Monday, April 22, 2013

The Great Alaskan Monster Hunt


    * Featured in the book "In Search of the Kushtaka" by Dennis Waller

Almost forty years ago I moved to Alaska soon after my enlistment in the navy expired.  Like so many other young men returning from the war in Vietnam, I had myself a rousing good case of PTSD, and a head full of dreams I couldn't wait to get started on.  I originally come from a clan of people who are at home in the forest, and spent much of my youth exploring the lakes and woodlands of Northern Wisconsin.  I cannot say just when or where it began, but I had always wanted to go to Alaska for most of my life, you could say it was the alpha male in the pack of those restless dreams of mine. 

It just made perfect sense that the next chapter of my life should begin in the place that had been calling to me for so long, a no-brainer as they say nowadays.  Being born both a type-A personality and under the sign of Aries, city life was just never interesting enough to hold my attention.  I always wanted something more, and I found it when I moved to Alaska.  It isn't just a whole other place, it is a universe unto itself; and the day I arrived to make my home there my soul felt truly free for the first time in my life. 

I went to Alaska with the central goal of eventually having my own version of Walden Pond, deep in the wilderness.  A navy shipmate had spent several summers salmon fishing out of the southeastern town of Ketchikan, and had several times regaled us with stories from his time there.  Being that it had the double distinction of being both the only town I knew anything about and the first town the state ferry stops at; Ketchikan was my destination.  I arrived with sufficient funds to see me through for a good while, or if I got lucky right off the bat, to buy the place to build my dream.  In those days Ketchikan was a warm and engaging community of about five thousand or so souls, year round population.  There was opportunity, wilderness and bald eagles, simply everywhere I looked...I don't think I quit grinning for a solid month as I began assimilating myself into this picturesque maritime town clinging to life on a long, narrow strip of real estate between the ocean, and the mountains.
The fishing fleet arrived shortly after I did that summer, so I headed down to the city dock area in hopes of talking myself into a job on a purse seiner.  It seemed at least fifty other guys had the same idea, all chasing the legendary big bucks associated with commercial salmon fishing.  This wasn't going to be easy.  I persisted even though a lot of the competition had actual experience fishing where I could only tempt prospective skippers with my navy record.  As it turned out that was enough, and my first job commercial fishing was aboard the vessel Mark Christopher captained by Dave Demmert Sr. 

We put up good numbers that year, and crew share was something like six grand apiece.  It was aboard this boat that I first heard many enthralling stories & legends of southeast Alaska, but none more intriguing and interesting than the Tlingit legend of the Kooshdaakaa (anglicized as Kushtaka) or "Land Otter Man" which is similar to but different from Bigfoot or Sasquatch.  Being full blood Tlingit, captain Dave knew the stories by heart.  

We could always tell when he was pulling our leg because he'd get a slight gleam in his eye, and the corner of his mouth would almost, but not quite smirk.  Those 'tells' were totally absent whenever he spoke of the Kooshdaakaa.  He didn't like talking about them, he told us doing so was bad luck.  He was emphatic however whenever one of us suggested it was just another Sasquatch or Bigfoot, He said "They are not the same creature, although both do exist in Alaska."

The Kooshdaakaa, according to legend is a shape shifting supernatural being; part human, part land otter, who lures people into the woods then kills them.  Captain Dave's stories just left me hungry for more, yet actually finding it isn't always easy; as not everybody believes and those who do usually decline to talk about the creatures.  Just my cup of tea!  One of the first friends I made in Ketchikan was a native Alaskan fellow named Delaney whose family lived up on second avenue overlooking part of town and the Bar Harbor marina. 

Whenever I visited the house; there would be his grandmother, Nana sitting in her rocker by the bay window, always knitting something or another for someone.  Out of respect I always said hello and goodbye to Nana, but she wasn't so sure about me just yet, so usually I was lucky to receive a nod or some guttural sound in return.  Delaney of course became a wealth of information on local history, legends and such, but every time I inquired about the Kooshdaakaa the information slowed to a trickle.  I knew he wasn't telling me everything he had on the subject, but I also knew that the hesitation to speak of the creature came from a very deeply seated tribal custom; so I was patient. 

Several months later I was rounding the corner on a downtown sidewalk when I spotted a true hulk of a man coming out of the bank, and I instantly recognized Frank Zinn, an unforgettable civilian tug boat skipper I'd met years before in Vung Tau, south Vietnam.  Looking up, Frank saw me and was equally surprised.  We stood there talking and catching up the way people do...when Frank asks what I'm doing for work?  I explained I was figuring on fishing again this summer.  It turns out Frank was living in Ketchikan and working as the captain of a Crowley maritime harbor tug assigned to the Louisiana-Pacific pulp mill...and was in need of a deckhand!  Next thing I know, I'm making better money that ever before at a job I love. 

