If you've been to Alaska, this story by Kurt Dunbar is certain to evoke a deep nostalgia and sense of wonder. If you've never been, I guarantee after reading this, you will feel like you have. Ultimately, this is a powerful and poignant tribute to the amazing woman that brought him into the world.
Coming to Alaska
We moved to Alaska in August of 1976.
Coming to Alaska had not really been a deliberate choice though I had been infatuated
with the far north since watching Sergeant Preston as a kid. I still remember the intro to
the show, "Sergeant Preston and his wonder dog Yukon King meets the challenge of
We came north out of sheer desperation and virtually no other options. As the 70s
recession started to kick-in, an ill-advised and ill-fated stint in the San Francisco Bay
Area (Sunnyvale) ended up with me unemployed and all of us homeless. With our new
baby girl Sarah having arrived in May and Rebekah, a toddler of a year and half, it was
not promising times nor a good situation to be in, to say the least.
First on the agenda was escaping our Bay Area debacle. We decided to head back to
Tahoe where I grew up. Patti and I had met there in the summer of 1972. Jobless and
homeless as we were, at least it would be familiar and a place we both loved. Most
importantly, Patti's sister Georgia in South Lake Tahoe was going to take us in until we
could get back on our feet.
Then came the call from Alaska.
My mother had heard of our plight and offered to fly me to Alaska. My mom and step
dad Max had moved to Alaska two years before after he had lost his job as chief of
security at Sahara Tahoe Casino in an administrative (mafia?) shake-up. Alaska was
booming with the building of the oil pipeline and my mother said jobs were plentiful and
that the money was good. My hope was that I might save up enough to fly up Patti and
the kids as soon as I could. It was an easy decision to go given our situation and I
leaped at it.
I began to sort things out in preparation to leave when another call came from my mom.
"Your dad and I have talked it over and we're going to fly everybody up," she said and
added, “We already got you guys an apartment.” Mom picked us up from the airport in
Anchorage, a two hundred and sixty miles round-trip, and brought us to our new home
in Seward. The sum our possessions were two suitcases, a baby high chair and a
But we were saved. I couldn’t have been more thankful and relieved.
The day after we arrived in Seward, I went with my brother Kris to the local cannery. He
was working there and put in a good word for me with the shop steward and I started
that morning mucking salmon on the slime line. Employed on my first full day in Alaska!
From then on Alaska was nothing but good to us. Better than good.
But it almost didn't turn out that way.
The town of Seward was situated at the foot of tall coastal mountains. Most of it was
built on a broad gravel plain accumulated from ages of silt runoff and gravel deposits
from those steep mountains. On the west side of Resurrection Bay (the bay was named
on Easter when the Russians sailed into it in the late 1700s), Seward faced eastward
towards a breathtaking skyline of ice covered peaks and hanging glaciers dominated by
the prominent horn of Mt. Alice.
Mostly a fishing town of around a thousand people in 1976, Seward marked the end (or
the beginning) of the Seward Highway on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula. Around
the turn of the 19 th century, the town itself had been established as the southern
terminus of the Alaska Railroad, just beginning its protracted construction. In 1923,
President Warren G. Harding (who died on a steamer at sea on the return journey)
officiated at its completion, the first and for many years the only president to visit
Across Resurrection Bay from Seward towards Godwin Glacier by Alan Caswell-Collier
Except for a string of barrier islands, the broad mouth of Resurrection Bay was open to
the Gulf of Alaska to the south. The prevailing weather systems came out of the Gulf
and hit Seward directly and often fiercely. The weather of the north gulf coast of Alaska
is some of the stormiest in the world...as I would soon find out.
Looking south from Seward across Resurrection Bay
As August waned, rain came more often and much heavier. The southerlies out of the
gulf got stronger and more bracing. By mid-September not a hint of summer was left. It
had been replaced by nearly constant gray overcast, ceaseless wind, and temperatures
that began to creep steadily downwards. By the end of October, the thermometer
hovered between the mid-30s and the mid-40s…and stayed there most of the time.
