Friday, December 13, 2013

"An Absence of Alces alces"

Thomas Gardiner of Dillingham poses with parts of a 63-inch bull moose he harvested near the Nushagak River.


An Absence of Alces alces

December 2013

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, I saw a moose in Soldotna.

“No big deal,” you might say. “Moose are plentiful on the central Kenai Peninsula. People see them all the time, crunching twigs along the roadsides.”

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, I might have agreed with you. No big deal.

But right now I don’t feel that way.

Right now, I miss moose.

I may have moved on Sept. 3 from the Kenai Peninsula to Bristol Bay, but I haven’t left Alaska, and I haven’t seen a moose since I arrived in Dillingham.

Actually, allow me to clarify that statement: I haven’t seen a live moose since I arrived.

I’ve seen one very dead moose.

Actually, I should clarify that statement, too: I’ve seen large pieces of a very dead bull that had been shot by two local men about 30 miles up the Nushagak River from here. They had quartered the bull and loaded the meaty parts, along with the 63-inch antlers, into their aluminum skiff and headed downriver. When I saw them, they had just run their boat ashore on the gravel of Kanakanak Beach and were preparing to move their groceries into the back of a friend’s pickup truck.

The moose parts were magnificent. Despite the blood and hair, they even looked tasty. But they were a few hours past being animated and ambulatory.

During the fall moose hunt around here, most people head upriver to seek their quarry. They motor upstream because the moose are numerous up there in autumn, but not here, I’ve been told.

After the Kanakanak incident, I looked around and saw drainages filled with willows. I saw birch saplings and other juicy morsels that I know moose are fond of. But I saw no moose. And believe me, I looked. I climbed up Snake Mountain and Warehouse Mountain to survey my surroundings, but I saw no moose. I saw eagles and ravens and magpies. I saw grouse, and I saw ptarmigan. But no moose.

Being the inquisitive type, I had to ask some experts what was going on. Tim Sands of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game told me there were moose in the area but that they were rarely seen until mid-winter when they ventured down from the hills to feed along the creeks.

Bill Berkhahn, a Soldotna resident who is an area ranger here in Wood-Tikchik State Park, laughed when I said I hadn’t seen a moose since coming to Bristol Bay. He told me that certain drainages around here, particularly near Snake Mountain, turn into veritable Moose Highways during the winter.

On a November run on Snake Lake Road, I spotted clearly defined and very fresh moose tracks in the wet snow covering the roadbed. Excited by this discovery, I scanned my surroundings as I continued to plod along. No moose.

In mid-December, I returned to Snake Lake Road and spotted new moose tracks leading down a trail across the tundra. I followed them for a while until they disappeared where the snow had melted or been blown away by the wind. As I returned to the car, a wildlife trooper named Fred Burk pulled up to talk to me. He’d spotted me out on the tundra and suspected I might be a hunter. When he realized I was a Dillingham dilettante, he enlightened me.

I photographed this magnificent bull caribou
near Kenai in the early 1980s.
Moose, he said, stay away from Dillingham until after December, when the winter hunt ends and the human pressures ease. He told me of places farther up the drainages where I might see (if I could actually get there) large groups of moose. He informed me that a few minutes earlier he had parked a short distance down the road, and, while scanning the valley with binoculars, had spotted two or three moose. He told me to be patient and keep watching.

Since I’ve been in Dillingham, I have yet to see any caribou, either, but I’ve been told that their appearance is possibility, particularly in late winter. Of course, I’ve been told, they were incredibly numerous and around all the time in the “good ol’ days,” but they don’t congregate near town much anymore.

Despite these disappointments,  I have spotted a few intriguing fauna: While out running on Wood River Road in October, I saw a lone brown bear loping across the tundra in my general direction—but far enough away that I wasn’t terribly concerned. I also used a flashlight from a bedroom window to watch another brown bear noisily shred the bags of garbage left overnight on a neighbor’s porch.

