Many people, when they hear the word "editor," might picture someone with a red pencil tucked behind her ear and chained to a desk when she isn't riding the subway with pepper spray in her pocket to protect her bag full of coffee-stained manuscripts. While this image might be inadequate in New York City and other metropolises, it's even more so when you're talking about an editor in Southeast Alaska.
Take, for instance, my editor at Capital City Weekly, Mary Catharine "MC" Martin.
Besides being managing editor of a paper that caters to all of Southeast Alaska, she finds the time to teach a creative writing course at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS), be a personal writing coach, write book reviews and articles for CCW, take photos for the paper, and write books of her own.
Before becoming the editor for Capital City Weekly, MC was a staff writer for the paper and spent two wonderful years, as she puts it, "traveling around Southeast Alaska--Yakutat, Angoon, Hoonah, Ketchikan, Wrangell--writing about interesting people doing interesting things."
She finds it funny to think of what she does as "work." As she wrote to me recently: "Tomorrow I'm going to go to a performance of the Git Hayetsk dancers--a group of Tsimshian dancers who perform wearing these amazing, evocative masks one of the group's leaders carved--to take some photos for the weekly. That's 'work,'" she adds with a sort of whimsical irony.
In the course of doing research for one of her book projects, she circumnavigated Douglas Island where she lives, across from Alaska's capitol, Juneau, where her office is located. (Techinically, Douglas is part of Juneau.)
"The front portion of the island is roaded, but the back--around 20 to 30 miles--is wild," she explains, and adds that while on her trek (anyone who's circumnavigated an island in SE Alaska on foot knows that's no mean feat), "I waded into the ocean to avoid two young black bears, creeped myself out and had to move camp, scrabbled up steep hillsides by digging my fingers into the dirt, and almost killed my feet."
Did the experience get her down and dissuade her from continuing to do field-research on her book? Hardly. This is an Alaskan editor we're talking about.
"By the end I was humming to myself," she says, even though her feet had swelled up and she could barely hobble home. "I had to wear flip flops for a week, but it was my favorite thing I did last year."
MC is a born wordsmith, spending most of her waking hours thinking about words and stories since she first learned to read. She became known for her obliviousness to anything going on while reading, including her name being called over an intercom or someone dancing around in front of her trying to catch her attention.
"Once you're in that deep, editing, at least in your head," she says, "becomes involuntary. Soon I'll be one of those people running around with an apostrophe on a long stick and I'll just stand there, an apostrophe activist, in front of signs that need them. Just kidding. Sort of."
MC's sense of humor is something I rely on when I send her my column, especially when I tell her it may be late or I can't get the accompanying photo because the tide isn't cooperating. If you happen to follow her boyfriend Bjorn Dihle's articles in the Juneau Empire, or have read his book Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska (early release in Alaska, official relase May 2, 2017), you will find more instances of her sense of humor being put to the test.
As Bjorn writes in a chapter titled "The Ghost of Castle Hill":
"One afternoon, as sheets of rain echoed off the windows and the wind made the condo shudder, I was feeling a little lost in the mental doldrums. I decided to incite the wrath of my feminist girlfriend, MC, in the hopes it would help with my writer's block."
He goes on to do precisely that. And, as he says: "My plan worked. After she finished screaming and throwing books and cutlery at me, I was able to concentrate and write again."
I have a hard time picturing MC, with her unfailing good humor, being driven to that extreme, but you never know. If anyone could pull it off, I'm sure it's Bjorn.
Bjorn and MC are a matched set with their sense of humor, love of writing and books, and the urge to experience the real wilderness. "Most years Bjorn and I take a few weeks and float down a river in the Yukon or Alaska," MC says. "So far, we've floated down the Stikine (which was amazing--we spent about a week traveling from Telegraph Creek, in British Columbia, to Wrangell), and the Nisutlin, Pelly, and Big Salmon rivers, all of which are in the Yukon. This year, as research for the Klondike book I'm [writing], we're going to retrace the route of the gold rush stampeders."
MC will be taking a break from editing (I'm going to miss her, but I'm looking forward to working with another Alaskan editor/writer, Clara Miller), to do a writing residency at Alderworks, in Dyea, Alaska, the start of the famous Chilkoot Trail, until early June. Then she and Bjorn and Fen will hike the 33 or so miles of the Chilkoot Trail and paddle the 550 or so miles from Lake Bennett to Dawson.
"It'll take most of June," MC says, "and I can't wait."
I look forward to hearing about it, and how her book project goes. I'll be sure to share the results with all of you.
NOTE: All the photos, except the ones MC took of her office and the view of Douglas Island, are by Bjorn Dihle.