Before I knew it, four years went by in a flash.  I have a nice place to live, a truck and two boats; and am seemingly farther from my wilderness dream than I ever was.  It occurs to me that with all this abundance, I might as well be still in the big city, it is nice, and intoxicating - but not what I came here to do.  So; in an act I'm sure many thought was insane, I quit the job, sold everything I didn't need and purchased a float house, which is just what it sounds like, a house on a log float.  I figured that if I already had a movable cabin, I was halfway to having my wilderness dream.

As if to acknowledge my commitment, the universe soon delivered the other half of the dream.  The Cape Fox Corp (one of Alaska's 13 regional native corporations) was looking for someone to live way up in George Inlet as a wilderness watchman to protect against poaching and illegal logging on native lands.  As it turned out, my friend Delaney is related to the president of the corporation, puts in a good word for me, and I get the job.  My ex-boss lined up a tugboat to drag my float house the 15 miles up George inlet; to a pristine little place called Gem Cove.

 Suddenly my wilderness dream came alive, and I was in it.  

As I went about my chores and activities over the ensuing months it was always in the back of my mind that now, I was out where the Kooshdaakaa live.  One day when I was in town getting supplies I ran into Delaney who invited me up to the house; saying he had something to give me.  Once there he rummages around for a bit before finding what he was looking for, a small innocuous  little booklet 30 pages long entitled;           
 The Strangest Story Ever Told by Harry Colp.

 Delaney hands me the book with as serious a look as I'd ever seen on his face, and said; "Here, you'd better read this."  As I went to leave following our visit, Nana looks me in the eye & said, "You be careful out there."  The book is an account of the experiences of four prospectors up in the Thomas Bay around the year 1900.  It is a thoroughly engrossing story of repeated encounters the men had with an entire group of aggressive hairy man-ape type creatures.  The prospectors knew that just eight miles up river from the bay existed a source of free gold quartz, which is quartz crystal included with tendrils of gold flake frozen within the crystal.  Now, I have always liked quartz crystals and mysterious monsters, so I was hooked and ready to go visit Thomas Bay myself.  The trouble was, I couldn't find anyone to go with me.  Either they didn't believe, and thought the trip foolish, or they believed and thought the trip dangerous; either way none of the people I knew were willing to go there.  Of course when Delaney declined, I asked him why he had given me the book.  He replied, "Because I hoped it would scare some sense into you." Now I was more determined than ever to make the trip, to see for myself, and maybe even find some valuable free gold quartz in the process. 

Life in Gem Cove was peacefully idyllic; it was everything I ever expected it to be, and more.  Bald eagles ruled the skies, & their nest was within sight of my cabin.  It wasn't unusual to see black bears strolling by on their way to the creek, to fish for salmon.  One afternoon at high tide with 20 feet of water under the raft I was astonished to see a seal come flying out of the water and land on the deck ten feet away...and even more astonished to see a killer whale glide silently under the raft searching for him.  Clearly, I was the lesser of two evils at the time.  There were times when I was out deer hunting when I'd see tracks I couldn't easily identify, and once or twice when I heard sounds & noises nearby that also were strange and unknown.  The Alaskan wilderness is like that, it lets you know right away just where you are on the food chain.  It teaches respect. 

Three more years passed and as happy as I was to be living my dream, Thomas Bay was still calling me from somewhere deep in my subconscious, and I still wanted to go.  The next time I saw Delaney I brought up the subject of Thomas Bay again, and this time I persisted until he finally gave up, and agreed to go with me.  We began making our trip plan, gathering the gear we'd need and so forth, and I felt exhilarated with the thought of finally going.  We both thought having a third person along would be a good idea, and Delaney said he'd recently met a guy he thought might be game for the adventure; so he took me to meet Jim, who turned out to be an automotive mechanic and former member of a prestigious southern California motorcycle fraternity.  Jim was a real bruiser of a fellow, standing six foot two at about 285 pounds or so; with a big square face framed in shaggy blond hair which made him slightly resemble the actor Gary Busey.  We came with the copy of the book I had in case we needed to entice Jim with something beyond our enthusiasm.  I watched his face for clues as he read thru the booklet, occasionally raising an eyebrow here & there.   When he finished reading Jim returned the book and asked me why I wanted to go there.  I told him I wanted to film or photograph the elusive Kooshdaakaa if we got the chance, and if we drew a blank on the monster there was always the gold. 

