Tag Archives: Alaska

Terror in the Wilderness

I write wilderness mystery novels set in the remote, untamed wilderness of Alaska, and I also write a newsletter about true crime in Alaska. Recently, as I thought about a plot for my next novel, I decided I would draw pieces of my plot from the bizarre true crimes I write about in my newsletter. I then recalled a character from my past who was far more frightening than any fictional madman I could conjure in my imagination.

My husband and his family operated a remote hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula, and when my husband was just a boy, he and his family were terrorized by a crazy man who stalked the wilderness of the Alaska Peninsula and claimed he owned the area around Becharof Lake. Killer Bill, as he was called, once hiked into the hunting camp, threatened my father-in-law and then punched him, knocking him unconscious. Killer Bill served time in prison for this crime, and he also spent time in jail when he was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man in a bar. When released on probation, the judge warned Bill that as a condition of his parole, he could not carry a firearm. Killer Bill ignored the warning and carried a rifle everywhere he went.

Bill burned down the hunting camp my husband’s family owned, and when they rebuilt, they constructed tent frames, instead of cabins, hoping Killer Bill would find the tent frames less offensive. Bill responded by burning the tent frames.

One winter, the Alaska State Troopers found Killer Bill’s snow machine submerged in a river, and they assumed he’d fallen through the ice during the winter and had drowned, but they never found Bill’s body. Everyone wondered was he dead or still alive, terrorizing anyone who dared camp on the vast area of the Alaska Peninsula he considered his. On my first trip to Becharof in the late 1980s, my husband warned me to keep watch for an old man who might suddenly walk out of the woods.

“What,” I asked, “was I to do if I saw him hiking up to our camp?”

“I’m sure he won’t bother you,” my husband said, “but grab a rifle as soon as you see him, just to be safe.”

I never saw Killer Bill, and he was surely long dead by then, but every time we camped at Becharof, I worried less about the bears and wolves prowling the Peninsula outside my tent than I did about a strange, old man who might appear at any moment out of the mist.

Numerous rumors circulated about Killer Bill. A fish and game biologist told us that on several different occasions, Killer Bill had gone trapping during the winter with a partner, but when Bill returned in the spring, his trapping partners were never with him. Once, according to this biologist, troopers entered Bill’s cabin when he wasn’t there and found human remains in the cabin. They suspected Bill had eaten his trapping companions, but they were never able to find Bill and charge him with the crimes.

I can’t imagine anything more terrifying in the wilderness than a crazy man determined to do anything and kill anyone to protect what he believes is his. I plan to base a character in my next novel on Killer Bill, and I hope my readers will find my character as frightening as I found the specter of the real man.

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Park Ranger Liz Kelley

Park Ranger Liz Kelley discovers the body of a young woman while making her rounds in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park on a snowy, November night. This excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, is told from Liz’s viewpoint.

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Park Ranger Liz Kelley was alone on patrol at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, but since she was the only ranger who worked at the 182-acre park, this was business as usual for her. Fort Abercrombie is a beautiful park, rich in history and nestled in a Sitka spruce forest. The park is bordered on its front edge by steep cliffs that plunge into the heavy surf of the ocean. The park has a small lake containing trout, and in the summer, meadows teem with wildflowers of every hue. There are numerous campsites designed primarily for tent campers, and in the summer, the park is full of tourists.

It was not summer, though. It was a snowy, blustery November evening. Liz sometimes patrolled the main area of the park on foot when the weather was nice, but when it wasn’t, she made her rounds in the beat-up pickup with the state park insignia on the door. In the summer, she spent most of the day out on the park grounds, answering visitor’s questions and making sure they obeyed the park’s rules. This time of the year, she spent most of her time huddled in the ranger’s station with her computer, a small t. v., and most importantly, a coffee maker. Liz had last driven the main roads of the park at 5:00 pm, and she hadn’t seen a living soul.   She had seen several deer huddled under the protection of the spruce trees, but she saw no trucks, cars, nor tents. When she got back to the ranger’s station, however, she noticed headlights pulling into the park. It was too dark to determine the make or model of the vehicle, let alone see who the driver was, but it had to be teenagers. Who else would be out in the park on a snowy, November night? She hadn’t seen the vehicle leave the park, but she assumed it had driven past while she was deep in concentration, working on her computer.

