How Not to Visit Port Lions

 

How Not to Visit Port Lions

(An Account of an Ill-Fated Weekend Journey)

 

Author’s Note:

In my “How to Get to…” series I have recounted the stories of airplanes and steamships traveling to, from and around Kodiak Island.  This story is a break from the above.  It is a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of Kodiak weather, a long journey on foot, and the lesson that you should never take anything for granted. After the adventure, I’ll throw in a few photos of our actual destination, a fine young village named Port Lions, because, of course, that’s where we were trying to get all along.  All the photos in this article (mostly toward the end) are from the roll I had in my camera on our grand adventure.

 

When I graduated from eighth grade in Ouzinkie (see “Ouzinkie School in the 1960s”) I was forced to live away from home to go to high school.  I tried the first year as a freshman to take home correspondence courses, but really hated it.  So off to Kodiak I went in the fall of 1968 to live with Pat and Riley Hunter and attend the high school there.  The next year, I lived with the Finlays, whose house was at the bottom of Benny Benson Avenue just across the guardrail on Mission Road. There were a bunch of us boarding students staying there, and it was quite a little community.  My roommate was the late Chad Ogden, the one for whom the Chiniak run is named.  In the basement were four kids who came from Port Lions, the post-Tidal Wave community forged out of the relocation of Afognak and Port Wakefield.  There were the Nelson sisters, Vicki and Jessie, and brother and sister Dave and Becky Robertson.  In the spring semester of that year we moved to the regional high school dorms (now the Borough buildings) when they opened.  The next fall (my senior year), Dave and Becky Robertson’s brother Danny came into Kodiak for ninth grade. He and David lived across the hall from me in the dorms, and Becky was in one of the rooms downstairs.  We did most everything together.  This is an account of our greatest adventure.

 

Life in the Dorms

Life in a boarding high school can be a fascinating experience.  The distance from home and the close quarters with fellow students can foster strong friendships, as the boarders seek to create some facsimile of a family life away from home.  In the two years I boarded in the short-lived main dormitory of the Kodiak-Aleutian Regional High School, I developed many strong friendships.  But the strongest ties were to the Robertson kids.  They were a loyal and close-knit family, and if someone managed to break into their circle, that person became like an honorary sibling.  David was the elder brother, broad-shouldered and muscular, with powerful hands.  His reputation as undefeated champion for two years in arm wrestling (and just about any other kind of wrestling) and his ability to stave off any challenge in the dorm’s Native Olympics was legendary.  Lesser known was his interest in the delicate art of taxidermy.  His stuffed ptarmigan and seal pup won awards at the Crab Festival for their perfection and natural beauty. 

 

David Robertson in the dorm room in Kodiak with his award-winning ptarmigan taxidermy (left) works on a ptarmigan in flight that he has tied up so it will set correctly.

 

Not given to frivolity, David was the kind of friend everyone wants beside them in a pinch.  A case in point was his quiet way of handling trouble.  During the first weeks of the dorm’s occupation in 1970, some of the more exuberant village boys took exception to my role as a student dorm assistant, someone who helped to familiarize the rural students with the dorm’s washing machines and the showers and other accessories of city life.  For several nights running, they dragged me down the hall to demonstrate the showers to me (clothes and all).  As annoying as this was, I could not do much to resist, always finding it better to resort to passivity when vastly outnumbered.  After several nights of this, they made the mistake of coming to get me while I was across the hall visiting Dave.  They traipsed in and announced that it was time for my shower.  Aware of their intentions, David stood up from his studies, looked them in the eye and said calmly, “Tim’s not dirty.”  They scattered like buck-shot dogs and never bothered me again.  I doubt seriously, for all his projection of power, that Dave would actually have hurt a flea.

 

The youngest of the three Robertsons was freshman Dan.  He was the practical jokester and the most outgoing of the siblings.   Inspired by the new classical guitar I bought from Gerald Wilson the Russian teacher, he got himself a brand new Harmony and promptly taught himself how to play.  He was soon wailing away with every Merle Haggard song he could think of, while adding unusual lyrics to old Country classics: “Well, old grampaw, he’s feelin’ neat, ’cause he stuck his face in his Cream of Wheat, he’s movin’ on...”, sung sincerely with a high school freshman’s approximation of Hank Snow.  His company was as refreshing as a hearty, spontaneous laugh, which is what often happened to anyone who spent much time around him.  As different as he was from Dave, he shared the same rock-solid loyalty and dependability that characterizes a true friend.

