[Archive] [Chapter One]

Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Two

by Peter S. Oleson

We boarded the ferry boat Malaspina out of Seattle in early September, headed for Alaska with only what we could carry aboard. Our first problem was what to do with the fifth member of our group, the previously unintroduced Dago. Dago had come with us from Wisconsin. Dago was a Blue Beagadachapoo. One part Beagle, one part Dachshund one part blueticked hound and one part Poodle. He was small with a hound's voice and black all over. We had to leave him tied up in the hold, but were allowed down there on a daily schedule to check on him. We got along pretty easily with the crew members we met down on the car deck and they too kept an eye on old Dago for us.
Ship life was great, even in our nearly broke condition. It was so incredibly different. We had no money for a stateroom, or for that matter, any other type of room, so we slept on the deck. We weren't the only ones to do so. The best place to do that was on the observation deck, way up on the top deck facing the stern. It had a translucent roof and a lot of the tourists spent time up there during the day. Those people usually had enough money to have a room, so when the sun went down; the temperature dropped, and all us poor folk gravitated up to the observation deck to talk, laugh , and indulge in our personal poisons, as well as play guitar and harmonica and sing.
We had not brought any beer with us on board, so we would go down to the barroom on the boat (yes, they even had one of those) and order one beer and kind of hang out and talk to anyone who would talk to us. We were hoping they would buy us some drinks. This method worked surprisingly well, and we told a lot of tales those days that we were aboard. People seemed to be genuinely interested in what you said when you were relating to them real events in your life. To prove the point, you're reading this, aren't you?

The weather was beautiful during the day all through Washington and on up into British Columbia. The sun beat down all those dog days and we reveled in the ease of this type of traveling as compared to the eternal choices involved in driving a car. Bruce and John snooped around below decks long enough to locate some bathrooms that contained showers which we supposed were meant to service suites that had no showers in them. You haven't taken a shower until you've tried it in a big boat in a fair to middlin' swell. It kind of throws you from one side of the cabinet to the other.

Our food supply though, was non-existent: in our haste to board the boat, we had not stocked up on victuals. The food served onboard looked and smelled real good, but was prohibitively costly. This was 1972 mind you and gas was still 32.9 cents per gallon and you could get a hamburger at McDonalds for a quarter. Little did I know when I boarded that boat that I would never see gas or hamburgers again in my life at those prices. These burgers on the ferry were 2 to 3 dollars! We didn't have a lot of money left, so what we did was peruse the buffet line during serving and sneak all the little cracker packages we could into our coat pockets. Then we would come back when there were no customers around and fill some cups with hot water and stuff a wad of ketchup containers in our pockets. We sat at a table in the corner and played cards and made a bunch of noise to disguise the fact that we were emptying ketchup into our hot water and adding crackers to concoct a kind of tomato soup slurry. That is what we lived on for those days.

We saw a lot of things we hadn't ever seen before, including the very ocean upon which we were living. It was all so new and exciting. We were anxiously awaiting our arrival in the great state of Alaska.

So the luxury (?) of living on board came to an end when we at last docked at an Alaskan port. The sun was beating down as we approached the ferry dock in Ketchikan. The ferry tied up and we were at last able to set foot on the soil of the state we had gambled on being our promised land.
We were booked to continue on to Haines; which was the northernmost stop of our ferry. We had figured that Alaska was up there where the bulk of the state was on the map. But when we walked off the gangway we looked down at water that you could see into for miles. The mountains around us were so much different than the plains and valleys of the Midwest. It was the most beautiful place we had ever seen and by consensus we agreed that we had found a place for us. We went back aboard and grabbed our packs, my toolbox and gun, untied Dago and left the ferry behind to embrace our new home in Alaska.

We immediately applied at the ferry station for a refund of the balance of our fare, and were told that we had to wait some arbitrary amount of days before the balance could be refunded. That was OK, we could deal with that, but we needed a place to stay. In Wisconsin, there were always places for rent, we assumed that that was the same all over. We walked across the ferry parking area to a small store and bought a local newspaper and checked out the "For Rent" column. There weren't any places for rent.

So we went to the bulletin board and found a handwritten add for an apartment for rent in Hopkins Alley for $150 a month. Whoa, for that price in Wisconsin, you could rent a pretty nice house, or a real nice farm house. But that was all we could find, and we called the number. The person answering wanted first and last months rent and the 150 up front. We only had the 150 and pled our case. He wanted to talk to us in person so we walked out to the main drag with our baggage and hitched a ride in no time at all up to Hopkins Alley.

