PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND

PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND
(Alaska, May 2002)

There’s something special about islands, at least those lacking bridges to the world.  I like the containment, the feeling of laying claim to a limited place with indisputable boundaries and a guarantee of plenty of shoreline.  I like the feeling of community that island people have.  When I arrive by via water or air, the journey cuts me off in a comforting way from the work and worry I leave behind.  So, when an invitation came for my husband and me to visit southeastern Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island on business, I cranked out a plan to stay long enough to get to know the place.
Shortly after our big jet landed, the loudspeaker at the airport teminal in Ketchikan announced, “Last call for the flight to P.O.W.”
“That’s us,” my husband said.  “Prince of Wales.” We burst out the doors into a driving rain, trotted down the ramp to the dock and offered our luggage to a stubble-faced man in a plaid wool shirt.  He looked unsavory, nobody to trust, as he heaved our stuff through the back door of possibly the world’s smallest float plane. We squeezed into the rear seats, knees to our chins, and greeted the other passenger, wondering where the pilot was.  The unshaven character in plaid hopped into the pilot’s seat and revved the engines.  HE was going to fly this thing.
Prince of Wales Island received its English name from explorer Captain James Cook, in 1778.  Deep inlets and high mountains divide its ancient forests into manageable regions and, from the air, signs of human life are few.  We crossed Clarence Strait, then the island itself.  On the west side, the plane tilted over the village of Craig.  We spotted five black bears pawing through the refuse at the town dump, then touched down on the bay, spraying a huge rooster tail on each side.  We taxied to the dock and the pilot jumped out to tie us down. Sudden silence brought me into the present moment.
Dave and Pauline Johnson were waiting.   Our first close-up look at bald eagles came minutes after loading our luggage into our hosts’ car.  “Let’s walk up here and see the bald eagles,” Pauline suggested.  She’s a second grade teacher in the nearby village of Klawock, a Tlingit tribal town.  The name is the call of a totem animal, the raven. “Kla-wock, kla-wock.”
According to Dave this Alaskan island is little changed since its beginnings.  “Sure, it has over 1000 miles of roads but most are abandoned logging access and one-lane gravel.”
We’d come for business but I would stay longer, so the day my husband flew home my solo adventure began.  The lowering weather made a good excuse to read and watch old movies from the collection at our comfortable apartment with an ocean view at the Lupine Bed and Breakfast.
Early the next day I set off in a borrowed SUV to tour the island.   First stop was Kasaan, a Haida tribal town just past Tolstoi Cove (remember the Russians owned Alaska).  Down twenty miles of precarious gravel road, the little town faces a wide cove. It’s just a village – a few homes plus a two-room school, small general store and city hall where a gal about 20 does business from an office off the community room.  “You should go see our clan house,” she said, and told me how to find it.
Across the beach at low tide, in a driving tailwind, I trudged a mile on barnacled cobbles to the wood structure at the edge of the forest.  The new building in traditional style, about 50x 50 feet, had windowless walls of vertical hand-hewn cedar slabs and a cedar plank roof. Opposite the front door stood three thick, short and very impressive totems — frog images with ravens, bears and humans painted in black and red and white.  In the center, beneath a smoke hole that doubles as a skylight, the huge stone fire pit was surrounded by dirt floor. A clean wood platform formed a wide square around the walls, for sitting or lounging.  Outside in the dense ancient forest stood a grand collection of beautiful totem poles, elegant historical documents visible only from up close.  I imagined living there a thousand years ago, raiding in huge war canoes, attending potlatch parties that went on for days.
Along the forest trail, slime molds and a thousand varieties of fungi thrived in the perpetual cool dampness. My feet trod softly on centuries of mulch.  Swinging ghostly in the breeze, a lichen called Old Man’s Beard (Usnea) hung from branches.   A naked, bright yellow creature nine inches long extended its eyestalks to checked on the trespasser — a lovely banana slug with perfect skin and shy manner.  Why would people despise these sweet creatures?  Or perhaps I was lonesome and ready to enjoy any sort of company.  Seen through an opening in the big trees, ravens black as polished obsidian scavenged the low tide zone, calling “Klawock, klawock.”
In the village of Thorne Bay, population 450, it was pouring.  Nearly the whole busy place was visible in a single glance — dock, float plane base, forest service center and a decent little grocery store.  I entered a café called Someplace to Go. A gentleman of advanced years offered me a seat at his table by the window.  I’m never one to turn down a nice invitation, so mixed some honey into my hot tea and exchanged smiles.  His eyes were pale blue, his face weathered and ruddy.  He’d already pegged me as an outsider and had a story ready.
“Last winter some people found a mile of huge human-looking tracks along the road near some houses on the edge of town.”
“Tracks? Was it a bear?”
“Nope.  The natives tell about a shy forest man called the Kootnikah, almost-human.  He has tracks like that, just like that.”
“Oh the road?”   I’m curious but skeptical.  “A whole mile of tracks?”
“Whole mile.”
“Tell her the rest, Sam,” said a young man at the next table. He winked at me.  “For some odd reason, the guy who reported the tracks and got our newspaper on the story just happened to be the local Bigfoot enthusiast.  He’s a kook.”
Northeast of the town, the road cruised along a series of coves then climbed into alpine country.  Clouds parted to reveal icy heights across a deep canyon.  I parked and walked over sunlit tundra where tiny muskeg ponds reflected the bright sky.  Sounds of flowing water filed the uplands.  Pungent skunk cabbage grew everywhere, showing off its giant yellow arum flowers, a spiraled vertical cup with a big phallic anther.  I was forty miles from a phone.
A cloudburst sent me running for the car.  The car key refused to go into the starter slot.  It appeared the lock on the steering column had twisted.  What to do?  How long might it be until someone drove by?  After a few deep breaths, and some twisting, a fourth try started the engine.  My pounding heart slowed to normal.  Pauline had suggested I always leave the key in the ignition and now I knew why.
An hour later, I pulled into Coffman Cove, a town of 140 where the powers in Juneau say they’ll build a new ferry terminal to link with Wrangell and Petersburg.  Homes straggled along the rocky shoreline.  The apparent center of town was a fishing dock and log dump, with a small general store nearby.
While a couple of burly guys discussed which bullets to buy, back by the cold cases, the woman in charge talked with me over the large cat asleep on her coat on the counter.  “Nobody believes the ferry will arrive any year soon, but we hope the $20 million for widening and paving the road might get more people up here.”  What about jobs?  “My husband and a bunch of the men are logging now on Dall Island.  The company flies them over for eight-day shifts.  It’s the only work they could find.”
She said a lot of people had moved in since talk of a new ferry terminal.  On the outskirts, as I was leaving town, I passed home construction in full swing, raw logs and new sawn lumber bright golden between the dark trees.   I asked the way to Naukati, saying Now-KAH-tee and got puzzled looks, then rolled eyes.  “Oh, she means NAH-kitty.”  The construction guys had a good laugh on me.
After a nap at an abandoned quarry, I drove across the thin waist of the island.  A sign pointed to El Capitan Cave, a famous and dramatic hole carved by water flowing over fossilized coral called karst, created during a much warmer era.   Dave Johnson had talked about the island geology.  “POW is on the margin of two tectonic plates,” he said.  “In the far north of the island you find karst and fine white marble.  Used to mine it.  In the south you get black volcanic basalt.  In the center of the island, you get all sorts of sedimentary rocks. Then to make it interesting, add in the big granite boulders from the interior mountains of northern British Columbia.  They were dropped here as ‘glacial erratics’ when the ice receded and the climate warmed 15,000 years ago.”
Scientists think the earliest settlers walked or paddled down the coast from Siberia and hunted southward for many generations.  Slowly, the ice melted and worldwide sea levels rose.  Here and in many parts of the world the rise was at least 300 feet, hiding all evidence of Ice Age coastal settlements.
Naukati was about the size of Coffman Cove and seemed full of hope, activity and energy.  New homes on lumpy lots appeared recently wrested from the wilderness.  A man about 70 showed me around the one set of rental cabins, nice inside but surrounded by the harsh chaos of a newly logged hillside.   “I get a military officer’s pension, work as harbormaster.  I love being in a friendly, uncrowded place without taxes.” He wore a navy cap, said he bought a houseboat here sight unseen and came up to retire.  Any regrets?  “Not one.  Around here, nobody bothers to obey the rules imposed by government idiots on otherwise free human beings.  I can read and watch 500 channels of satellite TV powered by my own generator.  I fish, hunt and help my neighbors.  What more could an intelligent human being ask for?”
