One of the things I've always loved most about Southeast Alaska is the Alaska Marine Highway System. When most towns are on islands unconnected by roads, it only makes sense that the Inside Passage of intertwining waterways would become our road system. On this most scenic of all highways, our ferries--more like small cruise ships--locals and tourists alike travel.
When we were kids, nothing delighted us more than when our entire tiny bush school would go on a field trip to somewhere in Southeast Alaska or to Canada, traveling on the ferry. It was an adventure none of us will ever forget.
Here's the story of a visitor to Alaska who also got to enjoy our unique marine highway during her Alaskan adventure.
When I was on Top of the World by Carla Kirkland
It was a clove of seasons when I boarded a train in Thunder Bay, Ontario and rode through some of the most breathtaking natural sites in Canada with the overstuffed backpack I had lived out of, in Minnesota all summer. When I walked onto a ferry in Prince Rupert, BC, it was the closest thing to a cruise ship I had ever been on, then or since. I’d had a magical year at Touch of Nature Environmental Center in Carbondale, IL, and summer at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella, MN as an intern. When they ended, I was looking forward to fall in southeast Alaska.
I walked off the ferry in Petersburg, Alaska, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t a student. I was 24, full of wanderlust, and free. I wasn’t worried I had no job or place to live. Heck, I couldn’t see past one day at a time. When my boyfriend (later husband), Jim, of five years met me at the dock and told me he had secured a friend’s small 1940s style houseboat for three days before we embarked upon the 33-mile trek along the historic Chilkoot Trail, my problem was solved. Temporarily, anyway.
Jim did seasonal surveying with the U.S. Forest Service for the last three years and had government-issued housing. I couldn’t stay there. I supposed I could always set up a tent in Tent City, where the town’s cannery workers lived, but I’d face those issues when we came back to town from the backpacking trip.
First things first, though. I went down to Hammer’s (Hammer & Wikan) Hardware and bought myself a pair of brick-colored rubber boots known by everyone in the fishing town as red rubbers. The only sure bet about the weather was that it would rain and knee-high red rubbers with pants tucked into them, were a constant fashion staple. By the time I got back to the boat, Jim ran down the hill from the Forest Service office saying someone had quit and they were looking to hire a replacement on a recreation crew. I didn’t know what it would really entail, but since I had just completed my bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation, it seemed like an answer to a prayer. I went as fast as I could up the hill, afraid someone else would beat me to the job.
The day after I arrived in Petersburg, I had a position on a recreation crew and government housing. I would begin when I returned from the Chilkoot. There were three good months left in the work season and I was on top of the world. Since Jim and I were going to be working on separate crews, it was going to be common to only see each other occasionally.
When I came back to town, I met the other two people on my crew: a Vietnam Vet named Jimmy and our crew boss, Doug. We were given the task of building a new recreational cabin at Kadake Bay and doing maintenance at several other recreational cabins within the Tongass National Forest. We traveled by helicopter, ferry, or skiff to the various locations, but most trips were to our camp at the old Kadake Bay Cabin by skiff, loaded with building materials, tools, and groceries. The cabin had bunks, a wood stove, a table, and benches. Jimmy and I stayed in the cabin with no electricity or running water, while Doug preferred to sleep in his own tent outside the cabin.
We worked hard building the cabin, clearing trails, and chopping wood by day and reading by candle or flashlight at night. Jimmy did most of our cooking and I cleaned up the dishes while Doug brushed up on his Spanish in preparation of spending his winter in Mexico. On our days off, we would fish or go back to Petersburg when we could. The fishing was the most incredible I’ve ever experienced. When we were able to smoke the fish, we did. We ate and lived, worked and played together, and became family in some of the most beautiful wilderness I’ve ever seen.
When Jim and I and friends boarded the ferry to leave Alaska to go south at the end of the season, it was Thanksgiving Day, 1983, during the first snowfall. I remember peering into the distance as the town of Petersburg grew smaller and the snow fell harder. I felt confident we would all be going back the following season, not knowing it would be the last time we ever worked and lived in southeast Alaska with the wild abandon that only youth exudes.
