by Peter S. Oleson
We boarded the ferry boat Malaspina out of Seattle in early September,
headed for Alaska with only what we could carry aboard. Our first problem
was what to do with the fifth member of our group, the previously unintroduced
Dago. Dago had come with us from Wisconsin. Dago was a Blue Beagadachapoo.
One part Beagle, one part Dachshund one part blueticked hound and one part
Poodle. He was small with a hound's voice and black all over. We had to
leave him tied up in the hold, but were allowed down there on a daily schedule
to check on him. We got along pretty easily with the crew members we met
down on the car deck and they too kept an eye on old Dago for us.
Ship life was great, even in our nearly broke condition. It was so incredibly
different. We had no money for a stateroom, or for that matter, any other
type of room, so we slept on the deck. We weren't the only ones to do so.
The best place to do that was on the observation deck, way up on the top
deck facing the stern. It had a translucent roof and a lot of the tourists
spent time up there during the day. Those people usually had enough money
to have a room, so when the sun went down; the temperature dropped, and
all us poor folk gravitated up to the observation deck to talk, laugh ,
and indulge in our personal poisons, as well as play guitar and harmonica
We had not brought any beer with us on board, so we would go down to the
barroom on the boat (yes, they even had one of those) and order one beer
and kind of hang out and talk to anyone who would talk to us. We were hoping
they would buy us some drinks. This method worked surprisingly well, and
we told a lot of tales those days that we were aboard. People seemed to
be genuinely interested in what you said when you were relating to them
real events in your life. To prove the point, you're reading this, aren't
The weather was beautiful during the day all through Washington and on
up into British Columbia. The sun beat down all those dog days and we reveled
in the ease of this type of traveling as compared to the eternal choices
involved in driving a car. Bruce and John snooped around below decks long
enough to locate some bathrooms that contained showers which we supposed
were meant to service suites that had no showers in them. You haven't taken
a shower until you've tried it in a big boat in a fair to middlin' swell.
It kind of throws you from one side of the cabinet to the other.
Our food supply though, was non-existent: in our haste to board the boat,
we had not stocked up on victuals. The food served onboard looked and smelled
real good, but was prohibitively costly. This was 1972 mind you and gas
was still 32.9 cents per gallon and you could get a hamburger at McDonalds
for a quarter. Little did I know when I boarded that boat that I would
never see gas or hamburgers again in my life at those prices. These burgers
on the ferry were 2 to 3 dollars! We didn't have a lot of money left, so
what we did was peruse the buffet line during serving and sneak all the
little cracker packages we could into our coat pockets. Then we would come
back when there were no customers around and fill some cups with hot water
and stuff a wad of ketchup containers in our pockets. We sat at a table
in the corner and played cards and made a bunch of noise to disguise the
fact that we were emptying ketchup into our hot water and adding crackers
to concoct a kind of tomato soup slurry. That is what we lived on for those
We saw a lot of things we hadn't ever seen before, including the very ocean
upon which we were living. It was all so new and exciting. We were anxiously
awaiting our arrival in the great state of Alaska.
So the luxury (?) of living on board came to an end when we at last docked
at an Alaskan port. The sun was beating down as we approached the ferry
dock in Ketchikan. The ferry tied up and we were at last able to set foot
on the soil of the state we had gambled on being our promised land.
We were booked to continue on to Haines; which was the northernmost stop
of our ferry. We had figured that Alaska was up there where the bulk of
the state was on the map. But when we walked off the gangway we looked
down at water that you could see into for miles. The mountains around us
were so much different than the plains and valleys of the Midwest. It was
the most beautiful place we had ever seen and by consensus we agreed that
we had found a place for us. We went back aboard and grabbed our packs,
my toolbox and gun, untied Dago and left the ferry behind to embrace our
new home in Alaska.
We immediately applied at the ferry station for a refund of the balance
of our fare, and were told that we had to wait some arbitrary amount of
days before the balance could be refunded. That was OK, we could deal with
that, but we needed a place to stay. In Wisconsin, there were always places
for rent, we assumed that that was the same all over. We walked across
the ferry parking area to a small store and bought a local newspaper and
checked out the "For Rent" column. There weren't any places for
So we went to the bulletin board and found a handwritten add for an apartment
for rent in Hopkins Alley for $150 a month. Whoa, for that price in Wisconsin,
you could rent a pretty nice house, or a real nice farm house. But that
was all we could find, and we called the number. The person answering wanted
first and last months rent and the 150 up front. We only had the 150 and
pled our case. He wanted to talk to us in person so we walked out to the
main drag with our baggage and hitched a ride in no time at all up to Hopkins
We found our man there. He wasn't that much older than us, he was an Alaskan
native (the first we had met), and after we had spoken to each other for
a while, he was willing to forgo the first and last thing and we spent my
last 150 dollars for a place to stay for a month. Between us at that point
we had about a hundred dollars left, and that included the ticket refunds
we had coming.