Without hesitation Jim says; "I'm in~ as long as you're OK with capturing the thing alive and becoming millionaires!"  I think I was prepared to hear anything except that!  His comment took me so off guard I thought at first he must be joking; so I asked just to be sure.  When Jim asked me if he looked like he was joking, one glance at his face gave me my answer.  Honestly I wasn't so hot on the whole idea of going all Rambo on an established Alaskan legend but I kept that to myself, thinking that Delaney and I could talk him out of that notion once we got there.  My next surprise came when Jim volunteered to take us up there in his 30 foot cabin cruiser.  

The closest town to Thomas Bay is Petersburg some 150 miles north of Ketchikan; which is about a ten to twelve hour boat ride.  Jim had just finished overhauling the engine, and entire steering system on his cruiser.  I volunteered to pay the fuel cost both ways if Jim & Delaney would spring for food and such.  After trying for years to get to Thomas Bay, it all came together in a matter of a few hours.  The day was set, we would leave in a weeks time.  The next day I was taking a bunch of gear to the boat & stopped to get Delaney.  When I got inside I could see there was some somber & serious energy in the house.  It almost felt like there had been a tragedy or death in the family.  I asked Delaney if everyone was alright...he affirmed the whole family was just fine...but that he would not be going to Thomas Bay with me, not now, not ever.

Nana was in her rocker, but not knitting now, she was just rocking back & forth, and staring out the bay window at something only she could see.  I felt like an interloper suddenly, as if I had just made off with all the fine silver.  A gracious and swift exit seemed to be called for here so I told Delaney it was OK, and I'd call him later on.  In that house you couldn't get to the front door without passing Nana's rocking chair, and as I attempted to glide smoothly past the old lady she reached out and gently took my wrist in her aged, weathered hand and said, "You come sit." Although her voice was soft and kind I could tell it was a command, not a I kneeled down in front of her chair like a commoner granted an audience with the queen.  Still holding my hand, the old woman made eye contact...and whispered "Listen to me child...Thomas Bay is not Gem Cove...I told my grandson that if he went there and came back alive he would be changed forever, never again the same person; and I say the same to you now."

In the old days, Nana would be a tribal elder, whose word is never questioned by the very young & unwise; and so, her words ushered me into a period of introspection that night, as I wrestled for hours with my desires and Nana's wisdom.  I knew that much of her deep respect for Thomas Bay stemmed from the massive 1750 landslide there which wiped out an entire village of 500 people; earning the name "Bay of Death".  A hundred fifty years later, following the exploits described in the booklet: Thomas Bay received another nickname..."Devils Country."  These were the thoughts flowing around and around in my brain like clothes in a washer that night, and over the following days.  I respected both Nana & Delaney too much to push the issue ever again, and so it was just Jim and myself who set off for the Bay of Death the following week. 

We shoved off just after sunup on a Friday morning.  Most small boat operators in Alaska avoid running after dark on account of widowmakers; which are rogue logs so waterlogged that they float almost invisible a few inches below the surface.  They're hard enough to spot during the day, & impossible at night...& will rain all over your parade.  Aside from that there are other navigation hazards like fishing nets & whales to be avoided; so the run to Petersburg was anything but a leisurely cruise as our eyes were glued on the water ahead of us for the whole trip.  After a mostly uneventful transit up the inside passage we pulled into the transient dock at Petersburg about six PM, and of course headed straightaway to the nearest bar to celebrate the successful completion of the first leg of our Alaskan monster hunt.  

 Upon our return to the boat there was of course just the one subject for discussion.  I was pretty certain that by this time Jim was maybe somewhat less obsessed with the hair brained idea of capturing one of these "devils country" creatures.  I couldn't have been more wrong as the man began explaining how "we" would lure the creature in with fresh fish, some bacon and whatever else we had that smelled good, like the Hormel ham he'd bought for just that purpose...and then he would zap the thing with his military grade stun gun so we could wrap him up in the cargo net stowed up in the bow.  This wasn't going to be easy.  Here I was trying to conjure the right words to convince this hulking ex-biker that his idea was exploitive lunacy that could get both of us killed.  As I listened to Jim explain how once we had the creature all we had to do was keep stunning him until we got back to Petersburg to make the proper phone calls...I began to envision an entirely different outcome than what I might have imagined. 