At 7:00 pm, Liz locked the ranger’s station and climbed into the truck to make her final rounds for the evening. She was anxious to get home to her husband and dog, so this would be a quick trip down the main road. She wanted to make sure that the vehicle she’d seen entering the park earlier hadn’t slid off the slick roads. She hoped the driver had enough sense not to drive down one of the side roads in this weather, and she wasn’t willing to drive down every small road looking for a phantom vehicle.

Liz drove slowly in the blizzard conditions. Four inches of snow covered the ground, and the large, heavy, wet flakes were quickly adding to the amount. She estimated the wind was blowing 35 knots or more, causing the snow to whiz horizontally past her windshield. For a moment, she considered abandoning her last rounds and heading home, but she continued at a snail’s pace, stopping every few feet to look left and right into the forest. Only an idiot or an overzealous park ranger would be out here on a night like this, she thought.

She reached the end and the concrete barrier where people could stand and look out over Spruce Cape and was happy to see there were no vehicles parked there. She did a U-turn and was starting back toward the park entrance when her headlights illuminated something bright pink a few feet off the road. At first, she thought it was a plastic bag, but it was too big. Should she stop and check it or pretend she didn’t see it and keep driving? She exhaled a deep sigh, shifted into park, grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment, and crawled out of the truck. She cinched her hood tight and slogged through the snow toward the pink object. After only a few steps, she realized she was looking at a pink, down coat. After several more steps, she saw there was someone in the coat. She hurried toward the fallen form, all thoughts of her husband and dog and their cozy family room vanished from her mind, and she began running through first aid protocols in her head. Would she have to perform CPR? Did she have her rescue-breathing mask in her pocket? Should she put on her rubber gloves before she even touched the victim?

“Ma’am,” she called, “can you hear me?”

Liz slowed her pace as she neared the victim. “Ma’am?” The woman was on her side facing away from Liz. Liz touched her arm and called to her again, and when the woman didn’t reply, Liz rolled her onto her back. She took one look at her and stepped away from the body. She switched the flashlight to her left hand, and her right hand instinctually unsnapped her holster. She put her right hand on the butt of her gun while she swung the flashlight in a wide arc. She had seen a vehicle enter the park around 5:00, but she had not seen it leave. Was the murderer still in the park? Was he watching her? She felt the sweat run down her back, and she fought to control her emotions. It was no time to panic. She had to think clearly and act professionally.

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Next week, I will re-introduce you to FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan when he is asked to fly to Kodiak to help investigate the string of murders.

My May Mystery Newsletter is a shocking, true story of murder from Craig, Alaska. If you would like to read it, you can sign up below.

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Sergeant Patterson

This excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter is told from the viewpoint of Sergeant Dan Patterson with the Alaska State Troopers.

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Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Patterson knew his night was about to take a turn for the worse. He had just finished his shift and walked into his house when his phone chirped. His wife was dishing up a plate of spaghetti for him, but when the phone rang, she stopped, knowing she would be reheating his meal in several hours.

“I’m on my way.” He said into the phone. He looked at his wife. “Sorry hon, this sounds like a bad one. Don’t wait up for me; I have to drive to Chiniak.”

He hurried to his car in the driving rain, fastened his seat belt and began the 42-mile drive down the Chiniak Highway. On a sunny day in July, this drive rivaled any in the world for its scenic beauty, but this was not a sunny day in July; it was a rainy night in October. The road was dark and curvy, and Patterson gripped the steering wheel as he concentrated on the pavement in front of him. Staying on the road was not his only concern. He had to watch for deer and possibly even bears running across the highway. The trooper who had called him said to park at the post office in Chiniak, and they would cover the final mile of their trek on four wheelers. All Patterson had been told was that a body had been discovered in the woods. He didn’t know whether the victim was male or female or whether it had been there a day or a year. If he’d understood Trooper Ben Johnstone correctly, the trooper himself had found the body while deer hunting on his day off. The usually calm and organized Johnstone, however, had sounded rattled, so Patterson may have misunderstood him. He’d get the details soon enough.

Patterson had only been stationed on Kodiak for six months, and he had only been to Chiniak once before, but it was a town with a population of 50 people, so finding the post office was not difficult. By the time he parked the car, sheets of blinding rain pelted the windshield. Patterson pulled on his raincoat, stepped out of his vehicle, and shook hands with Trooper Ben Johnstone.

“I see the weather isn’t going to be our friend tonight,” Patterson said.

“No, sir. If there were tracks near the body, they won’t be there now.”

“So the body is fresh?”

“Yes, sir. No more than a day or two old. She was murdered.”

Patterson felt a headache coming on. This would be a very long night. “You’re sure it wasn’t a hunting accident.”

“This was no hunting accident, sir. I’m certain of that. It’s pretty hard to cut someone’s throat by accident.”

The headache spread into Patterson’s neck. “You are the one who found the body?”

“Yes sir, I was walking through the woods. I’d been hunting about two hours and was heading back to my cabin because it was starting to rain hard. I caught a glimpse of something strange on the ground, and after a few more steps, I realized it was a body. I took some photos and checked around the area for footprints or four-wheeler tracks, but I didn’t see anything. She must have been murdered before the rain started.”

“How are you doing?” Patterson asked. “This must have been quite a shock.”

“Yes sir, it was. I’m fine, though. It’s just that you don’t expect to find a dead girl in the woods when you’re deer hunting.”

“A girl?” Now his stomach was beginning to hurt.

“A teenager, sir.”

“Okay, let’s go take a closer look.”

Patterson followed Johnstone through the woods, each man riding a four wheeler that Johnstone had somehow managed to procure. They had to travel slowly through the Sitka spruce rainforest to avoid smashing into a tree, but at least the large trees shielded them from some of the rain.

Fifteen minutes later, Patterson spotted the red beam of the light Johnstone had left to mark the location of the body. They parked their four wheelers several yards away and approached the body on foot.

The naked body sprawled on the ground, arms out to the side and legs spread wide. It had been posed for maximum effect. Her throat had been slashed so deeply she nearly had been decapitated. Her brown eyes stared sightlessly up at the trees. Patterson noted what looked like bite marks on her breasts, but otherwise, her slim, pale body appeared unmarred.

“We need to get a tarp over the scene right away,” Patterson said.

“Yes, sir. I brought one with me. I’ll get on that. Are the crime scene people on their way?”

“I’ll send them tomorrow when it’s light, but I don’t think they’ll find much. If there ever was any evidence here, it has been washed away by now. I don’t see much blood, so I think this is only where the body was dumped, not where she was killed. Once you get the tarp set up, go back to town and see if you can borrow a trailer or a sled or something we can use to transport the body back to my vehicle. After I take photos, I think we should get her packaged and transported back to Kodiak. The only hope we have of preserving any evidence on her body will be to get her out of this weather.”

It was 3:00 am by the time Patterson finally returned home and ate his spaghetti dinner. He and Johnstone had packaged the body, and it was ready to ship to Anchorage to the state medical examiner’s office on the morning Ravn flight. This was the second female on the island in the past six months who had been found with her throat slashed. Patterson had a bad feeling about these crimes. On an island where few murders occurred, two women killed in the same manner in the span of six months suggested to him they were killed by the same perpetrator or perpetrators. Was a serial killer hunting women on the island?

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I will have another excerpt for you next week. If you haven’t already signed up for my free mystery newsletter, you will want to do it before my May newsletter about a shocking murder in Craig, Alaska.

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Getaway!

Our suitcases are packed, and we are headed off on our winter getaway! Part of our trip is business-related, but the rest is a pleasure trip. Our first stop will be Las Vegas, where we will have a booth at the annual SCI Convention. It is a culture shock to leave remote Amook Pass and travel straight to Las Vegas. Here, the only sounds we have heard for the last few months have been the blowing wind and the occasional scream of an eagle or raven, and the only person we have seen is our mail plane pilot on his weekly stop. Las Vegas is sensory overload with constant noise and thousands of people. We always have a great time at this convention, though, because we spend time with friends and talk to past guests. I eat too much and sleep too little the entire time we are there, and when we arrive at the airport for the next leg of our trip, I breathe a sigh of relief because I know we are headed someplace less crazy than Vegas.

For the second part of our winter getaway, we are renting a sailboat with friends and sailing around the British Virgin Islands for a week. I know nothing about sailing, but everyone else in the group knows what they are doing. It will be a fun, relaxing week. After that adventure, Mike and I will spend another week in that area of the world, and we plan to snorkel, dive, relax, read, and I plan to write!