 

The eldest sibling was Becky. Whatever she set out to do got done and was done right.  Her strong Scandinavian genes and early Montana farm-girl upbringing made her a force to be reckoned with in any group.  Some of her friends called her “The General”, because she was a prime mover in the high school wing of the Civil Air Patrol.  She was a natural leader, yet with a fine capacity for gentleness and diplomacy.  She was pretty, and I was kind of stricken when she went to the Prom with someone else.  But I wasn’t the kind to ask girls out at that point in my life.  She and I were leaders in the Christian youth group at that time, and that gave me an opportunity to see her at her best. (See the “Always Jesus People” article) She was as much an encourager as Dan, and very much a team player—as long as things were getting done, and if not, she’d pitch right in and help get things done.  These three Robertsons and a half-dozen other friends from the dorm and town are at the center of my fondest memories of those days.  And we almost had the chance to become casualties together.

 

A Weekend Trip!

On Friday afternoon, April 16 1971, we all got itchy feet to leave the dorm for the weekend and go to Port Lions.  A trip by fishing boat was the long way, around Spruce Cape and past Ouzinkie, a good four-hour journey (and we didn’t have the budget for  Kodiak Airways tickets). However, there was a well-known short cut by means of a bumpy truck ride to the end of the road at Anton Larsen Bay, where a skiff could take us to Port Lions in a matter of minutes. Anton Larsen Bay is accessible through the mountains behind the Navy Base, and is not to be confused with the village of Larsen Bay a hundred miles away at the other end of Kodiak Island. We persuaded one of the teachers to drive us out in his truck after school on Friday, and had arranged for someone from the village to meet us and provide skiff transportation from the bay to Port Lions.  The weather that afternoon was glorious: bright sun, patchy clouds, calm winds and warm temperatures in the low forties.  The bright blue sky set off the brown and patchy white of the thawing hillsides.  I packed like I would for a quick weekend trip: a camera, tennis shoes, a light jacket and a few clothes tucked into my guitar case (I took my camera and guitar everywhere except to bed back then).  The others were similarly outfitted.  Youthful bravado or blind ignorance kept us from remembering the treacherous heritage of our island climate: early spring is still capable of sudden relapses of full winter, even in mid-April. 

 

Our pickup ride to Anton Larsen Bay was uneventful until, about two miles out of sight of the beach, we were stopped dead in our tracks by a broken and abandoned snowplow.  An attempt at the first spring road clearing had obviously failed.  Not to worry, we told our driver, because it was only a short hike through the snow and around the bend to the beach, where a skiff would be waiting.  Thus assured, the teacher drove away, and there began a cycle of assumptions, circumstances and miscalculations which could have proved deadly.  For unbeknownst to us, not only was the road closed, but the bay was still frozen over due to a recent cold snap.  Our driver assumed we had a ride waiting in the bay below.  Our skiff ride turned back at the sight of the frozen bay and assumed that we had also decided to turn back after seeing that the beach was inaccessible. (It was, of course, a full generation before cell phones!)  We figured it was a shorter distance to the clear water at the mouth of the bay than to hike along the uninhabited road back to town.  Thus we set ourselves up for one of the most memorable nights of our young lives.

 

Packed Snow and Nasty Surprises:

The aforementioned snowplow had broken with good reason.  The melting snow had been compacting for months, and still measured close to three feet deep on the roadbed where the plow had been working.  On some stretches of the roadbed, where the drifts had gathered, it was still considerably deeper.  It was in one of those deep snowbanks that the machine had conked out. We shrugged and set off down the snowy roadbed in the sunshine, still content that this was only a minor inconvenience.  The snow which remains on the ground after a hard winter has certain characteristics which do not endear it to the foot traveler.  First, a thin, crispy layer of ice forms on the topmost surface.  Then, there is a thick blanket of compressed and grainy snow particles, and finally, the ground beneath.  However, the drifted snow completely obliterates all hints of the topography beneath, and often hides little streams, mudholes and swampland. To add insult to annoyance, the snow sometimes will support your weight, and sometimes will suddenly give way, plunging one leg or the other a couple of feet lower than the other, necessitating a lot of extra effort to take the next step.  Negotiating through this kind of snow was an exhausting task, especially for miles at a time. 

 

We quickly put our outdoors knowledge to work, taking turns “breaking trail” (and warning of surprises) while the others followed literally in the lead person’s footsteps.  This meant that the followers were momentarily spared the chore of breaking through the ice layer and discovering what lay beneath the snow.  We still had to lift our legs out of each hole and plunge them into the footholes ahead.  We soon lost all track of the roadbed, and opted to head directly to the bay down a shallow valley.  When my turn came to break trail, I soon discovered that the snow could vary from a few inches to over waist height.  I found myself repeatedly using my guitar case to regain my balance and help me out of the large drifts, a process which soon broke one of the hinges. Soon I stumbled upon a patch of thinner snow that headed generally toward the bay, and was dismayed to realize that I had plunged through the snow into an icy stream.  My feet, clad in light tennis shoes, soon numbed in the glacial water, but the walking was so much easier because the snow remained thin above the stream.  So we stayed with the stream and reached the shore. 

