Dawn on the tugboat, the volcano across Sitka Sound appearing like the bottom half of an hourglass. Earl the harbor sea lion barks up at Haley Marie, our fifteen-month-old daughter, her laugh shrill on this quiet, misty July Sunday morning, typical for our remote fishing village in the Alaska rainforest. The tide’s out, and ravens hop among the rocks and popcorn seaweed as we walk to the coffee shop. Haley Marie laughs hysterically, calls the ravens “ducks.” Who am I to correct her?
Three months from now, the stork will bomb us for the second time. Are two young ones too much to raise on a tugboat? Is one? Should we string crab-net between the stanchions to keep the kiddo from slipping through? Is chicken wire too aggressive? Surely we should fence the hatch leading down to the engine room. When the boat’s under way I truck-strap the wood stove to a wall to keep it from shifting. Could a wave topple it? That hunk of steel glows red when we get it humming in the winter. Enough to evaporate a baby’s small hand.
After breakfast we head out to Blue Lake Road to pick salmonberries before they darken on the vine, turn sweet, rot. The days steadily shorten, light dimming by about four minutes each day. Last night Rachel told me how much she’s looking forward to fall, snuggling into her old wool sweater, curling up in front of a yellow cedar fire with a cup of tea, and completing the incubation of our second child. We fret, but we don’t fear. We know we can come up with answers using clear thinking.
And yet the stories haunt us. The one of the skiff off St. Lawrence Island loaded with furniture, a three-wheeler, a husband, wife, children and two babies. Capsized in a storm on the way to summer fishing camp. The family lost to the deep. And, nearer to home, the hunter discovered a few years back by a local picnicker, body folded neatly into a root bole, cached for spring by a brown bear. Thy drugs are quick, Romeo says. Well, my friend, the woods, the mountains, the sea are quicker. And this knowledge changes the way you think. Especially when it’s the lives of others in your hands.
I arrived in Sitka almost twenty years ago at the age of nineteen. Driven north and west by a broken home and a mercurial father. Searching for some rite of initiation. I shucked eggs from salmon, killed the fish with a cedar wrapped in electric wire, found a buddy who had lived in the woods, and walked in his steps. First in a tent which I promptly burnt down (whoops), then in a hut of my own making on the edge of a muskeg, just upriver from the raptor center. By then I was working at the newspaper, and saving my money to continue west around the world. I spent evenings in the library tracking with a dirty index finger my route through China, Southeast Asia, India, Iraq and Afghanistan.
One afternoon I returned to my campsite to find that my stove and knives had been stolen. So I hiked into the alpine, to a survival shelter, and slept there for the night, spooning peanut butter for dinner. At three a.m. I awoke in a snowstorm. I had to get down the mountain for work, so I dropped into the dark. After a few minutes I grew disoriented on the ridgeline, my headlight reflecting back the driving flakes. I still remember the feeling of my eyes closing, wondering if this was an honest exhaustion, or perhaps I was colder than I realized, and I would never wake up. I finally fell asleep in the snow, huddled in my jacket, hood buttoned tight to the wind. Of course I was fine, and woke in a field of white, and found my way down the mountain home – but that sensation of oh wow, maybe this is it remained with me.
Another memory: paddling a fiberglass kayak along on the open North Pacific through the keyhole outside of Sitka, on the way to Goddard Hot Springs. A storm blew up, and the waves held me aloft in that splinter of a boat as if in an upturned palm, before the kayak skittered into the trough, green water submerging the bow, sweeping away my map and the Styrofoam package of herring I had hoped to use to catch salmon. Surf washed me onto an island, where I dragged myself up the beach, wrapped myself in a rainfly, and slept for ten hours. What an idiot – I cringe writing about it now.
People in Alaska joke the United States should be called “Alaska and its 49 Bitches.” This isn’t just a reference to size. It’s also about the sudden, cataclysmic events that leave people dead. The tradeoff of safety for amazement, as a friend said the other day when we were driving to a lake for trout. Ease for awe. That awe you feel as the Northern Lights shake out above, flickering greens and purples and occasional reds. When you’ve got your smoker going on the back deck of the tug, the sun sets behind the volcano, and that beer hits just right after a long day fishing.