Next, it’s back to Anchorage and back to work. We will shop for lumber and other supplies to finish our new cabin and warehouse, and we will shop for everything else we will need from the city for the next year. We charter a barge once a year in the spring to bring fuel, building supplies, furniture, and any other large items from Kodiak to our lodge in Uyak Bay, so while we are in Anchorage, we will purchase these items and arrange for them to be shipped from Anchorage to Kodiak.

Also while we are in Anchorage, we will take a recertification course for our Wilderness First Responder credentials. We are required to recertify every three years. This course is important to us because it prepares us to take care of our guests when we are hiking in the Kodiak Wilderness.

By March 15th, we will be ready to fly home. We’ll be tired of eating in restaurants and sleeping in strange beds, but most of all, we will miss the peace and quiet of the wilderness. It is always nice to get away from Alaska in the middle of the dark, cold winter, but it is much better to return. By March, the days will be longer and brighter, and while it will still be winter, spring will soon be here.

I will post while on the road, and I already have several posts planned. My friend, Marcia Messier, has again promised a guest post while I’m away, and her posts are very popular. I also hope to keep up with my monthly Mystery Newsletters, and Steven Levi, a well-known author from Anchorage, will write the March edition of the newsletter. You will not want to miss that newsletter because Steve is an expert on crime and criminals throughout the history of Alaska, and I am thrilled he has agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to share his knowledge with us. If you haven’t yet signed up for my Mystery Newsletter, follow the link and do it now, so you don’t miss Steve’s newsletter.

I’ll let you know how the trip goes!

Mystery Newsletter

I have been ending my blog posts for the past few months with a reminder to sign up for my Mystery Newsletter, but I haven’t thoroughly explained what that newsletter is and why I write it.

Two of my main interests are biology and mysteries. In my novels, I try to combine these interests. My main character, Jane, is a fisheries biologist, and my mysteries are set in the wilderness of Alaska, where wildlife abounds. My blog posts mostly focus on the wildlife of Kodiak Island, with a few posts on my writing, my novels, and living in the Alaskan wilderness. I enjoy exploring these subjects, but I also wanted to write about mysteries and crime, and since I don’t have time to do another weekly blog post, I thought a monthly newsletter might work out well. Next, I had to think of an idea, and I decided to either write a short mystery every month or write about true crime. From all the true crime shows on television, I think there has to be a big audience out there intrigued by the evil deeds and misfortunes of others. I’m not criticizing; I watch Dateline and 48 Hours too, and I am relieved at the end of the show when the bad guy or gal gets locked away for a life sentence or two. True crime seemed like a good option for my mystery newsletter, at least for the first several months.

Since I live in Alaska, I decided to write about true crime in Alaska, but I wanted to do more than just report the brutal details of deadly crimes. I remembered a show I enjoyed that was on A & E several years ago called City Confidential. Each week the show profiled a murder in a U.S. town, usually a mid-sized city. The story was not only about the murder but also about how the crime changed the city, or why changes in the city created the right environment for this particular crime. By the end of the show, you learned the details of a crime, but you also learned something about the city where the murder was committed and the history of that city. That show made me realize how murderers can change the lives not only on of their victim’s families and friends, but they can affect a community and even a state.

This past month in my Mystery Newsletter I wrote about the crimes of serial killer Robert Hansen. Hansen preyed on women in and around the Anchorage area in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. This was the time during the construction and early operation of the Alaska oil pipeline when hordes of people moved to Alaska to either work on the pipeline or to find jobs that supported the pipeline employees. In addition to all the legitimate workers, this influx of people included mobsters, drug pushers, and prostitutes. Law enforcement in and around Anchorage was not equipped to handle the huge rise in crime. Conditions were perfect for a predator like Robert Hansen, and due in part to mistakes made by law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges, he was not caught and prosecuted as soon as he should have been. Hansen was smart, but he was not a criminal mastermind. He was simply in the right place at the right time. My newsletter about Hansen has as much to do with Alaska and the turbulent changes during that time as it does with the killer himself. Alaska did not have a decent crime lab before the Hansen case, but it now has one of the best crime labs in the country. Before the Hansen case, no protocols were in place for dealing with sexual assault crimes, but developing those protocols became a priority for the troopers while the Hansen case was proceeding. These changes would have happened without Robert Hansen, but there is an obvious cause and effect between his crimes and the immediate improvements in law enforcement in the state. Next month I will profile a case that happened just three years after Hansen was sentenced, and in this case, the Anchorage police force, crime lab, and FBI were at the top of their game, working together in perfect harmony to capture and prosecute the perpetrator.