Jim had consumed several beers at the pub in the time it took me to nurse two myself, and he continued to down a few more beers back on the boat while laying out his master plan.  When it was my turn, I asked Jim if he recalled from the booklet that these creatures were encountered in numbers and were said to be both strong & agile?  Before he could answer I added the comment that if the damn thing woke up halfway to Petersburg it would probably not take long to bash his way thru the hull of the fiberglass boat, to which he just replied; "That's what the leg irons & chains are for!"   With that Jim pulls out a rifle case, unzips it to reveal a glimmering stainless steel mini-14 assault rifle complete with scope.  He holds the gun up to show it to me saying; "and this is how I'll handle any of his buddies who give us trouble!"  

I'd wanted to get to Thomas Bay so bad that I neglected to ascertain how compatible my goals were to Jim's and had just gotten the rude awakening that there was no compatibility to be had.  Yes, I had also brought along a firearm, but for self defense, not naked aggression against another living creature.  Inwardly my gut feeling was that my adventure had been hijacked by this knuckle dragger with delusions of fame & fortune.  The way I saw things, there were but two choices available to me, equally unacceptable.  I could get off the boat at first light then wait to ride the state ferry back to Ketchikan; or I could proceed, hoping that I could convince Jim to reassess his personal goals.  The night was longer than any in recent memory as sleep was not to be had; towards dawn I finally nodded off.

A couple hours had passed when the noise of Jim making breakfast woke me up.  He was crisp as a fresh C-note and whistling away as if he hadn't a care in the world.  When he saw me stirring Jim looked over at me and asked if I was still ready to go to Thomas Bay.  Rubbing my weary eyes; I was in no mood for guile or games so I said rather flatly; "I suppose that depends on whether you still intend to capture one alive, or kill one-because that ain't why I came all this way.  I want to see one of these creatures to prove to myself they are real & if I get lucky, to get photographic evidence to prove it to the world - but not if it means harming or killing one.  So, if that much fame & fortune ain't enough for you, I'll just wish ya luck and take the blue canoe back home."   

For what seemed like forever the only sound in that boat was the bacon sizzling on the stove; Jim's mouth was  open, but no sound was coming out of it and the look on his face was approaching  comical.  While my partner's brain was in buffering mode searching for something to say I decided to exploit the sudden shift in energy by politely reminding him whose idea the trip was to begin with, and who had paid for the fuel...and that I'd be expecting a reimbursement for his return fuel if I ended up taking the ferry home.  Now to be honest I didn't feel exactly comfortable issuing ultimatums to this robust ex-biker; I just didn't see any alternative I could I softened my tone a little, adding... "Besides, dude I got my fill of violence in Vietnam, I'm just not looking for that here."  We discussed the matter over a delicious breakfast of fresh trout, bacon & coffee, which is when I realized Jim had no desire to go to devils country alone.  He seemed equally hesitant to return home without so much as a decent tall tale; so a compromise was agreed upon.  Jim promised not to harm or capture any kooshdaakaas...unless they came onto the boat, (as they had done in the Strangest Story Ever Told) and I decided I could live with that, or at least really hoped I would. 

An hour later we were making our way across Frederick Sound in three foot seas, heading straight for the bay of death.  The closer we got the more electric the energy on the boat became...we were now restless to engage this adventure on it's own terms.  The seas calmed down nicely once across the channel and the going was smooth as we slowed; approaching the mouth of this glacier formed bay.  There are shallow shoals at the entrance which can be tricky at low tide.  The northern prominence of Thomas Bay is called Point Vanderput, and includes a dwarf island with four of five trees growing on it.  The southern prominence of the entrance is called wood point and is littered with submerged rocks.  The safest way in was right down the middle, where the water is deep enough with no hazards.  It was just after high noon on this typically overcast day when we left the channel and entered the legendary bay of death, devils country! 

There was still a goodly amount of morning fog lingering over parts of the bay, giving it a decidedly creepy look as we made our way further in.  We had of course decided to take a nice slow tour of the entire bay before making any further plans, as we needed to know the 'lay of the land' and get a good sense of the place.  At the rear of the bay there are two 'arms' going left to Baird glacier the other going right towards Ruth island, and the Patterson river where the four prospectors encountered so much woe at the turn of the century.  Jim steered the boat left taking us up to check out the glacier first.  As we slowly plied the waters of Thomas Bay at trolling speed I was immediately struck by how silent the entire place was.  No birds flying or singing, no eagles riding thermals searching for meals, no fish breaching the surface feeding on mayflies & insects.  It was quiet as death itself.  Jim noticed it too, giving me a weird kind of look as he asked if it was spooky enough for me yet.