I returned to the metropolis of Craig that evening and slipped onto a barstool at Ruth Ann’s on the wharf, near the abandoned fish cannery.  Jodee, the bartender, suggested their special halibut sandwich with clam chowder for $8.95.  Two guys were talking about the salmon derby in Ketchikan. “It’s kings they’re after, fifty to sixty- five pounds.  First prize is a boat.”
“A boat!” this news was repeated around the bar.
“I want to win that boat,” declared Jodee as she measured out a shot of Jack Daniels.  “B.D.will you take me fishing?”
The native man sitting beside me raised the brim of his cap.  “Sure, Jodee.  But right now I’m working on my beach seine.  I don’t mind the rain so much. It’s this darn blow.”  I asked about salmon fishing.  B.D. said they get winter kings here.  “The first sockeye come up in July.  In fall we get sockeye, cohos, dog salmon and the humpies.”
Jodee said she’d talked with a couple of bear hunters the day before.  I wanted to know about eating bear.  “You gotta salt it,” said B.D.  “We treat it like corned beef.  You can it in jars.  But it tastes gross if the bear’s been eating garbage at the dump.”
Jodee said a bear’s been coming in their yard.  “My daughter Paisley is five.  She wants to follow him into the woods to see where he goes.  When it rains, the bears at the dump like to sit in the old cars.  You go past there and it looks like a bunch of bears driving their cars.  Now, that’s worth a picture.”
B.D. was Black Duck Torres, born in the Haida community of Kasaan.  He’d been a longshoreman in Juneau for 18 years before moving to Klawock to fish.  He stared at his black coffee and pulled on a cigarette.  “All the captains I used to fish with have died.  Lost my best buddy in rough weather when a skiff rolled over on him.”  He sucked up smoke and blew it out slowly.  “One of my nephews was killed last week, logging on Dall Island.  Robert, he was just 21.  Helicopter logging.  A log fell on him.  He had two kids.”
I said I was in Hydaburg on Friday and the high school was let out because everyone knew Robert, and the whole town was in shock.  B.D. said, “I’m waiting for the rain to quit.  When the wind switches to the north it’s going to be good weather.  Then I’ll get back to fixing my beach seine.”  I watched CNN a while.  War, strife, famine, murder – all seemed to be happening on another planet.
“I’m glad I married the right man,” Jodee was telling a customer.  “The most amazing thing happened to him when he was a kid.”
“Tell her about that, Jodee,” said B.D.  “That’s a good story.”
Jodee sat on her stool.  “Jim, his father and his two sisters were coming home in their boat from Prince Rupert on the Canadian mainland.  They went to get braces on their teeth.  It was February.  A bad storm blew in.  Their boat wrecked.  They took what they could from the boat and set up camp on shore.”
“Order up,” shouted the cook.  Jodee delivered my meal, then returned to her tale.
“They built a raft and got as far as Dall Island.  Jim and his dad left the little girls under a rain tarp and set off walking, to find help.  By the time they found a cabin, both of them were too exhausted to move, feet frostbitten, starving to death. Then another huge storm moved in. They were both sure the girls were dead out there.
Jodee stopped. “Eat, eat.”  I remembered my food and tried the thick chowder.   She continued.  “Eleven days later, the storm ended.  Jim was sure it was too late.  He had nightmares about finding his sisters half eaten by bears. They went back.  The girls were barely alive.  It’s a miracle any of them lived through it.  Jim’s father wrote a book about it, titled Four Against the Wilderness.   CBC made a TV movie from the book.”
I allowed the story to settle then finished the fish sandwich while the television competed with several card games and tables full of laughing people. Jodee started in with a rhetorical question.  “Why do people around here like to live outside of town?”
One of the guys playing cards at a round table in the corner shouted, “You get all the free blueberries you can pick before the bears show up.”
Other patrons chimed in.  “When the pipes are frozen, it’s so cold you can’t smell the outhouse.”  “When you hook a salmon under 48 inches, you toss it back to grow up.”  “If there’s anything you really need, your friendly neighbors will show you how to get along without it.”
Jodee was cracking up.  “This island is really special,” she declared.  “I love every one of you guys.  Who would ever want to leave this place?”

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