One of the first red foxes I saw in Dillingham.
Even more interesting to me, however, have been my sightings of red foxes, which I had never seen on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a pair of foxes that hang out on the beach and in the tall grass near the Peter Pan seafood-processing plant. I like to spy them sniffing around the cannery housing, trotting along the beach gravels, leaving their dainty paw prints in the sand and mud beneath the dock or in the snow on the cannery grounds.

But still, I am missing moose.

Even though I grew up on a Soldotna-area homestead through which moose traipsed on a regular basis, I have never really tired of seeing them. I have myriad photos of moose—bulls and cows and calves, cute or otherwise. I like to watch them methodically gnaw at their brittle winter vittles and cleanly strip mouthfuls of leaves for their summer salads. I like the way they can romp through a forest, their big bodies gracefully executing an obstacle course that causes me to stagger and swear at times. And I like watching them wade into lakes and ponds to submerge their heads in search of tasty tidbits.

I’m less appreciative of their occasional charges and grumpiness, but I understand. I get grouchy, too, when my personal space is violated often enough.

I also wish that moose along the highway were easier to see when I’m driving in the dead of winter, but I’d probably hang out there, too, if I were a moose looking for some tasty bushes to crop.

I’ll be on the peninsula for a few days around Christmas time, and although my primary focus will be on family and friends, I’m hoping to spot a few moose while I’m around—to tide me over until the mythical moose of Bristol Bay make an appearance.

This handsome fella allowed me to venture close enough to capture this image in the summer of 2013 about miles from my home near Soldotna.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Start Spreadin' the News...."


Start Spreadin’ the News….


Ang'niq anutiiq elpenun
ang'niq anutiiq elpenun
ang'niq anutiiq
ang'niq anutiiq elpenun

Shortly after I moved to Dillingham and began posting photos from here on Facebook, one of my former Skyview students, Aurora (Heames) Galloway, sent me a message. She wanted to let me know that Dillingham’s public radio station was her all-time favorite, that she had spent part of every summer from age nine to 29 commercial fishing near Naknek, and that she had listened to KDLG so often over the years that she had memorized the song at the beginning of this column.

“I know how to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in Yup’ik because of that radio station,” she wrote, “and Jimmy, who always sang it at the end of each show.”

Well, Aurora, Jimmy’s rendition still concludes every episode of that particular program. In fact, the “Happy Birthday” song is sung at least once every weekday on KDLG during the live call-in show, “Open Line,” which is essentially 60 minutes of commercial-free birthday wishes, anniversary shout-outs, buy-sell-and-trade opportunities, job listings, and opinions on local issues. Similar to “Bushlines”-type programs throughout the state, “Open Line” is fast-paced, down-to-earth, and easily one of KDLG’s most enduring and popular shows.

And honestly, listening to it is somewhat addictive, with all its sweet, homey voices, unadorned affection, and good intentions: “I’d like to wish Happy Birthday to Bobby over in Togiak. Happy birthday, Bobby! This is your Auntie Sarah. I love you. And I’d like to say hello to my cousin, Lorraine, in Manokotak. I’ll see you for Thanksgiving.”

But there’s more than “Open Line” when it comes to KDLG, as Aurora can attest. "You can learn how to speak Yup'ik, and (in the summer) hear the phrase 'Good luck, and good fishing!' a million times," she said. "I stream it sometimes. It's the best!"
When I was growing up in Soldotna, KSRM was the only homespun choice for peninsula residents.

KSRM hit the radio waves with its own local programing in the late 1960s. Conservative-minded and innovative John Davis, who was hired in 1968 as the radio station’s general manager, pushed hard to connect with local listeners, who previously had relied only on Anchorage-based broadcasts for their news, music and entertainment.

Under Davis’s influence, KSRM, the call letters for which originally stood for “Solid Rock Ministries,” introduced the central Kenai Peninsula to “Tradio” in 1969 and “Sound Off” in 1970. While as a kid I found both of those programs irritating and irrelevant to my pursuit of comic-book intellectualism, I had to admit that they served a purpose in the community.

