The Curse of the Kushta Ka

I think it was the obscure French philosopher “What’s-his-name” who said,

“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.” A fine example of this quaint expression was encountered on a recent canoe journey near Sitka, Alaska. It was part of a canoe grudge that began sometime in the last century with an epic run down the Dungeness River in high water, with the Lost Alaskan in the bow. White water canoeing is a team sport. Communication is the key. At one point the river took a sharp right. We went straight.

Crashing a canoe is not unlike wrecking a lot of things like, friendships. With the hindsight of years, I had hoped the petty grudges and thoughts of revenge would erode into a fond memory of a wilderness adventure. I should have known The Lost Alaskan was going to get even if it was the last thing he did.

The free fishing trip to Sitka was what got me.

Once called “The Paris of the Pacific” for its hospitable people and lively social scene, Sitka has a connection to the Olympic Peninsula that goes back before the invention of history. 

The Ice Ace age locked up so much of the planet’s water that the ocean was 150 feet lower than the sea level we enjoy today. A thousand-mile-wide land bridge called Beringia appeared between Siberia and Alaska which allowed the migration of animals, plants and people between the two continents. The exact timing of the appearance of the land bridge and the coastal migration of the earliest people is anyone’s guess since it’s mostly underwater now.

They figure Beringia disappeared for good about 10,000 years ago. It was too late by then. Stone Age man was in the New World. By 13,800 years ago someone stuck bone spear point in a rib bone at the Manis Mastodon Site near Sequim. It may be a coincidence that the Pleistocene Mega-Fauna disappeared in the New World shortly after the arrival of early man but the same thing happened in Indonesia and Australia.

The Sequim mastodon hunters probably started fishing once the mastodons went extinct about 10,000 years ago. While there are legends of Chinese Explorers and stories of Japanese shipwreck survivors washing ashore, the stone-age cultures of the Pacific coast lived in relative isolation until the European Age of Exploration.

We are not exactly sure when the first European visitor arrived. Around 1700 the Ozette Indian Village was buried under a mudslide. In the 1970’s archaeologists uncovered brass tacks and a European bead among the artifacts at the site. They could have come from Sir Francis Drake who may have sailed here in 1579. Called “El Draque”, (The Dragon) by the Spanish, Drake was looking for a place to repair his ship. Drake had been looting his way up the west coast of South America pirating gold, silver and jewels from the Spanish who had stolen it from the Incas. King Phillip of Spain put out a 20,000 ducat, ($6.5 Us million,) reward for Drake’s capture.

Drake decided to set out across the Pacific to avoid the Spanish Armada that was after him. Drake needed a place to repair his ship, The Golden Hind and bury an estimated 17 tons of treasure to lighten the load for the rest of the way around the world. The exact location of Drake’s landing has been argued about ever since. All of Drake’s charts were declared a “Queens Secret” by Elizabeth I and later burned in a castle fire. All we know for sure is that Drake claimed the Pacific Coast for England calling it “New Albion” a name that stuck to the region for centuries.  

To counter English land claims the Viceroy of New Spain sent the Greek Navigator Apostostolos Valeridnos, AKA Juan de Fuca to find The Strait of Anian. This was the name of a mythical body of water somewhere north of San Diego where you could sail directly from Cathay to Europe. Juan de Fuca claimed he found this mythical Strait at around 47 degrees north lattitude. He claimed there was a large island and a rock pinnacle at the mouth of this strait. Captain Cook couldn’t find any strait but then again, he missed the Columbia River and hundreds of miles of shoreline in the fog that typically hugs this coast.

Cook named the place Cape Flattery as if he had been misled by the Greek Navigator. In 1787 Charles Barkely discovered a wide body of water at 48 degrees north lattitude. Barkley named the Strait for Juan de Fuca.

The Russians had discovered Alaska in 1741. For supporting the missionary work of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Czar Alexander I granted the Russian American Company exclusive rights to claim land and hunt for fur south to Baja California. 

In 1775 the Spanish sent Captains Heceta and Quadra up to Sitka support the missionary work of the Catholic Church, look for gold and enforce their own land claims as far north as Unalaska in the Aleutians.

In 1778 Captain James Cook came to the Pacific Coast. The English government had offered a prize of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could discover the Northwest Passage. Cook was killed in Hawaii after charting the pacific coastline north from Cape Foulweather to the Aleutians in a voyage so tough he forced the crew to eat walrus meat. By chance the starving crew on Cook’s ship traded with the Yuquot  on Nootka Sound for a some otter furs. The survivors eventually reached China where the furs brought an astounding ten dollars apeice. 

