Some Alaska Stories

At Work with Fish and Game
I finished the last two years of my undergraduate degree at University of Alaska in Fairbanks. The degree was a B.S. in Wildlife Management. Afterward, I spent a couple field seasons in various locations in southeast Alaska, which is that coastal strip along Canada, doing field work for Alaska Fish and Game. I worked with salmon, and where there are lots of salmon, there are bears, and where there are bears, we carried guns. In black bear areas, a 12 gauge shotgun with slugs was considered adequate. In brown bear territory, we carried high powered rifles such as .350, .338, or even .375. I no longer have it, but I also had a .44 magnum pistol. It was not considered suitable for bear protection, but I felt better with it if I was out at night when flashlights and rifles together would be unwieldy at close range.

I have never been very much into guns. I have had friends that did lots of hunting, both for fun and food. I have had other friends who seem to get a strange glint in their eye when holding a gun. That's scary. In college I was on a rifle team, but that was just recreation and skill development (though I think it and Red Cross first aid courses helped me get my first Fish and Game job). For field work, guns were just part of the equipment. I have never really understood either the fear or the intrigue of weapons. These days I own no guns and have only kitchen knives and a couple pocket knives. They are still a bit interesting, but it almost seems a little odd that they are not interesting enough to own a few. Oh well.

Sorry, almost all my Alaska pictures were slides, have not been converted to electronic format, and still reside at my parent's house. I only have a few that I long ago converted to photos and recently scanned into blurry jpegs. I will try to rescan them and remember to add them here. The pictures are of me. You can find great Alaska scenery photos, taken by professional photographers, almost anywhere. 

The Watchers

My first Fish and Game job was running a weir, actually two weirs, on the Kadashan River, near Tenakee Springs, about 50 miles southeast of Juneau. I was stationed there for a six weeks with Dan Zelinski. We had lots of bears. At least three times a day, every day, brown bears would come by our cabin. And even though inland grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) are a subspecies of brown bear, the coastal brown bears are considerably larger cousins of the grizzlies. Salmon spawns provide a lot of protein. We wouldn't go out to piss off the edge of the porch without our rifles. (In the field, you don't use outhouses for peeing. Not even the women.)

So one day I had some spare time and decided to do a little fishing near the cabin. At a  few miles upriver, where we were stationed, the pink salmon were pretty nasty looking. Their skin was sometimes peeling off and they had already spent enough time in freshwater to look pretty unappealing. I was fishing for Dolly Varden, a kind of trout. Of course I had my .338 rifle. But it is difficult to both hold a rifle and work a rod, so I decided to lay the rifle down. It just felt wrong to lay a rifle down flat on the gravel bar, so I leaned it up against the cut bank 10 feet behind me. And I kept watch for bears. With every cast, I would scan upriver and scan down river. No fish, no bears, no problem. But then I turned and looked behind me: 15 feet away, there were two bears, just lying on the ground, watching me fish. They could have eaten me any time they wanted. The noise from the river had prevented me from hearing their approach. And of course, the rifle was closer to them than to me. It raised a little rush of fear, but not panic. I simply gave a yell and threw a couple rocks at them. They fled. These two bears were frequent visitors but seemed to consider us people to be dominant, at least in the daytime. At night, they often loitered near our cabin and showed no fear of us. Because they were only 300 - 400 pounds each and because they still hung around each other, they were most likely siblings, 2 1/2 years old, in their first summer away from their mother. The next summer, I worked May and June near Yakutat instead, but some biologists who came to Kadashan to trap bears, confirmed our estimates of weight and age to Dan.

We ended up naming those two bears Hanz and Fritz after the rascally brothers in the old "Katzenjammer Kids" cartoon. They were fun to watch but aggravating to have around. The larger one, Hans, would swim in a big pool in the river where the salmon congregated. Occasionally, he would try but fail to dive deep enough to catch one. And every time a fish swam by, he would awkwardly turn to try to catch it. Just watching a bear tread water was fun. But both bears also bent weir pickets. A weir is like a picket fence across the river. The pickets are metal, electrical conduit tubing. The fence would hold back the salmon until we were ready to count them, which we did several times a day by making a foot wide opening and clicking "tallywackers" for each fish that came through. These "tallywackers" were those small, roundish, silver counting mechanisms that record each press of a button.

Those two young bears were idiots. First of all, it isn't smart to try to catch salmon from the upstream side of a weir. The bears could easily bend the metal tubing, but by the time they did, the fish were gone. Second of all, it's not smart to move downstream to catch salmon. Salmon have a good sense of smell. If we needed a break from counting, we would just stick our hand in the water and all those fish trying to get through the weir to go upstream, just vanished to the safety of a deep pool. And if they disappeared without our hands in the water, we knew a bear was on its way. One of our several-times-a-day chores was to inspect the weirs and straighten the pickets bent by silly bears. We had two weirs at that location, one on each fork of the river. In the six weeks I was there, we counted 33,000 pink salmon coming through, if I remember right. We also caught a specified number per day to weigh, measure, and take scale samples. Salmon have rings on their scales that indicate how old they are. Pink salmon, usually called humpies because of their humpback shape during spawning, are about 2 kilograms (5 pounds) each after spending a little over a year out in the ocean. Their mothers laid them as eggs two years earlier.

