a Dahn Design, LLC True Adventure
“Welcome to Pacific Airways!” said the receptionist with a big smile. “Is this your first time in Ketchikan? What’s waiting for ya up in Thorne Bay? Gonna do some fishing?”
“No,” I said. “It’s business…just some contract work for the Forest Service.”
“Well, y’all should be leaving any minute…we’re just waiting for the pilot. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure he’ll roll in sooner or later.” She winked and smiled mischievously.
Alaskans are famous for their friendly, casual style. It’s part of their regional identity, the face they like to show the world. In the tourism industry, it’s practically an art—trying to get a rise out of Outsiders by being slightly outrageous. Europeans, especially, love this about Alaska, perhaps because it’s so refreshingly different from their own formal and proper culture. “Mein Gott,” they probably tell their friends back home, “the martini came with a swizzle-stick made of real moose-droppings!”
It must be fun, being Alaskan.
I glanced around the little waterfront waiting room to check out my fellow passengers. There was a pair of guys in grimy sports-camo with hunting and fishing gear, and several people I guessed were locals, loaded up with parcels of what looked like dry-good supplies. We weren’t a fancy bunch, but then this was no elegant cruise…this was an hour-long seaplane ride over the rugged Inside Passage on a de Havilland Beaver, commonly known as a bush plane.
The islands of Southeast Alaska are largely wild and remote, mostly accessible only by seaplane or boat. Loaded with salmon, brown and black bear, deer and mountain goat, it’s prime sportsman country, something that the Forest Service was trying to promote to offset the dwindling logging industry. It was part of the reason I was headed up there—to help them develop sports-tourism by designing some interpretive signs for their nature trails.
After all, when the bottom falls out of your resource-extraction economy, who do you call? Graphic designers, of course.
I settled into a plastic chair to wait, breathing deep to try to calm my nerves. It was silly, I kept telling myself. Nothing is going to happen. Of all places in the world, Alaska is probably the safest place to be…especially right now. Still, I had been feeling uncommonly jittery for a while.
Sixteen days, to be precise.
It was September 27, 2001—just two weeks and two days after the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. Like most of America, I was still under the bad spell of it, still feeling twinges of shock and anxiety. It seemed like the whole country had ground to a halt and was sputtering to get going again, moving in clumsy slow-motion.
On the morning of my flight to Ketchikan, I had been stunned to find the airport in Seattle practically deserted. Not just quiet, but boarded-up, shuttered…dead.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had cancelled my flight, but the call for boarding had come as usual. There were only fifteen other passengers, and the Boeing 737 seemed eerily empty, especially because we were not allowed to sit near one another.
“Spread out evenly throughout the plane,” the loudspeaker ordered. “If you all sit in front, we could become nose-heavy.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought. This was the best Boeing engineers could do to keep their planes horizontal? Oh, we don’t bother too much about stabilization. We just order the passengers to spread out. Works fine.
Now, sitting in Ketchikan, I was feeling real jittery. Where was that pilot, anyway? If we didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my meeting, and the whole project would get thrown off. On my first seaplane flight to Thorne Bay a few years earlier, we had been delayed for several hours because of bad weather—high winds, I think it was—and I had arrived late and missed my meeting. I wanted this trip to go more smoothly, in all respects.
Thorne Bay is pretty small, only a few hundred residents in a settlement that was once the world’s largest logging camp. From the air it looks like a cluster of buildings and a marina, surrounded by what seems like endless, unbroken wilderness, with countless islands, craggy coastlines, fiords, and thick forests that extend beyond the arc of the horizon. Southeast Alaska, and the Tongass National Forest in particular, are not necessarily pristine—there are plenty of human footprints from logging and other endeavors—but it is still a place where wildness is the rule rather than the exception. It is beautiful country.
On that first trip, we had taken off from Ketchikan with three other passengers, dropping them off one-by-one along the way at what appeared to be isolated waterfront cabins, surrounded by mostly wilderness for as far as you could see. I wondered what it must be like to live in such places, so cut off from the rest of the world.
By the time we reached Thorne Bay, I was the only passenger left on the seaplane, and the pilot swooped down, deposited me on the dock in front of the deserted-looking village, and took off again. My contacts at the Forest Service had long since given up waiting for me (this was before total cell phone connection) and I ended up wandering around the muddy streets of town with my pack, looking for the ranger district headquarters.
Anyway, this trip, I wanted to be on time. I shifted around on the plastic chair and tried deep breathing again. Relax, I told myself. Even though this is a business trip, you’re in Alaska now—surrounded by friendly people and wild nature—far from the horrors of 9/11, those unspeakable images, the sorrow, hatred, bewilderment, the adrenaline-fueled debates. Here was nature…and peace. The peace of the wild.
Just breathe it all in.
The little crowd in the waiting room was certainly jovial enough. The receptionist was flirting with the hunters and the locals were laughing and joking with one another.
“Whadja tell her then? That you were flying in to go the library?” Wild laughter. “She’s gonna see the barstool imprint on yer butt, you know.”
His buddy grinned.“Yeah, well, at least I keep house with a human.” He spat a brown wad into a styrofoam cup. “What keeps you comp’ny at night?”
I was looking forward to hearing the reply, but the receptionist interrupted, “Okay everyone, let’s load up! The pilot is coming!”
We all lumbered down the dock to where the plane bobbed up and down in front of the little loading-stool. The hunters climbed into the back seats, and one of the locals ushered me forward politely. “Lovely ladies ride shotgun,” he said, with an exaggerated bow. “Thank you, kind sir,” I replied.
Good. I like to ride in front where I can keep an eye on the pilot.
But, where was he, anyway? The dock was empty now except for the receptionist who was helping us get loaded. Then she glanced back and yelled cheerfully “OH, THERE YOU ARE! Where the heck ya been?”
I followed her gaze to the end of the dock, and instantly, my jitters solidified into cold fear.
I watched him teeter toward us, disbelieving my eyes.
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