Off To Work We Go

I am pretty sure we had all 32 species of mosquitoes that resided in Alaska there.

Off To Work We Go

                Every morning the rain misted the ground with tiny dots of dew as we made our way to the boat. By the time we reached the survey site, the fog and clouds would begin to lift and the sun would come out making our rain gear virtual saunas. We quickly learned the art of layered clothing, not that I had brought that many layers of clothes in the first place.

We started off the day bundled up like crab fisherman since the air itself just hung with water that quickly accumulated, along with ocean spray, as we sped along in the boat. We huddled for the ride and just wanted to stay warm.

By the time we unpacked the boat, we were sweating, and the newly exposed sun only made matters worse. The air was so humid around the grasses that the heat wasn’t sated by the breeze that often blew.

So you stripped out of your rain gear to your next layer, for me that was a jean jacket, for everyone else, it was some form of coat. The coats were mainly to keep you dry in a way since the air still hung with water in the form of humidity that clung to the four to six foot tall grasses that we had to make our way through to get anywhere.

Once we reached wherever we were going, the next step was to beat down the grass in a large area around you for three reasons. First, it gave us a spot to stay a little drier. Second, it gave us a little more opportunity to see anything approaching through the grass like a Kodiak Brown bear. And lastly, it allowed for more of a breeze which helped keep the bugs at bay.

The bugs. First off you had the mosquitoes. I am pretty sure we had all 32 species of mosquitoes that resided in Alaska there. Then there were the black gnats, no-see-ums, white sox, and various forms of flies and other bugs I was not familiar with.

These bugs replaced the receding clouds with dark buzzing swarms that waited for their opportunity in the buffet line.

That led to our next layer, a healthy dose of Deet; military grade.

Even with our odoriferous cloud of repellent perfume, you had to stay covered to keep them off. I can not tell you how many times daily that someone snorted a bug up the nose or started hopping around and clawing at their ear.

Despite our diligence, the three areas of our bodies that got attacked on a daily bases were our wrists between our gloves and shirts, our collar line, and our waist where our shirts came untucked. These areas became bumpy red rashes from all the scratching we tried not to do.

Sam tried to be smart one day and put on Deet before he got fully dressed; only the repellent trickled down to sensitive areas and began to burn, which lead to stripping and running nearly naked into the freezing stream. Just those few moments of exposed flesh lead to dozens of welts from bites in places you wish they did not occur.

Our final layer consisted of a long sleeve shirt that we never took off. You didn’t dare or else your skin was instantly feasted upon. This layer also kept the Deet in place since sweat would wash it away or dilute it.

John commented that the bugs were so thick that if he shot birdshot out off his 12 gauge, the shot would not clear the circle.

This was our every day that first week. We went to work, we survived the bugs, and then we returned thankfully to the shore where the wind picked up and blew the bugs back inland.

Each day when we returned to camp, John would check the radio. The relay was still not in place and he could not reach anyone.

No matter how tired we were, Sam went fishing every day. So every day, we supplemented our meals with salmon or trout from the stream.

John had us working ten hour days so we could be done in four days and had three days of fun and recovery. That first week we walked out most of the three survey sites as best as we could and John laid out the plan for us to tackle the first site the next week. We had found the old survey marker on our last day after searching for nearly three hours in the marsh along the edge of the lagoon. It was only because of a metal detector did we find it buried nearly a foot under the marsh.

The first survey plot was a fairly straight forward rectangle with one edge along the marsh and up into the low rising hills that were covered in alders and grass.

We were surprised that with the number of bear signs we had seen, that we had not run across any bears. This was also something to be thankful for. Only John and Carl carried guns and Carl did not handle his gun well. More than once I had to pick it up out of the muck where he had laid it down while he worked.

The bears mostly stuck to the trails in the marsh, but on the hillside, in the brush, you couldn’t see them coming, or where they bedded down.

John took stock of our food. Despite having spare fish, we had gone through most of our base supplies as we had expected we would. It was decided that we would take MREs with us for lunches as they did not give off much of a scent while sealed and would be overall safer to carry in bear country.

John also figured this would stretch our primary supplies by nearly a week which we would probably need since we would not get supplies for a week if we gave our order to the mail plane. Our letter would take a few days to reach Anchorage and then those supplies would have to be relayed to Larsen Bay where a helicopter would then bring them to us.

Even though we had three days off, we still worked. We gathered supplies for our camp, we practiced surveying and using the equipment, and Sam and I also had our workbooks to work on.

We did have plenty of time to do nothing or explore. I took glorious naps, read my books, and fished. We also found an old metal water trough that we used to warm water up by the fire to wash ourselves and our clothes.

Sam and I dug a hole in the gravel near the stream. It was nearly eight feet in diameter and four feet deep in the middle. The stream water slowly filtered through it and the sun warmed it. It was in no way really warm, but it was much warmer than the creek or ocean water and made for a descent place for us to bathe.

On our last day off, Sam and I explored up the creek to a glacier fed lake. The glacier now hung high in the crook of the mountain and appeared little more than a large snow patch. We fished for a while before heading back to camp to wait on the mail plane.

We sat on the pier and looked out over the bay and soaked in the sun. The plane normally came in the early afternoon, so as the sun made its dip towards the horizon, we all knew that the mail plane was not coming.