Another time when I was fishing on the gravel bar mentioned above, I had caught a good size Dolly and set it in a very small, nearby pool. I went back to the cabin, perhaps 30 yards away, to get a drink of water. As I came back out of the cabin, a bald eagle swooped down and stole my fish!

Indifference of Nature

One of the things I noticed while working at my first Fish and Game job was a certain indifference of nature. With the bears it was apparent in the way they just wanted to ignore us most of the time. I'm mostly referring to Hans and Fritz, plus a third one named Skinny. The weirs on the rivers were useful to help them catch fish, but they didn't care that we were responsible for them. And as long as they were farther away than we could throw rocks, they mostly ignored us. I think that bothered Dan a little. He perhaps seemed to want it known that this part of the river was our territory. He seemed to want the bears to notice us and respect our property, the weirs.

Several times we shot our high powered rifles (.338 caliber) while the bears were around. It was just part of making sure the sites were about right and the rifles were in working order. I was amazed that the bears never even looked up. It was just some sound to them. But it was good to know – if ever charged by a bear, don't bother with a warning shot. Oddly enough, the bears did flinch when Dan shot empty rounds from his pellet gun. It was a CO2 pistol which could be fired without a pellet in it. The phfft sound alone scared the bears. I suspect they learned that fear from a couple of actual pellets; those bears caused a lot of damage to the weirs and scaring them off with rock was a lot of work. But empty, harmless sounds from a small pellet pistol ended up having more effect than live rounds from deadly rifles. When we needed to scare them away from our equipment, we threw small rocks at them. They quickly learned what distance was out of our range. Rocks provided a way to chase them away from our equipment without shooting them and without us getting dangerously close.

But the plants were also indifferent. We were working on the Kadashan River, which flowed into Kadashan Bay. Both were named after a Native American George Kadashan, I think. The remains of his cabin were still there along the river. But it was slowly being destroyed by time and the flora. Small trees were growing through what was left of the floor boards. The roof and walls were totally gone. Though he is remembered on the maps with a river and bay named after him, George's presence there was slowly fading. Nature is indifferent to our names for its parts or how they acquired those names.

I Went Deer Hunting, Once

I've only done a little hunting. I like game meat, and have never been against hunting, but I am generally content to wander in the woods and just see the critters. I've done a little small game hunting, mostly with others. But one time I did go deer hunting. I was working for Fish and Game on the Kadashan River in the Tongass National Forest. The limit that year in that area was 7 deer per person, so there was no need to not participate like a local.

The only deer I found were high on the mountain above the river. And that mountain was quite steep. I had run a marathon the year before, but it still took me 2-3 hours to get 1.5 miles horizontal distance. Aside from the steep terrain there were multitudes of fallen trees. Climbing over, under, or along them was quite a chore.

Well I got my deer. It was a a good distance away, but my rifle skills were good. But the bullet dropped a little less than I expected, so it was was a little high in the chest cavity. The high powered cartridge put the bullet clean through with almost no expansion – the exit was smaller than a nickel. It was late in the afternoon, so by the time I field dressed the buck, it was too late to get it back that evening. So I hung it high enough in a tree to prevent the bears from getting it and headed home. By the time I reached the flatter area nearer the river, it was getting dark. The moon was out, so that helped in the few open areas, but navigating was mostly done by my sense of direction. It served me well over the years in my miscellaneous wanderings through the woods. But in one rather dark part of the woods, I heard loud noises. I knew it was a bear. That's a bit scary when one still has blood on one's hands. After a summer of fish, I'm sure any bear would pine for some red meat. But then I heard a second bear. That would seem to be worse, but the only bears in that area that seemed to hang around together were Hanz and Fritz. But still, I had noticed that they were a lot bolder at night, even close to my cabin. But they kept their distance. If they had charged, there was little chance of me getting a good bear-stopping shot at ONE of them in that short distance I could see that night.

So the next day I go back to retrieve my prey. With all the fallen trees, I knew there was no way I could carry it down the steepest part near the top, so I started by dragging the carcass. That worked fine until I came to a long grassy slope. The carcass slide well enough that it bumped into my feet. One time it knocked my feet out from under me and I fell on top of it. Then here we go! I'm on top of a deer sliding out of control down a grassy slope. It was a bit scary at first, but then I had to laugh out loud at the idea of it. The sledding was short, so there was still plenty of work navigating through the forest and its ravines and its fallen trees. When I got to the less steep area, I was able to carry the deer, but it was difficult getting through the swamp. Some beaver had dammed a small trickle to make a large swampy area. At the best crossing point, the water was just barely below the tops of my hip waders.

