Imagine you're on a trip to SE Alaska in your yacht or your sailboat and you see a fishing boat up ahead of you on a broad bay along the Inside Passage. As you draw closer you realize something's not right. The boat isn't under power and there's no movement on deck, no sign of anyone onboard. What would you do? What made me think about this is something my brother told me recently after he fetched some fuel and groceries for us in his fishing boat. The tides were a mess, they were super low high tides that came in extremely slowly. Our skiff wouldn't float so I wouldn't be able to go out and meet him to offload the fuel and groceries from his boat. He thought he could bring his boat into our little tidal bight later on in the evening just before dark, but even then our skiff wouldn't float. It was decided that I'd walk out on the big breakwater log that stopped the worst northerly swells from assaulting our floathouses to meet his boat. The problem was, the breakwater log had been out there for a long time and had been severely eaten up by wood-boring sea gribbles. It wasn't much more than a floating slab and wasn't as stable as it used to be. It was the only option, though, so when Jamie called and said he would be here in a few minutes, I left my floathouse, clambered over the rocks and stepped onto the big log that was tied to shore. It has a lot of burls and moss growing on it, but wasn't as tippy as I'd feared it might be. I got to the very end of it where it had the least stability and balanced there, waiting for Jamie to arrive. I could hear his boat growling along, but it was taking him longer than a few minutes. I occupied myself by swatting noseeums, taking photos of the sunset, and trying not to fall off the log into the jade green water. Jamie's boat finally entered the bight. He was having some engine problems and I wondered if that had been what had delayed him, but when he finally reached the log and I helped tied his boat to it, he said, "I'm sorry it took so long to get here. I was drifting farther out than I realized." "Drifting?" I asked. He said that he'd shut down his engine and let the boat drift while he slept, waiting for the tide. "It made me think of Ray. He used to do that all the time." Ray was a close family friend who died last year and had been the captain of the large fishing boat Jamie had been a deckhand on for many years. "You mean," I said, "that you guys would just drift around in some bay with everyone sleeping inside?" "Yep. It was super peaceful." I'd never heard of such a thing, but I couldn't see why not when I thought about it. In the more remote areas there's very little traffic, and most of the water is extremely deep out in the middle of bays, and if the weather was nice--why not? As I thought about that he handed me out 9 jugs of gasoline, each weighing around 40 pounds. I had to carry them along the log and line them up, walking back and forth as the log rocked. They took up most of the space on the log so it was tricky getting around them. Finally he handed out a bag of potatoes and assorted other groceries. "Where are you off to now?" I asked as he started the engine back up. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe I'll go back out there and drift some more."
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/ )
It's funny now, but as a kid I didn't think anything of it that my dad's best friend, when he was logging on SE Alaska's vast Prince of Wales Island in the Seventies and Eighties, was called Pitch. All of my dad's stories, when he crossed the strait to be with us out in the wilderness on the weekends, featured things Pitch had said and done that week. Pitch was a giant in my mind.
He was the shovel operator to my dad's scaler/bucker and we kids heard with awe the stories of Pitch picking up tiny coins with his giant grappling tongs. My dad would shake his head in wonder, not only at how smoothly and fluidly Pitch operated the shovel, but also at how it was even possible that he could see the coin to be able to pick it up from his seat back there in the cab.
Pitch operated a "Triple 6," the 666 Koehring on an 866 undercarriage. Because of the three sixes, whenever anything went wrong, as it inevitably would at some point, Pitch and my dad would assert "Satan has it in for us today!" The shovel, a modified excavator, weighed 70 tons and could easily pick up, with Pitch at the controls, an 8 foot in diameter, 40 foot long spruce log.
My dad had such trust in Pitch's precision and situational awareness that he'd buck the logs off with his chainsaw while they were in the clutches of the shovel's grapples. This was impressive because he'd had logs dropped on him by another shovel operator. (By chance he'd fallen into a hole in the ground just before the load dropped on him so he wasn't hurt.) There was no one who could match Pitch's skill--he manipulated the huge machine with its load of heavy logs with complete ease and control. This particular model was considered "slow," but as my dad said, "It was never 'slow' with Pitch at the controls."
