SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

The Best Wage of All
By Dave Kiffer


August 07, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - This is my 100th column for SITNEWS.

Which means a couple of things.

First, I've been dutifully typing away every week for nearly two years.

Second, if I was a television sitcom, I could now go into the endless rotation of "syndication" along with "F-Troop," "Gilligan's Island" and "Lance Link: Secret Chimp."

And third, I haven't yet embarrassed my family enough for them to toss the computer out the window!

But not for lack of trying.

I was thinking about family the other day.

I was inspired by my son coming back from a walk with my wife at Bay View Cemetery.

My wife likes the cemetery because it is the biggest piece of relatively uninterrupted grass in southern Southeast Alaska. Even after 15 years in Ketchikan, she is not quite sold on my explanation that muskeg is just like grass, only a little wetter.

In her defense, one could probably similarly say that quicksand is just like regular sand, just a little more absorbent.

When Liam and Charlotte returned from the graveyard, Liam was burbling with news.

"Daddy," he said. "We went to the cemetery. That's where the dead people live."

What a great description. I wish I had thought of it.

Later in the week, I was telling Liam about his great-grandparents who homesteaded out in Clover Pass next to where his cousins Amber, Courtney and Aaron now live.

"I visited them, Daddy," he replied, meaning his great grandparents Jess and Gladys.

Since Liam is a child who once said he "saw" God, I am not one to immediately dismiss such comments.

"Where did you visit them?" I asked.

"At the cemetery, Daddy," he said, rolling his eyes like I was the dimmest Daddy in the known universe. "That's where they live."

Well, yes, he did visit their gravesite and I guess for a five and a half year old, that's probably just as good an address as his real one, which he has dutifully learned along with his telephone number and the fact that his Mommy works "at the library" and his Daddy works "at meetings."

Still, he seemed impressed when I showed him the little house his great-grandparents built as we walked along the beach, collecting shells and throwing rocks.

Naturally, he was also impressed when I told him I used to play on the same pile of rocks down the beach when I was his age and how sometimes I would wait until the tide came in and then pretend I was escaping a sinking ship and "swim" from the rock pile back to the beach.

But he was even more impressed when I told him how the beach is much cleaner now than in the old days when the household sewer pipes used to empty out onto it. I saw that as a sign of progress, but even though he said "ewww" you could tell the idea of big glops of "poopie" on the beach intrigued him.

We talked a bit about fishing, but it was hard to explain the difference between what he understands (a pole, a little bit of water, a fish the size of his finger) and my reality when I was a kid (a commercial trolling boat, long hours in tough weather, cleaning and icing fish, sometimes being almost too tired to pull myself into the bunk bed at the end of the day).

Still, he likes me to tell him stories about my father and "the boat" and he asks when we can go "fishing" on "the boat" and I tell him someday.

When I say "someday," he responds with the title of one his favorite books: "Someday Is Not A Day of the Week" and although he is not entirely clear on the order of the days of the week, he knows that "Someday" is not one of the seven.

His questions about fishing are like the ones I get when I have a conversation with an "old-timer" and they ask why I never went to fishing like my father, grand father and great grandfather.

I usually joke back that I can't afford to and they smile. There is some truth in that. The year my father died, he made just over $20,000 and that was a big season. Granted in 1974, $20,000 was a decent chunk of change (that same year a classmate told me proudly that her father - a local doctor - was making the amazing sum of $100 a day - or $36,000 a year!).

But that was an unusually good year. I suspect that most years $10,000 to $15,000 would have been a "liveable" wage and that some years there was no "profit" at all, after expenses and boat payments were made.

Those were the years that we ate lots of salmon, probably a reason why I'm not so thrilled about eating salmon today. Sometimes my father supplemented his fishing by working on "The Pond" at the pulp mill in the winter. Sometimes he did some trapping. Most times he just got by.

More than 30 years later, I have had part time jobs that paid more than my father ever made in a year and no fisherman is able to "gross" $20,000 and keep their boat in the water (unless they are independently wealthy or "retired" but that's another story).

Of course, the real issue is not whether one makes a lot of money at the job they do. The real issue is whether you can imagine yourself doing anything else. My father and grand parents and great grandparents would have answered no. But my answer was always yes.

My father - and my grandparents who rarely "made" $10,000 a year - has the same lovely view of Tongass Narrows now as the local folks who made more money and those that made less money. Most of them ended up staying in Ketchikan not because of "the money" but in spite of it.

On sunny days, their descendents can visit them and I suppose they enjoy the sound of little feet frolicking on their "roofs."

And that's the best wage of all.



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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