Down on the other end, on the far shore across from Ruth island there was something that we had not known about...a forest service cabin built there as shelter for hunters & fishermen who use the Bay.  Jim was all excited at the prospect of spending the night in that cabin, and wanted to anchor up, so we could take the rubber raft ashore and set up for the night.  As he prepared to set the anchor I was taking a look at the cabin thru the binoculars.  It looked sound enough...yet there was something about it I couldn't put my finger on that bugged me.  With the anchor set Jim was getting the zodiac ready when I handed him the binoculars and asked him to take a look at the cabin for me, which he did.  After a long look he hands me the glasses back and says it looks fine to him.  I have one of those pesky kind of minds that simply cannot abide a mystery and leave well enough alone.  I wanted to understand why I got a chilly feeling when I looked at that cabin so I took another look with the optics.  It took a couple of minutes but then I noticed the outside walls were covered with bullet holes. 

I didn't understand why that would set me off because you see a lot of that kind of vandalism in Alaska.  Most places they just shoot the deer crossing signs, here, we go for the whole cabin.  Regrettable as it is, those kind of jerks are everywhere you go.  I was thinking those thoughts as I continued glassing the cabin and surrounding forest for whatever it was that was giving me this creepy feeling - then I saw it.  I wasn't alarmed because there were so many bullet holes, I was alarmed because every one appeared to be an exit wound.  People shooting a forest service cabin from their boat is one thing.  Emptying your gun from inside the cabin...that is entirely something else again!!  

The raft was just about ready to use, and Jim seemed very anxious to get ashore and look around.  "Humor me and take another look at that cabin" I said as I handed him back the glasses.  I waited in anxious silence as Jim peered thru the optics...after maybe 30 seconds he says to me; "Man you gonna have to clue me in cause I don't see.....Holy Shit!!...those bullet holes are all exit wounds!"  A brief eternity passed as we just stared at each other and then the shoreline.

Jim went back inside the boat for a couple of minutes then returned to the aft deck where I was still puzzling things thru in my head. My giant ex-biker partner looks at me and says; "Ya know...the day's half wasted now anyway, why don't we sleep on the boat tonight and go ashore in the morning."  That sounded quite reasonable to me, so I added, "Yeah, right...and tonight we can just keep alert to see what goes on here after dark."  So we put out a couple of fishing lines hoping to catch dinner even though there were still no signs of life anywhere; and passed the time in harmless conversation.  Towards dusk Jim commented to me, "Say- you live out in the woods, is it always this quiet?  I don't think I've seen or heard any critters all day!"  When I answered that this silence was not normal even though the forest is sometimes called the quiet places, Jim just shrugged his big shoulders and said, "I guess that's why they call it the bay of death!"  To take our minds off of how little it took to spook us we played a few games of cribbage and then called it a day.

I couldn't help but feel a little like bait as Jim retired to the forward berth cabin while I slept on the fold down cot in the back, right by the sliding glass door leading to the back deck.  I was only marginally reassured upon discovering the door had a locking latch.  For the second night running I was getting very little sleep.  It seemed every few minutes the waves would slap the hull of the boat, or some loose piece of gear would move or shift slightly, creating a faint but audible noise.  Each & every time my eyes would pop open, looking furtively thru the sliding glass door, hoping not to see some glowing eyed Kooshdaakaa glowering back at me. 

I thought about what Nana had said to me, and why the native folk here about have such a healthy respect for this place.  The words "if you come back alive..." kept floating up from my subconscious mind to further vex my efforts at rationality.  I tried to convince myself that those bullet holes didn't mean what logic dictated they meant...I tried...but when I did finally fall asleep long enough to dream, it was about terrified campers inside that cabin shooting at creatures attacking them.  It was a very vivid & unsettling dream to be sure.  That night went by so slowly I was beginning to wonder if time was being messed with somehow when the first golden rays of dawn broke over the mountaintops.  I put on a pot of coffee then stepped out on the back deck to get my first look at the new day.  Another cloudy, overcast day with the smell of rain in the air.  When the coffee was done I took my first cup back outside to just sit and watch the bay, searching for any sign of life at all.  There was none to be seen or heard. Not even the pestering insects Alaska is famous for. 

I was on my second cup of coffee and third cigarette of the morning when Jim stumbled out to join me on the deck, still wrapped in his blanket like a refugee of some unknown tragedy.  He was strangely silent, and about the polar opposite of the previous morning.  He didn't look good, as if he'd gotten about as much sleep as me.  Jim didn't say a word to me as he nursed his morning joe.   We hadn't brought any beer with us and there was no alcohol smell on him so I knew he wasn't suffering from a hangover...he just looked exhausted.  I went inside at this point to take my turn at making breakfast; leaving Jim to his brooding silence as the day became brighter. 

