The most important thing about driving a dinghy is to point the bow into the oncoming waves. I learned this the hard way. I was trying to get a heavy, wood-burning stove out to the cabin alone in what were probably three foot seas. A large wave came, nudged the dinghy over and the stove dropped eagerly to the bottom. As far as I know it’s still there.
My cabin lies in the woods 20 miles north of Sitka on the south tip of Chichagof Island. My father and I came to Alaska 60 years ago. We were living in Oklahoma and one day he said, “Son, we’re going north.” I thought he meant Ponca City, 25 miles up the 177 where our cousin Darryl lived. But he meant Alaska.
There are wonderful advantages to living in the woods. My health has never been better, since my diet consists largely of Jasmine rice and bok choy. My ex-girlfriend Linda turned me on to the amazing health benefits of bok choy. Now, when I go back to Sitka, I generally buy out the grocery store’s entire supply. My dingy must look funny to people as it motors out of the harbor. It must look like something out China, stacked high with sacks of rice and bok choy. But I’m no Chinaman. I’m a protestant.
Another advantage to living in the woods is I don’t have to talk to anyone. I haven’t talked to another human being for almost a year and half. After my wife died I’d sometimes go six months without even seeing another human being. Now these are my favorite stretches, where I forget the outside world exists. I go into a sort of trance, and it can last two to three days. When I come out of the trance I sometimes find myself in compromising situations. One time I was on top of the roof, naked from the waist down, trying to get snow out of the chimney. When I went downstairs I found that everything had been rearranged and that my books had been alphabetized and separated according to genre. My copy of The Grapes of Wrath had new notes in the liner: “Go all the way,” it said, and the word “asparagus” underlined several times.
But my favorite thing about living in the woods are the winters. In the winter, like the bears, I go into a sort of state of hibernation. The only difference is that I’m incredibly active. You might call it the opposite of hibernation. I barely sleep. Sometimes I stay away all night looking at the moon. Sometimes I shovel the snow off my front steps and watch as it accumulates again, puffing a cigarette and following the trajectory of the snowflakes. I roll my own cigarettes; tobacco is good for the brain. When I smoke I have the concentration of an ocelot. My calligraphy is excellent. And then of course there’s coffee. I demand only the freshest beans and when I can’t get them opt for tea.
Now that I’m nearing the end of my life, I feel compelled to tell the circumstances of how I came to live here. I’ve kept painstaking journals over the years, usually with the following elements: Precipitation (if any), animals spotted, and general observations. Rather than try to rewrite the journal entries into story form, I’ll let them speak for themselves. What I have done is eliminate the entries that aren’t essential. I’ve edited out the odd coffee stain and cigarette burn and also a paragraph from entry #3 three for strong sexual content (Linda brought along a Kama Sutra book she’d picked up in Sitka). Other than that, it’s exactly how I wrote it that first year in the cabin.
I hope you like them and don’t judge. If you do judge, I hope a brown bear gets you. —Martin Potter, Chichagof Island, 2007
June 15th, 1969
Animals: Willow ptarmigan (female) in molting plumage, king salmon (coho?), several crows, salal berries
Observations: Came on dinghy today with last of supplies from Sitka. Wonderful conversation with Tom, the hardware store owner. Linda seems to have a soft spot for him. Seas choppy coming through the strait but more than manageable. Must build steps sloping into the water in front of house. Cedar? Pine? Definitely not pine.
Linda seems happy. She yelled at me twice today, once when I pocketed a chocolate bar at the grocery store and then when I made farting noises on the dock.
Goals for this week: finish (and start) steps down to the water. Take dimensions for the stove. Drink red wine and attempt “The Lazy Octopus” (Position #4, p.73).
June 16th, 1969
Animals: Brown bear
Observations: The Lazy Octupus was too advanced. Linda broke one of the windows as we rounded third. Coming into home I faltered but we got back on track and slipped into a sort of rhythm. A firm hold on the hips is key. Probably more satisfying for the woman than the man. Next time make sure to keep candles at least six feet from the bed. Bed sheets not fire retardant.
