On the Chilkat Pass a deep and beautiful carpet of snow covers the landscape. This photo is taken just past the Canadian border as I climbed out of the forested valley where the trees begin to thin out.
The seasons are changing. We spent spring break at our house at Mud Bay, seven miles south of Haines, where the crocuses are blooming. At Mosquito Lake, thirty miles north of Haines, the prelude to the spring symphony has begun. The lake is still frozen but the edges of the lake are thawing and the trumpeter swans have arrived. I can hear them honking, and some mornings the coyotes are howling while the grouse are thumping and the woodpeckers are drumming on the trees.
We’ve been here the entire winter, from the fall eagle gathering through the shortest day of the year with six hours maximum daylight. Tomorrow, we head off to Sitka and Washington State for a little break before the tour season kicks off. I’ll give a slide show in Sitka on March 30th, then will give two slide shows in Washington State. The first one will be April 6th (Anacortes Library) and the second is on April 11th (Village Books in Bellingham).
Then we will travel up the Alcan Highway to return to Haines. The epic two-thousand-mile drive will be my seventeenth time driving between Bellingham, WA and Haines, Alaska. I first drove the road in 1988 (more about that later!) In the early days, I would drive the entire distance in three days. Now, with our family of four, we plan to take a full week.
This blog post has three sections. First, I pay tribute to local pioneer John Schnabel and share a few personal reflections. Next, I share a story about a scam that almost took me in last week. Then I continue with my story of how I first came to Alaska in 1983.
John Schnabel recently passed away at 96 years old. After John retired from logging, he had a heart attack and the doctor told him to keep busy or he would die. He decided to get involved in mining and got a hold of a claim in the Porcupine area north of Haines. John not only hoped to strike it big with gold, he was a big promoter of tourism in the Porcupine area. The route to the claims was long and circuitous, a real axle breaker, and that was a big challenge for tourism. John used his own money to push a road along the Klehini River to reduce travel time. John gained fame as the “grandpa” in the Discovery TV Show Gold Rush.
John and I worked together with his grandson Parker giving tours to the Big Nugget mine. Eventually Parker left for the Yukon and we left Big Nugget mine and started bringing visitors to Dakota Fred’s claim. Then Dakota Fred started mining in a location only accessibly by helicopters so we canceled the tours.
But even after the tours ended, some die-hard Gold Rush fans wanted to come to Haines to see whatever they could of the Porcupine area. We would drive up there to see what was going on and then head back to town. With no promises, we would often stop by the Haines Assisted Living Facility to see if John was up for a visit. John was always gracious and took time to sit down with our guests. He never accepted payment for these visits.
A few years back, I wrote a letter to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) about a proposed road expansion up to the Constantine Mine. John was sitting with some of his associates and they started complaining about my letter.
Instead of listening to them, John drove to my office. “Joe, how are you? I heard about a letter you wrote to BLM about the road expansion,” he said.
I looked up and said, “John, great to see you. Yes I wrote a letter with my concerns. “
“Can I read it?” he asked. I printed it, handed him a copy and he looked it over. He said, “There is nothing wrong with this letter,” shook my hand and left.
More recently, my book Where Eagles Gather was published and there was a review in our local newspaper, the Chilkat Valley News. The newspaper article stressed that I was taking a stand against the Constantine mine. I got a call from John, and he said he had been trying to buy a copy of my book and that he wanted to talk about it.
I said, “John, let me give you a book. You have been so generous all these years I feel it is the least I could do.”
John read the book cover to cover. When he was done, we sat down and talked. “Joe, this is a wonderful book, very sincere and well- written with beautiful photographs. I don’t agree with you on all your points, but I do like it.”
He continued. “I am concerned that when you take a stand in this town, things can get difficult. I’ve seen many friendships break up over political fights in Haines. I’m 96 years old and I’m not fighting this battle.”
That’s the last conversation we had. Not long after, John left Haines to go to a care facility in California. We certainly didn’t agree on all issues, but we were able to work with each other and respected each other.
I recently received an inquiry from a couple in Poland through VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) for our Swan View Cabin. I had an uncomfortable feeling about the booking. Right off the bat, instead of talking about why they were coming to Haines all the way from Poland and what they wanted to do, they talked about their concerns about credit card security. They wanted to pay me by check.
I told them that it would be no problem. As soon as I received the check, I would notify them and the reservation would be secure.
Then I received this email.
I am sorry for all the delay in payment.
There was a mix up in the payment sent to you ,I was supposed to receive two separate payment one for you and the other for our traveling expenses but the whole payment was issued on a single one check in your name and sent .
