Monthly Archives: January 2010

On the step

We dropped off one of the other crews on our way back to camp after a fourth of July celebration in Ketchikan. The camp was on a very small lake east of our camp in Cholmondeley Sound. It was easy to land the de Havilland Beaver in the little round lake. The water was as smooth as glass. Taking off was another story entirely.

After a few minutes unloading supplies we were on our way. I sat in the copilot’s seat. The pilot started the big radial engine which was built about the time I was born, and started a broad turn around the lake at slow speed. The pilot said the lake wasn’t really long enough to take off. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye and raised my eyebrow.

As the plane picked up speed it lifted up on the water until only the bottom of the floats were skimming along the water. That’s called being on the step. Going about fifty miles and hour we started going around the lake in circles. Several circles. It is amazing how easily that big Beaver can turn on the water.

The bush pilot looked over at me a said, “Well, I guess we either get enough nerve to fly this plane outta here or we can just keep going around in circles.” Then he pointed the airplane at the lowest hill on the edge of the lake and pulled the throttle back all the way. The old radial engine roared with confidence.

Liftoff happened pretty quickly but still the giant Sitka Spruce at the edge of the lake were coming at us pretty fast. It didn’t look like the plane was going to clear the trees. Then at the last second the pilot leaned over and yanked a lever on the floor that dumped the flaps. We cleared the trees by at least five feet.

I looked over at the pilot, nudged his shoulder with my fist, and said, “@sshole.” He didn’t say anything back. Just the corner of his mouth was curling up.


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Outfitting our camps in Ketchikan

I am going to try to put these posts in some kind of chronological order. I don’t seem to be able to re-order them after I post them. Chronological order seems to be a little easier to follow.

We were hired by a mining company right out of graduate school to explore for base metals. Three of us came Washington and one from Oregon. I don’t know where the other two came from.

We arrived in Ketchikan, Alaska on the first week of June, 1977. Ketchikan is the largest town south of Juneau on the panhandle separating the Pacific from British Columbia. A string of islands protects the coast from the Pacific. Ships of all kinds travel the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau and Glacier Bay. This is Southeast Alaska.

The islands are covered with Sitka Spruce. These trees are so large that you can’t put your arms half-way around them. The first limbs up their trunks are sometimes twenty feet up in the air. All these forests have grown in the last few thousand years since the end of the last ice age. During the ice age the islands were covered with glaciers that carved out all of the beautiful mountains and fjords that you can see everywhere.

Of course now it doesn’t snow so much, it just rains… a lot. Hence the massive conifer forests that stretch out as far as you can see.

On a break from outfitting our camps we visited the local visitors’ center where they displayed a long board standing straight up in the air with a horizontal mark on it reading 147 inches at, not surprisingly, 147 inches off the ground. A sign said it represented the twelve feet three inches of rain Ketchikan received on average each year. That’s a lot of rain.

Our two man camps were the kind of thing one would imagine sour doughs living in during the Klondike gold rush about 75 years before. Camp consisted ten foot square canvas tents, no tent poles, some plastic tarps, cheep little iron wood stoves, pots and pans, cots, sleeping bags, water-proof rain gear, a canoe, tools, and food.

The most fun we had during the outfitting was watching the women watch us getting our stuff at the local supermarket. They knew who we were and what we were about to do and they watched us like we were not all coming back. We would depend on these women to supply us for the next three months.

All of our camp and supplies could fit into a de Havilland Beaver, the plane that opened Alaska and Northern Canada.

De Havilland Beaver float plane.

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Time slips by. A moment here, a moment there, and then its gone. These writings are for all the lost moments. They are for the my children and anyone else who wishes to read them.

Life goes by and you tell no one what you’ve done, or what it is you really wanted to do. I am one of the lucky ones – I got to do the things I wanted to do at a young age. Many wait to do that in retirement. I had my adventures early in life.

When I was four I found a rock under our house and put it on the kitchen table. I told my mother that it was coal. I had never seen coal before. I tell people that was my first experience in exploration geology.

Growing up in California in the ’50s and ’60s I was exposed to fantastic adventures on television. From Daniel Boone, whom one of my ancestors knew, to Jacques Cousteau, to Star Trek we were inundated with frontier adventure. It is not surprising that I set out to explore the world.

