Story last updated at 10/10/2012 - 12:48 pm
I am not a "Peeping Tom". I do look out my windows frequently, and almost every day, for the last year and a half (with the exception of 79 days this summer, explained later), there has been a slender man in orange Grundens rubber rain gear moving dirt, bushes and rocks back and forth on the property across the street from my residence. What is his deal?
His deal is that he is working on a storage place for an 18-foot wooden dory. The orange dory man is 57-year-old Dick Callahan. For 79 days this past summer, Callahan rowed the dory from Juneau to Seattle. Callahan is a published novelist, and his current work-in-progress is a comprehensive novel about Northwest fisheries.
"I made that trip this summer to know what I'm talking about," Callahan said. "I believe that there are some things you can't just wing. It's important to me, as a writer, to be credible."
Callahan grew up in Dover, N.H., a town about the size of Juneau. He spent his childhood summer on a lake.
"We spent most of our time swimming unsupervised," Callahan said, referring to his playgroup that included two brothers and other children summering in the area. "We were always pretty rambunctious, trying to see who could dive the deepest or hold their breath the longest."
Callahan said one of his first memories was a trip his family took during a winter storm to a lighthouse. Callahan wandered away from the group to the swelling sea.
"This wave came and picked me up and hugged me and sat me back to where I had been," Callahan said. "I always gravitated towards water and that's one of the reasons I gravitated towards Juneau."
Though Callahan attended the University of Alaska Southeast, earning both an associate's degree in marine technology as well as a bachelor's degree in biology, his path from high school to Juneau was not direct.
He worked as a hospital corpsman for the Navy for four years, basically serving as a medic for the Marines. He attended scuba diving and amphibious reconnaissance schools. He was trained to conduct beach surveys, swimming clandestinely at night.
When he got out of the military he wanted to move to Alaska, the farthest place he could think to move to, but he had a strong desire to complete "an epic run" first. Callahan enjoyed long distance running, so he went to Oregon and ran across the state.
"I had a small pack and I would run maybe 20 to 25 miles a day," Callahan said. "This was years before Forest Gump."
It took him a couple of weeks to arrive in Boise, Idaho, where he bought a bike and rode back to New Hampshire. He was greeted with a call from a friend from the Marines who wanted to go to a three month deep sea diving school in Oakland, Calif. Callahan said sure, and earned his commercial diving certification.
Back in Dover, Callahan worked for the local fire department but was getting antsy. So in the summer of 1981 he found himself working as a fire fighter in Clear, a small town in the Alaskan interior between Nenana and Healy.
Too far from the ocean for Callahan's taste, he moved to Homer and worked in canneries for eight months.
"I decided I would move down to Juneau and go to school and watch whales; that's what I really wanted to do," Callahan said.
He spoke from his living room couch over mugs of herbal tea. Callahan has a large mustache, wore an old navy blue sweater, brown Carhartt pants and round wire-rimmed glasses. He has a gentle, calming and introspective demeanor. The bookshelves behind him were stuffed with old books about dories and a lot written by local authors, which he said he is passionate about supporting.
Eventually he met his future wife, Cathy, who was visiting friends in Juneau for a couple of weeks. When she returned to Chicago the couple continued a long distance relationship. They just celebrated their 27th anniversary.
He worked for years as a commercial diver and fisherman, mostly fishing for black cod and halibut, in the spring, summer and fall.
"It was a great opportunity to see parts of Southeast Alaska that you don't ordinarily get to see," Callahan reminisced. "Looking back on my experiences, those are the some of the best things I ever did; being out on the big ocean."
Though he now spends his days writing (and moving dirt), he still finds time once a year to spend some quality time on the ocean. He made a decision early in his eligibility to collect the Permanent Fund Dividend to spend it on "something that was potentially good for the environment."
Since the mid-1980s Callahan has been spending a couple of weeks each fall camping out on the coast with a hydrophone recording whale sounds.
"Now I have hundreds of hours of whale recordings," Callahan said. "Nobody knows anything about what they mean. My hope is that someday, when we know more about what these incredibly complex songs mean, people will be able to go back through this archive and look at how they have changed."
Callahan has two sons, Matt, 24, and Neal, 21. When Matt was four he asked to accompany his father on his annual whale recording pilgrimage. Callahan told Matt he could come when he was nine. Callahan didn't raise the subject again. Matt did.
"He came up and said, 'I'm going to be nine next month, I want to go,'" Callahan said. Neal went too, when he turned nine.
Callahan began writing in the 1990s, novels and essays with an environmental thread.
"You get a gut feeling that something isn't right, but being able to spend a few years looking at the different arguments that people put out," Callahan said, "Hopefully you can put something out that's going to be cogent and useful and put your mind at rest about how you feel."
He credits his wife as being "incredibly supportive" of his writing process.
This winter Callahan will be working on transferring his whale audio to a digital format.
"I see myself listening to whale songs for the rest of my life," Callahan said.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.