John cursed. “The caretaker is gone and they probably think the place is abandoned.”

Carl looked a little pale. “How are we getting out of here?”

John did not answer and stomped loudly down the boardwalk.

We ate dinner quietly that night. I suddenly realized that John was not so worried about leaving, he was worried about survival. We had a little more than a week’s worth of supplies if we included the MREs.

The Plane! The Plane!

The Plane! The Plane!

Today is my first full week since I left home. What a week full of adventures.

The Plane! The Plane!

                Today is my first full week since I left home. What a week full of adventures.

I closed my journal that I had promised my mom I would write in every day. I hadn’t so far and wanted to be more diligent. I looked out over the water that was calmer than yesterday morning, but still choppy.

I ate my breakfast of cold cereal with the last of the real milk we had. The rest of our milk was either powdered or in a carton with an expiration date nearly a year from now. That had to be good for me.

I turned the page back to the beginning of my journal, and then got up to look at the calendar we had brought with us. John had crossed out yesterday with a blue sharpie, so that meant I was a week plus a day on my adventure.

We could only work forty hours a week, so the plan was to keep track on the calendar. We planned to work ten hour days. There were not really going to be weekends as our down days would count as our days off.

Today was a down day. The weather was too bad to go to the work site or to allow planes to fly in.

Sam was not feeling well, so I stayed close to the cannery and explored. It was not safe to wander about alone since there were brown bears all around us. They tended to stay away from the cannery, but even that was not assured.

Carl paddled the boat out to fish just offshore. As I walked along the boardwalk, I noticed that he was drifting away from shore as the tide went out.

I hollered and waved at him.

At first he did not respond. When he did, he jumped up and paddled as hard as he could to shore. The zodiak was heavy and unwieldy for one person and he did not make much progress.

I motioned for him to come close to the pier. The pier jutted out into the bay, but was meant for ships, not small boats. The pilings were nearly fifteen feet out of the water.

When he finally got close, I threw him an old heavy rope I found on top of a barrel by the warehouse. He caught it and held on while I pulled him along the pier to the beach.

Once we got the boat back up the beach near the creek, I went back to the bunkhouse to nap and read for the rest of the windy cold day.

The next morning was cold and the clouds were low, but the wind was not blowing.

John listened to the weather report. The low pressure system was expected to move out mid day and the weather was favorable to flying.

The plan for the day was to take the boat out to the work site and see how long it takes to travel and get a read on the lay of the land. We would be back for lunch and to wait for the planes to bring in the last of our supplies.

Our radio was still not working, so John also wanted to use the pilot’s radio to try to contact Larsen Bay to see if they had come out to set up our relay.

After breakfast, John and Sam mounted the motor to the zodiak while Carl and I packed bags and took out our orange Mustang life jackets. They were not vests, but full jackets that were thickly padded and meant to help keep us afloat and fight off hypothermia should we fall in the water.

Most likely, in a serious accident, it made finding our bodies easier.

The clouds hung just above the pier and the bay was calm. Waves swelled and rippled under the mirrored water that was both dark from the depths and shimmering from the reflected clouds.

We carried the gear down to the beach and could hear the rough cough of a motor and John coaxed the engine to life. He took the boat out in circles and tested the craft out.

As he turned back towards shore, the engine sputtered and the boat slogged into the water. John cranked on the pull cord, but the boat wouldn’t start. He pulled the cowling off and tinkered with the engine before messing with the gas line.

He tried the cord again and the engine sprang to life. He brought the boat in to the beach and explained that there had been air in the fuel line, but it looked like we were good to go.

We piled into the boat and Sam pushed us off. He still looked a little pale and I was worried he was not doing well. Or worse, that his thumb or forehead were infected.

I had overheard John earlier that morning whispering to Carl that he might have to send Sam to Kodiak or Anchorage for medical care if he did not improve.

John started the boat on the first pull and we were soon zooming across the water. I sat in the bow along with Sam and enjoyed the boat ride as we skipped across the surface. It felt like we were zooming since the clouds washed out any points of reference.

I had never been on the ocean before and marveled out how serene the water was. Occasionally we would see birds floating by or launching themselves labouredly into the sky.

We stayed a couple of hundred feet off shore and as we rounded a point where the mountain waded into the surf, the shoreline changed and the clouds began to lift. The sky grew lighter and through the clouds we could see the land roll back into grassy greens.

John pointed the boat to where a creek poured out into the bay and formed a nice gravel beach. He cut the motor and pulled it up as it got shallow and we coasted onto the beach. As soon as the gravel crunched underneath, Sam threw himself over and began to pull the boat ashore.

I decided to join him and did so far less gracefully and nearly tripped and fell.

Once onshore, Sam tied the boat to a piece of driftwood up in the grass and I noticed the largest bear prints I had ever seen. And not just one set, but multiples. Maybe even dozens.

John checked his watch and said, “About a half an hour between tides, not too bad.”

We climbed off the beach and up onto the grassy bluff and looked over the worksite. To our right a steep mountain rose and disappeared into the clouds which had now lifted several hundred feet off of the ground. A little over half a mile in front of us was low marshy grassland that slowly rose into rolling hills that looked like emerald steps disappearing into the clouds. These hills arched and made a bowl that stretched to the water’s edge a little more than a half mile away to our left.

