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An Alaskan Odyssey
Dale Griggs

The Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska

Mendenhall Valley Near Juneau, Alaska

The Beginning

I went to work for The Boeing Company in Seattle in 1957 in their data processing department. It wasn't called the computer department because they didn't have any computers then. They installed IBM computers in 1959 and I have been working with computers ever since. By 1961, I was the youngest manager in data processing at The Boeing Company, which had 135,000 employees. I had a new convertible sports car, a new apartment with maid service, a generous income and lived the life of an urban playboy. I was 25 and I had it made.

So, why would I move to the wilderness of Alaska in 1962? Good question, I would have to have been crazy to leave the life I had in Seattle.

In 1962, a friend of mine left Seattle to work for the State of Alaska in Juneau. Alaska had only been a state for three years and the government was trying to automate the Finance and Highway functions with IBM computers. They needed a manager for their new computer department and my friend recommended me for the position. I was in bed one Saturday morning, after a night on the town, and I received the phone call that would change my life forever. I was asked if I would fly to Juneau to discuss the manager's position. My first thought was to say "What the hell for" but I decided I may as well take a free trip to see Alaska and agreed to fly to Juneau the next weekend to interview for the job.

I arrived in Juneau in late September of 1962 for the interview. It was a cool, rainy day, which I later found out was normal, and went on a round of interviews with various state officials, from the Commissioner to the employees of the department. Juneau is a small town built at the base of two mountains, next to a salt-water channel that separates it from Douglas Island. It was kind of a dreary place but it also had a charm about it because it was an old gold mining town and it was in the middle of a wilderness. But it certainly was no place for a Seattle urban playboy. I completed the interviews and was taken out to dinner with the Director of Finance and some other state officials. I was asked what it would take for me to accept the job and I made an outrageous salary demand. I figured that if you are going to give up your maid service, you might as well be handsomely compensated. I thought the Director was going to choke and he finally said, "I don't think we can offer you that" and I told him, "OK, see you later" or words to that effect. I caught the plane the next morning, went back to Seattle, drove my red convertible sports car back to my new apartment and forgot all about Alaska.

That is, until two weeks later. The phone rang and the Director of Finance said, "OK" or something similar. Now, it was my turn to be speechless, I never dreamed they would offer that much money. I told him I would call him back in four hours with my decision. That was a very difficult four hours because it was a great opportunity for me because I would be in complete charge of the computer department, while at Boeing I was one of a legion of managers. The building I worked in at Boeing was larger than the city of Juneau. And there was the wilderness of Alaska. I had always enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness in central Washington. The hunting, fishing, and boating around Juneau was spectacular, but there were no new apartments, no maid service and the nightlife was severely lacking, along with any female companions to enjoy it with you. But my life in Seattle had become one party after another, lots of drinking, lots of hangovers and casual relationships that were getting boring. The routine was work all week and party all weekend. I weighed all of this for the next four hours and tried to envision what my life would be if I stayed in Seattle and what it would become if I went to Alaska. I thought of my superiors at Boeing, middle managers, middle aged, stuck at Boeing for the rest of their lives, waiting for the day they could retire to buy a motor home and travel. I thought of what kind of life I would have in Alaska; close to the wilderness where everyone had a boat; where you get off work and can be catching salmon 15 minutes later; where you could hunt almost from your back doorstep; and of course, where the salary was very enticing and you would be in charge of the whole place. What would you do? Of course, I did the same thing; I left Seattle for Juneau on October 22, 1962. I figured, what the hell, I would stay two years, make a bundle and go back south again.

The First Winter

The job certainly had some drawbacks. Some of the employees fiercely resented me because I was younger than they were. The mentality of the employees went back to territorial days, when everyone went home when the sun shined. Who cared if the computers had to keep running? There were no procedures and no schedules to speak of. I had my hands full trying to introduce modern computer practices into a frontier mentality.

That winter was an eye opener. I went down to a friend's house in November to have dinner before some function we were going to attend and it started snowing shortly after I arrived. Two hours later, the snow was two feet deep and still going strong. He lived at the end of a 600-foot driveway and there was no way to get my sports car through two feet of snow, so I had to spend the night. The next morning there was four feet of snow on the ground. Have you ever shoveled four feet of wet snow off a 600-foot driveway? It took five of us twelve hours to get the job accomplished. Do you know how much a shovel full of wet snow weighs? You don't want to know.

The rest of the winter was almost uneventful except it snowed four feet again in April, but this time I wasn't as dumb as I was before and my car was parked on the street. Speaking of the car, there was another two seat, red, convertible sports car in town and the cops couldn't tell the difference between a Fiat and a MG. Now, the MG owner was the cops' favorite target and they thought I was he. I got two tickets the first day in town for not pointing my wheels to the curb, probably the only tickets ever issued in that town for that infraction. That was only the beginning; I was getting tickets constantly. For example, I wanted to go back to town one day and I knew better than to make a U turn. I pulled off the main drag, went down two blocks, pulled into a driveway to turn around and went back to the main drag and got a ticket for making a U turn. I told the cop what I had done and he said "Tell it to the judge". I finally went to the Chief of Police and told him what was going on and he said, "Get rid of the car". So I did and lost my last vestige of playboy status.

The First Summer

That spring started the Alaska Odyssey. It began innocently enough in the Red Dog Saloon one evening while we were all sitting around drinking beer, observing the tourists observing us. Someone said, "Anyone want to go on a hike tomorrow?" I have to digress a moment to explain why I would agree to such a notion. In Alaska, old timers are called sourdoughs but it means more than just being a long-time resident. I had not earned my sourdough status, mainly because I was still alive, but also because I had not yet shot a grisly bear, slept with an Eskimo woman or swam the Yukon River, which Alaskans claim you have to do. So, I was ready to prove my worth to my friends. What a mistake, it was worse than parking your car at the end of a 600-foot driveway in a four-foot snowstorm. My first mistake was not asking how far it was and the second mistake was not asking about the terrain or the bears.

Bright and early the next morning, we started on a trail that would eventually lead to Cairn Peak. A cairn is a pile of stones set up as a monument or marker so I guess we were going to look at a pile of stones. We started out on a gentle slope that lured you into thinking this was going to be a snap. After about two hours of climbing I knew why children in the back seat of a car keep asking, "Are we there yet?" The terrain grew steeper, the trails disappeared and we started seeing what appeared to be huge blueberry pies on the ground. Know what that is? It is bear droppings from eating tons of blueberries. I wondered why we looked like a South American rebel army with all the firearms we were lugging up the mountain. I thought everyone just wanted to look like Davey Crockett or something. We didn't see any bears but they were all around us.