This morning during morning pee saw first brown bear. Probably 3-4 years old and a sow. Ran away as soon as she saw me. Seemed surprised to see a human. Didn’t see any cubs in the vicinity.
Began digging holes for the foundation of top steps. Have decided on cedar but Linda will not be happy about the expenditure. She thinks I should get a job in Sitka. We fought and I left in a huff. When I get angry I get quiet, and also itchy. The only remedy is a cold shower, or to jump in the sound, which I did. After swimming I had no desire to work. Linda was back in the cabin drinking wine even though it was only 4pm. I told her about the bear and she was non-plussed. Very little love making in the forecast tonight. Page 76 includes a position called The Yoga Berra, and will not be possible unless we can procure the following items: 1) a muzzle, 2) whipping cream, and 3) A map of Idaho. There is also an asterisk by the description that says, “Recommended to fast at least 6-8 hours before attempting” This is puzzling. Either way, I think Linda can be convinced, as fasting is something we often do here anyway.
Two days in a row now without precipitation. I know it’s July, but this is still rare for Southeast. Linda lay on the rocks for part of the day sunning herself. I also saw her writing in her journal, but didn’t ask to read it. Linda is a tremendous writer. She writes only in French. When it comes to her writing, however, she’s private. Says it helps her “process things.” Went for an extended walk in the woods. Looking for possible well site. Sitka already feels lifetimes away, and I have no desire to go back.
In the afternoon saw porpoise breach 50 yards off shore. Linda said, inexplicably, “Looks like Bill (she has a brother named Bill but I’m not sure that’s who she was referring to).”
July 14th, 1969
Precipitation: 0.05 inches (approximate)
Animals: Brown bear, squirrel, chickadee, bluejay, porpoise, fungus (probably not edible)
Observations: Almost a month at the cabin now. Linda already wants to go back to Sitka. “Give it a chance,” I told her. “What do you think I’m doing?” she said. “Yes, but being out here doesn’t mean you’re giving it a chance. If you decide you’re going to hate it you’re going to hate it.” This resulted in a brief shouting match, followed by a brief wrestling match, followed by lovemaking. I broached the subject of the Yoga Berra and Linda said it might be difficult to get a muzzle in Sitka. She also suggested using salami instead of whipping cream, which I found odd.
In the afternoon fished and caught two cohos, neither of which were keepers. Hadn’t seen any brown bears for a few days until I saw a small male today. Linda will get her wish soon, as I want to go back and get the stove. Something tells me she might not want to come back, though. Living out here alone would be glorious, but not as glorious as with Linda. Don’t know how I can change her mind. Maybe teach her to fish?
Last night while we were sitting at the dinner table, which incidentally is the only table and not really a table but a bench, Linda started reciting a poem in French. (She’s transcribed it here):
Je vous donne,
Le bon jour,
Here she stopped to pour herself another glass of wine. I asked her what the poem meant and she said it was untranslatable. “You mean you’re just lazy?” I said whereupon she glared at me and stared out the window. Linda and I have been together for two years now. We met in Anchorage at a department store where she was trying on bras. On our first date I took her to the bumper cars and she suffered a mild concussion after I pinned her against the wall and rammed her repeatedly. By the third date we were talking about moving in together. And now it’s disintegrating like pieces of styrofoam in an oil slick. We finished one bottle of wine and started on a second. She surprised me by saying, “I’m going for a swim,” but when I went outside she was just standing by one of the spruce trees, staring out at the water. There was a breeze in the tree branches and it felt like October instead of July.
July 15th, 1969
Precipitation: Who cares
July 20th, 1969
Observations: Linda and I went to Sitka. Right before docking at the public marina she turned to me, brushed the hair from her face and said, “I’ve been sleeping with Tom.” I turned the motor off and asked her to fend off the dock. We walked up the gangway, me carrying the burlap sacks I intended to fill with supplies. When we arrived at Main Street I asked if this meant she wouldn’t be helping me take the stove back. She looked at me, tilted her head like a lab trying to comprehend a strange noise, and walked away.