Back at the cabin I butchered the deer, but the next morning I awoke to find Hanz standing on his back legs, looking in through the window of the cabin door. Yep, red meat was smelling really good to him/her (often saw tapeworms hanging out their butts, but didn't see the bears peeing). Since being a young teen, I had always wanted to make buckskin and here was my chance, so I put the hide in a large tub of water with salt and set it on a platform between two trees. After a couple years old, brown bear cannot climb trees; they are too heavy for their claws to support them. Well, that's what I was told. But I caught Fritz climbing up a tree and stealing my hide. I chased him and Hanz trying to get it back, but when they went into a thicket of bushes, I stopped. I ain't going to chase a bear into the bushes to try to steal its food. After the rest of the butchering, I did leave the bones out for them.

Forest Service, Neighbors, Martens, and Cooking

When I first went to Kadashan River with Dan Zelinsky, we were relieving Andy Smoker and his wife who wee filling in until we got there. (Our boss, a really nice guy named Ken Imamura also came out to get us settled in. I stayed at his house the night before with his wife and daughter.) Andy told a story about how he was counting fish through the weir but keeping a close eye on a couple bears who were nearby. All of the sudden, the bears looked up and started going down river. A couple minutes later, two women with bear bells from the Forest Service came from that direction. The bears had actually gone to see what was causing the jingling noise! But that's still better than accidentally surprising a bear. 

Those women were Marilyn Kwock and Brenda “the Belle” Wright. Earlier that summer before I got the Fish and Game job, I learned how to bake bread. I was still staying in the university dorms. So was Lori, but she was in a different building. I knew Lori because she was in a couple plays with a friend of mine, Shelly. I still correspond with Shelly. Both are in the picture to the right, Lori on the left, Shelly in the upper middle. Well Lori wanted some help building a bunk bed. In return she showed me how to bake yeast risen bread. One of my specialties became cinnamon rolls with maple syrup replacing some of the brown sugar. So I made cinnamon rolls for Marilyn and Brenda. Their cabin was perhaps a mile down river. They had come for a few week to make maps of the beaver ponds. Their boss, Roy Slidel(?) came out for a few days. While he was there, we let them use our portable generator to charge their radio battery. We also took them across the inlet in our motorboat (13 ft Boston Whaler with 25 hp motor) to Tenakee Springs to get fuel for their cabin. It turned out well because later that year Roy gave me a position for two months (October and November) two bays down at Trap Bay doing hydrology work. If you're inclined, you can read about my Trap Bay work on this page: My History of Doing Research.

At Trap bay, we had plenty of time between the needed work. The cabin was well stocked with ingredients, so Mark Winland and I experimented with many recipes from Julia Child's “The Joy of Cooking.” It was fun. Marilyn and Brenda were out there for a week gathering stream bed samples. Other Forest Service folks were also out there frequently, especially Brian(?) and Adam(?). One of the times that we made lasagna, we just filled the empty pan with water and left it on the porch to soak. It froze that night so we dumped the lasagna flavored ice on the ground. That brought martens to the area. Martens are much like mink but a little bigger and perhaps meaner. But they were fun to watch. One night one jumped up on the window screen and just looked around inside. Another time several were outside the cabin screaming like banshees. It must have been mating season or something. Once while I sitting in the outhouse with the door ajar, a marten came inside and looked around. He didn't seem to recognize that a person was in there. He even put his foot on my boot. I don't know what that was all about.

Among the cabin supplies was a can of Spam. Feeling that we were drawing nearer to being gourmets rather than Spam eaters, we opened it and put it on the porch for the martens. Several of them came and nibbled at it. But we never saw them again after that. What's in that stuff?

A Late Night in Tenakee Springs

Tenakee Spring was a small town of less than 150 people. It had a main road going through town, but aside from small ATVs, the only real vehicle in town was a fire truck. Tenakee was directly across the inlet from Kadashan Bay and only about 7 miles by boat from Trap bay.

They had a public bath house there fed by the hot springs. It had a large changing room and another room containing the bath. That room had a concrete floor with a large concrete bath in the middle. The concrete merged with the natural rocks about three feet down. Hot water rose up from the rocks in the bottom of the bath and flowed out the corner of the room into the ocean. There were men's hours and women's hours. I was told that most people in town used it as their main bath. From Kadashan, Dan and I didn't go to town often, but from Trap Bay, Mark and I went about once a week to bathe and have a quick stop at the bar, Tenakee Tavern. The restrooms for the tavern were two small outhouses outback on the pier. If you looked through the toilet hole at low tide, you could see the rocky beach; otherwise it was a straight shot into the ocean.

Also once a week, we used a home made sauna for bathing. It was a small log cabin with a wood stove. We cranked up the heat to build up body heat, soaped up, and jumped into the river to rinse off. In early December, we had to break ice to jump in. It was so cold that I was not able to not scream. One time we ran out of beer while siting in the sauna. So I head back to the cabin for more. No need for clothes, so I was only wearing hip waders. Wonder that would have looked if I had been attacked by a bear on the way.

So one week we stop at the bath house where we shared the bath, like usual, with others including kids playing with a beach ball. And we went to the tavern and had a few drinks. We had had our fill when someone rings the bell, clang clang clang – A round of drinks for the house! Apparently a couple commercial fishermen in the corner were betting on something and the loser buys for everyone. Great. Well Mark was talking to a guy next to him who was a cook at a nearby lumber camp. I met him but couldn't join the conversation over the general noise. But that guy bought Mark and I a round. Then clang goes the bell. Another round of drink for the house! Same fishermen. I asked the bartender, Gwen, to let me have mine as a closed bottle of beer; I had had enough by then. (I later saw Gwen's picture in the January 1984 National Geographic.)

So now we have had more than enough to drink, but more importantly, it was well past dark. We didn't have a flashlight. It was 7 miles home by boat over ocean water. There was no moon that night. But off we go. Mark was piloting. There was enough starlight that we could see the outline of the mountains against the sky. Surely that would be enough to find the third bay down the inlet. And we did smell the sea lions when we got to the rocks at which they hung out; there were a bunch of them on the north side of the inlet near its exit from Baranof Island. Our bay was on the south side.

So we get to our bay and start looking for the buoy for the boat. The tides in that area can be 20 feet between high and low tides, so leaving a boat on shore can cause it to be far from the water at low tide. So we had a small, light canoe on shore and the larger motorboat (17 ft Boston Whaler with 35 hp motor) was tied to the buoy off shore. We took the canoe from shore to the buoy and back. But where was that buoy? We kept going back and forth across the bay looking for this large 3 ft wide buoy. The starlight reflecting off the water should make it visible. Besides, it also has a canoe tied to it. But where was it? We kept running into sand where we weren't suppose to find sand. And rocks where there wasn't suppose to be rocks. One of those rock collisions stalled the motor. And every time Mark started the motor and put into gear, the motor stalled. It took awhile, but we eventually figured out that a rope from the bow went overboard, went under the boat, and wrapped around the propeller. So we dealt with that and continued searching for our buoy.

Then Mark falls out of the boat. Uh oh. This was Autumn in Alaska and that water never gets even a little warm. I pull him back in. He had a float coat which kept him safe and warm enough for now, but now we might have to go back to town and sleep in the bath house. We need to find that buoy. Eventually we do. We almost run into it and the canoe before we actually saw it. So with half frozen hands we tie up the boat and take the canoe to shore, pulling it up the beach, safe from the next high tide.

But now we have to get to the cabin. It's only about half a mile, but we still don't have a flashlight. And starlight doesn't make it though the trees. What we did have was BIC lighters. We used them rather than matches for lighting the Coleman lanterns in the cabin. The wind was blowing fairly strong that night, so the lighters only stayed lit for a moment at a time. It was a flick. Step. Step. Flick. Step. Step. We had to flick our BICS all the way home. But all ended well, except for the paddle that went overboard with Mark and was never found.

I don't have any other drinking stories. I never really enjoyed getting drunk. Maybe that's because I grew up being scrawny and with low blood pressure. I could often feel light headed just from standing up. But at least my story is better than the usual “We got so drunk we were puking all over.”

Halloween in Tenakee Springs and All Saints in Juneau

Well a few weeks later, Adam come out to Trap Bay for 10 days. After the float plane left we realized: “Hey, Kevin is due for a break in town and we'll soon run out of time for that.” So we decide to send me into town on the ferry for my week off. The ferry travels the inside passage in Alaska carrying passengers, vehicles, and supplies. One of its stops going north to Juneau is at Tenakee Springs. So Mark takes me to town, we do the bath thing, and he heads back, but this time before dark.

I need to kill some time because the ferry doesn't arrive until about 1:00 AM. So I'm walking down the road in Tenakee and Gwen, the bartender in the tavern calls out to me: “Hey come on in and help us decorate.” It was Saturday night and Halloween and the tavern was celebrating. So I helped put up the decorations, taste the free hot buttered rum (do bars usually serve free drinks?) and hung around for the ferry.

It took awhile for the ferry to unload and load. It took time to get to Juneau. But it was only about 4:00AM when I got off. For some reason, the ferry landed outside of Juneau at Auke Bay. It's about 10 miles, perhaps, to Juneau but I have nothing better to do than walk, so off I go carrying my rucksack. And someone stops to pick me up. It was a young couple offering me a ride on a dark and lonely highway. I didn't even have my thumb out.

Gee I hadn't been to church for a while, I'll wait for the 7:30 mass at the local church. The day after Halloween is called All Saints Day. Besides, leaving for town on Saturday kept us from letting anyone know I was coming to town. It wouldn't be polite to show up at Marilyn's place, asking for a place to stay, at such an early time of day. After the service, the priest recognizes me as someone he doesn't recognize and invites me to breakfast. Sure. About the time we were finishing up a meal at the restaurant, someone recognizes the priest, a construction guy perhaps named Sullivan, comes over and picks up the check. Great.

