The Legend of Waterfall Charlie


Charlie insisted that his body be brought back to Japan. 

Before he fell ill, Charlie was part of the Waterfall Cannery's summer crew. Water was everywhere in Charlie's world. Each morning he woke in the Asian bunk house. It was constructed on pilings, straddling where the southeast muskeg gave up pretending to be solid earth and surrendered to the inevitability of becoming a lagoon. From the sky water dripped, from the west it drove ashore in lapping waves. From those waves came the slippery salmon that he helped convert from wild, live creatures swimming in the sea, into pink pieces of processed protein, floating in a can of its own juices.

It was by water that Charlie came to Prince of Wales Island, and it was that very aquatic passageway that turned into a roadblock when it came to bringing his remains back to Japan. 

Charlie was dying. He made the superintendent, Mr. Kurth, promise- PROMISE- to deliver his body back to his natal homeland, or else. Mr. Kurth assured his worker that he would fulfill his last request. Once Charlie lay cold, Mr. Kurth pondered the situation. There was no mortician at the cannery; pumping Charlie full of formaldehyde was not an option. Moreover, sending him across the Pacific via airplane was not going to happen, either, given the current state of hostility that characterized the relationship between Japan and the US. Charlie, then, would have to wait to be shipped to his motherland, and his body preserved in the most practical manner, based on the infrastructure and capacity of that fish processing plant. Charlie would be canned.

Mr. Kurth was a butcher in the off-season. He got to work, packing Charlie into the very cans that Charlie worked to fill with salmon when he was alive. The cans of Charlie were brights- that's canner parlance for unlabeled. These bright cans of Charlie were stacked in a back room, where the home pack was stored, awaiting a thawing of international relations and the eventual return to Japan. 

Summer became fall. Fall became winter. And someone broke into the cannery, making a mess and stealing cans from the homepack room. Cans including Charlie. 

Charlie never made it back to Japan, and according to Waterfall winter watchman, Wanda, he has never left Waterfall. He pushes over stacks of windows and makes mugs fly off the wall. But to show that he doesn't have anything against her, he once dropped a heart-shaped burl from the rafters of a warehouse to her feet. Wanda doesn't think that Charlie is malicious, just a bit spooky. Sometimes, she hears work boots, tromping around the upper floors of one of the old warehouses, even though there is no one around, at all. Perhaps it's Charlie, rifling around, looking for those missing cans. 

Last weekend, I traveled to Prince of Wales Island for the first time, to take part in Craig's Whalefest. I traipsed around with a group of beach combing, cannery picking, wild women who regaled me with tales of messages in bottles and uncanny coincidences. I was there to talk about the cannery history initiative and help promote the preservation of the Columbia-Wards Cannery in downtown Craig. But we also made it out to visit Babe and Wanda, the watchmen at the Waterfall Resort, which is within the old Waterfall Cannery. Babe and Wanda gave us a comprehensive tour of this exceptionally well preserved cannery.

Upstairs in one of the warehouses, Wanda told us the story of Charlie. I giggled at first, but she insisted that it was true, and that multiple individuals have verified the event, including the son of Mr. Kurth. Cannery history buffs have heard of dead Chinese cannery workers being packed in barrels of salt in order to preserve their remains for shipping back to San Francisco at the end of the season. Yet Charlie's story is even more gruesome... and fantastic for retelling!