If we’ve learned anything in Kodiak, it’s that there is no such thing as an ordinary person.
I mistook Jim Brighenti for just an “ordinary guy” when he helped out at Katmai Wilderness Lodge in 1998. I was a cook and I’m not sure what his official position was. What I remembered most about him was that he often reminded me to not slam the door. His advice didn’t do any good, because, as my wife tells me, I still slam the door too hard.
By the time Jim left the lodge, I was beginning to like him.
However, I had forgotten his name as quickly as I’d forgotten to close the door gently.
The door of Jim’s life did not close gently. He died in a fire in the Philippines last winter. Long after his death, his loved ones gathered at the home of Joel and Martine Chenet to share fond memories and reflections.
From the beginning, Jim’s life was anything but ordinary. A “military brat,” he was born in Tripoli, Libya, and lived his early years in Morocco.
When Jim started high school at St. Thomas in New Hampshire, a history teacher told him about his exciting experiences sportfishing in Alaska. Jim wanted to go as soon as he could.
After attending New Hampshire University, he got his chance. He attended the University of Alaska-Fairbanks to get a degree in biology.
He was hired by Fish and Game in Kodiak and worked seasonally in various positions. He counted fish at remote weirs and was a deckhand and herring and salmon biologist on the Coho, a research vessel operated by Tom Emerson, who became a business partner and good friend.
Tom recalled the time he and Jim were going from Alitak to Packers Spit on the Coho.
“We’re going along the reef, lying down, taking it easy,” Tom remembered. “All of a sudden, Jim said something was wrong; the bottom was coming up.”
They had landed in the middle of a reef and the impact broke both rudders off.
“We looked at each other: ‘What do we do now?’ I was seriously thinking, maybe we should get off the boat.”
Luckily, they had welding equipment on board and repaired the boat.
“That was his first introduction to ‘Stay away from the rocks,’” Tom said, laughing.
Jim quit Fish and Game because he didn’t like the bureaucracy and seasonal work. He devoted his time to Tom and Jim’s new business, Arctic Tern Fisheries, which ran the salmon tender Shearwater.
Since Jim was a boat owner, Harbormaster Marty Owen had a chance to meet him.
“Fishermen, sooner or later, come to our office,” Marty said.
He recalled the time he was taking his boat, the Sea Breeze, in Raspberry Straits. Seeing the Shearwater anchored near shore, Marty tied up his boat alongside. He hollered Jim’s name, but got no response. “All I could see was a pair of shoes up on the dashboard in the wheelhouse.”
When Marty climbed aboard, he found Jimmy fast asleep with his feet on the dashboard. “He had been tendering. He probably hadn’t had much sleep.”
Besides running his own salmon boat, Jim worked as deckhand on trawlers. On one trip, Jim was hit by the heavy cod end as it was being rapidly reeled up the ramp. His knees bent the wrong way.
Physical therapist Skip Woodward got to know Jim and his knees well. “He had the worst knees I’ve ever seen,” he said. “All the ligaments were ripped.”
Skip had to schedule Jim’s appointments when no other patient was at the clinic, because he screamed in pain. Jim said Skip was the meanest therapist he’d ever run into. But through all that pain, a bond of friendship was formed.
The men fished together in Belize. “That was the best I’ve seen Jim,” Skip recalled. “He was relaxed and unstressed.”
He was able to overcome the pain. “The last time I did anything with him, we were fishing silvers at the Olds River. He fought the bears off.”
Jim ended up having several surgeries on his knees, but he couldn’t contemplate slowing down.
He worked on NOAA vessels doing surveys. He was an observer on foreign fishing ships. Jim even brought a disabled vessel from Dubai to Seattle.
He was a fishing guide on the Ayakulik and Karluk rivers; he made fishing rods, and he hunted and fished, living the Alaska dream.
Ken Brown, a veterinarian who owned All Things Great and Small, met Jim on a deer hunt when Brighenti skippered Walter Sargent’s fishing boat.
They became friends.
Gravitating to warmer waters, Jim learned scuba diving. He enjoyed swimming with turtles in Hawaii and taking long vacations in the Philippines where the tropical sun was good for his knees.
Last winter, when Jim met six friends in the Philippines, they decided to spend the night at a hotel. It’s speculative to say they fell asleep catching up with each other’s lives through groggy conversations. But we know for sure that their lives ended that fateful night.
“He was a very good friend of mine,” said an emotional Tom Emerson. “I always thought highly of him.”
“There’s a soul lost, that you always feel,” reflected Ken.
The Chenets grieved as if a family member had died. The house was always open to him, said Martine. Sometimes he was there and they didn’t even notice him.
“He was a great guy, who would do anything for you,” said Joel.
“He could fix engines on boats. We were fishing rock bass. The engine quit and about 20 minutes later, the engine was going.”
“Jim knew so much about so many things,” said Skip, who called his friend a genius. “He had a photographic memory. He’d go in a room, look around and he knew everything that was going on.”
“He had something to contribute to a lot of us,” said Vicki Woodward, an elementary teacher who shared Jim’s friendship with her husband, Skip. “If I had a question about science or biology, I’d ask him.” Sometimes he’d come to her classroom at East in his grubby work clothes. “He was a wealth of knowledge.”
What the people shared that night at the Chenets was just the “tip of the iceberg,” she said.
“I’m really glad that Jim found Kodiak and its diversity,” said Jim’s mother, Sandra Brighenti, who came to Kodiak with her daughter, Jane Isabelle, for Jim’s memorial service. “Kodiak is what he needed to fulfill his own potential.
The friends that gathered at the Chenet home were sharing the “tip” of a rich, full life that had ended too soon. They considered themselves privileged to have known Jim Brighenti — no ordinary person.
Mike Rostad is a freelance writer and longtime Kodiakan who writes a weekly column examining the in-depth stories of Kodiak residents. You can read more about other Kodiak islanders in Rostad’s book, “Close to My Heart-Writing and Living Stories on Kodiak Island, Alaska.