So I make my way to Marilyn's house; she shares one with a few other people I didn't know. Though surprised, she welcomed me and said “Sure. Anytime you're in town come on by. You always have a place to stay. If no one is home, come on in and make yourself at home. The door is never locked.” I was invited to a Thanksgiving celebration that week. I didn't ask, but I had the impression that part of the reason for doing it the first week in November was because I was in town. I also went out one evening with Marilyn and Brenda. It was nice. Brenda is the most feminine women I have ever known, even though I mostly have only seen her in non-frilly situations and mostly out in the woods doing heavy work. It was just something about her fully accepting her womanhood, of doing everything within who she was rather than as someone else or as someone would want her to. She was feminine while doing work that usually brings out the rough side of everyone.

I did stay at Marilyn's place another time, but she had moved by then. I bought her a picture done by an artist she really liked. Some people never really understood why I had trouble moving back to the big city.

Missing the Boat

One of my Fish and Game jobs was a two week boat trip recovering tags from salmon around Prince of Wales Island, near Ketchikan. Earlier in the summer, salmon were caught off the coast in know locations and numbered, red disk tags were placed on the fish. Actually, they are placed through the fish. A wire runs through the top of the fish's back holding two red disks in place. By recovering the tags and comparing the numbers, researchers could distinguish which rivers, Canadian or U.S., are fed by which offshore fisheries. It was meant to set the boundaries for fishermen of both countries.

So we had 8 people on a 72 foot ship named the Kittiwake. During WW II, it had been a tugboat that powered troop moving ships. I also spent a little time on one of its sister ships, The Waters, also used by AK Fish and Game. It was piloted by Charlie McCloud who had the same birthday as me. We celebrated it together that year aboard the Kittiwake. Another guy acted as the cook and engineer. We had six Fish and Gamers who worked in pairs, each pair had a small motorboat to get to individual rivers. The motorboats were brought aboard the ship for traveling longer distances and at night. At each stream, the pair counted the salmon and recovered any of the red disk tags, whether on live or dead fish. The live fish were acquired with an 8 foot spear with 5 prongs on the end. The fish seem to usually survive the spearing, but even if they didn't, it was a relatively small percentage of the total. On one river, Kurt and I counted 90,000 live fish and 110,000 dead within a 2-3 mile stretch. Many people can't imagine the quantity of salmon that some rivers obtain. The bears on that island were black bears, so we could carry the lighter shotguns with slugs for protection. We would thoroughly lubricate the shotguns in the morning, but the barrels would be rusted from the seawater before returning to the ship at the end of the day.

One one day, there were two stream near where we spent the nigh and one farther away. Kurt and I took the farther stream and planned to wait for the ship to bring the other two crews our way when they were done. So we worked our stream and waited. The boat didn't come. We were planning to anchor that night near a small port town. Maybe the ship had passed us and went ahead. So we head for that town. Nope. We could wait there. If it didn't show, at least we have a safe place to spend the night. But that would leave our fellow shipmates waiting for us at our river, worrying. We had already used up more than one of our three, 6 gallon gas tanks. But we decided to go looking for our ship. But we went al the way back to where we had anchored the night before. Where was our ship? Now we had used up two of our gas tanks. That was already about 60 miles on ocean water in a small 13 ft motorboat. The waters were pretty protected but all that bouncing on the waves is hard on the kidneys.

So what now? The ship is nowhere along the route planned for that day. But the day was waning and we had to go somewhere. So we used our last tank of gas to get back to the town. At least there may be shelter and food there. But there was our ship! Somehow we had passed on the opposite sides of a small island while we were leaving the small town and they we going to it. The island was rather small, so the timing must have been within a five minute window that would have kept us from seeing each other. That was a rough 90 miles that day by small boat. But all's well that ends well.


I spent about six weeks working a weir about ten miles outside of Yakutat on the Situk River. This was the only weir I worked that was accessible by road, though I did not have a car. The main Fish and Game office in town was run by Alex. He was a German immigrant, with a strong accent, a like for dark bread, a dog that died saving his life from a bear, and usually taught skiing in Utah during the winter. Gordy had been working the weir in previous summers but was working in town as an apprentice to taking over for Alex, who was planning to retire. In September of 2012, I talked to a commercial fisherman from Yakutat who said Gordy is nearing retirement now. He indicated it was overdue since Gordy is not on his best game these days.

