Elfin Cove, Alaska.
The Southeast Coast.
One month past my eighteenth birthday and I was standing at the forepeak, poised to leap, when the skipper of the purse seiner I’d hitched a ride on from Juneau motioned me back down.
“Adam!” the old fisherman yelled, leaving his position at the wheel and coming out on deck. “Your pack! You forgot your backpack!”
With the same haste I’d ascended the forepeak, I descended—grabbing my old external frame pack where I’d left it leaning against the wall of the wheelhouse. Grinning and shaking his head, Pete, the purse seiner’s skipper, helped loop the back around my shoulders.
“Remember what I say. The Ivory Inn. Just as you get to the village. Can’t miss it. Big white two story house with a white picket fence around it. You stop there first and get yourself a square meal . . . and a hot shower and shave in the rooms upstairs. Ain’t no hurry, Adam. Nothing much going on till morning. This Elfin fleet ain’t going nowhere ‘till King season opens two days from now. Turn down that idle of yours a notch or two, kid.”
Pack on, I grabbed Pete’s hand and shook it briskly.
“Got it, Pete. The Ivory Inn. First picket fence after you gets off the Interstate. Big breakfast. Then shit, shower and shave—not necessarily in that order.”
“Get out of here, kid!” Pete said, clobbering me over the head with his baseball cap.
I climbed back up on the forepeak.
“And don’t ever forget,” Pete said, shouting over the road of the diesel motor. “It’s you that’s doing them the favor?”
“Favor? What favor?”
Pete just smiled and shook his head. He pulled his deerhorn pipe out of a pocket of his windbreaker and lit up. A good old guy, this Pete! I remembered the trouble he’d expressed not being able to sign me on back in Juneau. But he already had a full crew waiting for him in Bristol Bay. It was only out of the goodness of his heart that he’d gone these ten miles off course to get me to this little village. Even now I often wonder how differently things might have turned out had I got on with Pete and his Bristol Bay bunch.
“Nevermind, Adam!” said Pete. “Big strapping kid like you—you’ll do fine!”
Pete turned his short stocky frame around, and like a turtle standing on its hind legs, waddled his way back to the wheel.
“Elfin Cove!” I thought out loud.
The name couldn’t have been more perfect.
The village had been hidden from plain view, tucked deep inside this wandering bay at the northern tip of Chicago Island on the west coast of Southeast Alaska. Now, as we swung around this last point, it came into full and sudden view. The entire village was strung along a single green-pained boardwalk which ran atop a narrow landing jutting up from the rocky shoreline, horse-shoeing around the tiny cove like a railroad track upon the embankment of a river. Along the boardwalk stood a dozen odd shacks, a half-dozen supply stores, a laundry/shower shack, and one U.S. Post Office: like props from a child’s train set. Moss, mushroom and lichen bloomed everywhere: upon the shorelines rocks and boulders; atop the boardwalk railing; even up the sides of many of the buildings. Ferns of varying size and shape and shade of green sprung from every corner. And surrounding it all, spring out of the soil of the village’s very backyard, trees—mountains of them—Red and Yellow Cedars, Sitka Spruce and Douglas Fir; rising in a steep green cone; separating Elfin Cove and all that it entered here from the rest of the world. Straight out of the Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson books I’d read as a child. . .
Pete startled me with the horn, signaling me to jump. I could feel the seiner drop into low gear as I knelt beside the anchor windlass and regained my composure. Slowly, I stood up, and forced myself to smile back at Pete. My heart hammered in my chest and there was a strange wild taste of sea-water in my mouth. The approaching land mass seemed at once to rush towards me and pull away. Grinning, I realized this was it. No running back to the Juneau construction job I’d worked for one month to get the necessary funds to make my way here. In my exuberance, I fancied this simple dock a kind of red carpet, rolled out at my feet.
Giving Pete a hardy thumb’s up, I turned back around, and, staring straight in the face of destiny, jumped, realizing, of course, I shouldn’t have the moment I had.
WHAM! I don’t know if I blacked out or what, but the first thing I remember after the stars was the taste and actual feel of real salt water in my mouth and that half my face was underwater pasted against a board. Sputtering, I scrambled to my feet. The front of me was wringing wet. The dock had sunk underfoot the moment I touched down. Worse—it was sinking now—in front of me as well as behind! Goose bumps raced up the skin of my legs as I took several stone leaping strides for the ladder leading up to the boardwalk—icy fingers grabbing at my heels, spurring me on each step of the way. I didn’t know what was worse: the dock swaying this way and that or my backpack swaying the same. It was like trying to run on a long balloon. The last plank snapped underfoot just as I grabbed hold of the first rung of the ladder. I climbed, praying that the rungs of this ancient ladder not break under my weight. Finally, gasping like a fish out of water, I landed myself on top of the boardwalk.
Loosening the cinches on my shoulder straps, I wrestled my way out of my overstuffed pack, booting it as I staggered to my feet.
“What the hell!” I yelled to Pete.
Looking down at the half-submerged dock, I wondered why Pete or I hadn’t noticed the rotted-away quality of its boards. Hell—some of its boards were even missing! Back out to sea, I could just make out the bobbing figure of Pete waving goodbye. Probably pissing himself over how ridiculous I must have looked!
I waved back in spite of myself.
Grabbing a rock from beside the walkway, I winged it at a lone bald eagle perched atop a rusted gas drum across the way: the sole witness, outside of Pete and myself, of my botched-up stage entrance.
The rock pinged off the drum’s steel-casing, making the eagle jump.
I checked my mouth for loose teeth; my face for blood or splinters. Nothing. Everything intact. But there was a big bruise where my right cheekbone had kissed the wood.
I’d be taking a souvenir with me.