By Clark Fair, for Redoubt Reporter
Ravens supply the only activity at the Dillingham city dock these days. The dock itself, sheathed in ice and drifted snow, is littered with large construction items and heavy equipment destined for the first barge of spring. The ravens, meanwhile, perch on and squawk from the multicolored stacks of shipping containers, and they cavort and twirl and soar in the winds that swirl above Nushagak Bay.
About 200 yards away, past the penned Doberman that barks at each passerby, customers at the Sea Inn Bar — “Enjoy the Sea Inn … until you can’t see out” — linger outside only long enough for cigarette-break companionship. Inside, they swill beer at the scattered tables or the darkened counter and shout at each other over too-loud recorded music. The scene is about the same at Dillingham’s only other bar, the Willow Tree, nearly a mile and a half away atop Windmill Hill. Thursday nights at the Willow Tree are reserved for trivia contests, and poker is featured at least one night a week. Live music appears occasionally at both venues.
Depending on the day, the city’s four restaurants are generally quiet in winter. Most folks are at home, feeding themselves jars of last summer’s sockeye or slabs of packaged moose meat from the freezer. At the two gas stations in town, the customers come and go, dispensing their own fuel at $6.70 a gallon, except on Thursdays when Delta Western offers a discount.
The staffs at Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge are mostly hunkered down in their offices, completing the paperwork from the last busy summer and planning ahead for the next one.
The one consistently busy site is the Dillingham Post Office, although the action also can be intense at city hall if the topic du jour is controversial enough. Traffic is fairly consistent at the grocery stores — N&N and the A.C. — and sometimes at the liquor store between them.
On some weekends, basketball tournaments fill the gym at Dillingham High School, drawing excited local supporters and boisterous village crowds flying in from Togiak to Manokotak, from New Stuyahok to Koliganek. But such contests occur infrequently, and the gym usually echoes emptily except for practice sessions after school.
Generally speaking, winter in Dillingham is a quiet time. A north wind blows and everything freezes. A south wind blows and everything melts. Snow falls and then goes away — either liquefied by rising temperatures or blown like grains of sand across the tundra. The bay fills with ice, empties and refills. The wind blows some more.
A few crazy souls bundle up to run or ride bicycles on the multiuse path. The ravens croak and run reconnaissance missions to local Dumpsters. Vagrant belugas sporadically pursue smelt toward the river outlets. The fractured veneer of ice in the harbor rises and falls with the tide. Plastic covers on dry-docked fishing vessels flap in the wind. Delinquent dogs lurk behind snow berms in driveways down Wood River and Aleknagik Lake roads. And the sunrise colors on clear mornings are like rainbows uncoiled and held prone across the horizon — red side down, violet side up.
The sockeye season is still months away.
Guided hunters and fishermen are still making plane reservations.
Brown bears are still hibernating.
Sea gulls are still elsewhere scavenging for their scraps.
But soon — very soon, in fact — the quietude in Dillingham will be disturbed. And Dillinghammers will welcome this disruption, which is happening for the 57th year — Beaver Roundup.
Like the Peninsula Winter Games or Fur Rendezvous, Beaver Roundup stirs the pot of a sometimes sedentary season. Soon it will be time for the parade down Main Street. Soon people will congregate in the Dillingham Elementary gymnasium for Dilly Capers. Soon there will another Candy Drop, another round of Turkey Bowling, another Traditional Foods Feast — almost an entire week of frivolity, careless spending, overindulgence and community engagement.
And, if we’re lucky this year, a sudden and massive snowfall will occur and save the featured attractions (which had to be canceled last year) — the sled dog and snowmobile races.
Some slumbering residents, rarely spotted since Halloween, will rise from their couches to emerge like ursine refugees. They will doff the cables from their gaming consoles like prisoners shedding shackles, and they will rejoin the Dillingham citizenry for the celebration.
By the time the fireworks at the harbor close out the festivities, smiles will be broader. Residents will have reintroduced themselves to folks they haven’t seen for a while. Businesses will have received a fiscal kick in the pants.
And the end of winter will feel close at hand.
The light will return with renewed vigor. Days will stretch languorously toward summer.
Within a month, eager fishermen will begin peeling back boat covers and tinkering with equipment. The expectant ravens on C Street will fortify their nest high on the backside of a communications array. Preseason workers will arrive at the Peter Pan Seafoods complex. Itinerant commercial anglers will begin shipping copious quantities of supplies to the post office. Predators will prowl the skies and roam the tussocks in search of surfacing rodents. Road crews will renew their work on the Wood River Bridge and Kanakanak Road projects. Neighbors with fistfuls of rakes and shovels and brooms will reconnoiter to refurbish lawns and parking areas.
Pulses will quicken everywhere.
But not yet. Soon, but not yet.
Until the final week of February, the ravens on the city dock will continue to hold court. Slabs of ice will drift in and out with the tides. The north wind will deliver the arctic to our doorsteps.
And quiet will be king a little longer.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.