Approaching the cove by boat, I found Seiners nets lined the entrance blocking any passage inside. But from that distance it was evident that there wasn’t much to see. All the trailers had been removed and new-growth timber was starting to overtake the clearing that used to be camp. The only thing that remained was a small shack and a backhoe sitting near the old sorting yard. My stomach felt heavy, and I bit my lip, avoiding eye contact with the captain. An avalanche of memories buried me deep.
In Alaska, vanishing villages are not so rare. For hundreds of years, logging communities have come and gone, leaving behind only the scar of harvested timber. And over time, even that disappears.
While some communities built by the timber industry still exist and even thrive, others simply vanish—Hobart Bay, Corner Bay, and Cube Cove.
I was only nine years old when my father was hired to manage a branch of Atikon Forest Products. The logging camp, Cube Cove, had 52 single-wide trailers for families, five bunk houses for single guys or guys there without their families, a cook house, a commissary, a school, a gym, a small non-denominational church, and a post office. It was a life of simple routines—school, work, church, home. But, for a young boy, it was world full of adventure.
From the boat, I looked at the trees, remembering a cold November morning. I was on the edge of a meadow – several hundred yards of golden grass and occasional trees. Bunkered down next to a tree, my dad blew on his neon pink engineering ribbon stretched tightly between his thumbs and forefingers. After each cry from the ribbon, our eyes scanned the tree line and our ears honed in for the faintest sound.
Then, after only a few minutes of surveillance, a beautiful two point Sitka Black Tail emerged from the trees. My father blew through the ribbon one last time, piquing the buck’s interest even more. The buck took a few more steps, cautiously staring in our direction. I slowly raised the unscoped Ruger .270 to my shoulder, sighted him in, and squeezed the trigger. The jolt knocked me back and the buck bolted straight for the trees.
“I know I got him!” I screamed to my father in disbelief. Then, through a clearing, I could see the buck as he attempted to leap over a fallen tree, but not having the life to do so. We scrambled over to him and my body tingled as the exhilaration of my first successful hunt had completely consumed me.
The boat rocked from the wake of a passing fishing vessel, and I was quickly brought back to the present. As I scanned the shoreline, my gaze was of the white foam crashing off a mostly submerged rock.
I vividly remember fishing just south of what was called “Teasley Rock”, infamously named after Gary Teasley tore off his propeller cruising too close to shore on a low tide.
That day I hooked into what I thought was the sea floor. The boat was drifting toward my snag, sucking the pole underneath the boat and into the water. I had a death grip on the pole and my pleas for help were heard only moments before I was to be pulled into the deep. Just as my father was reaching for the pole, the pole snapped back, and line started zipping from the reel.
My father and the local school teacher, Joe Quinn, battled this halibut for well over an hour, having to start up the boat and follow the monster to prevent running out of line. My father always compared catching these massive flat fish to reeling in a sheet of plywood. After about an hour of tussle, with these two grown men completely exhausted, the massive 240 lb. halibut surfaced long enough for Joe to put a harpoon attached to a bright orange buoy through its flesh. The buoy would disappear into the depths, only to burst from the ocean surface minutes later, continuing this pattern as the sun slowly disappeared behind the mountains.
A movement from the rocky shore brought me back again. I glanced nervously into the wheelhouse, but the captain and other crew members were occupied by conversation. On the shore, two mature bald eagles danced around a winter kill, settling in to pick at the rotting flesh.
The memory of my closest grizzly encounter came back. Living on the island named “Xootsnoowú”, or fortress of the bears, by the Tlingit, everyone was well versed in how to act with a bear encounter. Admiralty Island boasts the highest density of Grizzly bears in North America; at that time outnumbering humans 3 to 1. Never could I chase from my mind the time when Josh Quinn and I were training for the one cross country meet we would be able to attend that year. We took the only road out of camp, passed the water treatment facility, the fuel tanks, and pushed onto the high road to gain endurance on the hills. As we crowned the apex, our jog was abruptly halted as we both became aware of the Grizzly bear less than 100 yards in front of us. The bear had stopped, and was sniffing the air. It was apparent that he had caught our scent. His head tilted one direction, then the other, and then he started ambling nonchalantly towards us.
We weren’t quite as calm in this situation. We had been taught to walk slowly backwards while maintaining eye contact. After two or three backwards steps down the hill, the bear disappeared from our sight, and we turned and put our cross country training to work. With an occasional glance over our shoulder, we broke previous mile records thought to be unbreakable.
The boat shifted, and I awoke from my trance of memories. At this moment, staring at the clearing that used to be my home, I realized that memory is the only buoy keeping this past life afloat.
I got it. It was a business, and the contract had ended. The allotted timber had been harvested. The job was done. It all had to end. The loggers moved on to other jobs. The families moved on to new lives. And everyone was okay with it. Dick Buehler, the owner of Silver Bay Logging, liquidated his assets and prepared for retirement. Atikon Forest Products moved on to the next project. And Cube Cove was given back to Mother Nature.
I still have a photograph of my 13 year old body being dwarfed by a halibut and the school yearbooks documenting that time. I’ve etched the view from our trailer deck into my mind. Some details have been kept. For a moment, in my mind, they take me home.
Captain Ski fired up the boat, rattling the cold metal railing. We turned slowly, and started back down Chatham Straight. I watched as the clearing that used to be home blended into the rest of the Tongass National Forest. My gaze shifted from the island to the foamy wake trailing the boat. I smiled and joined Ski in the wheelhouse.
Michael Gentry lives and works in Eastern Idaho. He received a B.S. in English Education from Brigham Young University-Idaho, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from National, and an Ed.D. in Education from the University of Idaho. Michael teaches basic writing courses at BYU-Idaho. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Animal Literary Magazine, The Casserole, and Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine.