Story last updated at 5/23/2012 - 11:52 am
Whether you are a seasoned Juneau resident, or you have visited Alaska's capital city just once, there is a high likelihood you have seen Irvin Carl Rice. It may have been the flash of fur, or the end of a martial arts belt, or a few of his wide strides. Rice is a fixture in downtown Juneau, frequently seen patrolling Franklin and Front Streets and Ferry Way - in a coat made from a wolf's hide.
Rice, who is 52, grew up in the plains of Texas.
"I'm an American cowboy," he said.
Ranching, farming and agriculture are a few of his areas of expertise.
At the age of three, his mother put him in a boys' orphanage home in Houston. When he was eight or nine, he moved in with a foster family on a farm outside of Houston. Though Rice said he did not have a great relationship with his foster father, he admits that "He taught me a lot, more than I bargained for." Rice learned how to ride a horse, and about farming and agriculture. He spent his years with his foster family "Putting up posts and barbed wire fences. That's what a cowboy does," said Rice. He also was required to attend church every Sunday, and to this day maintains a strong relationship with religion.
Rice had two foster siblings, Hilda, "A large woman, but she was wonderful," Rice said, and Tommy, who is now the chief of police of a district in Houston. "He was a decent man," said Rice.
When Rice turned 18, he moved onto another farm to work. He painted fences, grew corn, watermelon and cantaloupes and raised chickens. He worked at this farm for six months. The owner, said Rice, "Ran me off the ranch, told me to grow up. I was getting into too much mischief."
Rice then decided to hitchhike northwest, stopping in Missoula, Mont. He wanted to learn martial arts, and spent a few years in Missoula studying self-defense, karate, taekwondo and jujutsu.
Rice returned to Houston, where, he said, "I was on skid row for awhile." Rice had been diagnosed with Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and dyslexia. He cannot read. This, he explains, is why he likes farming, and other activities that are more physical.
While in Houston, Rice befriended a man who, he said, "Was a demolition expert." Rice learned the trade of tearing down houses, "not with explosives, but with my hands and feet." He made a living collecting scrap iron and steel, and would occasionally find "Pounds of gold, leftover from the Civil War. I lived like Huckleberry Finn," he said.
Eventually, Rice grew tired of the demolition work, hopped onto a bike and pedaled to Orange County, Calif. He's the self-proclaimed "U.S. cross country cycling champion." He said it was a very difficult trip. He had a couple of canteens, a couple of bags, and a sling fashioned from the tube of a tire. He used the sling to catch rabbits, and caught squirrels and birds for food.
"If I was lucky," Rice said, "I got a duck."
He found a job washing dishes at a local community college, where he tried to learn how to read and write. He pursued his passion for martial arts. And then he met Brenda, "A beautiful woman, a red head," with whom he had a son, Wesley. Brenda left Rice with Wesley, and Rice returned to Montana.
"I never saw her again," he said.
Rice remained in Montana for six or seven years, continuing his martial arts studies, after which he hopped back onto a bike, and headed to Tacoma, Wash.
"I spent 6 months in jail for biking on a freeway," Rice said. When he finished his sentence, he had nothing, his bike had been confiscated. "The only thing I knew was karate."
Rice found a kind-hearted karate teacher in Tacoma who was also a police officer. This man allowed Rice to sleep in the karate school while continuing his martial arts studies.
In 1990, armed with a "sleeping bag, switch blade, wrist rocket and some shaving items," Rice hopped on a bus to Bellingham, and then boarded a north-bound ferry.
"I didn't know where I was going," Rice admitted, but he had been harboring dreams of Alaska for decades.
He got off the ferry in Haines, with $200. He tried to cross the Canadian border, but did not have a passport, and returned to Haines. "I slept in the woods," Rice said, and "wandered around town," until a local sheriff put him on a ferry bound for Juneau.
"He was a different kind of sheriff," Rice explained, "He was decent."
He arrived in Juneau with $75, and spent three weeks at the Glory Hole, where he met a woman named Ellen Northrop.
"She was a very sweet woman. I tried to pick her up a couple of times and she said 'You're too young for me boy.'"
Northrop introduced Rice to the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Through JAMI, Rice received housing and medical assistance.
Rice now lives in the Channel View apartments. After a friend showed him a book about Johnny Appleseed, Rice began growing apples, oranges, tangerines, avocados and grapefruit in his apartment.
One morning, Rice said, "I walked down to the Glory Hole. I saw this wonderful woman standing there. Her name was Priscilla Brown. She was single, happy, and go lucky. She was from Kake." Brown moved in with Rice, and after three weeks the couple married.
One year Rice used his Permanent Fund Dividend to commission matching wolf hide coats for him and Brown.
"I have to wait for the bus in the freezing cold," Rice said, "that's why I have the coat." Though the couple is still legally married, Brown moved to Anchorage about two and a half years ago.
"I used to ride a green tandem bike with my wife, now I ride it alone," Rice said.
Rice is extremely appreciative of JAMI.
"I go there every day. I have lunch and talk to counselors," he said.
JAMI has connected him with a sponsor for a gym membership, which Rice says he frequently uses.
"JAMI has taught me how to be a decent human being. I've received the best psychiatric treatment in the world," said Rice. "Some people don't know what handicapped people are. There are all kinds of different handicapped people. Some are self sufficient, some aren't. If I was the president, I would put JAMI all over."