Where else were local politicos and promoters going to find a voice? Where else could neighbors gripe in an open forum? Where else could they question the intelligence of bureaucrats? Where else could residents offer commentary on—or add to the gossip about—the happenings of the day?

And where else could someone so swiftly and so reliably dispose of old wind-row fencing, fresh hay bales, a 35-horse outboard Johnson, and a used ATV perfect for road hunting?

Davis also offered peninsula residents local weather, sports and news, often culled from the pages of the local newspaper, particularly the Peninsula Clarion, which began in 1970 and quickly supplanted the older Cheechako News as the paper of preference.

When I was a Clarion reporter in the early 1980s, the other journalists and I often sat over morning coffee and scoffed at the “thefts” perpetrated by the radio station. At the same time, we also listened intently for fresh information that we might pilfer, promising to flesh out the facts and make them more newsworthy somehow.

As a teen-ager, I used the Anchorage stations for popular music and KSRM to listen to broadcasts of Peninsula Oilers baseball games and high school sports. On snowy mornings when I was young, my family used to listen for traffic updates—to see how bad the roads might be or whether school might be cancelled or delayed.

In Dillingham, there is no daily newspaper—other than the Anchorage Daily News, which is hardly local and has no Southwest focus—but there is one weekly paper, the Bristol Bay Times, which serves the entire region from King Salmon west to Dutch Harbor. 

Consequently, the dearth of print media easily makes KDLG, both the AM and FM versions, the most constant and reliable source of real news around here.

Between the two stations, Dillingham residents can listen to local and bay-related news at 8 a.m., noon and 5:30 p.m., or read the stories on the station’s online site. KDLG also features “The Yup’ik Word of the Day,” starring Molly Chythlook, each weekday, and the weekly “Bristol Bay Field Notes,” “Bristol Bay Fisheries Report” and “Bristol Bay Sports Roundup.”

KDLG understands its constituency and supplies what it wants and needs.

For those who prefer the more gossipy side of things, there is the Facebook page called the Dillingham Trading Post, which contains occasional rants and allegations, despite being designed mainly for buying and selling everything from five-gallon buckets of fresh lowbush cranberries ($300) to enough mesh to make two good smelt nets ($100).

But overall, it’s KDLG that is the news source of choice, and it has been that way for many years.

“I never got to actually go to the station because we were busy (and across the bay),” Aurora wrote, “but I would have totally been a groupie if I could have! I loved to listen in the summer and hear the escapement updates and openings, and imagine all the tired fishermen listening, too, hoping to be open, but also needing rest badly.

“One time,” she continued, “I was in New Mexico traveling, and I chatted with some dude at a bar. He said he had fished for two years out of King Salmon, and we ended up singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to each other in Yup’ik. It was a linguistic/traveling/Alaskan love fest.

“KDLG brings people together.”

"Thanks for Your Memories"

Al Hershberger and his single-engine plane parked alongside the driveway to his Soldotna home, circa 1960.

For the fifth time on that January day, I clicked on the “New” link for my Hotmail account and typed “Al Hershberger” into the recipient box. Another question for Al. Another piece of a history puzzle to obtain and snap into place. Another “Almanac” article to assemble with the help of some knowledgeable friends.

As a freelance journalist bent on dredging up the past, I occasionally had to be a pain in the ass, pestering people, peppering them with queries, positing possibilities, pumping them for information. Al was one of my frequent victims—I preferred to call them “contributors”—and easily one of my most compliant. Despite my many requests, he never complained, never told me to go away, never claimed he was too busy to help.

Al is amazing at finding information—in his many books on Alaska history, from God knows where on the Internet, from his peninsula experiences dating back to the late 1940s, and from that wonderfully sharp brain of his that he often refers to as his “mental hard-drive.” Without Al, I’d have encountered many more dead-ends, stumbled over many more obstacles, and been forced to strip away my “History Detective” badge.