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Carla Kirkland. Carla is a uniquely compassionate and insightful writer who considers the crossroad moments in life in a way that resonates with people who care about the world and each other. Check out her wonderful blog at carlakirklandwriter.com.
When we towed our floathouses here and settled in, we found a fishing boat on the beach with its bottom torn out and it's name, "Daybreak" painted on its stern. I'd heard locally that it struck the rocks right outside our little tidal lagoon during a winter storm and was a complete loss. I've always wanted to know more about it and have done research online. I even requested the help of an experienced "shipwreck finder," Captain Warren Good at alaskashipwreck.com. But we found almost nothing.
Until last month when a man reading one of my old columns contacted me by email, introducing himself simply as Dan. He'd wrecked in his fishing boat here in 1988, a year before we moved here.
Dan Pryse's story:
I was only 24 when I lost the Daybreak. I have not even thought about her in years. It was my own fault. It was snowing and blowing about 35 out of the northwest at 2 am on December 13th. We had been up for 2 day's fishing and were greedy for Christmas money. We were setting longline gear south in the direction of Meyers Chuck.
I was on deck helping set up a string in the pitch black lit by deck lights when the rising wind and storm tide pushed me right to the rocks.
I heard a noise and looked around the wheelhouse to see huge breakers. Waves were crashing on rocks that had gotten far too close. I didn't make it back to the wheelhouse in time to turn her. She ran hard aground with a rock right under the stern. She just commenced to beat herself to death. At the time only the tip of the rock was exposed, the size of a Volks Wagon.
I was trying to put out a mayday when the back door blew out, then the seas smashed the window's out. The waves even knocked the Pacific cook stove loose and I never saw it again. A huge swell came in and lifted the whole boat and dropped her... This blew out all the floorboards and I was walking on the frame above the engine.
The Coast Guard cutter Plaintree was passing on the way to Ketchikan and heard my call. The Captain said there were not enough lives in jeopardy and he would not send a boat or crew till morning.
We were not on the same schedule--we needed help NOW.
As I was calling him every choice name I could muster the Post Master from Meyers Chuck, Steve Johnson on the vessel Grizzly Bear, broke in and said he'd help us since the Coast Guard would not. He and another guy in a 16 foot Boston Whaler came out that night in the storm and got us.
When we got to Meyers Chuck a Coast Guard skiff dropped a pump on the dock. A crewman said the Plaintree was going to Ketchikan and was wasting no more time. It would not have mattered as the Daybreak was a total loss.
If not for the Post Master Steve Johnson and Art Forbes I think was the second man, we would for sure have died.The Post Master and his wife Ruth even let me stay in their home before taking me to Ketchikan. What truly kind people.
Dan is correct--the locals he mentions are kind people. Steve and Ruth ran the small market and fish buying station in Meyers Chuck when they lived here in the Eighties. During school we'd run down during the lunch break and buy candy from Ruthie, who was a lovely, generous and supportive woman. Their son, Ryan, was best friends with Noah Forbes, who was the son of the other local mentioned in Dan's story, Art Forbes (we now own his Boston Whaler mentioned in Dan's account).
Art is married to Linda, who features prominently in my memoir Raised in Ruins. I also talk about taking my siblings to school in a homemade 16-foot wooden skiff on this very stretch of water that has caused more than one shipwreck. (My memoir is available for pre-ordering by clicking on the cover of the photo top right, or at https://www.westmarginpress.com/book-details/9781513262635/raised-in-ruins/ )
I asked Dan if he had any photos of the Daybreak and he replied: "No I have no photos. I lived on the Daybreak and only had one boat payment left. I lost absolutely everything including photos. And I had no insurance, just a borrowed pair of boots from [Steve]."
