Matt Dickerson: No comfort in the North

When my nephew Brad rumbled into Middlebury in his Chevy Blazer for his first year of college, my wife and I knew we were in for a four-year ride. It wasn’t that his Blazer was painted in camo colors or that he’d named it “Southern Comfort.” The real clue was that the vehicle was loaded with toys from floor to roof — plus another three feet above the roof. Mostly they were outdoor toys: snowboard; kayak; mountain bike; climbing, camping, fishing and hunting gear. The boy loved the outdoors. He also loved to play.
It was the fall of 2006. Brad had come from the mountains of rural western North Carolina — a fact he paid tribute to in the naming of his vehicle. Though he’d only lived there about half his life, he’d developed a mild southern accent. He had also developed an ethic for working hard as well as a love of excellence. The play and hard work weren’t at odds. His love of outdoors and lack of patience with poor quality equipment may be part of why he worked hard. He had to earn funds to buy all the toys he needed for his outdoor adventures. So as a high school student, he’d started his own construction company. His kayak, bike and snowboard were the result of that venture. But he also just liked to make beautiful, creative things of high quality, and that motivated him to work hard at what he did.
While a student at Middlebury College, Brad frequently hung out with his aunt and uncle and three younger cousins: our sons with whom he’d spent plenty of time at family reunions and vacations over the years. He’d come out to our house to shoot his guns, or drive “Southern Comfort” through our woods, or help boil syrup or split wood. Sometimes he’d bring his friends from college (he had a lot of them). Or he’d just come over for a meal and to talk about his adventures. One night he was completely delighted that he’d succeeded at getting his car stuck on some dirt road up in the national forest, and described in great detail the challenge of getting it out.
When Brad’s parents — my brother and sister-in-law — moved to Alaska after Brad’s first year of college, I figured Brad would go up to his new home for the summer, discover all the opportunities to play up there, and never come back to school again. He did quickly fall in love with Alaska, and eventually with a beautiful woman there who was every bit as creative and outdoors-loving as he was. But thankfully for our family, he returned to finish his degree in Environmental Architecture at Middlebury and spent a few more months working in the Lower 48 before moving to Alaska permanently.
In Alaska, Brad went on to study chemistry of renewable bio-fuels at the University of Alaska, and earned a Master of Science degree. However he wasn’t interested in working in a lab indoors for the rest of his life, and so he never put that degree to work. He also spent a summer working 20-hour days on a salmon fishing boat out of Homer — one of those dangerous jobs you see on television. Though he made decent money, at heart he was an entrepreneur. He also wanted to work for himself. So he went back to his roots and started his own construction company, which quickly built up a good reputation and clientele, while simultaneously starting two other innovative businesses based on his own creative ideas.
And somehow, in addition to all that, he won awards as a photographer. I guess the eye for beauty and for unique and creative angles that he brought into his building designs was the same eye that looked out through a camera lens.
Thanks to having family in Anchorage, I ended up being able to take several trips to Alaska over the past decade. Most of them involved an adventure with Brad. Though between his three businesses he always had more work than he could keep up with, he still made time to hang out with me — usually finding a way to get backcountry for a night or two, or at least to cook a meal for me with some delicious game he had hunted himself, like the caribou steaks he’d brought back from his winter trip to Adak near the tip of the Aleutian Islands. One October, we had a couple days to fish for trout and steelhead on the Kenai Peninsula. After the day of fishing, Brad took us over to Homer to show us the boat he’d worked on, and to pick up a load of salmon that had been left for him. (If you’ve been reading my column long enough, you’ve seen Brad as a character in my stories.)
We often teased Brad about his “toys” — a category that grew to include not only his outdoor gear, but the specialized equipment he needed for his construction company. Though I never told him, however, I secretly used Brad as my personal research assistant. I knew he would never buy shoddy outdoor equipment. Even if all he wanted was a new backpacking chair, he’d do a tremendous amount of research to find which model had the best quality and features, and then do an equal amount of research to find the best price. All I needed to do was wait and see what Brad bought. Which is why I now have a new lightweight backpacking chair that everybody is jealous of when I go on camping trips.
When I got the call from my brother on a cold morning this past January to tell me that Brad had just been killed in a car accident, it was without question the worst moment of my life.
Several days passed before I could even begin to go through my photos and memories. My favorite, taken on that October day near Homer, was of Brad standing in the Kenai River holding a gorgeous male Dolly Varden trout in its bright red fall spawning colors. Though we had gone to the river to catch steelhead, he was just as excited by the beauty of this somewhat smaller fish. Despite his best attempts, he couldn’t hide his huge grin.
I had already planned my 2019 summer trip to return to Alaska before I heard of Brad’s passing. I know that Brad took great joy in the beauty of many of the places I will be. I will look for joy in that same beauty. Indeed, it will be impossible not to think of him, with loss coloring even the beauty. Alaska is a big place. But it will be a lot smaller now.

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