Our Sarah

Made in Alaska


By Chuck Heath

Foreword by Sarah Palin

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We may think we know Sarah Palin from all the coverage she has received in the political arena, but one-side depictions but media coverage is limited and, Sarah would even say, biased. OUR SARAH is also a bit biased since it’s written by Sarah’s dad and brother with contributions from many friends and colleagues–these are the people who know her–and love her–best.

Combining the appeal of Sarah Palin’s bestselling book, Going Rogue, with the flavor of the hugely successful TV show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” here are intimate stories from Sarah’s life along with a celebration of growing up in and sharing all that Alaska means to Sarah and her family. Sarah’s dad and brother share great family stories of life in the last frontier–from hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and gold-mining, to marathon running, teaching and community service–first in small ways and then on a national stage. Structured around themes of family, faith, independence, resilience, character, risk-taking and adventure–here is a full and loving portrait of where Sarah Palin came from and what made her the person she is today.


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When we first considered writing a book, we wanted to provide insight into the events and relationships that made Sarah Palin the person she is today. We also thought it would be fun to share some of our family's many Alaskan adventures. As we worked through the writing process, we realized that while we were creating a book for the public, we also were preparing a family biography.

Doing that made us realize the importance of relationships—genuine relationships, not just spending time in each other's presence. Our family is blessed to have a documentable history that dates to the fourteenth century, but as we sifted through the surviving papers and memorabilia from previous generations, we realized how fleeting life really is and how quickly our personal stories fade from the memory of subsequent generations. That realization impressed upon us the importance of expressing our love for one another now, in the present, rather than waiting to reflect upon it later.

Many people have written articles and books about Sarah and our family. Countless news broadcasts have been devoted to the topic of who she is, what her family is like, and whether the stories about her and us are really true. We can't vouch for those prior reports, but we can assure you that the stories and events we've recorded in the pages of this book are as accurate as memory allows. This is our story and our explanation of who we are and how Sarah came to be the person she is now. Hopefully you will find in these pages the broader context of her life, a context missing from almost everything written about her. The glimpse you will see in this book is that of the real Sarah Palin—the Sarah we know and love, not the one created by the national media.

We were assisted in our effort by friends, coworkers, and family members who once again shared their memories. Many people encouraged us to undertake this project, but none more than Vicki Wolfe who kept saying, "You've got to write a book." Jean and Mark Tennant, retired teachers themselves, reviewed portions of the text.

Our efforts were made possible by colleagues in the publishing industry who assisted us with the writing process. Tom Winters with Winters & King, Inc., represented us to our publisher, where we found the invaluable help of our editor, Kate Hartson, and her staff. Bestselling author Joe Hilley spent many hours collecting our stories and weaving them into the cohesive account you are about to read. And our wives, Sally and Abby, proved exceedingly tolerant as we devoted ourselves to what became a yearlong project. Thank you, one and all, for your help in making this book possible.


Taking the Stage

And our Sarah—the one we'd known all our lives—finally took the stage.


Light from the street, unusually bright and glaring, shone overhead as our motorcade rolled off the highway and onto a broad avenue. Around us the sidewalks were lined with people, all of them staring at us, hoping for a glimpse through the tinted glass of our black SUV. Near the middle of the block, a row of television trucks was parked at the curb, their satellite antennas pointed toward some unseen link in the dark sky.

Moments later, motorcycle patrolmen whizzed past us, then came to a stop in the center of the street. The patrolmen dismounted and took up positions along our route as the lead car in our motorcade turned left and disappeared from sight. In quick succession, each of the cars ahead of us did the same as we made the corner and rolled down a concrete ramp that led beneath the Xcel Energy Center, an 18,000-seat arena. Usually home to the National Hockey League's Minnesota Wild, the night we arrived it was the site of the 2008 Republican National Convention.

As the motorcade idled to a stop near the underground entrance, security agents stepped up to our SUV and opened the doors. I climbed from the backseat, straightened my jacket, and reached back to offer my mom a hand. Then we followed our group inside. With me that evening were my parents, Chuck and Sally Heath; a few friends from my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska; and our mother's sisters, Kate and Colleen, who had flown in from their homes near Richland, Washington.

Just beyond the building entryway, we were met by a campaign assistant who escorted us down a broad corridor that led behind a stage that had been constructed in the main arena. Noise from the crowd already gathered there echoed through the hallway. The tension was palpable and we all whispered nervously, wondering how we'd look when the cameras caught us, if our friends back home would see us, and whether the night would turn out as well as we hoped. None of us had ever experienced anything like the event we saw unfolding before us. It was the biggest night of Sarah's political career and the biggest event we'd ever seen. My palms felt damp and clammy as I walked backstage.

Behind the stage we came to a door that led to the green room, a holding area where Sarah made her final preparations before heading out to the platform. The aide leading us through the building paused by the door and waited as we all caught up. When everyone was together and ready, the aide pushed open the door. And there she was—our Sarah—looking as calm and collected as ever, working the room, smiling and hugging everyone. Aunt Colleen stepped forward to greet her, ready with a quick word of encouragement, but Sarah beat her to the punch. "Isn't this fun?" She smiled. I couldn't believe she was that relaxed. We all shared a moment with her, trying to think of something to say, hoping not to distract her too much.

After a few minutes, the aide returned and led us from the room. We followed her back to the corridor and out to the convention floor. I looked around at the arena, packed to the rafters with delegates and supporters, my eyes wide with wonder. Campaign signs hung from the railings above our head and ran all the way around the upper level. In front of us, more signs filled the air as delegates waved them back and forth. Everywhere people were shouting and chanting their favorite campaign slogans. In my mind I thought, What in the hell am I doing here?

Just five days before, I'd been in my classroom in Anchorage, teaching and discussing current events with elementary school students. Now, here I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Republican National Convention. Not merely attending as a bystander, but as an honored guest of the party's vice presidential nominee, my sister, Sarah Palin. To say the moment seemed surreal would be an understatement.

The aide led us through the arena and up the steps to our seats directly above the Alaska delegation. We recognized many faces in that group and waved to them all, proud to be with them and not really caring how hokey we might appear. Not long after we were seated, an announcer introduced Sarah and she walked onto the stage. After an enthusiastic greeting from the crowd, she began to speak.

Perhaps it was the size of the crowd, or the fact that she had to devote the first few minutes to introducing her family, but for whatever reason, the words seemed forced and the cadence labored. I leaned forward and whispered in my father's ear, "This doesn't sound like Sarah." He just nodded and kept his eyes focused on her. I leaned back in my chair and continued to listen, but what I heard was not at all like the Sarah we knew.

After she introduced our parents, the speech began to pick up. Then, near the ten-minute mark, she mentioned that she'd been a hockey mom who signed up for the PTA to make her child's public education better. A group from the Alaska delegation picked up the phrase "hockey mom" and began chanting it over and over, waving hand-lettered signs in time with their voices. The interruption broke Sarah's delivery. Rather than let the moment pass, though, she grinned. "I love those hockey moms. You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?… Lipstick." The crowd responded well and she relished the moment. And our Sarah—the one we'd known all our lives—finally took the stage.

Later, when we were with her again in the green room, she told us the teleprompter got ahead of her and was running the pages out of sequence with her delivery. She knew the text well enough to continue but had to disregard the screens. Doing that freed her from the written pages and let her convey the ideas instead of simply reading the text—using her own voice and her own style to deliver the content with passion and conviction. The speech was a rousing success and launched the McCain-Palin campaign into a period of phenomenal popularity.

In the weeks that followed, we watched—sometimes up close and sometimes from a distance—as she wrestled with the rigors of life on the campaign trail and the stresses of being the newest member of a campaign team that had jelled months before. We also watched as the media and liberal pundits ripped into her record, experience, and character. The picture they painted of her was so far from the truth as to be unrecognizable. In the process, many in the country lost sight of the real Sarah.

Our town of Wasilla, Alaska, is a long way from the podium at the Republican National Convention and a long way from the style of a presidential campaign. We live in a region dominated by oil-field workers, commercial fishermen, hunters, military families, and the ordinary people who make America great. Most national politicians live in a world far removed from ours. Yet Sarah made that trek from where we were—both as a community and as a family—to become a legitimate contender for national office, facing a future filled with the promise of even more opportunities to come. How she made that journey is a tale much bigger than the story of a single person. It's a tale of family, faith, determination, and hard work. Of friendship and loyalty in a community that blossomed in an era when "yes we can" actually meant something.

When she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton wrote a book about children in America and how she thought government could help them. The title of that book was a play on the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." I'm not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I am a schoolteacher and I know we are all influenced by family, friends, and the community where we live. Sarah is no different. Her character was not formed in a vacuum but in the context of the lives of those whom she knew and loved and who loved her in return.

So, if you want to know Sarah Palin, the real Sarah, our Sarah, you have to understand the places, people, and events that shaped her. And you have to talk to the people who know her best.



At the last possible moment, the avalanche split in half and swept past me on either side, leaving me untouched. I've never seen that happen—before or since.


