The Big Empty

On a calm winter day in the Aleutians, the tug Saratoga tows and oil barge across Unalaska Bay on its way from Captains Bay to Dutch Harbor. The tall mountain to the left is Makushin Volcano on Unalaska.

The Big Empty is for the most part a pleasant place, but it can also be hard and cruel. The pulse of the tides beats a big rhythm. It is a living mosaic filled with dreams, laughter, love, play, work, pain and the very near experiences of death.

It is a place whose icy grips are unforgiving, and death is no stranger to the men and women who live and work here. It is a place full of scars. Some heal and some do not. It is a land that wakes a man’s soul.
Eight years ago Willy took the dispatch. He would ride the Chinese-flagged freighter Ever Winner over to Makushin Bay, where it would anchor up in one of the long-protected arms of the bay. As the crow flies, Makushin is located about 60 miles west of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. It is a well-protected harbor, safe from Aleutian winter storms that blow in from all points of the compass. The ship would be at anchor for a week or longer. A fleet of factory trawlers would come and go during this time, offloading frozen fish.
Ever Winner was a slow vessel. Willy figured it would take him about eight hours from the time he left Dutch to anchor-down time in Makushin. “Hold my dinner for me,” he had said. “I’ll be back.” Later that afternoon Willy called in on the radio and told the dispatcher he would be all finished with engines and ready to be picked up by 1700. After speaking with Willy over the radio, the dispatcher made a quick phone call to Peninsula Aviation and arranged for their floatplane to fly over and get Willy.
The Grumman Goose took off to get Willy around 1630. Forty, maybe 50 minutes later, the airplane pilot radioed back to his office and said he had picked Willy up and was headed back. He reported the weather was deteriorating and since the ceiling was dropping, he was going to fly back along the coast. He thought he would arrive in about 40 minutes.
Somewhere between the mouth of Makushin Bay and Dutch Harbor, the Goose, which had been flying for over 50 years, lost its magical power of flight and fell from the sky.
The Coast Guard, along with helicopters, planes and boats, searched in vain for the plane and its two missing men. Willy, the Goose and Nick, the plane’s pilot and companion in flight for the past 15 years, had disappeared without a trace. Since nothing was found for days and then months, it was believed they had become lost over the Bering Sea.
Capt. Willy Cork, in addition to being one of my associates, was also a close personal friend. Like me, his favorite job in the world was being a dad. For a long time his death ate away at me. Maybe it was hard on me because I was close with Willy, or maybe it was because his death brought home the thought that it could just as well have been me in that plane. This much I knew: With the loss of my friend on Aug. 11, 1996, death felt closer than ever before.
For months after Willy’s passage, I dreamed repeatedly of the Goose plunging into the sea. I saw the two men unbuckling themselves, struggling to find a way clear from the sinking wreckage. I saw Willy kicking at the plane’s Plexiglas windows, which by now were the only part of the plane still remaining above the water’s surface. The cold ocean would be quickly filling the plane’s deformed cockpit. I would wake up soaking in sweat from my nightmare, leaving the two struggling spirits sinking.
One night, about eight months after the men had been lost, I fell asleep and found myself in a different dream. I was in a small square room with only a single window in one of the four walls. Confused and wondering where I was, I watched the room around me begin to fill with cold water. I started to shiver and became frightened, as I realized I was searching for a door that didn’t exist. As the water rose up around my hips, I placed my hands flat against the window and tried to push it out. The window bowed but would not break. The water was filling the room more quickly now, churning and rumbling up past my chest. I pushed harder on the window, then I pushed as hard as I could. Again the window would only bow and bend; it would not break.
The water was now forcing itself into my mouth. I began to feel myself drown. I made a fist with my right hand, and with the fear of death, I punched the rubbery window in front of me. This time it broke.
My arm and shoulder went through the hole my knuckles had just made. The opening was still not large enough for me to escape through, so I began to beat my arm in circles in the middle of the jagged hole, knocking free the razor sharp chunks of glass. The opening was growing larger. Knowing I would soon be able to escape from my nightmare, I ignored the dull ache in my arm and continued to thrash at the glass.
The pain grew and grew as I slowly became conscious of the fact that I was kneeling in the middle of my bed. The upper half of my body was leaning out through my bedroom’s broken window frame at the head of the bed. Half awake, I wondered if I was still dreaming. The ache in my arm continued to grip me until I was in pain enough to know this was no longer a dream or a nightmare.
I lifted my arm clear from the broken windowsill and saw that my biceps had been torn open and shredded. I climbed off the bed and sat down on the floor of the bedroom. I put my hand over the wounds to try and stem the bleeding. As I started to get up to find a towel or cloth for a makeshift bandage, I began to feel nauseated and dizzy.
I never got the cloth bandages. Instead I lay over on the floor among the shards of scattered glass. I waited for the first wave of sickness to pass, but my feet and hands began to get hot and sweaty. I felt the need to vomit rising as my bowels began to loosen. I went into shock.
After this experience, I never dreamed of Willy or the Goose again. I believe that when I broke through the window, his spirit was finally able to escape the plane and go to its own place of peace. Whenever I’m in the Aleutians, I still look for Willy, because I’m certain his spirit would remain where the earth still smells good.
The things I remember most about all the places I have been in my life are the smells. From my summers growing up in Moraga, Calif., I remember a warm, dry, grassy smell. When I was at the maritime academy, I remember a foggy, salty smell. But nothing smells as delicious as Dutch Harbor in the middle of winter when the wind has been blowing out of the north for several days. When this arctic air mixes with the rising steam from the canneries cooking crab, pollock and cod, that’s the smell of the Big Empty.

Capt. Peter Garay has worked as an Alaska pilot for the past two decades on the remote waters of western Alaska. He lives in the small coastal town of Homer, Alaska where he loves to fish, garden, and write.

By Professional Mariner Staff