 when, to the astonishment of neighbors and friends, he spends three years single-handedly constructing the 47-foot Red Dog in his Arkansas backyard. After launching the boat on the Arkansas River in 1971, Melvin cruises along the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. For the next year and a half, Melvin’s efforts to get the Red Dog from Galveston, Texas, to Alaska turn into a mass of disappointments laced with mechanical problems, bribery and interstate fraud―an accumulation of events that threatens the relationship with his wife of more than thirty years.
Eventually, in 1973, Melvin begins an amazing solitary journey along the Caribbean coasts of Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal, then into the Pacific Ocean to Alaska. He has never been south of the United States border, has never even been on a boat in the open ocean, and has certainly never navigated a homemade boat for thousands of miles in the Caribbean and Pacific. "Learn by doing," he often said.
Thwarted by mechanical problems, tyrannical port authorities, ocean storms, illness and loneliness, Melvin fears a deadly end before reaching the place of his dreams, and returning to the woman he loves.
A true story of courage and endurance, South to Alaska chronicles Melvin’s perilous 10,000-mile journey through a watery world he knows little about, to get to a world he cannot forget.
Ten-year-old Melvin studied the black and white photo. A cabin sat at the edge of the woods where snow had tucked it in with a thick comforter of white. A bundle of fur traps hung outside the door above an orderly stack of firewood. Smoke curled from the chimney like the genie from a magic lamp.
Melvin had heard relatives talk about what life would be like in Alaska, a place so far beyond their reach there was little danger they would be proven wrong. Their imaginations still stirred by stories of the Klondike Gold Rush less than thirty years earlier, they talked dreamily of wilderness, abundance, and independence. Melvin envisioned the cool rush of rivers in the distant north, of having his own cabin one day, of living near the mountains with lakes and streams where he could hunt, fish, and trap. He imagined scouring untamed land for game and surviving on his own know-how and inventiveness.
Though Melvin had heard of Alaska, he had never seen any pictures of the place. Now one lay on the desk before him, the incarnation of all he wanted: the woods, the mountains, the wild, the undiscovered. It was an image that would never fade, one that raised the first ripple in a watery world he knew little about, to get to a world he could not forget.
Twenty-minute author interview with Earl Finkler of KBRW AM/FM, Barrow "Top of the World" Alaska, December 3, 2007.