I've never been in a shipwreck, but I've come close more than once. For instance, there was the time my dad and I headed for Wrangell on a stocking up trip in his 32 foot wooden boat the Sea Cucumber. It was a hot summer and the boat had been moored at the dock for a couple months without being used. Our passage was flat calm at first, but when we struck waves as we entered a radio dead spot very far from help we discovered that the seams in the bow had opened up from all the dry, hot weather. Soon we were taking on more water than the bilge pump could handle.
My dad had a second bilge pump but it wasn't hooked up and he wasn't sure that it was still in working order. He ordered me to put on a life jacket and get out on the back deck while he worked on the pump. If the boat went down he'd be trapped inside, but I had a chance of escaping the suction. (We had no lifeboat at the time-we did after that.)
It was a tense few minutes but he managed to get the second pump working and hooked up and the two pumps managed to keep us afloat until the bow seams closed up (from the planks swelling after immersion in the waves).
During the years that we had the Sea Cucumber the trusty little boat weathered massive, frightening seas; running aground on a rock; turning on its own wake in a thick fog; getting lost in a blizzard; and other dangerous adventures before my dad passed it on to a family member. Unfortunately, many other Alaskan boats didn't survive these exact same incidents. And the accounts of the boats that weren't so fortunate are reported in Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters by Captain Warren Good.
"Even at that I didn't hope and as much as possible tried to conserve my strength up to the end to try to save myself...because to be dead, I was thinking, would be lonesome." --First hand account of the sinking of the Umnak Native.
The sinking of the Umnak Native is a gripping story to read, especially for what is left out in the firsthand accounts. Reading between the lines I began to wonder if murder had taken place, if a Jonah situation had occurred. According to one account by an Aleut survivor there was a strong superstition that having a white man on an Aleut boat would bring diaster. So when the disaster struck...there are hints that the white man in question may have been killed to appease the raging elements, so that others would survive.
The author of Alaska Shipwrecks, Captain Warren Good, doesn't say anything like that about what happened aboard the Umnak Native. For the most part he lets his deep research speak for itself. The firsthand accounts, which he has in abundance, are dramatic enough without needing any editorializing. I found them so addictive that I would read far into the night because each wreck scenario seemed to top the next. (Trigger Warning: Many of these accounts are horrifying and heartbreaking.)
There was the chilling account of a crew finding a dismasted, half-sunk ship with a corpse in oilskins lashed to it. There was, literally, a dead man at the helm (p. 90). Then there's the story of the sinking of the Islander (one of the most famous shipwrecks in Alaskan history due to the reported $6 million--in 1901 dollars--in gold the passengers were carrying from the Klondike goldfields) in which it was reported that a baby in a blanket, tied to a life preserver, was found alive.
There are Robinson Crusoe stories of crews being forced to survive for months on remote, uninhabited islands with people dying all around them (one crew resorted to cannibalism). Incredibly, when more than one of these crews were rescued the ships that rescued them wrecked.
There are heart-wrenching stories of entire families being lost, or even worse, just one family member surviving. There's the account of one ship, the St. Patrick, being laid over in heavy seas and abandoned. All but two of the twelve crewmembers lost their lives...only for the ship to be found later, still afloat.
Many of these Alaskan shipwrecks and sinkings were familiar to me, but many more were not. In addition, I was suprised by history that I should have learned about in school. For instance, when we learned about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians and the battles fought there during World War II, the history books never revealed that these battles caused deaths and sinkings for more than a decade afterwards due to ships striking floating mines. I also never realized how many ships were sunk by Japanese submarines and how many submarines were sunk in this remote "theater of war."
Likewise, I never read about, in any of my school history books, only two weeks after the Russians handed Alaska over to the U.S. in Sitka that a terrific hurricane struck causing widespread destruction. Was it feared that American school children would look on this so-called Act of God as condemnation of Manifest Destiny's overreach? Captain Good doesn't say as much, but we're left to wonder.
Good also doesn't editorialize about the racism in some of the older reports--he allows the facts to speak for themselves. He exposes, for instance, that in one of the worst disasters in Alaskan history, the sinking of the Star of Bengal that officially killed 110 of 138, the Caucasians are listed by name while others are grouped under race with only the crew chiefs named.