The grass was doubled over where we were standing, but it nearly reached our waists anyways. And it was thick. It tangled up our boots and we spent a lot of time staggering through it whenever we tried to make our own trails. There were some game trails, but those were created by bears, and that made them not safe to travel.

Of course, walking through the grass itself was not safe. The grass was so tall and thick, you wouldn’t see a bear until you were nose to nose with it.

John and Carl poured over the map and tried to make out landmarks to help orientate them to the size of the plots we were to survey. The plots were large. The largest was 64 acres and the smallest was only 21. The nice thing about the three lots is that they were set up next to one another. Once we had one done, we could use its corner post to help us lay out the others.

We didn’t stay long or wander about much. After an hour, John checked his watch and ordered us all back into the boat.

The tide was coming in and the boat was no longer beached. Sam and I pulled the boat back onto the beach and we all got onboard. It took John a couple of pulls to start the engine, but once he did, he backed us away from shore and turned us towards home.

We skipped across the surface once again, but with points of reference, I could see we were not flying like it had felt before. The water was a bit chopper and we were now fighting the current of the tide. We must have done about fifteen miles per hour to the worksite, but now we could not be doing but about ten.

As we neared the point where the mountain met the sea, John let off the gas and we slowly settled into the water. My ears still vibrated from the hum of the engine and I looked back as John cut the engine altogether.

We could hear the high pitched whine of a plane engine off in the distance. Sam pointed and yelled out, “The plane! The plane!”

We were still a couple of miles from the cannery, so John started the engine and we took off once again. There were two planes coming in and it would take them a few minutes to unload and we had plenty of time.

Unless the engine suddenly acts up and stops, which it did.

John tried to start the engine and it only sputtered. By the third pull, it did not even turn over. John instantly checked the gas can and then the gas line. He pulled a few more times and nothing.

With curses, not directed at us, he ordered us to start paddling. We took out the oars and paddled while he tried to fix the engine.

We must have paddled for nearly ten minutes and we were not making any headway against the tide. The boat had too much drag and we did not have enough muscle. I did note however, that we were closer to shore which was very rocky and not very inviting.

John tried the motor every couple of minutes, but nothing seemed to help.

Soon we could hear the crash of the surf on the rocks and John got a worried look on his face. He picked up his paddle and told us to turn the boat around. Now that the boat was going with the tide, it moved a little faster and John pointed us to a narrow beach just pass the point where the surf as not too bad.

We rode the waves in and pulled the boat onto shore. Sam and I jumped out exhausted, and pulled the boat up the smooth rocky beach.

We rested on the wet stones while John worked on the motor. After a few minutes, Sam joined him as he was familiar with outboard motors.

Sam poked around and after a few minutes, he discovered a broken spring on the throttle control. We did not have a spare, but John fashioned a makeshift repair from some wire we had in one of the packs.

They tested out the motor and it started up after a couple of pulls.

We had to paddle through the surf since it was too shallow for the motor and once we cleared it, John fired up the motor and we sped once again towards the cannery.

When we rounded the corner to the small inlet that held the cannery, the beach was empty and the plane was gone. Up on the beach were two piles consisting of our supplies.

As we drew near, I could hear a string of curses come from John as he realized we had missed both planes.

We beached the boat and John made his way to the caretaker’s cabin to find out if he had any news for us and when the next plane in was expected. We knew a plane came in about once a week, but we did not know what day.

We all took a load to the bunkhouse and piled it on the porch while we waited on John. Most of these loads consisted of corner pipe and brass as well as tools we would need to dig.

Carl grabbed the wheelbarrow and we were heading back down for another load when John came rushing at us and motioned us into the bunkhouse. He ripped a paper off the door and read it as we piled in after him.

“He is gone,” John said.

We weren’t sure what John meant, but he read the other note before repeating himself. He held up another note in his hand. “The caretaker left. He had a death in the family and he is not going to be back until hunting season in the fall. He closed down the cannery and said we could use it as long as we needed too, just to make sure we close up when we leave.”

John held up the other note. “The pilots dropped off both loads and said they would see us in eight weeks. If we finished sooner, to let them know via the mail plane that stops in every week on Tuesday or Wednesday.”

He slammed both papers onto the table and caused us to jump. “We are not going back out until we get communications set up. The next couple of days we will prep stuff here.”

He stormed out and walked back towards the caretaker’s cabin while we finished pulling up the supplies and ate lunch.

After lunch, Carl and I sorted the supplies and found places for them while John used the keys the caretaker had left behind to open up the tool shed. He found a spring that he and Sam used to fix the boat properly.

We spent the rest of the afternoon fishing the lagoon and off the pier. We did not do well in the ocean, but we caught two salmon that made for an awesome dinner.


At first it was only a couple of things darting about, then suddenly the sky boiled outside the window as thirty or forty more joined them.


                John let us sleep in. It was raining and there wasn’t much to be done anyways.

I got up and the floor was cold through my sock and I waddled stiffly out to the stove where a pot of coffee was brewing. Another kettle held hot water and used it to make a bowl of instant oatmeal.

We had run out of wood in the night and splitting new firewood was a priority of the day. Since I had split a few cords of wood in my time and was comfortable with an axe, I was volunteered.