And Al wasn’t the only font of knowledge that I tapped repeatedly to get the job done. I was literally awash in octogenarians, plus a handful of nonagenarians and septuagenarians, and two centenarians. Besides the added bonus of being frequently called “young man,” I was the recipient of cumulative centuries of experiences and observations and pack-rat collecting frenzies. In the five years I contributed local-history stories to the Redoubt Reporter, I was given and lent photographs and books and maps and trinkets to illuminate and illustrate the past. More than that, I was given collective wisdom.

And even more than that, I was given time—in generous dollops.

For all those heaping helpings, I have plenty of people to thank. I can’t thank them all because there were hundreds of them, from agency officials to politicians, from senior-housing residents to old homesteaders still on the property, from scientists to writers, from store owners and clerks and receptionists to members of various historical societies. And on and on.

Marge Mullen (L) with family in '50s.

But I most want to show some appreciation for the individuals like Al, to whom I returned for help time and time again. That list, in no particular order, includes:

·         Marge Mullen. One of the first residents of Soldotna, Marge worked for my dad many decades ago, and she has always been extraordinarily kind and giving of her time to me. She keenly remembers an astonishingly rich tapestry of historical names and places and dates, and she is one of the most active seniors I’ve ever known. When I was painting this summer for the Soldotna Historical Society’s homestead museum, I looked up to see 93-year-old Marge bending over the long gravel walkway, pulling up dandelions; she did that for more than an hour.

Donnis Thompson.
Stan Thompson
·         Stan and Donnis Thompson of Nikiski. Stan, a former borough mayor, and Donnis, a Kenai/Nikiski advocate and a historian/author in her own right, like to tell me that they really don’t remember things as well as they used to … and then they inevitably proceed to fill me in on all sorts of intricacies. They know the politics BEHIND the politics, and they enjoy sharing what they know.
·         Dan and Mary France, my Sterling-area neighbors for more than 50 years. Mary was a school teacher. Dan was a game warden. Whenever I needed information or back-story color, they worked as a team to recall the delinquents and the scalawags as well as the old homesteaders and the pioneers, the aviators and the hunters and the guides, and a host of other characters that once populated the central peninsula.
Dan France and his west-side duck shack, 1962.

·         Shirley Henley, my high school chemistry teacher at KCHS. The funniest and most irreverent senior I know, Shirley is terrific for her candor and the acuity of her recollections. Even when I’ve been expecting it, I’ve been startled by her honesty and her willingness to share personal information and opinions. Pushing 90, she still swims several mornings a week, and she remains just as sassy (and hilarious) as ever.

George Pollard with trophy hide/skull, 1956.
Shirley Henley, late 1950s/early '60s.

·         George Pollard, long-time Tustumena-area hunting guide and one of the finest true gentlemen I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. George is another individual with a long and keen memory, and the eloquence of tongue to paint his remembrances with a vibrancy that breathes new life into them. In the home in which he has lived since the 1930s, he has an appreciation for the natural world and all its splendors and dangers. He has hiked more of the backcountry than most people even dream of doing.

·         The staff of the Soldotna Public Library. Over the past five years, I must have walked into that library more than 50 times and asked for one of the heavy bound volumes of the Cheechako News locked away in a crowded storage room. Soon, whichever staff member happened to be closest to the front counter that day was returning with a set of jingling keys and another hefty tome. They teased me a time or two about my persistence, but they never complained. They even bent the rules for me a time or two. (And I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention KPC librarian Jane Fuerstenau, who, with the patience of a saint, has helped me find countless bits of historical data in places I hadn’t even thought to look.)

·         Gary Titus, historian extraordinaire of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Gary often liked to act exasperated whenever I would tromp into the refuge headquarters or call him again at home for more information, but I believe he has always been secretly thrilled to talk history with someone almost as fanatical about it as he is. I owe Gary a lot. There may be no one alive who knows more about the lives and times of the hardscrabble individuals who eked out their existence in cabins and shacks on the Kenai Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. The time he has spent on his investigations is truly astonishing.