The Inuit have words that don’t translate into English language, or any romance language. Ilira: nervous awe, fear tinged by curiosity. Kappia: watchful apprehension. The Iglulik Inuit Shaman named Aua told the explorer Knud Rasmussen: “We do not believe. We fear.”
Now I’m 38, with the second kiddo on the way. Five years ago I sold my construction company and home I had renovated in Philadelphia and bought the tugboat. A year after that, in 2012, I met eyes with a young law clerk from New Jersey in the Cuban salsa class I taught at the community center here in Sitka, and proposed in the same classroom. Rachel moved onto the boat about two years ago, and we had Haley. These days I commercial fish and toil on my new novel (my first, The Alaskan Laundry, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2016) while Rachel works as the city attorney.
Last August we were driving through coal country on a rainy night in Pennsylvania, the baby snoring softly in her car seat, when my mother texted. There’s been a landslide in Sitka. Three people dead. We were traveling through a construction site between my uncle’s farm in Danville heading toward Philadelphia. Orange cones flashed in the headlights. And I knew, Rachel’s face aglow as she scrolled her phone for more information, that someone I knew had died.
A man who had taught me to hunt, to butcher deer, and brew beer. A difficult man, with a dry laugh and a quick wit, but who spoke in a soft, melodious tone that belied his gentle, generous spirit. A breathlessness to his voice, as if he was constantly in awe. Known around town for his photography, particularly his shot of a raven caught flying vertical, menacing with his beak open, another of the ocean at the gloaming – he saw these things. He was also a crack carpenter who listened to classical music and had a jazz show on the local radio. Who drank double Americanos at the coffee shop and could rebuild an outboard engine.
Rachel rubbed the back of my neck. I could barely hear Haley over the shunk of the wiper blades. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
I had lived for a couple weeks with his family. Hunting in the alpine we scouted the valley from behind a rock that pushed up out of the grass like the exposed bone on a horse’s knee. I followed close behind him, doing what a city-boy could to remain quiet as we circled around a deer bedded across the valley. We lowered into a draw, a dry riverbed, and I stumbled, letting loose a slide of shale that knocked against his boots. (Writing this now I shudder.) He glared back at me, and I stayed put as he pushed forward, hauled himself from the draw, army-crawled behind a bush, and set in his earplugs. More than two football fields separated him from the nesting creature. He pulled the trigger. The deer jerked. And then we were both running down the hill, me trying to keep up with his long strides, horrified and impressed as we came upon the deer, its head torqued uphill by the force of the slug.
Years later, discussing this shot with him at the Backdoor Café, he told me how he factored in the distance, and aimed for the head. With the thought that, as the bullet lost elevation over 300-plus yards, it would hit the deer in the neck.
Later on that day, walking in the alpine, my eyes newly attuned to deer, I picked one out, silhouetted in the evening light on the ridge. I hissed and pointed. He shot from standing. We hung the two deer – quartered out in bloody pillowcases – in the trees using pulleys. He was never unprepared. For dinner we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in plastic bags. The ocean turned mercury between the mounds of grass as the sun lowered. The following morning we hiked out, and I spent the next couple days learning how to butcher and debone the meat, wrapping the steaks and backstrap in freezer-paper and scrawling the date and deer part in black Sharpie. Burgering the off-cuts in a grinder clamped to the edge of his table with steady cranks.
On the morning of August 18 last year, he was inspecting drainage in a new subdivision along the side of a mountain in Sitka. Heavy rains. (What better time to test drainage? Of course he’d be out there.) The side of the mountain peeled away, and he was caught in the tumble of trees and rocks and mud. Excruciatingly, the search was suspended by the Fire Department due to danger of further slides and loss of life. Today, from the water you can still see the slug-shaped scar on the mountain.
A dog in a truck also died. I wonder if the creature tried to get out before the slide hit. The truck is still at the town dump. It’s impossible in the crush of the windshield pillars to see if the windows were open or not. It wouldn’t have mattered much either way. There was a rumble, a crash, and lives were gone.
Of course the city has its own dangers. Car crashes and muggings, break-ins and robbery. When I was a kid growing up in downtown Philadelphia in the 1980s, we had scrapes from a crowbar on our steel front door from someone trying to claw in. I remember my parents taking a man, bleeding freely from his scalp, into our home after he was jumped. But it’s not the same. Awful as such attacks might be, they are, in the end, at the hands of humans. Not like a landslide, or a storm. Or a bear charge.
