My first trip alone to Ketchikan as a 10 year old kid. I had worked at a paper route for some time in order to save the half needed for air fare. Dad and Mom paid the rest to get me to his sister, my Aunt Pauline and Uncle Rodger Elliott. Uncle Rodg was a pilot for Coastal Ellis, one of the bigger plane companies in Southeast Alaska. My cousins Linda, Joanne and Steve, who is my age, would keep me company.
It was early summer of 1964 and it felt terrific to be on my own for the first time, the flight north only took a couple hours but it seemed longer. Straining to see everything I could, we eventually land on Annette Island across from Ketchikan and my Uncle Rodg is there alone to greet me.
|He leads me to the Grumman Goose we will fly to Ketchikan. I sit in the co-pilot’s seat and he says if the other pilot can’t come then he will let me fly up front. But of course the co-pilot does show so I get a good window seat with the other passengers. The amphibious plane is much louder than the 707 and when we land in the water I am amazed at the spray that gushes forth.
Pauline stands on the dock as we pull in with my cousin Steve who’s going to be great to play around with is my biggest thought. A whole new place to get to know. Their station wagon drives North just past the heart of town where their home is located on Washington Street, on the side of a steep hill.
From the garage it is easier to walk across a plank into the upper part of the house than go down to where steps go to the first floor. I deposit my stuff and I check out the house, Rodg’s shop is the most interesting room, with animal heads, all kinds of tools and guns, even his own bullet making system.
I learn right away that my lightweight tennis shoes are not going to work in this terrain but it’s okay. Steve has an extra pair of boots and I get used to wearing them pretty fast. The immediate area is much cooler and wetter than I am used to and there is much to explore. As a native, Steve knows all the best places and we take many trails around the neighborhood.
I brought a few Beatles 45’s with me and a transistor radio. My other cousin JoAnne is four years older and is around to do things with, but mostly it’s Steve and I. We go to the only store nearby and I’m jazzed to see that they have Sinsenian guns. These are spring loaded plastic revolvers that had been the rage in Seattle the previous year. Of course Steve had his own 22 caliber rifle, but could only use it under Rodg’s supervision.
My Aunt and Uncle had a small cabin cruiser, maybe 24 feet long. I had gone fishing before but had never caught anything but a bullhead or two. This time we trolled with large spoon lures from behind his boat. Steve’s pole was the first to bend dramatically signaling a catch. With the effort of a seasoned pro, he gripped the rod and played out some line so as to let the fish get a good bite into the hook. About 25 yards out, the fish jumped high out of the water and we caught a glimpse or its silvery form. It was unmistakably a salmon and it was putting up a fierce struggle to free itself.
As I learned what I could from Steve’s technique, Rodger noticed that my pole also appeared to have been struck. You take it, Uncle Rodg I say, but he declines and directs me to do my best. As I lift the pole from its holder, it’s nearly jerked form my hands and it's all I can do to maintain control. I pull for all I’m worth to reel in a little of the slack, but Rodg tells me to leave off some slack and play him for awhile to tire him.
In the meantime Steve’s catch is brought up along side and scooped into a net. The admirable five pound silver salmon is soon clubbed to death and deposited into the ice chest. Then my fish erupts from the water with a terrible flash. With anger flushing it’s gills, from 30 yards off, it looks huge and its strength is apparent as the rod is nearly bent double.
Steve and Rodg are both excited for me and shout encouragement. I don’t know who is getting more tired, me or the fish, but I redouble my efforts and make some headway in pulling the King Salmon ever closer to the stern of the boat. It jumps again near the boat and it’s wild eye stares at me with deliberate hatred. Our battle of wills puts us both to the test but my resolve wins out and finally I’m able to bring him right alongside to be netted and hoisted aboard. He weighs in at 12 pounds and even though Rodg and Steve each catch another, mine is the biggest of the day and I’m rewarded with the largest piece at dinner that night.
Over the course of the next few weeks we fish often, usually catching ling cod and perch, sometimes a dog fish, or mud sharks as they’re commonly called, but nothing comes close to that initial burst of excitement I felt on reeling in that salmon.