This was Alaska!!? The expectations I had envisioned of my first Alaska winter was that
of deep artic cold and lots of snow. However, to my surprise it never got terribly cold for
the next several months. There was rain and more rain, then some snow and yet again
more rain. Freezing temperatures occasionally interrupted this pattern laying down a
dangerous icy glaze. Then it would rain again making roads, walkways, and everything
else slippery as snot until it melted in into slush, which often would freeze again into
lumpy masses. Then it would rain again.
Months and months of this began to wear on me. I had never experienced weather like
this. I grew up in the mountains of the Sierras where winter was winter. Cold and snowy,
period. I had never seen it rain in winter. The Sierra Nevada Mountains were sunny,
even in winter. But on the Alaska coast there is no warmth and scant solace in the
opaque light that filters down through the incessant gray cloud cover during the short
I knew vaguely of “cabin fever” but had never suffered from it myself, so I didn’t
recognize it at first. The weather coupled with claustrophobic weight of the long dark
arctic nights could play hell with your mind. Cabin fever can manifest itself in many
forms. These include restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety, and worst of all depression,
which often prompts or exacerbates substance abuse.
Reading (and alcohol helped), or so I thought because by April I had begun to question
whether or not Alaska was for me. The bloom was off the newness and sense of
adventure I had felt so strongly when we had arrived wide-eyed and excited back in
August. Those few months seemed like ages ago. Despite our improved economic
situation and not sure of any other concrete options, I nevertheless found myself
entertaining thoughts of some sort of relocation.
Then came the weekend that changed it all.
My mom told us to set aside a weekend in May to take a trip. She had gotten us all
tickets for the weekend sailing of the state ferry MV Tustumena. In those days, Seward
was the home port of the Tustumena, one of the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway,
aka the state ferry system. Part of the ship’s summer schedule was a roundtrip sailing
leaving from Seward on Friday evening to Valdez, Cordova, and other spots in Prince
William Sound and back to Seward on Sunday.
The “Trusty Tusty” was no luxury cruise liner. Mostly a working boat hauling Alaskans
and their vehicles to and from various ports, it had a limited number of staterooms and
passenger berths. A three-stool bar and a tiny restaurant (more like a snack bar) were
the extent of the amenities. Most passengers in the know brought their own food,
beverages, and sleeping gear.
Like most other Alaska ferries, some of the Tustumena’s outside decks provided
covered areas with electric ceiling heaters. This made deck camping fairly cozy, that is if
the weather or seas weren’t too bad. These days with the advent and popularity of
stand-alone dome tents the outside decks and lobbies inside of the state ferries look like
Prince William Sound is a feast for the senses. Essentially, it is an inland sea
surrounded by the tall arcs of glacier-covered mountain ranges to the north, west, and
the east. Like Seward, it is largely open to the Gulf of Alaska to the south.
Prince William Sound Photo Courtesy of Sompop S Los Angeles, USA
In 1899, during the Harriman Expedition aboard the George W. Elder, the noted
naturalist and writer John Muir said of Prince William Sound that it is “one of the richest,
most glorious mountain landscapes I ever beheld-peak after peak dipping deep in the
sky, a thousand of them, icy and shinning, rising higher, higher, beyond and yet beyond
one another, burning bright in the afternoon light, purple cloud-bars above them, purple
shadows in the hollows, and great breadths of sun-spangled, ice-dotted waters in front.”
We saw many incredible and stunningly beautiful sites on that trip. Temporarily
departing from its duties as a working ferry, the Tustumena played the role of scenic
tour boat as it cruised into ice choked Columbia Bay to allow the passengers to view the
magnificent river of ice that is Columbia Glacier. Many of the people on board had
booked this trip specifically to see this spectacular sight. Known as a tidewater glacier,
Columbia Glacier flows thirty or forty miles from its icy origins deep in the Chugach
Mountains and terminates in the waters of Prince William Sound near Valdez.
The captain nudged the tiny ferry through the bergy bits (an actual term) and close to the
200 ft. vertical face of the powder blue glacier. Laced with deep azure fissures and
crevasses the pillars and pinnacles of ice towered above the ship. Startling us at first,
the captain repeatedly sounded the ship’s horn in hopes of causing some ice to fall.
