"This is one of the funnier, more intriguing books I have read in a long time. The author has an amazing ability to intertwine his adventures into the unsolved mysteries of SE Alaska." --Chip M., Amazon Reviewer.
I first came across Bjorn Dihle's writing when I was doing research for my series of blog posts about Thomas Bay, Alaska and the legendary Kushtaka (see categories Monster Busting and History). There was a lot more on the subject than I expected, but Bjorn's account was by far the most enjoyable. I wound up reading everything I could find online written by him. I also sent him an email via the paper he wrote for, The Juneau Empire, and was surprised and delighted when he responded.
We wrote back and forth for a while, some of the time about the book he was in the process of writing, "Haunted Inside Passage," some of the time about our various adventures in the wilderness. Then one day I got an email by someone named Mary Catharine Martin, or MC, as she preferred to be called. She said she'd read my blog and wanted to tap me for writing a column in the paper she edited, Capital City Weekly. As it turned out, she'd been introduced to my blog by her boyfriend, Bjorn Dihle. (For more on MC, click on April 2017 under Archives.)
When I mentioned it to him, thanking him for the opportunity, he shrugged it off and said that all he did was show her my blog, my writing did the rest. This is typical Bjorn, more kind and generous than he likes to reveal. He usually disguises it with his sense of the absurd, which is highlighted in all of his writing, including "Haunted Inside Passage," and in my interview with him below. (For more on "Haunted Inside Passage" see the category Books.)
ADOW: What made you decide to write Haunted Inside Passage in anecdotal form, inserting yourself and your experiences into the text? (That's always my favorite book of this type, it makes me feel like I'm part of the adventure.)
Bjorn Dihle: The short answer is I'm basically a three-year-old boy trapped in a grown man's body that wants to be the center of attention. The long answer is I appreciate narratives like Hunter S. Thompson's and other nontraditional writers [such as Milan Kundera and his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting"]. Take "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a classic whose basis lies in Thompson being sent to cover an off-road motor race. The story is as much or more about Thompson's antics and reflections as it is about the subject matter he's supposed to be writing about.
For "Haunted Inside Passage," I wanted to create a narrative that would both entertain readers and give them a decent portrayal of aspects of Southeast Alaska history. To do that I interjected my own absurd riffing to counter the weight of often dark history. By making it personal I hoped to inject more life in the narrative.
"I remember one commercial fishing captain I worked for, a kind but tightly strung man, who threatened to throw me overboard when he caught me whistling.
"'You'll summon a storm!' he yelled.
"'I'm sorry,' I said, peeling a banana.
"'You brought a banana aboard! That's bad luck!' he squealed, swinging a salmon gaff at the fruit. 'Throw it overboard and go wash your hands with bleach!'
"....I learned a lot that season about what you can and can't do on a boat. For instance, gingers have no souls and have been the doom of many a fisherman. Bananas are the devil's fruit and have doomed many mariners. Certain words and phrases like 'drown' and 'good luck' must never be said on a boat and can lead to doom."
ADOW: What age were you, what made you realize, SE Alaska was like no other place on earth?
BD: Pretty early, I suppose. There's a 1,500 square mile icefield on one side of my home and an archipelago full of brown bears on the other. All that country is open to explore, which is an incredible gift to an introvert suffering from wanderlust like me. I spent a number of summers in Montana when I was a kid and would always miss the fishing, hunting, and woods of Alaska. Montana is great but still pales in comparison if you love wild places.
ADOW: How do your girlfriend, MC, and your dog, Fen, feel about how they are portrayed in the book?
BD: They're both considering suing me. My golden retriever, Fen, is particularly distraught. I'm trying to bribe her back with red wine and prime rib dinners and long beach walks but a silence as vast as the Great Wall of China has grown between us. We're currently going to family counseling but MC gets so mad during these sessions that she throws books, chairs and, once even me against the wall.
"On a dark December day, I walked with my golden retriever, Fenrir, past the ruins of the Treadwell Mine. Still a puppy, 'Fen' chased seagulls in the ocean's surf while I moped along behind. My girlfriend, MC, and I named her after the wolf in Norse mythology that killed Odin and destroyed the world. Her aptitude for apocalyptic behavior has proved low thus far, though she occasionally jumped on frightened strangers to lick them and drank voraciously from the toilet no matter how hard we tried to discipline her. MC was the bad cop and I was the pushover in our dog rearing."
ADOW: If you were to write another book set in Alaska, what would it be about?
BD: I have a book of hunting, fishing, and outdoor humor stories called "Never Cry Halibut" being published next year. I'm considering writing a book about the relationship between people and brown bears. It's a subject that fascinates me--I love "nature" and exploring the ideas of things that scare us and, well, brown bears definitely scare just about everyone. I'm really hoping to bring sexy back to nature with writing that book.