I also try in my newsletters is to profile crimes that I think have an “Alaskan flair.” In other words, these are not crimes you are likely to see in New York or Chicago. In my first newsletter, I wrote about a crime where the neighbors in an isolated area of Alaska were gathering near an airstrip to meet their weekly mail plane, when one of the men opened fire on his neighbors. That crime directly relates to the rugged environment, long winters, and brutal isolation of living in the Alaskan wilderness. In my second newsletter, I told about the massacre of the crew of a fishing boat and a murderer that seemed to vanish into thin air. I hope in a couple of months to profile some murders that happened here on Kodiak, including one that took place this winter when a caretaker of a remote lodge murdered another caretaker. That crime hits close to home for me, but as with so many things that happen in the Alaskan wilderness, few facts have been reported.

If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter and these stories sound interesting to you, you can sign up at: http://robinbarefield.com.

 

Guest Post by Marcia Messier

While Robin and Mike are on vacation trekking through New Zealand, I agreed to do a guest post for her, and I decided to write about two of the friends I made while working as a cook at Munsey’s Bear Camp.

The Gentleman

By Marcia Messier

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I fell in love with Fletcher the moment he sauntered out of the house to greet me. Anyone who has known a Maine Coon Cat will agree they are magnificent animals. All that fur! It springs out of their ears and sticks up through their toes; it flows over their shoulders and back, culminating in a luxurious feather duster tail.

Fletcher was a mature gentleman. He never raised his voice or lost his temper but you were never in doubt he was the master of his house. To qualify as camp cook in his house I learned there was an initiation ritual, a series of tricky situations (don’t ask, don’t tell) that must be passed through. Eventually, I navigated this unknown territory without screaming out loud or making too much fuss and was accepted into my position.

My first summer in camp was a little difficult at times. I had so much to learn! By the end of the busy day I collapsed on my bed exhausted and maybe a little homesick. Fletcher could see I needed help so every evening he came upstairs to talk. Sometimes he would discuss the art of catching birds (a specific bird he alone may have put on the endangered list), or perhaps how to disembowel a vole, making absolute certain to leave the tiny green parts on the doorstep as a special offering to the” house spirits”.   Fletcher carefully explained how I should ignore the silly otters that lived under the dock in summer, and especially to be very careful of the smelly slippery mess they made on it (I slipped anyway). Most importantly, he lectured me on how far I could expect to walk on the beach without meeting a bear casually strolling past camp. After our comforting chat he would sing a purr-fect little song and I’d peacefully doze off.

Summer passed quickly. Soon Fletcher and I were sharing one last hug and one last bird story by the kitchen window. It was time to go.

The Game.   

By Marcia Messier

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Gizzy was a beauty, a beauty with an attitude. Her long thick golden blond, carefully coiffed fur glistened and her large golden eyes blinked as she regarded everyone with an expression of absolute boredom.

Guests were sometimes spellbound by her beauty. Bear, fox and bald eagles were forgotten as they rolled around the lawn with cameras focused, trying to capture the perfect angle of the Kodiak sun shining through Gizzy’s luxurious golden fur, creating an aura of light about her body.

As a matter of fact, her fur was the exact color of the seaweed that washed upon our shore in the summer.

One day, Gizzy bored as she was, decided to have a game of “Hide & Seek” with the new cook. It was mid-afternoon before I realized she hadn’t been on her perch all day. Nervously, I began to search, upstairs, downstairs, and in the cabins… no sign of her. Finally, looking over the edge of the bluff down onto the beach I saw the golden seaweed surging back and forth with the high tide. Had she fallen into the water? Did I see something that resembled her body in that thick seaweed?   No, no, impossible! Still, how was I going to explain to Robin and Mike I had lost the cat? Nonetheless, presently I had to move on; it was time to suspend the search and prepare dinner. Later on, nearly in tears thinking Gizzy was gone, while tidying-up before guests arrived, far back in a corner near the wood stove and curled up behind a pair of boots was Gizzy! Flipping her tail and grinning slyly up at me, I had to concede, Gizzy had indeed won her game!