 

By this time even the lengthening spring daylight was on the wane, and as we stood and took in the significance of the frozen bay before us, I began to hear worried mutters from my normally stoic companions.  A decision was reached to try for one of the little coves at the entrance to the bay, which were less protected and therefore likely to be ice-free.  This was a presumably short hike overland (in summer miles) so we set off.  By the time we left the drifted roadbed beside the main bay to head inland across the point to the coves, the sun was setting over the isolated spruce trees, and a new cluster of clouds contributed to a spectacular sunset.  I dutifully took a few pictures.  We should have recognized what the increasing cloudiness might mean.

 

Becky breaks trail as the sun sets in an increasingly cloudy sky.  By this time we were already well past the end of the road, and after dark our direction became less clear, as we sought an ice-free beach.

 

We increased our pace as best we could, to take advantage of the remaining twilight.  Becky sloshed off in the lead, and in some manner we trekked on behind.  Soon all light had faded, and with the thickening cloud cover we could not see any stars.  There must have been enough moonlight to break through the clouds, for we were eventually able to dimly distinguish the trees from the snow.  The appointed hour of our rendezvous with the skiff had long passed, as had suppertime (we had, of course, brought no food)!  Dan and David began talking softly to each other in uneasy tones again.  It had never occurred to me to worry, and my friends were considerably more accustomed to cross-country adventures because of their experience as hunters.  These thoughts, combined with the numb limbs, growling stomach and tired muscles from our exhausting pace, began to descend upon me like a tangible weight. 

 

Sometime around midnight I had fallen to the rear.  As I passed a solitary tree in near total darkness, I slipped down the incline of crusted snow beneath its branches and lay where I fell.  I felt as though I could not move.  Suddenly my only thought was to sleep.  Dave, suddenly aware of my disappearance, called, turned and grabbed me.  Roughly and firmly, as only a poker-faced arm-wrestler could do, he deposited me, guitar case and all, back on the trail.  This and a brisk pound on the back awakened my senses.  If any of us had actually fallen asleep out in the open like that, we would have surely succumbed to the hypothermia that was slowly overtaking us, with our insufficient and mostly wet clothes, the snow on the ground, and the worsening weather.

 

A Temporary Shelter:

At last, sometime long before dawn, our feet felt the snowless rocks of shoreline (an ice-free cove, we hoped, for in the darkness direction had been almost impossible to maintain).  Anton Larsen Bay’s adjacent inlets hosted several homestead cabins; it was our firm desire to find one of these and end this little episode.  The rocks of the beach provided minimal relief from the toil of the snow trail, for although we were spared the endless leg lifts of the snowbanks, the surface of the beach was rough and uneven, sending jabs of pain up our slowly thawing legs.  We had been walking for many hours, with very slow progress in the deep drifts, and now that we reached the beach, it was anybody’s guess which direction we should go.  We gradually ascertained that the beach to our left seemed to curve away from the iced-over water of the main bay, and that the water was clear where we were walking. The first glimmer of predawn light revealed what appeared to be a small cabin a ways down the beach.  It must have been only 3:00 AM, but there was enough light to tell us that the place was unoccupied.  We buried our disappointment and dragged ourselves through the unlocked door, too tired to bless the owner for this kindness.

 

Just a bit tired! Becky stands by the bunkbeds in the cabin we stumbled upon in the middle of the night.  Dan is still huddled under the damp sleeping bag he found on the top bunk.  We stayed here until daylight.  Many thanks to the unidentified owner of this cabin, who left it unlocked, God bless him.  I never wondered what was in the sacks (or even noticed them) until I recently scanned this picture for this article.

 

Becky took charge again, and ever-resourceful, removed our shoes and using her sweater, gently rubbed our feet to restore circulation and minimize the effects of frostbite.  We all fell exhausted on the bunkbeds and table of the cabin and tried to rest until dawn.  Still deep in the throes of hypothermia, and perhaps traumatized by my earlier involuntary attempt at a little snooze under the tree, I stayed awake, shuddering violently.  But at least we weren’t having to break trail anymore.  After about an hour’s rest, Dave noticed a sufficient increase in daylight to warrant a fresh appraisal of our surroundings.  He walked down the beach and came back to rouse us: there was a large cabin not a quarter of a mile away.  We groggily joined him, jolted awake by the aches and pains of our recent trek, and stumbled clumsily across the rough rocks.  A skiff pulled up on the beach and the smoke from the chimney gave off the unmistakable signs: there were people in this cabin!

