"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.
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."