I am not Ketchikan. I am not the border town where dreams disappear into the sad lives of naked women sitting on your lap at the Marine Bar. I won’t cry your name into the cold, black receiver of the pay phone at the top of the dock. I don’t house the broken-down logger who pimps out his wife and repeats nightly how he likes his women like his steak: “brown on the outside, pink in the middle.” I am not Ketchikan where dreams remain tied with frayed, three-strand lines, in shallow slips in the old harbor. I’m not covered in blue tarps. My bilge pump doesn’t keep my leaky hull afloat. I don’t live in the shadow of cruise ships. My wild isn’t continually pushed east, broken pickups don’t fill my harbor parking lots, black bears don’t cross my downtown at night living on the trash of tourists. I am not the bleeding edge called Ketchikan, the first hurdle entering the myth we call Alaska. A hurdle some never clear. This isn’t me: this is just a stop, a place to refuel, to stretch my legs. It is my point of entry and exit, my portal to the land of disappearing.
When I’m half-tethered to the grounded world I’m the floating community of Point Baker–the turning point between Clarence and Sumner Straits. By the time you reach me you’ve sobered up from Ketchikan, but Petersburg and Wrangell aren’t on the radar yet. Everyone passes by me: herring, salmon, seiners, trollers, gillneters, cruise ships. The humpback whales linger out front like a pack of old dogs sleeping on the porch. I’m an irresistible glow on a long, miserable night. I’m your Grandma Thelma shaking her nicotine-stained finger saying: “You should have known better.” I’m the last of the real Wild West; what happens here can still make Alaska blush. There’s one entrance: it’s also the exit. It’s narrow but deep and you won’t be able to take your eyes off my emerald green water, it has something you want and can’t name. You’ll wish it were warm enough to swim in, but it isn’t and don’t forget it can kill you. It’s like that around here. Go ahead, tie up and stay a while. Herb runs the bar. The first whiskey is on the house and then you can buy the bottle. The second one too. Don’t be shy, buy the girls at the bar a drink. Don’t forget to decorate a dollar bill, include the name of your boat, your crew. I know you have at least one artist on board, and hopefully one of you is still sober enough to stand on the bar and tack it to the ceiling. It’s not that hard, look at all those dollar bills and I can’t remember one broken neck. Lean in, let Herb take your photo together; he’ll keep it for later, just in case you forget you were here. No need to pay now you’re a company boat, we’ll keep your tab open. Herb will send a bill to the fleet manager; you can pay when you start catching fish. Don’t wander up the dock. My locals don’t much care for conversation and yes, they all have loaded guns. Come back on the Fourth of July if you need proof. But for now, I suggest you untie and get on your way. Don’t worry, it’s not like driving a car and there’s no one out here who cares, most of the hazards are marked, just head east (that will be to your right once you clear the entrance) You have at least five hours before you reach the next town; before you’re back in cell reception; before you have to answer any questions; before your wife insists you take off your sunglasses.
When I’m off my meds, I’m Wrangell. My everything is on display in the street in front of the Laundromat. “Hey, look at me I still have a job working the woods. I deserve a loud three-day drunk. What the fuck you’re looking at?” I’m the flat screen TV in the window past the liquor store promising no money down; I’m a red-and-black swirling button blanket; I’m the boom box marching band on the 4th of July; I’m all the pride and tears of Chief Shakes; I’m eight different frybread booths; I’m raffle tickets to send the wrestling team to Juneau. I’m the southernmost gateway to the Stikine River. I’m hot springs, icebergs, white sand beaches. Lie on your back and watch the leaves of cottonwoods shimmer like half dollars in the sun. “Hell yes, I slap my two-year-old, slap her good cuz I want some fucking respect and I can’t stand crybabies and I love my babies and I’ll make them strong to survive in Alaska.” I’m the river who is shallow, and murky, and fast, and deadly, and crystal clear revealing darting salmon shadows. Watch behind you, fallen trees travel my currents like torpedoes. Stop on Farm Island, cross the field of orange paintbrush and pink shooting stars. Drink tea with a couple from Wisconsin who raise bees and sell lupine honey. Do your laundry in the back of the bar by the harbor. Make friends with the bartender, she’s your only hope of getting out of here unscathed. When a fight breaks out: leave. Leave your laundry until tomorrow or buy something in the next town. When you see my women with black eyes, don’t stare. If I blow kisses at you, pretend you’re deaf, or blind, or crazy without your meds.
When I slip into nostalgia, I’m Petersburg. I am the longest running cannery in Southeast Alaska. I am the tenacious Peter Buschmann who harvested LeConte Glacier to keep fish cold for shipping. I am Rosemaling on blue shutters. I’m ditches filled with forget-me-knots, hollyhocks lean over my fences, fuchsias hang from my lampposts. I am 6:00 a.m. and seven old Norwegians with thick hands drinking weak coffee at the Homestead Café. I am the blonde refilling their mugs and listening to their stories from before statehood. I am a company town—when my noon bell rings everyone eats lunch. I am beach fires, whiskey, salmon stolen from a tote on the cannery dock. I am a summer of five 22-year-olds sleeping like a litter of Lab pups on a half-sunk tugboat named Fearless. I am your best friend’s wedding on the solstice, a reception at Kito’s Cave, moose rib barbeque, the bride’s dad ringing the bell, another round of shots. I am a drunk, jealous boyfriend threatening to hit you in the parking lot; a silent skiff ride back to the cabin; I am trying to sleep with my back to another broken child hiding in Alaska. I am the sunrise on Devil’s Thumb.