On May 13 of this year, at about 10:30 on a hot, sunny morning in Disenchantment Bay, just south of Yakutat, a few hundred miles north of where we live, a former marine made his way back to camp. He carried with him two five-gallon jugs filled with water from a snowmelt falls. He heard the crackle of branches off in the brush. A brown bear rose, then charged. The man backpedaled, fell, then raised his right leg to protect himself. The bear clawed open his boot and thigh, then took the man’s head in his teeth. “I remember feeling like the bear was swallowing me.”
Flushed with adrenaline, the man made his way back to camp, where his wife – a nurse – and others gave him aid. The crew started back towards Yakutat. Responders intercepted the boat, and the man was flown to Anchorage.
The marine, who had served multiple tours in Afghanistan, said he had never been so frightened. “I will cherish and appreciate life a little more every day from now on,” he said afterward.
This was the third bear mauling reported in Alaska this year. A hunter was attacked off Mile 77 of the Denali Highway – his hunting partner killed the grizzly – and a mountaineering professor, a friend of a friend, had his leg tore from his hip by a brown bear while leading a University of Alaska outing on a trip near Haines. He was dragged over a cliff. Only a ski helmet, cracked during the ordeal, saved his life.
What you sacrifice in safety you gain in amazement. It’s a good thought, both deep and easy to formulate: We give up the known for the unknown, so different from life in the Lower 48.
That day up on the Kenai Peninsula my friend and I cast daredevils and cleos through clots of lily pads. Smaller stocked rainbows finned listlessly in the shadows, every now and then making half-hearted attempts at our lures, more out of annoyance that they weren’t getting fish pellets, I guessed.
Shortly after we had Haley I told Rachel I wanted to have a second child because it made me nervous to love just one creature so dang much. This way we wouldn’t have all our eggs in just one basket. It’s an awful way to think. Selfish even. Bringing another into this treacherous world just to protect your feelings.
Maybe it is safety for amazement. But to me it feels more like playing in an alpine field carpeted in wildflowers, and then the ground opens up and Boom. Someone you love disappears.
This past May, shortly before the bear attack, I arrived back in Sitka after sailing my tugboat two hundred miles south to be hauled out in Wrangell, a town of 2,400, where I spent three weeks in boatyard re-planking the hull. There I met a man, undersized, cheeks whiskered gray. He owned the Lady Ferrell, a sleek wooden boat leased out for land surveys. We shared a shipwright, and eventually thoughts on corking our seams, making our old wooden boats watertight. I made the boring, predictable joke of BOAT standing for Bring Out Another Thousand. He didn’t laugh. But he did love my tug, its horseshoe stern, its classic brass portholes that gleamed in the setting sun. “Swap you one for one,” he once joked as I walked away. Or was he joking? That evening I texted Rachel with the proposal.
On a Friday morning last April, a Cessna 206, a single-engine aircraft used by remote communities to puddle-jump around Alaska – hit the side of a mountain, killing him and two others. A 21-year-old girl was medevac’d to Seattle, and placed in critical care. I’m not sure if she lived.
Following news of the accident a hush fell over the boatyard, the two hardware stores in town. The other men who died in the crash were also from Wrangell. The town had lost .1 percent of its population. Like that.
Summer evenings on the Adak, Haley sprawls out on my lap. She points to “Little Bear’s Little Boat” and makes the book sign, but I don’t want to read that one. There’s an awful scene where Little Bear’s boat flips and he’s flailing under water, which in my mind means certain death. Instead we read “Little Blue Truck” about – you guessed it – a little blue truck that has a chummy relationship with the chickens, sheep, cow, and frogs of the countryside. The same creatures who, further on in the plot, help our friend out of a mud pit, where he finds himself stuck after attempting to pull out a grotesque yellow dump truck with “big important things to do.”
Moral of the story: don’t stop talking to nature around you. (Domesticated animals, in this version, qualify as nature, with the exception of friend frog.) You never know when you might need the wild’s inherent goodness.