Jean & Clayton Brockel, early '90s.
·         Jean and Clayton Brockel. At Soldotna Elementary School, Jean was my first-grade teacher; I never get tired of telling people that, and I treasure the fact that I have stayed in touch with her for nearly half a century. I came to know Clayton much, much later, but I also counted him as a friend. If I needed information on the early history of the college, Clayton was the man to see. If I wanted to know about the Kenai Performers or anything else related to the arts on the central peninsula, I usually began with Jean. The unflagging generosity of their spirit has been well documented.

·         Peggy Arness. Peggy has rows of file cabinets packed with old documents and photographs, but the best source of history in her Nikiski home is Peggy herself. Most of the history she remembers best relates to her family—it’s packed with pioneers in education, law enforcement and politics—but her wealth of knowledge extends beyond that. She tracks the names of old-timers who have passed away and shares those names at the annual old-timers’ luncheon in Kenai, and she has rescued from obscurity (and keeps in her head) a remarkable collection of facts and stories about life in the old fishing village at the mouth of the river.

·         Willard and Beverly Dunham of Seward. My net of history stretched to Seward only occasionally, but when it did, Willard and Beverly, whose time in the Gateway City goes back into the 1940s, were invaluable assets in my search. Beverly began the Seward Phoenix-Log, and Willard, a former Seward mayor, was also a longtime employee for the Department of Labor. Their community and political involvement, and their willingness to work hard, have given them an insider’s perspective, and their keen wit has made them a joy to speak with.

·         Dolly Farnsworth, former mayor of Soldotna and a prodigious accumulator of history. Dolly called me at home one time to ask me if I’d be interested in her collection of old phone books; she was fairly certain that she had all of them for Soldotna and Kenai, dating back to the first one, which was more or less a sheet of newsprint. What Dolly doesn’t have squirreled away somewhere in her home, she has flowing through the synapses of a brain that is adroitly capable of recalling decades of the political machinations and land dealings of her community. Always willing to share, Dolly has welcomed me many times to enlightening conversations at her dining room table.

·         Alan Boraas, instructor at KPC for 40 years. Where would I be without Alan’s assistance? I’d have fewer stories, for one thing. And many of the stories I do have would be shorter. But
Alan Boraas (L) with Drew O'Brien on Tustumena Glacier moraine, 1990.
well beyond Alan’s ability to recall and retrieve data, I am most grateful for his insights and for his ability to place historical events into a broader perspective. No one has helped me see more acutely how so many little pieces of the past fit into a large whole.

·         Barbara Jewell. Her parents moved north when Soldotna was a speck on the map, and Barb worked for many years a secretary for the borough school district. With unceasing patience and politeness, she has answered my many historical queries and directed me to other sources when she didn’t know the answers herself.  As a fellow member of the Soldotna Historical Society, she has been supportive of my efforts and has directed me many times toward fertile new ground.

·         Katherine Parker. I first met Katherine in 1980. Katherine was a reporter for the Cheechako News, and as journalism-school undergraduate more than a year away from my diploma, I sat near her at meetings for the Soldotna City Council, marveling at her shorthand skills and envious of her understanding of local politics. Decades later, we worked together on the Soldotna Historical Society, and when I started mowing her lawn a few years ago, she nearly always came out on the porch as I was packing up my equipment to say hello and offer me another pile of documents she’d found while digging through her old reporter’s files. She made me smile when I turned 50 by telling me that it was nice to see “young people” becoming interested in history.
Katherine and Charlie Parker at home, 1956.

And so it went. There were so many who gave so much—like Jenny Neyman herself, who gave me the opportunity to write again and fed me terrific story ideas and information sources innumerable times—but those I’ve listed here gave the most.

If I ever sit down to pen a thank-you to all those who’ve helped me through life beyond reporting local history, I’ll need to write a book.