Many people do not like chopping wood. I did. I liked the feel of momentum building as you arched the axe over your head and used that energy to split wood. I liked the smell of the wood, the sweat on the brow, and the feeling of accomplishment when you were done.

We heated our house with two wood stoves, so that took a lot of firewood. On average, we might go through a cord of wood a week. So you can imagine, I had cut, chopped and stacked a lot of wood over the last ten years.

Carl and Sam were assigned to assemble the zodiak while John unpacked our radio and set it up to connect with a relay to Larsen Bay which was nearly fifty miles to our north.

While I ate, I looked out the window to a bank of clouds that nearly touched the water. Out the window, all I could see was the depthless gray mask that made me start to have vertigo if I stared too long.

The rain had subsided and now a mist hung in the air. It really didn’t fall, it just hung there. If you went out in it and stood still, it would take a few moments for it to start to cling to you, but if you walked through it, it soaked your face despite the raincoat’s hood.

John turned on the maritime radio and we listened to the weather feed. Strong winds were blowing on the north side of the island and it seemed the clouds were going to hang out all day. The rest of our supplies would not be ferried in by plane today.

So we each got our assignments. Sam and Carl were to assemble the zodiak. John was going to plot out the prospectus for the survey on our field maps and assemble the radio. My job, or jobs for the day, was to find and split firewood, gather water and organize the pantry/store room.

Olga Bay did not have many trees that grew on it in the area we were in. The only trees were stunted spruce trees that were barely as tall as I was. I found a pile of wood in the grass across the creek. Some of it was sawed spruce from across the bay while the rest of it was driftwood.

The stove was small, so I used the chainsaw to cut eight inch logs before spitting it into smaller burnable pieces. John had chosen a fiberglass handled axe that vibrated horribly every time I struck the wood. The mist made the handle slippery which did not help with the grip or the vibration.

I walked up the narrow bath along the creek to the outhouse, my head down against the mist. My pants were soaked through and it was drawing the warmth from my body, so I walked stiffly.

On the way up I noticed a shed that was newer than the other buildings. From the oil drums and tools hanging on the outside wall, I assumed this was some sort of tool shed. One tool was a worn looking double headed axe that I borrowed on my way back to the woodpile.

The head of the axe was clean and sharp with little signs of rust on it. I could see water bead up on its head and smell the oil that had been rubbed across the surface to protect it from the elements. The handle was long and smooth and showed signs of being well used and cared for. Best of all, the handle was wood.

The axe was lighter than the one we had brought, but it split the wood. I was soon chopping in swift, comfortable arches. My grip was confident as the wooden handle did not threaten to slip from my hand. Nor did the handle send vibrations up my arms that numbed my hands.

The effort was therapeutic and repetitive. I swung the axe methodically and let my mind ponder the wonders of the universe and this new land I was anxious to explore. I stripped off my raincoat and my shirt was soon soaked through, a mixture of sweat and rain.

I finished splitting the entire pile of wood and lovingly hung the axe back on the wall of the shed after wiping it down with an oily rag that hung from a hook.

I tossed the split wood across the creek before stacking it along the long porch outside of the bunkhouse. Despite the roof, I decided to cover the wood as best as I could with a tarp so that it had a chance of staying dry even when the rain blew sideways.

With that done, I set to work on the pantry. I sorted through the boxes and stacked cans of food along one counter. I put all of our boxed goods on shelves that lined one wall above the counter.

John came in and helped me move some of the boxes into the common room in order to clear the small table that sat under the small window that looked towards the mountain. He then set about setting up the radio there while I finished sorting out the remaining food and survey equipment.

I placed to cases of MREs under the counter along with cans of food that would not fit on the counter. MREs are rations made for the military that came in a sealed brown plastic bag. These Meals Ready to Eat were our backup food supply in case our supply planes did not come in every week like we had planned. We had brought enough food for nearly two weeks, plus about two weeks worth of MREs.

I finished arranging the food and prepared a lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and chips. Sam and Carl came in soaked and huddled around the stove while they ate. Steam rose off of them as their clothes began to warm and dry in the cool damp air.

They reported that they had unpacked the boat and began to assemble the aluminum floor panels. Sam held up a finger to show that he had smashed it between two of the plates when they were trying to put them in the bottom of the boat. His finger was swollen and red and the nail had turned black.

“You are going to probably lose the nail,” John said as he examined the finger. “We have been here for a day and you have hurt yourself twice. I hope this is not a trend.”

Sam and Carl drank some coffee to warm up a bit more before heading back to the boat.

After they left, I helped John finish setting up the radio. I nailed the antennae to the wall outside the window and aimed it to the top off the mountain. We ran the line to the radio through a hole in the wall and tested the radio.

John gave out our call sign and called to Larsen Bay, but there was only static. There was no way our radio was going to reach Larsen Bay until a crew from there used a helicopter to set up a relay on top of the mountain.

We turned our attention to the four hand held radios we brought for field use. We had brought a couple of deep cell batteries and a solar panel to charge both them and the radios. The solar panel was placed in the windows of the common area as it would get the most sunlight there. John decided that we could rotate the batteries to charge every other day.

We tested out each of the radios and the multiple sets of batteries we had brought with us. One of the radios had a lot of static and we could not find the issue. John assumed either one of the crystals was loose or it was a loose wire. He labeled it with duct tape and set it aside to be used as a backup since we only planned to take two into the field on any day.

