The air is getting colder; the mountains are browning up. It’s time for me to head south to Sitkinak Island where the air is chillier and the hills are browner. I’ll be cooking for the crew that rounds up, butchers and processes cattle that will be marketed by Sitkinak Cattle Company.
Sitkinak, which is part of the Trinity Island neighborhood, is brushy, mountainous, lashed by the heaving waves and held hostage by stormy seas.
I haven’t been to Tugidak and Chirikov, the other two Trinity Islands, but from what others have told me, they have their unique features. Chirikov, like Sitkinak, has supported cattle and the wranglers who round them up. Tugidak, on the other hand, has lured trappers, miners and adventure seekers to its tumultuous shores.
My only trips to Tugidak have been through the stories of Bill Ross, Andy Nault and Steven DesCloux, who extensively wrote about trapping on the island in his book, “Two Tales of Old Kodiak.”
John Garber surpassed all these guys in Tugidak knowledge. He and his wife, Midge, lived there for nearly two decades. A monument to him stands there today.
I interviewed John in the home of his close friends, Rick and Ann Ellison, in the summer of 2009 shortly before his death. His wife had died several years before him
I wrote a tribute to John in my Tapestry column, but there is much about his Tugidak sojourn that needs to be said. Since my thoughts are heading in a southerly direction, now is a good time to reflect on Tugidak, as seen through the eyes, ears and soul of the Garbers.
Throughout his long life, John lived in many different places doing interesting things. As a young man he was a pressman for the Gazette Telegraph in Colorado; he mined for gold on the Dolores River near Grand Junction, Central America and the back side of Denali. He engineered tug boats near the Panama Canal.
He worked for the Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News.
But the capstone of his adventures was living on Tugidak Island.
When he first set foot on Tugidak in 1987, he wished he hadn’t. It was an “ugly 72 square-mile sand dune.” That’s what he called it.
At the time John was a contractor for Trinity Gold, a Las Vegas company interested in buying claims on the island.
John was going to collect samples on the claims and get out of there as soon as possible.
It didn’t work that way. Midge decided to stay behind in an abandoned sealer’s cabin while John took the samples to Las Vegas.
He never should have trusted Midge by herself.
When he returned Midge said she wasn’t going anyplace.
She had gotten wooed, not by some tall, dark and handsome visitor, but the island itself. How could she fall in love with an “ugly sandbar”?
“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.”
In case you think Midge was an outdoor person who loathed city life and its accouterments, consider the clothing she was wearing when she arrived at Tugidak: a very expensive blouse she had bought in France, high heeled shoes, a fancy skirt.
Midge had been everywhere, liked new adventures. She was enamored with the magic, seclusion and peacefulness of Tugidak.
So what was John going to do? He didn’t want to break up their relatively short marriage (he had been married before) over a disagreement on where they were going to live. He hung in there, hoping that one day Midge would see it his way. It worked the other way around. Somehow John fell under the Tugidak spell. But unto his dying day, he still called the island an ugly sand bar.
The couple lived on Tugidak with Grizzly, their Toy Yorkie, and the
seals, ptarmigan, deer, eagles, land otters and other animals that claimed the island as home.
They built a cabin using lumber from generous stocks of driftwood that landed on the beaches.
Midge stayed on the island two years before leaving. She probably would have avoided a trip to town had it not been for their dog, Grizzly, getting sick from eating a duck that was covered with oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The dog recovered only to be killed by a land otter.
“The otter was very territorial,” John said. Grizzly had crossed his log. “I could see the conflict in the sand.”
Those first three years on Tugidak Island were the best, John said.
“It was you and Mother Nature trying to learn the subsistence lifestyle.”
He and Midge lived on wheat grass, alfalfa sprouts, fiddle ferns, lingonberries, crowberries, salmonberries, cranberries — everything that grows in the bog.
They could have added dried kelp to their diet, but John “wasn’t smart” on the idea.
Since the parka squirrels were eating mushrooms, the Garbers assumed they were safe for them as well.
But John just about died from them.
Eventually the Garbers got used to the noise of Tugidak — the ever-present wind and the booming surf that sounded like a series of cannon shots as it crashed against the rocks.
John’s son Keith, who visited the Garbers in 1992, said those sounds were like a heartbeat.
“They’re comforting. When you don’t hear it, you know something is missing.”
When his sister, Joyce, visited the island, she was kept awake by the noise. But after a couple of nights, it lulled her to sleep.
John said that the parka squirrels, “the little clowns of the island,” and the deer became his pets.
The yellow sparrows, finches and other birds were pretty tame, too.
When Midge came outside for her morning smoke, the finches wormed their way into her robe pocket where she carried cigarettes. After they snatched pieces of tobacco, they flew away.
Some of the birds perched on the Garbers’ shoulders and heads, said visitor Darlene Turner.
Screech owls and tundra owls weren’t pets, but they got close to the Garbers.
“They’d get in your face, trying to figure out what you are,” he said.
It didn’t matter how far the Garbers lived from the hub of civilization. They had a stellar reputation for being hospitable, welcoming hosts. Pilots and fishermen and their families, Coast Guardsmen, Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees, archaeologists, kayakers and miners showed up at their creaky door.
They rescued novice miners who weren’t prepared to deal with the hostile weather conditions of Tugidak. They housed Alaska Department of Fish and Game seal surveyors and helped build a cabin for them.
They were also good stewards of the land. Using his four wheeler and a trailer that he built, John cleaned up the beaches cluttered with bottles, monofilament net, pots, buoys, glass balls, refrigerators, washing machines, old parts from a plane that had crashed on the island and big empty oil barrels dumped by passing ships.
When the oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident drifted to Tugidak Island, the Garbers set up a cleaning station to rescue birds and seals.
Twenty-eight whales were killed by the oil spill, John said. They were unable to exhale water because mousse coated the baleen.
There wasn’t much publicity over the casualties. Why? Vice President Dan Quayle landed a helicopter on the island one day, asking the Garbers not to say anything about the dead whales.
“It would create an international incident,” John said.
But nothing could stop the Garbers from talking about the whales when they got off the island, which wasn’t very often.
John went to Anchorage to shop at Costco twice a year and he and Midge watched the cannery at Alitak in the winter.
There wasn’t something that always drew the Garbers back to Tugidak. The animals, the peacefulness, the challenge of living in the wilderness, were part of that pull, but there was something more. Something ineffable.
Bob Stanford, who talked often with John shortly before he died, told me that his old friend was looking forward to going to the Other Side, that uncharted territory which we earthlings describe in metaphors and symbolic language. I would venture to say that even “an ugly sandbar” like Tugidak has some charming element that speaks of the hereafter.