July 22nd, 1969
Observations: Stove debacle (see intro).
August 1st, 1969
Animals: Several brown bears, same sow from July.
Observations: Have been drinking steadily. Was able to save two bottles of gin when dinghy capsized. Cedar steps for dock finished! Also, something I forgot to mention: procured salmon casting net in Sitka, a wonderful find. Have caught nothing except for one angry and confused seagull whose leg I broke in the process. Nursed him back to health with a mixture of saltines and bok choy, and have since dubbed him Timothy. Timothy healed quickly and has taken to visiting most afternoons. He sits on the windowsill closest to the bay and taps his beak against the glass. Sometimes I feed him sardines but more often than not we dine on rice and bok choy, though Timothy usually ignores the bok choy. Still no word from Linda, though admittedly she has no way of contacting me other than getting a boat out here. After she told me about Tom I walked into the hardware store intending to fight him but instead we ended up discussing septic systems. I know he’s not a bad guy but I still hope he drowns or gets mauled by a bear. Last night lay awake in bed listening to the sounds. Heard the following things: the hoot of an owl, the caw of a seagull, the titter of a blue jay, and what sounded like a brown bear doing deadlifts on the front porch. Was woken up this morning by Timothy tapping his beak against the window. Went outside to feed him and he gave me a look of reproach and flew away.
August 15th, 1969
Precipitation: Plentiful (1-2 inches in the last two weeks)
Animals: Sow and two cubs, bull moose, squirrels, lichen, bioluminescent algae
Observations: Yesterday I turned 39 years old. Yippee. To celebrate I drank a fifth of Seagrams in 20 minutes and went for a swim. Must’ve blacked out because I came to several hundred yards down shore with mud and seaweed smeared on my face and the word “Pagliacci” carved into my arm. Scrambled inside, put water onto boil, and decided things needed to change. Made myself an aromatic elixir of pine needles and moss and put it into the bathtub where I sat for some hours, pondering the intricacies of life. Why did I come to this cabin? Why did Linda come with me? Why did she start sleeping with Tom? How did she even sleep with Tom, since our visits to Sitka were infrequent and we never separated for more than a half hour? I also pondered a few other things which were not as emotionally involved but still important: Where to get a typewriter and how to get it here. What I would paint for the main piece of art in the living room, assuming I was able to get a canvas and paints. And finally: Timothy. He seems to be growing dependent on me. He arrives at the cabin every day at two o’ clock, or what I assume is two o’ clock. Sometimes he doesn’t even eat but just watches me. And sometimes he doesn’t even watch me but just stands there, staring out at the water. Sometimes he cleans himself. Sometimes he caws at other seagulls when they come too close. Sometimes he looks depressed.
August 16th, 1969
Precipitation: None (blue skies)
Observations: It would appear Timothy is in the process of courting. Yesterday he showed up with another seagull, who stood by looking skittish as he tapped his beak on the window. When I came out on the deck she (I’m assuming she’s female) flew away, and Timothy gave me a stern look. We spent the next 15 minutes or so in communal silence. At one point I absentmindedly reached out and stroked his head and neck feathers. I noticed some of his tail feathers are white, whereas with most seagulls they’re all black. This gives his tail a striped look, and is quite unique. After a few minutes we both seemed to realize I was petting him and he, startled and embarrassed, flew away.
In the afternoon fished, but heart wasn’t in it. I don’t want to catch salmon. I don’t want to work on the cabin. I don’t want to paint. I don’t want to take walks. The only thing I want to do is chop firewood and drink.
