“Just a seine full of dollys,” my dad said with disappointment, shaking his red beard as he assessed the results of our illicit beach seining trip to Mission Beach in Uganik Bay. I picked up a humpy and hugged it to my slimy chest, pitching it over the gunwale of the wooden skiff that stood about as high as me. I was relatively certain that Dolly Vardens were named in honor of Dolly Parton, and I doubted that the country music star would be pleased to know that my dad thought her namesake fish were wormy, or that he cursed as we weeded through them in order to pick out the few humpies that we’d hauled to the beach. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t deliver them to the tender, who would come around Packers Spit later that evening. They looked close enough to salmon, to me.
“They don’t want them, Anjulooni,” Dad explained as he kicked a dolly from the beach back into the water. My brother Gus struggled to save our unfortunate by-catch by dousing their gills with water. He thought Dolly Parton had nice legs. I wondered if the tender’s affront to the rainbow-hued fish would impact my brother’s tenderhearted affection for the big-busted star.
We were fishing behind the markers. That my dad had brought his 5 year old and 3 year old children as crew that day doesn’t mean he lacked complicit partners in this fishing expedition, since there were plenty of misfits who fished on the Spit who disregarded the law. It is more likely he doubted we’d make a big haul and he didn’t need the muscle.
It was a typical summer day for my family in Uganik Bay, since my dad rarely caught lots of fish and he was prone to illegality in many of his dealings. The only thing that makes it remarkable is that it is my earliest memory of Mission Beach.
Gus’s earliest memories come from that same summer: first, pulling in a beach seine. Second: being convinced he was drowning. It was at Mission Beach that Gus was baptized.
Forgetting and Changing Names
“Why it’s called Smith's Beach, I don't know,” Deedie Pearson spoke with a dry throat. “When there were a lot of people on the Spit they started calling it Mission Beach. I'm trying to get it converted back to Smith's Beach.”
Deedie and I were talking in her house on Alder Street, overlooking the boat harbor. My memory of breaking fishing laws on Mission Beach as a child took place around 30 years ago. Deedie’s tenure in the bay stretches back 70 years, to 1947, when her parents purchased a house and saltry in Mush Bay. Each day in June, she would skiff by Mission/Smith Beach, which is located on the west side of Mush Bay. She would pass it as she brought back to her family’s saltry the reds that she and her siblings had caught in their setnet. If Mission Beach is actually Smith Beach, she would know.
“Why do you think they call it Mission Beach, then?” I asked.
“Why Mission Beach? Well, because Reverend Smith. But it was Smith Beach long before he knew about this place,” Deedie clarified. She was speaking of the Reverend Smith who circumnavigated the archipelago aboard the Evangel. Supposedly, Reverend Smith would anchor the Evangel in front of Smith Beach. From Smith Beach, it became Mission Beach, seemingly renamed in honor of the Smith who tried to evangelize the wilds of Kodiak.
But Deedie didn’t know for which Smith the beach was originally named. In the catalog cards of my brain, the name was definitely classified as pertaining to the history of Kodiak’s seafood industry, but I couldn’t quite articulate the connection. Since our conversation, I uncovered that it was named for Oliver Smith, the founder of the first cannery on Kodiak. He beach seined at Smith Beach and sold his salmon to the cannery that was then located at Packers Spit.
“My brother was baptized there, at Smith Beach,” I said acknowledging the precedence of Deedie’s preferred name in the hopes that it would improve the reception of the next bit of information: “Coyote Bowers dunked him in the water during a party.”
This summer, I skiffed passed Smith Beach on my way to Mush Bay. I recognized it immediately, but before it was within sight, all I could pick up were memory-pulses.
Pulse: beachseining with my dad and Gus.
Pulse: Taking a skiff over to Mission/Smith Beach for a party during a fishing closure.
Pulse: My mom running into the water to extract her frantic toddler.
Pulse: seiners coming in close to the beach and Coyote shouting after them, “See you down the trail!” as they pulled away.
I remember much more clearly the retelling of the story of when Gus unceremoniously was submitted to the first sacrament, a story that has become part of the Grantham-Trueman family canon. But I don’t recall the answer to a question that pervades my adult sensibilities now: why? What possessed Coyote to toss a terrified toddler into the sea and not fish him out?
Gus isn’t too concerned about it. “I remember he asked if I was baptized, picking me up and walking out to his waste into the water. He said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ and he flung me into the sea,” Gus told me over the phone. He remembers trying to swim, sinking below the water, and looking upward to see our mother’s hands, yanking him back out.
“Why do you think he did it?”
“I don’t know, sister. We told the story many times together, but I don’t think I ever asked him why.”
“Iron born,” Gus now claims. “I tell my friends that I was iron born, like in the Game of Thrones. I survived drowning to become a warrior,” he chuckles.
