My friend Harry Jay Follman the president of IRI Construction company, called me in early February, and asked, “How about meeting me in Dutch Harbor next Wednesday for dinner?” I responded with, “Are you nuts? Why on earth would I want to leave sunny Hawaii to freeze my butt off in Alaska?’
“Come on, Jake, I’ve got a serious problem up there that has me plenty pissed off. I need to fix it, and fix it now! You could be a big help.”
“How long would we be up there?”
“If all goes well, we’ll be back in a week. If it doesn’t, one of us will be commuting in and out of Dutch for a month, possibly longer.”
“I don’t know, Man. I have a ton of commitments over the next few weeks. I’m not sure if I can get away right now.”
“I’ll sweeten the deal. We’ll take in the seafood buffet at the Grand Aleutian Hotel Wednesday night. I know you can’t pass that up, and If everything works out, I’ll get one of my buddies from the Dangerous Catch TV Show to take us out crabbing on the Bering Sea. Remember the last time we did that, you couldn’t quit talking about it for months. It’ll be fun. Say yes, Jake!”
“Okay, if the crabbing is a promise, send me a ticket and I’ll see you there.”
I boarded the Red Eye from Honolulu to Anchorage and took my seat in row 7D of the premier section. I lucked out and had three seats across to myself. My itinerary indicated that drinks were free in premium. I planned to relax, have a couple of Boilermakers, stretch out across the three seats and sleep all the way to Anchorage. That didn’t work out. We hit a lot of turbulence, which kept the stewardess in their places for over an hour. When the drink cart got to me, I ordered two Boilermakers and a glass of ice. The stewardess was having a bad day and told me I could only have one drink from her cart now and when she returned for the second serving in about an hour, I was allowed a second drink, and please fasten your seat belt, Sir. I told her to forget the drink, and as soon as she moved on, I curled up across the three seats and tried to sleep. Twenty minutes later she was back. She woke me up, demanded that I return to my seat and buckle up. I got my iPad out of my carry-on, dialed up Spotify, my music app, and selected Kris Kristofferson to entertain me with a moving version of ‘Bobby McGee.’
I was excited to be returning to Alaska. It had been nearly five years since the last time I had been up there. I had some history with the State of Alaska that went back to 1942 when the Japanese invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska at the Westerly end of the Aleutian chain during WW II. My father, Doc, was an Army dentist, who was stationed in Dutch Harbor when the Japanese bombed the crap out of the Army base there. Although I was determined to visit the site of the attack and walk the very ground where he earned his bronze star, the opportunity was elusive, and I had yet to do so, however, I was determined to get that done on this trip.
My first trip to Alaska was in April 1984. I was running NWC Construction Co. and we had several on-going projects for two of the big-oil firms pioneering the North Slope oil fields, which were just below the arctic circle. I flew to Anchorage and boarded the oil Company’s private jet at the executive terminal, and landed in Prudhoe Bay two hours later in a near whiteout. I gotta say, the landing scared the crap out of me.
One of the most memorable thing about that trip resulted from my smuggling a six-pack of beer into the VIP quarters of our booze and drug-free labor camp. My quarters were in a four-man Quonset hut covered by a ten-foot-high snow bank. I unpacked, and opened the single, small window, dug out a cavity in the snow to contain and cool my beer.
After a long day of greeting, eating and meetings, I returned to my quarters ready to relax, watch some TV and have a few cold beers. I soon discovered there was neither TV service, nor telephone service on the North Slope. The TV was a VCR player and a notice taped to it stated “A library of mixed tapes are available in the mess hall.” That cold dark journey wasn’t about to happen tonight. I sighed, opened the window and grabbed a beer. I popped it open and took a long swig and immediately spit it out. The room temperature beer was disgusting. I was surprised that the snow bank had acted as insulation, thereby keeping the pocket I dug out of the snow the same temperature as the room. I uttered a curse, muttered something about the only thing that wasn’t cold in this land of ice and snow was my beer. I climbed into bed and hoped that the weather would be clear in the morning so I could get back to civilization.
