Legends, Ghosts and Heroes

[In the July/August 2018 issue of Last Frontier Magazine, in her story, “Off the Grid,” Teena Findley introduced us to her first trip to Alaska, when she visited her son at a remote lodge in Southeast Alaska. The following story is a continuation of her experience.]

“Come home a hero, or bring home zero.”

As the boat entered the cove, I heard those words fall off of my son Lee’s tongue. I’m not surprised, as he has always had a witty quip or sarcastic comeback for every occasion. On this particular day, we were returning from a good day boating and fishing the waters near Prince of Wales Island and the surrounding area.

I glanced back quickly at the statues half expecting to see smiles etched in the wooden faces.

The day had been absolutely perfect weather wise and consequently the water was calm and smooth as glass. We spent a good deal of this day enjoying the sunshine, exploring islands from the boat, and enjoying a couple of onshore excursions.

Earlier that morning, we had laid down a long fishing line. As the boat pulled away, I looked back at the bright colored ball floating and wondered if today would be our lucky day or not. These buoys are each labeled with permanent marker with the name of the owner of the line and his or her address. These lines are the “locals’ grocery store,” as are the surrounding woods. The nearest actual store was a two to three hour trip away (one way) and that involves a combination boat/drive or fly trip. In the summer, fresh produce and dairy items arrive along with the lodge fishing guests by float plane. On occasion, barges bring their fuel or larger items.

My son gave my daughter and me a wonderful tour of the islands on this particular day. We boated out to open water where he pointed out three islands: Whale Island, Warren Island, and Coronation Island. The latter two are protected wilderness, meaning there are no roads, human habitation, hunting, or logging activities. As we snapped photos, my son pointed out that the next island past these three would be Japan. This statement left us all staring at the horizon in awe.

Our first onshore excursion gave us the opportunity to see totem poles up close and personal. I was so intent checking out the shore that I missed how my daughter got off the boat. I soon found myself in a terribly awkward pose standing atop the bow. Between my daughter’s hysterical laughter and my son’s (barely under his breath) swearing, I quickly squatted and took a mental note to pay better attention from here on out. I had to laugh at myself too. We hiked up into the woods and as promised there were two totems standing the test of time amid a forest of trees and a history we could only imagine. I found myself whispering and respecting the silence of this reverent spot. This area was once inhabited by many Tlingits. The waterways were lined with families camped along the shores. They fished the streams in this area, widely known for its salmon. My imagination was running full force, backwards in time, as I stood on the mossy floor of this island. Feeling like I was an intruder and even wary I might upset the ancient ghosts by taking pictures, I was almost thankful to be heading back to the boat. Mindful that I had been warned of the damp rain forest’s mossy floor being slick, I still took a fall as I descended the slope. I glanced back quickly at the statues half expecting to see smiles etched in the wooden faces.

Back safely in the boat, we cruised through the waters spotting countless birds, ducks, geese, and seagulls. A few times we saw an ever growing group of birds flying in a circle and hovering above the water. These birds were evidence of bait balls below the surface. Bait balls happen when large fish are feeding on a big group of smaller fish. The debris floats to the surface providing food for the birds. Wildlife abounds in this area and we later saw a group of bald eagles flying above the trees on, aptly named, Eagle Island. Whales were viewed daily and on this day we settled at the edge of a cove and watched the fins and tails of eight orcas hanging out. We decided they were most likely moms and calves. My daughter and I had crawled out onto the front of the boat to get a closer watch and hopefully see one breach farther out of the water. As we sat there in the sunshine watching whale spouts shoot up here and there, my son relayed a story of when he was tagging along behind a cow and calf orca. As he closed in just a little closer a massive whale breached right in front of his boat. Evidently the male was being protective and issuing a back off order. This story made me a tad nervous, so I wasn’t entirely opposed to the suggestion that we climb back into the boat and continue the cruise.

We drove to a point of an island, and there in clear view was the grave of Chief Tonawec. My son told us that there were two wooden statues standing guard at each end of the wooden grave. The Chief’s grave was made known to Lee by local residents, and according to his source, the legend is, as you boat by, if you throw an offering into the water to the Chief good fortune will come to you. As we snapped our cameras in awe once again, my son handed me his beer bottle and instructed me to “pour a little offering out to the chief, but don’t be too generous,” he smirked. I did as he requested and bent down to reach into my backpack. I poured out two Tic Tac mints and silently dropped them into the waters as my personal offering.

We were also able to get in some good fishing that day. I landed a flounder, which is a flat fish. Flounder and halibut are bottom swimmers. They have an ugly brown speckled side and the other side is white. They swim in camouflage with the brown side up. When these fish are born, their eyes are on either side of their body, but at about six months of age, one eye migrates so that both eyes are on one side. They are a good tasting, but ugly fish.

When we returned early that evening to bring in the long line set earlier, we noticed right off that our ball had moved some. This made my son think we had something good on the end! As he started winding up the hundreds of feet of line, we found a couple of sand sharks had been caught. The hooks are spaced out, so we waited in anticipation for each hook to appear, disappointed when something had stolen our bait. The line became more strenuous to reel in, so it became obvious we had something attached. To our delight, we saw the first of two halibut surface and he wasn’t happy either. These fish are fighters and once again, my daughter and I marveled at how Lee does this all alone at times.

Motoring back to the lodge, I glanced to the back of the boat. Both fish were tied but still flopping around. Lee yelled back, “settle down there, fellas.”

Back at the lodge we were fighting what little daylight was left to get our fish hung up for a photo op and cleaned and processed. The fish were measured and we proudly placed the 92 and 109 pound labels on them before setting up the camera timer. I insisted my flounder be in the picture as well. He wasn’t a shrimp, but looked like one next to the two halibut! Lee made the fillet process look easy but as I took my turn, I found an even deeper appreciation for that task. The fish was slick and heavy, and getting a clean cut proved difficult. As we flipped the fish over, he remarked that my work wasn’t too bad, but my fillet had notches where his did not. As we finished up on the fillet table, Lee made a comment that Chief Tonawec had granted us good fortune today. I remembered my two white mints and told my children about that offering.

Coincidence or good fortune, it makes for a great story. Luckily, we have the pictures that make us look like heroes … this isn’t just one of those legendary fish stories where the fish gets larger and larger.

At least, not this time. 

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