From the windows near my dining table, I can look out across a broad, glacial valley toward the Chugach Mountains. Tall and majestic, they tower into the sky along the eastern side of Knik Arm in the upper reaches of Cook Inlet, north of Anchorage. On a clear day, the sky above the peaks is as blue as any you've ever seen. Golden streaks of sunshine paint the tallest peaks with brilliant and vivid colors. In the winter, the mountains are covered with snow. Wind roars down the valley and howls around the base of those mountains with the force of a hurricane. In the summer, the mountains are lush with wildflowers, goats-beard, and prickly rosebud.

A little way up the valley to the east I can see Pioneer Peak. Named in honor of New Deal colonists who came to settle the valley in the 1930s, it rises almost seven thousand feet above the Knik River. In the spring I often stand on our deck and scan the slopes through my spotting scope, watching herds of sheep as they scamper up the saddle near the top.

I climbed that mountain once as part of a mountaineering class. By then I had climbed many mountains, but I needed credit from a class to satisfy the annual continuing education requirements for teacher certification. A friend offered to give me the credits I needed from his course on mountain climbing. I had no choice but to take it. The final project for the class was a climb up Pioneer Peak. Our class consisted of university students, a few professionals like me, four guys from a nearby Army installation, my son, Chuck Jr., and my daughter Heather, who came along for the fun of it.

After a few days of classroom instruction we gathered at the base of Pioneer Peak and set out for the top. My friend, Dave Johnston, once ran from the base of the mountain to the top in a little over two hours. Our pace was considerably slower. We took two days.

With most mountains, there's an easy way and a hard way to reach the summit. Pioneer Peak has a hard way, and a harder way. We chose the more difficult path, a course that took us up the face of the mountain. Through part of the trip, our ascent was almost vertical and as physically taxing as anything I've ever attempted. By the time we reached the final push for the top, two of the Army guys were exhausted. They waited and watched from below while the rest of us clawed our way up. I think it was a little embarrassing for them, being bested by the mountain and a sixth-grade science teacher, but they were wise not to push on. People have died climbing that peak.

Alaska is like that—unsurpassed beauty on the one hand; raw, untamed wilderness on the other; and all of it as close as the view from your own home. It's a place where breathtaking scenes greet you at every turn, and a place where death is never far away, especially in the winter.

We lost a friend, Aaron Arthur, a few years ago in a massive avalanche at Turnagain Pass, a popular location south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. People from the valley near our home go there in the winter to ski and ride their snowmachines. "Snowmachine" is the Alaskan term for snowmobile. Aaron was an avid fan of snowmachines.

Snowmachiners are a rambunctious bunch and often push life in the wilderness to the limit. Todd Palin, Sarah's husband, rides in the annual Iron Dog race, a two-thousand-mile snowmachine race through the bush country from Big Lake, through Nome, and ending in Fairbanks. Part endurance, part speed, racers blast across the snow at speeds near a hundred miles an hour. Many of the riders suffer frostbite before they reach the finish line. Others find the trail much more challenging. Todd once completed the last four hundred miles with a broken arm.

The snowmachiners who frequent Turnagain Pass don't travel that fast, but they like to push things to the limit. One of their favorite games is called "high-marking"—riding up the face of a slope until the snowmachine can't go any farther, then arcing down to the base in a challenge to see who can climb the highest. It's fun, but it's also dangerous. Those beautiful snow-covered mountains can turn deadly in an instant, as they did for Aaron and five others that day when their high-marking set off a devastating avalanche. It roared down the mountain, burying everything and everyone in its path beneath a massive layer of snow.

The first five bodies were located within a few days, but Aaron was nowhere to be found. I joined a team of volunteers and spent weeks probing the snow with long metal poles, trying to locate him. Aaron's parents set up camp in a motor home in the parking lot below the pass and vowed not to leave until we found him. Fifty-three days later, as winter turned to spring and the sun began to melt the snow, Aaron's brother-in-law spotted something blue sticking out from the crust. It was the sleeve of Aaron's parka. His body was frozen solid.

When the state troopers arrived, they wanted to airlift the body into Anchorage and perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Aaron's parents were livid. It was obvious what had happened to him. No one needed a physiological explanation to understand the cause of his demise. After a heated argument, the troopers relented and we propped Aaron's frozen body at the table inside his parents' motor home. Chuck Jr. and Aaron's parents sat with him for the ride into town and talked to him all the way, recalling the things he'd said and done in his much-too-short life. Someone remembered his last words were "Livin' the dream!"

Aaron's not the first person who came to Alaska in search of a dream, only to find that dream cost them the ultimate price. I've come close to death myself, and it wasn't from anything as extreme as high-marking with a snowmachine.