Ever heard of the Juneau Ice Pack? Of course you haven't, I didn't either until that day. It is where the snow never melts and glaciers tumble down from there to the sea below. Any idea why the snow never melts? Because it is so high, it never gets warm enough to melt. Guess where Cairn Peak is? Right, on top of the Juneau Ice Pack. We started our journey at 7:00 AM and ten miles later we reached Cairn Peak at about 5:00 PM. Sure enough, there was a pile of stones at the top. Why anyone would lug them up there is beyond me.

You probably are wondering how we were going to get off that mountain before nightfall if we reached the top at 5:00 PM? First of all, it is a lot faster going down hill and secondly, the sun goes down in May at about 10:00 PM in Juneau. We did find one interesting item up there that I will never forget. Have you ever seen a bowl full of ice water that is several acres in size? I lied a little earlier in this story, it does melt a little up there, just enough to make this lake in the ice with large pieces of ice floating in it. Since that day, I have always judged the quality of water by the water in that lake and nothing has ever come close, but I am not sure I would climb to the Juneau Ice Pack to savor the taste again. We arrived back at the Red Dog Saloon at about 11:00 that night and to say that I was exhausted would be an understatement. On that night, I ignored the tourists.

My transformation continued the next week with a fly-in fishing and bear hunting trip to a lake on the Stikine River. This trip was uneventful except for one reason. We saw a couple of bears but they were too far away and there were a couple of rivers between them and us. The trip was my introduction to Alaska fishing. We were sitting on the beach of the salt-water bay when I noticed a lot of splashing in the creek going up to the lake. I said, "What is that", never having seen fish so thick in a stream that they were causing a commotion. We went down with our fishing poles and were catching 25-inch Dolly Varden trout with every cast. I know you technical types are going to say the Dolly Varden is a char, but who knows what a char is and they look just like a trout.

The next week we went to Berners Bay to hunt for bear again. It was only about a fifty-mile trip so we took our little 14-foot boat instead of flying in a bush plane. We beached the boat on the far end of the bay and started walking into the meadow created by the inlet stream, when a plane flew in ahead of us and landed. A few minutes there was a rifle shot and we hurried in that direction. Lying there was the biggest bear I have ever seen in the wild, before or since. It was probably an eleven-foot bear and I won't get into how they are measured but it was huge. The pilot was standing at the bear's head, gloating that he had snatched it from us. I started to walk around the bear and I saw his eyes following me. I yelled, "He's still alive!" and the pilot laughed at me. I backed off to wait for the bear to eat this arrogant "hunter" when he walked to where I had been standing. Guess what, the bear was giving him the eye too. He screamed some profanity and shot the bear numerous times and I felt vindicated. We eventually went to the other end of the bay and I shot my first Alaska bear, a medium sized black bear
.
Everyone who moves to Alaska and is around salt-water long enough has story to tell about the tides. The highest tides in Alaska are from 24 to 30 feet, but that didn't mean much to me. I thought the tide would come in 24 feet up the beach. What is means is it is 24 feet high and it can come several miles up the beach. I was fishing one day on a rock in the salt water and never noticed the tide was coming in behind me. Fortunately, I wasn't catching anything so I turned to go somewhere else and I was in the middle of a salt-water lake formed by the tide. I was early enough in the tide cycle so that I only had to wade to shore in water up to my waist, but let me tell you what happened to a friend of mine that summer. He was doing the exact same thing I was but by the time he discovered what had happened, it was too late and the shore was too far away. He figured he would just wait for the tide to subside but he had no idea how long that would take. The salt water around Juneau is about 42 F (5.5 C) and if you are thrown overboard, you last about 15 minutes before you drown from exposure. He waited, and waited, and waited, eventually the water came up to his chest. He used his brand new Ithica shotgun to prop himself up to keep from falling over. He had no idea how high the tide was going to go but he was lucky, it only was a small tide that day. He stood for four hours in that freezing water and lived to tell about it. Several years later, the same man was walking to his cabin on Admiralty Island and he smelled a bear. Bears eat a lot of carrion (rotten meat) and you can smell them because of it, just like a whale that eats plankton. It alerted him to the possible danger and he jacked a shell into the chamber of his rifle. He heard a roar behind him and he swirled and fired from the hip at the charging bear. The bear was only 15 feet from him when it charged and he had at most a second or two to react. The bear fell on his feet with a shot in the head. He jacked another shell into the chamber to shoot it again when he realized he was about to shoot himself in the foot because the bear's head was resting on his feet. He jumped back and emptied the rifle into the bear.

Later that summer, the Department of Fish and Game asked for volunteers to fly into wilderness lakes to see if there were any fish in them. Such a deal, a free plane ride to fish a wilderness lake, of course I went. A friend of mine and I were flown to Kanalku Lake on Admiralty Island near the native fishing village of Angoon. I threw my daredevil lure into the lake and felt an immediate jolt in my arm as the largest trout I had ever seen tried to drown me. Have you ever seen a cutthroat trout? They are beautiful, with a red slash on their throats and hence the name. We caught a few but there were some reeds close to shore and it was difficult to bring them in, so we decided to go to the other shore. We started to cross a little stream on a log and I looked down and saw what appeared to be logs in the bottom of the stream. But the logs were moving! That stream was about ten feet wide and it was full of huge cutthroat trout, 25 to 30 inches long. We sat on the bank and flipped the lures in the stream and they fought for the chance to get it. I have never seen anything like it to this day, except in a fish hatchery. An amusing incident occurred while we were eating lunch. We were given onion sacks to carry the fish in if we caught any and we had seven sacks of fish sitting on the bank. A mink came up and chewed a hole in the sack and stole one of the fish, which was bigger than he was. Shortly, he was back for another one and then another one, etc. We watched him steal several fish. He must have had either an enormous appetite or a large family to need all those fish.