 

 

Winter

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I did not take the above photo this winter, I took it four years ago, the last time we had a cold winter on Kodiak Island. If I posted a photo from this winter, it would show torrential rain and heavy wind. I’m not complaining about a warm winter, because there is nothing fun about hauling water after the pipes freeze, and life takes a nosedive when the sewer freezes. The worst part about a cold winter here, though, is not the inconveniences of everyday life, but it’s watching the wildlife suffer as they struggle to find food and keep warm. Four years ago, we had deer die in our yard or die curled up under one of our buildings from cold and hunger several times a week. I knew when a deer was about to die because he’d look at me with glassy eyes and not even bother to move out of my way when I walked down the path past where he was standing. Sitka black-tailed deer were introduced to Kodiak Island, and the winter climate here is often on the edge of what they can tolerate to survive.

The deer have had good winters the last few years, and this may prove to be the warmest yet. When it is very cold, we have several deer in our yard, searching for grass that may still have some nutrients. This winter, we’ve seen few deer in our yard, because it is warm and there is no snow on the ground. It was 46⁰ the other day in mid-January, but the weather has not been pleasant this winter. We’ve been pounded by one low-pressure system after the next, bombarded by high winds and heavy rain. One storm out of the north in December slammed waves into our dock and sent a 55-gallon drum full of gas and two 100-lb. Propane tanks into the water. Mike has had to repair the dock twice from storms, but luckily, many of our storms have been from the south, and the cove where we live is protected from a southerly swell.

The ceaseless wind and rain make doing anything outdoors unpleasant, and the heavy clouds accentuate the already dark days. I love the peace and quiet here in the winter, but I am beginning to dream about going someplace sunny and calm and maybe even going out to dinner and a movie (I know, now I’m getting carried away). Luckily for me and my psyche, we are leaving on vacation next week!

While we are away, our friends, Ryan and Ruby, will be staying here, battling storms and catering to the whims of our very spoiled cats. Ryan and Ruby are the best caretakers we could ask for, and we don’t worry about our home while they are here. Our cats love them (possibly more than they love us!), so I know the furry little beasts will be even more spoiled when we return.

Once we leave here, we are flying straight to Las Vegas for extreme culture shock and a hunting and outdoor show, where we have a booth. That’s a week of hard work and stress because we go from talking to no one to talking to strangers all day. Vegas is also a great deal of fun, though, because we will see several friends and spend many hours laughing. After Vegas, we are flying to New Zealand for a two-week hiking, biking, kayaking tour of the South Island, and I am excited about that. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but I’ve only heard good things about the breathtaking scenery and the friendly people. After we return from New Zealand, we will spend some time in Anchorage and Kodiak, buying supplies and running errands. We’ll be home by mid-March.

I have a few posts planned for while I’m away, and my good friend, Marcia Messier, has agreed to write some guest posts for me. I’ll try to send a post from New Zealand to let you know about that adventure, but I may miss a post or two, so I’ll apologize in advance.

My next Mystery Newsletter will be about the biggest mass murder in Alaska history. Be sure to sign up on my home page if you want to receive my monthly newsletter.

 

 

 

Living in the Kodiak Wilderness

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Living in the Kodiak wilderness is not a lifestyle most people would choose. Over the years, many of my high-school and college friends have visited me here, and some say to me, “You are so lucky! I’d love to live here!” Others, though, give me a bewildered look and ask, “How can you stand to live out here all by yourselves?”  A few of my friends even seem to pity me, which amuses me, since I think I am lucky to live and work in the wilderness. People either tend to romanticize a peaceful life away from civilization, or they picture it as a type of prison. From my perspective, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Living in the wilderness is much easier today than it was even fifteen years ago. We no longer have to depend on spotty radio signals to communicate with Kodiak, as we did when I first moved here. We have a satellite phone, satellite internet, even satellite television. We are fortunate to receive essential air service once a week in the winter that brings us our mail, freight and groceries. When I need to order something from the grocery store, I simply e-mail my order to the store, they fill it, deliver it to the airlines, and we receive it on our next mail flight.

Munsey's Bear Camp
Munsey’s Bear Camp

The scenery on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is spectacular during every season, and we often have deer, eagles, and foxes in our yard, and whales, seals, sea otters, and sometimes sea lions in the cove in front of our house. The quiet is complete, especially in the winter, and I don’t miss the hustle and bustle of the holidays. We work hard from April through November, so those peaceful, winter days are a nice change of pace, and should the mood strike me, I can always spend a day shopping on the internet.

