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.
Susan Butcher, the first person to win four out of five Iditarods, is celebrated for her achievements on the first Saturday in March, known in Alaska as Susan Butcher Day. My sister, Megan, included the musher in her series of paintings titled "Women Warriors."
The name Susan Butcher is well-known to Alaskans. She raced in seventeen Iditarods, always placing in the top ten after her first, I'm tempted to say "practice," race. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an endurance testing 1,112-1,131 mile marathon through blizzard conditions across Jack London's Alaskan wilderness. There are many dangers, including one Susan Butcher faced in 1985 when she was forced to withdraw from the race after 13 of her dogs were injured and two of them were killed by a rogue moose, despite her best efforts to drive off the enraged animal.
In the race Butcher had to scratch, Libby Reynolds went on to finish in first place and became the first woman to win the Iditarod. We watched the finish during school on TV, via satellite--one of the first things we saw when TV finally reached us in the bush. Butcher won the next three races after that and a fourth after another year. When my sister and I were growing up, these two women spawned a famous saying throughout our state: "Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod."
Susan Butcher held the Iditarod speed record from 1986 until 1992, breaking her own records in 1987, 1988, and 1990, and was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. She died much too soon at age 51 on August 5, 2006. Her beloved, favorite dog was named Granite and is pictured in Megan's portrait of her.
My latest column for Capital City Weekly, appearing Wednesday, March 1st, describes why Megan is exactly the right person to do a series of portraits on "Women Warriors." Check it out, along with more of Megan's art, at www.capitalcityweekly.com.
When my mother was a child in Michigan it was a big deal to go even two miles to the nearest market, so when she and her cousin, Patty Jo, decided to bike to the nearest big city, six miles away, they thought they were on an epic adventure that even their grandchildren would talk about.
How could they have ever pictured one day living in a remote fishing village in Alaska with only about thirty residents and no roads, right on the edge of civilization? Talk about an epic adventure! Patty Jo was a single mother with two sons, Mark and Alex. My mom had five kids--I was only six, but my older, city cousins made a big impression on me and I never forgot them, Mark in particular who always looked out for little girls who could have gotten run over in the rough play my older brother and his pals indulged in.
To my delight, Mark recently left some wonderful comments on my blog and agreed to write a guest blog of his memories of my Grandpa Frank. And here it is. (My comments are in brackets.) Enjoy! Tara, A Daughter of the Walrus.
MARK'S GUEST BLOG:
I told Tara I'd write a little something about Uncle Frank. He was actually my mom's uncle and Tara's grandfather, but we always called him Uncle. I have no idea when Frank and his wife Pat moved to the Chuck [Meyers Chuck], but when my brother and I arrived on our first ever floatplane ride he was there to help us.
Now I'm telling bits of stories from nearly forty years ago so Tara can separate fact from fiction. Frank was a legit 7 foot 2 man [actually, either 6'4" or 6'6"] man with hands like bear paws. I think he was close to 70, and I was told that he was one of the old school Montana loggers back in the day with longsaws instead of chainsaws. If you ever saw his house in the Front Chuck--it was gorgeous and big with log beams that ran the full width of the house--you could never deny any of his logging abilities. He built the house!
"How'd you get the beams up there, Uncle Frank?" Soft chuckle...."I put 'em up there."
He really looked like Santa Claus and never once over several years did I hear him raise his voice. He was a gentle giant.
I caught my first king salmon with him which weighed out at 28 lbs. At nine years old I thought I was going to get pulled from the boat and begged him to help me. Each time he'd just chuckle, look me in the eye and say..."It isn't my fish." I love that now, knowing he made me fight for what was mine and I didn't need help. Holding up the salmon I could proudly say....I caught it.
Then there was his woodchopping ability. In the bush everybody helps each other out and wood is a giant commodity when there is no electricity. Alex and I chopped wood every day but it was hard for a young woman and two boys to keep up with. I can't remember who would bring us wood [Tara's dad], but when it comes it's still in the tree trunk, cylindrical shape [called rounds]. Maybe 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 feet? [Depends on the size of the tree, or log.] Slightly bigger than a 5 gallon bucket.
You roll them from the boat to the woodshed and when you begin to cut you use the back of the axe to hammer a wedge into the log, splitting it in two. Then you use the axe on the halves to split them into about three pieces a side producing six normal looking fireplace logs that I get around the corner here in Chicago.
Anyway, Frank comes over to help us catch up. From the start to finish with the wedge might take me 20 whacks at the wedge if hit clean, then another 20 minutes to bust out 6 logs. We had been told watching Frank chop wood was something else, so we were excited.
He taps the wedge into the log with the back of the axe head, so it's upright on its own, and with one hand smashes the wedge, spins the axe and two swings left and two swings right, chops the halves as they are falling!!
Never, never, never have I seen anything close to that since.
Me and Alex immediately wanted to become loggers so we could do it, too.
He does about 20 of those for us and takes off in the McKee Craft. I didn't even include how quick he'd turn a cut log into kindling. We were set for a month in a half hour, if that.
The last is just a story I was told with him in the room. When I looked at him he just chuckled and nodded. Good enough for me.
So the story went, and this was 30 years before eating hotdogs and garbage was all over TV, he and Pat went to a steakhouse where if you could finish the big 84 or 74 (I don't remember exactly, but a Fred Flinstone steak), your entire meal was on the house.
This is one of those stupid bets that takes 3 hours for some dumb, big guy to get the last 20 bites down while sweating over his plate and taking water breaks. Frank apparently calmly carved through it like a normal meal and asked for seconds!
I don't know how true it is but hearing he and Pat tell the story together and seeing the glimmer in his eyes as he nodded at me will be forever priceless. I hope Tara gets the picture of me and him up. Everyone should get a chance to see my Uncle Frank.
Those are my favorite memories. Just remember when you read these blogs of Tara's, they're being written by the granddaughter of Frank, one of the true original Alaska bushmen.