I could as easily ask the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, about his history within Uganik as I can ask Coyote of his motives for tossing a toddler into the sea, or my parents about their memories from that day, since all are dead. So, I sought another avenue of familial information: the Grantham-Trueman family photo box. Photos from the day of Gus’s baptism are slipped in the pages of a mini-album that contains one roll of developed images. Examining them, I see the details that my memory did not hold on to- the supersized lifejacket that I sported that summer that tied around my chest and reached down to my knees, for example.
But the presence of my little sister, Carrie, is the most surprising bit of information, since I don’t remember her being there that day. But there she is, less than a year old, holding a fishing pole, reaching for her dad’s can of Rainier, being snuggled by our Uncle Ronny. Suddenly, what were just pulses of memory have a fact to affix themselves to- the existence of my sister.
Gus was baptized during the summer of 1988, then. It was the same year that we lived in the cabin that had three sets of triple bunks within its ten by fifteen foot tar-papered walls. Richard would sit on a middle bunk and play his electric guitar. He strummed without an amp, because the only power on the Spit came from batteries. Still, he would play just loud enough so that I could hear the notes of “You are My Sunshine,” as we sang together. He was called the Pup because his father was Coyote. He had stringy hair, big glasses that matched his big teeth, and a poor complexion like other teenaged boys.
That summer, my baby sister fell from the top bunk in the middle of the night, right into the pit in which the barrel stove was rooted. But the fire had gone out and she was wrapped in blankets so she didn’t even wake during the fall. I recall that my dad was frantic, even though my sister was not his daughter. She was the daughter of Cliff, my stepfather. But we all lived in the cabin that summer, my mom, dad, stepdad, Gus, Carrie, Richard, Danny Bowers. Others too, who I can’t remember.
It was 1988. The best price ever paid for reds in the state of Alaska. It was 1988. The summer that the Nickerson brothers were killed up the bay at their Noisy Island set net site. A man named Cue Ball found their bodies. I remember their surname being repeated, over and over again: The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. The Nickersons. Could they have been there, at the party, the Nickersons and their crewmember who killed them both? It’s more likely that they had already gone missing. Perhaps their bodies had already been found in a ravine.
I wonder if Coyote was feeling his own mortality during the party at Mission/ Smith Beach. Maybe in that summer of disappearances, he considered the eternal soul of those around him. He considered the unbaptized being of my brother, and for good measure, determined to dunk him.
Sometimes I wonder if places have memories. Think: words are flung from the mouth, each accompanied by a particle of saliva that drops to the ground. The spit becomes absorbed and a part of the environment, still bearing the energy and bits of the tetrahedral architecture of the speaker. We disturb a rock on the beach and a strange thought enters our mind, a bit of unexpected wisdom, a dream of people we’ve never met. Of course memories are suddenly excavated when reinserted into places one hasn’t been for years. Could it be that these memories are shared between both the human and the place, like a conversation with a long-held friend as you work together to remember an event from your mutual past?
Maybe names, stories, and hunches stick like static to places that they are naturally connected to. Just as elements arrange themselves to create compounds, so too do spoken bits of heart, guts, and will travel to cling to where they most make sense. Like beaches that attract the same shells, or eddies in which a similar assortment of marine debris conglomerates- once told stories circulate until they find their way back to a familiar home. There is identity inscribed on landscape that goes beyond what has been or can be recorded. There are sticky remnants of history that are magnetically attracted to place and picked up by the sensitive observer, to the intuitive listener.
Perhaps the day that my dad, brother and I hauled in a net full of Dolly Vardens, my dad smelled the lingering sweat of the beach’s namesake, Oliver Smith, as we pulled in the seine. Perhaps he heard an echo of Smith’s voice rustling in the beach rye. After all, that day we were mimicking what Oliver Smith did in the previous century: beach seining at Smith Beach and delivering to Packers Spit.
Maybe the day of the baptism, Coyote caught a note of a hymn, sung by Reverend Smith and it was this Christian association that inspired him to fling a toddler into the sea. Coyote, filled more with spirit water than the Holy Spirit, reenacted what he imagined the Reverend Smith did on that very beach. Drunk and rowdy, maybe upset over the disappearance of his fellow Uganik fishermen, he thought he’d continue the evangelizing legacy of Mission Beach.
Whatever the case, it seems we persist in keeping history and ritual, both known and forgotten, alive.
Yesterday I held a beach seining permit in my hand, as I started installing the West Side Stories exhibit at the Baranov Museum. At that moment, the daughter of Coyote called the museum to speak with me, after 25 years of not seeing one another. She told me she wanted to start using her dad's beach seining permit again. She told me she has an envelope of photos from Packers Spit with my name and my brother's name on it. She said that when her dad was dying, he gave her a poem I had written about Uganik Bay, which I don't remember writing. And, she said she took the photo posted above of Cliff holding Carrie, which means she was there, at Gus's baptism. I didn't ask her about it, since I had to get back to work, but the uncanny timing prompted me to post this story which apparently is still in draft form.