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.
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)