In 1792 the American Captain Robert Gray discovered the Columbia River and traded some iron chisels and beads for sea otter and beaver pelts which he traded for tea in Canton. Gray continued around the Cape of Good Hope to Boston becoming the first American to circumnavigate the globe.

The discovery that a few scraps of metal, some glass beads or an article of disease infected clothing could be traded on the Northwest Coast for a sea otter pelt worth a fortune in China set off the treachery and slaughter of the fur trade. Alcohol, gunpowder and disease were introduced to the stone-age cultures with devastating results.  By 1800 the entire west coast of North America had been claimed by the Spanish, English, Americans and Russians who ignored each other’s competing claims and the Native’s right to the land.

The Russians had built their first fort in Alaska in 1799 in Sitka. The Tlingits resented the Russians for taking their land, using their enemies the Aleuts to exterminate the sea otter and disrupt traditional trade patterns between the tribes. In 1802 the Tlingits burned the Russian fort.

In 1804 Russian-American Company Manager Alexander Baranov returned and burned the Tlingit Town, Noow Tlein and built a new fort, Novo Arkhangelsk or what we call Sitka today.

It was a great land for furs but too far north for agriculture. In 1808 Baranov sent the Russian ship Sv. Nikolai under Navigator Nikolai Bulygin from Sitka to claim land for an agricultural colony somewhere south of Vancouver Island. Instead the ship was wrecked on the Olympic Peninsula just north of the mouth of the Quileute River.

Just across the river lay the largest Quileute village, LaPush. The Russians knew the Natives south of Cape Flattery had a fierce reputation. On July 14, 1775 Captain Quadra had landed and erected a large cross as part of a possession ceremony near Pt. Grenville. Later that day he had sent seven men on a landing party to get water. Captain Quadra said they were attacked and killed by an estimated 300 Quinaults Indians who had understood the meaning of the possession ceremony. Quadra named a nearby island, Isla de Delores.

In 1787 Captain Barkley of the British Ship Imperial Eagle lost another boat load of six men at the mouth of the Hoh. Barkley named the river Destruction a name that was later transferred to the island in memory of his crew. Later, in 1788 John Meares was at Friendly Cove at Nootka Sound when he was offered a dried human hand that was said to have belonged to one of Capt. Barkley’s men. When Meares demanded an explanation Chief Maquinna said the hand had come from a distant tribe.

The appearance of the dried hand convinced Captain Meare’s suspicion that the Indians were cannibals. It was a common though unproven accusation. Both sides of the fur trade thought the others were cannibals. Captain Vancouver once offered some venison pie to an Indian aboard his ship who wouldn’t eat it until the old navigator showed him the venison haunch the meat came from. 

In 1796 the trading ship Ruby under the English Captain Charles Bishop was anchored in the Columbia River. They were visited by a canoe full of Indians from the village of Queenhythe located somewhere to the north. The Chief of these Indians confirmed the story of the Imperial Eagle boat crew. He said the crew including John Beale the Purser and a Mr. Miller was invited to shore where they began to trade. The Indians killed them all. Their clothes and bodies were divided and sent to neighboring tribes. Captain Bishop arrested the Chief and planned take him back to England where he could be punished by Mr. Miller’s father. Later the Captain he was forced to release the Chief in order to trade with the Chinook Indians. 

Losing sailors on these around-the-world voyages was not uncommon.  The Russian explorer Alexsi Chirikov lost men when first meeting the Tlingit off Kruzof Island in 1741.  Fifteen well armed Russian sailors in a longboat went to shore and were never seen again. It was assumed they were killed by the Tlingit but the Russians had muskets, pistols, a small cannon and two signal rockets. There was no sound of any firing. The Tlingits claim the Russians who came ashore didn’t want to return to the ship because of the cruelty and oppression on board.

Many sailors of the European Navies were impressed prisoners who would not survive the savage discipline, disease and hard labor on their forced voyage on high seas. Running away from the ship to live with the natives was an attractive alternative to burial at sea. To this day there are families on the Olympic Peninsula who can trace their lineage back to sailors who “jumped ship.”

For the Russians, being shipwrecked just across the river from the Quileute must have been terrifying. The Quileute of LaPush had every right to be war-like. They were constantly at war with their neighbors for plunder and captives who raided them in return. After the arrival of the fur traders who routinely enslaved, poisoned and robbed the natives, the Quileute quickly learned to never trust a European.