MC has recently edited my latest column, this time about a ghost town treasure, appearing Wednesday, April 26, 2017, at www.capitalcityweekly.com.
In amidst other treasures of my childhood that I found filed in an old beach-combed dairy crate were some handwritten, hand-stapled school newspapers. Our school had seven rooms, but it was conducted in the spirit of a one room school. It had two teachers, and a teacher's aid--who happened to be my grandmother. She had so many grandchildren in school that even the kids unrelated to her, and the teachers, wound up calling her "Grandma." (Actually, we called her "Grambo," but that's another story....) The school catered to all grades with kids ranging in age from five to eighteen.
The "Big Kids" had their classes mostly upstairs, while the "Little Kids" did their schooling downstairs. We even had a Big Kids' upper play deck and the Little Kids' lower play deck. There were frequent rumblings of rebellion from the Lower Deck, accusing the Upper Deck of teacher favoritism, but in the end we all pulled together: after all, we all went to school together and wrote the newspaper together.
I found two charming news articles by my little brothers Robin and Chris (grades 3 and 1 respectively) and here they are.
Robin's news report:
Robin showed the musicians around the chuck. --I showed the musicians around the chuck. We went to the Back chuck. Pete told me to show the musicians around. We went by the store. I was going to show them around the whole chuck. They bought me some gum. Fritz did not git to go because he got sick. they took a spike out of the chuck. thank you.
by Robin Neilson
THE END by Robin Neilson
"The Musicians" in this concise exclusive were two artists, among others, that the State arranged to visit outlying bush schools to make sure the kids were exposed to culture through what was called The Artist In Residence Program. "The chuck" is the local nickname for the village, and the "Back chuck" is a tidal lagoon behind the main harbor. "The store" had only one room, with at least one of its freezer's in a shed outside, right behind the enormous fuel drum that my Uncle Lance had been commissioned to paint as a giant beer can."Pete" was the teacher, and Fritz was the schoolmate closest in age to Robin. I have absolutely no idea what the "spike" was that they took out of the chuck, but I'm intrigued.
Chris' news report:
Gary helped make the playdeck and he cut the red cedar for the play deck. and Gary brought the lumber in the skiff. Steve Peavey and Dean Carmine hauled the lumber up to the deck. Chris
Gary is my dad's name and he was the foremost carpenter/electrician/handyman around; plus he had the only sawmill in the area, a one-man mobile sawmill that provided for the entire community and outlying area's lumber needs. The lumber he milled built our house (and the floathouse I built that I'm currently living in) and pretty much every new house around, in addition to any repairs that needed doing. Steve Peavey is one of the most well-known fishermen in SE Alaska and a witty raconteur of stories about old and new Alaska. Dean Carmine is the father of the "Fritz" in Robin's story.
My brothers, Robin (upper left) and Chris, playing in the burned out, rusting ruins of the old cannery where we grew up. Our cat, Creosote Bill (upper right), is overseeing their play. We skiffed to the nearby village to go to school and write articles for the only newspaper in the area.
I've read many, many books about Southeast Alaska, but I've never found one that described the unique geography of the place better than this:
"For a thousand miles north of Puget Sound this coast once extended farther into the Pacific. Its mountains were much higher than at present. An outer range rose from the sea. Behind it was a deep valley and behind that a stupendous range with deep narrow canyons cut by ancient rivers. Before the last glacial period the whole coast sank, tilting seaward, and the sea flowed in. The outer range became a vast archipelago extending from Puget Sound through Southeastern Alaska and the first valley is now the Inside Passage. Former foothills and mountains have become islands, and spaces between the peaks form a fascinating network of straits, channels, sounds, bays and arms.
"Even the great mainland sank, but the mountains permitted the sea to take only the steep walled canyons of the ancient rivers. Today these canyons are inlets. The sea has invaded but the mountains remain. Neither makes concession to the other. The mountains rise straight from the salt water and one could moor a ship against rocks as to a wharf. One could step from the deck and begin at once to climb." -- Three's a Crew by Kathrene Pinkerton.
When you travel by boat in SE Alaska it's easy to feel as if an epic natural disaster has happened, that the world has been flooded and you're traveling between mountain peaks--because that's essentially the truth of the matter, as Kathrene Pinkerton so eloquent describes in Three's A Crew, her memoir of her family exploring Southeast Alaska by boat in 1924.
I first stumbled across Kathrene Pinkerton when I found a yellowed old paperback titled Hidden Harbor in my twenties. The novel's events take place in 1910 and the story is about a pioneering family that lives off the land in a remote Alaskan harbor. I instantly fell in love. It captured, like nothing else I've come across, what it was like to grow up in Southeast Alaska with little access to the Outside world. It was amazing to me to find out how little a childhood in 1910 had changed from mine in the 1980s in this remote part of the world.