About the time the hobo breakfast was ready for human consumption Jim comes ambling back inside the boat.  "Smells edible" says which I haggardly responded, "Top o' the Morn, Captain; what be our agenda for the day."  After a lengthy pause he looks right at me and said, "Well ... I figure we got what we came for and should head back to Petersburg today, and go home tomorrow."  I simply could not believe what I was hearing, he left me truly dumfounded.  I must have stammered for ten seconds before blurting out "What?"...... "Go home?? -Please explain to me how we got what we came for...I just don't understand that at all."  Jim looked me right in the eye for a long second or two before saying; "Let me put it another less ambiguous way...the boat is leaving today, you are welcome to stay here if you like."            

Now I was beyond dumbfounded, I was totally mystified at Jim's behavior, yet the tone of his voice and the cold look in his eyes banished any thought of this being some kind of joke.  The man was serious!  I tried to get him to explain how and why he'd arrived at this unilateral decision but to no avail.  He said the subject was closed, and that we were pulling anchor at noon to leave this spooky place.  By this time I knew better than to push the issue any further, to do so would simply not be wise, so I just said, "You're the Captain, leaving at noon it is."  

Jim's demeanor that morning only improved slightly upon hearing my agreement to his departure decision.  I was totally bummed out to have it all end like this, and just wanted to be alone, so I grabbed a cold soda from the fridge and climbed up to the flying bridge to sulk & ponder.  After drinking about half the soda, I set it down on the seat beside me to light up a smoke and try to calm down as I processed the days disastrous developments.  The cigarette smoke felt unusually harsh in this still, stagnant place of death, so I grabbed the soda and took a long pull.- of 100 % pure sea water!  Even as I spewed the stuff out of my mouth my mind was reeling with the implications of what I had just experienced.  I could hear Jim moving  about downstairs in the galley, and besides there was no physical way on earth he could have switched soda cans...simply not physically possible - besides he was a very long way from being in a joking mood.  I cannot accurately describe how I was feeling at that moment, but the closest I can come is that camera special effect they do in movies where the background zooms in & out behind an actor distorting the viewers perspective as it moves. All sound seemed to be on mute save for an intense ringing in my ears, the sound of reality cramps.  Everything else but this singular moment fell away from consciousness as if I needed all my brain power to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by this supernatural event. 

I felt like I was in the twilight zone, or an episode of outer it was my brain in buffering mode trying to explain what had just happened; and it could not.  Knowing I had to eliminate the unlikely explanation of false taste impression; I took another sip from the soda can.  Still, pure sea water!  I took the can downstairs with me, sat myself down at the galley table, and in what I know was a cracking voice, I says to Jim- "Ya know Cap, why the hell wait for noon, lets haul ass right now!"  My partner looks at me kinda strangely with a very curious look on his large square face.  He didn't have to say a word, I knew that look meant what has gotten into you.  Saying nothing, I just handed him the soda can.  He looked at the can then took a tentative sip, and spewed it all right in the sink.  Neither of us spoke for a good two minutes...we just sat there looking stupid at each other.  Then, very calmly, Jim says, "I saw you take that from the fridge and go upstairs where there is no seawater, and I saw you return without leaning over the where did the seawater come from?"   My answer was simply, "I am ready to go home now Jim, do we have to wait till noon?"  Thirty seconds later I was hauling up the anchor while Captain Jim fired up the engine to take us out of devils country.  

We made our way past Ruth island and turned left towards the bay's entrance, checking the tide book for depths and the chart for hazards.  The last thing we wanted was to be stranded in this place.  With Spurt point falling away behind us on our starboard side we had a clear shot to the channel so Jim gave it the throttle and just as we gained speed, the brand new steering system installed a week earlier failed and the boat careened off toward the rocky shore.  Jim reduces speed, and steering capability suddenly returns.  When he speeds back up - the steering goes out and we head for the rocks again.  Repeating this three times was enough to convince us there was a major malfunction.  The steering system was not at all easily accessible while underway so it wasn't feasible to try to repair it until we were in safe harbor in Petersburg.  We absolutely didn't want to spend another minute in Thomas bay so we did the only thing we could do; which was to "aim" the boat as best we could once in the open channel, then increase speed as long as possible before we had to slow down and re-aim the boat.  It was like playing leap frog with ourselves the whole way to Petersburg, and it took the better part of the day to finally arrive back at the transient dock.

