In his salad days as a logger, Mark "Red" Geil was king of the south end of Stephens Passage.
"Everybody knew 'Riptide Red,' 'often imitated and never duplicated,' " he boasts. "He could jump higher, go down deeper and come up drier than any timber pirate on the Inside Passage."
Jumping means keeping out of the way of falling timber, snaking cables and spinning chainsaw blades - a critical skill if you spend 25 years "in the brush" as Geil did.
Beginning in 1985, Geil worked as a logger at Hobart Bay, 70 miles northeast of Sitka, for 13 years. "I did everything from the tail holt to the cook house." "Tail holt" is "working back in the back end of the woods," where nobody but ravens hears you if you holler.
He logged for nine months of the year and ran a trapline in the Chuck River drainage for the other three. The trapline was "75 miles on land and 25 miles of water," yielding mink, marten, wolf, wolverine, ermine, otter and beaver. Once a marten bit all the way through his finger as he pinwheeled his arm trying to get it off. He brought in his other hand to get it off, and it bit one of those fingers too.
"My partner, Kenny Morrison, was rolling in the snow" laughing, he said.
At Hobart Bay, Geil lived on a 50-by-40-foot float with a house on it, raising two children, Eli, 16, and Amber, 18.
"Eli learned to walk on logs because I didn't have a deck (outside the house). The kids always wore life jackets, but if they slipped, they were in the drink. Amber and her friends used to make jelly fish stew instead of mud pies. You take a couple of jelly fish, a handful of hemlock sawdust, ashes from the fireplace, and old caulks (nails) from boots for flavor," Geil said.
Geil was born and raised in Oregon. In 1966 he quit high school and joined the Army, winding up in a float bridge company in Vietnam.
"The enemy would come and blow up the bridge, so we would build a float bridge to get traffic moving again, repair the bridge, pull the float bridge out, and they would come and blow it again. Then the Seabees (construction engineers) would come in and build a good bridge; it would apparently fit Viet Cong specs so they'd leave it. I felt we working for the Viet Cong," he said with a wry grin.
After bridge detail, he became skipper on a boat patrol at Chu Lai, 75 miles south of Danang. "We didn't look very hard to get in trouble, and nobody was looking to get in trouble with us," he said.
When the logging operation at Hobart Bay closed down, Geil had to leave his float house and come to Juneau for work. He wound up three years ago with Capitol Disposal, the landfill in the Lemon Creek area. For two years, he piloted a scow that collected trash from cruise ships as soon as their mooring lines were taut. Then the city's recycling program began. Now, Wednesdays and Saturdays, he bales cans and cardboard and crushes glass. The other three work days, he's a mechanic.
"I like Waste Management (the parent company's name) because they treat their employees good. There are lots of opportunities and benefits," Geil said. He is taking advantage of Capitol's education program, picking up courses in solid waste, mechanics, welding and hydraulics.
One of the hardest things about city work is getting used to all the safety regulations.
"Working in the woods, you have to keep the eyes in the back of your head open all the time. You're jumping all the time, and you are a lot keener. Now when people say, 'What you're doing is dangerous,' I don't see it as dangerous."
A fellow Capitol employee and another former logger, "Big Jim" Johnson, gives Geil credit for the smoothness with which the recycling operation runs. "It's hard to say how it's going to evolve, but Red calls the shots, and I pretty much back him up," Johnson said.
Like Geil, Johnson speaks yearningly of Hobart.
"Those were the good old days, back when a young family had an opportunity to log." He says this although he broke both his legs at Hobart at different times and then crushed his foot at another logging camp. Once you get a taste for working fast and jumping high, it's hard to slack off, he said.
When asked to comment about Geil, known for shaving off his red beard to "change the weather," Dave Thomas, general manager of Capitol, laughed and said, "He's Red all right. He likes to joke around a little. But he does a pretty good job out there."