Departing Anchorage at 6:30 AM that June morning, I had no idea what to expect when I would arrive in Kotzebue. I had hastily packed my heavy jacket and woolen shirts since my destination was positioned about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle. Cold, right?
Well, not exactly. This was 1977, one of Alaska’s driest and hottest summers on record! Later, I would have to ask my wife in Anchorage to send me short sleeve shirts and shorts. The temperature stayed in the 80’s for most of my stay. And multiple storms marched across the State, east to west, accompanied by thunder and lightning but no rain. Called “dry lightning” this weather pattern was a firefighter’s worst nightmare.
Kotzebue provided many experiences beyond the weather. It was a hub of commercial activity for the Northwest Region, and a “wet” town that attracted many young people from neighboring “dry” villages where alcohol was prohibited. Since the airstrip accommodated larger commercial jets, and the NANA Corporation had built a modern 3-story hotel to promote tourism in 1975 (rebuilt in 2011), the town also attracted an assortment of tourists who visited in the summers.
I stepped off the jet to be greeted by a beautiful pair of Native young women sporting very furry parkas meant to reflect a tourist’s idea of an “Eskimo”. Though it was quite hot, and the lovely kuspuks (lightweight fabric summer parkas) worn in summer were not evident, the greeting was warm and inviting.
On the plane I had a seat partner who, though younger, had attended Copper Valley School just prior to its closing. I’ll call him “Mackey” though that’s not his real name. A later incident showed me he was not the caliber of person I had experienced in my years at Copper Valley.
Mackey was also sent by BLM to comprise a satellite team of people to manage the numerous fires in the Northwest Region. There were many fires in the Fairbanks District, and Fairbanks was already taxed to its limit with no personnel to dispatch. Their leadership called upon the Anchorage District and BLM in Boise, Idaho, for help. That is how Mackey, me, and others were called up. We arrived in Kotzebue, disembarked, walked to the Nullugvik Hotel. There I was registered into a very modern hotel room along with a roommate - Mackey.
I checked in, carried my luggage to a third-floor room, and joined a group of about a dozen people in a very crowded room on the second floor. This was the beginning of our 6 - week battle against the elements.
But this is a story about memorable events in Kotzebue.
First, some memories of the hotel. It had a restaurant that served bacon and powdered eggs accompanied by brown orange juice. Lunch? Unremarkable. Dinner was mostly steak and potatoes since our BLM budget seemed unlimited and the best cuts were easily thawed. Wait staff were young local girls. There was a bar too.
Only two nights in town, and Mackey showed his true character. Two days of intense activity brought me to our shared room for a - hopefully- 4-hour sleep. While I can ‘t be sure of Mackey’s duties and timing, that second night I was awakened as Mackey and a pretty young female member of the wait staff collapsed on his queen bed, both quite inebriated and both immediately asleep - or passed out (?). I arose, dressed and reported back to my logistics team while the sleeping couple snored. I requested and was moved to a room without a companion. Mackey disappeared - probably released and sent home.
One night I observed an elderly woman, probably a retired schoolteacher from a group that had recently arrived, leaning out her window chiding a young boy for riding a loud dirt bike outside the hotel - at midnight. Since there was no night at this time, he was obviously part of the “second shift” of children who decided to play on their own time. The educated -but uneducated- tourist had no clue!
Another night was interrupted by a very inebriated older denizen banging loudly at 2 AM on a locked outside door. “Sophie” he hollered”, “Let me in, I want Sophie!” He proceeded to holler and throw himself at the door for a good 15 minutes. Finally, he muttered “I guess I can’t get in. Oh well,” and he walked away. All the outside doors had been locked for a reason!
Our home base
A second memory was of our headquarters, established in a wooden framed house managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was “on loan” to us for the duration. A large window looked out upon the Kotzebue Sound and provided a breathtaking view when a breeze lifted the smoke. Frigid and crystal-clear water lapped the shore only a few feet from the house, with a deeper channel running parallel to the shore. Probably 100 yards out was a shallow sandbar also running parallel to the shore. Very distantly, one could see a thin line of white- the ice pack that had retreated to the Bering Sea.
Our radio operator (dispatcher) and an early telecopier machine sat facing the window and our team occasionally gathered at the table there to discuss the day’s activities. Opposite was a large wall map and pocket board where I maintained a view of fire activities as people reported details. All visitors and calls were logged by me as everyone reported to the “Maps and Records” clerk.
Each fire was assigned a number and a name. Each name was to be associated with a nearby geographic location. I was able to slip in one fire I named the “Pat Lake” fire! Boise never realized my wife was named “Pat Lake”!! When another team member tried that using his fiancé’s real name, he was chided and told to adhere to the rules. (to this day we laugh about the fire named after my wife!).
