Sunday, July 22, 2012



Willie and I sit in a plywood room dominated by a wood stove, talking. It is not for long – the others are gone to get beer (a tightly-controlled commodity out here), and I find myself temporarily alone with Willie. He sits on a chair, sweatpants tucked into muck boots, tortoiseshell glasses on the bridge of his nose, white beard and wavy white hair. I do not know how old he is. Old enough to have a granddaugher, but young enough to jump on a motorcycle and ride from Alaska to Chile, as he did two years ago. I piece together the stories of his life as he tells them to me, the hint of his Chilean accent sprinkled with phrases picked up from 30 years in Alaska.

The wood stove releases its warmth slowly, and outside the two-room cabin the tide creeps just as slowly into the lagoon. The small, dingy window offers views of the bay, smoke curling from a few other cabins perched on pilings, fishing shacks strung with buoys and nets, water dripping off spruce boughs. Willie leans on the back legs of his chair and tells stories.

He grew up on a ranch in southern Chile, he tells me, where he never heard the word 'no.' Perhaps it was because he was a boy. No, you cannot do that. No, you cannot go there. I hear his accent as he speaks the words, spitting out 'no' as if it's a curse. He and his brother rode horses to the river in the summer, stripped off their clothes and swam naked in the current, ate lunch on the banks, narrowly averted death, as children do. They tended chickens and horses and cows. In the winter, they hunted hares and went to a school run by Catholic priests. It was a life out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story.

That life is gone now. It's been replaced by another, but the world is changing always and the other life is on the verge of being lost as well. Here in Alaska where Willie has built his home and his livelihood, king crab and salmon have been overfished and predators are shot from the sky to bolster the moose population, which sport hunters pay good money to hunt. They come from outside, give their cash to local guides and store owners and go home with a pair of antlers to hang on their wall. Man has a propensity for violence.

In 1973, Salvadore Allende was ousted from power and the priests were driven from Willie's school, replaced by military recruits. Twenty-one year old boys with machine guns stood guard at the doors. As Augusto Pinochet established his dictatorship through waves of violence and oppression, 'no' echoed across the mountains. Willie couldn't stand to watch what was happening to his country. As soon as he finished high school, he left. He got a job as a deckhand on one of his grandfather's boats and sailed up the coast to Central America, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. He was never homesick –- there was much to see, much to learn –- much to say yes to.

At the Panama Canal, he jumped ship and disappeared, not to return to Chile for decades. He worked his way up to the United States and eventually to Alaska, where he worked as a crab fisherman in Kachemak Bay before the technology became so advanced that it depleted the crab populations. He fathered three children and conjured his own boyhood dreams as he raised them: summers, they set up fishing camp on the Copper River and let their salmon haul dry on racks on the banks. Once at sea they caught a 275 pound halibut that sent two gaffs and a handgun into the drink before they finally hauled it onto their boat; it fed them for two winters. They built a cabin and rigged their own hydroelectric power. They learned to drive a boat in rough seas, to read the tides and the currents, to sail with the wind. People say Willie has salt water running through his veins.

In the middle of a story about a bear and a keg of beer at Willie's 40th birthday party, his son Tristan kicks open the cabin door with an armload of contraband beer. Like his father, Tristan is quick to smile, easy to laugh with, and entirely capable: the kind of person you'd trust your life with the day you met him. I've only encountered one or two other people like that in my life. They are few and far between, but they seem to congregate here on the Alaskan coast.

More people trickle into the tiny room, pulling up fat chunks of firewood to sit on. We are all outsiders, idealistic seasonal workers –- an expendable resource here, and frequently treated as such. We are told 'no' often, and that doesn't sit well with Willie. He welcomes us to his cabin, his boat, his home in town. We will not go jobless, he says, no matter what happens. We will always have a place to stay. It is such a change from what we are used to that, sitting around the woodstove in the cabin with Willie and his son, drinking a rare beer, listening to them talk about happiness and oppression, living and joy and suffering, we are overcome with gratitude for this man who is so generous of spirit, so firm in his beliefs, on such good terms with the natural world. We wander off to our own cabins to sleep. The next morning, Willie comes back at high tide with cases of beer under each arm and claps me on the back. “I brought you some liquid,” he says, not caring who sees. “You can't always follow the rules.” Then he gives me a hug and jumps back into his skiff.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up on Willie! Him and Tristan were awesome people. Nice to know people like that are still around.


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