I tried to correct this but it was in vain as i was ask to resolve the problem myself. It would have to go through a very long process to change this error. Please I don’t know what to do. I have been advised to contact you since this check was issued in your name , so you should be able to deposit the check into your account.
As soon as you have the check deposited into your account you are to deduct your rent and transfer the balance to my agent or to us .
Please do let me know how you can help on this issue.
This felt a little strange but I figured if I received the check and cashed it then there would be nothing they could do. I could send them the money back and they would stay at the cabin for a week. It seemed like a “win/win” but it did feel a bit unusual.
Then the check came via US Express Mail. Once again something was odd- the envelope was ripped and the rip went right through the signature on the cashier’s check. It did not go completely through the check.
Then I got this email:
Thanks for the updated information .
Here are the detailed instructions on how to remit the balance .
You are to remit $1100 via money gram transfer with the information below
Name – Ben Immerman
STATE – Kiev
COUNTRY – Ukraine
Send Amount: $1100
Transfer Fees : $85
TOTAL : $1185
This didn’t quite fit because at first he had said he was from Poland. Now he wanted me to send the money to Ukraine. I called the local banker, Kyle, and told him the story. “Should I cash this check? Do you want to look at it?”
“I could look at it but I don’t have to, Joe. This is a classic scam. Don’t cash it and don’t send them any money.”
I wrote them back and said that I was concerned about fraud. I told them if they wanted to book the cabin, they must send me a check for the exact amount or pay with their credit card.
I never heard back from them.
My first trip to Alaska, 1983… Continued!:
I was on my way to Alaska! I caught a ride down to the pier in Seattle and boarded the ferry. Someone told me to get there early and set up my tent on the upper deck, so that I would have my own space for the two-day ride to Alaska. I watched as the different people began to board. Most of the travelers were men and they were older than I was, late twenties, thirties and even some in their forties. They looked fit, confident and they had lots of facial hair. I could barely grow a beard at the time so I hadn’t even thought about trying.
The boat pulled away from Seattle and I looked back on the big city. It was a sunny day and I got my bearings and walked around the ship. There was a deck below for vehicles, staterooms for those who could afford it, a restaurant, and a few lounge areas. I spent most of my time in the “solarium.” It was a semi-covered area where they had heat lamps on the ceiling to keep travelers from freezing. This was the area where I set up my tent, and others had set their tents up around me. Those without tents slept on the scattered lounge chairs or inflated their Thermarest pads and slept in their sleeping bags on the floor. Nighttime hit and I dozed off, happy to have my own space.
In the morning, I had some granola and milk that I had brought. There was a strict rule; no stoves allowed on the deck, and I couldn’t afford to eat in the restaurant. The sun came up and it got warmer as the day went on, and pretty soon I was in my shorts and sandals. Someone had brought a climbing rope and the group informally formed two teams and competed in tug-of-war event and Limbo on the deck. This was fun!
I felt a bit intimidated by all the hairy, bearded guys, and so stood off by myself looking over the rail at the water, the trees, and the sky. I noticed that someone was standing next to me, and looked over to see a tall, thin and clean-shaven guy looking right at me.
“I like your feet,” he said.
I didn’t quite know what to say. I hadn’t had any experience with that sort of encounter before. What did he mean? What was the appropriate response?
I hesitated and he said, “Oh sorry, My name is Dave. Is this your first trip to Alaska?”
I looked down at my feet. They are well-formed and the skin is smooth, I thought. No too hairy, and my toes aren’t all bent and weird like some people’s. And through my karate training I know how to use my feet to protect myself. I could use them on this guy, if I needed to.
But Dave really didn’t seem like a threat. He seemed generally interested in me. So I told him a bit about myself.
“My name is Joe Ordonez and I just graduated from college. I ran the Outdoor Program at Western Washington University. I love anything outdoors- rafting, kayaking, skiing, and hiking. And I love learning about nature.”
Dave smiled and still seemed interested so I continued.
“I thought I had a job driving a tour bus in Alaska, but that didn’t work out. So I’m heading north with no exact plan. I just want to work and have an adventure. I’m going to get off the ferry in Ketchikan and look for work. If I can’t find a job, I’ll keep going north. That’s as far as my plan goes. What’s your story?”
Dave smiled. “I’ve been coming north for years. Summers I live in Juneau, the state Capitol. I own my own business….its an outdoor hot dog stand right downtown. If you don’t find a job in Ketchikan and end up in Juneau, give me a ring. I have a place where you can stay. “
How nice, I thought. Are all Alaskans this friendly? Dave and I continued to talk on and off through the boat journey, and he waved goodbye to me as I stepped off the boat in Ketchikan.