The trip back to town had been so hectic & intense the only conversation was about navigation and seamanship.  With the expedition back in safe harbor and the boat secured I stepped off onto the dock without a word and made my way up to the pub for some much needed liquid therapy.  Half an hour later Jim shows up, parks himself beside me and ordered a beer.  We drank in silence, not even looking at each other.  We were both oblivious to the atmosphere in the bar, as if we were the only ones in the place.  As my third beer was winding down I turned to Jim, gesturing with my index finger I said, "Ya know..."  Jim cut me off immediately, and angrily snapped "Listen, nothing happened over there, nothing...and that is what I have to say, nothing. Don't you ever mention the subject or ask me any questions because I have nothing to say, period, end of discussion."  

The look on his face was that of a man not to be trifled with; and I was certain then and now that if I had pushed the issue any further the man would have punched me out to punctuate his point.  After a reasonable silence I looked over at my former partner and said, "Hey, Ya know what, all I was going to say was I'm gonna get a room in town tonight, can't handle that bunk on the boat...I need a shower & good sleep, so I'll just go do that and get my stuff out of your way."   The look on the man's face was that of someone who had just had their hospitality insulted.  " I'm sorry I snapped at you" he said; "it's been a grueling couple of days, that's all.  Don't waste money on a hotel, you ain't in my way cause I'm not working on that boat tonight."  This guy was beginning to make me think he was bi-polar with all his sudden mood swings, and I'd had about all of his company I could stand, so I got that hotel room and spent another sleepless night trying to figure out just where in my world view I was going to store the memories from the bay of death.  I had to rearrange my belief system to account for the supernatural, either that or end up like poor Jim.

The following morning having had breakfast in town I made reservations on the afternoon ferry back to Ketchikan; then strolled down to the transient dock to say my farewells to captain Jim.  I simply couldn't believe my eyes as I approached the boat.  Jim and two other fellows were trying to keep his boat from sinking at the dock.  Fortunately Jim slept aboard the boat so he heard the bilge alarm when it went off, and was able to start the pump.  The other guys were preparing to tow the boat over to the haul out to get in on dry land.  Out of sheer curiosity I hung around until they got the boat up on blocks.  The problem was spotted right away, as in addition to the steering malfunction, the boot seal on the engines lower unit had several puncture holes in the thick rubber, allowing seawater to seep into the boat.  Jim & I stared at the holes, then each other.  He just silently shook his head as if to remind me of his words from the night before.  I raised my hands as if to 'surrender' and said kinda laughing..."I ain't sayin a single word ... except I'll see you back in Ketchikan." 

My experience at the bay of death remained my central focus for several days after returning home.  It wasn't enough to just keep rolling it all over in my brain, I had to somehow come to terms with it, to understand and accept it, and for that, I needed to go visit Nana.  When I called Delaney he said come right over as he was anxious to hear of the adventure.  As I was describing the trip to them Nana would occasionally nod her head a little, but said nothing until I was finished.  She asked her grandson to fix her a cup of tea, and when he'd left the room, Nana leans closer to me and said this: "Now you know, because your soul is strong enough to know; as for my grandson...I'm just not sure his mind would have survived.  You have been touched by the Kooshdaakaa child, and they gave you a gift to remember them by."

A couple weeks later I ran into Jim at the hardware store, and asked how it went with the boat repairs.  "Funny thing about that, as it turns out, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with the steering, it was in perfect working order!   Boats, man...go figure...that thing was a lemon, so I sold it."  That was the last time I ever saw captain Jim, as a few weeks later I heard he'd moved back to the lower 48.  

I have pondered my experiences in Thomas bay many times over the ensuing years and the one thought that just keeps defying understanding is, what the hell happened to Jim?  Clearly each of us had been touched by the Kooshdaakaa but in very different ways.  My experience left me with a feeling of wonder and enlarged my universe to include the truly paranormal; while Jim's experience left him a shattered man immersed in fear and denial.  Nana's words echo back to me "If you go there and make it back alive, it will change you forever."

Sometimes when you go looking for the magic, it finds you.

Until Next Time ~ Be Good to Each Otter

~Related Augureye Posts:~
Parasite Alert



  1. Peek Leaves a bottle of home made hard cider in the Augureye Express fridge .. its all ways better chilled.
    Need that Brother snaps me out of my Cracker world for a bit . Thanks my friend Great story i was feeling it all the way . I feel like I’m in that blue canoe sometime heading down to devils country alone. Top to the left to into the depth.! (( man hug ))

  2. Wow Chautauqua, .... brilliant story

    Perfect timing - a most excellent piece - a timely escape from the world of madness ;-)

    Cheers for writing that.


