JAKE BUNKS DOWN AT THE RED DOG SALOON
It was a little after noon of my first day in Naknek, Alaska. I had been asleep for about an hour in the bridal suite at the Red Dog Saloon when I heard a knock on the locked door, followed by the door bursting open. I sat up with a jolt. Harry Jay Follman had just blown into town.
He tossed his duffle bag on the other bed and bellowed, “Get up, Jake, we got to get going.”
“Jake, get up.”
“What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here until five, and I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“Too bad, neither did I. Let’s go!”
I knew he wasn’t going away, so I stumbled out of bed and pulled on my boots, as he used the bathroom.
“Where we going?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
We slammed the door, hoping it would lock, scrambled down the rickety stairs and climbed into the same white 4WD pickup with the nets in the back. We headed southwest through town down Naknek Rd. to where it turned into Peter Pan Rd and ran along the cliffs above Kvichak Bay, (pronounced ‘Que-jack’)
Jay said, “North Pacific Seafoods has a cool 1890’s cannery a couple of mile up the mighty Kvichak River at Pederson Point. You have to see. it.”
As we barreled down the narrow gravel road, the locals riding the popular, three-wheel RV’s moved off the road to let us pass. I said, “Jay, you just missed the turnoff to Pederson point.”
“Relax Pilgrim, that road is for the tourists and girls. I’m not even sure if the side road to the cannery is passable this early in the season. Most of the traffic in and out of Pederson Point is by boat.” I wondered, Okay, how’s that going to work? Before I could ask, we pulled off the road and Jay ordered me out of the truck, “Follow me, we have to find these little white tundra flowers, I don’t know what they’re called but keep a sharp eye. If they are in bloom, the fishing will be good.”
While searching for the ‘good fishing’ flower, I spotted a brown bear digging through the garbage dump.
“Should we make a run for it?”
“No worries, Mate. He’ll leave us alone if we leave him alone. Concentrate on finding the flower. Several minutes later, we spotted a sprig of white flowers close to the cliff, and then another and another. I asked, “Do we pick them or what?”
“No, we only want to make sure they’re in bloom. It’s bad luck to disturb them.” I took a photo, and we headed back to the truck. As we approached the dump, the bear was waiting for us.
It stood up on its hind legs and growled menacingly. Jay hollered, “Run for the truck! You go to the right, and I’ll go to left.” I was pushing three-hundred pounds, and it was difficult to run on the spongy, thawed tundra. The bear chose to chase me. I was slower and possibly tastier than my physically fit friend. Nearly out of breath, I made it to the truck, with the bear close behind. Jay already had the engine running and the door open as he laughed and yelled, “Move it Jake, or you’re going to be lunch.” When the bear realized I had escaped, he turned his attention to the fishy smelling nets in the truck bed. Jay gunned the engine, and we left a disappointed bear in our dust.
“That’s enough excitement for today. Let’s go back to town and get some lunch.”
Jay’s silent response was to pull off the road for the second time. I thought he was turning around, but that’s not what he had in mind. He followed a faint trail to the edge of the cliff, where he nosed the front wheels right up to the edge and stopped. I thought, This is an excellent view of the bay and beach ninety-feet below us, how sweet.
Jay grinned and said, “Buckle up.”
I yelled, “No, don’t do this, we’re going to die!”
He slammed the truck into 4WD, and down we went, sometimes under control, sometimes not.
When we reached the bottom of this nearly vertical trail to the beach, I was a little shook up and demanded, “What the hell did you do that for? How are we going to get back up there?
“Relax, you want to see the old cannery, don’t you? This is the scenic route to Pederson Point.”
“Jay, let’s not do this. Look around you, Man. There’s a lot of loose sand, muck, and driftwood between us and that old cannery up the river. We’re surely going to get stuck, the tide’s going to take the truck, and we’ll end up walking back to the Red Dog.”
“Yeah, your right, it could get a little dicey. Maybe it would be best if you waited here with the women and children. Buckle up, Bucko! Here we go.”
Jay spun the truck around, and we were off to Pederson Point. He was a sprint car driver in an earlier life and knew all about handling a vehicle on any surface; asphalt, dirt track, sandy beach or in the river; no problem. When the truck bogged down in the sand, he’d grit his teeth, do a double clutch and throw it into reverse, double pop the clutch once more and slam it into first gear as he cranked the wheel to the right or left and we were off and going again. We weaved in and out of the tons of beach debris along the way. If we couldn’t drive over it, we went around it, and that often meant going into the river up to our axles. I was scared at first, but as I gained confidence in Jay’s skill behind the wheel, I relaxed, enjoyed the ride, and even whooped and yelped with glee at the close calls. I was having fun.
As we roared up the beach, spewing gravel and sand behind us, I thought about how I got hooked up with this larger than life character. I recalled meeting him at a pre-bid job walk ten years before in Hawaii. We were deep inside of the Red Hill Mountain at the Navy’s once-secret, WW II Pearl Harbor fuel bunker. Jay and I were there along with a couple of other contractors. We struck up a conversation after the meeting ended. He asked, “Where does this tunnel go?”