It was going to be hard to keep them dry in this wet environment, so we made plans to use Ziploc bags to them in.

When we were done, John turned his attention back to the maps and I went to check on Sam and Carl.

I found them arguing on the beach as to how the foot pump they were using to blow up the zodiak was supposed to work. The hose popped from the pump when Carl stepped on it and that led to another round of shouting.

As I approached, Sam pulled the hose out of the thick gray rubber of one of the boat’s pontoons and reversed it. Carl was still yelling and shaking his head when he stepped on the pump. The billows compressed, but the pontoon did not move.

“We have tried it this way for nearly an hour and it has not inflated the boat,” Carl yelled as he threw his hands into the air. “It has to go the other way!”

Sam threw the hose on the ground. “There is only two ways! You can’t even pump air the other way.”

Carl kicked the pump and stormed off down the beach letting out a string of curses.

“Anything I can help with?” I asked Sam as I approached.

Sam shook his head. “This stupid pump is broken or something.”

I picked up the billows and pointed for Sam to reattach the hose. I pressed down on the billows and it easily compressed. We could hear air moving, so I pumped a little harder and faster.

“We did that for an hour and you can barely see any change,” Sam said looking up from me while holding the hose firmly in place.

I didn’t answer and continued to pump a little faster and harder. The rubber on the zodiak jumped a little and doubled my efforts. It wasn’t much, but at least we could see that the pump was working.

Carl came back and didn’t say anything as he stormed past us, heading towards the bunkhouse.

I pumped for a few more minutes, hopping from one foot to another until both of my legs began to burn. The pontoon was no longer flat, but it was far from full, so Sam switched places with me and continued to pump.

When he was done, gasping for breath, we switched places again.

Sam suddenly held up his hand and told me to stop. It did not take much coaxing to get me to do so.

Sam picked up the hose and looked at it. “Try again.”

I stomped on the billows and Sam motioned for me to stop. He unplugged the hose from the boat and carried the pump down to the water’s edge. He placed the hose in the water and used his hands to pump the billows.

He waved to me and I staggered down to the water. “Plug up the end of the hose.”

I did and he tried the pump again. I felt the air pressure on my hand and saw a stream of bubbles rise along the length of the hose.

Sam let out a curse and a laugh. “The hose is busted.”

I did not see what was so funny and Sam did not give me a reason. Instead, he said he would be back in a moment and jogged up the beach to the bunkhouse.

I lay down next to the boat and tried to cool down. The mist had lifted and a breeze caused the low clouds to swirl in wispy lines.

The sound of footsteps on the gravel caused me to look up. Sam was jogging back carrying a roll of duct tape in his hand. He set to wrapping the entire length of hose making sure he wedged it down in the grooves that made the hose flexible.

With his makeshift repair done, he took the pump down to the water and tested it.

A few moments later, he had the pump hooked up the zodiak and tried it out. When he stomped on the billows, the pontoon heaved with a sigh and nearly doubled in size. It took only a couple of minutes for Sam to fill up the first of four pontoons.

We took turns again and it took about five minutes for each of the pontoons to fill. The billows were harder to compress so we could not go as fast, but the air was now reaching the boat.

A dull thumping slowly began to fill the air. The sound grew louder and I realized it was not from the blood pumping through my head. I followed Sam’s gaze up into the clouds as the sound of a helicopter passed overhead. I also spotted John standing on the boardwalk watching us.

The sound of the helicopter slowly disappeared as Sam and I finished filling the boat.

We triumphantly returned to the bunkhouse where Carl had taken over on the maps. He did not acknowledge our presence as we stood around the stove and tried to dry off.

John returned and told us the caretaker wanted to see us all after dinner.

We ate hamburgers that night, the last of our packaged meat. We sat on the porch and watched as the clouds slowly rolled away as if swept from the bay.

With dinner done, we cleaned up and headed to see the caretaker. I had not met him yet and was a bit curious about him.

We walked down the boardwalk until we were in front of his cabin. We stood there for a moment before he came out. He grabbed a chair off of his screened in porch and joined us without saying a word.

He looked out over the bay as the sun began to slip behind the mountain and the sky turned to peach tones.

We stood for a few moments before Sam and I took a seat on the edge of the boardwalk and let our feet dangle.

The old man pointed towards one of the buildings behind the warehouse and said, “The microchiroptera will come from there first, then there.”

His hand motioned towards the warehouse before swinging back over his head to point behind our bunkhouse. “Then they will be there.”

Sam turned to me puzzled and mouthed, “Micro-what?”

I shrugged and took the time to swat at the swarm of bugs that accompanied the cooling of the evening. One thing I do not like about Alaska is the variety of bugs that literally want to eat you alive.

I saw movement from the building that the caretaker had pointed to first. I saw one or two things dart out of the upstairs window. They appeared to be birds of some sort, but their flight was a bit strange.

At first it was only a couple of things darting about, then suddenly the sky boiled outside the window as thirty or forty more joined them.

At nearly the same instant, another dancing swarm came out of the far end of the warehouse through a crack in the roof. The sky was now full of what I realized were bats.

I sat a bit mesmerized as I watched them dart about the air eating the bugs that I had just complained about.

John let out a rolling laugh and said, “Bats.”

