Whether sifting through sand, or scrambling over a rocky shore, it's about finding treasures in every day. 

Winter Then

This is a continuation of Winter Now and Then.

In 1950, Chuck, at age 14 had walked three miles in the wilderness, set off dynamite to signal the cannery watchman to run across Hood Bay in the skiff, and was walking back to camp over the frozen south arm of the bay...

Chuck was walking along and picked up the tracks of a fawn. Pretty soon there was a fawn standing in the tracks, quiet and alert. Chuck approached slowly and then caught the skinny, ribby fawn. There were no doe tracks, and the fawn was not going to make the winter if it was left alone. Chuck hefted the baby up over his shoulders and pack, held onto the fawn's forelegs in one hand and back legs in the other, and carried it back to camp. The fawn calmed down and looked around while riding along. The little guy was a big hit in camp, and Chuck's sister named it Bambi. Bambi took well to camp life, and especially well to corn meal mush and pancakes.

Pet fawn in Southeast Alaska Hood Bay 1950

The fawn loved tobacco! Chuck would crumble a few of the men's cigarette butts and the fawn would greedily reach for the tobacco. Once Chuck pulled the tobacco away, teasing the fawn. The normally docile animal reared up and quick as lightning struck Chuck four times with its sharp front hooves, then it took the tobacco and settled right down.

The camp had oil stoves for heat, and in the cold weather the oil didn't last. The boss called out on the HF radio for the Baggen brothers to bring 50 barrels of oil in on the big tug boat named Lumberman. The ice in the bay was too thick for the Lumberman to break, and several miles of ice was too far to skid 50 barrels of oil. The Coast Guard cutter Sweetbrier was transiting the area and the Coast Guard agreed to break trail for the Lumberman.

The 180 foot Sweetbrier had inch-thick steel plating on the bow, and it came crunching heroically through the bay. As the Sweetbrier approached the camp the ice was very thick and two times the Sweetbrier had to back up and get a run at the ice to break it. Near the camp the ship turned and stopped.

The Lumberman was close behind, coming alongside the edge of the ice.  The men brought planks from camp to roll the fuel barrels off of the deck. Chuck's dad told him to stay out of the way while the men unloaded 50 barrels of fuel.

Chuck walked over by the Sweetbrier and the Coast Guardsmen offered him a tour of the boat. He climbed up the ladder and onto the icy deck. The uniformed Guardsmen gave him a nice tour. Chuck marveled at the three one-thousand horsepower diesel engines driving a huge electric motor that turned the propeller. Up in the wheelhouse he had the heady experience of putting his hands on the shiny ship's wheel and looking out over the deck. The cook even gave him fresh cookies, and then it was time for the ship to depart. Chuck scrambled down the ladder and walked over by his father, still grinning about such a great experience.

Sweetbriar breaking ice in Hood Bay winter of 1950

The Sweetbrier cut a big circle, and then the two boats left in the channel that had been made shortly before.  Within a few hours the lead that the Sweetbrier had opened froze over and the residents of the logging camp went ice skating on it that evening.

Chuck standing on an ice cake Hood Bay Admiralty Island winter 1950

It was a cold, cold winter in the shadow of the mountains in a remote bay in Southeast Alaska. Chuck and his sister were teenagers. They did their schoolwork and chores. They built an 'igloo', ice skated, played with their pet fawn, and made the best of the short days. The events of the winter of 1950 stayed with them, as any great adventure should.

There was more that happened that winter...but that is another story for another time. This post is an abbreviated version of the story of Chuck's time in Hood Bay. I am working on a book about his life, and will update you from time to time about the progress on that project.


Stay snug and warm!

Alaska Beachcomber

The start of this story is Winter Now and Then.

Another article with some old-timey details is Mack and Mattie's Cabin.


Winter Now and Then

This has been a winter of wind storms in parts of Southeast Alaska. Two nights ago the wind picked up in the evening and by 3:30a.m. it was screaming through the rigging. Our boat doesn't have much rigging, so that was a pretty good feat.

We spend some 'awake time' on nights like that. There is just enough light on the dock to see waves breaking over the bull rail and the spray whipping past our boat. Creaking lines are a good sign that we are still attached to the dock, and the soft bump of the boat against the dock tells us that the fenders haven't popped.

Wind and waves at the harbor Southeast Alaska storm

We gear up every hour or two and do a walk-around to check lines, shining flashlights around and trying to keep our back to the wind. This last go was a warm wind, almost forty degrees in the rather lively night! For February that is downright balmy, but not unusual. Back in the seventies I remember the pussy willows coming out one February.

My friend, A Daughter of the Walrus, is in a much more exposed location, and the wind storms of this winter have been brutal on her and her family. She writes the Alaska For Real blog, and has done a couple of posts about the storms. I am going to use inspiration from some her posts, pull out some photos from the shoebox, and tell a family story.

Way back when there was a pretty tough, very cold winter. My dad, Chuck, and his sister, my aunt, were teenagers in 1950. They were in Hood Bay on Admiralty Island. My grandpa - Charlie - was a logger, a faller to be more specific. Grandma hashed in the cookhouse when the crew was in camp. Of course she was pretty young then. They were wintering in the floating logging camp.  The boss, his brother, and their families were there, too. The logging operation was shut down for the winter.

Icy walkways at the floating logging camp 1950 in Hood Bay Admiralty Island Southeast Alaska

The camp froze down to the mud flat at the head of the south arm of Hood Bay, which worked out just fine. The big camp barge and collection of floats with cabins and gear were not bothered by being frozen in. Walkways between the floats became covered with snow and ice, though, and were pretty treacherous.

