DILLINGHAM — Prior to moving here with Yvonne Leutwyler in 2013, my sole Bristol Bay experience involved 10 days of 12-hour night shifts on the freezer crew in the Pederson Point cannery near Naknek during the peak of sockeye season almost 30 years ago.
My brother, who had worked and lived here almost 20 years earlier, told me that Dillingham was one of the friendliest communities he'd ever been in. He also said the sportfishing was fantastic — especially if one had a boat or a plane, or happened, like him, to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Before setting foot here, I knew Dillingham was remote, set deep in Nushagak Bay with a sprawling, sparsely populated wilderness of tundra, lakes and mountains. The rest was guesswork, a bit of internet research and my imagination. I pictured unpaved roads, wind and rain, fish camps, snowmachines in winter, four-wheelers in summer and plenty of brown bears.
Along with some furniture, books and clothing, I packed fishing tackle, Xtratufs, rain gear, bear spray and some guns.
I worried how I'd do in this strange, new place. After all, I'd lived primarily on my family's Kenai Peninsula homestead for more than 50 years. It was practically all I knew.
Once I arrived in Dillingham, however, I realized I'd be just fine.
I found comfort in the familiar buzz of single-engine aircraft, the proximity of moving water, streets built around landforms and practicality rather than some planner's grid, the hands waving behind windshields and that small-town-Alaska sensibility that says, "Everything you really need is right here."
As strangers evolved into familiar faces, Dillingham itself evolved from a dot on the map into home.
Now — not so long after saying hello to Bristol Bay — I am saying goodbye.
Yvonne's job brought us here in the first place, and now it is taking us to Homer, just 75 miles from the Soldotna home of my mother, who is tickled pink that I'm returning to the fold (and the road system).
But before my final PenAir departure, I want to bid a proper farewell to a place that has been very good to us the last three years.
I'll begin with an observation that startled me when we first arrived: Boats and shipping containers are everywhere.
I believe it may be impossible to venture down any Dillingham street, regardless of its length or how far inland it lies, without passing a yard that includes a Conex shipping container or a boat, or both. Shipping containers — the heavy, metal, multicolored tool sheds of Bush Alaska — stand tough against Bristol Bay wind and rain, while boats (from skiffs to river runners, barges to fishing vessels) are its throbbing heart of commerce, travel and tradition.
I will miss Bristol Bay wildlife, especially hungry brown bears patrolling the streams, red foxes trotting along the tundra, gray whales feeding off Cape Constantine and the ubiquitous ravens — stoic on power poles, playful in the swirling air above the bluff line, insatiable in dumpsters and pickup beds and vigilant and vocal in their nests.
Goodbye to all the local celebrations of talent and community — Beaver Roundup, the Christmas Bazaar, Coffee House, First Fridays, Bayside Chats, the Blessing of the Fleet, Tony's Run, Farmers Market, the Traditional Foods Feast, high school sports, the spirited murals of Apayo Moore and "Open Line" on KDLG radio.
So long to trivia at the Willow Tree bar, $13 cartons of orange juice, agutuk made from Bristol Bay blueberries and salmonberries, decaying double-ender fishing vessels echoing the past by the PAF (Pacific American Fisheries) boatyard, the image of President Obama dancing with children in the middle school gym and the voice of Jimmie G. Arkanakyak, whose crooning Yupik rendition of "Happy Birthday" concludes each episode of "Open Line."
Adieu to Snake Lake Mountain, the windy top of which I've visited more than 40 times, starting with my second day in town.
But all of that, and so much more, pales in comparison to the local friendliness and generosity.
During our first spring here, a woman neither of us knew, subsistence fishing with friends below our apartment, saw us walking by empty-handed and practically insisted we take one of her king salmon — because that's what people here do. They share what nature provides.
Local biologist Tim Sands and his family have been even more generous. Tim handed us salmon and moose meat from his freezer and then took us out in his boat on the Wood River to subsistence fish. Lance Foster and Mike Campbell let us borrow subsistence nets. Bobby McCarr handed us salmon from his net one day when the pickings in our own were slim. We smoked salmon on a Big Chief owned by Neil Barten and Lauri Jemison, canned salmon with the pressure cooker of Paul Liedberg and Maryanne Dickey and sampled the special salmon-and-herb recipe of our innovative neighbor, Norm Anderson.
Carrie Benedict allowed us to plant vegetables in her high tunnel. Master gardeners Toni and Mark Hermann and Patricia Carscallen gave us planting and watering advice. Leon Braswell lent us his rototiller.
A few people even broadly hinted at good places to pick blueberries, although they, understandably, neglected to reveal prime salmonberry-picking sites.
Steve Buchholz and Lisa Haggblom invited us to holiday feasts and Super Bowl parties. Annie Fritze tried to help me translate and pronounce difficult Yupik words. Mike Davis provided a detailed tour of the Sam Fox Museum and walked us out to the site of the old Kanakanak Village. Chuck and Penny Johnston lent me camera equipment so I could join the presidential motorcade and, along with Jane Norbert, taught me how to be a capable postal clerk.
I'll long remember the day that Dillingham Middle School math teacher Andrew Slagle had his shoulder-length tresses reduced to a Friar Tuck cut in a packed gymnasium to raise money for the eighth-grade class; the volunteer efforts of spay-and-neuter clinics in a town with no veterinarian; the good fortune to meet beer-toting Norwegians on a hot day at remote Nishlik Lake; the woman with a snow shovel and a strong back who assisted when our car burrowed into a snowdrift near the hospital.
It's impossible to recall every kindness or to fully illustrate the many wonders we've witnessed here. We are reluctant to leave good friends and neighbors, and there are still so many great people to meet, so much more to see and do. We have yet to explore Katmai National Park and Preserve, boat up the Nushagak River, ski across frozen rivers to Manokotak, journey beyond Lake Aleknagik via the Agulowak River, or to visit noisy walrus haulouts on Round Island or the western capes.
We anticipate many adventures elsewhere in Alaska, but we definitely plan to return to Bristol Bay.
For both of us this departure is more than a mere farewell. It is a very fond see-you-later.
Clark Fair is a lifetime Alaskan who's lived in Dillingham and the Kenai Peninsula.