It happened that I had an Island in Amalga Harbor and had been asking Pop about its Tlingit name and history. Pop said, “We ask yo’ uncle, Tsee Xwaa. He know.” Johnny Fawcett, Tsee Xwaa, of the Woosh-ke-taan clan was older than Pop by five or ten years. Pop respected him and esteemed his knowledge. He was one of a few people to whom Pop deferred in this area. Moreover, the Woosh-ke-taans had a history in Berner’s Bay, a large bay and river estuary some miles north of Amalga Harbor. Even better, the Woosh-ke-taans claimed the halibut as a clan crest. If anyone knew about the island, Tsee Xwaa would know. He was living in the Native Village, a group of tribal houses in line on both sides of a single road in a section of Juneau that a hundred years ago had been on the waterfront. Now the old beach was buried with fill and development leaving the Village land-locked and a block or so from the sea. I think Tsee Xwaa, up in years, and sometimes a little befuddled, was not completely sure why he got dragged out on an expedition that morning. Pop went into the Thunderbird House and emerged a moment later gripping the old man by one arm. Tsee Xwaa, jacket half on, clutched his cane in the other hand while trying to straighten his fur hat as he got hustled out and loaded into my pick-up truck. Once aboard, he smiled at me blankly, whistled tuneless notes through pursed lips and stared straight ahead as though this sort of thing happened all the time.
In due time we arrived at Amalga Harbor and I launched the canoe while Pop found a crab apple tree and cut a forked limb for use as root digging tool. Two natural features here vie for place in my mind as
The island about which I had questions is the main geographic feature sheltering the cove from the seaward side. Entirely forested, with a mostly sheer margin that drops directly into the sea, it lies less than a quarter mile from the mainland, with a beach of fractured blue mussel shells on the inshore side, the only good landing place. The outer side of the island drops immediately into deep water, deep enough that whales steam by within a pebble’s toss. Each year at least one, sometimes two, nesting pairs of bald eagles make their home on it. A couple times each year, on extremely low tides, minus five footers, much of the harbor bottom directly inshore of the island lies exposed and strewn about with starfish of many colors, sea anemones, and, sometimes, hundreds of baby king crabs, perfect little miniatures of their giant parents.
This morning we were on an average low tide with lots of water in the harbor and since the sunny, windless weather promised an easy paddle to Eagle River I took time to circumnavigate the island with the two elders. Pop translated the questions I had about the island to Tsee Xwaa. “They call that island “Kaan xat’ a gook“, Tsee Xwaa said in Tlingit.” He added two stories one of which I recount here briefly, paraphrasing: Before white people, Tlingits from Auke Bay had been camped at this spot and were very hungry, even starving. A shark killed a halibut in the cove, thrashing about and chopping out big bites and when the tide went out exposing the bottom, people salvaged the large chunks of the fish left behind. The second story I heard years later when Pop retold it in a somewhat disjointed way in the office of an opthomologist. The story was somewhat similar in that it had to do with a rescue of people, but this time by a killer whale which drove Dall Porpoises up onto the sandy beach, possibly behind my island or possibly onto the sandy beach at Eagle River toward which we were now bound. I’ve recorded what I have of it as a footnote at the end of this story. **
Tsee Xwaa did not say what time of year these events took place or why people were starving.
Paddling around the shadowed side of the five-acre island and coming out into the sun I looked up to see a mature bald eagle perched on a high snag, a bleached and twisted spire that leaned out over the sea, its tip maybe two hundred feet above us. Resplendent in the morning sunshine cresting the island, white head and tail shining, the eagle preened itself, throwing tufts of downy white feathers into the air, one after another into a cloud of little diadems that glinted around her briefly and floated down like dandelion fluff. I had stopped paddling and Pop, in the bow twisted around to see why. On spotting the eagle he remarked, “Your Uncle taking his bath” (“Uncle” meaning the eagle and signifying a kinship relation in Tlingit social structure between the bird and me.) One of the down feathers wafted over the canoe and without thinking about it, I reached out and plucked it from the air. Pop witnessed this. “Now sometin’ going to happen!” he said. “Put in your pocket, don’t say anything.” Pop was thinking about Gowakaans, Peace Dancers, and the significance of taking eagle down from the air. But that’s another story. Just now, we’re on our way to Eagle Beach.
The wide sandy beaches of the Eagle River delta, rising from a mill-pond calm sea, simmered brightly in the light. Flounders, startled from their half-buried hiding places on the bottom by the shadow of the canoe passing over them, rocketed away through the clear shallows leaving little contrails of sand behind them. A black oystercatcher let loose a spiky-voiced protest at our arrival, stared for a moment with yellow, unflinching eyes, then flew off down the beach. The oystercatcher, called in Tlingit tloo gun’ (fire nose) referring to its fiery red-orange beak, had no grounds for complaint, anyway. I knew it didn’t belong here because it had a nest on a rocky island half mile away. As we glided to the beach, the bow crunched softly on the bottom. No worry about rocks and barnacles lacerating the canvas canoe here. Canoe-friendly beaches like this being a rarity in Southeast, I took pleasure in the easy landing and disembarking.
Song sparrows and Lincoln sparrows flushed in short, low altitude flights fluttering back into the waist-high verdure ahead only to take flight again as we waded through. Pop, in the lead used his cane machete-fashion every once in a while to slash a wild celery plant, ee yana aet, from our path. We’d not gone very far before the warming day started to exact a toll, reminding us to stop and remove jackets.
Reaching the first spruce copse and ducking into the shade was like entering the shadowed chill of a stone cathedral. Tsee Xwaa found a comfortable depression on the mossy ground and stretched out, using a spruce bole for a backrest. Whistling without sound he began picking up twigs, cones and needles, rearranging the forest floor within his reach.