  3. What a wonderful tale,

    Felt like I was on that boat with you.

    More please..

    Thank you.


  4. A captivating story Chautauqua; thank you for sharing. I have been to a "Thomas Bay" myself though it was not in Alaska. It is a life changing experience.

  5. Very intriguing sounds like a epic journey. Would have to like to been there. You never know what lurks in the visual world and non visual world.

  6. Well that sure knocked the cobwebs from my brain! Us humans are made for storytelling and that was a cracker. Had just woken up, feeling fuzzy and irritated for no apparent reason and then read that. Didn't want it to end and feel refreshed and oddly rejuvenated.
    Thanks, from Ireland

  7. G'Mornin Ireland~ Stories are what connect all of us in the human tribe, giving us a sense of both belonging, and history...and of course reminding us that "there are more things in heaven & earth than can be dreamed of in our wildest imaginations". Appreciate the feedback, blessings from California brother.

  8. * Great short story...maybe a novel in the offing???...if Jimmy Buffett can make the New York Times bestseller list... so can you! (lol)...perhaps you were a shaman elder storyteller in a past life as well as this one...Cheers.

  9. I wrote a book once; a 500 page epic about this baby boomer guy who spirit kept putting at the scene of historical events over the course of his life.
    About a month after I finished and was searching for a publisher, they released the movie "Forest Gump" - so in celebration I burned both copies of the manuscript. Besides, the publishing 'game' is equally corrupt as the movie or music industry and nearly as corrupt as politics...then there is the whole hermit thing I got goin on; Just ain't gonna fly all over to do those horrid morning talk show circuits with the other authors. However, I would humbly accept a booking on the Daily Show, but it would have to be a remote broadcast, so they would have to send Assiv Mandvi out here to interview me.

    Thanks for riding the midnight express Alex, always GR8 2 hear from you. Actually I have thought about a book of short stories covering my adventures in Alaska and other parts of the world. The blogosphere has shown me there are still plenty of avid readers 'out there'~ Perhaps You, me & the peekster should just launch our own pirate broadcasting station and carpet bomb the place 24-7. You sir, will be the program director! Cheers.

  10. *Total 'Grok' on that man! (lol)

  11. Chautauqua Comrade.
    Not tired to impress me with your talent to write.
    And that crazy adventure that you experienced ...
    This improves one character really.
    When my brain turned his exciting story in a movie, the music
    who took over this was

    Health, peace and love.

  12. interesting story. i could feel how they pulled at you like a magnet to get you to visit. grandma speaking softly the centuries of wisdom in her words i enjoyed immensely. you were respectful of them. they liked that very much. 'here is a gift of salt water'

    1. The salt water was as champagne compared to the gift Jim got.

  13. Chautauqua;
    That was quite the story! Do you still live in Alaska? I have only been there once; 2 years ago my parents, sister and I went on a cruise for their 50th aniversary. Cruise liners are not my cup of tea, but it was beautiful going from Seatle to Glacier Bay. We went past Ketchikan and Thomas Bay. Is Wrangell close to Thomas Bay? "there is more to Heaven and Earth than is dreampt of in your philosophy" Shakespeare.

    1. Tim, Indeed cruise ships are not the ideal way to take in someplace like Alaska..too sterile & institutional for me; I've always been more of an hands on kinda human. Yeah Wrangell is about 50 miles south of Thomas bay. Ahhh, there's the author of that it. Alas, I no longer reside in Alaska ..."All good things" Cheers brother

  14. Hi, I love this story! I am writing a book on the legend and history of the Kushtaka and would honored to include your story. Please contact me at or on facebook at Thanks and I am excited about this! dennis

    1. Hi Dennis-
      Sounds like quite the undertaking. You may indeed use my post providing it's not cut, or edited in any way, and of course provide referral to the originating website as well.

      I wish you luck, as most of those still alive who know the legends and secrets are very reluctant to speak of Kushtaka, it's bad luck.

      If you really want to learn about the Kushtaka, got to Thomas Bay - just go in a Good way!

  15. I feel that I was with you when doing this... :)
    Recommended Phil Byrd

    1. Greg~ Thanks very much. Following your link made me a good way, so thanks again!

  16. thank you for sharing this great story, i got totally lost in this with you, i always look forward to your posts xx

  17. I have a few tales to tell Mr. Chautauqua :) would love to email you! Matthew in Alaska