The stories in this book aren't all completely tragic. Quite a few detail inspiring accounts of survival, of heroism, and of self-sacrifice that touched me deeply. There were also accounts that took me unawares because they had a personal connection to me. For instance, the elderly fisherman I corresponded with in high school when I was writing a report about the burned cannery where I grew up, had in his youth been involved in one of the shipwrecks described in this book. And, speaking of the cannery where I grew up, it's mentioned, too, as well as wrecks involving family and friends. Last, but not least, there's the account of a shipwreck--one of the most unusual in the entire book--that occurred on March 14, 1939 in Meyers Chuck, the tiny fishing village where I went to school and where I still get mail.
Captain Good's reasons for writing books about Alaskan shipwrecks, as well as maintaining his amazing website www.alaskashipwreck.com, are ones I'm in complete sympathy with: he hopes that these accounts will help give the families closure, make boaters be more cautious, encourage boaters to be better prepared for disaster, and help them avoid situations that could lead to yet one more tragedy in Alaskan waters.
I interviewed Captain Good for my column and you can read about how he came to be so famous for being "That Shipwreck Guy" that he was even consulted to help with the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989. You can read it here: http://www.juneauempire.com/life/alaska-for-real-that-shipwreck-guy/
Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters can be ordered from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/035914263X/ref=cm_sw_rShaCbTGNTHC0
He also has a 2019 calendar out that briefly describes 365 of the most disastrous Alaskan shipwrecks in the past 265 years with multiple accompanying photos. You can find it by Googling "2019 Alaska Shipwrecks Calendar lulu.com," or hopefully this link will work: http://www.lulu.com/shop/captain-warren-good/2019-alaska-shipwreck-calendar/calendar/product-23871087.html?utm_source=GeniusMonkey_VT
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Mail day dawned sunny and clear, like it's abnormally been for weeks here in formerly rainy Southeast Alaska. The tide was unhelpfully going to be out all day so my dad got in the skiff early to put it on the outhaul.
An outhaul is a rope and pulley device that allows us to keep our smaller boats floating during all but the lowest of low tides. A length of rope is run through two pulleys attached to trees above the high tide line, and to a pulley anchored to the seabed (and usually marked by a buoy so other boaters know not to run over the outhaul). We tie our skiff to a loop in one side of the line and pull it out as far as possible. When we need it, we simply pull it in.
However, because of our unusually hot summer, the outhaul line turned out to be completely overgrown with seaweed and algae. My dad attempted to clean it by tying to the outhaul and driving away from the beach in the skiff, running the caked rope through the pulleys.
A minute later he was on the VHF to me. "Tara, could you bring down the rope on the end of the dock? I just broke the outhaul."
Fortunately, the actual line that makes up the outhaul itself didn't break, it was just the smaller piece of rope that ties one of the pulleys to a tree that snapped.
So, while my dad sat in the skiff and took care of the tedious chore of picking off clumps of seaweed by hand and scraping the algae off with a knife (using a multi-tool that a Lower 48 friend named Russ gave both my dad and I for scouting floathouses for him earlier), I picked up the coil of rope and carried it down the beach, up onto the rock ridge, and then scrambled around wind-fallen trees until I reach the point of land where the pulley is. I hadn't gotten very far when I realized that in my sweatshirt I was way overdressed for how hot it was despite how early it was.
When I got to the broken part of the pulley and fixed it and was about to tell my dad on the VHF, I realized it had fallen out of my bag. I searched nearby but couldn't find it, then shouted and mimed to my dad for him to call me on the VHF so that I could hear his voice through its speaker. He counted slowly as I searched and listened. As it turned out I had to clamber back over the rocks and windfalls and down to the beach before I finally located it. By then I was having a low blood pressure attack aggravated by overheating.
I made it to the nearest bit of shade on a rock bench that overlooked Clarence Strait and Prince of Wales Island and called my dad to tell him my situation. I was about to pass out, but since I was lying down I wouldn't hurt anything.
