By boat or by plane: Early Gold Medal players made the trip any way they could

Posted: Saturday, March 21, 2009

The frozen hold of a commercial fishing ship might not sound like the best place to lay your head on a wet, wind-whipped Juneau night - much less six nights in a row. But for Herbie Didrickson and the early Gold Medal teams from Sitka, those make-shift rooms were all part of the fun.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Every year local Sitka boat captains, such as Bill Walton on the Sea Ranger and "Mr. Hope" on the Sheldon Jackson boat, would allow their commercial vessels to undergo a rushed makeover, turning them into floating motorhomes for the team. A motivated scrubbing from the players brought the notorious fish odor of the holds down to an acceptable level for squads made up of "guys who were all fishermen anyhow," according to Didrickson. A blaring oil stove, piles of blankets and a few good cooks did the rest to make the bunks of hastily nailed two-by-fours a cozy nest for a week.

The week, of course, only started after the vessel and crew sailed through days of icy Taku winds to reach Juneau, and ended after an equally-tough trip home.

"It's only an 18 hour ride if you're going, maybe, 10 knots," Didrickson said. "Of course, it took us two days if the north wind was blowing. The teams from Ketchikan had to go by boat too, but they had to go twice as far to get to Juneau."

Another of the earliest Sitka players, Gil Truitt, remembers a particularly wild trip to Juneau for the 1950 Gold Medal that forced the team to tie up midway, along the Tennakee docks. The players did their best through most of the night to remove a shell of ice that was spread across the vessel courtesy of the cold north winds that blow through Chatham Straits. Before morning the boat was off again, chugging into Juneau just in time for their first game.

"That was one of the roughest trips I can ever remember taking," Truitt said.

In the first tournaments, the depth of Sitka ANB's bench was determined by space on the boat. After the team's first championship in 1949's championship bracket, though, the community began to get behind the team both spiritually and financially.

The community put on dances and cake sales to raise money for the team, with the elders allowing the players to use the kitchen of the ANB Hall to make treats they would sell in a nearby corner store. The extra money allowed the team to fly to Juneau in small two-engine planes and pack five or six players into rooms at the now-defunct Gastineau Hotel.

The impact of Sitka ANB's first wins also resounded beyond their own community, bringing many more small-town Gold Medal teams into the tournament.

"Before we won, all the big teams were all white teams," Didrickson said. "When they ran into Sitka ANB it kind of boosted all the rest of the small villages. Hoonah and Angoon and the rest started getting teams up there. At one game I had to ask the scorekeeper if they were having turnouts like this all the time and he said 'heck no - they came to watch you play.'"

Traveling in the small, two-engine planes hardly made the team's trips to Juneau less adventurous, though. On one trip, the group's plane hit a vacuum above Fish Bay and dropped roughly 120 feet, according to Didrickson.

"It's hard to explain something like that," he said. "All of a sudden you still have your seatbelt on but you're not on your seat anymore. Then we came down on bottom and, wow, talk about a shakeup."

The team's planes also often needed several passes to find the airport due to low-lying fog over Juneau. Sometimes, Didrickson said, the pilot would elect for a water landing before white caps turned them back for another try at the airport.

Of course, other teams' pilots had trouble landing their planes for the tournament, as well. Didrickson recalls one year when a Metlakatla squad had their big "PNA" plane skid off of the runway due to icy conditions. After a long wait, a bus eventually picked up the players along the runway and drove them to the gym, just in time for their first game.

"They had to change on the bus and they came in the gym just like globetrotters," Didrickson said. "They came in with their uniforms on and put their suitcases along the floor. They didn't have any time to warm up, but they got a big cheer from the crowd for that and they won their first game."

Truitt and Didrickson were both honored as members of the initial 2006 class of the Alaska High School Hall of Fame. Truitt was inducted as an administrator for his work at Mount Edgecumbe High School, while Didrickson was inducted as a player from Sheldon Jackson High School in Sitka.

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