The mountains of Alaska are filled with flocks of ptarmigan. A small bird in the grouse family, they are gray-brown in color through spring and summer, but in winter they turn white. As soon as my children were old enough to negotiate the mountain trails near our home, I took them hunting. Ptarmigan were one of our favorite game birds. Sarah learned to shoot by plinking birds on the mountain slopes. She doesn't have much time for hunting anymore, but she still shoots skeet with her friends at the range not far from town.

One day in the winter, while hunting ptarmigan with my friend Brad Snodgrass, we shot a number of birds that landed on a snowy mountainside, one a lot like the mountain where our friend Aaron played with his snowmachine. I didn't like the angle of the slope and there was a large cornice above us—a ridgeline where the wind had blown away the snow, hollowing out a crusted overhang of snow and ice. We were skiing that day with long cross-country skis and carried full packs on our backs. In spite of those limitations, Brad was sure we could dash onto the slope, scoop up the birds, and get back before anything happened. We both knew better, but we made a run for it anyway. Just as I suspected, our ski strokes across the snow sent vibrations up the slope and the cornice gave way. A wall of heavy white snow thundered down the mountain toward us.

Unlike what you might imagine, an avalanche is not a gentle slow slide. The snow cascades down the mountain, gathering momentum as it goes, often reaching speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour. Wind pushes ahead of the growing wall of snow, ripping the tops off trees in its path. When the snow moves like that, its force is measured in tons.

One-third of those caught in an avalanche are killed outright by the trauma of the event—they're hit by slabs of ice, broken tree limbs, and other flying debris, or their bodies are ripped apart by the force of the snow. Another third are buried and suffocate. It's a fantasy to think one can dig himself out of a firmly packed encasement. Those who survive say that they couldn't even move their fingers, open their eyes, or expand their chest enough to breathe. I've attended classes that suggest you can survive by "swimming" on top of the snow. That's almost impossible. In reality, the only way to escape is by moving laterally.

That day with Brad, I had skied too far out on the slope to get back to safety and, to make matters worse, in my effort to move quickly I fell through the crust into waist-deep snow. Brad, who was much closer to the edge, made it out of the way. All I could do was stand there and watch as the snow came toward me.

I remember thinking things like, Here I am, in a predicament that I have preached to others they should avoid. And, This can't be happening to me. I know all there is to know about avalanches. As irony would have it, at the time this happened I was teaching an avalanche safety course. Yet, there I was, staring certain death squarely in the eye. Brad told me later that he was marking my spot as best he could, in hopes of later recovering my body. Even he was certain I was going to die.

Seconds later, a gust of wind swept across my face. Driven by the onrushing snow, it felt cold and crisp against my skin. A slab came toward my head. I ducked to one side and dodged it. Then, at the last possible moment, the avalanche split in half and swept past me on either side, leaving me untouched. I've never seen that happen—before or since.

Alaska is a place of adventure, which means it's a place where humans face the very real possibility of death or serious injury. I've lost four friends to avalanches and spent days searching for each of them. I've lost friends to other tragedies too.

Our region of the continent is home to all three North American bears—polar bears, black bears, and brown (grizzly) bears. Though encounters with bears are statistically rare, those encounters often prove deadly. Marcie Trent and her son were killed when they surprised a bear on a trail near Anchorage. Marcie was an accomplished long-distance runner and held four world records in her age group. She died almost instantly when the bear's claw struck her neck. Alaska is bear country, a fact my family and I have witnessed firsthand.

When the children were young, we took them on a caribou hunt. I killed a caribou the first day and we hauled it back to our camp. With everyone helping, we gutted the animal and tied it to the top of the car, thinking it would be safe there. That night, I was awakened by a bear that was standing beside the car, gnawing on the caribou carcass. I wanted to shoot it, but the kids were sleeping in a tent that I had pitched for them just a few feet away. I knew I could hit the bear but I wasn't sure I could kill it with a single shot. If I wounded it, the bear would land on the tent. I managed to scare it away, but a few hours later it returned. After I chased it away a second time, we gathered up the kids and spent the remainder of the night in the car with an up-close view of the bear as it returned once more to dine on the caribou. Two days later, a hunter from the Fish and Game Commission killed the bear. It was a twenty-eight-year-old grizzly with a record of terrorizing camps and cabins.

