The risks we took to play Metlakatla basketball in 1971

Another massive wave of cold dark water caused our small seine boat to rise up at a precarious angle, only to drop into a deep trough as another wave engulfed us. Ice was forming on the bow, causing even more cold sea water to wash over the boat. The captain sent some boys out to chip the ice off to no avail. We were alone off the southeast coast of Alaska, in the dead of winter. I wondered if I was going to be the third teacher from Metlakatla to drown this year. Or worse yet, was the town going to lose its entire basketball team?

The gale force wind continued as we headed into the teeth of the storm. Another gigantic wave washed over us, smashing the windows in the pilot house, sending shards of glass everywhere. Thankfully no one was badly cut, but it was time to seek shelter. We turned sideways to the storm. Even though this was a dangerous position, we needed to get to a protected area. We were able to find a small cove and waited throughout the night for calmer waters, which returned the following morning, allowing us to complete our journey home. Thankfully, we were alive, and I still had some of my stomach lining left after puking my guts out from Hoonah to Metlakatla.

“I couldn’t see a thing, so I asked two players to walk in front of the van to keep me from driving off the road. Then BANG … the clutch went out and we were not going anywhere.”

It was 1970, and I was coaching basketball and teaching in the small, mostly Tsimshian Indian, town of Metlakatla. It is the southernmost community in Southeast Alaska, located on Annette Island, first settled with the leadership of Father William Duncan who brought 826 Tsimshians from Canada seeking religious freedom. In the years since, it had become a fairly prosperous community with fishing, logging and a cannery providing most of the income. Our high school had approximately 100 students and was successful both academically and athletically, with many students going on to college.

1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys

1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys team

A couple weeks after our Hoonah adventure, we had another trip scheduled to Haines and Skagway, the northernmost communities in Southeast Alaska. In order to play other basketball teams we had to journey long distances, and because we were not connected to a road system our travels did not usually involve much driving. But this time we decided to extend our trip an additional 438 miles so the team could connect with their previous coach, a man they greatly admired, who had moved to Tok, Alaska.

Our journey to Skagway and Haines was uneventful. After our last game in Haines, six players and I stuffed into an old blue Ford Econoline van we borrowed from another teacher, Arnold Booth, and began our road trip on the sparsely traveled and unpaved highway through Canada to Tok.

1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys

The 1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys team coached by the author, Gil Hjellen.

A light snow was falling as we left Haines. Hundreds of American bald eagles ominously looked down at us from their perches in the cottonwood trees lining the deserted highway leading to Chilkat Pass. As we began to climb above the treeline, the snowfall became heavier and soon we were in a full-blown blizzard. I couldn’t see a thing, so I asked two players to walk in front of the van to keep me from driving off the road. Then BANG … the clutch went out and we were not going anywhere.

We had not seen any other cars or passed any dwellings since leaving Haines. I wasn’t sure how many miles it was to the top of the pass where there was a maintenance station, and since we were above the treeline there was no way to build a fire. Our only option was to stay with the vehicle and hope someone would miss us sooner or later. It was completely white ahead of us, at our sides and behind us. We couldn’t see a thing as darkness fell and we settled down for a long winter’s night. Suddenly we heard a loud roar and saw bright lights as a snowplow stopped, narrowly missing us. We were rescued and towed back to Haines where the clutch was fixed.

1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys

The stuffed into an old Ford Econoline van for their journey to Haines.

At high noon the next day we were off again, and as the weather had cleared there was no problem getting over the pass. That’s when we met a new enemy, the bitter cold of the Yukon. The engine was running cold so there was little heat, and soon all the windows frosted over on the inside. I had to have one of the players use an ice scraper to make a small hole for me to look through on the front windshield. The steering became very stiff as the grease and steering fluid began to freeze.

As we approached Haines Junction I was becoming a little unnerved, so I decided to let the Royal Canadian Mounted Police know we were traveling to Tok. The policeman was a great guy and told us it was 50 below zero with the temperature still dropping, and that we would be passing by Stag, home of the lowest recorded temperature in North America, 84.6 degrees below zero. He offered to let us stay overnight in his house, and he also had a heated garage for our frozen Ford. We readily accepted his offer and spent a warm night.

The next morning it was still clear and cold, but we were off. Continuing down the desolate frozen highway we passed Kluane Lake and, as the early darkness of midwinter approached, we reached Beaver Creek. Thankfully, some concerned people from Tok were there to meet us and drive us the last 109 miles. My arms were tired from the frozen steering and the extreme cold had seeped into our bones. It was nice to just sit back and relax while someone else drove the van.

When we arrived at the gym the atmosphere was surreal after the isolation and desolate cold of the highway. It was packed, warm, well-lit, and full of screaming fans. It was like we were on Mars, and it was wonderful—even though we lost our first game. We were supposed to play Glennallen the next night, but it was too cold for them to travel the 139 miles to Tok. “Humph.”

1971 Varsity Metlakatla boys coach Gil Hjellen

Coach Hjellen

It was a bit warmer when we began our 872-mile journey home. We could actually see out of the van windows and what we saw was a strange and wondrous beauty—vast mountain ranges and frozen tundra, with nothing moving for hundreds of miles. We drove our trusty van onto the Alaska Ferry in Haines, continued our journey to Ketchikan, and then boarded a chartered boat for home where we were met with a big surprise.

In our absence, Metlakatla High School had burnt to the ground. But that’s another story.




  1. Stella Taug

    Really good article. What are the names of the team members?

  2. Wendy Wesser

    Hi Stella – Here are the names of the team members from the 1971 yearbook that I have: Fred Blandov, Henry Brendible, Ed Chalmers, Dennis Didrickson, Merle Guthrie, Willy Leask, Jeff Michielssen, Bill Pearson, Jerry Scudero, and Jim Scudero. Sorry it took me so long to answer your question.


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