Warm Springs Bay
When I feel like an old movie star kept beautiful on Botox, I’m Warm Springs Bay. They reconstruct me every few years, after winters of the sun disappearing behind my steep hills, snow accumulating, staying for months, the moisture settling into the cells of my timbers stretching me thin and weak. Nothing ever dries out in Warm Springs Bay. Decay is a visiting relative who always stays too long, until all my buildings collapse and slide into the bay. And then they do it again: the pilgrims, they rebuild me. Remains from the last attempt laugh at them, covered in barnacles, rotting away on my beach. In the meantime, they’ll climb over my skeleton foundation, follow trails into the woods, walk on their knees for my water. Their boots will fill with mud as they lower themselves down steep embankments using tree roots as handholds. They’ll scurry naked on all fours across slippery boulders, ignoring the threat of brown bears. They’ll never stop trying, they can’t. Slip off your clothes just once and you’ll understand. Step in slowly, I can be dangerously hot, let me consume you inch-by-inch, pause when I reach the base of your back. Be still. Listen. Focus on the sound of the falls. Let it cool you off; let it almost bring you back to your rational mind. Then succumb. Everyone succumbs. By the time my water covers your shoulders you’ve been baptized. You’ll praise the remnants on my beach. You’ll understand in your cells, in the coldest part of you, the part only I can make warm. You’ll understand every human attempt to harness me, like them, you’ll desperately want me to hold you forever. Some summers you’ll arrive to find a temporary human triumph: a narrow building at the top of the dock, with small rooms housing galvanized tubs and a view of the bay. Below, boats will be rafted five wide filled with my pilgrims waiting their turn, watching candlelight flicker from around the tubs; and above the sound of the falls, moans of pleasure rising to take their place among the stars.
When I wake from a nightmare not mine, it’s Angoon. It’s the door off a Volkswagen bus, leaned up against a rock, on the south side of the back channel. Point your bow right at it when you’re inbound, just after you come out of the dogleg. Best to arrive low water slack, the big rocks show and if you fuck up it’s possible the rising tide will save your white ass. Or not. Depends how much water you’re taking on, got to be careful with your big boats. The old channel markers work fine for the local fleet, their boats are small, they come home at night. They’re not running from their wives and kids. Just get their fish and get out on the tide. There’s nothing else for you here. No one will offer you a ride to town; they won’t even wave. Don’t expect gratitude, this is business. They don’t process fish here, they did once, Whites were the owners, local Tlingits the workers but they won’t do it again. It’s not a grudge; it’s their truth. Tith Klane was killed in an accident on the company’s boat and his community asked for blankets, this was custom, it would be disrespectful to the dead, to the dead’s family not to ask for the blankets. The U.S. Navy fired on them for honoring their dead, burned 40 canoes and all the winter stores. Six children suffocated in the fire, the elders starved to death. Listen, that’s not the wind, that’s the dead howling, that’s October 26th 1882. Go on, fill up with fish and drive it to the cannery in Petersburg. Keep moving. It’s for your own good. If this sadness enters your heart, you’ll sink.
When I’m making 2K a day, I’m Craig. I’m seine boats rafted five deep, barbeques, baseball games, gunfights and drownings. I am the police who are called at dawn to close the bars and roll drunk deckhands from Seattle for their baggies of weed. I am two hotels: one with a bar and live band next to the room with the jacuzzi; another tucked on the hillside with flowered sheets, and lacy pillow shams, and fishermen wondering why someone bothered, and squeaky bed springs, and thumping headboards. I have a third hotel above the laundromat, but there’s no need to advertise it. I’m big local girls threatening “to kick your ass bitch” cuz it’s August and fighting is sport and you don’t belong here and we can’t escape. I’m clearcut hillsides right down to the water, and rocky beaches for those of you who didn’t get a room; and a swimming pool with Tikki Island and 200-pound fishermen cannonballing half the water out of the pool. I am a nightly 12-step meeting in the basement of the Presbyterian church. I am Stan Marsden’s Healing Heart Totem Pole so we never forget his son’s overdose. I am more and more sport fishing lodges at the edges of town with private restaurants and bars far away from stumbling, drunk fishermen. I am their high-speed, plastic sport boats filled with Californians in new raingear fishing the Stack, the mouth of Roller Bay, Cape Addington when it blows out of the north. They’ll fish right in the middle of your seine and wave back when your crew flips them off. I am the metallic taste of change in your mouth, the smell of trains breaking before colliding.
I’m another Ketchikan the gentle days of late September when you decide to linger at the edge for poor fishing rather than return south. I’m warm days hiking through muskeg, five-gallon buckets of spot prawns, and sideways rain. I’m a taxi driver named Marge who watches you closely in the rear view mirror wondering why you’re still here, and out alone, thinking you’re young and pretty enough to have options. I’m Marge laughing at you embarrassed for hiring a cab to go four blocks. I’ll tell you, “Honey, I’d take a cab from my bed to the toilet if I could.” Then not looking back, I’ll pass you a cigarette over the seat and let you lean back across for a light. There will be a long pause while we both take those first couple of drags and then we’re in front of the cannery, but I won’t shoo you out just yet. Enjoy your cigarette. I know why you’re here, and who am I to judge? I’m Ketchikan. You’ll try to hand me some folded bills, but I’ll refuse cuz you could be my daughter and it’s clear you need a mother. I’ll warn you that the tide’s out, and the ramp will be steep, and slippery as ice in this rain. I’ll idle at the curb and call into base while I watch your hunched figure disappear. Tomorrow you’ll stand on my downtown bridge and watch the thousands of salmon returning to spawn; and you’ll wonder how they found their way home.
Header photo of Ketchikan by casadaphoto, courtesy Shutterstock.