I still remember a couple stories told by Gordy. One was when he watch a bear catch up to and kill a moose, not far from the weir. He had a ditty that he always said when canoeing down the river: “As we sail the good ship Venus, The mast was an erected penis, Oh god you should have seen us, As we go sailing along.” Another story he told was about an eagle and a merganser. A merganser is a duck. This one had about a dozen ducklings on the river. In swooped a a bald eagle, grabbed a duckling, and off it flew. The mother was visibly upset but powerless. A little while later, the eagle returned. This time the merganser saw it and scurried her ducklings under some bushes overhanging the river. When the eagle swooped in the mother merganser rose up and attacked! It used its wings to beat that eagle down to the water. Fwap, fwap, fwap. And then beat the eagle below the surface. Fwap, fwap, fwap. That little duck got the better of the majestic eagle and saved its ducklings from any more predation.

The 'cabin' had just plywood walls with a canvas roof. I counted 133,000 pink salmon through that weir that summer. There were also a good number of sockeye and king, plus a few dog salmon. Not that I counted them, but a good number of lamprey also came through. The weir was about ten miles upriver. Renata Riff also had a cabin out there but most of her work was in town at the cannery. I did help her some at the weir taking samples and measurements from sockeye salmon.

I took one plane ride with Alex, probably a Cessna 180. We did an aerial stream survey and a fisheries check. The stream survey was flying low over a stream and counting the salmon in it. It's easier than it sounds. And I have done a lot of stream surveys from the ground. The counting is approximate. If there are only a few, individuals are counted. If more, count/estimate by tens, or hundreds. The fisheries check was a fly over of the ocean waters used by commercial fisherman. The check was to make sure boats stayed within the allowed boundaries. Plus they could not drop their nets until a specified time. When done with our flight, Alex apparently didn't want to drive me back out to the weir, so he had the plane land on the gravel road at my cabin.

I didn't have any law enforcement duties, but Alex wanted me to check fishing licenses of people coming out from town to the river to fish. I didn't do much of that but did make my presence known so they would stop out of guilt. Most of the salmon were pinks, also called humpies. They are not the highest of quality, especially after being in freshwater for ten miles. There were some higher quality sockeyes. However, salmon don't do much feeding once they are in the rivers; the best lures a shiny and mostly provoke the fish into biting. I was talking to one guy who wasn't doing very well. I gave him a few pointers. Then he turns to me and asks, “Want to go for a helicopter ride?” He was a travel photographer and was in town to photograph a cruise ship approaching a glacier. So I went with him in a pickup to the Yakutat airport and off we go. We were a little early, so we landed on a small island and waited. When the ship arrived we took off. It was the Princess Cunard. The photographer had an expensive Hasselblad and took lots of pictures as we circled the ship several times at different heights.

When done, he also had the pilot land on the road by my cabin. I'm not sure, but I saw some advertisements for Princess Cruises that may have been taken on that flight.

Another interesting things about Yakutat was their Fair Weather Days Celebration. It was a big beach party put on by the local canneries. It was all the oysters and crabs and pork ribs and beer you could consume. There was a live band and parachuters dropped into the party. It was lots of fun. And I was recently told that it still goes on every summer. That location was also nice because there were some gravel pits within walking distance. I swam in them. Salmon rivers generally have so many dying fish that I wouldn't want to swim in them. And certainly, water was better obtained off a cabin roof rather than out of the river.

Sunken Treasure

At one of my Fish and Game jobs, I went out to a weir on Hugh Smith Lake, which is in the Misty Fjords National Monument. The lake had once been a fjord, but a landslide, within historical times I believe, had closed off the entrance. The lower third of the lake was still salt water, but the upper 400 feet was freshwater (but in Fish and Game, we talked in fathoms which equal six feet). I took a commercial flight from Juneau to Ketchikan. The airport was on a separate island, so a guy from the Fish and Game office took a small motor boat to pick me up so I wouldn't have to take the ferry (Eventually someone tried to build a road to that airport, but after it got labeled “The bridge to nowhere.” funding was canceled.) So I was waiting in town for an air taxi to take me to the work site. Air taxis are what they call the hirable float planes. There were a set of docks in town from which they left. I was watching one load up for a supply run to some small town. It was getting the usual looking kinds of supplies, such as food. But then there were several money bags being loaded. I was surprised that such a small town had a bank and needed significant bags of cash.

But oops! The pilot dropped one of the money bags into the water. It was pretty deep there. They were later able to determine that it was only a bag of pennies (how many pennies does a small town need?) but they were going to have to retrieve it anyway. Apparently, the cash delivery was part of a U.S. Mail delivery. And it's a big thing to lose mail. So even though it would cost more to hire divers, that piece of mail would have to be recovered.

Squirrel Bombs

The work at Hugh Smith Lake was a little more involved than at other Fish and Game weirs. If you are so inclined, some of those duties are described on the My History of Doing Research page. But the cabin there was better than most. It actually had two rooms. One was a bunk room with about 8 bunks, and the other was the kitchen/dining room/office. But we even had a small generator there that could be used a few hours a night for electric lights. Like most cabins, we had a propane refrigerator and a propane oven (some used heating oil instead), but electricity for the cabin was unique there, though a couple other places had a generator and electric lights at the actual work site or a generator for charging the radio battery.

