6) Last Call at the King Ko

My year spent in King Salmon, Alaska went by faster than I ever imagined. I’d arrived in ice and snow, survived spring break-up, worked hard through a whirlwind summer, and welcomed autumn with an excessive amount of sightseeing and fun. If you’ve been reading this series, my last five articles covered the more noteworthy events like drug busts, emergency landings, and Katmai National Park. So before I move on to Fairbanks and other Alaska cities, I thought I’d do a wrap up of things learned, along with a confession or two.

That said…here we go.

~  Whoever it was that lost $50 in the bar one night, I found it. And I was a happy little squirrel too, stashing that windfall away. Since I never got to properly thank whoever you are, I’m using this forum to send out my heartfelt appreciation. You added to my grand total for the year and though it was only $50, I’ve never forgotten you!

~  Confession – It ain’t easy for a southerner to learn to drive on ice and snow. The King Ko was really way too trusting when they loaned me the Inn’s van to go to Naknek for a dentist appointment. I never told them how I rounded that curve too fast, went into a 180 spin, and slammed into a shallow snow bank that tilted the van onto two wheels. The beast hovered there for the longest three seconds of my life before dropping back to the blessed ground. Afterward, I sat there for 10 minutes trying to calm down enough to drive on to Naknek, albeit much slower. Maybe now that I’ve confessed they’ll read this and I’ll be forgiven…

~  Okay, this one is important, so listen up. Never, ever, pour a shot of liquor with a southern accent. It’s 1-2-3 snap, snap, snap. Not the soft genteel drawl of 1….2….3. This is what a crash course in bartending taught me. You see, I’d never tended bar before and Judy, King Ko’s then hilarious co-manager, seemed to frown over the rapid depletion of bar stock. Though none of the customers complained, so really, what was the problem?

~  It’s hard to beat the Flying Tigers 747 dramatic emergency landing at King Salmon, but we did have another aviation disaster in the form of an old style cargo plane. It was vintage and silver, made me think of the 1940’s, and was jam-packed with crates of freshly caught salmon. As things happen, just after take off the fuel line busted, jet-fuel spewed everywhere, and the pilots sort of crash-landed in the tundra. They were okay, but the plane sat there for days – ice melting, fish smelling, bears zeroing in like flies to honey. The eager bears were just bellying up to the smorgasbord when the military stepped in to help clean things up. They rescued the plane, though the tundra took a hit, and I regret that I never learned the fate of fishes. I hope they were left behind for the party-loving bears.

~  I’m pretty sure this next one is no secret. No matter what coast you hail from, men cooped up on a fishing boat for weeks can be a little bold when they come ashore. Really, I should have realized that and brushed up on the art of deflection before all the summer madness hit. But then I discovered something really amazing. Light flirting goes a long way when it comes to counting tips at the end of a shift! So I sailed with the flow, added to my squirrel cache, and wound up having one heck of a blast that season. Most everyone was good natured and friendly, and the indulgence in laughter and teasing helped lift the feeling of isolation that came with being so far north of the lower 48.  

~  The year was 1985. We had no cell phones, no internet, no satellite TV. But we were living in an educated world. Or so I thought, until the day I placed a catalog order by phone. When I gave my address to the clerk, she said…“I’m sorry, but we only ship to American addresses.” I blinked, checked the calendar, and said…“I think we’re good. Alaska became America’s 49th state in 1959.” Believe it or not, that was just the tip of the iceberg, if you’ll pardon the frozen pun. I heard questions like…Does the sun ever shine up there? Is there always snow on the ground? What kind of money do you use up there? Honestly, this list could go on and on. Someone needs to write a book.

~  Have you any idea how much fun you can have when the sun never sets? I mean, this southerner had no concept of life in perpetual daylight. They dub Alaska Land of the Midnight Sun for a very good reason. Summer is a riot of activity. For people, plants, and animals. I’d get off work at eleven-thirty at night, walk outside to the Beaver Hut and it would still be broad daylight. That’s just fantastic, despite the serious lack of snooze time it robs from you. Eventually though, I had to make myself one of those sleep mask things, because sunshine at two a.m. really messed with your internal clock. Sooner or later you gotta get some sleep. 

And I saved the best for last…

 Aurora over Tromso

~  Viewing the Northern Lights. Let’s face facts; those dancing ribbons of color in the night sky are the most phenomenal experience a body could ever see. I’d stand outside to watch them until I was frozen in place, and I was so awe inspired that I didn’t care. To this day I’ve never seen anything to match it. I recently had a friend that took a mid-winter trip to Bettles (north of the Artic Circle) just to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis. Yes, it’s that amazing and worth braving thirty below zero temperatures just to watch the light show they offer. Do it. Go. Pack up the bunny boots and the parka and get up there. You won’t regret it.

Just before the winter of 85/86 I left King Salmon. It was sort of a sad day for me because I enjoyed my time there so much. But Alaska is a big state and I had more to see and do. After a brief visit to Anchorage, my next stop was Fairbanks where I spent two and a half years exploring the miles between Denali and the Artic Circle. I think I’ll tell you about the Outhouse Races next. After all, everyone loves a good bathroom story…right?

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