I was only 6 years old, but one of the things that impressed me the most when we came to Alaska were all the wrecks.
Flying in a floatplane I saw huge blackened hulls, lying like stranded Leviathons on remote beaches, and in the villages various derelicts swamped by the tide.
Oddly, this didn't fill me with foreboding. From the first, I found everything about Alaska exactly right.
That was good, because I've been surrounded by derelicts (see opening photo on my first blog post) and wrecks my entire life in Alaska.
My house, as most houses here, has salvaged items from some of these wrecks. Pilot house windows made into picture frames, a long side window made into a shelf for DVDs, an expensive top-of-the-line green corner sink ("Accent" by SeaLand Technology) salvaged from a tourist wreck (see photo above) set in a beachcombed mahogany counter from some long ago unknown sea disaster. My parents have weathered boards with the name of one wreck, the Sea Bear, on a shelf in their house. (Note: There were no injuries or deaths accompanying that accident, I'm glad to say.)
The float my house sits on is held together by four foot steel pins salvaged from a massive ship's deck from either the late 1800s or early 1900s that is half buried in a gravel beach near here. (See top photo, and below.) When I first saw it, more than twenty years ago, it was three times the size it is now. The locals have slowly, over the years, cut away the still solid, enormous timbers to get at the good steel. You can walk on what's left of the deck without fear of rot. They built them to last back then.
The year before we moved to our current location, a 34 foot gillnetter, the Daybreak, crashed into the rocks just outside where we're now living during a violent storm tide, ripping the bottom out of it. The owner, who had only just paid the boat off, was rescued, but the Daybreak was a complete write-off. Its remains washed ashore on a beach about a seven minute walk from my house. There is now nothing left but the back deck, it's former hold filled with drift logs. The rest has been pounded to splinters in the winter gales. (See photo below.)
The derelict heading my opening blog was the leaky retirement home of an old Alaskan sourdough. After he died and before it could sink at the dock, it was towed to its current resting place decades ago, along with another oldtimer's boat, left to rot and be taken over by the wilderness. It's the view out my living room window. (See photo below for a view of the boats from the forest.)
The wreckage wasn't limited to boats. In the village we first lived in, an old fish buying general store, operating long before our advent, still advertised its goods in fading print. Below it was a tide swamped, old gaspowered double-ender, which was eventually eaten away by the sea life, leaving only the keel, ribs,oil-soaked engine room boards and a pile of rusty nails and fittings. Near it was an upturned, rusty metal hull. (See photo below.) In my time the store was a storage room of relics from the past. It was eventually swept off its pilings in a huge storm tide.
Along the village trail were abandoned houses slowly being overgrown by the forest, seedlings sprouting in their mossy roofs. In one instance, all that was left was the roof. I used to play near it, wondering who had lived in it a long, long time ago.
And then there was the former cannery where I grew up. It had burned down in the thirties, but everywhere you looked or played were remnants of that long ago, bustling operation, overwhelmed now by the heavy silence of the wilderness. There were collapsed buildings in the woods, big square concrete blocks that must have been the foundations for huge structures. On the beach there was tangled, rusted machinery and the enormous, circular steel door of the cannery retort surrounded by mounds of fused together canning lids.
In the woods where the cook shack had stood there was a wealth of corroded metal plates, pot and pans, rusty silverware and some antique pottery that we played with in our forts.
The pilings to the old pier still stood, lonely sentinels looking toward the past, washed by the endlessly returning tide. Trees had sprouted from their tops, stunted by winter gales. (See photo below.)
When we moved here there were various derelict structures which slowly collapsed and disappeared over the years. One old cabin, built early in the 20th century, of hand-hewn square logs, has slowly sunk into the moss. In the early Eighties one of my uncles and a cousin staked it out as a wilderness bachelor pad. (See photo below.)
Everywhere you go in SE Alaska, no matter how remote you are, even when you are aware of no apparent sign of habitation--no apparent sign of there ever having been habitation--you'll find evidence of those who have gone before and disappeared into the past leaving only these rusting and rotting relics behind.
Bottom image: My white charcoal on black paper sketch of the Daybreak wreck being pummeled by a winter storm tide.