The next morning the camp manager approached me during breakfast saying, “One of the natives working in the camp told me this morning that a hunting party from his village had discovered the frozen remains of an enormous Mastodon partially sticking out of an ancient ice flow ten miles east of the camp. If you want to see it, we are taking a couple of tracked vehicles over there in about an hour. Why don’t you come along, we’ll be back in plenty of time for you to catch the afternoon plane to Anchorage.”
I got in line with a dozen guys waiting to board the two vehicles. As I entered, I was surprised to see a dozen expensive fur parkas attached to all the inside surfaces of the rig. They were there to keep the sub-zero cold out, and without this protection, the vehicle heaters couldn’t keep up. It was an hour ride to the site, but well worth it. It was too cold to get out of the vehicle for long, but we did so briefly, and I got some decent photos of part of its head, a curled tusk, trunk and massive shoulder covered with a shaggy mane. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was humbled by the experience of witnessing this two-thousand-year-old, elephant-like animal laying on its side gazing up at me from its icy tomb with a sorrowful look in his single eye. Somehow I felt a bond between us and tried to image his death experience.
My next trip to Alaska was in 1985. I flew into Anchorage, a small city on the banks of Cook Inlet surrounded by snow covered mountains and volcanos, to spend some time with my mentor Dick Clark, NWC’s former VP of construction, who was now running the Anchorage office. Dick’s relocation to Alaska was a disturbing story for another day. We spent the day and evening together talking about the opportunities in Alaska and his projects throughout the State.
I was staying at the venerable Captain Cook Hotel which eventually became one of my favorite hotels in the world. There was something about The Captain Cook that captured my imagination. It had this appealing sense of excitement, history, and adventure about it. It was Anchorage’s crown jewel Hotel, which epitomized the spirit of the last frontier, and still served as the principal gathering place and watering hole for those adventurous souls who made Alaska great.
One of my two favorite venues at the Captain Cook was the lobby coffee shop which exuded a feeling of excitement and high energy every morning. Alaska’s movers and shakers, including politicians, oil company executives, business and government leaders regularly gathered there for breakfast. From six-thirty to about nine, it was the place to be if you were one of the players or a celebrity watcher.
My other cool place was the cellar bar/pizza parlor. If I was alone, I often shunned the expensive dining room in favor of the relaxed, working man’s cellar bar. I could always get a table, have a few local beers on tap and end the evening with an excellent pizza. It was a feel-good place hidden away from the high energy of the rest of the hotel.
The day before returning to Seattle, I got up early to witness the start of the annual Iditarod dog sled race. While looking out the window, I saw dozens of City trucks dumping snow on the course leading from the start line and road graders spreading it out. It was plenty cold, but there hadn’t been much snow for a week.
About nine o’clock, I joined the crowd on the street and watched the dog teams jockeying for position. At the sound of the gun they all bolted excitedly from the start line, yelping and howling as they strained to get their sleds moving. The surviving dog’s from the sixteen dog pack and their master musher’s would journey a thousand miles before crossing the finish line in Nome eight to ten days later.
Dick picked me up about eleven and we boarded a chartered bush plane that would fly us in and out of Valdez in one day. Our plane was an old, but reliable Beaver. It’s distinct throaty growl and short take-off and landing characteristics made it the hot rod of the arctic. We spent a couple of hours checking out the new pumping station he was building at a Valdez oil terminal. It filtered the crude oil, separating the water, sulfur, and other contaminants before sending it on to the storage tanks prior to pumping it into tankers headed for the Texas gulf. When we returned to Anchorage, Dick dropped me off at the Captain Cook and we agreed to meet for drinks and dinner at a small bistro that Dick favored across the street from the Hotel. That evening we kicked back, had way too many drinks and enjoyed each others company.
Four years later, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck a reef and dumped ten million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off the shores of Valdez. That ended not only the Valdez fishing industry but the local construction business dependent on the oil industry. We closed the Anchorage office a year later, Dick retired and moved to Princeville on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai.