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Saturday, June 1, 2002

The Summer of 2002

Timeline: May 2002 till September 2002. My age: 40. Location: Seattle, Naknek Alaska, Ketchikan Alaska, Klamath Falls Oregon and the Siskyou Mountains.

My Summer of 2002 wasn't about one thing, it was a string of things entirely unrelated, but tied together simply by the accident of timeline. One thing would end and I would look around and just come up with the next thing. I had the whole summer to find something to do before getting back to The Evergreen State College in September.

My summer starts in May. I was living at a friend's house in Bremerton Washington, and planned to work most of the summer in Alaska. This was maybe my ninth work contract in Alaska for Trident Seafoods, but it was the oddest. Most work seasons match a fishing season, and they usually last two to six months. But the May salmon fishing season in Bristol Bay is different -it lasts only about six or seven days.

My final plane ride to Bristol Bay landed in King Salmon Alaska, and from there we took a company shuttle to the Trident plant in Naknek Alaska.

The land in this area is rolling hills and a sparse distribution of short trees. Not the extreme beauty I was used to in other parts of Alaska. The shoreline along Bristol Bay was the exception -a nice rugged beach. The village was mostly Natives, and I loved the little village library there.

We hung out for a few of days waiting for the fishing run to begin, then the season no other fishing season I had seen. My first day of work lasted 27 hours. I had 3 hours off for sleep, then back up for 24 hours of work, then a 4 hour break, then back up for another 20+ hour work shift. This went on for six days.

Amazingly I was totally alert and going strong through the first 48 hours of the season. It was only on the third work shift that I began to get really tired. Eventually I got so tired I was falling asleep standing up. The foreman came over woke me up by saying something. He didn't give me any hell for falling asleep, he knew we were all working past the point of human endurance.

I got back to Seattle with near $2000 from the few days work, and promptly went to the North Face store at 1023 1st Avenue in downtown Seattle and bought a few black long sleeve polypropylene shirts and a huge yellow luggage bag (like my roommate in Naknek had). Over ten years later and the bag is still my main travel bag. The bag would be essential for all the flux that would happen the rest of the summer.

Romance. I had struck up an online long distance relationship with a Japanese woman by the name of Yukie Watanabe attending college in San Diego. We had met on a Japanese alternative music forum, she started the first chat between us. I didn't even know if she was a she till about a week later. That all started in February 2002, and by May we had decided to meet in June in Seattle.

So after my short gig at Bristol Bay I return to Bremerton for a few weeks, and waited for finally meeting Yukie at The Belltown Inn on 3rd Avenue in downtown Seattle.

The big day finally came, we met, hit it off, and spent a week with me playing tour guide and boyfriend.

Historical note: we saw Mike Watt and the Secondmen perform at the Crocodile Cafe on June 8, 2002. I had seen Mike Watt back in early 2000, got to talk to him, and he was a big strong man. Between 2000 and 2002 he had a major medical emergency surgery that averted a life-threatening situation. So when I saw him for this 2002 show he was a very different man. He was markedly thinner. He was even playing a lightweight Gibson SG bodied bass (not his usual big thunderspeil). As always, he and the crew put on a great, and sometimes deeply moving, show.

Our week together ended with both of us riding a Metro bus to Seatac airport -her flying back to San Diego and me flying to Ketchikan Alaska for a summer long gig with Trident Seafoods.

All my previous gigs in Alaska were very remote. Most of the time I was on a big fish processing ship. The one exception was Akutan, which is an extremely remote village with only one tiny store and one bar. Ketchikan was very different. The Trident plant was on the south end of the town, on the main road. Walking to any part of the town was easy. The town even had a city bus, its turn around point was right at the Trident plant.

Creek Street (a boardwalk, not for cars), Ketchikan Alaska
Ketchikan quickly became one of my all time favorite towns, and still is. For those who've never been to southeast Alaska, let me explain an odd thing about the region. Southeast Alaskan towns don't sprawl out into suburbs like most of America. In a way, they are all downtown. All the businesses are "in town" and the residential homes start downtown and cluster in town. The spacing between houses is a very few feet. Said in one phrase, southeast Alaskan towns are "urban density".

Why the urban density? The towns are surrounded by Pacific waters and intense mountain ranges. The mountain ranges are so intense there is no highway system linking the towns. All the towns have no roads going more than 30 miles outside of town, with exception of Skagway (which has a highway that connects to the Yukon, and thus all of North America).

People get from town to town or to the rest of the world via boat or plane, period. There are homes out far from town, but they are not part of the cul-de-sac suburban paradigm. They simply built on land with no road to the house. A boat is moored alongside the patch of land, and thats how they get to town.

Main pier as seen from boat, Ketchikan Alaska
The culture of southeastern Alaskan towns is like a rugged frontier version of Seattle. Espresso stands and cafes are prevalent. The clothes, the architecture, the people, the coffee, the food -all had a Seattle vibe to them. Which makes sense, the region is the just the extreme northern end of the Pacific Northwest.

I had arrived and began work weeks before the salmon fishing season was to begin, and only worked an eight hour day. So I had plenty of time to see Ketchikan. Most mornings I walked into town, got a latte at the little stand at the main pier, and walked back to start my work day.

Main pier, Ketchikan Alaska
Several nights I went to the totally awesome bar scene downtown with a few coworkers -two lesbians and a guy that was once very deeply involved in the Aryan Nations, but since had become an outspoken critic of the movement, he had appeared on talk shows.

One extra crazy thing to add about the former Aryan Nations guy. While we were there in Ketchikan, he accidentally crossed paths with a woman that had saved his life. After his defection from the Aryans they had lured him into a trap, they had asked for a meeting just to talk, and when he had arrived they tied him up and took him to the basement to torture and possibly kill him. A Japanese woman who happened to be a national  champion in karate heard his screams and raided the basement, fought the entire group of Aryans, and rescued my friend.

He had since married, but his wife was not in Ketchikan. He said it was a difficult temptation having his Japanese super-athlete ninja live saving girl...friend there. I don't know how that turned out, he got a higher paying job at another plant in Ketchikan and I never heard from him again.

The night of the 4th of July was one of the funnest nights I've had. Hanging out with the already mentioned crew. We saw the fireworks, hung out at a bar right beside all the cruise ships moored along the pier, on a roof top part of the bar. Even saw people dive from their cruise ship balconies into the water.

Coming back from the bar we watched the oddest thing. A group of about 15 teens were climbing up a roof and getting into an upstairs business space. They didn't seem to be breaking anything or stealing anything. They seemed to be just having fun climbing. The police arrived, but were on the other side of the building, and were checking out the doors and peering in windows on that side. We had a view of both the teens and the police. It was so weird seeing these two sets of people so close at the same building but not meeting up.

The south end of town where the plant is has an interesting history. In the early 1900's it was the Asian Quarter, populated by Asian immigrants who worked at the fish processing plants. The main grocery store on that end of town was evidence of the asian influence -Tatsuda's IGA.

 I loved my dorm room and building at the Trident plant. It was old, wooden -a classic industrial operation from 100 years ago.

Unfortunately...very first and last bad experience with Trident would unfold. My job was assistant to the crew chief. I believe her name was Susan Sorenson. I may have that wrong, but I'm close at the very least.

She had picked me up at the airport, and we had gotten along very well, both as coworkers with her as my boss and also just chatting about politics and life. She was from New Zealand, her husband and 10 year old son were at the plant also. He was an engineer. Her son had a nanny. Strange coincidence: the nanny was the mother of my boss Leslie Learned in Antarctica.

All was great for a few weeks. Then one morning I sensed a shift, and she became nothing but hostile and psychologically abusive from that point on. Years later I would run into the girl who worked in the position after I did, and learn that the woman was notoriously a psycho, that she could become someone's worst nightmare for no reason apparent to anyone.

This was torture for me. I began taking walks and trying to figure it all out. I couldn't. Then one morning I was walking and got invigorated while listening to the Butthole Surfer's Weird Revolution. I came back to the plant, and quite. The plant superintendent John Webby apologized to me for whatever I had gone through that had pushed me to quit. He said my personal file showed me as the very best kind of employee, fulfilling every contract, working my way up to both bookkeeper in one plant, and head of quality control in another. He terminated me with notes that I could work at any Trident plant except the Ketchikan operation.

Years later, much too late, I figured out what I should have done. I had the personal file with Trident as my record, with several explicitly positive reviews from superiors. I should have gone to John Webby and said my boss was being abusive to the point that I cannot take it, that I have never broken under any pressures of work (fatigue, inability to do job, etc) and the strength of my past record should support my contention that this particular boss is being abusive.

But, no, I did not think of or do that when I could have.

As for the female dog that was my boss at Ketchikan. I hope the worst for you. I had some of greatest times of my life with Trident, had the very best bosses I've ever had, and was loving that summer in Ketchikan. You needlessly polluted that otherwise perfect run. For anyone out there who is employing a woman from New Zealand, that worked for Trident Seafoods in Ketchikan...consider firing her.

Hours after I quit, as I was taking my last walk in  Ketchikan, I found a $100 bill on the sidewalk.

Arriving in Seattle, I didn't have my dorm room at Evergreen until school started, so I checked back in to the Belltown Inn for week. I had some money from the Trident gig, and decided to just enjoy Seattle for a few days and try and think of a next move.

When in hotels I tend to watch CNN Headline News...constantly. One of the main news stories of that summer were the major forest fires going on in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon. Forest fire fighting had long been on my bucketlist. I decided to go to Oregon to fight fires.

After making the decision a news story reported the deaths of a few fire fighters in the Siskiyou Mountains. They had been driving in a fire company van along a logging road and plunged over a mountain drop off, plunging several hundred feet.

Danger usually attracted me in the years before I had my son North. So, I went to Oregon. Specifically, I went to Klamath Falls, a small town in southern Oregon.

To be a wildlands firefighter one must be certified, which requires a week long course. Klamath Community College offered the course, they had openings for the next week's course, I paid and registered for the course over the phone and got on the very next Greyhound bound for Klamath Falls.

Highway 97 bridge over the Columbia River. Biggs Oregon.
The road trip to Klamath Falls was awesome. We crossed the Columbia River via US Highway 97 and stopped at Biggs Oregon. It was my first time to see the Columbia Gorge.

In my first hours after arriving in Klamath Falls I checked into the Maverick Motel in downtown. I had booked a room for a week before arriving. I wanted to stretch my legs after the road trip, so I began walking to Klamath Community College. I assumed it being a small town the college would be a short ways away.

It was five miles. I walked in the bright sunshine of the desert, getting a sunburn that would leave a visible tan line for years.

The week of living in the Maverick and going to the little community college was interesting. Klamath Falls is in a desert, with forests nearby. I befriended two guys in my class and had a week of hanging out with them. They were hired on my fire crew after course completion. One of them was Tom Ames, one of the best people I've ever met. I stayed at his house from the time of the course completion till we left for the fires. He had a way of maintaining control of his kids without being mean at all, yet they were exceptionally well behaved. He was deeply religious, and even in that he had a way of about it. Odd coincidence #2 for the summer: Tom Ames had worked at the plant in Akutan Alaska that I had been a bookkeeper at. Tom worked there a few years before I did, and he was friends with Dave Abbasian, my boss at Akutan.

I went to work for Ore-Cal Fire Suppression, based on a ranch in the farming crossroad town of Malin Oregon, about 30 miles from Klamath Falls (map). They were nice folks -a family owned and operated business.

Before going to fight fires we were issued a huge array of gear -uniforms, backpack, etc. We had to supply our own professional grade fire fighting boots. I bought a pair of Danner boots for about $230, much like the boots in the photo to the right. I loved those boots, wore them year round and everywhere, even in the summer with shorts.

Onward to the fires! We loaded up in big V-10 Ford vans, with massive luggage racks spanning the whole length, our bags cinched down on top, drove to the fire fighters base camp for the Rogue River/Siskiyou National Forest fire, called the Biscuit Fire (wikipedia).

The base camp was far from the fires, maybe 30 or more miles. Every day was a major commute in the vans from camp to the mountains, and back again. About 15 miles was on a good state highway, then the rest was on gravel logging roads. Every day was to a different location of course, the situation in the woods was always dynamic.

NASA image of Biscuit Fire
A firefighting base camp is big. Keep in mind this was the biggest fire of that summer in the US, so maybe not all base camps are as big as my experience. They had food preparation trailers where we lined up for our breakfast and dinners, and were issued our sack lunch for out in the field. Tents with lots of long military style mess hall tables were our only rooms to hang out in other than our tents.

I soon saw how easy it was for the van of fighters to have died by leaving the logging road and plunging several hundred feet. The Siskiyou Mountains are famously steep. Not really good for hikers. The logging roads have plenty of mileage along those drop offs.

Plus our driver drove really fast down those gravel roads. Speed on those roads is crazy enough, but of course my life is never just plain old crazy, there always has to be something even crazier. Our driver wasn't just reckless....he may have been high. He talked with a slur, and was networked with the pro drug dealers of of Klamath Falls (more on that a little later). He was a really nice guy to me, I feel bad reporting this, but the story would be missing some of its most terrifying dimensions if I left it out.

Our crew was one of troubled crews at the base camp. Others were more full time and had a military professionalism about them. Ours had some good guys, but there was one guy who was a poster child example of inbred, and another who took a bet to eat dog food. There was an exceptionally lazy passive aggressive one, and quit a few that were poverty versions of frat boys, all from Redding California.

Kid Rock. A lot of them were cut from the same cultural/mental/genetic cloth as Kid Rock. Thank you pop culture for providing archetypes that make convenient handles for communication.

I had fun getting the Kid Rocks to hate me. I didn't want them to like me, and dumbasses are much more entertaining when they are mad anyway. We had plenty of time in the vans, which is where i practiced my craft of pissing them off.

