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Sitka proved to be an ideal spot for Bernard to begin his Alaskan relationship. The reason turned out to be somewhat personal.
Alaska — Ever Resilient 022217 AE 1 By David Fox For the Capital City Weekly Sitka proved to be an ideal spot for Bernard to begin his Alaskan relationship. The reason turned out to be somewhat personal.

Courtesy image.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Story last updated at 2/21/2017 - 8:04 pm

Alaska — Ever Resilient

Before he arrived, C. B. Bernard, an aspiring writer, was offered two jobs in Alaska, both working for local newspapers. Nome offered him a reporter’s slot on the Nome Nugget, while Sitka’s Sentinel pitched him a similar deal. It was not a tough decision. Southeast’s rainy climes and gorgeous wooded areas won hands down over the treeless, stripped landscapes of Nome. Sitka proved to be an ideal spot for Bernard to begin his Alaskan relationship. The reason turned out to be somewhat personal. After arriving in Sitka his dad told him about a distant cousin, Joe Bernard, who gained fame as an explorer of Alaska’s coastlines. Then, serendipitously, he learned that Joe Bernard was closer to him than he realized — he was buried in a cemetery only a stone’s throw from his Sitka residence.

C. B. Bernard’s long-lost relative intrigued him. And then, our budding, fresh-on-the-job reporter got the break he was looking for – J. Bernard had kept a journal. Titled “The Arctic Voyages of the Schooner Teddy Bear,” it was nearly 1,000 pages long and detailed his ten-plus years sailing the treacherous waters of the Arctic Sea. It also contained information about the artifacts he had collected, the numerous hunts he undertook and a slew of information on the many indigenous peoples he encountered during his travel. It would provide all the material C.B. needed to make a fascinating comparison between life on the rough in Alaska circa 1909 through 1920 and the Alaska of today.

What was patently obvious to Bernard is that the similarities and differences between the Alaska’s of now and then deserved further scrutiny. The more he delved into J. Bernard’s journal the more convinced he became of the DNA linking these two times together. Bernard found subtle ways to elevate the contrasts between Bernard’s heroic efforts as the captain of the Teddy Bear to his own, less challenging experiences, in a more modern Alaska. The simple act of eating proffers up an elegant comparison. While at his new job in Sitka, C.B. got invited to dine on the Statendam, a Holland-America cruise ship docked in her harbor. He was feted to a meal of “fresh seafood, thick cuts of beef, crisp vegetables…” topped off by crème brûlée.” He compared that to an especially lean winter meal J. Bernard suffered through aboard the Teddy Bear: ‘“We ate about 1 tablespoon of macaroni soup and a piece of meat, one for each, about 3/4ths inch square.’”

What doesn’t change in a hundred years? As one reads “Chasing Alaska,” one finds the answer: resiliency. J. Bernard gives resiliency a deeper meaning. Living on the Teddy Bear, he survives against the most bitter conditions hurled by an Arctic winter. More than once trapped by the ice, cut off from all resources, he and his crew resorted to herculean efforts to keep themselves alive. One might think that after surviving a winter defined by imminent starvation, freed from its grip, you’d pack your bags and scoot south toward warmer waters. That was not the course of action for men like Bernard. He hung in there and as soon as spring prevailed, he was back aboard his ship, exploring and charting Alaska’s virgin coasts.

That same resilient attitude is alive and well in today’s Alaska. Bernard visits with Brendan Jones, owner of the Adak, the largest vessel berthed at Eliason Harbor in Sitka. The Adak is a World War II harbor tug that has euphemistically, seen better days. But Jones sees her inner beauty and devotes all of his waking hours to restoring her. (Editor’s note: Jones is also the author of the novel “The Alaskan Laundry.” Read an article about it here: http://www.capitalcityweekly.com/stories/051116/ae_1268399775.shtml) Restoration, however, is nearly an impossible task. Bernard writes: “In everyone’s life come moments of recognition that perhaps some invisible line has been crossed, like Icarus … Brendan must have such moments… His wings haven’t melted – they’re sodden with rainwater … But there’s smoked salmon on the table … Tomorrow the sun might rise over the mountains, or the next day, and he’ll ride it out on the Adak until it does.”

By the end of the book Bernard concludes that “Joe’s Alaska had little in common with my own … When I compared our skills as men in the traditional, romantic sense of the word, and as Alaskans, I always came up short.” Maybe so, but in an act of defiance against his own perceived nature, he closes out by telling us that he constructed his own vessel, a 17 foot dory he names the Epilogue. And that, it truly is.

• David Fox is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage. Contact him at dfox@gci.com.