Ice Fishing

That winter, I learned another lesson I will never forget. Have you ever been ice fishing? I know you have seen people in the mid-west sitting in their little houses with their warm stoves, fishing through the ice. That is not the case in Alaska. First of all, there are no roads to the frozen lakes so the heated icehouse is out, even if you had one and secondly, you have to lug an ice auger to make holes in the ice. Have you ever tried to make a hole in two feet of ice? It isn't easy, believe me. I was invited to go on an ice-fishing trip to a lake that was about three miles by trail. Other than being almost straight uphill, it was not too bad a walk. As you can tell, I was in a little better shape this time. We arrived at this lake at about 20 below zero (-29 C) with the wind blowing at 50 miles per hour (80 km). Have you ever heard of the term Wind Chill Factor? That means you take the temperature and modify it by some formula for wind speed to determine what the temperature would be if the wind were not blowing. The temperature at -20 with the wind at 50 miles per hours is -86F (-65C), so you can imagine how much fun I had on that trip. You cannot imagine the intensity of the wind that was blowing across that lake that day. But the two guys I was with were trying to prove they were tough, so we stayed. When you finally get your hole in the ice to fish through, it freezes over in a couple of minutes and you have to remove the film of ice. You use a kitchen tea strainer to do that but one of the guys was using his hand. I can't figure out why his hand didn't freeze, mine were freezing and I had mine in my pockets.

I only went on one other ice-fishing trip but this one was to a lake that had a Forest Service cabin. We flew in and was dropped off on the salt-water tide flats and started for the cabin, which was about a half-mile away. We took our first step off the tide flats and went into snow up to our waists. You had to drag yourself out of the snow and leap forward. It took us two hours to traverse one-half mile to get to the lake. From the edge of the lake, it was about 200 yards to the cabin. We stepped onto the frozen ice and went up to our knees in rotten ice and water before hitting the frozen ice about two feet down. When you tried to pull your leg out, the suction caused your leg to be stuck in the hole. You had to use your hands to pull your leg out of the hole. It took another hour to walk the last 200 yards.

We were there a two days and didn't catch a single fish but it didn't matter, it was a beautiful lake and it looked like there was sculptured ice crystal everywhere. The cabin had a huge rock fireplace, we had a warm cabin and we had a great time. Going back down the trail when we left was great; you just laid down on the snow and slid the half-mile to the tide flats.


In Pursuit of Bears

The next spring we started our pursuit of bears with a vengeance. We had learned by then that very few bears hang around populated areas to commit suicide so we started flying great distances into the remote wilderness. Have you ever flown in a little two-seat plane near high mountains? The mountains create severe updrafts and downdrafts that toss the little plane like a juggler tosses balls. It is best to fly on an empty stomach if you are not used to it. There was a local legend named Kenny Logan that we always hired to take us into the wilderness. He was the best bush pilot in southeastern Alaska so you knew your chances were better than 50-50 that you might return. He flew us over the old gold mine on Douglas Island one day and said, "Have you ever see the glory hole"? The glory hole is where they dug to extract the gold ore. I said "No", which was a huge mistake. I should have said "Sure", but I had no idea what he was about to do. We were probably about 100 feet off the ground, going flat out and he rolled the plane almost upside down so we could look at the enormous hole in the ground. I was really glad my stomach was empty. It was like the worst roller coaster you have ever been on, only multiplied by ten. He really enjoyed that one.

I went hunting with the guy that propped himself up with his shotgun and another friend of mine. We always tossed coins to see who would shoot the first bear we saw. He got first choice until we decided the bear was suitable as a trophy. Why would it not be suitable? For one thing, it could be too small or it could be rubbed. When the bear comes out of hibernation after being holed up all winter, his first thoughts are to get something to eat, to take a shower because his fur feels like hell and to find a playmate. Not too different from us but you ask, how does a bear take a shower, there are no showers in the Alaska wilderness? He rubs the fur off his hide because it itches. He grew a very long coat to keep him warm all winter and he has no further use of it in the spring, so he rubs it off. Now, you can imagine what that does to a bear hide that you are going to use to make a rug, so you don't shoot a rubbed bear. The trick is to find them when they first come out of hibernation and have not rubbed all the fur off their body. We saw several bears that we passed up as small or rubbed. These are all brown bears. Do you know what the difference is between a brown bear and a grisly bear? There is none. The bear is called a brown bear if you find him within 50 miles of salt water. The brown bears are much larger because they have an ample diet of salmon all summer while the ones that live inland have to survive on mostly berries and roots and occasionally, a moose that gets caught in deep snow or is too old or injured to get away.

We eventually found a suitable bear at about dusk, which was about 10:00 PM. We were about 100 feet away when the chosen one shot him in the chest. I have never seen such a display of awesome power in my life. That bear sounded like Godzilla attacking Tokyo and he tore down every tree within twenty feet. He shot him again and that finished it but it was an eye opener as to what a bear could do to you. We would learn later to always carry a very large caliber rifle, hand load Nosler bullets which do not disintegrate when they strike bone, and shoot them in either the shoulder or the hip, not the chest. Why? Because a bear must have all four legs to run and if you use a powerful rifle, it will break his shoulder or hip and he can't attack you. Even if you shoot him in the heart, he still has enough time to let your heirs' cash in your life insurance policy.

Have you ever skinned a bear? Probably not, and you don't want to either. It is a hard and laborious task if you are going to have a rug made of the hide. You have to skin each paw down to the last knuckle. A bear's paw is just like our hands except instead of fingernails he has enormous claws that he uses to dig. No, a bear does not scratch your eyes out with his claws; he bites them out with his teeth. Then you have to carefully skin out each ear and turn them inside out. And you have to be very careful to not damage the eyelids. It takes two men about four hours to skin a bear properly for a rug. Your hands and fingers are aching from pulling on the hide and you have to salt the hide thoroughly with about 20 pounds of salt to keep it from decaying. You know how much a large bear hide weighs? Up to 200 pounds (90 kg). So hunting bear is not exactly a stroll in the park.

But, it is not brave men standing up to a bear and giving him an equal chance, either. First, you have to determine which way the wind is blowing so he can't smell you. A bear can smell you if you are down wind from a half a mile away, even if you do take a daily shower. So, you approach him from up wind. Second, you sneak up on him because bears' are practically blind. You can stand up and walk directly toward them and as long as you stop when he looks up, he will never see you. You can watch bears and they will stand on their hind legs and smell the air for danger or food but you never see them look at much of anything. Third, you shoot him from ambush with at least two very large caliber rifles pointed at him. So, a bear rug only means that you shot a bear, not that you risked your life in an equal fight.

