Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Five

by Peter S. Oleson

There we were, in the parking lot of Wingren's Grocery in Ketchikan. There was one building between it and the shop where I worked, and that was a liquor store. The other side of the parking lot featured a Chevron station (with Rest Rooms). Across the main drag was a drug store. Right there alongside the market was a bank. Hey, what more could a guy need?

The parking lot contained maybe two dozen camping units, mostly itinerant labor and newcomers looking for work, with an occasional tourist thrown in. There was a rudimentary outhouse there, probably more for the appearance of an attempt to comply with zoning laws than anything else, for it was useless for it's intended purpose, as well as an eyesore. The tourists and itinerants had it made, they could leave at the end of the summer. Our only option was to move the trailer to a trailer park. Then we could hook up to water and have electricity. We opted to stay where we were, the rent being so much less than a trailer park, we figured we could do without the amenities. Out the back window, we had a view of Tongass Narrows, we were only about 10 feet from it at high water. There was a trailer on each side of us, and the market's parking lot out the front

Back at the shop, there was a whole new crowd, except for Otto, the body man, Steve the mechanic, and Jim the Service Manager. Otto got himself an apprentice. Andy had come up from Oregon that summer. He was pretty young, but he fit in OK. Otto needed all the help he could get. I don't know how old he actually was, but he looked every year of it. He was the last body man I ever met who still used lead to fill in big dents, instead of body putty. Last of a dying breed. I suppose that breathing all those paint and solvent fumes, not to mention the lead fumes, over all those years didn't do Otto any good. Neither did the bottle of "4 Roses" behind the paint cabinet. Otto had a serious whiskey jones. He couldn't see for shit either. He did most of his work by "feel". He adapted to his age and the gradual loss of some of his senses by using the senses he had left to their utmost.

For some reason, maybe because the rest of the young guys just blew him off, Otto trusted me. When he would finish a job, he would walk out into the shop and tug on my sleeve, motioning me to follow him. We would thread our way through all the junk on the floor in the unit room, and end up over at the paint cabinet. Otto would reach behind the cabinet and grab his bottle and push it into my hands. It didn't matter to him if it was morning or afternoon, the ritual was a constant. I would take a swig, Otto would follow, and then it was on to his last job for my opinion on his work. When I first got back to town, his work was still pretty good, over the next few years though, while it was still passable, it was clear that Otto, like an old work horse, was nearing the end of his usefulness. I would run my hand over the fender, or whatever, always finding something to take a closer look at, or pretending to. Always a comment, like "Damn, Otto, you still got the touch. This a new piece or one you fixed?". Then he would kick in with his little chuckle and take another swig from his bottle. I never had the heart to tell him if anything wasn't perfect. What good would it have done if I did?

A lot of people came and went in those years after my return. We had a guy from Texas that ended up being extradited back there. A couple guys that came from Idaho to make the "big money"; that didn't last long. A few guys from California that started weird and just got weirder. We lost a few of them to the water. Not that they died or anything like that, it was the lure of the ocean that would draw them out of a windowless garage and out onto the waves. In fact, everyone in Ketchikan pretty much lived for the sea, or because of it. Howard P. and Greg both quit to become "highliners", members of the trolling fleet. A fiercely independent conflagration of individuals that lived aboard their boats in whatever little port took their fancy. They all seemed to keep track of each other, and if you knew one of them, you could count on all the others for whatever help you might need, unless they thought you were stupid. Then you could count on a cold shoulder.

Meanwhile, over in the parking lot, I had to install a heater of some type for the winter. I took out the refrigerator and put a propane heater in. Why would we need a big old refrigerator when we had no power?

Somehow or other, I kind of drew dogs to me there in that parking lot. We had Dago yet, and then Howard P. asked me to take care of his dog. He had always explained his having a dog by saying he was fattening him up for Thanksgiving. Then another dog just showed up. We called him Odduck. He had blue eyes and was very smart. So I built them all little houses and tied them up when we were at work.