 

A Mysterious Benefactor:

The next thing I remember it was mid-morning, and I was awakened by the smell of coffee and pancakes on a wood stove.  It took me some time to clear the cobwebs out of my head, and I had a splitting headache.  But we had survived.  When my brain was reasonably able to comprehend my surroundings, I found we were in a cozy homesteader’s cabin, stuffed to the rafters with the paraphernalia of survival in a rough neighborhood.  A half-dozen framed paintings gave testimony to the uses of solitude.  There was also a nifty dual power system: standard AC for lights and a freezer, and wired-in DC lights for fuel-conserving battery power.  A row of cheery windows looked out upon a blessedly ice-free inlet.  Our host, a gray-haired gentleman with a kindly face, turned a clear and experienced eye in my direction and then out the window and remarked, “You got here just in time!”

 

Our wonderful Good Samaritan, at the table he spread for us after we had all awakened.  If anyone knows the identity of this wonderful man, please email me.  We certainly thank him for hospitality and generosity! 

 

He was right.  Another look out the window confirmed what the sunset could have told us, that there was foul weather coming.  Soon fresh freezing sleet lashed at the small cabin, the gale pelting icy-wet granules horizontally against the windows as a storm front passed.  Safe and warm, we wondered what might have happened to us had the wind and sleet arrived just a few hours earlier.  The homesteader, upon learning that I was an avid record collector, showed me his vintage Ted Lewis 78s and told stories of the scandals and follies of ancient show biz in far off places.  He seemed genuinely pleased to have our company, and not just for the fact that he had contributed mightily to our survival!  He was a great storyteller in the best Alaskan style, and you’ll forgive me if I don’t remember more.  In my grogginess and headache, I never learned the name of our homestead host.  But I thank him now, as a generous purveyor of all that is good about rural Alaska: the unlocked door, the cheery stove, the bottomless coffee pot, the well-spun tale. 

 

A gallery of rescued kids!  Tim (the author) groggily awake…

Dave relaxing on the couch…

and Dan, looking equally zonked out after our journey. The calendar is from O. Kraft and Son, Kodiak, and the date is Saturday, April 17, 1971.

 

The rest of the weekend was anticlimactic.  A quick call or two using the homesteader’s CB radio assured two sets of parents that they still had us as dependents.  As soon as the wind died down, the skiff from Port Lions arrived and took us there without incident.  We were sitting around the Robertsons’ table for supper that evening, energetically spinning tales of our grand adventure.  On Sunday morning I accompanied Dan and Becky to the little missionary chapel there in Port Lions (Dave never shared our enthusiasm for such things) and discovered to my dismay that my well-marked red-letter Bible had fallen out of my guitar case on our trek through the snow. (Not too surprising, since I broke a hinge on the guitar case while using it as a snowshoe earlier!)  Dan remarked that there would soon be a thoroughly converted Kodiak bear out there somewhere, come thaw.  I laughed and soon forgot about it.  That summer at Camp Woody, Susan Horn presented me with a shapeless mass in a clear plastic bag.  It was what was left of my Bible.  She had found it under a tree while hiking a couple of miles past the road at the end of Anton Larsen Bay!         

 

Postscript:

Our destination was Port Lions, and by golly, we got there.  Port Lions was only about six years old when I got there, having been built new from the remnants of Afognak and Port Wakefield.  Here are some shots of the Robertsons and the village, from the same roll as the previous photos.  It was a wonderful visit, and I would have enjoyed it a lot more if we hadn’t taken so darn long to get there!  I was impressed with the modern homes, the roads and vehicles (still rare for villages back then) and the swanky-looking cannery that Wakefield Fisheries had built across the causeway from the community.  But above all, I enjoyed the friendly people and sense of satisfaction upon finally getting to visit them. I have been back to Anton Larsen Bay many times, but I can’t figure out our route, and maybe that’s just as well.  The next time you decide to go to Port Lions, try a different method!

Mr. Robertson (the elder Dave) was quite the guitarist, and had done some Country and Western performing in his younger days. He also was the radio dispatcher for the Wakefield Cannery.  One of the stories he told was how a very drunk fisherman had waddled into his radio shack demanding that he call Kodiak Airways.  “Call me a Goose!” he demanded.  “Ok,” replied Mr. Robertson, dryly, “you’re a goose!”  Daniel must have picked up his sense of humor from his dad!

Mrs. Norma Robertson and Becky and David, who once again found his appetite!

I was amazed at “The Chateau” (or a grand resort at the very least):  the beautiful Wakefield Fisheries cannery at Port Lions.  Unfortunately, like the OSI cannery in Ouzinkie, it later burned down, and was not rebuilt.

Many of the homes in Port Lions were newly-constructed after the 1964 Tidal Wave, as villagers from Afognak were resettled into the new community.  When Port Wakefield cannery closed, moving its operations to Port Lions, they moved the log homes (such as the Robertsons’) and these two buildings to Port Lions as well.  In the upper right of this photo is the causeway from the village to the Wakefields cannery.

 

 

 

 

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is © 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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