Saturday, November 3, 2018

#24: Puttin' the Happy in the Birthday!

an eagle on Long Bay, Dyea AKRemember when it was so important to be six and a half, six and three-quarters? I don't know about you, but I'm sixty-six now, and I don't measure my years like this anymore. I measure them in decades.

I've had some pretty cool birthdays, but one of the most adventuresome was seven years ago when I turned 59, one year shy of rolling into my sixth decade. I was driving motor coaches out of Skagway AK and on May 29, 2011, I opened my eyes to the Alaskan sunlight that had been pouring through the crack in the blackout curtains since 4:30 a.m. I no sooner got my teeth brushed and pants on when Shari two doors down the hallway texted, "Happy Birthday. Coffee's on."

"Want to go geocaching?" she asked when I arrived, cream from the community refrigerator in my hand for the both of us. "There're geocaches in Skagway!"

Two passions Shari pursues. Crosswords and geocaching. Who would believe there is such adventure in each?

We invited two others to join up: Stanley, my roommate, and Teri from the dispatch office. After a good breakfast, the four of us headed out to the lot behind our hotel and under my window to receive instruction from Shari on how to geocache, me side-tracked with a birthday call from a son.

Brenda Wilbee talking to son Blake from Skagway AK
Standing below my window, talking to Blake
Shari Guida geocaching
Instruction from Shari
"Geocaching is pretty simple," Shari repeated when I hung up and started to pay attention. People all over the world hide things for other people to find. You can both hide a cache and find one. Into a small tin, baggie, box, or whatever, you insert a small surprise and a cache log where you write down your name and where you're from. The rules are simple. You must leave something new behind or leave what's there, there; and, always always, sign the log before re-hiding the cache.

The game is the pursuit. The reward is the finding. Which involves a gizmo sort of like a compass. I'm not sure how it all works, but out in the parking lot we turned in circles, waiting for the needle to pick up and point.

Shari's neon yellow gizmo guided us northeast through the parking lot, across the road you see in the picture, and up past Captain William Moore's cabin three blocks away. We paused for picture-taking. Teri told us that if we put one foot forward and turn sideways we'd all look skinnier. Really?

Posing outside Captain Moore's cabin, Skagway AK
Me, Stanley, and Shari posing our skinny angles
Do you think?

We moseyed on, heading north and deeper into the picture you see, behind the trees and over to an abandoned White Pass engine and box cars. Stanley poked her nose is one of the box cars. "Hey!" she said. "This is great place to come make out!"

I looked and said, "Hey! This is a great place to live!"
abandoned White Pass engine and box cars
"A great place to live!"

Our needle started going a little wonky. Shari told us that when we're within 25 feet of the cache, it'll do this. You have to just start snooping around. So snoop around we did. Teri found it. Who'd o' thunk it was there? In a crevice of one rusty hunk of metal.

For Teri, Stanley, and me it was thrill. Shari stood by with a grin. We gave Teri the honor of pulling out her find, and the excitement of seeing what was inside took me back to childhood with my sisters, when we tried to drum up adventure, getting by on a whole lot of imagination. This took no imagination. Just look at what we found!

Stanley, Teri, Shari find the cache!
Stanley, Teri, Shari
The cache!
Our cache!
Brenda Wilbee signing the cache log
Me signing the log

Skagway, Alaska's AB Hall
AB Building -- Arctic Brotherhood
Our next little adventure took us to a "virtual" geocache at the AB Building on Broadway, Skagway's main road. This is the most photographed building in all of Alaska--though don't ask me how anyone actually knows this. We had to find the date on the building, easy; a plaque on the wall, easy peasy; and something else inside. I don't remember.

Outside again, I wanted a photo of Stanley standing in the same spot a prospector once wearily posed under a heavy pack before setting off to find gold six hundred miles to the north. So here's Stanley doing her thing, not weary at all and with a whole lot of sass. And ass.

Stanley Burton poses in Skagway AK
"There's a  cache on the way to Dyea," Shari told us. "Shall we go out there?"

"Yes, please."

