July 1, 2010 |

Millhand views town 34 years later

Bob Deck left Haines in 1976 and didn’t come back until 2004. The town looked the same, but things were different.

"Now there are a lot of empty buildings and there are a lot of people not doing anything, a lot of retirees. Back then, everybody worked."

Deck, 66, is spending his second summer as host at Chilkoot Lake state campground. He enjoys meeting campers and invites them to use his lakeside campsite where a neat stack of firewood and panoramic view make a homey scene. "It’s not mine. I don’t own it."

Deck was working in an Oregon paper mill in 1969, making the plastic wrappers around rolls of paper towels when he went to scratch an Alaska itch planted by a friend who worked at a Haines sawmill.

"It was the middle of winter. I quit a good job, sold the house, bought a pickup truck and a camper."

When Deck, his wife and two young children got off the ferry in December, four feet of snow blanketed the town. And his arrival surprised his friend here. "He said, ‘We didn’t really think you’d come. There might not be a job for you.’"

On the way to the Schnabel Lumber Co. mill to look for work, Deck stopped to help a man whose car had slid into a ditch. The man was Dennis Robertson, a mill superintendent. "He said, ‘Come on out, we’ll find you something.’ Deck started pushing broom. In seven years worked up to operating the plant’s debarker.

Deck remembers Haines in the early 1970s as a place where you really did know everyone’s name, and where the population was the same in winter as in summer.

There were good jobs and so much work that mill hands barely had time to build houses. Instead, they filled the town’s trailer parks. In the era before Internet shopping and Juneau’s big box stores, downtown storefronts were occupied and full of merchandise.

"You see people working here (today) and they are not working a job, they are working two or three [jobs], kind of piecing it together...I don’t think there are as many people making a living here. They are living here, but they are not making a living here."

In the 1970s, he said, retirees were people who had spent their lives here.

But, Deck said, life in Haines back then was harsher, too. He volunteered on the fire department when there were no emergency medical technicians and Stan Jones was the only doctor in town.

"I saw a lot of people die up here. It was a way of life that was hard to get used to for me...a lot of plane crashes and a lot of water accidents."

Deck recalled sport fishing with friends on a surplused Coast Guard boat when a storm blew up and they rescued Jerry Clifton Sr., whose fishing boat had lost power and was heading for the rocks. They were able to get Clifton a line and tow him in.

"We got [back] at one in the morning. There were people standing (at the dock) cheering and cheering. So, we were kind of heroes for that...That was kind of a neat thing."

Sawmill work also had its hazards. Once, while reaching to pull some limbs from a sprocket, his wedding band caught on an overhead conveyor, lifting him several feet off the ground before an observant co-worker saw a hand shooting up and shut down the line. Co-workers freed him by taking wire cutters to the ring.

In another incident, Deck went to free a log that became jammed on its way to his work station when a second log came at him from behind. He got his head and torso out of its way, but couldn’t move one leg out in time. "Twisted my kneecap off to the side and cut my leg up one side. The bone kind of came out just below my knee."

Co-workers drove him to town in the back of a pickup truck and Dr. Jones looked at him and sent him home with pain pills, he said. "The next day it was starting to turn black so...I flew to Seattle by myself...I couldn’t get off the plane by the time I got there. It was really bad... It had split the seam of my jeans."

That put him in a cast from the hip to his ankle, but it was a walking cast, and it didn’t keep him from getting his limit of caribou during a hunt a short time later in the Fortymile River area. Because he couldn’t go far, his hunting buddies left him near the truck. "They told me, ‘If anything comes over that hill, shoot it.’ Well, they kept coming over that hill."

He returned to work with the cast on and also got a moose in the local hunt. "I went walking through the bog stuff with the cast on, leaving a little white trail where the cast was falling apart."

Family problems forced Deck south after just six years here. "I would have done anything to stay, but things just didn’t work out." He kept his volunteer firefighter patch and a 1969 book of matches from Howsers as mementos.

Returning to Oregon, he spent years working for Portland General Electric, working his way up to a job designing electrical plans for shopping centers and subdivisions. The failure of utility giant Enron – that was tied to his company – cost him and his wife $300,000 in retirement savings.

"We could watch it going away, but we couldn’t stop it... We just let it go. It was one of those things… It will make you ill if you worry about it."

When he retired from the job in 2004, Deck and his wife started returning to Haines. He volunteers as a bear monitor and said he loves working at the campground. "Every day I meet different people and talk to them. I had people here from Germany, Australia and New Zealand."

His most recent adventure was flipping a kayak on the lake while trying to get into it. "It was good. I learned something… and the lake’s not as cold as you’d think."

Deck keeps busy by taking on extra tasks at the campground like filling in potholes, cleaning toilets and clearing trails. He said he’d like to live here year-round, but his wife wouldn’t survive the winters. She’s down south this summer working and he makes a cell phone call to her every afternoon, balancing on a large rock at the edge of the lake where reception is better.

Deck said he thinks Alaskans have a more accepting attitude toward hardship than people down south. It’s a place he feels at home, he said. "I can roll with the punches up here. I’ve always been energetic and looking for work."