It's bear season so I'm once again packing a gun everywhere I go and seeing bears behind every tree--thankfully, so far they always turn out to be figments of my imagination. Sort of like the bear mentioned in the "Grizzly Country" section of Bjorn Dihle's book, NEVER CRY HALIBUT.
Brown bears bring out no shortage of strangeness in people. For the last six years, I've guided folks and a few film crews who wanted to look at or film brown bears....[One] summer I was offered the chance to become a Hollywood star.
"Hi, sport," a reality television producer said over the phone. "Are you interested in being part of a team that tries to track down the biggest brown bear in the world? Some say it's not even a bear! They say it's, like, fourteen feet tall!"
"Where's this 'bear' supposed to live?" I asked, beginning to shake with excitement. Maybe a brown bear had successfully mated with a tiger, creating a "tigear" or "beager," and I was about to be offered a ticket to the Kamchatka Peninsula.
"On the island of Angoon," the producer said.
"You mean the village of Angoon on Admiralty Island?" I said.
"What? Yeah. The village of Angoon," he said.
"Who gave you this exciting information?" I asked.
"The Langat People."
"I never heard of the Langat people. Do you mean Tlingit?" I asked. The conversation grew increasingly strained. The producer said something about isolated DNA and there being some sort of super bear near Angoon....
My life dream is to be cast as the villain in a James Bond movie, but I was tired of all the nonsense being perpetuated about bears. It's like when Allen Hasselborg, the bear man of Admiralty Island, said about so many people's apparent need to dress up bear stories--the truth is plenty interesting already. Still, a small part of me died when I declined to be on the show.
End of Excerpt.
In the book, Bjorn tells stories not just of his close encounters with bears, some of them frightening enough for me to sleep with a light on all night after reading them, but he also describes some of the strange people he's met deep in bear country. Before I read his book I was, it turns out, considerably naive about the varied reactions people can have to meeting their first brown bear.
One of the funniest parts of the entire book is where Bjorn details his interactions with various TV producers and clients he guides into the wilderness. If you want to know what not to do in the wilderness, this section is a great primer.
At any rate, I wanted to put a reminder out there that Bjorn's book of Alaskan hunting and fishing tales is currently available both in Kindle and print formats. Here's a link to Amazon's page for NEVER CRY HALIBUT:
Now I better strap on my gun, pocket my pepper spray, take my handheld VHF with me, and head into the woods and over to the beach with the good Internet signal to post this. Here's hoping I don't meet any bears or reality TV producers in the process....
Note: All Photos except the top one courtesy of Bjorn Dihle.
"You're never going to get a girlfriend smelling like spawned salmon!" --Bjorn's mother.
I grew up in a rural SE Alaskan community populated with fishermen and hunters and as an adult I worked on a bear hunting guide boat. There is not a fishing or hunting story that I have not heard.
Fishermen and hunters, in my experience, like to tell stories. (Or, rather, as Bjorn Dihle brazenly admits in "Never Cry Halibut," they like to tell lies.)
They like to tell their tales in burnished, loving detail, waxing lyrical as they dwell on their guns and lures, the weather, their sweat, the condition of their feet in their boots after hours of "herculean" trekking and wading...and last, but not least, there is their avidly, gruesomely meticulous, if sometimes a bit mendacious, account of "the kill."
I have groaned in my spirit and wanted to gouge out my entire auditory system to escape these endlessly enthusiastic tellings and creatively exaggerated re-tellings of fishing and hunting stories.
So you'd think, figuring in my post-trauma in this regard, that I would find little to no enjoyment in a book devoted to Alaskan hunting and fishing tales.
You would be wrong.
For one thing there is Bjorn's absurdly self-deprecating sense of humor that can't help but draw me in--by its novelty, if nothing else. How many hunters and fishermen have I known who mock and ridicule themselves and their exploits? Indeed, it has been my observation that fishermen and hunters tend to see themselves and their exploits in grandiose terms deserving of being preserved in cuneiform writing carved into clay cylinders for future archeologists to discover and ponder over.
Oh, don't get me wrong. Bjorn can spend pages and entire chapters describing another hunt, or one more fish that somehow managed, apparently through sheer mismanagement, to get on his line. But he keeps me from drowning in dead-animal-deja-vu by including paragraphs like this one on page 115:
"There is a mysterious yet common phenomenon in hunting when an animal suddenly turns into a stump or rock. Many physicists have completed studies on these events, and still no good explanations exist on what causes them. Some theorists suggest time portals, wormholes to other universes, or global warming. I have my own idea involving complicated mathematical formulas proving that certain animals, most often ones I'm hunting, have the molecular ability to transform into stumps and rocks, but it needs more work before I publish it."