I went on numerous bear hunts in Alaska, some very memorable, some not. One hunt I went on was not much of a bear hunt but what occurred on the trip was something I will never forget. Two friends of mine form Washington State flew to Juneau to hunt for bear with me. I had a small 14-foot boat at he time so we went to Burners Bay, the same place where the pilot shot the bear I described earlier. It is an easy boat trip from Juneau, if the weather is nice. We started out on a beautiful spring day and the water was smooth as glass. We hunted the far end of the Bay all-day and only saw thousands of bald eagles. When people tell you the bald eagle is an endangered species, tell them to go to southeastern Alaska. There was plenty of bear sign but they probably had moved inland. It was early in the evening and the weather was still beautiful when we started back across Berners Bay, probably a trip of about 30 miles, when I felt a slight breeze starting to blow from the north. Around Juneau, you can see the southeast storms coming for miles but the northern storms can be sudden and fierce and it concerned me. I headed for a homestead on the southern shore of the bay when the storm hit with full intensity. I knew we could never make it across the bay in that little boat so I turned and headed for shore, which was a dangerous maneuver because it put us in the trough of the waves. The eastern shore of the bay is made up of huge boulders and no beach so there is no place to land a boat. I told one of the men with me to get on the bow, hold on to the anchor rope and jump on the rocks when I nudged the boat into the rocks. He did everything except grab the anchor rope and we all jumped to shore. I said, "Give me the rope" and he said something about not having it. So, the boat drifted away from shore, leaving us stranded on the rocks. Fortunately, I always carried matches so I was able to build a fire that would keep us warm for the night. Remember telling you about the 24-foot tides in Alaska? When we jumped ashore, we climbed up high enough to stay away from the waters of high tide, almost. About 2 AM, I heard water lapping on the rocks we were camped on. It wasn't because I was a light sleeper; it was because you don't sleep too soundly sitting up on all night on boulders in the Alaskan wilderness. We had to retreat up the hill to higher ground in the pitch darkness and build another fire.

You are probably wondering how we got out of that predicament, right? To tell you the truth, I was a little concerned myself. I had not bothered to tell anyone where we were going so there would be no search party looking for us. Someone might have found the boat adrift but that could have taken days or even weeks. There was the homestead at the southern end of the bay, which was probably 20 miles away by land over extremely difficult terrain. Southeastern Alaska is a rain forest, which means very thick vegetation and lots of fallen trees to climb over and under. The coastline was a sheer drop-off and was probably impassable on foot. Are you starting to get the picture?

You can imagine my surprise the next morning when the boat was still at the shoreline! It was like the faithful horse that returns to rescue you. We jumped into the boat and started for the southern end of the bay, when the northern wind started again in all of its fury. We were probably five miles from the homestead when it started blowing and it got extremely dangerous very quickly. There are two things to worry about in a small boat in a storm; that water will come over the transom and swamp the boat and the engine will quit. It the engine quits, the boat turns sideways into the trough of the wave and the boat is swamped. My friends were enjoying the roller coaster ride when I casually said, "I hope your life insurance is paid." I told them I wasn't sure we had enough gas in the tank to ride these waves very long and one of them said he would change tanks. I told him to make sure the tank he was switching into was full and to do it quickly before the carburetor bowl emptied of gas and the engine quit. I was a little nervous about this procedure considering the failure to grab the anchor rope when we jumped ashore the previous evening, but it was accomplished without incident. There was a sandy beach at the end of the bay and I ran the boat at full speed into the beach to ground it. I didn't jump out and kiss the earth, that would have been a little melodramatic, but we were all very relieved to be out of that boat and out of that storm.

Alaskan homesteaders are a very friendly lot, which may surprise you. I have met many of them in the wilds of Alaska and they always offered us food and shelter. They were always very delighted to be able to talk to someone in the flesh. They have very powerful short wave radios so they can listen and talk to people from all over Alaska but the radios need electricity. Gasoline for their generators is expensive in the wilderness, so it is limited as to how much they use them. The man at this homestead lived alone and offered us something to eat and a cabin to spend the night. You know not to offer any money because that would be an insult to them. He kept us up half the night just talking and that was the only payment he wanted. He was one of the most interesting and intelligent men I have ever met and he had been living alone in the wilderness in Alaska for 30 years.

We radioed Kenny Loken the next morning to come and get us and take us to some productive bear country. He flew us to an island halfway between Juneau and Sitka and dropped us off on the salt-water beach with the promise to pick us up in two days. We found a suitable place to make camp and headed for the meadow that had a stream running through it. Bears hang around meadows in the spring because there are roots to dig and they may find a fish in the stream but that is unlikely until the salmon runs start later in the summer. We waited for some unsuspecting bear to appear and shortly one came out of the heavy thicket on the other side of the stream. He wasn't exactly a trophy bear but to these two guys, he looked huge. The one chosen to shoot first pointed his rifle in the general direction of the bear and pulled the trigger. I don't know how close he came to hitting that bear but it was enough noise to make the bear disappear into the thicket in the blink of an eye.

Now, true sportsman will tell you that you have to track down possibly wounded animals so you don't waste them by having a wounded animal die from his wound. I am sure the guy who thought that up was hunting white tail deer in the Vermont woods, not a brown bear in an Alaskan thicket. I walked over to the hole in the thicket where the bear had disappeared and started to enter that black abyss, which was a tunnel of about 4 feet in diameter. Chasing a wounded bear is one thing, chasing him stooped over at the waist into a black hole is an entirely different matter. I backed out of there and told my friends, "There is no blood in there so you must not have hit him." I would have said the same thing if it had looked like a Civil War battlefield in there.

A rifle shot will clear an area of bears in a hurry because they are not stupid. I told them we could relax for a few hours because there would be no bears around after the shot, so we went back to make our camp. We found one of our sleeping bags had been dragged into the sea by a bear. That was fun that night, my two friends had to sleep in the same sleeping bag, which is a little crowded when you are the same sex. Well, usually.

We returned at dusk and shot a bear and spent most of the night skinning it out. Kenny picked us up right on time two days later, as always, but that is another story we will get into later.

I only have one more bear story to tell. There were a lot of bear trips but this is a story about an odyssey, not a book on bears. My friend and I took our families on a bear hunting trip to a bay on Admiralty Island, which is adjacent to Juneau and about 20 miles west. A friend of his had a hunting cabin there and offered it for out use. We took our spouses and he took his 10-year old son and I took my 10-year old stepson.

