It was just after eleven p.m. on August 31st as we crossed the state line into Alaska. The lone custom agent at the remote post had once been stationed in El Paso and even knew of our hometown of Premont. He flew into his current post daily in a single-engine Cessna. He was so thrilled to have people to see and talk with that it was difficult to break off and continue onward. He had answered many of our questions, providing us with a wealth of information.
Two hours later, we rolled into the settlement of Tok, Alaska. A red and green neon light flashed its welcome to a motel constructed to serve the workers brought in to build the great Alaskan Pipeline. It retained the feel of the boom days. The rooms were small and snug with clean sheets over beds that cocooned you in comfort. There were common showers for men to scrub down in. Amid steaming plumes of steam we sluiced away the grime of the day and eased the strain of muscles knotted and sore from prolonged abuse. It was a perfect respite from our long journey. Photographs of the construction work and nameless men lined the hallways.
As late as it was, Todo and I shared a toddy and reflected back over experiences we had shared and how unique this one was proving to be. The history of the place was strongly woven into its very fabric. It was a tangible, living thing surrounding us. I noticed in mid-sentence that Todo was snoring softly. Turning off the bedside lamp and closing my eyes, I was swept away. We slept like the children we had once been.
It's daylight now and we are pushing south out of Tok. Rested and refreshed after a good night's sleep, Larry and Jack look like different men. We still had a good drive ahead of us, with the port city of Valdez our goal. Streams and rivers flowed everywhere. Beautiful snow-capped peaks surrounded us. We were amazed and stopped to gawk at Bridal and Horsetail Falls.
Finally, we climbed through a saddle between two peaks and saw Valdez resting around a sparkling bay below us. There were gulls and bald eagles working the air over that shining bay as we slowly drove into the town. Various boats were tied along the docks, where sea otters rolled and chirped in the crisp sheen of the water. The clarity was such that you could see giant crabs prowling the floor of the bay just off the docks. Huge storage tanks held oil flowing from the great pipeline to the port to be loaded onto tankers for the long journey to fuel industry around the world.
Just after four o'clock that afternoon, we moved off the docks and into a sporting goods store called 'The Hook, Line & Sinker.' We purchased hunting and fishing licenses, then made contact with our boat captain, Jeff of 'The Alaskan Dream.' He was set to ferry us and our supplies some 37 miles southwest of Valdez into an area along the coast where we would be fishing and hunting bear. Captain Jeff and his first mate Chuck helped us load our gear aboard his boat.
Captain Jeff wanted to wait until morning to depart and was more than a little reluctant to chance the passage in darkness. We, however, wanted to waste no time in establishing our base camp. Time was a factor in our calculations. Our arguments prevailed as our possessions were stowed in the hold and strapped onto the deck of the boat. We labored beneath towering glacial ice straddling saddles in the mountains around the harbor. Their ancient frozen hues of bluish green were pierced by the slanting rays of a sun riding ever lower on the western horizon. The waters of the bay were like gazing into glass. The clarity was amazing.
Before boarding, I called Bonnie from the docks and was thrilled to hear her voice over the impossible distance. Our voices lagged a couple of seconds due to available technology. I tried to describe and will her into my surroundings, though that was impossible. Finally, saying goodbye, I slipped the mooring lines, then leaped aboard the boat as we began to maneuver through the harbor toward our destination of Fidalgo Bay and the island that was to become our home for the next five days. Todo took a fierce ribbing as we discovered his tendency toward sea sickness.
As the light faded, we passed a land-locked Indian village, which Captain Jeff told us had been constructed entirely with federal funds. There were no roads in or out of the community, making it accessible only by water. He related that the Indians apparently nurtured a strong distrust of whites and only allowed three outsiders to live in the village. Two of these were a married couple who taught school and the third was a Russian Orthodox priest. The golden dome of that church glowed brightly in the twilight. Necessary supplies were offloaded on village docks, and only rarely did any of their people venture into Valdez.
We surged into a heavy fog bank. A steady drizzle soon turned into freezing rain. Our sense of time and distance began to blur. Darkness fell. We seemed to crawl over the surface of the water. Much later, an island slowly materialized within the fog. We dropped anchor some 200 yards offshore. The captain would venture no closer. He feared running aground on submerged boulders and breaching his hull. The sleet grew heavier and the clouds denser, robbing us of any trace of lingering light. Our island was now a smudge on the horizon. Penetrating cold chilled us to the bone. I glanced back over my shoulder. The captain's face was illuminated in the soft glow of a lantern. He arched his bushy eyebrows and grinned. It was time to go ashore.