I put down Bjorn Dihle's book, Haunted Inside Passage, that chronicles the myths, legends, and mysteries of Southeast Alaska, strapped on my .44, and headed out into a heavily overcast, misty day.
The book has accounts of mysteriously lost Russian explorers from the 1700s, a sunken treasure ship, a passenger liner that went down with all hands on a quiet morning, the grotesque history of mine owners' treatment of their workers (essentially mass murder), and account after account of man's vulnerability in the vast wilderness and his sense of being as much hunted as hunter--by material and immaterial creatures.
As I set out, it was very quiet, in the way only remote SE Alaska can be quiet when the rain has stopped, the wind has quit blowing, and the seas are still. The forest was wet and dark. Long, pale green streamers of goat's beard moss hung motionless. A friend of mine once said that just looking at that moss gave him a creepy feeling.
It's bear season so all of my senses were hyper alert, looking for any sign that I didn't have the woods entirely to myself. Call me prejudiced, but I like being the only large mammal around when I go for a walk in the woods. And since I'd seen a fresh, steaming bear calling card in the middle of the trail the last time I went to post my blog, I knew there was one around.
Bjorn's book focuses quite a bit on the Kushtaka, the Tlingit "boogeyman" of SE Alaska that I'd written about in my blog, which Bjorn references. (As someone who reads a lot of references at the backs of books to do research, it was an odd moment to see my own name in his reference section.)
In Haunted Inside Passage (published by Alaska Northwest Books), Bjorn has the full story of the Kushtaka, digging deeper and discovering more on the legendary beings and their history than any other writer I've come across. I reflected on how people were so ready to believe in the strange creatures as I stepped out onto the wet gravel beach, the musky scent of the seaweed tideline hanging in the air. I paused to look in all directions to make sure I didn't jump a bear. On the other side of the beach, up in the grass, I saw a big, shaggy black form and went instantly still, except for dropping my hand onto the handle of the pistol, unsnapping the sheath's leather strap to be able to draw it quickly. After several motionless moments I realized the shaggy thing wasn't moving. It was either dead, or a log.
I kept going, the gravel grating under my boots, keeping my eye on the bulky thing in the grass until I got to an angle where I could see that it was indeed a log. I relaxed a little, but not a lot. I didn't like, as I stepped back into the dark woods, that I couldn't hear anything but the rush of water below our dam from the heavy rains we've been having.
With a sense of wanting to get the chore done quickly, I headed for the pump sitting on top of the roaring dam. The creek was deep with a heavy current and I stepped from rock to rock. Up next to the cascading dam my jeans immediately got saturated and I reached for the box that shelter's the pump. I paused.
On top of the box was an eight-inch long section of fish cartilage from a fairly large halibut, it looked like. How on earth did it get there? Frowning, I removed the box and went to start the pump. Again, I paused. The pump was all set, the run switch was on, the choke was fully open.
That didn't make any sense. I never left the pump like that. So what had? I started the pump and then headed down to the beach to get away from the noise.
I called my dad on my handheld VHF. "Have you been over here?" I asked. "Did you do anything with the pump?"
He said he hadn't. I looked around at the broad open expanse of the bay in front of me, and the heavy, damp woods encircling me. I didn't like the weight of it behind me and headed farther down the beach where I could see in all directions. "That doesn't make any sense," my dad said when I explained.
It really didn't. It was too early for the summer people to be up here, or the kayakers that often visited to be wandering around in the woods messing with the pump. There was, literally, no one but the three of us for miles in any direction. "It's the Kushtaka," I said, thinking of Bjorn's book. "And it left that fish cartilage to mark its territory, to leave a message."
And just like that, I understood how Southeast Alaskans had so many strange and eerie stories to tell, that Bjorn had written about with a combination of self-deprecating humor and thoughtful reflection. This place is full of mystery and danger and the faded remnants of old tragedies and the evidence of doomed attempts at civilizing the wilderness.
I can't begin to count how many times I've been in a remote area, feeling like the first person to ever set foot on an island, only to find a rusty cable half buried in the sand, or rotten planks overgrown with moss in the woods. Once, digging in a root wad for gardening dirt, I uncovered the ancient leather sole of a tiny boot of the kind worn by children at the turn of the 20th century. I grew up in an abandoned, partially burned cannery and made toys of the belongings of former workers who had probably died before I was born. I grew up amidst mystery and memories of people I'd never known. Southeast Alaska is staurated with this strange, ghost town feel. One's reaction can be anything from intellectual curiosity to morbid fear--or both.
I remember an older friend, Jake, talking about when he was a child when he and his brothers were playing in the primeval, old growth forest in the middle of the night near where I now live. I have my own memories of that, of creeping through the silent, endless woods, tingling with delicious fear at being caught--or possibly devoured--aware of all around me the vast wilderness stretching as far as infinity to my young mind.
