"Any Tonnage, Any Ocean" is a biography of Captain Walter Jackinsky Jr., age 88, a retired master mariner for the Alaska Marine Highway System and patriarch of one of Ninilchik's founding families. His life story shows how seemingly ordinary people can lead extraordinary lives.
The book goes beyond one man's story to explore his place and time. It includes fascinating vignettes about a century of changes affecting Ninilchik, in particular, the Kenai Peninsula and Alaska, in general. It highlights the uniqueness of the Kenai Peninsula as a place where Native, Russian and modern American cultures meld, where the land meets the sea, and where wilderness and civilization brush up against each other.
"Walter counts himself 'five-eighths Russian and three-eighths Alutiiq,'" author Jacquelin Pels writes.
His father, Walter Jackinsky Sr., was a Russian born in present-day Lithuania. His mother, born Mary Oskolkoff, was descended from Russian colonists and Native wives from Nanwalek and Kodiak. Walter Jr. was among the last generation in Ninilchik to grow up speaking Russian in the home.
During his childhood, the Creole, Native and Russian culture dominated what was then an isolated village. Life revolved around natural cycles, especially salmon runs. The biggest holiday of the year was Easter, with its special foods such as the fruity, domed loaves of "kulich," Russian Easter bread. Chores included hauling water from the river in twin buckets on a shoulder yoke, up and down ice-glazed banks. A trip to "town" meant a hike of several days along the beach to Kenai or Homer, with cautious attention to the tides.
Walter Jr. learned fluent English in school. In the 1930s, he served in the Civilian Conservation Corps helping the Matanuska Colony. Then he was off to Bristol Bay, where he worked on the famous and dangerous sailing dories. During World War II, his sea legs landed him a position with the merchant marine. After the war, he worked a variety of jobs to support his own growing family.
A turning point came in the early 1960s. Already in his late 40s, Jackinsky got a job as an ordinary seaman on the new ferry system, assigned to the M/V Malaspina. He liked the work and was determined to work his way up.
His career on the Marine Highway stands at the center of his life story. It's an inspirational tale of perseverance rewarded and fodder for a marvelous array of anecdotes.
The book's title comes from a line in the master mariner's license he earned, a license to run any ship anywhere. He became a ferry captain, working for years out of Juneau and then, for 17 years, ran the M/V E.L. Bartlett in Prince William Sound.
When he retired in 1997 at age 81, he was the system's senior captain, the Legislature and governor commended him, and he received the honorary title of commodore.
Diane Olthuis, a Hope historian who worked as a nature interpreter on the ferry, told Pels, "He appeared to be loved and respected by all of his crew. Everyone was amazed at his age, as he appeared much younger."
The only time his crew recalled seeing him truly angry was when the Bartlett was in dry dock for a paint job and some joker replaced the B with an F.
Even retirement has been adventurous for Jackinsky. He has indulged a passion for traveling, circling the globe and visiting landmarks as far flung as the Taj Mahal and Australia's Ayers Rock. Of the greatest personal significance have been several trips to Russia, which he calls "the motherland."
Jackinsky's life has included enough adventure for several people. Its recurring themes are pursuit of salmon, the ties of extended family and modest, hard work.
Modest, hard work also applies to Pels, a former Alaskan, who has built a reputation for turning out unusual, high-quality books reflecting local history. Through her publishing she met McKibben Jackinsky, a Ninilchik writer and Walter's daughter, who convinced her to meet him and hear his stories.
In autumn 2003, Pels spent several weeks with Walter Jackinsky, recording extensive interviews. She went on to contact members of his extended family, ferry crews and others to augment the narrative.
The resulting book reads like an autobiography, as most is based on Walter's reminiscences. Pels adds family photos, her own observations and quotes writings by Walter and other members of his eloquent family. The only thing missing is a family tree to help track his clan, as large and complex as the cast of a Russian novel.
"Any Tonnage, Any Ocean" has a cozy feel. A reader can almost imagine sitting at Walter's kitchen table, a cup of "chai" (Russian tea) at hand, listening to the white-haired gentleman recalling events.
The book does not explore every aspect of his life and does not analyze his personality. One gets a sense that some topics were off limits and stories may have other versions. But Pels makes it clear that she is not writing a definitive history of the ferries, Ninilchik or even of Walter Jackinsky Jr.
What she has written, with much able collaboration, is one of the best books about the Kenai Peninsula. She is a skilled writer with an ear for a good yarn and a knack for intimate portraits. Reading "Any Tonnage, Any Ocean" is like being invited to a family reunion with someone you've always admired and finally get to know better.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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