Monday, February 3, 2014

Passing of a life-long Alaska at age 93

My mother-in-law, Ida deVille, at age 94 passed away last night at 11:30. She went to join her husband, Jacques (“Jack”) who died at age 91 in 2003. The life-long Alaskans, before moving to Cordova, resided in the now-abandoned town of Katalla which rested on the very edge of the Gulf of Alaska near Kayak Island. Following is my favorite story about Ida:
Jack – not surprising – had been a commercial fisherman most of his life. Ida accompanied him on the boat quite often during the fishing season, but not this one time. She stayed home to take care of their three sons; this was before the births—later—of two daughters.
In the mid ‘40’s, Jack deVille had been gone for some time chugging his way around the Sound in search of salmon and had no way of knowing that wife, Ida, had been worrying over the deteriorating condition of their youngest --infant -- son, Bob. Katalla had no hospital, doctors or even radio communications to summon help from Cordova. The trip from Katalla to Cordova by boat – assuming weather was conducive to the trip – was tedious, and very long. And without radar, piloting a boat in the dark when approaching the waters off the Copper River delta with its sandbars and breakers, would have to be a matter of life or death.
On such emergency occasions, the powerful radio at the St. Elias lighthouse on Kayak Island had contacted Cordova for help. There were times when this was difficult to arrange. When the weather was bad, a boat from Katalla could not approach the beach line of Kayak Island without being smashed on the rocks. But Ida was becoming desperate. At the kitchen table, she scribbled four notes which read, “Someone sick. Need Plane”. She folded each paper and stuffed them into four tobacco cans. She sealed the cans with wax and tape. Leaving her sons in the charge of a couple of teenage neighbor girls, she trekked out into the stormy weather and climbed into a neighbor’s boat who then maneuvered it into the deeper water and turned south-southeast. The engine, the reliable “two-bits” “two-bits” “two-bits” sound it made as it dutifully pushed the boat into the bigger and bigger swells, Ida and the neighbor squinted out of the pilot house windows, their eyes fixed on the rotating light of the lighthouse off in the distant darkness.
Reaching the south end of the island they “paced” back and forth directing the beams of spotlights at the lighthouse living quarters until they saw dark figures immerging from the building, who, with flashlights in hands, made their way to the beach. The spotlight on the boat was now directed on to Ida, on deck, so the Coast Guardsmen could see she was holding up a can. She then flung it into the water. Then she did the same with the other three cans. Now it was time to wait for the waves to carry the cans to the beach. The Coasties could be seen walking up and down the beach, scanning their flashlight beams on the incoming waves. After a period of time, one of them began waving, and the spotlight revealed that he held up one of the tobacco cans.
The next morning the small plane arrived. It was so small that Ida could only pack for Bob, no clothes for herself. She asked the two Hanson girls what they would like from Cordova as payment for watching the boys. “Ice skates” they replied. In the Cordova hospital, Bob was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. He was in the hospital for two months. During that time, Jack had pulled into Cordova and then learned about the situation. After Bob’s release from the hospital, Jack, Ida and Bob boarded their Boat, the “New Josie” and he loaded his new prized possession – his new Ford truck – onto the stern of the boat, lashed it down, and headed for Katalla.
In the Gulf, in line with the Copper River Delta, the winds tore through the area with such force that crossing was impossible. In fact, turning the vessel around in those swells took timing, nerve, and luck to minimize the time spent sideways to the swells. He was lucky enough to swing the “New Josie” around to prevent capsizing, but not lucky enough to save his Ford, which was ripped loose of it’s lashings and washed overboard. That was only the first of many attempts to cross the Gulf during the next 3 months.
When they finally moored up in Katalla, 5 months after leaving, Ida was very apologetic to the Hanson girls and gave them a pair of clip-on ice skates, adjustable in size, so they could share them.

Recently acquired photo of Ida in the ‘20’s at the Woody Island Baptist Mission near Kodiak Alaska where she spent her younger days. Bottom picture Ida is seated making bread in the kitchen of the mission.  Upper left, showing off her purchases from her first paycheck: a Bible, a sled, and her new boots. Upper right, still making bread decades later.

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