Larry, the Orcas, and Me

A Memoir

Photo by Tim Cole on Unsplash

1973, Petersburg, Alaska. Larry and I were house-sitting for a family of friends who were traveling to Seattle for a vacation. They had left us with one rule: we had to provide our own food. Other than that, we were free to use anything the house had to offer.

This included their 15-foot fiberglass skiff. The house backed onto the Wrangell Narrows, a stretch of water that ran between Mitkof and Kupreanof islands. As you probably guessed from the name, it ran between Wrangell Island in the South and Petersburg on Mitkof Island in the north — and it could be very narrow and shallow, depending on the tides.

In fact, the Alaska Marine Highway System — which operates the sea-going ferries that ply the waters between Washington and Alaska — has to base its schedules around the tides in order to make sure the boats have enough water under their hulls when they approach the Narrows.

Larry and I both knew this, and we both were competent at handling boats. Larry, as a commercial fisherman, and me, as a seasoned sailor. So we knew enough to inspect the skiff before we took her out. This included making sure we had enough fuel in the tanks to get us out and back.

Since we were only going to motor across to Kupreanof Island — a vast and epic journey of maybe 50 yards — we didn’t expect any trouble. It was slack tide when we left.

Five minutes later, we were tied to a tree on Kupreanof, and spent an hour or so exploring the island. Big surprise! Kupreanof Island only differed from Mitkof Island is size and lack of human habitation: Kupreanof was larger, while Mitkof had the city of Petersburg — if one could call a town with a year-round population of 2500 people a “city.”

We took another hour to eat the lunches we had packed, and drinking a few bottles of Pepsi (if memory serves me right). Then we untied the boat, started the engine, and headed back across the Narrows.

Halfway across, the outboard motor quit. No problem — we had oars, so we were going to row the last 25 yards.

That’s when the problem hit us: the tide had turned, and we couldn’t row! Have you ever tried to row a heavy boat against a 6 knot tidal current? If we didn’t solve the problem — and quickly — we knew we were in deep water (literally!).

That’s when they came. (Cue scary horror movie soundtrack {maybe the theme from Jaws?}.)

Two large Orcas — killer whales — surfaced next to us, one on either side of the boat, and each once longer than the boat itself. I tried — unsuccessfully — not to be afraid; after all, the local Tlingit and Haida Indians indigenous to Southeast Alaska considered the creatures to be special protectors of humans, and that seeing one was considered a good omen. Yes, I knew all this, and yet….

I guess they knew what they were talking about, those wise elders. The Orcas pressed against the sides of the hull, sandwiching us between them. They then gave big sweeps of their tales, propelling us forward with just enough speed to reach the shore before releasing us and heading for deeper water.

Ever since then I’ve considered the Orca to be my spirit animal.

I’m not a big fan of the supernatural, but I do agree that there are more things in heaven and earth, as some Danish guy once said. So I don’t know if was a coincidence or a result of a good omen, but my daughter was born just over a year later in Petersburg.

Anyway, that’s how I became an admirer of Orcas, the so-called “killer whales.”

The Cremation of Sam McGee

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service
From “Songs of a Sourdough

There is no Lake Lebarge anywhere in Canada. There is, however, a Lake Laberge. Robert Service used poetic license in order for it to rhyme.

It was in late April of 1973 when my friend Larry and I camped in the campground at Lake Laberge.

labergeAlamy Stock Photo

The Northern Lights

Have you ever seen them? “Those bright dancing lights that are the result of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.” (Northern Lights Centre)

I had first seen them in Anchorage, and then in Fairbanks. But here, with the sound-absorbing three-foot layer of snow, I could actually hear them crackling and popping. I had always thought them to be silent, but “there on the marge of Lake Lebarge” I learned otherwise.

Larry, sound sleeper that he was, slept through the whole show. When I woke up the following morning, he was gone! Sleeping bag, back pack—everything. He had packed all of his gear into the car and left a note on the windshield saying we was restless and decided to hike along the (Haines Highway) road we were following.

So I packed my gear, collapsed the tent, and headed down the road. I caught up with Larry after about 5 miles. I’ve never seen anyone so glad to get in out of the cold!

We continued on into Haines (Alaska), only to find that the border crossing was closed. No barricade or anything, just a big sign that we would be committing a felony if we entered our own country without checking in with Customs. Even back then, it was harder for a U.S. citizen to re-enter her own country than it was to enter a foreign country. So after weighing the pros and cons, we decided not to take any chances. We parked and waited the 2 hours it took for the Customs dude to show up.

I don’t know what his problem was, but he wanted to know just about everything about me. Where I was going, where I was coming from, why had I been in Canada, did I have a job in the US, and just about everything but my shoe size. Larry (who was a Canadian citizen), just had to show his driver’s license and was waved in. I wondered if the fact that both Larry and the Custom guy both had short hair and smoked a pipe had something to do with it while I, a citizen by birth—and with long hair, a beard, and smoking a cigarette—was put through the wringer.

So On To The Ferry

Once you enter Haines, the highways end. There are no connecting roads to the rest of Southeast Alaska. The only way to go any further is by boat or by airplane. And that meant the Alaska Marine Highway System. You’ll forgive, I’m sure, when I admit that as I write this, some 45 years later, I can’t remember which ferry we took.

After a stop at Juneau, we continued down to Petersburg, our destination. Larry later left to go commercial fishing, while I found a job, got married, and had my first daughter.

I never saw the Northern Lights in Petersburg, but I do remember snowshoeing across the muskeg by the light of a full moon reflecting off the snow.

Thanks for reading!