I have never seen so many bears in my life as we did on that trip. There is a very small window of time in the spring after the snow melts when the bears are on the beach. The snow melts first on the beach and they can grub for roots. Once the snow melts in the mountains, they return until the salmon return to the streams. The bear season opened then on May 15th which was early enough to catch them on the beaches, where it is easy to find them. Since then, it has been changed to June 1st when the bears have already returned to the mountains. I counted thirty-seven bears on that trip but some of them may have been counted twice.

I took my spouse and my stepson across the bay to a beautiful meadow where we had an unobstructed view of the beach, except for about one hundred yards to our left. I beached the skiff and tied the anchor line to a tree on the shore and we sat behind some rocks and waited for the bears to appear. My spouse took off her boots for a time and then was putting them back on her feet. When she had one half on, she stood up to pull it the rest of the way. She screamed, "Oh my god, there is a bear and her cubs", and took off, one boot in hand and one flapping on her foot. Now, a wild animal would have stood her ground and protected her son, but in this case it was save yourself first. I stood up and there was a female and two cubs about 20 yards from us, walking our way. She had not detected our scent yet and she was oblivious to our presence. I told my stepson to get out of there, which is one of the few times he ever did what I told him to do without an argument. The bear picked up our scent and she bolted for the woods. It is not true that a bear with cubs will always charge. They will first try to get away, but if they think their cubs are in danger, all bets are off. Fortunately, she picked up our scent before we were too close to her.

I went back to the skiff and both my spouse and stepson were scared out of their wits. She yelled, "Lets get out of here" and I told her I would be happy to do that if she and her son would get out of the skiff so I could drag it back to salt water, which was about 50 yards away because the tide had gone out. I was laughing so hard I doubt if I could of have shot the bear if she had of charged.

The next day, we took the two boys hunting again. We saw numerous bears but they were either small or rubbed. We found one huge bear with a female that was having a grand time showing off and rolling around on the beach. That is the only time I ever saw one with a female and he reminded me of some of the rituals I had seen in the Red Dog Saloon. But, he was rubbed terribly so he was spared and we left him to his pleasures.

Later, we were on the beach walking back to the skiff and a bear came out of the woods about thirty yards from us, but he was unaware of our presence. Bears will normally run if they have the opportunity but if they think they are cornered, are startled, have cubs or are old and ornery, they may charge with a ferocity and speed that is awesome to behold. The problem is you never know what they are going to do, so you have to assume the worst. In this case, my stepson was directly between the bear and me so if he charged, I had no way to shoot the bear without hitting my stepson. I yelled, "Wayne, get down!" because there was no time for him to get out of the way other than to drop to the ground. But, he was so scared he was frozen in space, he literally could not move. I yelled at him again but he didn't move. It could have been serious if that bear had charged but my yelling frightened him and he ran back into the woods. Another lesson learned; the guy with the cannon walks on the side next to the woods, not the water.

The Long Weekend

A friend of mine and I decided to go to Hassleberg Lake for the weekend. It is a beautiful setting on Admiralty Island about one hundred miles from Juneau. There is a Forest Service cabin by the outlet and a rowboat. The outlet is the Hassleberg River and has excellent fishing for cutthroat trout. A pilot from a local air service dropped us off on Friday afternoon because Kenny Loken was not available.

We had arranged to get picked up on Sunday afternoon. We were packed and sitting by the lake in front of the cabin waiting for the plane to come and get us. He flew in low and landed in the cove next to us. We were really ticked off because we had to walk about a mile to get over there. We couldn't understand why he couldn't see the cabin or us from the air because he wasn't more than a hundred yards from us when he came in. He was on the water for only a couple of minutes when we heard the roar of the engine again and we knew he was going back up to look for us. Fat chance, he headed the plane straight for Juneau and disappeared.

If you are saying, "Big deal, you have food and shelter, what more do you need?" you would be half right because we did have shelter. When you leave a cabin in Alaska, you throw all your perishable food down the garbage pit so the bears don't tear the cabin apart getting to the food. All we had left was perishable food and it was now in a hole in the ground. We were planning on having dinner in Juneau that evening and had not eaten so we were getting a little hungry. I had the cannon so it was decided my partner would try to catch some fish and I would go look for a deer to shoot, or something to eat anyway. He went to the river and I headed for some meadows about a mile away. I arrived and there was a beaver family busily building their dam so I sat down and watched them, hoping a deer would blunder across my path. You can eat a beaver, especially when you are hungry. But, that baby beaver was really cute and I knew I couldn't shoot one of his parents, at least not for a couple of days. I waited around until well past dusk and threw a rock at them just to let them know I was there and headed back to the cabin.

Grouse are a strange bird. They use their camouflage colors to hide and will stand perfectly still, undetected. It is almost impossible to see them, unless of course, he is standing in the middle of the trail you are on. I rounded a corner in the trail and there he was, about 15 or 20 feet from me, standing perfectly still. I was carrying a large caliber rifle so I couldn't aim at his body, there would have been just enough left to make chicken broth if I shot him in the chest. I took careful aim and shot him in the head, a target of about an inch square. My partner started yelling "Don't shoot, I'm down here". He was only about 50 yards away when I fired the shot and it scared him half to death. He had not caught any fish so we had the grouse that night for dinner, baked to perfection and it was great! And I didn't have to shoot the baby beaver's daddy, yet.

The next day turned out to be a nice day. There were some high clouds in the sky, but it was not enough to keep the planes from flying. Of course, we had no way of knowing that Juneau was socked in completely. The problem with being stranded is you never know just when someone will come to get you so you have to be accessible and ready to go at any time. That meant that during the day, we had to stay fairly close to the cabin in case the plane came back. I went to the river to fish and my partner waited at the cabin for the plane. Fortunately, the fish started biting again so the beaver's daddy was safe for another day. We waited around until dusk and I left to try to find something other that fish to eat. I went back and watched the beaver family work on their dam but no deer walked by and no other grouse stood still for me to shoot in the head. That day it was fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I didn't like to eat trout in the first place.