And then, to lure me continually onward, are the scraps he throws in of his interactions with his longsuffering girlfriend, and my editor at Capital City Weekly, MC.
Bjorn takes barbarous credit for having turned MC from the mild-mannered vegetarian path of goodness and light to the dark side of becoming a predatory carnivore. Her fall from grace is painful to read, but adds a bit of Shakespearean--at least Star Warsian--grandeur to the book. He writes of her new, post-righteous life on page 25:
"She was still proud of the seventy-pound halibut she'd caught with my dad a few weeks prior. Though she'd once been a vegetarian, her Facebook profile picture for the next seven months would be of her and a dead halibut."
Bjorn details how he managed to infect her with the fisherman's belief that lying about one's exploits is natural and good. "There's nothing wrong with liking to fish or exaggerating a bit," she says on page 108. "Remember how you convinced me to date you?"
He reaps bitter fruit from what he has sowed, however. Nowadays when he comes home after a hard day of futile hunting he recounts (p. 113): "MC asked if I had any luck. I shrugged, and she mumbled something about our imaginary child not having enough to eat to make it through the winter." Ouch! Here we observe the ultimate stab at a hunter's pride and prowess. To not be able to feed your own progeny (imaginary or not) by your animal-killing skills is the cruelest cut of all. MC's meat-eating, downward spiral into untrammeled savagery is complete.
Even more than his sense of humor, though, what shines through is Bjorn's love of far flung lonesome places. I recognize it because I've always loved being alone in remote areas. There's a mystery to it and a feeling of closeness to the earth, animals, and all creation that grounds you. Alaska has an abundance of places that offer this experience and in "Never Cry Halibut" Bjorn explores many of them, alone and with family and friends, ranging from Southeast, the Interior, the Aleutians, and the Arctic, giving us fascinating snippets of Alaska history along the way.
For instance, in the chapter titled "Adak Caribou" he writes: "The lure of Adak, its 275 miles shaped by solitude, violence, and change, extended well beyond hunting opportunities. Its history alone was spellbinding. For thousands of years, Aleut people lived on the island, paddling kayaks and umiaks up, down, and beyond the thousand miles of the Aleutian chain. Vitus Bering's tragic but amazing voyage in 1741 to Alaska led to a tsunami of Russian fur traders and devastating effects on the Aleuts."
He addresses the little known, outside of Alaska, part that the Aleutian Islands played in World War II: "In June of 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded neighboring islands Attu and Kiska, resulting in the first time enemy forces occupied American soil since the War of 1812. Aleut people were relocated to Southeast Alaska for the remainder of the war. A brutal, often forgotten fifteen-month battle known as 'The Thousand-Mile War' ensued. Adak rapidly became the site of a US military airstrip and base as well as being the main staging point to take back Attu and Kiska."
I loved this chapter, and only wish Bjorn had spent more time detailing what is probably one of the most remote, large ghost towns in the world, the military outpost that at one time supported six-thousand people, that was abandoned in 1997.
Bjorn and his brothers, father, girlfriend, and nieces approach the dangers of wilderness hunting and fishing--including many heart-pounding run-ins with brown bears--with typical Alaskan sangfroid. It's not a foolhardy attitude by any means, just a watchful, accepting stoicism illuminated by the joy of the experience. And while this book is full of accounts of animals being competitively stalked and killed, there is never a moment when Bjorn and his family and friends don't act respectful of life, and grateful for the food the animals provide.
The book is not written in a linear/chronological fashion; instead it's a series of standalone anecdotes, generously illustrated with photos, ranging from his childhood to the present, including his off-the-wall experiences with reality TV shows and as a wilderness guide (with hilarious insertions of emails he pretends to send to various, dignified institutions on subjects such as fashion and a proposal for a new Alaskan reality TV show). This format makes for some repetition, but it works especially well for enjoying the book a nugget at a time whenever and wherever you can.
If you want an entirely accurate, well-written, evocative, and humorous account of what it's like to hunt and fish and survive in the most remote areas of Alaska, this is a book you don't want to miss.
NOTE: All photos except the first one courtesy of Bjorn Dihle.
"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.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)