The apartment was a dive. It was originally a garage under a small house.
There was one bedroom, which Diane and I commandeered, a bathroom with
a tub, and the kitchen/living room. We sat right on the upper tide line,
about two rows of buildings from the ocean, but all our drain water went
directly into the ocean. Late at night, you could watch the warf rats tails
sticking out of the circle cut around the sink drain. It was nowhere we
wanted to call home, but it was what we could afford. We were happy with
it, after a fashion.
The problem we were immediately faced with was income. We arrived in town
on a Sunday afternoon and the following morning found us walking around
town looking for a job. Unfortunately, we were perceived by the people
of Ketchikan to be the last of the tourists for the season. Our problem
was that nobody knew us. We found the local Job Service office, which also
housed the Public Assistance person. When we walked up to the counter and
asked about getting employment, the lady just pointed behind her to a guy
in a suit with very long hair and we met Franklin.
Franklin, as he wanted to be called, was very happy to help us out any
way he could. He took us over to the public assistance lady and got us
some food stamps. That was a real load off. He also got us guys a job
putting two piece mobile homes together for a guy who ran a mobile home
court way the hell up on top of one of the many hills that Ketchikan is
We spent a lot of our spare time exploring the town, which seemed to be
perched upon the sides of hills. There was a main road through town, which
generally ran upon pilings over the water. Between the north and south
sides of town, there was a tunnel, but you could only go one way through
it. I never understood why there was no two way traffic through that tunnel.
If you drove north, you came to the end of the road in about a half an
hour. Similarly, if you drove south, you would spend an equal amount of
time before you found yourself unable to go further.
We spent a few days up on top of that hill putting trailers together for
Jay and watching the work going on across the narrows separating our island
from Gravina Island. They were building an airport over there. We called
it Ketchikan International Airport (where the big jet engines roar) after
some inane country song that seemed to be popular on the local radio station,
Bruce and John wasted no time finding someone who would trade food stamps
for dope, so that was where their half of the food stamps went. The guy
they found who would do it was a very nice person, so I never complained
about it; after all, I was an indirect beneficiary of their efforts.
Franklin came by the shack one day with another job for us. The local
bakery needed some strong backs to unload a semi trailer full of 50 lb.
bags of flour and bread mix. The trailer was parked alongside the bakery
with the back end facing uphill. Remember, everything in Ketchikan is either
on a hill or over the water.
It was very hard work hauling those bags uphill to the back of the trailer,
handing them down to one of either me or John, who then carried them uphill
to the back door of the bakery and inside to stack them where the baker
wanted them to be. The second day we were engaged in this enterprise, we
noticed that the back end of the trailer seemed to bob up and down as Bruce
carried the bags to the tail of the container. As he handed me a bag, the
balance of the trailer was upset and the forward part of the trailer became
front heavy. The stupid thing then tipped forward, gravity overcoming any
effort to keep the back of the thing on the ground, and the trailer tipped
forward, leaving the tailgate up in the air about 15 feet. We went to find
the baker who was unsympathetic to our plight. We had to all crawl up a
ladder, lay on the floor of the trailer and hand to hand the bags up to
the tailgate, then the first in line had to crawl over us and jump down
to catch the bag pushed out of the back and carry it into the store to stack
it. We were being paid by the hour, so it was no big deal, but it certainly
made the whole thing take a lot longer than it should have. It was also
very funny, even to us.
After that, though, the employment scene seemed to dry up. I spent my
days walking the main drag applying for work. Bruce and John were more
content just existing for each day and I had no problem with that. But
there were no jobs forthcoming, there being much less a demand for labor
in the fall than in the spring or summer. We received our ticket credits
from the ferry, which were soon gone. I managed to feed us on the remainder
of the food stamps, but John's record was broken as there was no money,
toward the end of that first month for any beer. It was starting to seem
As the end of the month drew near, Bruce and John lost their resolve and
we spent an evening on the telephone. I asked the landlord for some time
to come up with the next months rent. He obliged, I am sure, because his
apartment was eminently undesirable, and the promise of payment in the future
was better than no tenants at all. Bruce and John called their families
and begged for enough money to return to Wisconsin. I called my father,
who agreed to send me the next months rent.
In a few days, we all got what we asked for and Diane and I bid farewell
to John and Bruce. We had been through so much together, it actually hurt
to give them that last hug and as they flew off from the dock on the way
to Metlakatla to board a real airplane to America, I don't think I had ever
felt so all alone before.
Coming soon: Peter and Diane have problems, Dago causes problems, everywhere
there are problems.
Peter S. Oleson