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."
Tara Neilson (ADOW)