Naknek sits along the shore of the Naknek River, where the river flows into Kvichak Arm of Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is Alaska’s famed salmon waters. It is the world’s most productive salmon fishery. Naknek is home to both Trident and Peter Pan Seafoods, among many others.
Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River
Naknek lies less than 20 road miles from King Salmon, which is also on the Naknek River. It’s definitely fishing country, with over 75% of the jobs in fisheries.
When we visited, the town had only begun to get ready for the fishing season. Many were worried about what the Corvid-19 virus was going to do to the industry. At the time, Alaska had no known cases of the virus, but Washington State was already a hotbed. Many summer workers come up from Washington every year. Concerns were rampant, and not unexpected.
The nightlife hotspot of Naknek
The community was welcoming and open about their unique lifestyle on Bristol Bay. Naknek has a population of less than 600 in the winter months, but explodes to around 15,000 during the summer. I have always wanted to visit the area in the summer, it must be absolutely beautiful. The sockeye runs are a major temptation, but I simply could not imagine so many people in such a confined space as Naknek. There is a nearby alternative, but more on that in a future post.
Fairbanks officially received 8.9″ of the white stuff from Sunday night to Monday afternoon. That’s 13″ for the month of March, and more on the way for Wednesday. It looks to be our snowiest March since 1991.
On the ground, we officially have 32″ of snow. At the cabin, I have more than that, and in the hills above Fairbanks, there is certainly even more yet.
For the outdoor enthusiast, the snow is a boon for social distancing. No staying inside, when one can find a trail, or make your own.
I flew out to King Salmon on PenAir, also known as Peninsula Airways. I’ve always liked PenAir and their Saab 2000’s, although the airline is now under the Ravn banner. The twin engine turboprop usually offers a smooth ride out to some of Alaska’s more remote locations.
The Alaska Airlines & PenAir terminal at King Salmon, Alaska
We landed in King Salmon, and drove over to Naknek. This is fishing country, both commercial & sport. Salmon is king here. Anti Pebble Mine signs were everywhere. No surprise that the fishing communities did not want to see the world’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
We located our accommodations for our stay, only to find out that there was no heat in the building. Only in Alaska would the proprietor think that heat was an option. After scouring Naknek, we ended up back in King Salmon for our room & board.
Inside the Saab2000
Sitting in the emergency row on the Saab2000 does not really offer much of an advantage. It definitely cuts down on the view.
Over the weekend, I was asked if I had been affected much by actions for theCoronavirus.
Up until now, I’ve been affected only mildly. I imagine that will change shortly.
I’ve had a project going lately, which has taken me out to a few remote Alaska villages. I’ve basically been doing the two week on, two week off schedule, and the virus really hit the fan when I was out in the Naknek region. I finished my assignment, came back to Fairbanks, and will not be going out again. The project has been put on hiatus, although I suspect it has really been cancelled, at least for the foreseeable future.
I had a construction project already lined up for my return. Materials were on site, the building empty, so I worked on that all week, and will finish probably today or tomorrow. Like most people I know who work construction up here, I have no work projects currently on the horizon.
Normally, this is the time of year when I escape and go Outside, thus avoiding the Interior Alaska Breakup Season. A group of us attend the Frozen Four hockey championships that take place every April, but this year they have been canceled. When in the Lower 48, I would check in on my Dad, as well as other family & friends about now, but traveling anywhere is beyond a bad idea, so I’m staying in Alaska. From up here, airplanes & airports seem like giant petri dishes, but to be honest, my greatest unease with travel right now is the thought that if I leave Alaska, I won’t be able to come back! That’s enough to give any cabin-dweller the shivers.
The shelves at the local grocery stores & Costco are looking pretty sparse, but I’m well-stocked anyway. It’s kind of an Alaskan thing, I suppose. When you live at the end of the road, having enough food to get you through a patch of bad weather, or a closing of the Alaska Highway, or a barge losing its load coming up from Seattle, is just something we do. Especially in the winter months. I have a freezer stocked with salmon, rock fish, halibut and other Alaska morsels, so I’m good to go there. I am a bit low on blueberries, but that’s par for the course this time of year.
A friend wanted me to stop by the other day on my way home from work. I declined the invite, saying I should probably partake in some social distancing. I was informed that this was hardly new for me, and the virus was just a convenient excuse. I had to chuckle, because if left to my own devices, I can be a notorious hermit. I have no problem retreating into my little world at the end of the road, and turning off the phone and computer. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, someone threatened to call out the dog sled teams to hunt for me, when I went off grid for barely a week.
I have books to read, letters to write, and LP’s to spin – inside; trails to walk, lakes to circle on snowshoes, and moose to try to capture on film – outside.
We can’t control the virus; all we can do is try our best not to catch it. I hope, and fully expect, to see all of you on the other side of this.
I was reminded of an Inuit saying when revisiting the documentary “Noatak: Return to the Arctic”.
“I think over again
My small adventures
Those small ones that seemed so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach
And yet there is only one great thing
To live and see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
A young moose blocks my way to the job site on Wednesday; its twin was eating willows in the slough to the right.
Winter 2019-2020 seems to have dragged on forever. We are finally turning the much anticipated corner into spring. I understand, for some of you, briar & tick season leaves you feeling itchy over the upcoming season, but up here in the Far North, I’m more than ready for spring. Without any hockey, we might as well melt the ice.
Spring officially arrives early this year. We have not seen a spring this early on the calendar for 124 years. Looking at the snow still on the ground here in Fairbanks, only the warmer temps signal any sign of spring.
Here in Fairbanks, we have finally pushed over the 12 hour mark for daylight. We gained 6 minutes, 44 seconds from yesterday. That makes both the moose and I happy.
I spent close to ten days in King Salmon and Naknek earlier in the month. Everyone waves at you out there on the shoreline of Bristol Bay. They wave when you’re driving; they wave when you’re walking, or riding a snowmachine, or simply standing around enjoying being off the grid.
Now, I am back in Fairbanks, and as predicted, the habit of waving at every car I pass has become a habit. It would seem that Fairbanks isn’t quite as friendly as I thought. Or at least not as much as a small fishing community. Yet, I’m determined to continue to wave at strangers until I get one to wave back.
Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes
Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race. Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.
Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.
Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924. He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice. In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.
His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:
An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP
With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire. After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.
Nome, Alaska circa 1916
The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles. The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage. The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled. The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan. “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana. The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs. When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.
The serum went from relay team to relay team. At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up. One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars. It was -56F.
By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome. Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather. The relay went on.
Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay. He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill. His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.
Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.
Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK. Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind. His lead dog was Balto. Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds. At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled. The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.
In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule. The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on. They arrived in Nome at 5:30am. The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours. Not one vial of serum had been broken.
Gunnar Kaassen and Balto
For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns. Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities. Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.
If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.