During Sarah's last year as governor, she and Todd invited Sally and me to go with them on an official visit to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, one of the best bear sanctuaries on the continent. Located on the upper end of the Alaska Peninsula, the McNeil River is about thirty-five miles long, flowing from McNeil Lake in the interior of the peninsula down to McNeil Cove at the coast near the mouth of Cook Inlet. In the summertime, a strong tidal surge pushes salmon up the rivers and streams all along the inlet. As a result, McNeil River has a tremendous salmon run. Those salmon, in turn, attract a large number of brown bears, making the sanctuary one of the most popular wildlife attractions in the state.

While gorging themselves on salmon, the bears along McNeil River pay no attention to humans. During our visit, we sat just a few yards away from them and watched as they snagged fish from the water with their paws and dove beneath the surface to catch them with their mouths. More than forty bears were gathered there that day.

At one point, the bears wandered as close as three feet from where we were seated. The ground shook when they walked by. Armed guides from the Fish and Game Commission stood near us to make sure the bears didn't harm us, but no one has ever been injured by a bear attack there. Just to be safe, when we arrived I told the guards that if a bear got on top of me they should shoot it and not worry about hitting me. I'd rather take my chances with their marksmanship skills than with the bear.

Bears are a challenge to life in the wild, but they aren't the only risk we face in Alaska. A few years ago, I was on a moose hunt with my friends Adrian Lane, Dave Reeves, Craig Lyndon, and Mike Hodsdon. We hauled our four-wheelers out to a spot off the Denali Highway not far from the Maclaren River, then rode into the woods. At the river we loaded our gear and four-wheelers onto an airboat operated by our friend Fred Haynes. He ferried us across to the opposite side and we continued on another ten or fifteen miles. Doing that put us well beyond the area covered by typical hunters. We've hunted like that for the past twenty years.

About a week into the hunt we received a call on the satellite phone from Dave's wife. They had an emergency at home and he needed to get back to town quickly. Dave packed his gear and prepared to leave. For safety, we never traveled alone, so Adrian and I accompanied him on our four-wheelers back to the river crossing. Fred was waiting for us when we arrived. Dave drove his four-wheeler onto the airboat, then took a seat near the back. Normally, Fred added ballast to the stern of the boat to counteract the weight of the four-wheeler lashed to the bow, in order to make the boat sit level in the water. This time, because he was in a hurry to get across the river, he chose to make the trip without the ballast.

The Maclaren River is a glacial river. The water is cold and moves swiftly. That day, the water was particularly high and moved unusually fast. As Fred turned the boat to make the crossing, a wave caught the bow and forced it down beneath the surface. Already overloaded in front with the four-wheeler, the bow sank quickly. The force of the current caught the boat and sent it tumbling end over end downstream. They had lifejackets, but rather than wearing them, the jackets lay at the bottom of the boat.

Dave was thrown free of the craft and swam hard trying to keep his head above the surface. He did his best but the cold water quickly sapped his strength. Water that cold feels like needles stabbing your skin. It also rapidly depletes body heat. In just a few short minutes, Dave was exhausted and in serious trouble. He told us later that he reached a point where he was certain he'd made his last stroke. Prepared to die, his body sank into the water. At that very moment, his feet touched bottom. Dave is six and a half feet tall. If he'd been any shorter he would have drowned, but that day he made it safely to the riverbank, saved by his height. Not long after he pulled himself from the water, two men in an airboat found him, wet and hypothermic. They built a fire and helped him get warm.

Fred was not so fortunate. We spent the remainder of the day searching for him, the boat, and the four-wheeler, but found no sign of them. Soldiers from a National Guard unit arrived late in the afternoon to help. State troopers finally arrived the next morning. We located the four-wheeler about a mile downstream. Someone found Fred's body on a sandbar. They never found the boat.

Alaska is a place of extremes, a characteristic that is readily discernible to even the casual visitor. We have bitterly cold winters; twenty-hour summer days, followed by twenty-hour winter nights. The terrain is marked by imposing mountain ranges and remote wilderness areas that never have been touched by human footprints. Seeing it for the first time you might think the region produces hard people with little heart or empathy for others. Nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to the often harsh weather conditions and challenging terrain, the people of Alaska are warm, friendly, and have an infectious, though ironic, sense of humor. Nothing exemplifies that spirit better than the story of Louie Liken and the Sour Toe Cocktail.


On Sale
Sep 25, 2012
Page Count
272 pages
Center Street

Chuck Heath

About the Author

Chuck, Sr. is a retired teacher and coach who spent the majority of his forty-eight years in Alaska working as a big game guide all over the state. Chuck, Jr. is a school teacher, hockey player, and a longtime seasonal gold miner who has also worked all over the state. Together, they’ve shared many of their Alaskan adventures and given the reader an inside look at how these experiences helped make Sarah the person she is today.

Learn more about this author