The next day was a repeat of the day before, high clouds but nice weather. We sat around the cabin all day again and was getting a little annoyed at our predicament, to say the least. When someone doesn't show up to be picked up, it is assumed he is injured or worse but when there are two missing, it usually means some disaster has befallen them. People just do not miss their pickup time in Alaska for any reason. In Juneau, it was assumed we had drowned in the lake.

About 5:00 PM, we heard the drone of a plane in the distance, the first one we had heard in several days. A few minutes later, the plane landed in the correct cove and picked us up. We got back to Juneau and both of us went to the closest restaurant and ordered a banana split, just to get the taste of fish out of our mouths. That was the last time I ever hired anyone other than Kenny Loken to fly me anywhere, at least he could find his way back to where he had dropped you off.

Afognak Island And The Kenai Peninsula

Shortly after the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1965, we decided to go elk hunting on Afognak Island and Dahl sheep hunting in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula. We had to go through Anchorage and Kodiak to get to Afognak Island. The devastation from the earthquake was massive in both cities. The earthquake caused the damage in Anchorage and in Kodiak the damage was caused by the tidal wave from the earthquake.

We caught the Alaska State Ferry to Kodiak and had a bush plane fly us to a bay on Afognak Island. In 1965, there were thousands of elk on the island so the limit was two elk for each hunter. We climbed a ridge and there were hundreds of elk in front of us. We shot a bull and then the fun started. An elk is a fairly large animal, not as large as a moose but it still is a chore to carry on your back. We cut the carcass into quarters and spent the next day carrying it back to our base camp. Needless to say, we decided one elk was enough.

When we got off the ferry in Homer, my partner decided he wanted to return to Juneau instead of continuing with the sheep hunt. I decided to go it alone and had him drop me off at the dock where the bush planes hung out. I had a bush pilot fly me into Green Lake in the Kenai Mountains. There were numerous hunters there either going into the mountains or returning home so I knew I could have one of the bush pilots arrange for someone to pick me up. I left and went into the mountains alone, probably the dumbest thing I have ever done.

The mountains were beautiful and there were lots of Dahl sheep in the area but they were small rams and ewes. I spotted a large band down a long valley and started down the long shale slide to see if there was a legal ram there. I was there for several hours and then tried to come back up the shale. Climbing on shale is a lot like climbing on loose snow, it is one step up and then you slide back two steps. It was a long and arduous climb out of that canyon. I told myself I would never do anything like that again and then I found my wallet was missing. I had lost it while I was either sliding down the shale or while I was observing the sheep in the canyon. You don't have to worry about someone using your credit cards but you do have to be concerned about how you are going to get back to civilization with no cash to pay a bush pilot. So, against better judgement, I went down the shale slide into the canyon again, without finding the wallet.

I went back to Green Lake to try to get a ride back to Anchorage "On the cuff". Bush pilots are not known to extend credit for their services so I was going to have to beg a ride on a plane that was empty going out or was not filled to capacity. I met a man from Hawaii that was planning on going sheep hunting the next day and he said that if I went with him, I could ride back to Anchorage and pay for half of the trip when we got there. Somehow, you always find some way out of the predicaments you get yourself into.

We started early the next morning. The man was in his fifties but he was in excellent physical condition. What I didn't know was that he planned on shooting every specie of bird and animal in Alaska.

The first evening we set up camp and I started glassing the mountains looking for sheep. I found a group of three rams that included a magnificent full-curl ram about three miles away. I was watching them and I heard this popping noise and I went to see what the hell he was shooting at. He was shooting a pistol at ptarmigan, an Alaska bird that lives at high altitudes. They are very east to hunt because they are not accustomed to being shot at and they will fly only a short distance. However, Dahl sheep are used to being shot at and they will leave the area. I went back to locate the sheep and they were leaving, naturally.

The next morning, we went to see if we could find the sheep that I had spotted the day before. We separated and we went in different directions. I came around a corner and a sheep jumped up and started running. It looked like a good ram in the glimpse I got of him so I shot him. It wasn't the ram I was looking for but he was legal, barely. I skinned and boned him and carried it back to the base camp. My friend had also shot a small ram so we prepared to leave the next morning.

Bright and early, we were preparing to leave when a black bear stumbled into our camp. My friend grabbed his rifle and started after the bear.

In Alaska, if the animal is editable, you have to bring out the meat and a black bear is considered editable. I didn't relish the idea of spending the rest of the day skinning out that bear and then carrying out a hundred pounds of bear meat, plus the sheep we already had. There was only one exit out of the area we were in and that was through the canyon we had hiked into to get there. I waited at the top and sure enough, the bear came up the canyon with my friend in pursuit from below, somewhere. I put a shot behind the bear to get him into gear and he took off at full speed. At least I didn't have to carry him out of there.

The Lunar Landing

In 1967, I left Juneau to work at Cape Kennedy on the lunar landing that President Kennedy had promised the world. I knew one of the managers there that worked at Boeing so I called him. He said, "Come down and you will have a job the day you arrive." If he had told me what the assignment was going to be, I might not have taken the job. He told me I would be working on the IBM System 360, which was the flagship mainframe computer in those days. What he didn't tell me was that they had decided to go to a brand new operating system on a brand new computer that was unknown and untried. For you technical types, it was IBM OS/67, the forerunner of the MVS Operating System. I walked in the first day and he said he had this new assignment, no one there had ever used the operating system before and it was my job to learn it, teach it and get it implemented. He handed me a stack of computer manuals that were about four feet high and said something like "Good luck." I don't know if he had confidence in my abilities or if everyone had threatened to quit if they were given the assignment. It was a massive task because there were no classes available and the manuals were the first edition, which meant they contained ambiguities and errors. The other problem was the computers were located in Huntsville, Alabama so all the IBM support people were there, not at Cape Kennedy. Anyway, I studied day and night for six months and was finally able to make it function. I held classes for the rest of the employees and headed up the conversion team that was sent to Huntsville to complete the process. I had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

It was an exciting time both on and off the job because the lunar landing project was one of the largest and most complicated projects in history. Everyone at the Cape was instilled with the notion that the project's success depended on each person's performance and failure was not an alternative. It was an atmosphere I had never experienced before or since.

