With glaciers tucked in-between mountains, dark waters cloaking an abundance of marine life, and wild animals lurking just out of sight in copses of hemlock and spruce, many have viewed Southeast Alaska as a mysterious place.
Outdoors and humor writer Bjorn Dihle taps into that sense of the Panhandle with his debut book “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends, and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” Through research and interviews, he recounts the tales of the ghost of Castle Hill in Sitka, the glacial demon on Valdez Glacier, encounters with the Kóoshdaa Káa and numerous other stories.
“Haunted Passages” wasn’t the kind of book Dihle thought he was ever going to write. He had tried nature writing, but publishers kept rejecting book ideas. After one of many rejection notices, he received an email from Juneauite Carlton Smith, who had read a piece Dihle had published on the Kóoshdáa Kaa (frequently written “kushtaka”) in the Capital City Weekly. Over coffee, Smith suggested he write a book. That night, Dihle sent out queries, and by the end of the week, he had a book deal. It set him on the path to penning many Southeast tales over a five-month period.
“I knew 10 percent of what was in this book. So I just started basically reaching out to people, digging in archives,” Dihle said. Many stories, he gathered through word of mouth. Oftentimes people would reach out to him with a tip, and that would set him off on a whole new series of interviews and trips to libraries. “I’m sure there’s a bunch more out there, which I’m sure would be interesting to gather too,” he added.
Some of stories, like the Kóoshdaa Káa, a Tlingit legend of shape-shifters beguiling people out into the ocean or into the woods, intimidated Dihle. While it was also the hardest — he took at least a month to write it — he also considers it his favorite for how well it turned out.
Some people fascinated him, like Edward Krause, who was dubbed one of Alaska’s first serial killers. Other stories he found moving, like the man who traveled to Alaska to recover the body of his wife, who drowned in the sinking of the Princess Sophia.
“It’s not a typical ghost story book. It’s kind of a mixture of a lot of things,” Dihle said.
In this unique work, Dihle unites one part nature writing, one part memoir, and one part historical work under the thematic subject of supernatural stories in Southeast. Throughout the book, Dihle’s strong voice for nature writing is clear, as well as a healthy dose of levity from his own life to lighten the often somber stories. Each story is not simply anecdotal asides from interviewees, but is set into its historical context, with many interesting facts to learn: Did you know some stampeders tried to get to the gold fields by crossing the Valdez Glacier, or that on Yakobi Island a skiff of Russian crewmen went missing?
“I’m not really a ghost guy so I wanted the narrative to be more than something that goes ‘boo,’” Dihle said on why he chose to combine so many different elements in the book. He said he wanted more depth to the stories and to examine the different things that haunt us.
In the preface, Dihle wrote that most people were happy to talk to him about their experiences with ghosts and share their knowledge on events past; for some, it was even therapeutic (after all, having a supposed brush with the spirit of dead person could be unsettling). Only a few didn’t wish to talk.
As Dihle gathered the spooky stories, he found his mindset on the subject of ghost stories began to change. He describes himself as “an open-minded skeptic,” but writing so many eerie stories had him thinking there must be some truth to them. When he presented himself as open and receptive to people’s experiences, folks were excited to share, he said.
“It was probably one of the most interesting things of the project for me was how many people I encountered … who have these ghost stories,” Dihle said. Sometimes he’d be talking about the project, and someone would overhear him and be eager to share their experience. He couldn’t include every story he heard, choosing to keep his focus on stories specifically relevant to Southeast Alaska.
The book will be officially released on May 2, but it had an early release in Alaska and can now be found at most local bookstores, like Juneau’s Hearthside Books. Hearthside is hosting a reading on Thursday, April 20 at 6:30 p.m. at its Nugget Mall location.
Currently, Dihle is awaiting edits on the manuscript of his second book, a collection of hunting and fishing stories expected to come out next March.
Editor’s note and disclosure: Bjorn Dihle is the boyfriend of Capital City Weekly editor Mary Catharine Martin, who asked Dihle if she could publish his story about exploring Thomas Bay, and associated ideas of the Kóoshdaa Káa, one fateful week in 2015.