Dyea is the "other" gold rush town of 1898. Today it's a ghost of a place, silenced and secreted away in a century's growth of forest claiming the ground that rises out of sea. Glacial rebound in the area is about an inch a year, which in Dyea reveals itself significantly because the inlet is long and shallow. What had in 1898 been a dock, is now tide flats. What had been shoreline is now woods.

Both Skagway and Dyea were trailheads for the two routes over the Coastal Mountains, into the Yukon and fantastical gold. Prospectors who chose to go by way of the Chilkoot Pass instead of White Pass rowed four miles from Skagway, or they steamed into the long shallow bay of Dyea on a steamer out of San Francisco or Seattle. Today you drive. The road is a circuitous nine miles and around AB Mountain, around Long Bay, up the mouth of the Tyea River, over the bridge, and back down into Dyea.

Along the gravel road beside Long Bay we braked hard. An eagle had serenely perched itself on the branch of a Sitka Spruce and was looking down Long Bay without a care in the world. Suddenly, a second eagle swooped in, the two lifted together and circled south, landing in a tree behind us. I'm never not amazed at how tiny a sound these majestic birds have. One might except a mighty shriek. Not so. We tumbled out to take a better look...and to listen. 

Shari Guida pulling away wet log paper for a Dyea AK cache.Back in the truck and coming around the north end of the bay, the needle jumped in Shari's gizmo. Shari found the cache hanging off a tree, quite soggy. Whoever hid this cache, didn't understand that Skagway and Dyea are in the Tongass National Rain Forest, and it took some time for Shari to peel back the wet paper so we could all sign the log.

Finally, Dyea. I love the place. Teri had never been.

The first stop was Slide Cemetery where 63 men lost their lives on April 3, 1898, in an avalanche that caught them under a 30-foot cloud snow. Today the cemetery a somber place, a quiet place, where sunlight dapples in through the spruce and onto gigantic, prickly devil's club.

Stanley and Teri at Slide Cemetery, Dyea, AK
Stanley, Teri
Dyea AK Slide Cemetery

It is, of course, hard for Stanley to remain reverent for long. Or was it me who suggested that one of us really needed to crawl into a sunken hole and have an eulogy said? Whatever, it was Stanley who of course jumped in.

Beth Knouff pretending to be dead.
Here Lies Stanly, A Pirate Who Died Not at Sea But Under the Snow
A Story of Woe Too Sad To Be Told
Where the town of 10,000 once was is now forest, with few reminders of its former hustle bustle, the very air electrified by hope and energy and con artists.

Then and now of Dyea AK
1998  >  2018
Middle building on the left is all that stands. And see how big the row of planted trees is now?

So tell me, now that I've gotten you to Dyea, is there a more satisfying place in the world?

Dyea wharf exposed by the tide
The Old Wharf, 1897, 1898, 1899
a glacial creek running into the Lynn Canal, Dyea, AK
Creek running down into Lynn Canal
I find Dyea to be a place where there is no boundary between me and the space touching my skin. I am the space, in limitless time, in the very breath of God.

And dare I get so mundane as to say, where else can you find a glacier fed creek bed full of gold? Winking up all shiny and yellow, and drawing me at least down into the frigid water?

It was of course fool's gold and I hobbled out with feet so cold I couldn't move my toes.

Driving back to town in company of new friends--and my first but not last geocaching adventure behind me--my 59th birthday seemed a magical thing. But the day was not yet over.

Back at the hotel, Jazz, a young girl from Michigan, had baked me not one cake but two! Two? Yes, two for all the HAPA drivers there to celebrate. And Davey had his own birthday gift for me. Just to catch you up, the year before, just two days before my 58th birthday, a preacher in town had told me I was too old to fit in. It was Davey I'd found in my tears, it was Davey who'd wrapped me in his arms and decried the preacher man who'd dare say such a thing. So what better way to end my birthday, another year older than the year before, with Davey singing me "Happy Birthday"?

I've had seven birthdays since that day, but as nice as they've been they don't quite measure up to the one where adventure and friends in AK put the Happy in my Birthday!

