Dennis Anderson: Minnesotan has his own private Alaska

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2009 - 9:28 PM

Minnesotan Pete Iverslie spends part of every year in Cold Bay, Alaska, where conditions are rough but the hunting and fishing are immaculate.

Born in a watery land, Minnesota duck hunters love their boats, any type, so long as they float and are camouflaged. On this morning, Pete Iverslie is no exception, backing into the Bering Sea a craft constructed for him in Maryland and shipped to Seattle, then loaded onto a cargo ship destined for this very stark and remote place.

Originally of Willmar and now living in New London, Minn., Pete is the son of a duck hunter and the brother of duck hunters. Educated as a nuclear pharmacist, he is, by most appearances, normal; blond, even, like many Minnesotans, and straight-talking, a good guy to be with in the field.

Nevertheless, I'm thinking: "This fellow must have a very, very wacky side to him. Otherwise, why would we be doing this?"

"We might have a little trouble getting out this morning," Pete says. "The tide, for a high, is low."

Our quarry on this day is the Pacific black brant, a type of sea goose that is a strange bird, indeed. Here in the Izembek Lagoon, part of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, these brant -- virtually the world's entire population -- gather each September and October before swirling upward en masse on northwest winds, circling and circling again, gaining ever more altitude.

Then they fly nonstop to Baja, Mexico.

"They lose about a third of their body weight on the trip," Pete says.

Cold Bay, about 15 miles distant from us over a gravel road, has a population of about 80 people. Also there are some resident foxes and other critters. Come September each year, Pete lives here, too, a seasonal interloper to be sure, but by now -- a half-decade or so after building a cabin in Cold Bay, and being a gregarious type anyway -- he knows everyone, or most everyone, in town, postal worker to policeman.

Check that; in Cold Bay there are no policemen. No doctors, either. Nor, except when Pete's around, pharmacists.

Instead, Cold Bay -- halfway to the end of the Aleutian Islands and about a 2 1/2-hour flight from Anchorage -- is so forgotten, even by Alaskan standards, that the few cars and trucks that ply its pothole-filled roads aren't even required to be licensed.

Paradoxically -- go figure -- the Cold Bay Airport runway, all 10,400 feet of it, is one of a handful in the world cleared to handle the Space Shuttle, if necessary.

Also in the boat this morning is Will Smith of Willmar, a mutual friend of Pete's and mine. With us are Will's two boys and my two boys.

Away from shore now, fog settles in, and we, collectively, can see nothing, barely one end of the boat from the other. Pete, in response, coolly pulls a handheld GPS from his pocket, fiddles with it a moment, then looks up, sweeping his head from side to side, then nearly entirely around, Linda Blair-like.

What? The thing's not working?

To the north and west lay the open Bering Sea and, along shore, its Waikiki-class breakers.

I nod in that direction. "Let's not go that way."

"OK," Pete says.

• • •

Pete studied his particular brand of drug-making in Boston, worked there a while, then, in 1996, was the first to open a nuclear pharmacy operation in Alaska.

Surgeons are among those who need this stuff, radioactive drugs, early in the morning, and Pete, single then, would show up at his lab at 1 or 2 a.m. to mix his magic potions behind protective barriers while wearing even more protective gloves.

All the while, he thought about duck hunting, and fishing, and how to set himself up, Minnesota-style, in Alaska. A tip led him to Cold Bay, which is about as far from Anchorage as Denver is from Minneapolis.

Put another way: Cold Bay -- whose neighbor city, Dutch Harbor, was bombed by the Japanese in World War II -- is west of Hawaii.

"I ran into another guy from Minnesota, a duck hunter, at a McDonald's in Anchorage who said if I liked hunting ducks, I'd love hunting brant, and that I should go to Cold Bay," Pete said.

So go to Cold Bay he did, and soon thereafter he bought 3 acres. In 2001, he had a steel-framed cabin welded for him in Minnesota and shipped to (where else?) Seattle.

Like Pete's duck hunting boat, the cabin, piece by piece, was loaded onto a cargo ship bound for Cold Bay, and, once there, was plopped onto the town pier, just another unusual occurrence in a land of many unusual occurrences.

"The cabin was completed in 2003," Pete said.

Since then, in 2004, Pete, now married with a young family, moved back to New London. But each September he returns to Cold Bay, and his cabin.

