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.
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.