#23: Soapy Smith, A Cracked Head, & It Takes A Bullet

sketch of Soapy Smith's death

EVERY TOWN HAS ITS VILLAIN STORY. Skagway is no different.

I was driving motor coaches for HollandAmerica-Princess the summer of 2011. When assigned a tour to Skagway's Pioneer Cemetery, I took to acting out the famous shoot out between our legendary Soapy Smith, villain, and Frank Reid, hero. I played all three roles: Soapy, Frank, and the narrator as Me, Myself, and I.

Photo of Frank Reid and Soapy Smith
The real event happened the night of July 8, 1898, after an eight-month "reign of terror." Virtually all coin and gold coming in and going out of Skagway was funneled through Soapy's pockets. This bothered Frank Reid, a businessman. Each man desired to run Skagway in his own way and bad blood thickened. Their last shots, fired at each other, still linger.

So now, a hundred-plus years later, we take Skagway's visitors up to the old Gold Rush Cemetery to visit these dead men and tell all about the bitter rivalry and deadly dual. On July 8th of 2011, however, exactly 109 years later, my friend Shari and two other drivers decided to act it out to rousing applause. I liked the tips that came in. So straightaway I took the idea for myself and ran with it--acting out the whole thing starring, as I said, Me, Myself, and I.

The cemetery sits a mile north of town, up on the east bank of Skagway River. A gnarly place. Trees have grown up, their roots spread all through the site and tipping headstones off balance. Paths lined in rocks take people through the haphazard markers. Sharp rocks.

Skagway Pioneer Cemetery
I chose my "stage" carefully, leery of both roots and stones. But one day in mid-August I got myself a bit off stage, and in the full spirit of the story and playing the part of Soapy, I flung myself straight backward, shot through the heart by Frank Reid, and whacked my head with a thwack and a crack on a rock. I heard the sound--like a baseball bat smacking a ball clean over a fence. I then heard a collective gasp from my audience. But the show must go on, bump on the head or no. Still flat on my back, I flopped my head to the side and hung out my tongue per usual. Soapy fully dead, I got up to carry on as Reid. People started to rush me.

"That hurt," I agreed, "but I'm all right, and I'm not done." As Frank, I staggered about with a bullet in my groin, finally falling to my side while firing simultaneously at the dead Soapy and gasping, "I got him, boys, by God, I got him." And I smiled--as did Frank, heedless to his pain and euphorically pleased with himself.

But no one was smiling a minute later when, after wrapping it up as the narrator--"Frank Reid lingered 12 agonizing days before he too drew his last breath and died"--when it was discovered I had blood running down my head and onto my shirt.

BRENDA WILBEE driving motor coachLovely. Ducky. Now what? I still had to get everyone up to the Overlook, where on the other side of the river my guests could look down on our town and see just how beautiful it is. But the growing chorus of concern gathering around me was making this awkward to navigate. I kept insisting I was fine until one kind lady showed me her hand with my blood all over it.

A second shock wave. I was determined, however, to finish the tour. "Really, I can do this," I insisted, everyone digging into their pockets for tissues to staunch the flow of my blood. Finally a big fellow by the name of Dan came alongside and took my arm, "Sweetheart," he whispered, "we don't want you to take us up there. You need to call your dispatch."


I was really quite bummed. Folks herded me back to the bus. We broke into the first aid kit. The cold compress didn't work. A tour guide from another company supplied me one of his. And then my tour was snatched away from me and handed off to Bronn. One kind lady slipped me a fiver. And then the next thing I knew Casey, goddess of our dispatchers, had me at the health clinic where the PA (no doctors in this town) fired three staples into my head. 

"Can I go back to work?" If I kept my coat on I figured, over the bloody shirt, I could still catch my second tour of the day. Transportation boss said no.

In fact, I wasn't allowed to go back until the staples came out.

I went right back at it, of course, re-enacting the shootout. 

Because that's the way it is up here in Alaska. A knock on the noggin doesn't slow us down. That requires a bullet.

Frank Reid's tombstone 1898
Frank Reid's tombstone
Remembering Him As Skagway's Fallen Hero