Unfortunately, in my pre-Internet life (before 2015) it was very hard to find more books by Pinkerton. But once I introduced a friend, a former librarian in Ketchikan, to Hidden Harbor, she took it from there and managed to turn up more books. I devoured them, impressed with Pinkerton's accuracy, not just in describing the locale, but in putting down an authentic SE Alaskan perspective.
Such as this scene from Steer North when they're trying to get a wounded man to Ketchikan but they have to face Clarence Strait, the boogeyman of SE Alaskan mariners, and also the waterway on which I live:
"The southeaster was not blowing itself out, and Clarence Strait, wide open clear across Dixon Entrance, would be tough. As they went south into the wider reaches of the strait, it was bad and becoming worse. Not only did the strait live up to its reputation, but the storm increased in fury....
"Back in the wheelhouse he saw the captain was straining, and the exertion showed on his face. 'Suppose we both take hold,' the captain said. 'I've still got my know-how, but my staying power isn't what it used to be.'
"Between them they did much better, but the seas increased until they were fighting every moment....Hour after hour they went on. The Mary was pitching as she never had before, crashing into waves and lifting with them. As they passed Caamano Point, a wave, larger than any before, roared up. The Mary lifted but not enough. Green water crashed on her foredeck and came rushing aft to strike the wheelhouse a shivering blow. But the ship reared, threw off the water, and was ready for the next.
"....The next half hour was the worst of the entire two days. The gale was sucking up Behm Canal, and they had to quarter into it. A new motion came to the Mary. She not only pitched but rolled with the sea on the bow. Sometimes they had to swing to starboard to meet a big one head on....Spray and rain flooded the windows, and they could see only a huge wave rushing toward them, and another and another. The Mary reeled under the successive blows. Greg, fearing she could take no more, eased up on the throttle."
It's obvious the author has been on Clarence Strait. Besides where I live, Caamano Point always hands out the worst weather on Clarence, and who hasn't had to quarter their way across Behm Canal? The only thing I'd have added was the sinking feeling I'd get when the stabies (stabilizing poles) were lowered and their anchors thrown overboard. I'd know we were heading into dangerous, "dirty" weather.
Another friend, in Texas, knowing I was looking for books by Kathrene Pinkerton, discovered the delightful memoir Three's a Crew and sent it to me. The author's quirky sense of humor is revealed in this book more than in her fiction. She details, tongue in cheek, the many neophyte mistakes and misadventures of her family, a family made up of herself, her husband Robert (who also was an author), and their daughter "Bobs" (who later became an editor and writer)--as they traveled where practically no family had gone before.
Today families by the gross travel the Inside Passage, abaord cruise ships and in yachts and sailboats guided by GPS, but back then the idea was unheard of--and for good reason. The maps were still in the process of being accurately drawn. In fact, Kathrene Pinkerton, with her memoir, became the first woman to write about coastal cruising.
Only one other coastal cruising book pre-dates Three's a Crew, according to Charles Lillard. All other cruising literature was written from the perspective of a coastal steamer or freighter, not through an amateur boating enthusiast's eyes.
More importantly, to my mind, is the fact that this is the only book I've ever read where floathouses, floating stores, and floating communities are mentioned casually as just another part of the every day scenery. When we first arrived in Alaska, floating logging camps were a common sight just as they were in Pinkerton's day, exactly as she describes one of them in chapter ten:
"The store, restaurant, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop, warehouse and owner's dwelling house, even a chicken house, rested on rafts of cedar logs. Chains and cable moored these rafts to shore and long boomsticks running from shore to the rafts held them off and kept them from battering on the beach as the community rose and fell with the big tides or was buffeted by fierce winter gales. Outer boomsticks herded the buildings in line and also served as sidewalks.
"[It] could change its town site with no more formality than calling a tugboat. The village had shifted several times. Once when the small daughter of its owner had been ill and required sun, the community had been moved across the bay and the weekly steamship bringing mail and supplies had to go in search of the missing town."
She also talks about hand loggers, now an all but extinct breed, though when I walk through the woods I see giant old-growth stumps they left behind decades before I was born. I've even found an antique gas can left by them deep in second growth forest.
At the end of Three's a Crew Kathrene Pinkerton writes about returning to the world after adventuring in Alaska, to find that the Great Depression had struck during their absence. "The stay-at-homes had lists, figures and old bank books, which now meant nothing. We had pages in a ship's log which meant very much."
She didn't know it, but those years on the boat exploring SE Alaska would provide her with enough material too write the books that would support her family through the decades to come.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)