Good hunting awaits. Brant to be sure in September and October. Also, toward the end of that period, ducks, and plenty of them. And geese. Additionally, Pete and his brothers have killed caribou nearby, and Alaskan brown (grizzly) bear and ...

Did I mention fishing?

Fishing for silver salmon is what our bunch did a week or so ago when we weren't hunting for brant or scouring the tundra for ptarmigan, upland birds that are as tasty on the grill as they are sporting on the wing.

"Whoa, there's a big one."

Will's oldest son, Matthew, 15, had just laid into a nice silver salmon the day before, a fish that drew his long fly rod into a rainbowlike arc. These are fighting fish, silvers, whose autumn migrations are long awaited particularly by fly anglers because they readily take colorful streamers and other flies.

And because they are unparalleled on the table when massaged gently with olive oil and seasoned just so before being splayed on a grill.

Matthew had hooked his fish in Russell Creek, about a 10-minute bumpy ride from Pete's cabin. Everywhere in the stream were chum salmon, with, intermittently, silvers sneaking along the currents as well.

It was these fish we wanted, the silvers, and when one of us hooked up, another would grab an oversized net to make the catch. This wasn't easy because the silvers were big and the river's current swift. Silvers that were corralled were dumped into a large plastic container in the back of Pete's vintage-but-mechanically-pretty-OK Chevy Suburban (yes, also shipped from Seattle), destined for transport, at the end of fishing, to the end of the town pier.

Some communities build parks for their citizens, others hospitals. Cold Bay takes care of its own by offering world-class fish-cleaning tables -- albeit on a windy pier that stands so far above what is obviously a very frigid ocean, vertigo hereabouts is a salmon-cutter's occupational hazard.

Which is how, when we weren't hunting brant, we ended our days, darkness falling around us in the first week of September by 9:30 p.m. or so. Then we jostled in the Suburban back to Pete's cabin, where we vacuum-packed our salmon fillets for freezing.

Dinner followed, then talk, also a couple of fingers of tanglefoot, while outside winds blew, sometimes gale-force, and dark clouds, low and ominous, spat rain.

It was this weather, common here, that American generals in World War II believed would give them sufficient cover from Japanese spy planes to build a huge military establishment at Cold Bay, essentially founding the town.

History confirms what American military leaders believed then: that in Cold Bay and points farther west, along the Aleutians, two enemies awaited, the Japanese and the weather.

The latter would down more U.S. planes than the former, far more, as fighters and bombers alike piled into mountains, plunged into the sea or flipped upside-down on muddy runways.

Plane after plane after plane.

• • •

Now the fog has cleared, some, but the rush of tide is not yet flush enough to carry us any farther. Over the side of Pete's boat we go, each of us, one by one, waders sloshing in the tidal flat, searching for enough water to get us to a distant island, where we will hunt.

Everywhere encircling our boots and boat is eel grass, seemingly a vast ocean of it, soft strands of the stuff rising from the lagoon floor, undulating in the currents like the hair of angels.

It's eel grass that the brant come for, gorging on it for weeks and months, before undertaking their torturous migration.

Here, near the top of the world, everything seems so delicate, and is.

No eel grass and there will be no brant, for example. The world has only about 150,000 of these birds, or thereabouts, and they need the grass.

Also, without eel grass, no salmon, or fewer of them, nor many other forms of marine life.

We set two strings of decoys, a dozen blocks in each. Then we conceal ourselves among sedges along the shore edge, grasses that are tall, and green.

We lock and load.

Nothing happens.

Then two brant materialize from the fog, vaguely at first, just outlines, then sharper and sharper still.

Fooled by the decoys, the birds bank for us, nearly colorless -- black and white -- but fast, feet deploying, primary feathers spreading like fans.

Shots ring out, and soon, in our hands, are our first brant.

Pete says: "We'll have about an hour, then the tide will shift and we'll have to get out."

Overhead and around us, the day, cold, damp and wet, seems stuck in neutral, neither sunrise nor sunset coming nearer.

Yet more brant are rising airborne, appearing variously in tight squadrons and vast skeins.

Shouldering a 12-gauge, I think:

If Pete is wacky, I want to be wacky, too, here in Alaska, or in his own private version of it.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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