At first the relations between the Quileute and the Russian shipwreck survivors were cordial but things quickly deteriorated. The Russians headed south in a running battle, hoping to meet up with another Russian ship that was believed to be in Gray’s Harbor. The party included Anna Petrovna, wife of Captain Bulygin. She was captured during an attempted crossing of the Hoh River. 

The survivors hiked up the river and built a timber blockhouse similar to the one preserved in Sitka.

During the winter Bulygin tried to ransom his wife with some of the crew’s remaining firearms. Anna Petrovna refused to join her husband’s camp in the wilderness saying she was being treated very well by her captors. She advised the others to surrender to the Indians who would ransom them back to the first passing European ship.

This drove the captain mad. He surrendered his command to Timofei Tarakanov, a Russian Promyshlennik, that is a hunter/trapper/trader/mountain man whose skill in the wilderness and dealings with the Indians kept the shipwrecked survivors together and alive through the winter. The castaways survived mostly on dried salmon obtained by trade from the same Indians they were fighting.

Eventually all of the shipwreck survivors were captured, drowned or killed. Out of the 22 people who set out on the Nikolai, 13 survived to be ransomed by the American Captain Brown of the brig Lydia in May of 1810 at Neah Bay.

This ended the Russian attempt to claim the Olympic Peninsula. By 1867 with the expense of the Crimean War, the near extinction of the sea otter and the hostility of the Tlingit, Russia decided to sell Alaska to the United States.

The Tlingit had already made a name for themselves in Washington Territory. The northern tribes of Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshans had a long history of raiding south in war canoes that carried 60 or 70 warriors. People from these tribes would work in sawmills and farms in Victoria where they were entitled to the diplomatic rights of  British subjects. As such they could not be extradited by American authorities. 

In November of 1856 a party of Northern Indians was threatening the sawmill at Port Gamble. The U.S. Steamship Massachusetts shelled a number of canoes which may have killed as many as 50 Indians including a Chief. That summer the Tlingits returned to Whidbey Island and murdered Col. Isaac Ebey for revenge.

In 1859 the Schooners Blue Wing and Ellen Marie were attacked with 17 people murdered and the ships burned and sunk on the west side of Vashon Island. American officials went to Victoria to demand the guilty Indians be turned over but were refused.

As a new possession of the United States, Alaska faced the constant threat of a general native uprising.

The Territory was administered in part by the U.S. Navy who in 1871 sent the Sloop of War U.S.S.  Jamestown commanded by Captain L.A. Beardslee to Alaska to stop the slave trade and free native prisoners of war. Captain Beardslee surveyed and named Glacier Bay and reopened an important trade route to the interior, the Chilkoot Trail.

In 1895 as Commander of The U.S. Navy Pacific Squadron, then Rear Admiral  Beardslee brought the warships of the Fleet to Port Angeles harbor for the summer. Rear Admiral Beardslee was such an avid angler. He caught 350 trout on his first trip to Lake Crescent,  The locals honored the Admiral by naming a trout after him, the Beardslee.

Port Angeles was just a little fishing town until the seasonal influx of up to 20,000 sailors livened up the social scene. Many fine establishments were built in Port Angeles during this period to service the entertainment needs of the U.S. Navy. The untiring efforts of the local moonshiners and easy access to Canada with it’s vast reserves of whiskey guaranteed our Navy would not go thirsty on summer maneuvers. At the time it was said the Port Angeles girls wore wool socks in the spring and silk stockings by summer.

You could get all the salmon you wanted in Port Angeles by rowing around inside of the harbor dragging a hand-line with a hammered brass spoon. By the 1900’s the inventions of diesel power, refrigeration and the tin can had lead to the exploitation of the fisheries with predictable results. Port Angeles was home to a commercial fishing fleet and a salmon cannery whose “American Flag” salmon provided steady employment until the salmon ran out. 

In 1962 Port Angeles declared itself “A Sportsman’s Paradise” as part of it’s Centennial Celebration. Port Angeles was home to a commercial and recreational fishing fleet of charter boats that took tourists from around the world out to catch salmon. There was a yearly salmon derby that as the biggest celebration in town. Catching a salmon was as easy as trolling a flasher and herring past the mouth of the Port Angeles harbor and right out into the freight traffic of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

In 1974 The Boldt Decision gave the Treaty Tribes the right to fifty percent of the salmon harvest. This set off a fish war where each side tried to kill the last fish.

In the 1980’s an Atlantic Salmon fish farm was established inside Port Angeles harbor in a spot well-known to the locals as the best place to catch a salmon.  By 1994 catching a salmon became a complicated matter of quotas, seasons and gear restrictions. Salmon fishing in Port Angeles Harbor was outlawed.