For me a normal life wasn’t good enough. Like some people hundreds of years ago my life was all about frontier adventure. It is what made me feel alive. I wanted to go where no one had gone before and be able to say with confidence that no one will go there again. It was a life of discovery that is not common. It ended before I was thirty.

Here are my stories.

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Going Alaskan

Back in ’77 at the waterfall camp on the fjord on Prince of Wales I was watching Silver salmon jump the falls on their way to the big lake. There were lots of Sockeye salmon jumping but they basically had to swim up the edges of the falls where the water ran in stair-step rapids. It was the big Silvers that impressed me. They would circle in the pool below until they got the courage to just jump the falls in one big jump. Seeing a two to three-foot long fish jump over ten feet is a sight to see. Some of the fish would make the jump only to miss the water at the top and land in the rocks. Those would be quickly eaten by the bears.

After watching this for a while I decided to see if I could hit any of the jumping Silvers with my 44 magnum. I stood at the edge of the falls with my gun in my hands. I emptied my gun. Of course I didn’t hit anything. I knew I wouldn’t.

I told this story to a bus driver in Denali a couple of years ago. A person on the bus asked me why I shot at the fish. I said, “Well, I didn’t have anything better to do.” The bus driver then said it was the best story he had ever heard that explained the Alaskan lifestyle.

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The practical joke

The village of Tanana is in central Alaska on the Yukon River. It consists of a modern airstrip, some homes, a medical center and a few roads. The longest road is about forty miles long, if I remember correctly, and it heads north to an abandoned radar base. It was built in the ’60s.

There are a few cars, trucks and motorcycles in the village. They are far outnumbered by snow machines.

In the summer of 1980 we were camped at the radar base for about a month. It consisted of several buildings, a dirt airstrip, an aircraft and vehicle hanger, and an ominous looking giant three-story tall steel rectangular radar dish pointing toward Russia. The base had been mothballed long ago. All of the windows were boarded-up and the doors were locked.

My camp consisted of a dozen people including a helicopter pilot and mechanic, a camp manager, cook, camp assistant, and the rest of us were geologists. I was the managing geologist.

Our tents were spread around the base and our cook and office tents were located in alcoves between wings of the central building. They faced a large flat paved area that included a volleyball court and a basketball court.

On our day off a young man on a motorcycle visited our camp in the afternoon. He and I and the helicopter mechanic started talking and the mechanic asked if he could ride the motorcycle down the little airstrip. The mechanic had been drinking a Fosters beer in one of those big beer cans. He placed the can on the ground and got on the bike. As soon as he rode around the corner toward the strip I grabbed the can and charged into the cook tent. I poured some salt and vinegar into the can and ran back outside and placed the can exactly where it had been.

When the mechanic returned he talked to the rider about the motorcycle and bent down to grab his beer. Just as put the can to his lips I calmly said, “You can’t believe how hard it was to pee in that little hole in the can.” The mechanic went bug-eyed as he contemplated the possibilities of the taste in his mouth and then like a geyser he spewed beer in all directions.

Then he dropped the can and started to chase me around the camp. He didn’t catch me. The rider and I laughed so hard we almost fell down.

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Canoe versus the killer whales

Jim and I were crossing a half mile wide bay in our canoe on our way back to camp. It was late afternoon and the water was calm and smooth. It wasn’t raining for a change. We were about a quarter mile from shore when the first whale appeared. We really should not have been that far from shore in an open canoe but we were in a hurry to get to camp so we cut across the bay.

I was in the back of the canoe and concentrating on steering when I noticed a small v-shaped ripple on the surface of the water. About fifteen to twenty feet to my right and moving forward was a small fin. As I watched the fin grow slowly until it was sticking six feet out of the water. By then it was in full view of Jim and two more whales had appeared, One was a calf that was sticking close to its mother. The whales were right on the surface and we could see the whales spout plumes of water and air from their blowholes.

I was watching the whales and I hadn’t noticed that Jim was standing in the front of the canoe. I did not know where he thought he was going. Now, when you are a quarter mile from shore and the sea water temperature is cold enough to kill you in ten minutes and you’re in the middle of a pod of killer whales, standing up in a canoe is not recommended. Jim never made mistakes like this. It was perhaps the only life-threatening thing I ever saw Jim do. I yelled “Sit down” as loud as I could and he slowly sat down so as not to throw-off our balance. He had regained his composure.

We watched as the whales continued toward shore until they disappeared. Then we continued ‘home.’ All in a day’s work.

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