Sam went a little pale and Carl let out a yelp as a couple of bats swooped down from the sky as they emerged from the building behind the bunkhouse.

The caretaker gave Carl a disapproving look as Carl let out a small scream and waved his hands about his head. “This is one of the only places in Alaska you can find all five species of bats that live here. Most are small brown bats and they are harmless. They kill all the bugs.”

Without another word, the old man stood up, picked up his chair and went back into his cabin.

Carl ran back to bunkhouse while the rest of us watched the bats surge out over the water and occasionally down about us. We let out giddy laughs when they did so but no longer flinched from them.

As it grew darker, it was harder to spot the bats as we walked back to the bunkhouse. We could hear clicks and the silent whisper of their wings.

John noted as we walked, “There are a lot fewer bugs already.”

“I think the bats are cool.” I replied.

“As long as they are not in my room,” Sam countered.

We all laughed and went inside.

Bump in the Night

John waved his lantern about causing the darkness to pool in the corners. The rest of us held flashlights and searched about the room, but we did not see anything.

Bump in the Night

                I woke up to screams.

I wondered at first if I was dreaming, then Sam screamed again and there was a loud thump followed by thrashing on the floor.

My hand searched for the flashlight I had left on the table between our beds. I knocked it over and it nearly rolled off before I caught it and fumbled it onto my bed.

Sam screamed again and thrashed about as John burst through the doorway, gun in hand.

“What the Hell is going on?”

I was finally able to flick on the light and the dim light revealed Sam half out of his sleeping bag and bleeding from his forehead.

Sam gasped for air and stammered, “I woke and something was crawling on me!” He felt his forehead and when he pulled his hand back he cried out, “It got me! I thought I was dreaming! It was real and it got me!”

Carl poked his head in the door and held out a lantern which helped to illuminate the room.

John holstered his gun and went over to help Sam. “Nothing got you. You had a nightmare and bumped your head when you fell off of your bed. Matt, bring the light over here. Let’s see how bad this is.”

I crawled to the other end of the bed so I could shine the light on Sam’s head. I checked my watch while I held up the light; 2:07am.

Carl suddenly let out a scream as well and ran from the doorway taking the lantern with him.

Sam’s eyes got big and John spun to look at the door and yelled after Carl.

A scrabbling sound came from the wall above my head, then something flittered by in the dark at the edge of the light.

Sam dove back on his bed with another scream as John tried to spy what had just flown by. I searched the air frantically with my flashlight, but could not see anything. Sam scrambled out the door and John let out a yelp of surprise as a something danced on the edge of the shadows.

“Everyone out!” John yelled.

I jumped off the bed and sprinted out the door. John followed and slammed the door shut behind him.

We all stood panting in the middle of the big room. Carl’s lantern illuminated us in a perfect sphere of brilliant white light.

John checked Sam’s head and instructed Carl to get the first aid kit. He used suture tape to help close the two inch cut over Sam’s right eye.

“Don’t pick at it,” John instructed as he taped gauze over it. “It may need stitches. We will check in the morning. If it does, I will send you and Carl back to Kodiak on the plane tomorrow.”

We cleaned up and put away the first aid kit before John grabbed the lantern and said, “Let’s find out what we are dealing with.”

He marched over to the bedroom door and flung it open. We all crowded around the doorway, each of us now holding a light of some kind. John strode into the middle of the small room and I followed him. Carl stepped just inside the room and Sam stood outside, but poked his flashlight in and searched near his bed.

John waved his lantern about causing the darkness to pool in the corners. The rest of us held flashlights and searched about the room, but we did not see anything.

Putting his finger to his mouth, John motioned for all of us to be quiet and we stood perfectly still. All I could hear was the wind against the side of the building and the sound of rain spattering the window.

John lowered his lantern and said, “Whatever it was, it is gone now.”

It was at that point that Carl let out a high pitched scream and dropped his flashlight. His hands thrashed about his head and he did this little dance in place before running out of the room. The crash of the other door being flung open let us know he had run completely out of the building.

Sam had ducked back into the other room and watched warily from a few feet beyond the doorway.

I could hear a thumping noise come from just above the doorway and pointed my light in that direction. John also raised his lantern back up just in time to see something disappear into the darkness on the opposite wall.

John put his lantern on the floor and stuck out his hand, “Give me your flashlight.”

I promptly did and John pointed it low on the wall. He slowly moved the light up the wall until he reached the ceiling, then he brought it back to the edge of the lantern light and repeated the process a few feet over.

He slowly brought the light towards the corner of the ceiling. I gasped as something moved at the edge of the light. John crept the light towards whatever moved until we could see it in the shadows of the corner.

The creature stared back at us. Beady black eyes and pointy ears sat atop a small brown body. Its leathery wings gripped each wall and held it in the corner. The bat shook, though I did not if it was from the strain of holding it up or the terror it must have felt.

John let out a booming laugh and inched the light away so we could barely see the bat. “It is a tiny brown bat!”

Sam’s face seemed paler than before and he asked, “Could it be a vampire bat?”

John laughed again and I heard Carl call out from the room beyond, “There aren’t bats in Alaska.”

John pointed the light back towards the corner and said, “I think this little guy would disagree with you.”

We all went back out to the big room and Sam asked, “What do we do? I am not sleeping in there!”