Sure enough, much to the delight and applause of the passengers (and probably by
chance), a few hotel-sized pieces of ice broke off and plunged into the sea with a huge
splash that actually set the Tustumena rocking. A deep roar accompanied the crash of
massive pieces of the glacier’s face into Columbia Bay. The native word for this is aptly
called “white thunder.” The whole spectacle was primordial.
At Columbia Glacier-Me, Patti and mom
Shortly after leaving Columbia Glacier in our wake, we sailed north and then in an
arching bend towards the east into the long deep fjord that is Valdez Arm. On the west
side near the head of that inlet the Tustumena docked at the town of Valdez
In 1964, Valdez had been wiped out by the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake and
subsequent tsunami. The entire waterfront of Old Valdez had disappeared into the deep
waters of the fjord taking two dozen or so of its hapless residents with it, including
several families with children watching the unloading of the freighter Chena.
The buildings that weren’t knocked off their foundations or shattered altogether by the
shaking were subject to constant tidal flooding because the land had sunk several feet.
The traumatized survivors had taken a vote and decided to move the town. The new location had bedrock beneath it, not the unstable glacial silt of the outwash plain of the previous gold rush era town site.
When we visited “New” Valdez that first time it had been completely rebuilt only a few
years before by the state, mostly with aid from the federal government. It had very little
of the weathered look about it like other Alaskan towns. There were lots of trailers and
prefabricated houses and fewer businesses than you would expect of town its size,
which was getting bigger fast.
The fortunes of Valdez were changing for the better rapidly. Selected as the southern
terminus for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, it was beginning to experience a dramatic
transformation and a subsequent population increase. The first Alaskan crude would be
shipped out of Valdez within a month and you could already smell the whiff of petroleum
(and money) in the air.
Leaving Valdez, we sailed south again and did a gradual port turn towards the far
eastern end of Prince William Sound. The ferry was headed for the tiny picturesque
village of Cordova. I was especially taken with this isolated fishing town. So much so
that after nearly fifty years I still nurture a long-held fantasy to live here.
After spending several hours exploring Cordova and eating a wonderful dinner of fish
(we were told the red snapper had been caught that day) and chips at a dockside café,
we departed and sailed west and then towards the scattered islands along the entrance
of Prince William Sound from the Gulf of Alaska to the south.
The ferry came to our last destination of the weekend, the hatchery “town” of Port San
Juan in Sawmill Bay on Evans Island. The Tustumena gently steamed into a small bight
off of Sawmill Bay where a cluster of buildings was located. The water on every side of
the ship seemed to be boiling there were so many fish.
There was not much more to Port San Juan itself than the state hatchery with a few
bunkhouses and several outbuildings and storage houses. We took on some hatchery
workers who paddled out to the ship in row boats because the dock there could not
safely accommodate the Tustumena. As we waited for the their boats to come along
side, crew and passengers got out their fishing poles and started to haul in one salmon
after another from the thick schools choking the waters of the bay. The captain allowed
the cook from the ship’s galley to prepare the fish for passengers. It was quite a feast
and everybody had their fill of succulent salmon caught only hours before.
As we steamed south through Bainbridge Narrows towards the open waters of the Gulf
of Alaska and back to Seward, Patti came running up to me jumping up and down and
flush with excitement. Breathlessly she exclaimed, “I just saw my first humpback whale,
EVER!” She told me that the giant mass of it had leaped almost completely out of the
water where it was illuminated by an isolated shaft of sunlight in the midst of the
surrounding dark sea and gray sky, an awesome vision of majesty and splendor gone in
a few seconds. Now, however, etched in her memory forever. It was a wonderful close
to an astounding and transformative weekend.
Transformative, because during that trip I fell in love with Alaska. Never again to any
significant degree did the weather of sub-arctic Seward or the sometimes bleak
conditions of coastal Alaska ever visit me with dismal brooding. Just the opposite
actually. I came to embrace the adversity as a part of the place, as all true Alaskans do.
My prior misgivings about staying in Seward came to be replaced by a deep respect
and fondness, which kept me in Alaska for a long time and embedded the place in me
indelibly. My passion for Alaska has not diminished, not even in the decades that have
passed since I moved from there in 1985. My love for it abides in me still and, I am
certain, always will.
This was written in tribute to my mother who passed away this February (2022).
Thanks mom for the gift of Alaska and so many other things. K
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