Haley won’t close her eyes, so we walk around the wood-clad exhaust stack like threshing horses. Each turn around I check the body-length mirror; her eyelids another click closer to shut. It’s gotten to the point where, unless the boat sways, it’s difficult to get her down. My wife crossed the Gulf of Alaska with the baby on a cruise boat, where they encountered 25-knot winds. The boat swayed. People were seasick. It was the best the baby slept in days.
That’s my best example of a child attuning to nature. But nature’s inherent goodness? I just can’t think of an example.
Bizarrely, the same day the skipper of the Lady Ferrell died, I got a call in the Wrangell boatyard from Sitka Mountain Rescue, followed by a waterfall of instant messages from a reporter at Sitka’s KCAW radio station. A man in town, a friend of mine recently arrived from Chico, California, was missing. He had gone kayaking the previous Wednesday night in foul weather. No one had seen him since.
The photo of the man that ran that night on the radio station website was taken in the salon of my tugboat, his arm slung loosely around his wife. The two had moved up from Chico two months earlier. He had taken a kayak off the beach into the water around the hour of ten. Winds blew from the southeast at twenty knots. The waves were four, maybe five feet.
The Coast Guard discovered his kayak on Kasianna Island, a half-mile from the rocky beach where he embarked. A diver recovered the boat, wedged between the rocks with the paddle attached. The fire department returned the kayak to the owner, my close friend, wrapped in plastic. Five of us said we would help set the kayak up above the tideline, a Kasianna Island memorial. Fill the boat with concrete and rocks, so it would be visible from the water, a reminder of what had happened.
On the way out to help with the project, an anchor line caught in my skiff. A storm came up from the west with frightening speed. Powerless, manhandled by the swell and wind, my buddy and I used paddles to keep ourselves off the rocks. Waves clapped against the gunwales, the sound sickening as the surf pushed us nearer. I broke a paddle trying to dig out of the kelp bed. Then we were on the rocks, wave after wave shoving us further up against the broken shale. The outboard wouldn’t budge. With one foot on a rock I tried to point the bow into the waves. My buddy tried to fasten a line around a cleat so we could be pulled off by another skiff, and threw up off the bow from the wave action. A local maneuvered in the shallows in a skiff, threw us a line, and pulled us to deeper water.
We were lucky – I had to replace the prop, clear water out of the engine. Of course it would have been grievous and absurd to die on a mission to construct a memorial for a dead kayaker. But that wasn’t what I was thinking at the time. I was thinking, what if it had been Rachel and Haley on that skiff and not a strong young man? What we would have done?
So much talk about how we don’t know the strength of our own bodies. But truth is, we don’t know our own delicacy.
When you haul a salmon from the depths and gaff it up into the landing bin, it coughs. As if clearing its throat. With the tip of the knife you open the fish from anus to head, nick the gill rakers from the roof of the skull. Oxygenated blood the color of plums bubbles over the webbing between your index and thumb. The belly flaps open. Angle the spoon to clear the kidney line beneath the spine, the beveled edges drawing out blood from the veined muscle walls.
A couple months back Rachel fell through the hatch. The cover didn’t fit right; she stepped on it, and, as if a hangman’s door opened, whoosh. She was gone. For that split second I felt very alone. At the bottom of the ladder I kept touching her all over, her ribs and neck and legs, searching for something wrong. “I’m fine, Brendan,” she assured me. “I’m fine.”
The tug has been good to us. Easy access to work fishing on the dock. The best view in town. Even as subject matter for my chosen profession – a book, an essay in Smithsonian, this piece I finish now, not to mention a great conversation opener down south.
The other day we signed a year lease for a house in town. A cozy ranch owned by a local gillnetter and nurse going north for work. We’ll have our second kiddo, who perhaps will smell a bit less of oil and salt. Who maybe won’t fall asleep on a boat as well as Haley.
Our Sunday has gotten away from us. We’ve visited with friends, canned our salmonberries, the mason jars warm against our hips as we walk the docks back to the boat. Milled nailheads beneath the dock lamps illuminate a path home. Haley’s in my arms facing forward, head thrust headlong into the wind like a Viking bowsprit. Arms pinned to her sides, chin up, eyes shiny with the excitement. Gasping with the thrill of it.
Never did I think I’d teach fear to my child.