Each midnight the log entries were written into a narrative report and given to a local woman hired to type the scrawled text on several single-spaced pieces of paper. The pages were then fed into the spinning telecopier and “faxed” to Boise headquarters. These documents were archived and sent daily to Washington to enter into the Congressional Record along with a request for appropriated monies for the fire activities. Unfortunately, the records, stored today in Seattle, are only organized by fire number. To retrieve the records I submitted would require on-site sorting- something I would want to do if conditions allow me to travel to Seattle.
Our finance person, Jim, had an open “checkbook” which he used liberally to procure whatever we needed. (He managed to spend $15,500,000 in 6 weeks!) He also brought with him a collapsible canvas kayak which he used in the channel outside our headquarters - on several occasions. None of the rest of us felt confident enough to try his recreational activity! The water was too cold.
Shortly after Jim’s first paddle, a dead seal washed up on our short beach, rolling in the undulating tide. We knew it must have come from far off-shore, where the ice pack had retreated and where Native hunters probably lost the carcass during a recent hunt. For several days we watched it bouncing in the water. Jim debated harvesting it - maybe for the pelt? The debate was short. We assured Jim that there were few secrets in Kotzebue and that someone must know it was there.
Sure enough, a day later, a flat bottom aluminum boat with a stepped-up motor came chugging along. Two male Kotzebue residents got out and tied a rope around the carcass’s rear flippers and towed it away to the north of town.
Our radio operator
A few days after the seal was towed, I was finishing up my midnight report. The only team members on site were myself, my typist, and our radio operator, Jeanne. She accompanied me to Kotzebue from our Anchorage office and was a skilled dispatcher and a hard worker. As I prepared to leave for the “night”, Jeanne told me she was feeling sick and didn’t think she could continue with her overnight shift. Though I was myself exhausted after a 16-hour shift, I realized she needed attention. She did not look well at all, and there was no one else there to take over.
I managed to rouse someone to use our ever-running pickup truck and take her back to her lodging at the hotel. I called the desk there and alerted Paul, our present team leader, to her illness.
I then had to operate the radio, a task I had never done before. A few calls were handled and I soon learned the “over and out” “Yes, this is KOTZ” lingo as I talked to a few incoming aircraft. I managed to stay awake until one plane landed, and the pilot asked for a transport to bring a passenger to our headquarters. Soon after, a hefty-sized fellow in jeans and a Woolrich flannel shirt appeared. I greeted him and asked who he was.
“My name is Ty and I’m from the Fairbanks District office,” he replied. “I’m taking over from Paul, who is being relieved.”
At that point, I relayed to Ty the story of my first dispatcher experience. I then returned to the hotel for a bit of food and sleep,”.
I later learned that Jeanne had a rare blood disorder that she had never disclosed to her superiors. She was medevac’d to Anchorage and almost died before a blood transfusion saved her life.
I was thankful I had made a good decision that night!
My wife visits
After three weeks of intense activity our days became somewhat normalized. I asked if I could have a day of respite if my wife would come to visit. I had the room to myself and I could afford the round-trip ticket since I was earning time and a half for each hour I worked over 40 hours per week. With a week of 20 hour “days” followed by mostly 16 hour shifts, I had the resources, and I thought she would like a visit. Even though she was 5 months pregnant, she enthusiastically embraced the plan.
She arrived one clear and bright Saturday night and settled into our comfortable room.
The next morning, we visited the cultural center and walked about, taking in the ambience and surroundings that she had never experienced from the road system of South Central Alaska.
For the afternoon I borrowed the only vehicle we used for in-town transport. It was a beat up FAA pickup truck that had a broken starter. It needed to be pushed in order to start. Since we had gasoline - but no starter- once we pushed it to start, we tried to never let it stop. IF perchance it did stop, the person driving it had to find a group of “pushers” to restart it.
So I received the truck in running order and drove to the only military installation near town. A military radar site, it had an all-male contingent running the place. It also had one small tree outside the main building, humorously dubbed the” Kotzebue National Forest”. On the way, we passed the “Flying Martini Bar”, which was no longer active. It was at the end of the airport runway, situated INSIDE a wrecked Constellation aircraft. While I did not remember this tourist attraction, my wife did, and a brief online search told its history.
We arrived at the radar station on a mid-Sunday afternoon in order to join a few folks to watch that week’s delivered movie. As we walked in my wife asked me where the women’s restroom was located. UH- there was none!
We located a large washroom obviously serving the male inhabitants. As she entered, I stood sentry duty at the door. Soon enough a pleasant fellow in a corduroy shirt and blue jeans approached and asked why I was blocking the door to the John.
“Well, I’m with the BLM group and my wife is visiting. We came to watch the movie and she needed a ladies’ room- which you don’t have. And who are you?” I inquired.
“I’m Colonel Harris”, he replied. “I’m the person who runs the place. You are most welcome. And the movie starts in 10 minutes in that room there.”
My wife exited and we thoroughly enjoyed free popcorn while we watched “The Great Waldo Pepper”.
When we left, the pickup was still running so we were safe to return to the hotel for our steak dinner.
The next morning my wife returned to Anchorage and I resumed my duties at the FAA house.