Just before the gloaming hour, while I waited outside the Juneau airport at the designated area for taxi and shuttle pick-ups, I noticed a couple eyeing me curiously. When the shuttle for my hotel arrived they stepped forward, the woman saying, “Oh, you’re going the same place we are. Can you tell me what those are called?”
She pointed and I looked down at my rolled down rubber boots. “XtraTufs?” I asked, curious about her conversational opening.
She laughed. “It’s just I seem to see them everywhere since we got to Alaska. They must be very good.”
“The best,” I agreed. We piled our gear in the back and then climbed in.
The couple was from Oregon and they were radiant with excitement about exploring Alaska, Juneau specifically. This endeared them to me immediately. I like people who so enthusiastically like Alaska.
The conversation circled back to my rubber boots and why I was wearing them. I explained that I had a job as a “wilderness nanny.” The plan was for me to catch a floatplane tomorrow out to “somewhere off Baranof Island” where, after the plane landed, someone in a skiff would take me to a bear hunting boat. There was more than a hint of covert operations to this plan. Guides don’t like revealing their most productive hunting grounds to all and sundry.
The Oregonians stared at me as if I’d just announced I was from Epsilon IV. It wasn’t as outlandish as they seemed to think. I had done the wilderness nanny thing before (see: www.alaskaforreal.com/blog/category/jobs), and I had worked on a bear hunting boat previously as a cook.
But, since they were so obviously interested — or at least were a captive audience as we shuttled to our hotel in the pre-twilight traffic — I gave them the whole story.
At the tail-end of April my friend Ann-Marie, co-owner of a guide service, emailed me with this tagline: “Interested in Working for a Week?”
She wrote that they had a couple coming who would hunt the second and third week of May and they’d be bringing their two 4 1/2 year old daughters with them. They needed a nanny who’d be comfortable looking after them on a boat and taking them to shore in a skiff to wear off energy — in bear country. There weren’t a lot of last minute options for hiring experienced wilderness nannies so she thought of me.
“The most it would be would be 10 days,” she wrote. “They are hoping to get done earlier.” Besides a generous wage, all travel expenses, including hotels, would be covered.
“Sure,” I wrote back. “Sounds fun!”
Ann-Marie set up the one-way flights to get me to the boat (three: two different floatplane companies and a jet) and hotel, and I busied myself with getting things done on my end, including setting up a sushi dinner with my former editor Mary Catharine Martin, and possibly stopping by the offices of Capital City Weekly to meet my current editor Clara Miller, if I didn’t get into Juneau too late.
As my day to travel up to Juneau arrived, the weather forecast didn’t sound promising. On the day I was to get on the floatplane in Meyers Chuck, to get my jet in Ketchikan, it blew steadily. My hour came and went and the floatplane company put me on a weather hold until they finally canceled. I didn’t make my jet.
Meanwhile, Ann-Marie was dealing with an unexpected death in her family and had to fly south for the funeral. While coping with bereaved relatives she had to cancel the previous bookings. She and I worked the phones trying to get a definite answer from the floatplane company in Ketchikan, but the best they could do was say that I’d probably be on a weather hold all the next day, which I was. That flight was also canceled. (Besides the weather, we also had to deal with the tide, which obstinately picked the very worst times to be out all day, making it tricky to have the skiff floating when it was needed).
I wondered to Ann-Marie if it was just getting to be too much trouble getting me up there, and she said it was definitely a challenge trying to explain the logistics of bush travel to the hunters, who didn’t understand why it was so difficult to get a wilderness nanny out to the boat. She patiently explained it several times but wasn’t sure they were getting it. Still, Ann-Marie said, they wanted me to keep trying to get out there.
So once again we set up the flights. I woke up the next morning to fog. I could barely see out to the entrance of our small bight. No way would they fly in this, I thought. But when I called the floatplane company they said they hadn’t any fog in Ketchikan and my flight was still on for 1:20 p.m. And, happily, the fog cleared away by the time we took the skiff to Meyers Chuck to get the plane.
I chatted with locals as we waited for the plane. And waited. When I called they said they had mechanical difficulties but would be out there as soon as the plane was “fixed.” That was reassuring. So I waited some more. More than an hour went by as I texted Ann-Marie, keeping her updated. It was getting closer and closer to when my jet would leave. She told me to tell her when I was actually stepping into the floatplane because only then would she set up a new hotel reservation and schedule another floatplane out to the boat.
The plane finally arrived, I climbed aboard, waved off by a dock full of locals and my dad, and was finally on my way. Providentially the jet, too, had been delayed so I didn’t have any trouble catching it in Ketchikan.
I’d kept in contact with Mary Catharine, and while she and her boyfriend Bjorn Dihle (author of “Never Cry Halibut”and “Haunted Inside Passage”), had another dinner engagement that night, I could meet them afterward for an evening walk with a promised view of the Mendenhall Glacier.
They were actually in the parking lot of my hotel after I said goodbye to my new Oregonian acquaintances and checked in. I dumped my gear and climbed into their car and we had a great time on our walk, swiftly getting over the awkwardness of meeting for the first time after emailing for over a year. On the return trek back to the car, as the sun was setting over the glacier, I got a phone call from Ann-Marie.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said.
“They got their bears.”
I cracked up. After all our efforts, our scrambling to re-schedule, fighting the tides and weather, my sleeplessness nights wondering if I’d get out — this was more than a little anti-climactic.
Ann-Marie laughed ruefully as well. “So they won’t need a wilderness nanny after all.” As I walked back to car with Bjorn, Mary Catharine, and their golden retriever Fen, Ann-Marie assured me that the clients would pay me generously for my time as well as pay for all my return travel expenses.
In other words, I was going to be paid to do exactly nothing except travel around Alaska and stay at hotels on a perfect stranger’s dime.
“Only in Alaska,” I said. You gotta love this state.
• Tara Neilson lives in a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan and blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com.