Boeing had a policy that if you attended any meetings, it would be in a coat and tie. I always wore a suit to work even if I had no meetings scheduled but one sultry day in May, I decided not to. About mid-morning, my boss came to me and said, "Put on your coat and come with me" and I had to confess I had no coat that day. His comment was something like; "I will never hear the end of it." We walked into a large conference room and the place was packed with people, a photographer and the head of Boeing Computer Services was standing there. I was ushered to the front of the room and the BIG BOSS started his speech with something like, "When Columbus discovered America, it was recorded who was on the ship but not who built the ship. For the most important voyage in the history of man, we intend to record the names of those people who made significant contributions to the first manned lunar landing. We are here today to honor the first two recipients and to place their names on the Lunar Roll of Honor. They will have their names recorded at an appropriate monument on Cape Kennedy and their names will be put on microfilm and left on the moon." I just about fainted. It didn't mean much in the history of the lunar landing but it meant a lot to me. I never inquired if my name was ever placed on the moon; I just want to assume it is up there. Four hundred thousand men and women worked on the lunar landing; a few hundred names were placed on the Lunar Roll of Honor.

On July 16, 1969 the rocket was ready, the astronauts were ready and our computers said everything was ready for launch. Boeing was responsible for building the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, transporting all the pieces to the Cape, assembling it, hauling it out to the launch pad and launching it. I was always asked what I was responsible for and my answer was and is, "I lit the match."

First, I have to tell you how it feels to be near a Saturn V rocket when it lifts off. The rocket's five main engines are ignited and it is held down for eight seconds until all the engines are synchronized and firing at maximum power. During that period, the ground shakes and it feels like a small Alaskan earthquake. Then they release the hold down clamps and the rocket starts its liftoff. From three miles away, you feel a pressure against your chest that almost pushes you back. The feeling of power is awesome. It is generally assumed that the space shuttle is the most powerful rocket ever built but the Saturn V is twice as tall and has four times the payload of the space shuttle. The Saturn V is the largest and most complicated machine ever built, unless you believe in UFO's.

It is difficult to describe the excitement of that day. There had been other launches of the Saturn V rocket that were truly almost heart stoppers, especially the first time they launched that thirty-six story monster. Apollo VIII was a manned launch that circled the moon, but this was Apollo XI and it was the first instance of man ever attempting to set foot on another celestial body. It was heady stuff; you could feel the lump in your throat all day.

I had access to the launch area but I was going to watch the launch from a causeway because of the massive traffic jams after the launch. I parked at an appropriate spot and waited. A cop came by and said there was no parking there, for no good reason other than he was a cop and could do it. So, I drove into the Cape Kennedy Space Center and drove toward the launch area. There was a roped off area so I parked my car and climbed under the rope. I looked behind me and there was a grandstand. You will never guess who was standing there. Yep, Lyndon Baines Johnson, himself. He was the ex-president by then but I knew I had stumbled into the VERY VIP area. Being an experienced bureaucrat, I put my Cape Kennedy engineer badge in my pocket because I knew no one had the nerve to ask anyone in there for their visitor's pass. So, LBJ and I watched them launch Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon.

Lost in Mississippi

After the first lunar landing, there was not much to do around the Cape. The area I worked in went from fifty-three employees to three in the next few months, so I made plans to leave. I went to work in Pascagoula, Mississippi and got there just in time for Hurricane Camille, the worst hurricane to come ashore in the United States in the 20th century. The night before the hurricane was due, I went down to a bar on the beach. The owner had padlocked a huge logging chain to a propane tank and a tree so I asked him what he was doing that for and he said, "I don't want to lose the tank." I went inside and he was giving away free beer because he didn't have time to move it. It was a quaint little bar made out of cement blocks.

I went back to my apartment to wait for Camille, with its 200-MPH winds. I lived in a large brick building far enough from the beach so I didn't have too much to worry about. The water coming ashore usually causes the most damage, unless you live in a trailer park and the wind blows your trailer down, like the Big Bad Wolf. It hit about 10 PM that night and I watched for awhile and went to bed. I had been in Alaska for the biggest earthquake to hit the United States in its history and now I was sitting in the path of this monster hurricane. I think God was saying, "Where is Dale today, lets throw the wrath of God at him again."

The next morning I went down to the beach to visit my now favorite watering hole. I parked my car in front and immediately noticed that the propane tank, the logging chain and the tree were all missing. I was amazed the bar was still standing. I walked through the front door and all that remained of the building was the front wall. The other three walls, the roof and everything in the bar were gone. I drove around Pascagoula near the beach and it looked like Anchorage after the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1965. About two weeks later, the National Guard let traffic into Gulfport, Biloxi, Mississippi City, Bay St. Lewis and Waveland. Those towns were totally destroyed by the 20-foot wave that came ashore.

I didn't care for Mississippi too much; to them damn Yankee was one word and only General Lee signed the 1865 Civil War surrender documents, not them. It was during the civil rights struggle in the South and some of the good old boys were not ready to give up just yet. I got a call from a friend of mine in Alaska who offered me a manager's job in Juneau, so I left Mississippi and went back to where the natives were friendly.

Death's Door-step

The first Thanksgiving I was back, five of us went on a deer-hunting trip to Admiralty Island over the holiday weekend. Two flew in on Monday and three of us joined them on Wednesday. We had arranged to use a Forest Service cabin that was on a cove. We walked to where the cabin was supposed to be and there was a lean-to made out of spruce branches. The two had put a huge fire in the stove the first night so they wouldn't have to get up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire. Some plastic on the roof caught fire and the cabin burned to the ground, slightly burning both of them. They came within a minute or two of burning up in that cabin. They were able to get their sleeping bags and rifles out or it would have been very uncomfortable because it was 11 below zero. But we added to the lean-to and it wasn't too bad. We had plenty of food and drink, we had warm sleeping bags and we were all still alive. I should have known something was coming.

We went deer hunting the next day. It was an extremely cold and clear day, still at about 11 below zero. You can dress for extremes in temperature but you have to keep moving to keep your body warm. If you wear enough clothes to keep you warm while at rest, you will perspire when you have to move.

I hunted alone along the side of a mountain. I did not notice that I had crossed a ridge while climbing the mountain. Late in the afternoon, I started descending the mountain and did not realize I was on the north side of a ridge and should have been on the south side. I walked for a couple of miles and it started getting dark. Soon it was completely dark and I was engulfed in what appeared to be a coal mine, I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. I was stepping in holes and falling down and was getting hit in the face with spruce branches. I knew I could not survive the night in that weather so I had no choice but to continue. I walked for what seemed an eternity when I came to a salt-water bay. I knew the camp had to be south so I turned in that direction and walked along the shoreline. After about a mile, I came upon a boat anchored in the bay and fired a shot to get his attention. He came over in the skiff and picked me up. He told me I was on the west side of a small peninsula on the island and dropped me off on the trail. I knew where I was and how to get back to camp. I walked into camp at about 8 PM, four hours after it got dark. The little lean-to looked like a Hilton Hotel.