They were Fox News type fans, so I went on and on with all kinds of wild liberal ideas, taken to a lunatic fringe in a way only Lance Miller's can manufacture. I used anomalous ammunition also. A friend had told me he had this game he played with his 2 year old daughter that involved saying Hairwashin!

It was one very precious moment when the van load of guys looked both mad and confused when I suddenly shouted in a high pitched voice Hairwashin!

Actual fire from the Biscuit Fire Complex
Fighting the fires. We mostly hiked or manned a checkpoint when at work. The most constant hardship was wearing the long sleeved uniform while baking in the summer heat. Some of the treks up and down the mountains were hard.

Once on a mountainside we had to clear away trees and dig a trench. Some of the guys were chainsawing the trees while most of us we digging the trench. One madrona, a very heavy kind wood, fell right my way. Luckily I saw it coming and moved out of the way. That was my closest brush with death for the summer.

Twice we got really close to the fire. The first time was a little dangerous. We were near the base of the mountain, near a creek. It had been one of the nicest areas we had patrolled. It was there I got to see a tree that was possibly 200 feet high fall down the mountainside on fire, really dramatic moment I just happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time to see. We got a radio call that the fire had gotten unpredictable. We rushed to get all our gear and got in a van and split.

The second time we were near a fire, it was a controlled burn. It wasn't as big as the true wildfire, but still impressive.

Eventually someone in our literal motley crew screwed up in some big way back at the base camp, and we were all sent home.

We all went back to Ore-Cal headquarters and turned in our gear, and waited for another assignment. During this time I was invited to stay at the van driver's home I had mentioned before. He was married and had an 8 year old son. He was really a good guy, even with the whole drug thing going on.

He lived in the national forest near Klamath Falls. This is how cool the Pacific Northwest is: down the road from his house was an espresso stand. He took me out four-wheeling up to a mountain peak, and in general the best kind of host.

Once he took me to his best friend's house party -at a house right on Klamath Lake, their house had a massive deck that went out over the lake. His friend owned the house, didn't work, and I think they may have been the main meth dealers of the area. All I did was drink beer and talk with these people, and honestly...they were solid nice in all that I saw of them. Anyway, the house and the lake were awesome.

I waited around for another assignment. I went out to the Ore-Cal ranch in Malin and helped them with their website. I think it all went on for a week or maybe more.

Then one of the crew bosses got in a major accident. He had been in a company van, out on Transformer Road near the ranch. There was an intersection with stop sign, and the crew boss had just plain run right through the intersection, colliding with another truck. Pure idiocy.

I got to thinking about how dangerous the drives on those logging roads were, and then this accident happened due purely to the idiocy of the crew boss. The probability of death working with this crew was just too high, I decided to end the whole fire fighting thing.

There were still a few weeks left in the summer before my dorm room would become available. I emailed my mom and worked out a plan to visit my mom and dad for the rest of the summer.

I remember the last night in Klamath Falls. I had checked back into the Maverick Hotel for a couple of days. The Greyhound bus boarding time was 1:15AM. I got there and on a bus bound for Los Angeles.

Three hours later, two nuns who were staying at the Maverick Motel were taking a morning stroll on a nearby jogging/biking trail I had walked on many times. A man from out of town stalked them on the trail and strangled them to death with their rosary beads. It was a horrific murder in the national news.

My ride down the agricultural valley of California took me through an area I hadn't seen before. Its not known for its beauty, its not a tourist draw like much of the rest of Cali. The bus picked a woman in Lancaster, that would later overdose in her chair, and once in L.A. a very jaded and emotionally flat Greyhound staff boarded the bus with rubber gloves on and removed the woman.

I eventually boarded the bus that would take me to Tulsa Oklahoma. Got to see the beautiful desert southwest once again.

My visit at my mom and dad's place was the best of my whole life. Something had switched in my dad's demeanor, and we had the first good time hanging out since I was a kid going to drag races with him (drag race story).

It would also be the last. He came down with all kinds of health calamities, and was largely incoherent. I visited once more in 2011, which was important for both us, then he passed away in 2012.

My summer came to an end as my classes started at Evergreen State College, my last year at the school, and with a National Science Foundation scholarship. At that point in my life a phase ended. I have not been on any kind of true adventure since -by that I mean randomness and danger in the context of travel.

The Summer of 2002 was my last time being crazy.

The author of this blog also has two books available on Amazon. Athena Techne uses some of the autobiographical content of this blog and adds a philosophical perspective utilizing the ancient Greek god Athena.

Athena Techne :: Page

Autistic Crow Computer is a fiction set in Seattle, about an autistic boy and two crows. The book was written for young autistic readers, although reviews by non-autistics have been positive.

Autistic Crow Computer :: Page