I have other book ideas too and will choose one after summer winds down. Right now the only thing I'm working on is a novel about UFO conspiracy culture that's more of a cathartic sinful indulgence than anything else. MC no longer wants to hear my jokes so I just write them into that book to entertain myself.
According to the prologue in "Haunted Inside Passage" Bjorn was advised by a friend that he'd never get anywhere as a writer if he didn't make it "sexy." In his cover letter to the publisher who eventually put out his book, Bjorn claims: "I made it clear my book could only be optioned into a film if Tom Hardy played me and Scarlett Johansson played my girlfriend, MC, an incredibly intelligent writer whose one flaw is that she's clumsy and burns herself whenever she tries to cook."
He also claims he's intesnely shy, with the exception of "that time at my little brother's wedding in Newfoundland when I challenged 300 or 400 Canadians at the reception to a tag-team wrestling match against me and the groom. (All I remember is yelling, 'We will destroy you, Canada!' before my speech was prematurely ended.)"
ADOW: The bio on the back of the book says that after surviving a cruel childhood nickname you went on to find success as a writer, commerical fisherman, teacher, and wilderness guide. Can you share with us what you did to overcome this early heartbreak in order to soar to such lofty heights?
BD: I hunted down everyone who ever made fun of me and set fire to their homes, slashed the tires of their cars, and blackmailed them with naked photographs.
One guy--T-Rod, a big jock who was particularly merciless--I abducted and left duct taped to a flagpole at a motorcycle gang revival with a cardboard sign that read "I love my Prius."
ADOW: Duct tape. So Alaskan. Can you please give us more details about the interesting quote on the back cover: "Bjorn taught me how to love again." The quote is credited to Sasquatch.
BD: We all have our histories. Let's just say I spent a lot of my twenties wandering alone in wild places. I was lonely....What happened in the wilderness stays in the wilderness....
Lest you think "Haunted Inside Passage" is pure comedy--it's definitely not, detailing some of the more poignant, haunting, unhappy, and unexplained events in SE Alaskan history--here's a final excerpt that shows Bjorn's serious writing chops and his more contemplative side.
"The swirling gray dimmed as we, afraid to travel any farther, dug a snow shelter and pitched our tent. After dinner, I stared up into the darkness, listened to the storm, and thought about glaciers. They're challenging and otherworldly, moving like a living thing, break open with yawning crevasses, and jumble into treacherous icefalls. Glaciers can inspire a visceral dread. I felt like a self-sentenced criminal, imprisoned in the Pleistocene Epoch. Before dawn, I crawled out of my cocoon and was buffeted by winds as I studied the nebulous wind. A ground blizzard raged, but the clouds had vanished to reveal towering mountains and a canopy of stars. An eerie expanse of white seracs, blue where the wind had exposed the ice, surrounded us. We made coffee and broke camp as mountains slowly came to life with the flush of dawn....Staring out at the the distant white of Atlin Lake surrounded by the dark blur of taiga, I thought of glaciers not as desolate geographic features, but instead as titans that created and destroyed the world."
Bjorn writes "Haunted Inside Passage" with humor, but with sensitivity, too, and reveals that he has a listening ear, people feel comfortable sharing some of their most disguieting experiences with him. On subjects that could be milked for cheap sensationalism, Bjorn unerringly finds the human aspect, the part that touches you and makes you wonder and care, and hope, one day, to learn the answers.
NOTE: All photos are by Bjorn Dihle, except the fifth one by Mary Catharine Martin and the first one, by me.
I put down Bjorn Dihle's book, Haunted Inside Passage, that chronicles the myths, legends, and mysteries of Southeast Alaska, strapped on my .44, and headed out into a heavily overcast, misty day.
The book has accounts of mysteriously lost Russian explorers from the 1700s, a sunken treasure ship, a passenger liner that went down with all hands on a quiet morning, the grotesque history of mine owners' treatment of their workers (essentially mass murder), and account after account of man's vulnerability in the vast wilderness and his sense of being as much hunted as hunter--by material and immaterial creatures.
As I set out, it was very quiet, in the way only remote SE Alaska can be quiet when the rain has stopped, the wind has quit blowing, and the seas are still. The forest was wet and dark. Long, pale green streamers of goat's beard moss hung motionless. A friend of mine once said that just looking at that moss gave him a creepy feeling.
It's bear season so all of my senses were hyper alert, looking for any sign that I didn't have the woods entirely to myself. Call me prejudiced, but I like being the only large mammal around when I go for a walk in the woods. And since I'd seen a fresh, steaming bear calling card in the middle of the trail the last time I went to post my blog, I knew there was one around.