I’m so grateful that I haven’t had to do all this on my own.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Meditations on Automotive Access and Excess"

Kanakanak Road, the main avenue into Dillingham. Kanakanak features junctions with the 3-mile Wood River Road
and the 19-mile Aleknagik Lake Road. Besides Aleknagik, no other towns or villages can be reached by road from here.


Meditations on Automotive Access and Excess

When I was in my early teens, my father informed me: “When Soldotna gets stoplights, it’ll be time to move.” He failed to smile when he said this.

His proclamation worried me. I may have been an unruly and grumbly teen-ager, but I liked where I lived. I had no desire to move. And it seemed likely to me that if the traffic on the central peninsula continued to multiply and intensify the way it was in the 1970s, stoplights were coming, eventually.

It took a while—until the late 1980s, when all three Fair children were adults—but Soldotna did get stoplights (at the junction of the Sterling Highway and Kalifornsky Beach Road, and at the junction of the Sterling and Kenai Spur highways).

But my dad didn’t jerk up the tent stakes. He may have gritted his teeth as the stoplights kept coming, but he didn’t sell the homestead. He and Mom stayed put.

Chalk it up to inertia or entrenchment, to basic fatigue, or to some resigned recognition of the inevitable. The Fairs remained, and the traffic signals continued to increase.

At least there were no stoplights out on our own little gravel lane. (Heck, there were barely any road signs.) As he drove back from work each weekday evening, Dad could take solace from the rooster-tail of dust behind his truck and the absence of artificial illumination he encountered down the homestretch.

It’s not that my father disparaged public safety. Quite to the contrary, almost anyone who knew him well would say he was a meticulously safety-conscious man. But, having been raised in a rarely changing, blink-and-you’re-through-it Indiana town (which to this day still has no stoplights), he simply was no big fan of rapid progress. He liked his development at glacial speed. And he preferred narrow country roads—trails were even better—and plenty of mountains and water and wildlife.

I think he would have enjoyed where I live now in Dillingham.

There are no stoplights here. There aren’t many stop signs, either.

It must also be said, of course, that there aren’t that many roads.

The farthest that one can travel by road here without turning around is about 25 miles—from the hospital  at the southern end of Kanakanak Road to the sprawling Lake Aleknagik at the northern end of the road named after the lake—so the opportunity for intersectional conflict is greatly diminished. During that entire route from south to north, a driver must use his turn signal only once and will encounter no stop signs. Driving the same route in reverse requires halting at one stop sign and then turning right. Period.

In Dillingham it is possible to drive from one end of town to the other and stop at no more than three intersections—and at those only briefly.

Traffic here, frankly, is minimal overall and pales by comparison to the summer chaos on the Kenai.

I have been here since the beginning of September and have seen not a single motorhome.

That fact alone would mean almost Traffic Nirvana to peninsula residents, if it weren’t for one little snag: limited access.

While the shortage of roads means a relative dearth of traffic snarls, it also means that it’s more difficult to drive to this area’s abundant mountains and fish-bearing lakes and streams.

Peninsula residents, by contrast, can drive along the length of the Kenai River and through broad valleys of the Kenai Mountains. There are well-maintained gravel roads leading to Skilak and Tustumena lakes. There are boat launches from Homer to Nikiski, from Kenai to Soldotna to Seward. There are old mining roads and state and federal trail systems that open up the backcountry.

Snake Lake Road leads, of course, to Snake
(Nunavaugaluk) Lake, via Aleknagik Lake Road.
Here, a single access point—the unmaintained Snake Lake Road—leads to four trails that venture uphill—to Warehouse Mountain, Snake Mountain, China Cap, and Nunavaugaluk Overlook. The rest of the mountain trailheads, I’ve been told, lie across large lakes or streams or vast stretches of boggy tundra.

