I've never been in a shipwreck, but I've come close more than once. For instance, there was the time my dad and I headed for Wrangell on a stocking up trip in his 32 foot wooden boat the Sea Cucumber. It was a hot summer and the boat had been moored at the dock for a couple months without being used. Our passage was flat calm at first, but when we struck waves as we entered a radio dead spot very far from help we discovered that the seams in the bow had opened up from all the dry, hot weather. Soon we were taking on more water than the bilge pump could handle.
My dad had a second bilge pump but it wasn't hooked up and he wasn't sure that it was still in working order. He ordered me to put on a life jacket and get out on the back deck while he worked on the pump. If the boat went down he'd be trapped inside, but I had a chance of escaping the suction. (We had no lifeboat at the time-we did after that.)
It was a tense few minutes but he managed to get the second pump working and hooked up and the two pumps managed to keep us afloat until the bow seams closed up (from the planks swelling after immersion in the waves).
During the years that we had the Sea Cucumber the trusty little boat weathered massive, frightening seas; running aground on a rock; turning on its own wake in a thick fog; getting lost in a blizzard; and other dangerous adventures before my dad passed it on to a family member. Unfortunately, many other Alaskan boats didn't survive these exact same incidents. And the accounts of the boats that weren't so fortunate are reported in Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters by Captain Warren Good.
"Even at that I didn't hope and as much as possible tried to conserve my strength up to the end to try to save myself...because to be dead, I was thinking, would be lonesome." --First hand account of the sinking of the Umnak Native.
The sinking of the Umnak Native is a gripping story to read, especially for what is left out in the firsthand accounts. Reading between the lines I began to wonder if murder had taken place, if a Jonah situation had occurred. According to one account by an Aleut survivor there was a strong superstition that having a white man on an Aleut boat would bring diaster. So when the disaster struck...there are hints that the white man in question may have been killed to appease the raging elements, so that others would survive.
The author of Alaska Shipwrecks, Captain Warren Good, doesn't say anything like that about what happened aboard the Umnak Native. For the most part he lets his deep research speak for itself. The firsthand accounts, which he has in abundance, are dramatic enough without needing any editorializing. I found them so addictive that I would read far into the night because each wreck scenario seemed to top the next. (Trigger Warning: Many of these accounts are horrifying and heartbreaking.)
There was the chilling account of a crew finding a dismasted, half-sunk ship with a corpse in oilskins lashed to it. There was, literally, a dead man at the helm (p. 90). Then there's the story of the sinking of the Islander (one of the most famous shipwrecks in Alaskan history due to the reported $6 million--in 1901 dollars--in gold the passengers were carrying from the Klondike goldfields) in which it was reported that a baby in a blanket, tied to a life preserver, was found alive.
There are Robinson Crusoe stories of crews being forced to survive for months on remote, uninhabited islands with people dying all around them (one crew resorted to cannibalism). Incredibly, when more than one of these crews were rescued the ships that rescued them wrecked.
There are heart-wrenching stories of entire families being lost, or even worse, just one family member surviving. There's the account of one ship, the St. Patrick, being laid over in heavy seas and abandoned. All but two of the twelve crewmembers lost their lives...only for the ship to be found later, still afloat.
Many of these Alaskan shipwrecks and sinkings were familiar to me, but many more were not. In addition, I was suprised by history that I should have learned about in school. For instance, when we learned about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians and the battles fought there during World War II, the history books never revealed that these battles caused deaths and sinkings for more than a decade afterwards due to ships striking floating mines. I also never realized how many ships were sunk by Japanese submarines and how many submarines were sunk in this remote "theater of war."
Likewise, I never read about, in any of my school history books, only two weeks after the Russians handed Alaska over to the U.S. in Sitka that a terrific hurricane struck causing widespread destruction. Was it feared that American school children would look on this so-called Act of God as condemnation of Manifest Destiny's overreach? Captain Good doesn't say as much, but we're left to wonder.
Good also doesn't editorialize about the racism in some of the older reports--he allows the facts to speak for themselves. He exposes, for instance, that in one of the worst disasters in Alaskan history, the sinking of the Star of Bengal that officially killed 110 of 138, the Caucasians are listed by name while others are grouped under race with only the crew chiefs named.
The stories in this book aren't all completely tragic. Quite a few detail inspiring accounts of survival, of heroism, and of self-sacrifice that touched me deeply. There were also accounts that took me unawares because they had a personal connection to me. For instance, the elderly fisherman I corresponded with in high school when I was writing a report about the burned cannery where I grew up, had in his youth been involved in one of the shipwrecks described in this book. And, speaking of the cannery where I grew up, it's mentioned, too, as well as wrecks involving family and friends. Last, but not least, there's the account of a shipwreck--one of the most unusual in the entire book--that occurred on March 14, 1939 in Meyers Chuck, the tiny fishing village where I went to school and where I still get mail.