John pondered for a moment before responding. “It was probably in there the whole day. When we sealed up the holes, we must have cut off his exit.”

We gathered the supplies that we needed and built a makeshift tunnel from the room door to the outside door using two of our tarps tied off to different furniture in the room. Sam and John held up paddles from the boat to make the tarps into a tent like tunnel.

Carl and I went into the room. He held an unzipped sleeping bag and I held a broom. I draped my unzipped sleeping bag on a chair in case I was needed to help block the way.

Carl spread out his arms and tried to block as much of the room as he could and deflect the bat out the door and into our tunnel.

I stepped up onto the chair and shined the flashlight into the corner. The bat was still there, though he now rested on one wall.

I eased the broom up. I did not want to hit him, I just wanted him to move.

It worked.

The bat let go and dove down. I jumped off the chair and dropped the broom and picked up my sleeping bag.

We could not see the bat in the dark, but I could sense it darting about and I tried to ease it toward the open door.

Carl closed in and the box we created got smaller and the flying became more frantic.

That is when Carl let out a girlish scream again and dropped the sleeping bag. He hopped about the room and through the reflective light of the flashlight, I could see the dark wriggling spot of the bat against the tan fabric of the sleeping bag.

I dropped my bag and picked up Carl’s and rushed it to the open door. The bat thrashed and I made it to the middle of our tunnel before the bat shook free and darted off. It flew under the tunnel and into the big room.

John cursed and dropped his paddle letting the tunnel collapse.

“Sorry,”  I said. “I almost had him out the door.”

We could hear the bat against the far wall above the windows, then it went silent.

“To bad the windows don’t open, “John said.

Carl came out of the room carrying my flashlight. “Is it gone?”

John began to untie tarps and Sam helped him.

“Let’s see if we can build a wall with these and flush it out the door.”

We could not reach the tarps to the ceiling, so we connected them together and tied the top end to the paddles so we could extend our reach. We created a wall and John tried to usher the bat out the door.

The bat darted about but would always swing back towards the wall with windows.

We did this for about a half an hour and my arms burned. John was letting out a barrage of curses, so we all sat for a moment and rested.

“This is a waste of time,” John finally said.

“What if we corralled him?” I asked. “Carl can stand by the door and I can move my end around to make the space smaller. If I Sam and I can get behind the bat, we can funnel it towards the door.”

We took our positions and tried. It took a bit of coordination between Sam and I, but before long we worked in tandem and had cut the space down in half. I reached the wall with the windows and slowly slid down it until I reached the wall that held the door.

The bat flittered about, but moved away from the collapsing wall.

Seeing our success, John squeezed out between the wall and the tarp.

Once I started moving down the front wall, it only took a few seconds for the bat to find the door and leave the building.

We let out a round of cheers and high fives before disassembling the tarp wall and heading back to bed.

We were scheduled to be up at 7. That was less than three hours away and I hoped John would let us sleep in.

The wind and the rain lulled me back into a dreamless sleep.

10 Weeks One Summer: Chapter 3

I listened to the wind pull at the tin siding and hoped every day would not be this long. Little did I know that the night was going to be just as long.

The Cannery

                We spent the night in the city of Kodiak. Sam and I shared a room at the hotel while Carl and John got their own. It was raining and low clouds wafted across the water obscuring the fishing boats coming and going from the busy harbor.

The air smelled of salt and fish. When the wind shifted and carried the stench from the old fish packing plant, I nearly gagged, much to Sam’s delight. We explored the city harbor and had an early dinner before heading to bed.

Early the next morning, we headed down to the harbor where Carl met us with a rented truck full of our gear. We unloaded it onto the dock next to the seaplanes that would ferry us and our gear to Olga Bay.

The two pilots that were going to fly us out shook John’s hand and immediately began to separate out the loads and check the weight on our boxes. Carl and I rode in one plane along with our personal gear while Sam and John rode in the other plane.

A wind was blowing across the harbor as we taxied out and the plane bumped along as it picked up speed and skimmed the tops of the waves. We circled Kodiak before heading out over Chiniak Bay and skirting the southeast side of the island.

About 45 minutes into the flight, the plane dropped into Olga Bay and we flew below the low thin clouds. The wind was blowing across the bay from our left, so the pilot circled the plane until he was flying into the wind and brought the plane down in the rolling swells well offshore.

We taxied for nearly five minutes until we reached the rocky beach. The pilot pulled the plane up to a fine gravel area formed by a creak that poured into the bay. The tide was in, so we did not have much room between the beachhead and the plane.

Swells rocked the plane forward and further onto the beach as the pilot shut down the plane’s engine. It took a moment for the roar of the engine to subside in my ears and I watched as the pilot secured the propeller.

Carl and I climbed out of the passenger side of the plane and we immediately began to unload. It was sprinkling and that mixed with the spraying surf which made me instantly grateful I had kept on my raincoat.

I trudged our clothing bags well up the beach to a small span of grass at the base of the retaining wall for the ancient looking cannery above. I heard the other plane circle as I ran down to the plane to form a transfer chain to quickly unload the plane.

The pilot ferried the boxes out of the plane and down the pontoons while I carried them through the swells to Carl who secured them under a tarp we had packed.

The other plane taxied up as we were about finished and we quickly headed over to do the same for them. This plane had not parked on the gravel and bobbed a bit more as I made my way over.