Chopping firewood is opportune. Winter comes early in Alaska. It doesn’t come as early in Southeast as it does on the mainland, but it still comes early. Yesterday a purse seiner came by, and I waved to it. It reminded me of the few years I worked in the fish processing plants in Bristol Bay. What an awful job. But there was solace in working 16 hours a day for very little pay. The camaraderie developed with my co-workers was exceptional. And it seemed the longer we worked the longer we were able to work. I think some of the guys never went home. There was a Filipino guy named Felipe who I never once saw not on the racks. It was a pleasure to watch him work. He could filet a fish in 4.6 seconds (we timed him). The only time I ever saw him away from the job was one payday when most of the workers went to the town bar and got awfully drunk. Felipe was pounding his fist on the table and yelling at no one in particular. Felipe! I called, Felipe! He didn’t look at me but kept pounding his fist on the table and laughing. Felipe! I said again, and this time he looked over. His nostrils were flared and one of his eyes looked like glass.
August 20th, 1969
Precipitation: Cloudy but no rain
Animals: Timothy, Timothy’s girlfriend, the usual squirrels and birds, the sow with her cubs, no bluejay (I mention this because I haven’t seen the bluejay in several days)
Observations: I’ve run out of gin. This is fine, of course. I don’t need more gin. In fact, I’ve decided to dedicate myself to a rigorous regimen of self-improvement. I shall wake everyday at sunrise, write for an hour, draw with the new charcoal pencils I’ve made from sharpened and blackened birch sticks, do push-ups, go for a swim, and then start the day with fresh-boiled oats and tea. My walks will be longer and more varied. I’ll try to meditate. Above all, I’ll endeavor to forget Linda.
The breeze was strong all morning and it was cloudy. The scent of fall is in the air. Something, I don’t know what, told me today might be the last time I see the sow and her cubs until spring, when the cubs will no longer be cubs but independent juvenile bears. In a month, in September, I’ll go to Sitka for the last time before winter.
August 29th, 1969
Precipitation: Light shower in morning
Animals: Woodpecker (!), vole, squirrel, sow with cubs
I was wrong about the sow with her cubs. She’s gone nowhere. She looks fatter, though, and I’m glad to see that.
The voles are scurrying around on the ground as if they know something I don’t. They probably do. Today was warm, but the nights are cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s snow sometime in September, at least up in the hills.
Timothy came by this morning and ate all of the rice and bok choy I put out for him. His girlfriend waited by the edge of the deck, observing things quietly. I stroked his head (he lets me now) and he gave me a friendly peck on the thumb. I found myself trying to recite the poem Linda had been saying in French, but couldn’t remember the words. When Timothy flew away I watched him climb higher and higher until he disappeared out of sight.
Not much to report, other than that. I’m making a beautiful charcoal self portrait. I look like a pirate. I thought about drawing Linda but when I started to make the drawing I just wrote the word “slut” in big letters. Then I burned it.
Tonight, before going to bed, I stood in front of the mirror looking at myself, which is not so much a mirror as a sheet of smoked glass. I stood in front of it smoking and looking at myself. My beard is long and starting to get curly. My hair is long too and I should get it cut when I go into Sitka. I looked down at my belly button, at my thighs, and at my arms hanging by my sides. I’m 39 years old. I was born in Oklahoma. My name is Martin Potter, son of Terry Potter, and I’ve lived in Alaska my whole adult life. I’ve never been married. My last girlfriend, Linda, has apparently left me for a hardware store owner. I have few skills. I like to draw. I like to fish. I like to cut firewood. My best friend, currently, is a seagull.
Will I survive the winter in this cabin?
September 5th, 1969
Precipitation: Glorious sunshine
Animals: Timothy, Timothy’s girlfriend, a whippoorwill
Observations: Timothy is a wonderful bird. He’s also smarter than I’d thought. Today, just to see if he could figure out, I put a sardine inside an upturned cup. He cawed twice to make his presence known, and then set about solving the riddle. First he did a lap around the cup, looking at it from different angles. Then he pecked at it a few times gently. Next, he rapped his beak sharply against it and the cup flew into the air. He pounced on the sardine, swallowed it in one gulp, and stood looking satisfied. At this point his girlfriend let out a caw, he let out a caw, and they left.