We found our man there. He wasn't that much older than us, he was an Alaskan native (the first we had met), and after we had spoken to each other for a while, he was willing to forgo the first and last thing and we spent my last 150 dollars for a place to stay for a month. Between us at that point we had about a hundred dollars left, and that included the ticket refunds we had coming.

The apartment was a dive. It was originally a garage under a small house. There was one bedroom, which Diane and I commandeered, a bathroom with a tub, and the kitchen/living room. We sat right on the upper tide line, about two rows of buildings from the ocean, but all our drain water went directly into the ocean. Late at night, you could watch the warf rats tails sticking out of the circle cut around the sink drain. It was nowhere we wanted to call home, but it was what we could afford. We were happy with it, after a fashion.

The problem we were immediately faced with was income. We arrived in town on a Sunday afternoon and the following morning found us walking around town looking for a job. Unfortunately, we were perceived by the people of Ketchikan to be the last of the tourists for the season. Our problem was that nobody knew us. We found the local Job Service office, which also housed the Public Assistance person. When we walked up to the counter and asked about getting employment, the lady just pointed behind her to a guy in a suit with very long hair and we met Franklin.

Franklin, as he wanted to be called, was very happy to help us out any way he could. He took us over to the public assistance lady and got us some food stamps. That was a real load off. He also got us guys a job putting two piece mobile homes together for a guy who ran a mobile home court way the hell up on top of one of the many hills that Ketchikan is situated upon.

We spent a lot of our spare time exploring the town, which seemed to be perched upon the sides of hills. There was a main road through town, which generally ran upon pilings over the water. Between the north and south sides of town, there was a tunnel, but you could only go one way through it. I never understood why there was no two way traffic through that tunnel. If you drove north, you came to the end of the road in about a half an hour. Similarly, if you drove south, you would spend an equal amount of time before you found yourself unable to go further.

We spent a few days up on top of that hill putting trailers together for Jay and watching the work going on across the narrows separating our island from Gravina Island. They were building an airport over there. We called it Ketchikan International Airport (where the big jet engines roar) after some inane country song that seemed to be popular on the local radio station, which sucked.
Bruce and John wasted no time finding someone who would trade food stamps for dope, so that was where their half of the food stamps went. The guy they found who would do it was a very nice person, so I never complained about it; after all, I was an indirect beneficiary of their efforts.
Franklin came by the shack one day with another job for us. The local bakery needed some strong backs to unload a semi trailer full of 50 lb. bags of flour and bread mix. The trailer was parked alongside the bakery with the back end facing uphill. Remember, everything in Ketchikan is either on a hill or over the water.

It was very hard work hauling those bags uphill to the back of the trailer, handing them down to one of either me or John, who then carried them uphill to the back door of the bakery and inside to stack them where the baker wanted them to be. The second day we were engaged in this enterprise, we noticed that the back end of the trailer seemed to bob up and down as Bruce carried the bags to the tail of the container. As he handed me a bag, the balance of the trailer was upset and the forward part of the trailer became front heavy. The stupid thing then tipped forward, gravity overcoming any effort to keep the back of the thing on the ground, and the trailer tipped forward, leaving the tailgate up in the air about 15 feet. We went to find the baker who was unsympathetic to our plight. We had to all crawl up a ladder, lay on the floor of the trailer and hand to hand the bags up to the tailgate, then the first in line had to crawl over us and jump down to catch the bag pushed out of the back and carry it into the store to stack it. We were being paid by the hour, so it was no big deal, but it certainly made the whole thing take a lot longer than it should have. It was also very funny, even to us.

After that, though, the employment scene seemed to dry up. I spent my days walking the main drag applying for work. Bruce and John were more content just existing for each day and I had no problem with that. But there were no jobs forthcoming, there being much less a demand for labor in the fall than in the spring or summer. We received our ticket credits from the ferry, which were soon gone. I managed to feed us on the remainder of the food stamps, but John's record was broken as there was no money, toward the end of that first month for any beer. It was starting to seem hopeless.

As the end of the month drew near, Bruce and John lost their resolve and we spent an evening on the telephone. I asked the landlord for some time to come up with the next months rent. He obliged, I am sure, because his apartment was eminently undesirable, and the promise of payment in the future was better than no tenants at all. Bruce and John called their families and begged for enough money to return to Wisconsin. I called my father, who agreed to send me the next months rent.

In a few days, we all got what we asked for and Diane and I bid farewell to John and Bruce. We had been through so much together, it actually hurt to give them that last hug and as they flew off from the dock on the way to Metlakatla to board a real airplane to America, I don't think I had ever felt so all alone before.

Coming soon: Peter and Diane have problems, Dago causes problems, everywhere there are problems.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]