All was not grim, though. Because I was on the outside of the rocky bight where our floathouses are, I had a clear line of sight to the mountain where the tower that provides us with an Internet signal stands. I had my cell phone with me, which is frequently useless at home, and as it happened my sister called. I chatted with her, explaining my situation, and then my dad called on the VHF checking on me, and asked if I'd call my brother Jamie who was out commercial fishing to ask him a mail-related question.
Jamie was feeling the heat himself. The wheel house of his fishing boat, the Isla, was cooking him like an oven. We carped for a while about the aggravatingly sunny streak we'd been having. As die-hard Southeasterners we liked our damp climate and suffered when the sun came out, even without adding in the fact that I was literally allergic to sunshine.
He said he was down at Caamano (Caamano Point) fishing near our Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion. That point can be a nightmare in rough weather, but I didn't get a twinge when he mentioned it because today the strait was mill pond smooth, not a breath of air stirring. Which, actually, made the heat even more oppressive.
Next I called the post office in Meyers Chuck to find out when the mail plane would be there--and wouldn't you know it? The ariline, which usually refused to come out during low tides, had decided to come out right when the tide was at its lowest today. We'd have to haul groceries and mail up a very long beach, in this heat. I passed the bad news on to my dad and when he finished cleaning off the outhaul he puttered by, going slow since the plane wouldn't be in for a while.
I headed for home shortly after that, deciding to wait for my dad's return at my parents' floathouse. My mom and I heard the mail plane land in the village a few miles to the south of us and almost immediately afterward we heard what sounded like a freight train rushing toward us.
In minutes the airless day was blown away by a winter-type gale. The trees bent and thrashed around and the strait swelled up with spitting white caps. It went from zero wind to forty knot winds, and then higher winds within half an hour. I thought about Jamie down at the dreaded Camaano Pt. and we tried to call him to find out his situation, and Rory and Marion's, but we couldn't get hold of him. We called the post office and told the post mistress Cassie to tell my dad how bad it was out here where we lived.
Unfortunately, he was already on his way. By then it was screaming, with seventy miles winds tearing at the trees. I went down the beach to meet him, and found myself pummeled by the wind. He pulled in down near the outhaul and everything was soaking wet, covered in salt spray. He said it was one of the roughest rides he'd ever had. On top of that, no one from the village had been there to meet the plane except him and Cassie so they'd hauled all the boxes up the low-tide ramp by themselves. His bad leg was in rough shape after all that.
The cardboard boxes were falling apart. Two of them, amounting to over a hundred pounds, were freeze boxes, but we discovered that for some reason nothing, none of the meat or frozen vegetables, were frozen. And they were cooking in the unrelenting sunshine. That meant we couldn't wait for the tide to bring the skiff up to the house--we had to get the perishable groceries up the long, hot beach sooner rather than later.
I hauled up some of the groceries in bags, and got the hand truck on the way back down--and fell through the ramp at the end of the dock. Unbeknownst to us the planks had been eaten through by the gribbles that eat any wood in the water. I scraped my leg up, but there wasn't a lot of blood. I went down for a couple boxes and dragged the hand truck back up to the floathouse over rocks and through tidal mud, and then went back down for another load. By then I was in low blood pressure mode and overheating again and my dad made me stop. He'd been in the hot sun for hours by that time, and was in bad shape after having helped haul all of the village mail up to the post office, and then the horrible ride home--he was so stiff he didn't even attempt to get out of the skiff.
The tide was coming in by then and I had to wade to get to the skiff. I went over my boots, but the water was so warm I didn't care, though the scrape on my leg stung a bit. The wind was literally screaming off the skiff's steel rails, that hurricane pitch that makes your hair stand on end. The strait was exploding against the rocks and my dad and I had to raise our voices to talk. I had to press against the skiff as the wind tried to push it away from the beach and my dad warned me not to get run over by it. Neither of us could remember a winter gale like this in the middle of summer. I again worried about my brother and aunt and uncle in their fishing boats.
As the tide came in I towed the skiff further up the beach shortening, the distance I had to haul the boxes up to the house. My mom met me at the dock and she hauled what she could into the house. I'd haul up groceries, go back and wade out to the skiff and pull it against the gale, and then haul up more groceries.
So that's what I did. In the picture above you can see me towing the skiff up to the house, telling myself "The mail must get through," over and over again.