September 12th, 1969
Precipitation: 1 inch in 4 days
Animals: Timothy, Timothy’s girlfriend, male brown bear, porpoises, coho
Observations: I think I’ve figured out Timothy’s caw system, and for that matter possibly the caw system for seagulls in general. When I go out on the deck in the morning to feed him, he caws once. This means “hello.” If I take too long to feed him, he might caw twice. The double caw can mean myriad things. It might mean “hurry up,” “stay away” or simply “I see you.” Timothy is fond of the double caw. Of course, seagulls also make a loud, screeching call that sounds like, “Ka KEE KEE KEE KEE. Ka KEE KEE KEE KEE.” I think this is a mating call, but can’t be sure. I’ve only heard Timothy do it once. Now that he has a girlfriend he hasn’t done it.
A word on Timothy’s girlfriend: She still waits while he eats and doesn’t come near me, but now seems calmer as she waits on the edge of the deck. It’s almost as if she tolerates the relationship Timothy and I have. Not to say she approves.
September 16th, 1969
Precipitation: A steady drizzle all morning. Sun breaks in afternoon.
Animals: Porpoise, harbor seal
Shopping list for Sitka:
60 pounds rice
Fruits and vegetables
Ask about typewriter (ask who?)
Olive oil or other cooking oil
Some kind of hot sauce
Things for Timothy:
String (I want to do more experiments to test his food-getting ingenuity)
Shrimp (For Timothy’s birthday on October 1st. I’ve decided he’s going to be 5.)
September 18th, 1969
The other day a seiner motored into the bay. The deckhands were up top and appeared to be drinking. I thought nothing of it until I heard the report of a shotgun, and then saw the parade of seagulls following their boat. Seiners carry guns on deck and like to shoot at animals when they’re bored, which is pretty much all the time when they’re not fishing. Sometimes they shoot at sea lions, other times at seals, but more often than not at seagulls, which is exactly what they were doing that day. I screamed and ran down to the dinghy. By the time I’d started the motor, though, they were already around the bend. I motored to the center of the bay and saw what looked like a white stick poking out of the water. Upon closer inspection, however, I saw it was a wing. I yelled and jumped into the water near where the floating thing was, and soon had Timothy’s body in my arms. I hauled him out of the water and put him on one of the benches. His eyes were covered with a grey film and some of his white feathers were red from the buckshot. His skin was exposed in several areas where the shot had torn through, and his wing was mangled. I screamed and kicked the side of the dinghy, and then screamed at the water where the seiners had been. I wanted to motor after them, point their own guns at them, and pull the trigger, but not before showing them what they had done. Instead I sat in the dinghy in the middle of the bay, my face in my hands, Timothy next to me. My sobs echoed off the water into the hills. I sat there long enough to drift a few hundred feet, and then turned on the motor and headed home.
I gave Timothy a proper burial next to the spruce tree. If I had had a record player I would’ve played the song La Follia by Anotonio Vivaldi. I said a few words over his grave and then went inside, where I broke the smoke-glass mirror with my boot, took one of the shards, and carved into my arm. I watched the blood drip onto the floor and then wrapped it in a cloth, went back outside, and smoked a cigarette by the spruce tree.
It’s raining now. Tomorrow I’ll put some stones by Timothy’s grave, and I’d also like to put up some kind of inscription.
I’ll keep putting out rice and bok choy just in case Timothy’s girlfriend comes.
September 22nd, 1969
As scheduled, I went into Sitka the day before yesterday. Before I left I decorated Timothy’s grave with a few pieces of smoked glass and also said a few more words.
Timothy, we used to sit on the balcony and eat rice. You were wiser than most, certainly wiser than me. I could see in the way you looked at the water you knew secrets us humans do not. I wish I could pat your head and stroke your neck. I miss the sound of your beak tapping against the window in the morning. Your body is in the ground now, but your soul soars high. One day I will join you, Timothy. One day we’ll sit together again.
Things were routine in Sitka. I didn’t see Linda. I didn’t go to the hardware store even though there were some things I needed. To hell with them, I thought. I’ve always done without.