Bjorn's book focuses quite a bit on the Kushtaka, the Tlingit "boogeyman" of SE Alaska that I'd written about in my blog, which Bjorn references. (As someone who reads a lot of references at the backs of books to do research, it was an odd moment to see my own name in his reference section.)
In Haunted Inside Passage (published by Alaska Northwest Books), Bjorn has the full story of the Kushtaka, digging deeper and discovering more on the legendary beings and their history than any other writer I've come across. I reflected on how people were so ready to believe in the strange creatures as I stepped out onto the wet gravel beach, the musky scent of the seaweed tideline hanging in the air. I paused to look in all directions to make sure I didn't jump a bear. On the other side of the beach, up in the grass, I saw a big, shaggy black form and went instantly still, except for dropping my hand onto the handle of the pistol, unsnapping the sheath's leather strap to be able to draw it quickly. After several motionless moments I realized the shaggy thing wasn't moving. It was either dead, or a log.
I kept going, the gravel grating under my boots, keeping my eye on the bulky thing in the grass until I got to an angle where I could see that it was indeed a log. I relaxed a little, but not a lot. I didn't like, as I stepped back into the dark woods, that I couldn't hear anything but the rush of water below our dam from the heavy rains we've been having.
With a sense of wanting to get the chore done quickly, I headed for the pump sitting on top of the roaring dam. The creek was deep with a heavy current and I stepped from rock to rock. Up next to the cascading dam my jeans immediately got saturated and I reached for the box that shelter's the pump. I paused.
On top of the box was an eight-inch long section of fish cartilage from a fairly large halibut, it looked like. How on earth did it get there? Frowning, I removed the box and went to start the pump. Again, I paused. The pump was all set, the run switch was on, the choke was fully open.
That didn't make any sense. I never left the pump like that. So what had? I started the pump and then headed down to the beach to get away from the noise.
I called my dad on my handheld VHF. "Have you been over here?" I asked. "Did you do anything with the pump?"
He said he hadn't. I looked around at the broad open expanse of the bay in front of me, and the heavy, damp woods encircling me. I didn't like the weight of it behind me and headed farther down the beach where I could see in all directions. "That doesn't make any sense," my dad said when I explained.
It really didn't. It was too early for the summer people to be up here, or the kayakers that often visited to be wandering around in the woods messing with the pump. There was, literally, no one but the three of us for miles in any direction. "It's the Kushtaka," I said, thinking of Bjorn's book. "And it left that fish cartilage to mark its territory, to leave a message."
And just like that, I understood how Southeast Alaskans had so many strange and eerie stories to tell, that Bjorn had written about with a combination of self-deprecating humor and thoughtful reflection. This place is full of mystery and danger and the faded remnants of old tragedies and the evidence of doomed attempts at civilizing the wilderness.
I can't begin to count how many times I've been in a remote area, feeling like the first person to ever set foot on an island, only to find a rusty cable half buried in the sand, or rotten planks overgrown with moss in the woods. Once, digging in a root wad for gardening dirt, I uncovered the ancient leather sole of a tiny boot of the kind worn by children at the turn of the 20th century. I grew up in an abandoned, partially burned cannery and made toys of the belongings of former workers who had probably died before I was born. I grew up amidst mystery and memories of people I'd never known. Southeast Alaska is staurated with this strange, ghost town feel. One's reaction can be anything from intellectual curiosity to morbid fear--or both.
I remember an older friend, Jake, talking about when he was a child when he and his brothers were playing in the primeval, old growth forest in the middle of the night near where I now live. I have my own memories of that, of creeping through the silent, endless woods, tingling with delicious fear at being caught--or possibly devoured--aware of all around me the vast wilderness stretching as far as infinity to my young mind.
Jake said he and his brothers ghosted from tree to tree. He'd shivered with the spookiness of the pregant silence, listening intently for any sign that he'd been left alone in the dark night. All at once something huge and heavy, moving toward them fast, shattered the silence. With a ponderous, leathery pumping sound, it crashed through the woods, violently breaking branches at a height far above their heads, above the head of even the tallest grizzly.
Someone screamed: "It's coming!"
They had no idea what it was, just that it was some ancient horror, Jurassic big, and it was after them. In terror they ran shrieking for safety, out of the forest with the invisible monster tearing through the trees behind them.
Jake looked at me with a twinkle in his dark eyes when he told the story. "You know what 'it' was, right? We'd disturbed an eagle and it flew from its perch, breaking branches with its six foot wingspan. But I've never felt evil like I felt it that night. I knew the most terrifying thing in the world was after me."
And it was. His imagination.
Southeast Alaska fertilizes the imagination probably like no other place on earth. And many of the stories in Bjorn's book testify to that.
NOTE: Coming June 7, Wednesday, in my column at www.capitalcityweekly.com: "Archimedes of the Wilderness."
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.