At some points I was wading at waist level, but it was actually nice to get out of the sun and it was blowing far too hard for any bugs to be around. And then we heard from Jamie, that he and Rory and Marion were perfectly all right--the gale was blowing up the strait away from shore where he was and hammering us at the point that we live on. It was just a freak squall worse than most of our summer squalls.
One more mail day down!
I wrote my next column about the next mail day and you can read it at:
In 1995 I had an article published in a national publication with an international circulation. In it I described living and writing out here in the bush and it seemed to strike a chord. Hundreds of people wrote to me from all over the world. One woman, a lovely older lady named Donne, wrote to me from where she lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. We wrote back and forth for years and then, on a visit to family in Canada, she made a side trip out here.
We were supposed to pick her up at the dock in Meyers Chuck, but we couldn't due to the weather. (Because we live on the tip of a high, forested peninsula it can be screaming a gale on one side and calm on the other side.) We contacted the airlines and their pilot agreed to drop her off in a bay close to us. She told me later that they were already in flight, late in the day, and the pilot turned to her and said, "Keep an eye our for a cabin in the woods, that's where I'm taking you."
He had only a general idea of where we were but managed to find us. We pulled our skiff up to the pontoon of the floatplane and I met Donne (and her grandson) in the skiff. She said she'd been on some great adventures in her life (including being treed by a rhinoceros), but that her floatplane ride in the Alaskan bush was the greatest.
My cousin, Mark Morse, told me he wanted to write about his first experience of flying into the remote community of Meyers Chuck, where I lived as a child. He said it was something he'd never forgotten.
I don't think anyone forgets that first floatplane splashdown in the Chuck, and, in fact, airlines regularly schedule pickups in the Chuck after they've dropped off their other passengers elsewhere to avoid scaring them. You'll see why that is in Mark's guest blog below.
As the son of divorced parents I spent the school years in Atlanta and the summers with mom in Michigan. In 1977 as a third grader we learned that Mom had moved to Meyers Chuck, Alaska. Living with a father who was successful in the city, my younger brother Alex and I had no clue what it meant to live in an Alaskan bush village.
My first memory was the excruciatingly long flight from Atlanta to Seattle which ended in the flight attendants cutting gum out of Alex's and my hair. Mom met us in Seattle and we took the Alaska ferry system from Seattle to Ketchikan. We didn't get rooms or berths, instead we slept on the top deck under the Solarium in sleeping bags with lots of 1977 hippies also ready to check out Alaska.
The ferry was great and I remember it like yesterday, but the real thrill of Alaska bush living was still ahead of us.
We arrived in Ketchikan and made our way to Tongass Airlines. For the first time ever I saw a plane floating on water and was then instructed to get on it. Your first time taking off on water seems impossible, but soon you're airborne and in the hands of some of the best pilots in the country.
For some reason I always sat in the copilot seat and mom and my brother sat in back. Invariably the pilot would let me take the controls and push the yoke up and down, actually moving the plane. What had been so scary was now kind of cool.
First Time Landing in Meyers Chuck:
As we closed in on our new home, we saw some really tall trees surrounding a tiny bay, guarded by rock reefs on both entry and exit. The pilot flies around the tall trees and cuts the engine too quickly loses altitude, then, just before crashing, re-fires the Cessna engines, floats over the rocks and short bay and slams on the brakes.
Alex and I had ridden every rollercoaster in Georgia. But this was insane.
It's probably a five second maneuver but it's a five minute five seconds as you see every ripple of water, feel the crosswinds, and see the quickly approaching reef. The plane calmly turns toward the float dock, you unload your luggage and meet 10-15 people all willing to help you get to your new log cabin home in the sticks.
It's hard to describe the joy of that first summer, but getting there is something I will always remember minute by minute.
Most people boat into Meyers Chuck, which is around four to five hours from Ketchikan--or a 40 minute flight. But shortcuts in the bush always come at a price!
NOTE: Photos 1, 3, 4, and 5 are by Jo Wendel who lives aboard a boat with her husband in a small community on Prince of Wales Island. She blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com where you can see, in my opinion, the best photos of rural SE Alaska.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)