Fresh water from two creeks flowed out over the salt water and froze. The sheet of ice crept further and further past camp, and then the winter got really cold and the salt water started to freeze. Eventually it froze three miles out - to the end of the south arm. The winter residents donned ice skates, shoveled the snow off of a big figure 8, and skated almost daily. 

The men walked for the mail once a week. There was a cannery on the north shore across from the rocky point where the north and south arms of Hood Bay meet. The float plane delivered mail to the cannery weekly. Chuck, at age 14, walked with his father and the boss's brother, Shiner, out to the point across from the cannery. The first time they went for the mail that winter they got to the rocky point and Shiner fired a 30.06 rifle several times to signal the cannery winter watchman. The plan was that the watchman would hear them and then run the skiff across to pick them up. It was just a fluke that the watchman's kids barely heard the gunshots that day.  They needed a better signal.

Walking on ice Hood Bay Admiralty Island Southeast Alaska 1950

The second time that they walked for the mail Shiner tucked a case of dynamite into his backpack. When they arrived at the point he took six sticks out of the wood box and stashed the rest of the box of dynamite under a tree. He bound the six sticks together with tape, inserted a primer and two feet of minute-a-foot fuse, laid it on a big, flat rock on the beach, and lit the fuse.

The three men crouched behind trees, fingers in their ears.

It made a RESPECTABLE sound.

The watchman motored over in the cannery skiff, beaming and exclaiming that he heard the signal loud and clear.

After that Charlie taught Chuck how to prime dynamite. At age 14 Chuck would walk three miles in snow and ice, bundle, prime and set off six sticks of dynamite, get picked up by the watchman, spend the night at the cannery, get dropped off at the point the next morning, and then walk back to the logging camp. Alone.

Continued in the next post....

Oh, it won't be that long. More about the winter in Hood Bay in three days.

Alaska Beachcomber





Mack and Mattie's Cabin

Moored to the piling at the cabin.

We like to take the boat to Zimovia Strait and moor to the piling there. There is an old cabin there that has stood for over fifty years. Time and weather are slowly taking the structure away, but residents of Wrangell occasionally volunteer fun stories about staying at the cabin in times past.

A friend recently told me that her family went to the cabin for Thanksgiving when she was a young girl. When they were unpacking their supplies they realized that they had forgotten the forks and spoons. With short daylight, and limited time for their holiday, going back to town wasn’t in the cards. Her father set everyone to work with their pocket knives, whittling out spoons and forks to eat with. Her Thanksgiving memory is of self reliance and creativity in the beautiful setting of a remote cabin.

The original woodshed.

In 1938 Mack and Mattie Dunn moved  to Alaska from Washington state aboard their thirty foot troller. They started building a cabin in 1945. At first it was a shed to store their firewood and fishing gear, and later they closed it in with vertical logs. This is a ‘stockade style’ cabin, and the vertical logs shed rain better in this drizzly country. Everything was done by hand. Mack and Mattie cut the cedar logs, packed them out of the woods, stripped the bark off, and cut them to size before they could nail them into place. The cedar shakes for the roof were hand split. They even built a grid to put the boat up on so that they could work on the hull.

Mack and Mattie's boat and cabin in 1955. The three small vertical piling to the right of the cabin mark the boat grid.

They were happy on their little fishing boat, but decided to partially move into the cabin so that they would have more space. Mattie could set up her sewing machine and make sturdy new garments for both of them. Mack could sit by the woodstove while repairing fishing gear and working furs.

Mack and Mattie fished and trapped for a living, and were sometimes gone from the cabin for weeks. They came home after one of those fishing trips and someone had broken into the cabin. Everything of value was gone except for the wood stove. Mattie was heartsick over losing her sewing machine, something too valuable to replace easily in those days. They were so determined that they would never go through that again that they lived on the boat from then until they retired.

Mattie with part of the year's income.

Mack and Mattie were married for 51 years, and Mattie talked happily about it as a good life. She was busy all day long, even filling small moments in between work and chores. Mattie took up whittling, and her detailed and distinctive woodcarvings are occasionally seen around Wrangell.

While they lived on the boat, 21 miles from Wrangell, they were not lonely. Friends would stop by and The Old Salt (a pilot in those days) brought the mail and news. They did lots of visiting during the occasional trip to town for supplies.

After Mack had passed on Mattie sold the cabin to my dad, The Old Salt. He explored around the place, marveling at some of the improvements that had been made. Mack and Mattie had built a stone breakwater out from the beach. I have looked at that breakwater in wonderment. They had no heavy equipment to move the tons of rock, but they did have determination, ingenuity and a willingness to back that up with lots of hard work.

The Old Salt found fifty-five gallon drums of fuel up the hill behind the cabin. It was a big job to get the drums down to tidewater and transferred to a boat so that they could be used. He later asked Mattie how in the world she and Mac got those four-hundred pound barrels up the hill. Mattie answered, “Well we had a lot of time!”

The Old Salt took Mattie on one last boat trip in the 1980’s. She was living in town then, and getting some help to get through the day. She brightened up quite a bit on the trip. Being out on the water even gave her the verve to do some beachcombing.She walked along the rugged beach near Cape Fanshaw, enjoying a brisk breeze and the sound of the waves rolling onto the beach.

The cabin that they built still stands all these years later. The shake roof has been replaced with metal. Lots of work would have to be done to make it a comfortable structure, but it is good for an emergency shelter.

I raise a glass of homemade blueberry wine to Mack and Mattie Dunn. Two people who lived dreams and lived fully.

This is how the cabin looks today. The original cabin is on the left. In the late 1950's Mack and Mattie added the woodshed to the right of the center opening.

...and here's to your dreams, too, may you enjoy making them real.

Alaska Beachcomber