You know what I'm talking about, right? Pinching a carrot from the garden when you were a kid? How sweet, how juicy it tasted--a bit gritty from the soil you couldn't quite brush off--out in the fresh air away from the fun-sucking "It's good for you" coercion in the kitchen.
Our experience, mine and my four siblings, was a little bit different. First, my dad set about, with us as his only labor force (ages 5-12), clearing a ten by sixteen foot rectangle in the dense Alaskan wilderness. This sounds like nothing much. We cleared it, done.
But in practice it felt like an ordeal along the lines of building the Panama Canal. It included digging up and hauling away rocks, digging up entire root systems, clearing devil's club, undergrowth and carting away branches and entire trees. We then dragged everything burnable down the beach to the bonfire, sweat stinging our eyes sap sticking our fingers together, muscles aching, bugs biting, feet lagging on the turn around back for another load....
Let's not forget, this was not during the Great Depression when kids took this sort of hard manual labor in their stride as a normal part of childhood. This was when Cyndi Lauper was singing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." And boy was she right. Not that pointing out this fundamental fact of the Eighties did me or my sister any good.
And then, not content with just one garden (after all, he was feeding a family of seven and we had no easy or immediate access to grocery stores) my dad decided to clear an even larger section, twenty by twenty feet of Alaskan horror, to be precise.
More kid-muttering and backbreaking labor.
And then there were the days of hauling bucket after bucket of stinky, slimy, half-decomposed seaweed and spreading it over the gardens for mulch. A plastic bread bag that washed ashore from careless boat traffic we stuffed full of seaweed and used on the head of our scarecrow. We named him Mr. Wonderbread.
Fast forward to when the first succulent green shoots began to appear. Seriously, did he really think that after all that blood, sweat and tears we wouldn't have a propietary interest in what was growing in those gardens?
Besides, we were living mostly on canned goods and the juicy, tender freshness of the garden veggies CALLED to us.
On the other hand, my dad was a Vietnam vet who had been shot in battle. He had a big, black bushy beard and tended not to say a whole lot when he wasn't happy with you. He'd also put up a high fence around the gardens--to keep out the four-legged thieves--and he brooded watchfully over those gardens all day.
But not at night.
His potential, murderous fury added the necessary spice to our midnight raids, escaping from the house in the dead wilderness silence of night, ghosting along behind my oldest brother, who was always point man on these high risk missions.
It was the time of year when bears, black and brown, were abroad, but even that threat didn't stop us. The rutabagas were calling.
The next day, our bellies bloated with raw contraband, my dad rued the day he decided to procreate. In very loud, very vehement terms. That didn't stop us from planning our next rutabaga raid.
Even when he lived on the water, in the floathouse, my dad was determined to have a greenhouse and gardens. He simply built them on floats and transported dirt--sometimes from miles away--in sawed-off, fifty-five gallon gas drums, via skiff.
The kids were all grown up by then, but that never stopped us from helping ourselves whenever we were in the vicinity...for old times sake. You know, right?
*Note: This post was supposed to be a follow-up on the previous one, focusing on Brent Purvis's book TSUNAMI WARNING. However, after typing it up our 4G signal, hit or miss at the best of times, disappeared just as I was loading my post. The entire post completely evaporated. So, I walked over to the beach that has the best signal and typed this shorter post up in the shade of an alder tree with Clarence Strait rippling against the rocks a few feet away. I will try again with the Tsunami post tomorrow.
Photos: Top, my dad distributing the soil from sawed-off fifty-five gallon gas drums of dirt he collected sometimes from miles away. Bottom, the finished product, a floating greenhouse and gardens.
A slow but steady siren cycled between a low pitch and a high frequency. The siren was coming from the direction of town and had to be loud enough in order for it to filter all the way up the mountain to the construction site.
Prig looked over at his work crew, "Tsunami warning!"
Instantly, the workers hopped down from their machinery, tossed their hard hats on the ground, and high-fived each other....
Prig jumped into his truck, rolled down the window and said, "It's a while since we've had one of these, Jim. I'm not about to miss it."
