3) Tundra, Whales, & Beavers, Oh My


King Salmon, Alaska in late spring is a miracle of greening tundra and a rushing Naknek River. To say its beautiful doesn’t do it justice. Or maybe it just seemed more glorious after the agony of break-up. Either way Mother Nature was showing off with an impressive display of splendor that I hadn’t seen in…well, ever. High in the mountain ranges snow was melting and the resulting flow hurtled toward Bristol Bay in a torrent of nutrient rich water. And more than just salmon enjoyed the bounty. Beluga whales were an annual visitor and a favorite of the locals. When they began to arrive in May, right after calving, everyone made their way to the craggy shores to watch the ghostly white whales migrate their way up river. I was no different.

 MONODONTIDAE Delphinapterus leucas

Credit:  http://www.sheddaquarium.org/belugawhales.html

I heard that Belugas love rainbow smelt, and the Naknek and Kvichak Rivers are full of the little yummies. One mid-May afternoon several of us had trekked to the river and spent a couple hours aimlessly meandering along the boulder strewn shore. And patience paid off as a large pod of Beluga began to feed their way upstream on the Naknek. I stood on slippery rocks that jutted into the river and squinted against the sun’s reflective glare to watch the whales work the current in search of dinner. It was life-altering, and I’ve never recovered. I’m totally addicted to wildlife watching now.

But that was only my first run-in with Alaskan critters, if one didn’t count the mouse who shared my room. There were many more encounters to come, but at that point I was so incredibly thrilled that I temporarily lost my mind. That has to be the reason I volunteered when the King Ko Inn made a last minute decision to spruce up right before the hoard of sport fishermen and cannery workers arrived.

Dan, the maintenance man and stereotypical biker looking dude complete with goatee and tattoos, inherited the bulk of the work. The guy scared the beepers out of me when I first arrived, but it didn’t take long to learn he was a man of character and possessed a handy protective streak that all King Ko females learned to appreciate. So while Dan hammered away on replacement boards for the eaves, we covered the raw wood with paint.

Then we moved inside to splash more paint in a few rooms. That’s when management decided new bedspreads were in order and in a trice a bush pilot flew in an order from Anchorage. Which meant there’d now be a surplus of old, somewhat worn, bedspreads lying around. This is where I lost it and came up with the bright idea of cutting them into curtains for the rooms. What I didn’t know was when in Alaska, if it’s your idea you get to do it. Especially if you’re the only one dumb enough to admit to sewing skills.

So for the next few days I cut and cut and cut, then stitched my way through one tall stack of curtains. I also had the honor of removing the old and hanging the new and I was ridiculously proud of the spectacular results. Well, okay, not so much spectacular as just a vast improvement over the dusty specimens formerly in place. But truly, I did a fine job.

Too bad I couldn’t say the same for my waitressing skills. It’s a complicated job that takes constant prioritization and balance. I learned the hard way, or maybe I should say a nice couple on a date learned the hard way, that balance wasn’t my strong suit. I carried two large dinner platters to their booth and as I went to set one down, a side bowl of peas teetered precariously on the edge. I tried valiantly to save it, but the cursed thing slid off the platter and landed on the guy’s lap.

He and I both gasped in horror, but I wasn’t done yet. I was ignoring the other platter and it grew restless. In a jealous second the other bowl of peas jumped ship and splattered across his date’s lap.  Worse still, the entire restaurant witnessed my lack of grace and when they all began clapping I was never so mortified in my whole life. Fortunately the couple was forgiving, especially after I paid for their meal. And believe it or not, they left me a generous tip. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

Humility wasn’t done with me though. Two days later I learned the single room I had thus far enjoyed was to be no more. Paying customers took priority and employees were herded into two trailer units at the back of the grounds. Men in one, women in the other. That didn’t bother me as much as the nickname for the trailer I moved into – The Beaver Hut.

There were five of us beavers, err, female employees in the Hut – me, Crazy Mary, Jenny the maid from Guatemala, and Sabrina and Patricia the bartenders from Florida. With only three bedrooms and one bathroom, it was noisy, crowded, and far from private. I’d been there the longest so I claimed an end room with an outside door and a small window that looked straight into the back door of the Inn. As accommodations go it was okay, it was the jokes that came with it that got a little wacky.

But I suffered it with aplomb. After all, I came here looking for adventure and I was living it. I couldn’t argue that. The Inn was filling up, the airport buzzing with near constant activity, and excitement levels were rising fast. I couldn’t wait for the most unusual summer of my life.

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