Captain Good's reasons for writing books about Alaskan shipwrecks, as well as maintaining his amazing website www.alaskashipwreck.com, are ones I'm in complete sympathy with: he hopes that these accounts will help give the families closure, make boaters be more cautious, encourage boaters to be better prepared for disaster, and help them avoid situations that could lead to yet one more tragedy in Alaskan waters.
I interviewed Captain Good for my column and you can read about how he came to be so famous for being "That Shipwreck Guy" that he was even consulted to help with the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989. You can read it here: http://www.juneauempire.com/life/alaska-for-real-that-shipwreck-guy/
Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters can be ordered from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/035914263X/ref=cm_sw_rShaCbTGNTHC0
He also has a 2019 calendar out that briefly describes 365 of the most disastrous Alaskan shipwrecks in the past 265 years with multiple accompanying photos. You can find it by Googling "2019 Alaska Shipwrecks Calendar lulu.com," or hopefully this link will work: http://www.lulu.com/shop/captain-warren-good/2019-alaska-shipwreck-calendar/calendar/product-23871087.html?utm_source=GeniusMonkey_VT
I love to hear from my readers. You can contact me through my blog or email me at email@example.com
In November of last year, my friend Bjorn Dihle, author of "Never Cry Halibut" and "Haunted Inside Passage" (See Authors and Books categories), wrote: "Have you ever considered [writing] a 'tell-some' memoir?" He added, "You have a real good story to tell that I think would resonate."
For as long as I've been a writer, which has been most of my life, people have told me I need to write my family's story, of moving out to the burned cannery in an extremely remote area of SE Alaska where we built a home with our own hands and rarely saw other people. But I always dismissed these urgings because the idea didn't excite me. It was normal to me, the way anyone's childhood is normal to them. It wasn't until I began writing this blog and people contacted me to tell me how amazed and thrilled they were by our lifestyle and history that I began to see it through their eyes.
Bjorn's encouragement came at just the right time. He didn't limit it to just words, though. In February of this year he generously wrote to his editor, introducing me and the story I had to tell, assuring her that I was a "thoughtful and talented writer."
His editor responded favorably and he sent me his publisher's proposal form. Following it's guidelines closely, I wrote up a detailed proposal, including a chapter by chapter breakdown of a book I'd never really given any thought to until then, and sent it off that same day.
A week later Bjorn's editor responded, telling me that they were definitely interested in my proposal and that they believed I had a great story to tell. It just had to go through an upcoming acquisitions meeting before they could tell me anything definite.
In March the editor wrote: "I'm reaching out in regards 'Raised in Ruins,' the book proposal you had sent last month. We just had our acquisitions meeting and were really interested in the book and the unique story you have to tell. We also think your blog is fantastic!"
I hadn't written a single word of the actual book yet, but as soon as I received this message I began to write about our first day in our future home:
"Our uncovered skiff, about the length of a Volkswagen Beetle, was a speck.
"The world was big, I knew that from school lessons. But the wilderness was bigger. There was no end to it. We were the only humans in it as we sped across the gigantic white cloud reflections.
"...In the photos of our first visit to the cannery ruins my dad is behind us kids as we explore; he's pushing the skiff off and anchoring it in the current of the creek so that it won't go dry as the tide recedes. Jamie is watching over the two little ones while my sister and I, blonde hair gleaming, stand together out in front. The bay stretches out behind us kids and my dad to a shimmering, hazy horizon, as if we've stepped through a curtain into another dimension, into a different experience of time."
I've since written the first three chapters, but I still have a long way to go. Thankfully, I have plenty of time.
The publishing director, who has patiently and kindly helped me through the negotiation process, wrote: "We are thrilled at the prospect of publishing your remarkable story....we're looking at publishing the book in 2020."
That gives me plenty of time to write, revise, re-write, and polish it. I'll continue to share this adventure with all of you. I want to thank everyone who reads my blog, and especially those people who have contacted me and changed how I see and think about my family's Alaskan story.
And I want to give a special thank you to Bjorn, and to Mike in Mongolia who helped me understand contract negotiations, Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Agency for his time and encouragement, and everyone else who's helped in large and small ways to get my writing career to this point.
Most of all, thanks to my family for sharing this journey and giving me so much to write about.
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.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)