We all decide to head out to the cabin my aunt and uncle own, way to the North of town. Steve, Rodg and I take the boat while Pauline and JoAnne drives as far as they can by car. We rendezvous and get to their cabin by mid afternoon. There is no electricity but it has a wonderful view and is isolated in a hidden cove.
It’s up above the beach on the edge of a dense rainforest. Steve had built various camps deeper in the forest with obscure trails leading to them. It was easy to imagine Bookwus, the legendary half man, half beast creature, rendered by the Tlingit Indians of this area roaming through the underbrush in search of mischief.
We checked out the rope swing suspended over the beach then headed back for lunch. On the window sill were assorted shells, driftwood and rocks. A reddish one caught my eye and I asked about it. Rodg picked it up and handed it to me. It’s a stone lamp he said. It’s heated by a fire and then drops of water carefully dripped in the center fractures the rock so the hole can develop. Then whale or bear oil is put in with a wick coming out one side. And look said Steve Here’s an ax head. Sure enough it was a large gray stone with a groove running along its side for lashing it to a stake. It was somewhat eroded but still it conjured an image for me of native peoples that became alive to me. And when later we visited the two totem pole parks: Totem Bight and Saxman, that my admiration for these heathens grew even more.
I became an ardent beach comber and every low tide would be an opportunity to search for artifacts. My archeological sleuthing produced a number of finds. Most impressive was a complete stone lamp. It was of the same red rock as the other and became my prized possession giving me instant connection to another time when people and nature lived in concert with each other.
For many days we made the cabin home. Between the fish we caught and the clams we dug and the crab traps we laid out, there was plenty to eat but work called and all too soon we were civilized again.
The Fourth of July season was upon us and we sought out the best deals on fireworks. From the back door of a neighbors house, we acquired our first load of explosives, lots of cherry bombs and firecrackers of all kinds. In Seattle you couldn’t get any of this stuff. Fortunately a letter from home arrived just about this time with $10.00 and I spent one half of it right away on these incendiary devices. The most potent in my arsenal was an Atlas Seal Control Killer, a quarter stick of dynamite that wildlife managers would use to cull an overpopulated area. Steve told me how he had used them for fishing. First, some old fish remains, heads, tails, etc. would be put into a crab pot and lowered off the end of the rock. An hour later, he would come back with this depth charge and set if off just above the pot. It was guaranteed to harvest many fish that would float to the top.
For me that kind of took the fun out of fishing, I just wanted to see what it would do. We watched one guy put it under an empty garbage can and blew it 40 feet in the air. I gave it a lot of thought since I only had one.
Along a creekbed was an old dead tree. It hung out over the stream on the verge of collapse. I decided to help it along. I put it deep under the exposed roots and packed it in with dirt, moss and some rocks to force the explosion and lit the fuse. From behind a tree we saw the giant flash and the boom and the whole tree toppled with a tremendous crash.
Since the weather is so unpredictable, the fireworks are scheduled for either July 3rd, 4th or 5th. On the third it was clear and the we thought maybe the show would be early. We prepared a picnic of smoked salmon, homemade rootbeer and bread and birthed the boat off shore but at the last minute it was postponed for the next day. We made the most of it enjoying the parade that formed after the street festival through downtown.
Clouds came in the next day and by evening it was raining terribly. We began to fear that there might be no show at all but on the fifth the skies cleared and we were treated to a remarkable spectacle. Rockets red glare and all that.
The traditional baseball tournament was the highlight of the celebration. It was held just outside of town and we had great fun shagging foul balls and looking for fool’s gold in the nearby creek. The ballpark was at the base of Deer Mountain, the most impressive local sight. We determined to make a day of it and prepare accordingly, sack lunch and warm clothes.
A road led part way up but we walked anyway. Then at the trailhead it got steep and we took frequent stops to rest. Near the top we came to a snow field even though it was mid summer. We turned our jackets into sleds and did some serious sliding.
To the South of town is Buggie’s Beach. The only swimming hole around. I wasn’t that great of a swimmer but it felt incredible to cool down on a hot day. I grabbed hold of a large tree log that had floated ashore and was floating around on it when I realized my feet couldn’t touch the ground. I got slightly panicked, but was glad Steve was there to rescue me.
I should have heeded that early omen for it was while swimming in 1975 that I sustained an injury to my spinal cord that forever changed my life.