Tugidak Island

Courtesy of STEVE WIELEBSKI

A Coast Guard helicopter rests on the beach at Tugidak Island during the search for two missing crew members from F/V Dynasty in early July.

This summer, two fishermen on the F/V Dynasty lost their lives after they paddled their inflatable boat to Tugidak Island, where they planned to beachcomb. A search party found the dog they took with them running down the beach. The bodies of the fishermen were discovered later.

The tragedy reminded me of another mishap that took place in the vicinity of  Tugidak Island — one of the Trinity Islands, which are situated south of Kodiak Island.

In 1896, the James B. Borland went aground on Tugidak on its way to Alitak to deliver equipment for a saltery. 

According to historical records, most of the crew survived the crash by taking a boat ashore.

John and Midge Garber, who lived on Tugidak for a long time, hosted Orthodox clergy who performed a memorial service for those who had died in the shipwreck. The Garbers noticed a grave marked “Gustafson” near the crash site about 6 miles from their cabin. 

They surmised that he was the captain of the ship.

The Garbers were intrigued by the history of shipwrecks, but they didn’t have to go far to be involved in contemporary rescues.

When a boat from Sitkinak Island iced up and rolled in a winter storm, John didn’t hesitate to venture out into the cold, dark night in his skiff so he could pluck the crewmen from untimely death. 

Another time, John provided the warmth of his home to gold seekers who nearly froze to death in their tarp shelter on Tugidak. 

The Garbers came to Tugidak so that John could collect samples for Trinity Gold, a Las Vegas company interested in buying claims on the island.

John planned to get off the island as soon as he got what he needed.

But in the meantime, he had to go to town on business; Midge stayed behind. He expected that she’d be packed and ready to go by the time he returned.

Bill Ross went to Tugidak, not to seek for gold, but to hunt seals. Brothers Norm and Andy Nault were going to join Bill, who had chartered a plane to Tugidak. The brothers headed down to Tugidak on a boat. But the boat went aground at Jap Bay, leaving Bill to fend for himself.

Not knowing the fate of the Nault brothers, Bill hiked around the island to get the lay of the land.

Bill may have been a little lonely, but he sure didn’t go hungry. Besides feasting on ptarmigan and ground squirrel, he scrounged up some Dungeness crab and clams, which he found in potholes on the beach at low tide. 

Tugidak also had a supply of geese, ducks, a few eagles and thousands of seals. He’d be able to survive down here for quite some time, but he was puzzled that the Naults never showed up.

Bill attempted to make contact with a Kodiak bush plane pilot to let him know he needed a ride to town.

Ultimately, Bill was successful. The following year, he and the Nault brothers came to Tugidak together.

During their stay on Tugidak, the three men contended with several fierce storms. They built a shelter in case they got weathered in for the winter, which was not far off.

The russet foliage turned to drab brown. The animals began disappearing. “Where I saw thousands of ptarmigans in September, there were very few,” Bill told me.

“The ground squirrels disappeared too. But the ducks and geese started coming. The geese stayed on Tugidak for a week before continuing their flight south. On a given day, the geese would start flying — thousands circling, getting their buddies with them. They’d all head out. And a few days there’d be very few geese. But soon thousands more new ones would arrive,” Bill said.

The men made plans to get off the island before winter set in.  

Daily, they tried getting hold of Kodiak Airways on Bill’s ship-to-shore radio, but they couldn’t make contact because of interference.

“We spent about a week before we could get synchronized,” Bill said. 

By that time, the radio batteries were so weak that Bill Harvey, a pilot at Kodiak Airways, couldn’t even hear the Tugidak hunters. Fortunately, Jim Imlach at Zachar Bay got clearer reception. He relayed a message to Kodiak Airways that the men at Tugidak wanted off the island. A Widgeon was sent down to pick them up. 

The experience at Tugidak whet Bill’s appetite for more wilderness adventures. He loved every nook and cranny of Tugidak.

A place can grow on you. Tugidak grew hard on Midge Garber

 When John came back after tending to business in town, Midge was not ready to leave. 

She had fallen in love with Tugidak Island. She didn’t want to move an inch away.

John was puzzled. How could she have feelings for what he deemed to be an “ugly sand dune?” That’s what John called Tugidak when he first set foot on it.

The more he listened to Midge, the more he understood why she was mesmerized by Tugidak.

“There was something there that she had been looking for all of her life,” John explained. “I don’t know what it was. It’s still a mystery. I could see a change coming over her when she stepped off the plane.”

It’s not that Midge was an outdoor person who loathed city life and its accouterments. She had arrived at Tugidak wearing a very expensive blouse she had bought in France, high heeled shoes and a fancy skirt. 

She had been all over the world and she liked new adventures. The seclusion and peacefulness of Tugidak had cast a magical spell over her.

John eventually got to see Tugidak the way his wife did. 

Except for caretaking stints at the Alitak cannery and trips to town, the Garbers spent most of their remaining days on Tugidak Island, enjoying the critters and scenery that made it an enchanting place.

When Midge died of cancer, John decided to stay on the island as long as he could. But his own battle with cancer made it necessary for him to move to town to undergo a series of treatments. 

I interviewed John in the summer of 2009, shortly before his death. 

Although John wanted badly to go back to Tugidak, he knew he’d never see it again.

 

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