Except Dago. Dago kind of came into his own there in the parking lot. He would leave with me for work, where the owner just loved him, to spend his days hunting wharf rats in the walls of the shop. He cornered a rat one day in the parts room and I finally ended up beating the thing to death with a shock absorber. The shop was actually a conglomeration of at least five separate buildings all built around and into each other in a vintage Alaskan kind of way. Dago would sniff out rats in every cranny he could weasel himself into. I remember one day I took him upstairs into the attic, where all the auto body parts and used radios were stored. While we were up there, he found himself a nice hole to crawl into and he wouldn't come out. I left him up there and went back to work.

The owner's mother was our bookkeeper. She had a little desk there in the showroom where she would spend her days with her ledger and typewriter. She heard a scratching noise above her head and looked up just in time to see Dago bring down the suspended ceiling onto her desk. Howard B. (the owner) came out of his office to make sure the dog wasn't hurt. Everybody loved Dago.
Most mornings on the way to work, we would meet the garbage truck as it backed up to the loading dock of the market to pick up the trash. We had gotten to know most of the city employees by meeting them at parties and barrooms around town. They started to save meat scraps for Dago and throw them to him out the window of the truck as they drove by. The dog thought that garbage truck was a chariot from heaven. It got to the point where he would take off and follow the truck around for a while before he came to work. Then one day I looked out the showroom window and he was riding around in the garbage truck with them.

They knew where I worked, so they would leave him off there on the way back to the city shop after they finished their route. Sometimes I would see Dago walking around downtown while I was on a test drive. One day in the shop, we were all working away and some cars were honking their horns outside on the main drag. It got to the point where we had to go out and see what was going on. There in the middle of the road dragging a chunk of beef twice as big as he was, came my dog. He was backing across the road pulling the roast after him. He managed to draw quite a crowd by the time he got that thing to the curb. What a dog.

Howard the boss bought himself a beautiful double cedar hulled boat that must have pushed 50 feet. Occasionally, we got to go places with him. Jim, the service manager was taking care of a 55 footer for a guy who lived in Seattle. One of the other mechanics, and sometimes two of them (the weird guys from California) lived on it during the winter. It was catchy; being on the water is a special thing and we caught the bug. Once again, being restricted by a perpetual lack of funds, we had to start small.

We bought a little wooden boat that allegedly started out as a Coast Guard lifeboat hull. It had a little homemade cabin on it that two could kind of stretch out in and a cranky old Grey Marine motor- a 4 banger. We got it for some ridiculous price like $400. Then we spent a spring and summer working on it. We got it out of the water and into a covered boat storage area. I had to replace the entire transom and the rudder block because of rot. I used double layers of 1 1\2 inch marine plywood for the transom and used a handsaw to fashion a rudder block out of a nice chunk of cedar drift wood we found. There was always a lot of wood floating around because of all the logging going on in Southeast Alaska. I didn't like the idea of people cutting that forest primeval then, and I like it even less now, but that's the way it was/is.

We ground all the paint off, pulled all the caulking and ended up redoing the entire hull. It was a lot of hard work, but we finally got it into the water and we were afloat. We puttered around pretty close to town with that boat. Caught some fish, dug some clams, went to some parties, picked some abalone and generally explored the new realm that opened up with the acquisition of a boat. I recall in particular one sunny Saturday afternoon, cruising on a sea of glass with a boat full of friends, beer in one hand, nice herbal buzz keeping my mind blank and receptive for my favorite song on that new Grateful Dead 8-track I had on. You know, that one about a ship full of fools. It seemed quite appropriate, somehow. We had a lot of fun in that little boat. It wasn't enough though, we wanted more. We wanted a boat we could live on, like a lot of the other crazy people we knew. We also wanted out of that parking lot. The sanitary facilities left a lot to be desired there. The neighbors were tolerable, but after a year and a half, it was just time to move on.

So we went looking, and we found the "Audace", an old 34 foot power troller that wasn't in such bad shape that we really had to worry about it, but it wasn't by any means new. We had been trying to save money, and we had some, but we had to rely on a bank for most of the financing. We moved on to the boat and called Bar Harbor our new home. The trailer had to go to help pay for the boat. Odduck had just wandered off one day, Howard P. took his dog back (as far as I know, he never ate it). So it was back to the three of us.
The next chore was finding someone to buy our first boat. That turned into an ordeal. We finally got an offer on the thing, but we had to get it to Thorne Bay, which was quite some distance away on Prince of Wales Island. Not being real comfortable yet out on the big water in such a small boat, I talked Jim the Service Manager into towing our boat up there on a Friday evening after work. That boat had radar, all the radios and depthfinders that we didn't have, and plenty of sleeping room. We would have to stay in Thorne Bay until morning, find our man, and then come back Saturday afternoon. Also, Jim always brought a lot of beer, and most outings could turn into real interesting parties.