“It comes out at ‘Audit one’ on the shores of Pearl Harbor about a mile from here.”
“I have got to see more of this amazing tunnel. Walk down there with me, tell me what you know about it, and I’ll buy you lunch.” He took off before I could answer, and I hurried to catch up with him. He asked about the tunnel’s construction, and what they used the narrow-gauge railroad track for today? I told him the little I knew about it, which was “The Navy imported Chinese laborers to dig the tunnel and fuel storage tank sites by hand a few years before the start of WW II in anticipation of an attack from Japan. A primitive miner’s train like device hauled the excavated dirt and rock out of the tunnel.”
We emerged from the tunnel at Pearl Harbor’s central fuel pumping station. Jay noticed two of the big pumps were running, and asked the officer-in-charge, “Where’s the fuel going, Chief?” The chief pushed open one of the massive bombproof doors and pointed at the aircraft carrier, John Stennis, which was tied up a hundred yards in front of us.
Jay slammed on the breaks to allow a family of seals to waddle back into the river, jolting me back to the present. A few minutes later we rounded a bend in the river, and I spotted our quest. We climbed the muddy beach access road leading up to the old cannery, parked, and got out. I was going to kiss the ground we stood on but thought better of it when I realized I was standing in an inch of blue-grey ooze.
I was eager to check the place out. The tank farm was nearby and a good place to start. As we passed the tank farm, I stuck my head in the deserted old powerhouse and moved on to the boneyard where they stored all kinds of discarded pipe, electrical gear, tanks, old boilers, pumps and ancient fish processing equipment. The cannery didn’t consider any of this material to be scrap. They knew from experience most anything could one day serve a useful purpose. Until then, it silently awaited its fifteen minutes of fame.
I was surprised to see the fuselage of small plane stored on the roof of one of the warehouses. I wondered what they had in mind for its future.
The juxtaposition of all this junk adjacent to the shiny well-maintained fuel tanks, and modern fish processing equipment reminded me that Alaska fishermen and contractors never throw anything away. When equipment breaks down, it takes weeks to get replacement parts and material. The boats and the canneries run 24/7 during fishing season and necessity has taught these folks to recycle what they have, to keep things running. I thought, If Elizabeth thinks I’m a pack Rat, she ought to see this place.
We walked on the timber and plank manways, which kept us out of the spongy tundra and mud, as we explored this intriguing piece of Alaska fishing memorabilia. On our way to check-in at the office, we came across more treasures. I told Jay, “You go on, I’m going to stay here and try to figure out what this piece of machinery does.” I studied this beautiful old relic. I looked it all over, climbed up on top to get a better look at the gears, and took photos to review later. Although I did figure out how it worked, I couldn’t determine what purpose it served back in the day.
I caught up with Jay on his way back from the office, and we walked past the cannery workers 1940’s vintage living quarters, where a few early birds were already in residence. The cookhouse, fish processing plant, and warehouse were abuzz with activity in preparation for the run, which was expected to start next week.
I was excited to have the opportunity to be here. I’m fascinated by Alaska’s history, historical places, events, places, and things, especially those related to fishing and the Japanese attack during WW II. Alaska is the last wild frontier, and this old cannery was a treasure trove of history, as well as a look back in time. I was struck by the fact, that everything was old, wet, made of wood, in some state of disrepair, or rotting away. Someday, all this would be gone.
I’d seen enough of the cannery property and said, “let’s walk out to the dock and see what’s going on out there.”
We left the plant and made our way out to the dock. As we got close, Jay exclaimed, “That’s the Maverick from the Dangerous Catch TV show tied up there. Let’s go see who’s aboard.”
“Do you know those guys?”
“Not well, but I’ve met them a time or two. They may not remember me but were all fishermen, and we speak the same language.”
We stood on the edge of the dock, and Jay hollered, “Hello! Anybody aboard the Maverick?” A few minutes later, a crewman appeared on deck and asked, “What can I do for you guys?”
Jay struck up a conversation with the older fisherman, explained we were the Erika Lynn’s crew, and we were up here for the summer run.
He asked, “Who are you fishing for?”
After several minutes of fishermen banter, he warmed up to us and asked, “Do you guys want to see the boat?”
That was a no-brainer, we both responded in unison, “Hell yes!”
He mentioned as we clambered aboard, “You just missed the captain, he’s flying to Anchorage this afternoon.”
He insisted we join him for coffee in the galley after he showed us through the boat. He told us they Maverick got in a few days ago, and was here to serve as one of Trident Seafood’s Bristol Bay fish tenders. A tender is like a floating warehouse for freshly caught fish. The individual fishing vessels deliver their catch to the nearby tender’s refrigerated holds and return to fishing. The tender then offloads the fish at the cannery on a regular basis. This arrangement kept the fish boats on the fish without having to return repeatedly to the canneries in Naknek. We bid farewell to our new friend and headed for the truck to find our way back to town after an exciting day.
*** THE END ***