The cabin at Hugh Smith Lake had the best scenery. It was on the side of the hill overlooking the lake. It had motorboats on both the lake side and the ocean side. There were shrimp and crab pots, so we got some fresh shellfish to go along with the more than we could eat salmon that we had to sacrificed to recover wire nose tags. There was a Forest Service cabin at the other end of the lake. It was rentable by the public, so we occasionally had temporary neighbors. According to the log, one pair of visitors were newlyweds that enjoyed the cabin but could not leave it much because they had spotted a bear. Uh huh. Other visitors that we talked to were there to hunt bears or for the fishing.

Well our Fish and Game cabin had a corrugated fiberglass roof. It looks much like the corrugated tin you see on rural sheds, but being fiberglass it 1) looked better because it didn't rust and 2) let a little sunlight through for better daytime light. But we had a special problem there at Hugh Smith Lake during my stay from early early September to Early December: squirrels and spruce trees. When it came time for the squirrels to gather spruce cones for the winter, it became a problem. Spruce cones are smaller but much denser than pine cones. So when the squirrels chewed off the cones from the overhanging spruce trees and let them fall on our fiberglass roof – it sounded like a gun going off. It wouldn't have been so bad in the daytime, but they started the racket before dawn, before we wanted to get out of bed. Bang! Bang! That's not how people want to get up in the morning.

Well Meg Cartwright, my coworker out there, was generally a peaceful, slightly anti-hunting kind of person. But not after a couple weeks of squirrel generated, spruce cone bombs. She was ready to use the bear guns on those squirrels. Since it was black bear country, we only had shotguns, some shells were buckshot and some slugs. Luckily for the squirrels, they ran out of cones over our cabin before Meg's patience was completely gone. She was quite ready to defend her sleep from those vicious squirrels.

Spring Break on Beaver Creek

While at school at University of Alaska, I went with a couple friends, Jon and Laurie, to spend one spring break in a cabin on Beaver Creek. Beaver Creek is a small river perhaps 50 or 100 miles north of Fairbanks. Jon's family had a cabin there. Before coming to school that year, Jon had been a cab driver in Nome. Or was it Kotzebue? I forget. Jon's younger brother was out there all winter making money trapping. We split the cost to hire a plane with skis to take us there. The plane was or was the size of a Cessna 180. When we got there, we landed on the frozen river and told the pilot to pick us up in a week. We had no phone and no radio and no electricity. I believe Jon's brother did have some kind of emergency radio beacon, though. We brought supplies with us but also ate from a frozen moose quarter that Jon's brother had bagged that Autumn and left by the cabin, frozen in the snow. And it was cold out there. We had to chop with a pry bar through ice on the river to get to water. The ice was almost three feet thick. They were well dried, but in that cold the spruce logs we used for firewood were amazingly easy to split with just a hand axe. I probably could have used a pocket knife to split it. 

It was a fun week out there. Both alone and with the others I did some tromping around on homemade snowshoes. I spent some time with Jon's brother doing some of his mountain man stuff. It wasn't luxurious, but I don't want to make it sound too primitive either. Both the kitchen stove and the heating stove were metal. The main log cabin was large and there were a smaller sleeping cabin and storage shed made of logs. I assume that their entire family had sometime been out there together, living or vacationing. Somehow, they even had a snow machine (In Alaska, snowmobiles are called snow machines.) I had brought a Mark Twain book and ended up trading it for a marten pelt (Martens are similar to mink, resembling weasels. Some sites for info: and I kept that pelt for years, but it started falling apart. Mementos!

I tried to keep in touch with Jon after I graduated, but like most guys, he wasn't much into writing letters. With my Fish and Game field work, letters were all I had for communication. Laurie and I have sometimes kept in touch and usually not. I still have the fond memories, but it would be nice to remember them with the folks who were there.

Fire Fighting

I did some wildfire fighting one summer in Alaska. I was living in Anchorage, looking for a job. Since I signed up at the unemployment office, I got a call for work on a fire. It was just a small fire in a state park just outside of town. I think there were five of us there. The actual burned area was no bigger than a bathroom, but the spruce needles had accumulated for so many decades, than the fire had burned three feet down into the 'soil.' Putting soil onto burning soil doesn't work, so we had to haul water from about a mile away. Between the hauling and the digging (plus filling out paperwork before going), it took all day. But they needed someone to clean hoses at the fire warehouse, so I came back the next day too.

So there I am cleaning fire hoses. They get mud and soot covered, which is apparently not good for their longevity. So they get hosed down and manually run through some brushes to clean them off. I guess I was a good enough general worker because the highly trained and experienced guy said he wanted to show me a little about running a water pump, the kind used in the field. Usually, several full time fire fighters are stationed at the warehouse for the summer season. (Some then work the winter fire season in Florida.) But there was a huge fire, 100,000 acres up north I believe, that drew folks from Anchorage. They needed more folks, even inexperienced but hardworking folks like me.

So I'm mostly done cleaning the hoses and getting a quick lesson in working the portable water pump when a fire is reported outside of town. It was not large but it was near some homes, so it needed to be looked into. So Paul Slenkamp(?) and I took a truck with a 300 gallon tank on it to check it out. The burnt area was far from the road, but a local had an small ATV and took us to it. There were about 20 acres burnt, mostly some gassy areas, but the flames were spreading into the surrounding trees. We found a small trickle of water coming down the hillside. Paul had me dig out a hole to collect water from that trickle while he went back to the road and the home to coordinate the efforts using phone at those homes. About an hours late, a small bulldozer showed up. The driver said he was sent by Paul to create a fire break, and what did I want him to do? Uhmmm. So without pretending to know more than I did, I said yeah he can go to it. I'll keep digging at this water hole. So he started bulldozing trees and vegetation around the edges of the fire. Looked fine to me, not that I would know.

About the time the bulldozer was finished, a large, tracked ATV showed up. It had dual 200 gallon tanks on it. (The terrain was too rough to get our truck and water tanks there.) Paul knows how to get the equipment. So I spend the night with the ATV driver along the fire break. The fire itself had ragged edges. In some places the break did not encompass those edges. In others places, the fire was burning enough that it could flame a tree, which could fall and cross the break. So we snacked while filling the water tanks from my water hole and put out mini fires along the fire break all night long. Well that's what I did; the driver mostly just drove.

The next morning, a crew of fire fighters showed up and reported to me, since I was the guy in charge at the fire (what! I just started fire fighting the day before yesterday!) They were an experienced crew from a nearby town, Susitna I believe. So I told them to do their thing and they did. Later, a few locals also reported to me to help out. There were about 15 folks in all. I actually got to take a real break at about lunch time. But it was late that night before we got back to the warehouse with the gear. Aside from that ½ hour break, I worked 39 straight hours on that fire. I didn't have a way home, so I spent that night with a couple guys who had helped with the original fire in the state park and came out to help with this fire. It was decided that those two guys and I should stay on while the regular trained professionals were occupied and away.

So I worked for a couple months at the fire warehouse. There was not a lot to do but they needed us to be there and available. Aside from cleaning and maintaining equipment that was coming and going from the warehouse, be built an obstacle course. Another guy became part of our crew of unprofessionals. He came from Michigan. He had done some lumberjacking there and showed me the proper way to fell a tree.

Three of us did go to another fire. It was on the Stuyahok River, near Iliamna. But the locals pronounced the name as if it were spelled Stuhoyuk. A plane was chartered to take us from Anchorage to Iliamna, 200 miles to the west. We landed on a gravel runway and taxied right up to the front door of a hotel. But we stayed in tents in the back yard. Pilots need hotel accommodations for required rests between flight shiftss, but firefighters don't. All the aircraft were tied up by the Bureau of Reclamation on a different fire. (We were working for AK department of Natural Resources.) In the late afternoon of the next day, a Bell 212 helicopter became available to take us to the fire. The Bell 212 can potentially carry 15, so it was a bit of an overkill for just us three. We had a 7mm rifle for bear protection (wimpy) but only saw a caribou.

We got to the fire site and circled it, evaluating the damage – there were about 600 acres burned. As we got out, the pilot threw out a box of bug repellent to us. Smart man. Even with the repellent, the biting flies called “white socks” sometimes got under my pant legs and left a couple dozen bites that bled. So we set up camp; and went fishing. We ate some supper; and went fishing. By that time it was near 10pm, a light wind had kicked up some flames, so we went to work. When we circled the fire earlier, we didn't even see any smoke. So we worked a couple hours and went to bed. It was tough work, mostly just from the hiking. It was tundra that had tufts of grass rising from a bog covered, flat landscape. The hiking was tough whether stepping from tuft to tuft or stepping in the water between the tufts.

The next morning, we went fishing, had some breakfast, and went fishing. Then we had some lunch and went fishing while waiting for the float plane, a deHavilland Beaver, to land of the Stuyahok river to pick us up. My first time, of many, on a float plane.

So was it all a waste, except for the excellent grayling we brought back? No, even though no one even cared about a fire in that desolate area, especially since it was mostly burned out. The real purpose was to investigate the logistics of getting fire fighters to that region. Previously, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation had responsibility for fire there, but the State had just taken over that responsibility. No one from the state knew anything about getting people, supplies, equipment, and pilots out there. So we were merely a simple test case. Glad it was me.

Eventually, the professionals came back from the really big fire and my gig at the warehouse was up. So I spent the rest of the summer working at a warehouse for an expediting company. We filled food orders for remote camps. Remote geological survey, and mining, and prospecting camps need someone to order supplies and get them to the cargo planes. We shared a warehouse and refrigerator/freezer space with McDonalds and Baskin Robbins. I often drove a two ton truck to the airport. Slightly interesting.