I’ve traveled a lot. It’s a huge part of who I am and something I enjoy it tremendously. It has enriched my life, broadened my scope of the world, and gifted me with a wealth of stories. Many times I’ve been told I should write them down and so I’ve decided to do just that. And I think Alaska, a place where I spent four short but eventful years, would be a great place to start. In fact, I think I’ll begin with the reason I went there – The King Ko Inn.
KING SALMON, ALASKA
So you get divorced. It’s not the end of the world. Unless you get a job offer so far north that you can almost see that proverbial edge.
That place would be King Salmon, Alaska. Home of Bristol Bay and the jump start of the Aleutian Island chain. A population of five-hundred souls in the winter, by summer it climbs to near nine-thousand thanks to an abundance of salmon and the fishing industry. Most of the transients stay in boats off-shore since there’s only a couple hotels and only one that is a hotel / restaurant / bar – the King Ko Inn.
It was the mid-eighties and accounting was, and still is, my game. As fate would have it, King Ko needed a bookkeeper. “We will pay your way up here and provide room and board,” they promised. “All you have to do is agree to stay one year.” I should have known that was too sweet a deal, but at the time I’d never seen an episode of Northern Exposure to warn me. If I had, I might’ve thought twice. As it was, the offer tickled my adventure-seeking bone. Lots of money to be saved, lots of wilderness to explore, wild animals, gold panning, and best of all, the aurora borealis. I needed a change of scenery. What could be better?
Without so much as a blink, I packed everything into storage and next thing I knew, me and my cat Lily were winging the polar express. In December. Now let me tell you, no one willingly flies to Alaska in December. I look back now and realize I was out of my mind. But at the time I felt on the brink of something fresh and exciting.
And I found it all right. The turbulent kind ,and it started before I even landed at the Anchorage airport. The flight had been bumpy, heavy weather was moving in and mine was the last plane to land before the storm shut the airport down. Still, I wasn’t too worried. I had a good book, Lily was with me, and the snack bar looked well stocked. I claimed a corner seat and patiently waited as the snow swirled outside the windows.
Ten long hours later I boarded a small six-seat prop plane and headed for King Salmon. Three days later my luggage caught up with me. That meant my first lesson on life in the Alaskan bush was the small general store. When all supplies are flown in, they are priced accordingly! A gallon of milk set you back seven dollars, a loaf of bread three and half. And clothing? Unless you were looking for a pair of gloves or muffler, you were out of luck. In those pre-internet days you either ordered from a catalog or you flew to the nearest large (by large I mean pop. 5,000 or more) village to shop. In this case it was Dillingham, 70 miles away. And you HAD to fly. There were no roads. Since I wasn’t about to board another plane, I borrowed some clothes and settled into my hotel room.
It took me all of five days to realize that Lily couldn’t stay. Sweet thing that she was, the trials of Alaska in winter weren’t for her. Plus, King Ko frowned on pets in their hotel rooms. So I booked her a flight to my mom’s in southern Nevada and waved goodbye to my only friend. No worries though, I soon made friends with the intrepid mouse in my room. I met him one night when he woke me by nibbling on my fingertips. After the initial heart attack, I realized he was just hungry. It was thirty below zero after all, and the food supply was likely thin. So we made a truce, I’d leave him crumbled crackers each night and he left my fingers alone. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Time began to pass and I quickly learned three things. The only TV was in the bar and the reception was sketchy. It was only daylight a couple hours a day. And can you imagine eating at the same restaurant morning, noon, and night for an entire year?
To relieve the monotony I began waiting tables at the restaurant after my bookkeeping chores were done. As the days moved toward spring and daylight began stretching out, I started to explore the territory. First, King Salmon isn’t right on the coast. It sits twelve miles up the wide Naknek river. There’s only one paved road and it led to the coastal town of Naknek that sits right on Bristol Bay. If you could beg, borrow, or steal a car, that’s as far as you can go. Both towns were excruciatingly compact, but Naknek boasted a tiny one room fabric shop and a dentist that flew in twice a year. King Salmon’s claim to fame was the airport, the general store, and the King Ko Inn. And from May to October, both towns and the bay are overrun with fishing boats, floating canneries, harvesters, slimers, packers, deckhands, riggers, clean-up crew, machine operators, and anyone out to make big money for summertime work. All of the jobs are hard, dirty, and smelly, but thousands flock in for the monetary reward.
That influx made for the most memorable and eventful summer of my life. I’ll start posting my tales of drug busts, downed cargo planes, and flying tigers. I’ll also introduce a host of unique characters that shared that year with me.
Moving on the first excitement of the season…