Pitch and my dad worked together at Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales and though their crew was small, only five men, they managed to out-log the other much larger crew by a lot. My dad gives the credit to Pitch. He said that once the logs were sorted Pitch had the trucks lined up and could fill and dispatch them so quickly that no other team on the island could keep up. If there was an Olympics for shovel operators, Pitch would have taken Gold home every time.
When I saw Pitch as a kid, I was impressed by how he and my dad complemented each other--they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but different enough that they could get a kick out of the other guy's perspective. They'd shared a lot of extraordinary life experiences, both being Vietnam vets who became loggers in remote Alaska and who built their own homes themselves. They worked together in Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, when it was the largest logging camp in the world.
One of my favorite memories of Pitch was when my mom, my sister and me, and two other kids from our bush school, crossed the strait to attend the prom in Thorne Bay. Pitch and his first wife Dale and their three daughters Cheri Dee, Kimery, and Kristi, were kind enough to open their home to us. Before he knew it, this rough and ready logger found his kitchen turned into a beauty salon.
I remember perching carefully on a chair in the living room, trying not to disturb my finery and hairdo, while Pitch entertained us with deliberately hair-raising logging tales. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a rich appreciation for the incongruity of the teens decked out in full prom regalia, the hairspray hanging heavily in the air, politely listening to his stories while my mom finished beautifying the other girls in the next room.
He was good at telling stories. Boom man Tim Lindseth recalls: "Every machine in the sort yard and on the pond had a CB radio and often there would be kind of a topic for the day as chatter, besides the important work stuff. So work stuff could be happening and a story or some ad lib comment going on all through the day.... Pitch made the comment (on the CB) that the Gov. was keeping tabs on who was sitting on a pile of money [through the strips inside $50.00 and $100.00 bills]. To that, every one yakked about this, off and on for an hour and the general consensus was that it must be some sort of tracking device! Pitch chimed in, if you bit the edge off the bill you can pull that strip right out. Now came all of our comments one by one what happens to the strip when the government finds out? Pitch says, he puts it in the cat's food...let 'em track that."
Pitch had a soft spot for cats and kittens. My dad tells the story of how Pitch invented a game that his cat's kittens adored, a little something he called "Cat Darts." He marked out a huge bull's eye on the living room curtains and would toss one of the kittens at the bull's eye. They would stick with their tiny claws to the fabric for a moment or so, then drop down and scamper back, crawling up his leg to have another turn, in the way kids the world over say: "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." He'd tire before the kittens did.
Chris Lewis, who worked as scaler/bucker with Pitch after my dad, told me this funny story about Pitch's soft heart for baby animals: "In the spring every year the area does would bring their fawns into the sort yard and hide them in and around the log decks, etc. Pitch always made sure that at least one skid had logs laid out so the does could hide the fawns against where the skid and the logs intersected and every morning while his shovel was warming up he would check to see if any fawns were hiding along his skids. Well, one morning as I was gassing up and getting my saw ready I noticed Pitch about halfway down a skid looking down at the ground...obviously looking at a fawn, when all of a sudden the little fawn got up and went right between Pitch's legs and tried to start nursing!! Well you can imagine the look on Pitch's face!! I'll never forget it. Of course Pitch just stood there trying to convince the little thing he wasn't its mama. Big tuff logger Pitch. Yeah, I believe he had a very kind heart."
He did have a kind heart. And he liked to share tips that made a person's life or chores easier. My dad was splitting firewood recently and he said, "Pitch taught me to do this better." He said he was chopping wood in the sort yard for the burn barrel one day, driving the ax into the center of a round the way he learned as a kid, when Pitch, who was watching him from the cab of the shovel, said, "There's an easier way to do that." He suggested my dad chop from the outside of the round inward. Sure enough, the tough rounds split far more easily that way and my dad uses the technique to this day.
Wherever Pitch went he was always willing to give of his time and his experience, and many people over many years have reason to be grateful.
After a long illness, lovingly tended by his wife Kathryn, Gerald Pitcher died on April 4, 2018. Pitch was a big guy in the ways that mattered: a man with a big heart, and with an enormous personality, and no one who ever met him will forget him.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)