And this place, which includes the largest state park (Wood-Tikchik) in the United States, is nearly surrounded by gorgeous peaks and ridgelines, and some amazing fishing spots, which is why most people who live in Dillingham have remedied their vehicular-access ailments with the following cures: private airplanes, power boats, snowmachines, and four-wheelers.

Planes and boats are the key means to
reach the distant mountains and the
prime fishing spots.
In the summer, the rivers, creeks and lakes in this place are liquid avenues to the great beyond. And in the winter, I’ve been told, the tundra and frozen lakes around here are transformed into veritable snowmachine highways.

Meanwhile, my own versions of the Dillingham modus transporti include a borrowed inflatable kayak, my mountain bike, cross-country skis, snowshoes, and whatever else I can strap onto or slide over my feet to improve my human-powered progress.

Drivers on the Kenai Peninsula, on the other hand, are positively spoiled by access—as was I for many decades—no matter how many gates or regulations we may have denounced.

Peninsula drivers also are spoiled by the very fuel prices that I was bitching about back in August. The price tag here on unleaded gasoline is pushing $7 per gallon.

On the plus side, having so few roads means that it takes longer to burn up a tank of gas.

And finally, peninsula drivers are spoiled by the number of options available to them via the highway system. In Dillingham, there are no car lots—and of course no car salesmen. All vehicles are delivered here either by cargo plane or by barge, mostly out of Anchorage. The little Toyota we drive cost nearly $3,000 to ship here—packed with clothing and household goods—on a multi-village sea voyage lasting approximately three weeks.

Also, since it is so difficult and expensive to get them here, vehicles rarely leave once they arrive. In fact, I think it is fair to say that Dillingham—like many remote Alaska communities, I suspect—is a place where cars and trucks come to die.
Abandoned VW Bugs form a small graveyard along Wood River Road.

The cost of sending old junkers to a salvage yard on the road system is prohibitive. Consequently, many backyards here contain rusting, battered hulks, often tucked in behind or alongside the ubiquitous boats and solid-steel shipping containers.

It is nice, however, to have a reliable source of spare parts lying around. Consequently, even junk here has value….

In the end, it’s up to each individual to decide which is better—all that access and the excess that goes with it, or more limited access but less of the hustle and bustle that my father disliked. In Dillingham, Dad would’ve found ways to get into the wilderness and to all the best fishing holes.

And he would still be waiting for the first stoplight to appear.

Mom, on the other hand….



Thursday, October 17, 2013

"This May Seem Like a Trivial Pursuit, but...."

This was the Redoubt Reporter team in 2011, the second consecutive year we won the Triviapalooza title.

“This May Seem like a Trivial Pursuit, but….”



I can’t repeat every verbal rejoinder that Trivia Master Sarah Evans unleashes to the throng during Trivia Night at the Willow Tree bar each Tuesday in Dillingham—this is a family newspaper, after all—but I can report that the F-word is bandied about as heartily as the beers are consumed. And while I can’t commend Sarah for her use of proper language, I certainly can praise her ability to keep proper order among the rowdy, suds-swilling trivia buffs seated at plastic tables spread throughout the sprawling establishment:

“Put that phone away, or I swear I’ll cut your F---ing hand off!”

“Come on, guys! No cheating! Don’t be d---!”

“Shut up! Shut up and listen! Okay, question number seven….”

Such exclamations and enthusiasm readily grab one’s attention. Such exuberant vulgarity even has its own kind of charm. And such rawness adds to the flavor of a beloved community event occurring weekly inside a shadowy saloon along the Nushagak River.

In many ways—minus all the swearing, of course--it’s not so different from Trivia Night each Wednesday near the Kenai River at Odie’s in Soldotna or the Triviapalooza benefiting the Triumvirate Theater and held periodically at the Visitors Center in Kenai. The participants in these events are essentially the same, as is the spirit of the competition, the corny or clever and occasionally offensive team names, the consternation caused by the need to recall almost arcane bits of data, and the beer.

