Friday, September 10, 2010

Story Time: An Aleutian Adventure

You know those little projects that just never seem to get done? Well, I finally finished one that has languished for twenty years: having the necklace and earrings in the photo to the left framed. They were carved by a Russian craftsman out of mammoth ivory and I picked them up in a small shop in Dutch Harbor. What was I doing in Dutch? Now that's a story...

I think growing up in a military family instilled a bit of wanderlust in my persona. Shortly after graduating vet school this pull took hold pretty hard and I found myself looking for, and accepting, a job outside of Anchorage. The drive up the
Alcan highway in late December, with no four-wheel drive, little food, and even less money is a tale in and of itself, but I digress. At this Alaskan clinic, we did everything from cut colics to orthopedic surgery, a trial by fire for a young vet, but a great way to gain years of valuable experience in a short time. One of the contracts this clinic had was to fly out to the Aleutian Islands a few times a year to vaccinate and neuter as much of the island pet population as we could.

This trip required a lot of packing. We would fill one cooler full of vaccine, syringes, and gloves and another with Spartanly equipped, pre-sterilized spay and neuter packs. These trips were about volume, not luxury.

When you fly into Dutch, about two hours from Anchorage, the plane banks very steeply to make the approach. Steep enough that you begin to wonder just how the seat belt is managing to hold you down and stiff cross winds push the plane sideways like an air-hockey puck. The runway never seems long enough--737s are the biggest thing able to land here and the sight of Bering Sea closing in at the end is enough to make you white-knuckle the armrest every time.

Many people know Dutch Harbor from the show Deadliest Catch. Bald Eagles thick as seagulls. Craggy volcanoes jutting up from the ocean. Rough men and women bundled up against the weather and just daring someone to pick a fight. To this day, the best Mexican dinner I've ever eaten was in Dutch. It's true, the town is like Tombstone. With fish.

It certainly felt like the frontier when we set up the makeshift hospital in the community center. Without gas anesthesia, we relied on injectables. I had spent some time my senior year at an emergency clinic where the head veterinarian concocted this great mixture of Rompun, Ketamine, and Acepromazine you could give intramuscularly to both dogs and cats and within a few minutes have a surgical plane anesthesia for about twenty minutes, and we found this mixture to be perfect for our island trips. Twenty minutes is a cake-walk for castrations, but, especially for a new grad, a bit disconcerting for a spay. But you gotta do what you gotta do, and before long I was whipping out spays "skin-to-skin" as we say, meaning from incision to last stitch, in about twelve minutes. And that's how it went: inject, scrub, cut, stitch. Patient after patient. At the end of the day we washed up the instruments at the local human clinic and used their autoclave to sterilize our packs for the next go-round. I was flush with adrenalin and didn't think it could get much wilder. Then we moved on to Akutan.

One island east of Dutch Harbor, Akutan is small, and I mean small. In comparison, Dutch might as well have been New York. Akutan is a lone sashimi plant and a village of about ninety people. We took a float plane in, as the only other option was a long boat ride; an option we would be forced to take if a storm came up. The village, where we were doing more work, had no roads, only plank walkways wide enough for ATVs, which was just as well, because you could walk anywhere you needed to in less than five minutes.

No high falutin' community center here. At Akutan we neutered animals on the village constable's desk, then moved them to a jail cell to recover like so many Otises in Mayberry. That evening we walked to the fishery and picked up some king crab to take home (for a fraction of what you pay in stores), stopping to throw sashimi scraps to the sea lions, gathered like pigeons waiting for breadcrumbs.

Next morning we spoke to the school kids and neutered a cat in the classroom for a demonstration. (now
that's an education) The class consisted of about a dozen kids ranging from elementary to high school. One of the seniors told me that right after graduation he was moving to L.A. I thought, "Whoa champ, slow down. Akutan to biggest city in the country? Might want to ease into things, maybe try Dayton, or Boise." But I didn't say it. Hope he didn't get eaten alive. I blame television. But then again, I blame television for everything.

While we were on Akutan an accident occurred that served as a reminder of just how isolated these islands are. A worker at the plant injured himself splitting crab. Crab-splitting is done assembly-line fashion, where a crab is taken and split in half over a sharp blade, kind of like you would break kindling over your knee. This unfortunate worker slipped and shoved his hand against the blade at the web between the thumb and forefinger, almost amputating the thumb. The wind was up, so he had to go by boat to Dutch just to get to a nurse who could properly attend to the wound, and then get on a plane to Anchorage for surgery. My hand hurts just thinking about it.

After this little detour we went back to Dutch, which is when I came across the ivory necklace. There was a small general store (trading post, more like) in town run by a wind-weathered immigrant couple. Apparently they went back to Russia (this was within a year after the collapse of the old Soviet Union) frequently and came back with all sorts of interesting stuff. I love handmade things, especially from craftsmen (or women) of talent, and as soon as I saw the curves and warm browns of the mammoth ivory, I was set on having it, and after a bit of haggling packed it in my suitcase for the trip home, along with a wolf-hair and bead necklace that I just thought was cool. The necklace, the ivory one, is awkward for actual wearing, though Lynne has taken it for a spin or two. Still, I always saw it as a piece for framing, but never got around to it because, to be frank, our farmhouse really didn't have an appropriate wall for it. All the packing and unpacking for our recent move it returned to front of mind and I was determined it would not sit in a box for another two decades. It now hangs in our living room and resonates of Alaska: great memories of wilderness, adventure, and youth. Sometimes I see that necklace and those earrings and feel like wandering, if just for a little while.