"Tell me about the time you sat on a pitchfork."
My three-year-old charge, Hadley Pack, is always fascinated by the adventures I and my four siblings had on the very property she calls home, that used to be my grandparents' house. It's a small, story-and-a-half house that my father helped build, with a view of the state dock and most of the thirty or so houses that make up Meyers Chuck, Alaska.
I show Hadley and her year-and-a-half sister Emma the infamous spot where, at the tender age of seven, I sat on a pitchfork.
"How could you sit on a pitchfork?" Hadley asks, big gray eyes full of curiosity, mischief, and skepticism.
"It was easier than you might think," I recall. "My uncle Lance, who was a teenager at the time, found a nasty, rusty pitchfork head. My grandma told him to get rid of it immediately. He buried it behind the house and somehow the tines--the points--wound up sticking straight up. While we were tilling the dirt for a garden the pitchfork head was exposed but no one noticed because it was the same color as the dirt."
Hadley hangs on my words, gripped by the coming horror. Emma, perched on my hip, is more interested in stuffing the end of my braid in my mouth, with a look of scientific curiosity, than in hearing the story.
"Then what happened?" Hadley presses.
"I was pretty tired from gardening. Hauling salal brush and salmon berry bushes away and finding all the rocks and stacking them in a corner. So I decided..." I draw it out. "To...sit...down."
Hadley doesn't speak, her eyes fixed on my face.
"I looked around for a good spot." I push the braid out of my mouth. "Should I sit on that tree root over there? No. That would be too uncomfortable."
Hadley giggles under her breath.
"That nice patch of dirt looks soft and inviting. I think I'll sit...right...OUCH!"
Hadley jumps, then explodes into infectious convulsions of mirth. For a moment Emma is fascinated by Hadley's borderline control of her laughter. She smiles, then turns back to her scientific studies involving my hair and mouth.
Hadley insists on the rest of it. The sorry account of a little blonde girl like herself, dragging herself into the house, pitchfork protruding, sobbing for her mommy. How the next door neighbor Cassie (who used to give me cookies and now gives them Hadley and her sister), volunteered to take me on a floatplane to Ketchikan to see the doctor, since she already had a flight scheduled.
Hadley's satisfaction with the conclusion of the story, I suspect, has as much to do with her relief that someone had disposed of the submerged threat before she came along, as in her pleasure at her favorite story being told again.
We decide to adventure farther afield and traipse down the wooden walkway that leads to the new post office. Beyond that is the beach where I used to play as a child, where my parents' floathouse used to be, before it was towed to several different locations.
We scamper over the rocks, Hadley insisting that she is Sleeping Beauty to my Prince Charming (regardless of her sister still on my hip).
I breathe in the pungent tidal scents of seaweed and mud, the angle of the light bringing back a childhood full of sunshine and a village that was at one time full to capacity with fishing boats; when the laughter and shrieks of children floated across the water.
I remember climbing over these very rocks, immersed in the wonders of Alaska, knowing, at the age of six, that I had found where I wanted to live for the rest of my life.
I try to imagine that little girl picturing herself grown up, sharing her first discoveries with two other little girls. I often get this feeling, ever since I was hired to be a wilderness nanny for Dan and Kerri Pack two years ago, when Kerri was pregnant with Emma and she and Dan were operating a kayak lodge out of their home.
The cabin Hadley and I shared, away from the kayak guests, had no in-door plumbing, wasn't wired for electricity, and was, in short, exactly the environment I'd grown up in.
Kerri had warned me that Hadley didn't like brushing her teeth, which I found to be true. So I took her to the front door of the cabin and sat her on the top step. I put bubblegum flavored pink toothpaste on her tiny brush and poured water from a thermos on it.
It was dusk, with late rays of sunshine fingering its way through the thick, dark trees. We could hear generators rumbling across the bay, and a seiner dropping its anchor. Night birds crooned in the evening and squirrels chattered.
"Did you see that baby squirrel?" I asked Hadley. "It's come to find out how to brush its teeth. Now, if you show it how it's done, it can go back and show its mother how good it is at brushing its teeth."
Hadley eagerly peered into the woods to catch a glimpse of the squirrel. She heard one chatter and excitedly applied the brush to her teeth, working up a mouth full of pink foam.
The squirrels, as it turned out, also needed to learn how to brush their hair, eat all their food, and go to bed right after their bedtime story.
Now, with an older and wiser Hadley and a tag-along little sister, we have more exciting adventures, leaving the squirrels far behind. These days we pack a lunch and head into the rain forest that covers the island Hadley's home is on. We head past the wooden sign branded "Hadley's Pathway" and emerge onto a beach that gives us a panoramic view of a white-capping Clarence Strait, the only access, besides air, to Meyers Chuck. Waves explode against the protective arm of rocks that shields the Chuck, and salt spindrift is flung a dozen feet into the air.
Every step I cover is full of memories, of a childhood I'd thought forever gone in the past, but which is brought closer every day I spend exploring Alaska anew through the eyes of Hadley and Emma. Every time Hadley asks me to recall my childhood, I feel as if she is giving me a gift, something precious I once had but had somehow allowed to drift away from me without knowing it.