I walked off in Ketchikan and was met by my friend from college, Terilyn Ellis. She had invited me to her wedding in Ketchikan but I didn’t think I would be able to make it. Now, here I was walking off the ferry the day before the wedding. The next morning, I was there for the ceremony. I remember the official (in Alaska its easy for just about anyone to perform a marriage ceremony) declaring “This marriage is more than two people joining together, this marriage is about the joining of two families.”
I thought, they are starting an adventure together. And I am starting this adventure alone.
But I wasn’t scared or lonely; I was mildly excited. I walked along the waterfront and went to the fish processing plants. They all had the same type of hand-written sign on the door…..”No Help Needed.” I was too early, the fish weren’t running and there was no work. Since Ketchikan was the first stop in Alaska, part of me was glad that things didn’t work out for work. The State is huge, and there were lots of places that I wanted to see. I bought a book entitled Adventuring in Alaska, and read it cover to cover.
All kinds of questions rose in my head. What is Denali like? What does the Pipeline look like? Where the heck is the Brooks Range? How big is a Kodiak grizzly?
I went back to the ferry terminal and caught the next ferry to Juneau. At night we passed through the Wrangell Narrows, where the navigation lights blink red and green through a section called “Christmas Tree Lane.” Late the next morning, we arrived in Juneau and I donned my giant, green Kelty backpack and headed downtown.
As I was walking down the street, I heard someone call my name. “Joe! Joe!”
It was Dave. There he was with his apron on in front of his hot dog stand. “Joe, great to see you. How was Ketchikan? Do you want a hot dog?”
“No, thanks, Dave. It’s a little early for a hot dog. Ketchikan was nice but there was no work. How are you?”
“Well business is slow but the summer season is barely started. Hey, I was thinking of you yesterday. Right down the street I saw an ad for a river guide. I remember you said that you loved rafting and that you had run some rivers with the Outdoor Program in college. I’ll show you where the building is. Maybe they still need some help.”
Dave walked me down the street and the sign was still there. I walked into the building and found the office with the name Alaska Travel Adventures on it. I opened the door and went in. There was an older looking guy sitting there (he must have been in his mid-thirties). His face was tired and he was going bald. He looked me up and down as I stood there with my huge Kelty backpack still on my back. I took off my pack, introduced myself and asked him if they still had the job available.
“Yes we do. By the way, my name is Norm. The tour is in Eagle River, outside of Anchorage. It’s a class 3 run but the water is cold.”
“I’ve done plenty of rafting in college”, I said. “I ran the Outdoor Program my senior year. What is your safety record?” I asked.
“We haven’t had any major problems. The tour is fairly new so we are just building up the market.” He asked me a few more questions that I had no problem answering.
“I think you’ll work out fine. Be at the airport at 8am tomorrow and we’ll fly you to Anchorage. We’ll subtract the cost of the flight from your first couple of paychecks.”
I walked out his office and couldn’t stop smiling. My second town in Alaska and I already have a job as a rafting guide! And they’re flying me to Anchorage!
I took the bus out to the Mendenhall Glacier Campground and set up my tent. I met a guy who looked really old to me, with glasses, a graying beard and gray hair. He was camped nearby and we sat on a log and talked. “I’m on a journey to Alaska to figure things out. I’m married and have a decent job teaching at a Community College. I’m fifty years old but I’m just not happy. I thought that maybe some time alone in the wilderness would help me pull my life together.”
I went back to my tent thinking….boy this guy is fifty years old and he still hasn’t figured life out. I wonder what that must feel like. Do you really ever figure life out? I sure hope I have things figured out when I’m his age. But that’s a long, long time from now.”
I fell asleep and in the morning caught a ride to the airport. There was a guy from Alaska Travel Adventures waiting for me. “How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“They told me to look for the guy with the huge green Kelty backpack on his back.” He handed me my ticket and told me that someone would pick me up once I got to Anchorage. I had a window seat.
The plane climbed up and over the clouds and after an hour in the air the clouds opened up and I could see all the way to the ground. But everything looked strange to me. I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. I asked the guy next to me what it was. “Oh, those are glaciers and those are icebergs floating in the ocean. We’re flying over Prince William Sound right now.” I looked down on the huge glaciers and mountains below and tried to gain some perspective. But it was too big.
I dozed off and woke up when we touched down in Anchorage.
(To be continued)