Well, the beer isn’t exactly the same. At the Triviapalooza, good beer is dispensed from taps inserted in chilled kegs into clear plastic cups arrayed on a table covered with white linen. At Trivia Night at Odie’s, servers mete out cold craft beers from taps behind the serving counter. But at Trivia Night at the Willow Tree, customers are sometimes left with only domestic American brews (Budweiser, Coors and Miller) contained in and consumed from 12-ounce cans.

Still, it is the games, not the beers, that are important.

Games bring together people across the globe, but the unifying effect of games in small communities seems particularly acute. In villages and tiny towns, with no national branding or television coverage to prompt widespread loyalty, and no metropolitan centers to bolster mass attendance, the allegiance to the games comes from within, from the union of conglomerate souls facing challenges together.

In Dillingham (outside of commercial fishing, which is the hub of the universe here), residents unite for community events—the winter festival known as the Beaver Roundup, the Tony’s Run benefit marathon in September, the slate of sporting events centered around Dillingham High School, and, of course, Trivia Night at the Willow Tree.

The first community trivia event I ever attended was the Triviapalooza two or three years ago. A small band of us, pulled together by Redoubt Reporter publisher Jenny Neyman, joined at a sturdy table and tested our wits at numerous rounds of questions. According to the tote board, which was updated after each round, we forged a solid victory that returned to Jenny her buy-in money and netted our team a used trophy that had had a previous life at some golf or bowling tournament, I believe.

Beyond the Triviapalooza, my first trivia-competition steps occurred last winter when my friend Stephanie and her boyfriend Ryan drove in from Seward to meet me at Odie’s and test our
With Ryan Ek and Stephanie Wright in the winter of 2013
--our first winning effort at Trivia Night in Soldotna.
intellectual mettle. At Odie’s, Trivia Night, consisting of nine theme-centered rounds of 10 questions each, costs $5 for a small team like ours, $10 for a larger team. Our come-from-behind victory earned us the entire pot of entry fees--$105 that night. After posing for a photo in front of the tally sheet, I walked out with a handful of cash—more money than I’d walked in with.

My first taste of Trivia Night in Dillingham occurred on Sept. 17.

The competition at the Willow Tree consists of a single set of 20 questions, all based on a common theme, yet the game manages to stretch into an approximately two-hour-plus affair, complete with cigarette-and-beer breaks after every five questions. Before the festivities begin, a thirst-inducing pre-game snack is provided—something like cheesy nachos, meatballs, or hotdogs with chili.

Team size is unlimited, and the collection of professionals, fishermen, campus folks, construction workers and others provides a rich tapestry of community life, bound together for a common cause.

One night, the not-exactly-sober crew from the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated Deadliest Catch reality-television show barged into the Willow Tree in the middle of the game, halting the competition with a bell-ringing barrage of bar tabs and good humor. Once the hubbub died down and the TV folks dispersed outdoors, Trivia Night picked up where it left off. No minor interruption, regardless how exciting, was going to stop the game.

There is no tote board at the Willow Tree. If some participant reminds her, Trivia Master Sarah is content to holler out the scores at the end of each round. With so few questions (some of them with multiple parts for extra points), the scores tend to remain fairly close, keeping the competition lively and the commentary raucous until the end.

Sometimes a team like “Tons of Fun” may get the upper hand; other times, perhaps, it’ll be their good-natured rival, “F--- Tons of Fun,” or maybe “The Dillingslammers,” “Pork Chop & Applesauce,” or “The Hospital People.” On Sept. 17, however, it was our turn to shine, as “The Drifters” slid neatly alone into first place on the fifth tiebreaker question (selected from cards out of a Trivial Pursuit game).

Among the prizes available to the winners were several anti-Pebble Mine stickers, a baseball-style cap depicting the F/V Brown Dog, a berry picker, some canned soup, a Lonely Planet book (Europe on a Shoestring), and an assortment of candy, key chains and fishing tackle.

Afterwards, we walked away into the chilly Dillingham night—and into a town with fewer strangers.