Jake said he and his brothers ghosted from tree to tree. He'd shivered with the spookiness of the pregant silence, listening intently for any sign that he'd been left alone in the dark night. All at once something huge and heavy, moving toward them fast, shattered the silence. With a ponderous, leathery pumping sound, it crashed through the woods, violently breaking branches at a height far above their heads, above the head of even the tallest grizzly.
Someone screamed: "It's coming!"
They had no idea what it was, just that it was some ancient horror, Jurassic big, and it was after them. In terror they ran shrieking for safety, out of the forest with the invisible monster tearing through the trees behind them.
Jake looked at me with a twinkle in his dark eyes when he told the story. "You know what 'it' was, right? We'd disturbed an eagle and it flew from its perch, breaking branches with its six foot wingspan. But I've never felt evil like I felt it that night. I knew the most terrifying thing in the world was after me."
And it was. His imagination.
Southeast Alaska fertilizes the imagination probably like no other place on earth. And many of the stories in Bjorn's book testify to that.
NOTE: Coming June 7, Wednesday, in my column at www.capitalcityweekly.com: "Archimedes of the Wilderness."
A silent, sanguinary foe gathers its reserves and grows into a mighty invasion force, striking in the heart of winter when least expected....
As kids we were accustomed to practically living in the water in the summertime, but not when an eerie, rusty sludge marred the clear water with long, bloody streaks and smeared the beaches with its sticky slime.
We knew that harvesting shellfish wasn't allowed then, either. Once inoffensive, tasty sea creatures were now poisonous. We heard adults talking about "toxic algae blooms," "lips going numb," "paralysis," "vomiting," "death."
One of my little brothers, growing up hearing this talk, said to someone who offered him a locally harvested shellfish dinner: "Forget it! You think I want to end up with ESP?"
He meant PSP: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, which is caused by a toxin produced by a dinoflagellate (a tiny sea organism). Shellfish can digest them without harm, but when humans eat the infected shellfish the result can be deadly.
Some think that you can tell if clams, mussels, etc., are poisonous by holding one to your mouth and seeing if your lips go numb, but the truth is PSP symptoms only arise after the shellfish has entered the digestive tract (sypmtoms usually occur within thirty minutes after eating infected shellfish).
The dinoflagellate that causes PSP is similar to but not the same as the one that causes a red tide. PSP can be found in clams, mussles, etc., in Southeast Alaska at any time of the year, whether or not there's a red tide. On the other hand, the red tide is made up of algae which produce a harmful neurotoxin that can cause permanent illness and seizures that can result in death.
My grandfather told the story of being stuck on a boat far from help when the entire crew was crippled by shellfish poisoning. He was forced to watch one of his companions suffer a horrible death. After hearing that story my mom refused to harvest any clams or shellfish at any time of the year, which was perhaps just as well.
The menacing, undulating red skin on the sea has always fascinated me. In my mind, as a kid, the color tied it to a "rock opera" we used to listen to all the time we were growing up in the wilderness. It was Jeff Wayne's Version of The War of the Worlds based on H.G. Wells' Martian invasion story, narrated by Richard Burton. Our uncle Lance had recorded it onto cassette for us and it became such a part of our lives that we sang the songs from it is as we played in the woods and on the beach.
"No, Nathaniel, no." My sister and I harmonized the part of Beth who believed in possibilities for the future despite the Martian devastation. "There must be more to life/there has to be a way...."
My brothers, on the other hand, loved to imitate the murderous Martians' chilling war cry: "Ullaaah" to creep out my mom.
As the story progresses and the Martians take over Earth, the description of a charred, post-apocalyptic world fit well with what we saw around us: The burned down cannery buildings and twisted and mangled machinery bleeding its rust into a Martian red beach.
It sank so deep into our psyches from repeated listenings that I think it's why, in my oldest brother's trapping log when he was a teenager, he counted not how many marten he'd gotten, but, rather, in a Freudian slip, recorded: "I killed two more Martians today."
I do wonder what future historians would make of this trapping log with its specific and accurate description of the area. How could they not conclude that the Martian Invasion had occurred in the remote fastness of the Alaskan wilderness? And that a teenage boy had taken on the red planet warriors single-handedly.
The eerie factor to the red tide has grown in recent years. Ever since 2015 we've found that the days without red tide are now the exception.
It used to be a rule of thumb, that we grew up reciting at the same time we learned "A before E except after C," that the months with the letter R in them, the cold months, were safe from red tides.
Now the red tide is surging against the logs of my floathouse in the middle of winter. The pictures I took of the red tide to accompany this account were taken this month. Red tide in January! It would have been unimagineable when I was a kid.
Every time I look out my French door and see the sinister red swirls, I can't help thinking of a silent, stealthy army gathering in strength to take over the planet.
And I keep hearing Richard Burton's voice: "Across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded the earth with envious eyes...and slowly and surely they drew their plans against us."