Thus begins the emblematic scene in TSUNAMI WARNING, Brent Purvis's screwball sequel to his SE Alaskan humorous mystery MINK ISLAND (as written about in a previous post).
Is this an accurate reaction of SE Alaskans to a threat of tsunami? I have to admit that, because we get them so frequently, we can tend to become inured to the danger. When my family first moved here we had our first experience with the consequences of living in one of the earth's most active earthquake zones. We hadn't heard a warning on the VHF radio (the jury is out on whether it would have affected our actions if we had) but we did notice an incredibly low tide. In the classic what-not-to-do-in-the-event-of-a-tsunami scenario, we all ran right down to inspect the never before exposed seabed. Some of us even swam from a drop off we hadn't known existed.
Fortunately for us, this wasn't a case of the water being sucked out by an off-shore, building destructive wave. It was simply an extra low tide, which--as a character in Brent's book accurately points out--is the usual outcome of an earthquake and tsunami warning in this area.
After another major earthquake centered in northern Alaska and felt as far away as New Orleans, we saw some whirlpool-like behavior close to my parents' floathouse, which I happened to be visiting at the time. The house cracked and shook as a series of small, powerful waves assaulted it. My dad was coming home in the skiff and, out of a flat calm bay, saw one of the waves crest in front of him. It didn't strike either my mom or I to do anything more than continue chatting and observe the mild chaos with a coffee mug in hand.
Then, on October 27, 2012 we got hit by a seven point earthquake centered in British Columbia, not that far away. We felt it very strongly and realized that for once we should probably take a tsunami warning seriously--at least, if only to see where we were at in terms of an emergency evacuation drill.
So we gathered gear--our time was not good on this--and straggled along through the chilly, windy night, climbing over rocks and drift logs, my parents both using canes, to hike up the nearest elevation, the hill our water tank sat on.
It wasn't until I was halfway up this hill that I realized I'd forgotten to pack my inhaler and I was having a full-blown asthma attack from the cold wind. Probably, I thought, a good thing to have on hand during an emergency evacuation. We arrived at the top of the hill and waited in a howling, northerly gale with windchill at 8 degrees Farenheit. It was a full moon night, with the light shining through the thrashing trees. We figured we were more in danger of a tree falling on us than a tsunami, but we dutifully watched the water in the bight to see if it suddenly got sucked out. I think we were all a little disappointed when it didn't.
We had the handheld VHF radio on channel 16 (the hailing and distress frequency) and listened to the Coast Guard give the tsunami warning every fifteen minutes. There was no chatter, no emergencies called. The radio was eerily silent.
When the deadline passed we headed for home, fairly stiff from our long, cold vigil. In the meantime the tide had come in and cut us off from the houses so I walked a half sunk log to my parents' float and then took the skiff to pick them up as they leaned on their canes, their packs at their feet, on the rocky shore. We all ended up with a mild case of hypothermia and an even worse case of feeling like our emergency response time sucked.
We heard later that there was a 6-inch wave in Ketchikan, a 2-footer in Craig (where Brent's books are set) that did some mild damage, and a five-footer in Hawaii.
Then a year later when a series of powerful earthquakes struck, centered right off Craig, we realized that it was time to make a stab at being responsible. The hill that we'd sheltered on in the previous evacuation attempt wouldn't have been high enough in the event of a thirty-foot tsunami, which the experts all predicted would be most likely in our area. Knowing that if the worst did happen that we'd be cut off from help for days or longer, we decided to build steps up our tallest hillside and put a small rowing skiff and supplies inside a tote and garbage can at the top of it.
We even tested it out during one of the big aftershocks, once again in the middle of the night, with a little snow falling. Once again our response time sucked. But hey, we did better than my brother who lives in the nearby village. He told us he felt the shock, but just rolled over and went back to sleep, figuring that if the tsunami struck, his floathouse would ride it out and he'd wake up--a la, the Wizard of Oz--in a new location. Hopefully with a better view.
Athough I think Se Alaskans will laugh the hardest at the response of Brent's characters to a tsunami warning, I think anyone who reads this book is going to wind up laughing out loud repeatedly. It is, I think, one of the most perfect examples of screwball comedy I've ever read and destined to become a classic of its type. Southeast Alaskans can all be proud....kind of.