I stepped into a hole at the same time a larger swell crashed into me. Where the water a moment before had tried to lap over the edge of my rubber boots, I was now waist deep in freezing water. The plane was also launched up and forward and I out my hands to catch myself on the pontoon.

I waded out of the surf and the breeze only amplified the cold. Realizing I was wet and cold and there was nothing I could do about it, I waded back out and helped unload the plane.

It did not take us long. The pilots assured John that they would fly out the rest of our supplies as the weather permitted. The figured it would take four total planeloads that would try to stagger so we could unload them on the gravel beach.

Since I was soaked, I was volunteered to help push the planes off the beach. Once clear, the pilots fired up their planes and quickly jounced across the waves and disappeared into the clouds.

John went up to meet with the caretaker of the cannery while we hauled the gear farther up the beach to a ramp that lead to a wooden boardwalk. We sat and shivered despite the workout until John returned. He lead us to a nearby building that was two stories tall, though the stairs leading to the second floor had collapsed and parts of the roof looked partially caved in.

We walked into the building and were thankful to be out of the rain. The floors were well worn and had once served as offices for the cannery when it had been in operation more than fifty years prior. Now the rooms served as a common area and a bunkhouse for guides and hunters searching for giant Kodiak Brown Bears.

We had expected to be camping as John revealed he had secured us the space for the summer. It was a few miles from our survey site, but was safer and more hospitable. We hauled all of our gear inside while John started a fire in the old potbelly stove.

Sam and I got the small room off the common area which held two small bed frames. We unpacked our sleeping bags and I thankfully changed clothes. We had one narrow window that looked out over the bay.

Carl and John took the beds at the opposite ends of the common room. This room was well lit by numerous windows and had a bench than ran along the front wall and a table back by the stove.

A door lead into another small room that was painted white. It had an exit to the outside and another door that was boarded over that lead to the back of the building which was dangerous because it was collapsing. We used this room as a pantry and a place to store our survey gear.

John had warmed up some soup on the stove and we sat around the table to enjoy the warmth it brought to our bodies. John informed us that the caretaker had laid out very clear rules for our use of the cannery.

The first thing was the only two building we could go in were the cannery warehouse by the pier and our bunkhouse. There was to be no running on the boardwalk. We were not allowed to be noisy before eight in the morning or eight at night. If we wanted a bonfire, we had to have it in the ring of rocks on the beach. And under no circumstances were we to bother the caretaker.

As we finished lunch, we heard a plane buzz and we grabbed our gear. The plane was pulling up the beach and we helped him quickly unload like before. Sam ferried the boxes through the surf this time and I stayed on the beach.

The tide was going out so we had a steeper beach to climb, but we had the plane unloaded about the time the second plane came in. Carl had found a wheelbarrow and used it to shuttle boxes to the bunkhouse while we unloaded the second plane.

The whole process took less than fifteen minutes and both planes were gone, sailing into the sky which the sun was now peaking through.

We got the boxes inside and began to unpack and sort through things to make sure nothing had been damaged.

Figuring we had at least another hour until the planes returned, John went to visit the caretaker while the rest of us explored the cannery. Though the sun was out now, a heavy wind blew across the bay causing it to be choppy and surge.

We walked out on the pier which now stood nearly twenty feet above the water. The cannery warehouse had large sliding doors on the front and we pushed one open to reveal a large open space without any windows.

Using the light that streamed through the door, we could see that a couple of old crab pots had been left behind, along with a couple of old wooden crates, but nothing else. As we exited I spied a map of the cannery area on the wall that had triangles in the bay as well as names for all the buildings.

We sealed up the door and were heading down the boardwalk when we heard the drone of a plane’s engine. We rushed down the steps to the beach as the seaplane landed and taxied in. The tide was much farther out, so the pilot pulled the plane into the channel created by the creek.

It took both John and the pilot to pull the large crate out that held our rubber Zodiak boat. We rested it on the pontoon as John jumped down and the four of us carried the crate up the beach. The pilot pulled out a few more boxes that he set on the pontoons and we ferried ashore.

Once unloaded, the pilot informed John that the other plane had lost oil pressure flying back to Kodiak and had to make an emergency landing in Old Harbor. He assured us everything was fine, that the plane’s engine was misfiring and they were looking at. He told us it would take two more loads and he would try to get one more in today before the storm blew in.

He waved goodbye and pulled the boat crate up to the beachhead.

Soaked for the second time today, I hung my shirt and jacket on the line inside the cabin near the stove. The wind howled against the tin walls of the building and we could see sunlight streaming through many holes in the wall.

John found some old burlap bags that were falling apart, and we used those to plug the smaller holes while we used old boards and reused old nails to cover larger ones. It took us all the rest of the afternoon, and while we did, the promised storm moved in dark and ominous.

The wind picked up its fury and wailed against the building. Over the wind we heard a plane and watched out the window, but it did not land. I was thankful as I watched the waves crash against the beach and did not want to get wet and cold again.

The winds whipped furiously for another few hours, sweeping the clouds from the sky in time for us to see the sun slip behind the mountains. We ate dinner and went to bed exhausted, I lay on my bed and was incredibly thankful that we were not staying in tents.

I listened to the wind pull at the tin siding and hoped every day would not be this long. Little did I know that the night was going to be just as long.