Fisheries management became a cycle of abuse where Alaska intercepted fish bound for Canada who caught fish bound for Washington. People in Washington were forced to go to Alaska to catch a fish.

The invasion of Alaska by the Washington fishing fleet was greeted by the Alaskans with a degree of contempt Washingtonians had previously reserved for Californians. Alaska responded by using the sport fishing industry to bait in even more tourists. Today a trip to Sitka is like a journey back in time to 40 years ago when Washington was the Salmon Capitol of the World.

I was excited to go fishing in Sitka until I learned it would begin by paddling across a lagoon in a canoe. Someone once wrote I guess it was me, people have been drowning in canoes for years but they are still perfectly legal. Unfortunately, there was no way I could back out of the canoe trip, unless I wanted to get stranded on a shin-tangle covered beach at low tide when the bears came out to go clamming.

In Alaska there are many theories about how to deal with the bears but it is generally agreed they only eat tourists. Some people carry firearms. Others insist that bear spray is the best method of stopping a charging brown bear at close quarters. Never use bear spray on a bear. It might make them mad. Spray the tourist. The bear will get the tourist and give everyone else a chance to get away.  

I got in the canoe. As fate would have it, I was in the bow. The lost Alaskan said this particular lagoon was only dangerous in a rare North wind and we had perfect calm.  We paddled a mile or so without tipping over and entered the mouth of the secret creek. We began paddling upstream to the secret lake where the steelhead swarmed.

The creek shallowed across the tide flats. There were little holes dug all over the beach. I wondered what was wrong with these Alaskan clam diggers. Don’t they know you’re supposed to fill in your holes? Back in Washington we’d call in the clam cops SWAT team to cope with situations like this. Expressing my outrage to the Lost Alaskan he agreed and said,

“Bears.” I knew that.

After a while we ditched the canoe. We walked through a dense rain forest of spruce and hemlock where I was introduced to the sport of “post-holing”. That’s where you walk through slush as deep as a post hole making every step like ice-skating in a pool of frozen cement. Where the snow had melted the forest floor was carpeted with leftover fish bones from the fall salmon run. The leftover fish parts are a sign of a healthy eco-system. It’s the bear’s job to fertilize the trees and feed the many species of birds, bugs and animals that can’t catch fish for themselves. Since the eradication of the salmon on the Olympic Peninsula our bears have been largely unemployed.

The Tlingit believed that animals are rational beings capable of understanding human speech.  Encountering a bear they might speak to it and say,

“Give me luck.”

Which would not be the first thing that came into my head but whatever works. Bears were respected by the Tlingit but strangely enough, it was the otters that were feared more than anything.

The Kushta-Ka or River Otter Man was a dangerous spirit who could drive you mad, change people into werewolves and enslave the souls of those drowned at sea or lost in the woods. I was not about to let a silly native superstition deprive me of a story about how a healthy eco-system could survive a modern industrial fishery, no.

Walking upstream we came upon a fish weir. Except for being made of aluminum it was not unlike the weirs described by the first explorers on the Olympic Peninsula where the salmon were forced into a trap to be harvested. The salmon in this weir were to be counted and released as they swam upstream. If not enough fish make it upstream to spawn the fishing season was closed.

In Washington we manage our salmon with an entirely different system.  We dam the streams every spring to trap and count the baby salmon going out to sea in hopes of predicting how many salmon will return in the future. This is a lot like counting your chickens before they are hatched. 

When the salmon fail to return, we blame the loggers. The State of Washington’s efforts to restore the salmon include shutting down the fish hatcheries and making log jams. Counting your chickens before they are hatched is one thing but to use this analogy in Washington, we kill our chickens before they get a chance to lay the egg.

Depressed and disoriented I made my way to the secret lake where disappointment awaited. The secret lake was frozen over. I almost didn’t need to see the river otters, but I did. Were they the dreaded Kushta-Ka? All I know is a brisk North wind came up, stirring the tree tops. We were forced to beat our way through the whitecaps of the lagoon with the canoe on our return voyage.

I should never had tried to cheat fate and fish out in the ocean off Sitka either. Once out to sea there as a mechanical problem. We had to limp back to shore before the motor died. Then the weather turned into a fine penetrating mist pushed by a brisk Alaska wind. There was no more talk of fishing. I returned from Sitka fishless. It all made sense later I read my horoscope,

“You’ll love seeing parks, buildings, boutiques, galleries and the creative works of others”.

I wanted to write about my Alaska fishing adventure but my email got hacked and my website crashed. The curse of the Kushta-Ka lives.