Bent kindly answered some interview questions I emailed him and here are his answers:
1. How long did you live in SE Alaska?
I moved to Ketchikan when I was nine years old. I graduated from Ketchikan High School and went to University of Idaho, but still traveled back to my hometown during summer and Christmas breaks. I lived at home while I applied for teaching jobs, and even subbed at Kayhi a few times in the interim. I guess you can say I considered Ketchikan my home for about 14 year
2. How did you become familiar with POW (Prince of Wales Island, where his stories are set)
My family fished the east side of POW often. Some of my fondest memories happened just off the island's coastline. I remember my dad, brother and I all fighting and landing Kings (salmon)--AT THE SAME TIME. How often does a tripple-whammy happen? Being active in music in high school, I visited the Craig/Klawock area during a SE Honor Band trip. My wife and I also honeymooned at Waterfall Resort [on the island]. (Yes, I took my wife fishing for our honeymoon). with each visit, lasting memories of the seclusion, beautiful scenery and quirky inhabitants became ingrained in my memory.
3. What made you decide to write, especially mysteries?
This is a funny question to me. I am sure that Mrs. Miller, my high school English teacher, would crack up if she knew that I am an author. Let's just say that Language Arts was neither my strong suit, nor my interest while growing up. Right after my son was born (he is now 13), I remember feeling as though, if I left this world right now, there would be nothing I leave behind that he would be able to take with him. This feeling, coupled with the fact that I was a stay-at-home dad the first summer of his life, made me embark on my writing career. I had enjoyed reading funny mysteries (yes, Mrs. Miller, I have actually read a book), and given my lack of mastery of the English language, I figured I had better come up with fascinating characters and a decent whodunit. My first mystery novel took me five years to write. It was horrible.
4. How much research did you do for the books?
A writing mentor of mine, Jim Bernhardt, once gave me the best advice of my young writing career. He told me, "Write what you know." Being that I'm not quite the smartest person in the world, following this advice seriously limited me what I was able to write about. I am a musician, I like to fish, I grew up in SE AK, and I get a kick out of weird people. So my research was not extensive for these books. Certainly the geography of the island, history of some of the towns, road system, certain aspects of floatplanes, salmon canneries, rock blasting and various aspects of the Alaskan State Troopers all had to be researched.
5. Who was the inspiration for Jim and Kram?
I get asked this a lot--especially about Kram. I have friends who try to figure out who they are in my books. This fascinates me. Kram was actually inspired by a combination of several Alaskans (seven, to be exact). Some of Kram's antics are REAL. Alaskans are the best source of material on the planet. Jim share some characteristics with me (cigars, coffee, I don't drink alcohol), but he has many other qualities not related to me (I am married, I have no interest in going into law enforcement and I don't talk to minks).
6. What are some of your favorite misconceptions about SE Alaska?
I used to go down to the docks in Ketchikan during tourist season. My all-time favorite was being asked by a tourist THAT JUST STEPPED OFF THE SHIP, "What's the elevation here?" Also, snow. we get more snow where I live now (Colville, WA) than in SE AK. Ihave never actually seen an igloo.
7. What do you miss most about living in Alaska?
The people. Fishing. Alaskans are hearty, quirky--unique in every way. They are kind and respect your space and privacy. The fishing is fantastic, as long as you don't mind getting wet.
8. Which is your favorite scene in MINK ISLAND? TSUNAMI WARNING?
Mink--the humpy slingshots. I've always wanted to do that.
Tsunami--Kram in the casino with his abductors. I don't think I would want to play roulette with Kram.
9. What is the next Jim and Kram adventure about?
There will be a third book released early next summer. I can't give too much away, but let's just say--you will know a little more about the history of this strange man named Kram.
Thanks, Brent. For my complete reviews of both books, go to Amazon, under Brent's books, and read the reviews for DOA.
Photos: Top, the cover of Brent's book. Bottom, the steps we built, made from sawed off rounds of a cedar log, set in the cliffside up to Tsunami Hill.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)