He helped fill out the details, though: The Daybreak was a 36 foot Columbia River freighter for the canneries and logging outfits. It was built in Oregon in 1935 and modified to a pleasure boat in the 70's. Jim and Gayle Eastwood of Petersburg purchased it and made a longliner out of it. Dan bought it in 1985 or 1986.
I asked Dan what he did after the wreck of the Daybreak and he replied: "I fished every fishery from Puget Sound salmon to 14 winters in Dutch Harbor and I was the deckboss on the world's biggest Longliner in Siberia Russia right after communism fell. 7 years in Bristol Bay and every longline season in the Gulf and Southeast salmon and 3 salmon season's in Kodiak. I'm getting seasick just thinking about it."
I'm encouraging him to write his memoir; he has an amazing fund of true life adventure stories to tell. (Dan Pryse also became a tenacious whistleblower whose testimony helped bring down an official seeking a presidentially-appointed position. You can read about it here: https://www.alaskapublic.org/2011/09/26/former-crew-members-attempted-to-turn-in-fuglvog/ )
The kind and talented Grace Augustine at the website Originality by Design, asked if I would do a guest blog to help promote my memoir Raised in Ruins (due out April 7, 2020) and I agreed. When it was posted and the editor of my memoir read it she said she loved it and would be delighted if I'd make it the new opening to the book. See what you think:
Every day as a child was an adventure for me and my four siblings as we lived in the burned ruins of a remote Alaskan cannery. Some days had more adventure in them than others. Mail day was a day that promised parent-free adventure.
Our mail arrived at a nearby fishing village by floatplane once a week, weather permitting. We only lived seven miles of water away from the village—there were no roads, or even trails—but the route was hazardous, even deadly, because of the mercurial nature of our weather. What had been glassy water an hour before as we made the trip in a thirteen foot open Boston Whaler could turn into a maelstrom of seething white water only an hour later to catch us on the return trip.
Tides, weather forecasts, and local signs had to be carefully calculated before the trip could be made. So, it sometimes happened that we would miss several mail days in a row and get three weeks’ worth of mail all at once. My parents usually made the trip by themselves, leaving us kids behind in our floathouse home. (A regular wood frame house resting on a raft of logs.)
Our sense of adventure, always present since our family comprised the entire population of humans for miles in any direction, quadrupled as we waved good-bye to them. We watched them turn into a speck out on the broad bay with the mountain ranges of vast Prince of Wales Island providing a breathtaking backdrop for them.
Then we cut loose. We ran around the beaches, jumping into piles of salt-sticky seaweed and yelling at the top of our lungs, the dogs chasing us and barking joyously. We tended to do this every day, but this was different. We lived in an untamed wilderness that could kill full grown adults in a multitude of ways and we children had it all to ourselves.
At our backs was the mysterious forest that climbed to a 3,000 foot high mountain that looked like a man lying on his back staring up at the sky that we called “The Old Man.” In front of us was the expanse of unpredictable water with no traffic on it, except for the humpback whales, sea lions, and water fowl.
And we were the only humans to be seen in all of it.
As we scattered, my littlest brother, Chris, wound up with me in our twelve-foot, aluminum rowing skiff. I was twelve and he was seven, and we were buckled up in our protective, bright orange lifejackets that we never went anywhere without.
“Where shall we go, Sir Christopher?” I asked in a faux British voice as I sat in the middle seat with an oar on either side of me. “Your wish is my command.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Where do you want to go?”
I looked around. The floathouse sat above a small stream below the forest, its float logs dry, since the tide was halfway out. Opposite it was a smaller floathouse we called the wanigan that we used to go to school in, before our dad built a school for us on land, but was now the washhouse.
The small, sheltered cove suddenly felt restrictive since it was the only part of the old cannery we saw on a regular basis, and there wasn’t much of the old cannery to see, just some pilings sticking half out of the water.
“Let’s go to the ruins,” I said.
The rest of the post can be read at: https://originalitybydesign.blogspot.com/2019/09/to-ruins-by-tara-neilson.html
Tara Neilson (ADOW)