Leaving the bay to go home the Evinrude died. I rowed into shore in order to go straight to the hardware store. As I was rowing in I saw a woman waving. She introduced herself as Caroline and asked if I needed help. “I’m fine,” I told her, “I think one of the plastic pieces in the clutch is broken.”
“Where do you live,” she asked.
“Chichagof,” I said.
“Throw me your bow line.”
She helped me tie up and offered to help me put on the cover since it had started to rain. Normally I would’ve refused such help, but it was easier to accept. On the way up from the dock she asked if I wanted to have a cup of tea and wait out the rain, and again it was easier to just accept. In her kitchen I took off my boots and she made us a pot of licorice root tea. She told me a bit about her life, growing up in Anchorage, going to a secondary school just a few miles from mine. She mentioned that her husband had been a king crabber, but didn’t elaborate. Afterward I thanked her for the tea and left.
At the hardware store Tom’s employee (Tom wasn’t there) said the part for the motor would have to be ordered from Anchorage and would take at least a few days. I had enough money for one night at the Baranof, and got a room there. How nice it was to take a warm shower! To lie in the big, flat bed. They even had television, and I spent at least three hours in the evening staring at it but not even watching the shows. The next day I checked at the hardware store and they said the part could be on the flight the next day, but could also not. I didn’t have enough money for another night at the Baranof but figured I’d come up with it somehow. Maybe I could even ask Linda to lend me it. She’d definitely do it, and I wouldn’t feel especially obligated to pay her back.
Walking down to the dock to check on the dinghy I ran into Caroline again. She was on her way to go hiking and asked if I’d like to come along. We walked to the edge of town and started up the valley to a place called Blue Lake and somehow I got to talking about the cabin and about Timothy. I burned with shame as I told her about Timothy. I don’t know if this was because I felt such affinity for a bird or because I felt like I was desecrating his memory in order to impress a woman. Either way at one point Caroline stopped, and when I asked her what was wrong she said, “Would you take me to your cabin sometime?”
I nodded and we kept up the valley.
Back in town I went back to the Baranof and told them I didn’t have any way to pay a second night. The owner, an older man named Giles or Guiles or something with “-iles,” looked me over for a moment and then asked my name. “Martin potter,” I said. “Well, Mr. potter, you’ll pay me when you can. Now get some rest. You look like you need it.”
Upstairs I fell asleep with the TV on. I needed distraction. It was strange not being able to hear the sounds of the forest.
(ED’s note: A series of ripped out pages here in the diary. Only one entry from the winter of 1969/1970. It was dated December 24th and said, “So much snow!” followed by some scribbles, a coffee stain, and a drawing of a ptarmigan.)
March 4th, 1970
Precipitation: 0.1” in the morning, clear in the afternoon
Animals: Seagulls, woodpecker, seal
Caroline’s been here three months now, and I’m happy about it. Timothy’s girlfriend comes and has a distinct taste for pineapple, which I like giving her but is almost impossible to procure. The sow should be waking up with her little ones any day now, though I doubt they’ll be so little anymore. Hopefully they stay off the deck.
Yesterday Caroline and I took a boat ride into the sound. We’d made love in the morning (no Kama Sutra but it was wonderful)b and drunk licorice root tea. I told her about the stove Linda and I had originally bought and she tut-tutted. “Any Southeast Alaskan worth his salt knows that,” she said, referring to proper dinghy driving technique.
The water was choppy and the sky brilliant despite the high clouds. We went probably a mile offshore and then started back. As we were coming back I heard what sounded like a familiar caw and looked up and saw a juvenile seagull — you can tell by their mottled grey plumage — doing circles in the sky, making a ruckus and dive-bombing the other gulls. There was something about his flight that looked familiar, and when we came closer I noticed he had white tail feathers mixed in with the black, giving the appearance of stripes.
Caroline looked up at the cawing group of gulls and back at me, radiant. Her hair was blowing in the wind and her nose slightly sunburnt. “I don’t care what anyone says,” she said, “I think they’re beautiful birds.”
I smiled and looked up again at the seagull with the striped tail feathers. Then I took the rudder and pointed the dinghy into the oncoming waves.