The Final Hunt

My friend of the bear attack and I decided to go Dahl Sheep hunting in the Wrangal Mountains in south central Alaska. We drove to Northway, a little native village near the Alaska Highway. It has a 7,000-foot paved runway, in the middle of nowhere. No, it is not another example of the Bureau of Indian Affairs trying to make amends for past transgressions against the Indians, it was built during World War II as a refueling stop for planes that were being ferried to Russia through Fairbanks, Alaska. It is still maintained as an alternate emergency landing site for commercial flights to Anchorage and Fairbanks. We met our bush plane pilot and flew into the Horsefeld landing strip about 100 miles away, as the crow flies. They dropped me at the airstrip and the pilot and my friend flew over our base camp about ten miles away. We had packed all our gear, except for the tent and our sleeping bags, into three fifteen-gallon, empty oil drums. The pilot removed the passenger door and when they flew over our base camp, my friend pushed the barrels out of the plane. We hiked in about ten miles and set up camp the next day. We were there four days before hunting season so we could locate the sheep and let them settle down if they discovered our presence.

We climbed the highest mountain around there, which was 8,000 feet high, but we started at 4,000 so the climb was about 4,000 feet. There were no sheep up there; they were down in the valley where there was grass and water. The view was spectacular and I have one of the best pictures I ever took in Alaska, so it was worth the climb.

That night it started to rain and it rained for two days. We were camped in an old, sandy riverbed so water drainage was no problem but the boredom was a little intense. It stopped raining the day before the hunting season opened and the weather was beautiful. We both shot sheep during the next two days. I shot mine from about 200-yards away and when I walked up to him, he turned and looked at me with an expression of fear and pain. I never forgot it and I never shot another animal after that.

We hung around camp until the day before the plane was due back at Horsefeld. We had crossed a small river on the way in that came up to our knees. After the two-day rain, it had been transformed into a raging torrent that was probably up to our chests, making it impassable. Our only option was to go upstream to find a place where it was wide and shallow. We walked upstream for about three miles trying to find a suitable place to cross. Now, I know what you are thinking, a three-mile hike, big deal. First of all, that is three miles in each direction, which adds up to six miles. Second, it was not a stroll on a sidewalk; the terrain was difficult because of the alders along the river. Third, I was carrying 95 pounds and my partner was carrying 135 pounds. Why, you ask, was he the pack mule of this expedition and how do I know what the packs weighed? I will digress for a moment.

When we planned this trip, we selected old cooking utensils, old clothes and some items that would make our camp a little more pleasant, like a roll of plastic to cover the cooking area outside of the tent, a small army shovel and other various tools. It was our intention to bury the old, non-essential items when we left the camp. My partner was a world class packrat. When it came time to bury the stuff, he couldn't bring himself to part with any of it. He even carried out the old pots and frying pan I had taken in there! As for the weight, we weighed the packs when we got back to Juneau.

Anyway, after three miles, we found a place where the river was wide and shallow and appeared to be passable. It is dangerous to cross a river with a heavy pack because if you lose your footing, the pack can drag you under. We started across the river and the water was about up to our waist. We made it to the other side and lay on the bank, completely exhausted and thankful to be across that river. We walked back to our original crossing point and looked for the beer. The beer?

When we went in ten days earlier, we left a six-pack of beer in the river for our return trip. We were sure the swollen river had taken the beer downstream but there were still four bottles of beer in the eddy of the river where we had left it. There are no words in the English language to describe the enjoyment of that beer that day.

We got back to Horsefeld and made camp for the night. Have you ever seen the Northern Lights in the wilderness? No words to describe that either. On this night, the Northern Lights were white, blue and green and they were moving across the sky like a ballet dancer. You have to see it to appreciate it, especially in the wilderness where the stars and the Northern Lights are not obstructed by city lights. Female companionship and a bottle of wine would have made it perfect.

The next morning, my partner woke me up by saying, "Look at that!" Standing about 50 yards away was a caribou looking at us. My partner picked up his rifle and shot him, the only time I ever knew anyone to go hunting from his bed. You probably are wondering why he was sleeping with his rifle next to him in bed? No, it was not a male bonding thing, it was to keep the rifle dry if it rained and to discourage bears from joining us in our tent.

Later that year, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act made the Wrangal Mountains a wilderness area, which means the only way to visit there is on foot or on a horse. No one is ever going travel one hundred miles over glaciers, mountains and rivers to go there, so we may well be the last human beings to ever visit that beautiful valley, other than some Federal Government bureaucrat. That is regrettable, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

The Sourdough

After twenty-nine years in Alaska, did I attain sourdough status? I never swam the Yukon River or did the Eskimo thing but I did shoot a grisly bear. Being an Alaskan sourdough is a state of mind; it is not any one feat or series of feats that you have to accomplish. It is watching the Northern lights in the wilderness, listening to a loon sing his mournful song on a wilderness lake, and observing a magnificent, wild animal without the compulsion to shoot him, just to prove your masculinity. It is surviving a few blunders that maybe you shouldn't have survived and knowing how to avoid the blunders in the first place. It means going into the wilderness and enjoying the solitude and the beauty of Alaska, knowing you will return to civilization. It means you are proud to call yourself an Alaskan.

Did I become an Alaskan sourdough? That is for you to judge. I know the answer.

Epilogue

This story was written for my grandson, Jeffrey Brouillet, who was born in Alaska. Jeffrey lived with me from the age of three until he was almost ten. I want him to know something of my life in Alaska and why I have a tendency to talk about it sometimes, like all grandfathers do. If I tried to tell him this story now, he would probably say, "Sure, Pappa, just like you said you used to walk three miles to school in the snow." (I did, sometimes!)

I hope that when he gets older, he will enjoy reading this story as much as I have writing it for him. Maybe he will visit some of the places that were so memorable to me in my life and see and love the grandeur that is Alaska.

I love you, Jeffrey,
Pappa


Dale Griggs
September, 1999