In my column this week for www.capitalcityweekly.com I describe my chimney misadventures in a story titled "Procrastination Doesn't Pay." It will appear Wednesday the 18th of this month.
In 1750 a Tlingit Native village in Thomas Bay in SE Alaska was obliterated by a massive landslide. On that day, more than 500 people died in what came to be called Geey Nana, or "The Bay of Death."
Some time slightly before 1900, a ship carrying Chinese immigrants hired to work the Alaskan salmon canneries wrecked just outside Thomas Bay. It was reported that all souls were lost.
In June of 1900 Harry Colp, visiting Thomas Bay for the first time, was told by a prospector named Charlie "The strangest Story Ever Told." It has come to be one of the most famous and eerie stories in Alaskan folklore. As such, it is sold on the Alaska State Ferries by the gross in paperback-pamphlet form, read curiously by tourists and locals alike.
The prospector, who had canoed alone into the Bay of Death, told Colp and his companion that he'd found gold-rich quartz in Thomas Bay, but he'd never prospect it. And then he told them why.
Charlie gave them the story on his finding the quartz and then said, "I thought I would climb the ridge directly over the ledge and get my landmarks.....Right there, fellows, I got the scare of my life. I hope to God I never see or go through the likes of it again.
"Swarming up the ridge toward me from the lake were the most hideous creatures. I couldn't call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys--yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it. Each one seemed to be reaching out for me and striving to be the first to get me. The air was full of their cries and the stench from their sores and bodies made me faint.
"I forgot my broken gun and tried to use it on the first ones, then I threw it at them and turned and ran. God, how I did run! I could feel their hot breath on my back. Their long clawlike fingers scraped my back. The smell from their steaming, stinking bodies was making me sick; while the noises they made, yelling, screaming and breathing, drove me mad. Reason left me. How I reached the canoe...is a mystery to me.
"When I came to, it was night, and I was lying in the bottom of my canoe, drifting between Thomas Bay and Sukoi Island, cold, hungery and crazy for a drink of water....You no doubt think I am crazy or lying....Never let me hear the name Thomas Bay again, and for God's sake help me get away tomorrow on that boat!"
Who, or what, were these terrifying "devils"? To this day people speculate, particularly online. Some think they were the Tlingit devil, the half-man, half-otter Kushtaka. Others insist that they're Alaskan relatives of Bigfoot. Many people dismiss the story as simply the imagination, combined with drink, of a prospector who'd spent too much time alone in the bush.
I heard an interesting, and much more plausible than Bigfoot, theory at a small dinner party of long time Alaskans. One man said he'd grown up in the Thomas Bay area with his father had hunted mountain goats and explored the caves there, which were large enough for people to have lived in if they'd needed to.
"My father found out there'd been a shipwreck not that long before the prospector was on the scene. No lives were saved...supposedly. But what if some of the passengers, which were mostly Chinese immigrants brand new to the country and not speaking a word of English, made it ashore? They could have lived in the caves and subsisted on mountain goats, using the hides for clothes when theirs gave out.
"Imagine this loner prospector, absolutely certain he is the only human for miles in any direction, hiking alone in eerie country believed to be cursed by the Natives, and suddenly he's face to face with desperate, excited Chinese men, a race he may never have met before, dressed in goatskins and yelling in a language completely alien to him. Naturally, they pursued him when he ran--he was their only hope of getting back to civilization. No wonder they yelled and tried to grab him. And no wonder he was terrified!"
The tragic story haunted me so I researched it and was able to verify everything but the exact date of the shipwreck--the reports only said before 1900--or the vessel's name. The only thing sure was that a ship had been reported lost in the vicinity of Thomas Bay.
HistoryLink.org, Essay 10919 confirms that Chinese immigrants were shipped to Alaska from the late 1800s to the end of the first decade of the twentieth century to work in the salmon canneries.
Another online source noted that many of these Chinese immigrants were formerly, in their homeland, goat herders.
And, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mountain goats are plentiful in Thomas Bay and they use different "cliff habitats" during various seasons of the year.
It seems entirely possible and horribly tragic that these marooned Chinese immigrants believed they were going to be rescued when they saw the lone prospector hiking toward them.
Could anything be more natural than that they'd run toward him? They were on him in a moment, screaming excitedly and reaching for him in their malodorous goatskins, sores--possibly from a poor diet--oozing, their "wrong" skin color and shape of the eyes...all combining to create a creature that has gone down in Alaskan history as a spectral monster and bogeyman.
But what if they were simply marooned men of another race, unable to communicate through lack of a common language...and one man's terror of the unfamiliar?
Pictures: Top, Thomas Bay; Second, paddling the canoe into "devils country"; Third, Alaskan mountain goat, detail of a painting by Bob Hines; Fourth, the product that brought the Chinese immigrants to Alaska; Bottom, Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century.