The weather report was good, everything was going along real well for a while, until the wind started kicking up a bit. We had the little boat tied up alongside Jim's boat, but with the wind, that wasn't working very well. I would have to go steer my boat at the end of a line. John, one of the guys from California, volunteered to help. Things got critical out at the end of that line pretty quickly, and darkness was setting in. The swells got higher, the chop got rougher. We were like a little rubber duck out there and we had just about as much control. The only way we were going to be able to continue would be under our own power. We got the motor going and tried to catch up to the big boat, or even get enough slack to untie the line, but it wasn't happening. We ended up cutting ourselves loose and waiting for them to notice as they continued to party along through the evening.

It took a while, but they came back alongside and we yelled back and forth enough to agree on a new destination about half way to Thorne Bay. A small cove where logging companies kept log rafts tied up. We were not equipped on the little boat for night running, and though there have been times in my life when I have been as frightened as I was that night, there weren't any that come to mind that were worse. Jim's boat took off for the cove, and John and I spent a really cold, dark, wet, miserable four hours out there, every minute of each of them in mortal fear. It was so rough and dark, I had to keep using my flashlight to look at the compass because turning on the cabin light just ruined my night vision. We couldn't see anything but black.

Then the engine started to miss. I think now that it was so rough that the carb bowl was sloshing around so bad that the fuel flow to the motor was cut off. At the time, though, we thought the fuel tank was running empty. There was no easy way to add fuel to the tank while we were afloat, even in calm weather. The filler spout was on the side on the boat. So we shut the engine off, and bobbing around out there in the dark, I tied myself to a railing on the boat and hung out there above the water and poured five gallons of gasoline into the tank. I knew there was no way we were going to make it, but I wasn't about to give up. I swung back aboard and landed on the deck.
We cranked and cranked and finally the motor caught. It was still missing, like it was before, but I knew that if it conked out, we were goners. So I just opened the throttle all the way and fought our way through the night by compass, hoping to hell we wouldn't hit any rocks before we could make out land. For some reason, we weren't supposed to die that night, though by all rights we should have. We could finally see ahead of us a blacker mass than the sky. As we got closer, we could see phosphorescence in the waves breaking over the reefs and the big rocks in the water. We didn't really know which way to go, but looking at the charts and running parallel to the shore, we did finally find that little cove.

We pulled around a little island that sat just so, like on the chart, and there was Jim's boat all lit up, music blaring, in the middle of a party. Now I like a party as much as the next guy, if not more, but we could have died out there and nobody was even worried about us. As we tried to describe our ordeal, it was obvious that no one, with the exception of my wife, believed us. Maybe it was the beer and the drugs, I don't know. I learned that night though that when it gets down to the wire, if you can't do for yourself, there ain't nobody gonna do it for ya.

I aborted the boat delivery the next morning and left the little boat sitting there tied up to a dock with a note on it. I was willing to give it to anyone who came across it. No one did though. It was still there two weeks later, when I could finally get a ride back to get it. It ran fine on the way back to Ketchikan. I ended up trading it for a canoe that I still have that my wife and children use to paddle around the local swimming lake.

That night took some of the piss and vinegar out of me though. I think I have a better idea of just what a tenuous hold we have on this precious thing we call life, because of it.

Back at Bar Harbor we began the long process of painting the "Audace" and learning how to tie knots, rig "hootchies", work the gear, and in general to learn all the things we would need to know to troll for the elusive salmon and longline halibut. I had mechanical things that needed tending to: we needed a new rudder tube and a new rudder shaft. Both very expensive items. We learned a lot that spring and early summer. We thought we were ready. My mom trusted us enough to send my youngest brother Eric, then 15, up for the summer to help us. If she only knew.

When school was out, Eric flew up and I picked him up at the airport in our skiff. The boat was paid for and ready to go, so we quit our jobs and cast our fate to the winds. A much easier thing to do at that age than at the one I am at now, but we were young and we were foolish.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]