Author pens creepy homage to Lituya's ghosts

Posted: Wednesday, July 02, 2003

While most people nowadays tout Alaska as a place of beauty and charm, it is prudent to recall that it can be extremely dangerous as well.

"Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay" portrays one of the state's most unusual and remote locations. Lituya, in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, indents the rugged coast just south of Yakutat where Alaska turns the corner to the Southeast.

Author Philip L. Fradkin got caught up in the bay's charisma and creepiness and has written what he calls a "Gothic nature tale."

"The bay is an excellent laboratory in which to study the power of a place," he writes. "It is a singular power and a dark place, to be sure definitely not a glowing mountain, a meandering stream, or a canyon wilderness, the types of places usually selected to depict the invigorating and healing aspects of nature."

Lituya's modern claim to fame is a seismic wave generated after an earthquake on July 9, 1958, which sheared trees off a mountainside to a height of 1,740 feet the largest documented wave anywhere in the world. Of three fishing boats in the bay at the time, one was obliterated, one amazingly rode out the tsunami and a third sank but the couple on board survived. The woman claimed her hair turned white overnight from the ordeal.

But Fradkin uncovers more about Lituya's haunted history. The bay has a lurid legacy of drownings and may be implicated in other disappearances that have never quite been pinned down on the map. Even those who escaped Lituya with their lives tended to meet weird and untimely ends elsewhere.

When French explorer Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse, arrived with his two ships in 1786, he first reported that the bay would make a wonderful base because of its deep harbor and rich resources. But he left in a far different frame of mind, frightened by increasingly aggressive Tlingits and mourning the death of 21 of his crew lost in small boats to combers at the bay's entrance.

Lituya's structure and underlying geology give it two lethal traits: First, the narrow, shallow mouth causes extreme tidal currents, which generate a chaos of steep waves and run with a force few vessels can overcome. Second, the active Fairweather Fault runs along the bay's back, generating unpredictable landslides, glacier movements and other sources of giant splash waves that ricochet around the enclosed fjord.

Fradkin recounts the bay's grim reputation, dating back to the Tlingits. They used it as a port of refuge and harvested its resources, but feared it as a treacherous site infested with the ghosts of the drowned.

During the Gold Rush, prospector wannabees came into the area, extracted piddling amounts of precious metals and left heaps of rusting rubbish. Greed and isolation added to Lituya's other drawbacks, and the bay was the site of a murder and lynching notorious enough to inspire Jack London to recount the story.

The sunniest episode in the bay's history came between World War I and 1938, when Jim Huscroft lived on Cenotaph Island, in the bay's center, and built himself a comfortable homestead. Although he was a hermit by choice, he was a gracious host to the rare travelers and a baker of fine berry pies. Guests included well-heeled mountain climbers from the East Coast who tried their pluck against the peaks of the Fairweather Range and seemed remarkably lucky compared to many who passed through Lituya.

Huscroft comes across as a humble hero in the tale, as does geologist Don Miller, who studied the bay and documented the effects of the 1958 wave.

Most of the book recounts the bay's unique history. Although remarkable, it has a second-hand feel. But the last portion of the book follows Fradkin himself to the site and into his own mind as he reflects on his morbid fascination with Lituya. He spent about a week there in 1980, camping with his teenage son.

"Enough with reading books, I had thought; time to go there and experience the place. I did so with great trepidation," he writes.

The bay was beautiful, he found. But it gave him and his son the creeps, and he spent the days and nights in dread of the omnipresent but invisible bears.

Ultimately Fradkin realized that his personal nightmares were reflected to him in the ghosts of Lituya:

"I am susceptible to the suggestive powers of both human and natural history," he writes. "It was a dark and confusing time in my life."

Fradkin is a skilled writer with impressive credentials, including a share in a journalism Pulitzer Prize. He has written seven other books, most focusing on his home state of California, and has a particular interest in geology and earthquakes. Although he is an outsider, he has spent considerable time in Alaska and says he feels drawn to the state.

He worked on this book for decades. The hardcover edition was released two years ago, but the paperback just came out this spring.

Fradkin writes beautifully, in a spare, no-nonsense style that conveys his own heebie-jeebies.

This book is like a good ghost story around a campfire: If you are hundreds of miles from the setting, it conveys a pleasant shiver. But if you are reading it in your tent at Lituya, it might keep you up all night, turning pages and listening for ominous sounds.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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