The story I heard was that when the Sea Bear dropped anchor in Little Vixen, a bay five miles to the north of us, they let out too much line and when a gale came up they got blown onto a steeply inclined beach. The bow planks opened and the sea poured in. The pumps couldn’t keep up and the Sea Bear sank bow first. When the tide went out, the boat broke its back on the rocks and became a total loss.
Fortunately, everyone got off safely. The insurers hired a local to retrieve personal items and do clean-up on the surrounding beaches, and then, as the locals waited to hear, they declared the Sea Bear open salvage.
In the bush, nothing is allowed to go to waste, and everyone in the area took turns descending on the wreck. My brother went straight to the engine compartment and made a haul in tools. Another local removed the propeller. Terry Johnson, known for her green thumb and landscaping skills, came away with the zippered back deck enclosure made of clear plastic panels, as well as the skylight — she promptly turned these into a shipwreck salvage greenhouse.
I got there fairly late. A ladder was placed against the high, jutting stern, and even though we got there at low tide, the bow was under water. The Sea Bear was about 54 feet long, a former racing tug that had been converted into a live-aboard yacht. I clambered up the ladder and inched along the steep slope of the stern. On a previous visit my dad had told my mom to be careful, everything was slippery — coated in diesel and oil. She took one step and fell hard, hitting her head. Not that a possible concussion slowed her down. She came away with various charming fixtures, doors (including a small Dutch door they incorporated into their bedroom), and other items.
The stench of diesel was overwhelming. Little had been done by anyone to clean that up, or the sludge circling the wreck. And although the local man hired by the insurance company had cleaned up the first debris off the beaches, more floated out all the time. (I picked up a chipped, gold painted porcelain vase with STW Bavaria Germany stamped on the bottom, with a Fragonard painting on the front of it. An extremely incongruous sight on a wild and remote Alaskan beach.)
I made my way to the wheelhouse and had a disorienting moment staring straight down into the bay, with the bow submerged, as if I was plunging down the hundred foot wave in “The Perfect Storm.” I looked away and was immediately drawn to the bookcase. Someone had been there before me and had tried to get the books out, possibly the local hired by the insurance company. But the books had swollen from seawater and were locked in place. Whoever it was had tried to break the bookcase, but it was a built-in and they had little success freeing the books. The saddest part was seeing family photo albums trapped in there, destined to be submerged for years on that lonely shore as the boat slowly disintegrated.
I found, lying nearby, an old book of German fairy tales with gorgeous color plates. It looked like a family heirloom so I took it home and tried to salvage it, thinking to return it to the owners if I could, but it was so heavily impregnated with a soupy, slimy mixture of seawater and diesel that it was beyond saving. Besides the vase, and a few other small items I found on the beach, I ended up with a small jade green bathroom sink (“Accent” by SeaLand Technology) which I incorporated into the floathouse I was building. To tell the truth, I felt too sad looking at the remains of someone’s dream to want to pick it over, even though I knew that if it wasn’t salvaged by the locals it would all be lost.
When I returned home it was to a point of land bracketed by two more shipwrecks. I wrote in a previous column about salvaging wood from one of the wrecks, the Daybreak, to build an outdoor cooler. The other wreck is much, much older than either the Sea Bear or the Daybreak. It’s nameless and only the huge deck remains.
Before the locals began to saw into it to recover the still good steel pins (from one to five feet in length) the portion of the deck that had washed ashore was about sixty feet long and showed openings for two enormous holds, indicating that the ship was over one hundred feet, possibly as much as two hundred feet long and around forty feet wide. It had been built with massive 12x12 and 12x16 fir beams stacked on each other and held together with the steel pins. The ship’s deck was a treasure trove of still useful, hundreds upon hundreds of railroad-style spikes and the long pins. Even the multitude of steel hatch cover cleat/saddles were valued as anchors.
In my research I couldn’t find mention of a wreck that fit the description in this area, so who knows where the deck floated in from, or where the remainder of the ship now lies. (The shipwreck that sounds the most likely by the description, the Pacific Steamer Redwood, commissioned in 1917, sank in Grenville Channel far to the south of us in Canadian waters.) The ship was so well constructed that it takes a lot of effort and energy to free the steel pins, but they’ve been essential in the construction of our floathouses in holding our float logs together.
There’s an old Hebridean prayer that goes: “Not that there should be wrecks, Lord, but if there are, please let them come to our shores.” When you live in the Southeast Alaskan bush, where you don’t have easy access to stores or materials, shipwreck salvage is a way of life.
“Alaska for Real” is a column in the Capital City Weekly.