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An Alaska souvenir: Bruises

By Theresa Vargas

boat2.jpg

It was after midnight when fisherman John Renner, shown in the distance, dropped us off on the boat of John Platt, shown in the foreground. Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

I was in the next room but I could hear the boat captain telling Nikki Kahn, a Washington Post photographer, that I had bumped my head in the night, that he felt a hard thud against the bottom of his bunk.

It was a comical image, but not exactly true.

It was my elbow that rammed, painfully, into his bunk, which was positioned just a few inches above my face in a room no bigger than a closet. I remember when it happened. I had no idea where I was. Nikki and I were spending a week in the Prince William Sound area of Alaska – working on a story that ran Monday about how the region has fared since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

We had arrived on John Platt’s boat in the dark after a day of trying to get there by any means possible: We had booked a float plane, but it couldn’t fly in the bad weather. We had begged a ride from a tender, a boat that carries fish back and forth from larger boat to land, but it wasn’t heading in our direction until the next day. Finally, we met up with a stranded fisherman who also needed to get out there and he agreed to let us hitch a ride on his boat, warning us repeatedly that it was going to be a rough ride.

When we finally arrived on Platt’s boat, it was after midnight and we knew his crew needed to wake up in four hours for an intense day of salmon fishing. We also knew that their catch was critical to their income. So Nikki and I did what any considerate and exhausted guests would do: We unrolled our sleeping bags and went straight to sleep.

Nikki took the kitchen table, which was converted into a makeshift mattress, and I climbed into the tiny cabin with Platt and two other men. Think coffins stacked on top of one another. Well, my coffin was on the bottom.

I don’t know how long I was asleep when a radio nearby crackled loudly with voices. All I know is that I was startled awake and then, thud.

It’d be easy to say this was a low in our trip to Alaska, but it wasn’t. It was one of those moments when we felt as if we were really experiencing the place, taking in the smells and sounds and situational humor, which is hard to do when you parachute into an area as a journalist and try to understand everything from the people to the culture in a few days.

In our time in Alaska, we constantly faced situations that reminded us of what it takes to live there: stamina and patience.

Just getting from one place to another took hours of careful arranging, only to watch as clouds rolled in, meaning hours of rearranging plans. We had to pack enough to keep us warm and dry, but not so much that we couldn’t lug it with us wherever we went. At one place we stayed, we were handed a flashlight to navigate our way to an outdoor bathroom at night and warned to take the dogs with us in case there were any bears.

It’s true we probably could have done the story from the main cities of Valdez and Cordova. We didn’t have to go out on Platt’s boat, which left us soaked from the rain and smelling like fish, and from there we didn’t have to charter a float plane to take us during a small window between storms to Chenega Bay, an Alaskan Native village. But I don’t think we would have gotten the same sense of the place.

We wouldn’t have understood that part of the appeal of Alaska is that it’s not for everyone, that some people do better sleeping on boats than others.

When I finally got home, I tallied my bruises: one on each knee, one on my left calf and, yes, one, the darkest, on my elbow. At least, I guess, it wasn't on my forehead.

By Theresa Vargas  | September 8, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, Journalism  | Tags:  Alaska oil spill, BP and Alaska, BP and Exxon, BP and Exxon Valdez, BP oil spill, Exxon Valdez, Gulf oil spill, Louisiana and Alaska, Nikki Khan, Theresa Vargas  
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