We duck into a gravel alcove, sheltering near a pile of weathered drift logs. To our right is an eagle tree, with a nest in it. For a moment we are hypnotised by the gray and white fury of the pounding surf. Even Emma remains still and silent, awed by the elements. Hadley huddles close to me, shivering at the bite of the wind.
Almost immeditately, though, she recalls our purpose in braving this exposed shore.
"We were in a boat, remember," she says.
"That's right," I duly remember. "We were in a terrible shipwreck and just barely managed to make it ashore before the boat broke up. All we have left is this bag of food."
"We better eat it," Hadley says practically.
We settle on the beach and spread out the meal. Emma stays on my lap, trying to be fair about how much she eats and how much she smears onto me. Hadley chews on a sandwich, her eyes going far away.
It is just the three of us left in the world, everything and everyone forgotten. We could be living in any time, castaways from what is happening elsewhere on the planet. I have been granted this break away from the usual concerns and involvements of an adult in today's world. For a moment I feel the presence of a little girl in blonde pig-tails soaking in the rawness and freshness of Alaska. Almost, I am her again.
Hadley stirs, turning her eyes away from the water to look at me, searching my face. "Tell me about when you were a little girl," she says.
Note: A version of this story was originally published in ALASKA Magazine, May/June 2004.
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."
"Message in a bottle." That was the subject tag on the email I received on March 27, 2017.
I've always been fascinated by messages in bottles. One story that sticks in mind is about a steamer named Saxilby that left Ireland in November 1933. It disappeared, but two and half years later a message in a bottle washed ashore at Aberayon, Wales. It said: "S.S. Saxilby sinking off Irish coast. Love to sisters, brothers, and Dina. Joe Okane."
What's Twilight Zone eerie about this particular message in a bottle is that it washed ashore less than a mile from the people to whom Joe Okane sent his last message.
An even more remarkable story is the one about Chunosuke Matsuyama, a Japanese seaman who, along with forty-three companions, went searching for buried treasure on a Pacific Island in the year 1784.
They were caught in a terrific storm and the ship was wrecked on a coral reef. Matsuyama and the other crew members made it ashore, only to find that the island had little to offer in the way of food or drinking water. Matsuyama was the last survivor. In the wreckage from the ship he found a bottle and carved a message about what had happened into thinly sliced bark from a storm-downed coconut tree. He put it in the bottle and flung it into the ocean.
In 1935 the bottle, with the coconut bark message inside it, washed ashore on the beach below Hiraturemura, Japan, where Chunosuke Matsuyama had been born more than a century and a half before. Hmm. Is that The Twilight Zone's theme I'm hearing?
My brother Robin, when he was a teenager, found a message in a bottle while he was hunting on the islands across from where we live. It turned out to be part of a meteorological experiment, but it was still an exciting find. I wrote about it in this blog last year. (Click on "Communication" under Categories.)
As I wrote it and thought about the stories of shipwrecked sailors sending out messages in bottles, I started thinking about being on unpredictable Clarence Strait at a time when there wasn't much boat or plane traffic. What if we were in a boating accident with no way to communicate except by a message in a bottle? How long would it take before someone found it, and where would it end up?
On April 21, 2016, during a happily uneventful trip crossing Clarence Strait, returning from a grocery and fuel trip to Thorne Bay, I put a message in a bottle, tied a red buoy to it for greater visibility, and dropped it overboard at the halfway mark.
Nearly a year later, I received an email with a subject line that read: "Message in a Bottle."
The email was brief: "I found your message you set adrift on 4-21-16. Found it on Saturday. It stayed in Clarence Strait as I found it on Bushy Island next to Zarembo Island."
I responded right away, asking for more details, and the finder wrote:
"Well, that morning was a pretty decent morning so my friend and I decided to go out on the boat. The water was calm for a while until we got farther north. It was at that point it began raining and hailing. We were getting pelted pretty good so we decided to stop on the closest beach to make a fire and have lunch.
"By the time we finished lunch the weather went back to being okay. We figured that since we were already on the beach we might as well do some beachcombing. While I was moving around some logs, I spotted a plastic bottle that had a rope tied around it. Normally, I would never think twice about picking up something like that, but curiosity got the best of me.
"I gave the bottle a good yank and out from under the log it came along with the buoy. It was then that I saw a Ziploc bag inside which made me realize it was a message in a bottle! I had always wanted to find one of those so that was definitely the highlight of my day."
I had my answer: If I was in a boating accident in the middle of Clarence Strait, it would take nearly a year before anyone knew about it from a message in a bottle. (It traveled at least forty miles, not counting possible side trips, from where I dropped it to where it was found.)
Interestingly, the bottle that I put the message in was from a soft drink that I'd purchased in Thorne Bay. The man who found it, twenty-eight-year-old Brandon Robinson, works in the very store in Thorne Bay where I bought the bottle.
Do I hear music from The Twilight Zone?
NOTE: A version of this blog post was first published in Capital City Weekly, April 15, 2017.
A special thank you to Terry for the Twilight Zone DVDs!