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Petersburg to Ketchikan, II

September 10, 2012

September 1 and 2

From Wrangell south toward Prince of Wales Island. A low pressure system is approaching, and I want to get ahead of it, ahead to a protected anchorage called Coffman Cove where Murre and I pull in mid afternoon.

If Petersburg and Wrangell are one horse towns, the community of Coffman Cove struggles to maintain a dog or two. But even here the evidence of some inexplicable “boom” money is everywhere. Its few houses host a permanent population of three hundred, yet Coffman Cove sports a new, state-built marina and ferry terminal and the now usual new high school building, “Home of the Timber Wolves”, for its twenty youngsters. There is a small grocery near the marina, a take-out restaurant, and a bar so new it still smells of fresh paint. That evening I am the only customer.

“Lived here long?” I ask the barkeep, a middle aged woman with a small mouth and pinched nose. Her expression suggests my question has been taken as a pick up line.

“All my life,” she says, and then stops. Getting the story will take some work, I see.

“Oh really,” I say.

“Yep.”

We both look toward the flat screen TV hung above the bar on which a pride of lions is taking down a large elephant in some unnamed African savanna. The sunny yellows and oranges of the NatGeo channel clash with the growing gray seen through the window. Rain blankets Coffman Cove and the wind is coming up from the south.

“My parents moved here when I was a child for the logging. They’re retired here too, and then my husband and I got together this bar.”

“Very nice place,” I say.

She smiles awkwardly and the conversation fizzles. On TV the bloodied elephant has fallen but is still panting as the lions gorge. A caption reads, “It takes 90 minutes for the elephant to die.” So I have time to look around, I think.

At the bar there is only space for five stools and a couple tables against the outfacing wall. But the room is long and in back is a single, warmly lit pool table set upon new carpet. Care has been taken to add character to what I slowly realize is a prefab building. Above the bar hang the usual neon lights advertising local brews and below these a window dressed in red lights with a view into the adjoining building, a liquor store. Over the door a sign reads “If it’s got tires or testicles, it’s bound to give you trouble.” The entire wall facing the bar is pinned with paper money, dollar bills inscribed by previous patrons. Most messages are well wishes for the new enterprise, but one is decorated with the AC/DC emblem drawn perfectly in black and red crayon. Another says simply and inexplicably, “Hooch and Cha!” Several are no more than drunken scribbles. As I scan the wall of money, my eye lands on a crisp Ben Franklin placed randomly amongst his brother bills. I do a double take, and in the process notice the bartender watching me. I look back to the TV on which NatGeo now features Crocodiles drowning Zebras in a mud pool. Still there are no other customers.

“Quiet here?” I say.

“Yep, especially now the season’s over,” she says. The cove is a popular sports fishing spot. “It’s back to just locals.”

Even before my nightcap I’d seen how I stood out, not just as an unusual face but also as the only man not wearing the logger’s seersucker shirt.

***

“Logging pretty much shut down here in the mid 90s,” says the restaurant owner next day when I stop by for lunch. I am again the only customer and have just ordered a sandwich from a young girl behind the counter. Standing on the covered patio is a middle-aged man in a loggers’s shirt jangling keys.

“This your place?” I ask. He nods. “So, what’s the story?”

“Coffman Cove’s an old logging camp. In fact, all these communities around here were based on logging, but then Time/Life did an expose in the late 70s showing ugly clear cuts and everyone got to thinking loggers were destroying Alaska’s wilderness. Tongass started shutting everything down; didn’t renew logging permits or leases on pulp mills and over ten years or so logging just quit. And it’s still quit.

“Irony is we’ve checked and most of the Time/Life photos were shot on native land. Well, when they figured how much money they could make on lumber, they logged everything. Deplorable practices. No buffer zones, no nothing; log right down to the crik and onto the other side. Stripped it all.

“There are 17 million acres here in southeast alone, and nobody’s never logged more than two percent of that. But in Alaska it’s all or nothing. Either whole hog on logging or no logging whatever. We don’t manage our forest like they do in Europe; no selective taking of trees, no cultivation, no plan. Turbo charge your chain saw one summer; throw it in the river the next.

“I mean, see that island over there? It was clear cut years and years ago, and now it’s all back. Hell, even the forest service says that grow-back after a clear cut is 15,000 trees per acre. That’s a mess; not even room for a squirrel to piss in that. You gotta thin it. You gotta manage…”

My sandwich is delivered and I excuse myself while it’s still hot. I eat it hunkered behind a log near the beach as the wind rises.

Two fishing boats pull in, the Erika Ann, a tender (large vessel used to collect fish from boats on the grounds, allowing them to stay out longer) and a small troller called the Viejo del Mar. Both the boat and her captain are ancient and much the worse for wear such that it’s impossible to ascertain to whom the name refers. Viejo arrives first, and because Erika Ann is ungainly in such a small space, both the old man and I grab her lines.

“Carl Christiansen,” says the captain of Erika Ann, “and thanks so much for the help. Bringing the family into town for the weekend, and to get out of this weather.”

Two kids bound onto the docks with two dogs and sprint up the ramp into the forest.

“Much wind out there?” I ask. Clarence Strait lies on a northwest-southeast line, in the direction of both prevailing summer winds and winter storms. Add to this its four knot run of tide, and a vile chop is typical.

“Barometer’s really taking a tumble,” says the old man.

“Glassy,” says Carl. “But don’t worry; it’s comin’. Last winter I heard reports of 100 knot winds at Lincoln Rock all the time. No place to be in a blow is Clarence.”

These two begin to talk fish. The old man is from San Diego; fishes summers here, winters there. I interject occasionally to ask a question, but he ignores me. I am not a fisherman; he has nothing to say to people like me.

Carl has no such reservations.

“From Frisco, eh?” he says, eyeing Murres’s transom. “I fished herring out of Frisco when I was young. Based in Sausalito. Rough and tumble place, Sausalito. Pretty girls though.”

Wind comes up at midnight and screams in Murre’s rigging. Next morning I hike in the rain out to a near promontory and watch Clarence get lathered up. Lincoln Rock Light is on the opposite shore; she flashes with breakers.

The blow lasts all day and into the night, but lying in my bunk in the early morning I can feel it relax and go calm. Viejo del Mar has already departed by the time I make coffee. The forecast calls for 25 knots from the northwest in Clarence. I hesitate. But once in the strait I see it’s calm, calm all the way to Ketchikan.

end

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