 

Living in the wilderness does have its drawbacks, though, and this life isn’t always easy. I miss having close friends, and most of the friends I do have, can’t relate to my lifestyle. I miss attending concerts, plays, movies, and other cultural events, and I definitely miss going out to dinner. My husband, Mike, grew up in the wilderness, and he said the hardest part as a kid was the lack of friends and the social awkwardness he and his siblings felt when they did go to town and were around other children.

From a practical standpoint, you must be a jack of all trades if you live in the wilderness. From fixing our outboard to our computer, if we can’t figure out how to do it, we’re out of luck, at least until we can get the broken item to a repairman in town. If it breaks, we either have to fix it or buy a new one. If our internet goes out, we’ve lost our main source of communication, including the internet provider who could help us fix the problem. Calling help lines on a satellite phone is expensive and frustrating, since the call is often dropped before we can talk to a live human.

Frozen Stream
Frozen Stream

We are also on our own if we have a fire or need immediate help from law enforcement. The troopers will arrive eventually, but they are a long distance away and can’t provide immediate support. We can call the Coast Guard if we have a serious injury or a medical emergency, but again, it takes time for them to deploy and get to us, so we make sure we have the knowledge, training, and equipment to deal with most medical emergencies. You can’t depend on others when you choose to live so far away from civilization.

It is often frustrating to me that the rest of the world doesn’t understand where or how I live. Try ordering something without a street address! We receive a mail plane once a week, and the post office has issued us a postal code that even they do not recognize. I am constantly trying to convince online stores that I will receive their merchandise if they mail it to the address I have provided. Some tell me I’m wrong, my address does not exist, and they will not ship to it. We even run into problems with businesses and doctors in Kodiak. I once spent $1000 on a trip to town for a blood test that could have easily been ordered during my doctor’s visit the previous week. It is also frustrating to make an appointment months in advance only to have to cancel it at the last minute, because the weather is too bad to fly to town.

There are pros and cons to living in the wilderness, just as there are pros and cons to living anywhere. Our lifestyle is different, but for the most part, I enjoy it. I love welcoming people during our summer trips and showing them around our world. Many are anxious when they first arrive, unsure of what to expect, and it’s fun to watch them relax as they leave the problems of the outside world behind them and become in tune with the rhythms of our world. I know living in the remote wilderness of Kodiak Island is not a lifestyle most people would embrace, but that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.

 

Puffins

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Tufted Puffin in Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island

Puffins arrive in Uyak Bay in May, and it is a welcome sign of spring to sight the first one. These colorful, almost comical birds are members of the family alcidae, which includes guillemots, auks, auklets, murres, and murrelets. We have both horned and tufted puffins here. The two species sport different head gear, but the most obvious difference between them is that horned puffins have a white breast and a black back, while tufted puffins have a black breast and back. Both species have large, colorful bills. Horned puffins have a small, fleshy dark “horn” above each eye, while tufted puffins have tufts of long feathers on either side of the head. Both males and females have the same markings. One of the most interesting things about puffins is that they shed the outer layers of their bills in the late summer, and their plumage fades to a dusky gray. In late May, we see colorful parrot-like birds, but by early September, their somber plumage and plain bill make them appear to be a totally different species.

In this part of Alaska, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. It is believed that breeding pairs mate for life or at least for a prolonged period of time.  They strengthen their bonds during a courtship ceremony that take place in the water. The male lifts his bill straight up and opens and closes his mouth and jerks his head, while the female hunches over and pulls her head and neck close to her body. Next, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and touch bills repeatedly while opening and closing their mouths.

Puffins prefer to nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their feet, and they are able to scratch out a burrow three to four feet deep into a steep hillside. They use the same burrow every year, and they clean and may even lengthen the burrow each year. At rocky sites with very little or no soil, puffins nest on slopes or cliff faces. Females lay a single whitish-colored egg that is incubated for 42–47 days by both parents. The egg hatches in July, and the parents take turns feeding the chick for the next 45 days.

After the first five days, the chick can keep itself warm, allowing both parents to leave the nest to gather food. The adults catch small fish such as herring, capelin, and sand lance to feed themselves and their chick. They have a raspy tongue that holds each fish against a double row of backward-facing spines on the roof of the mouth, and they often carry as many as ten small fish at a time when they return to the nest. As soon as the chick fledges, the adults leave for the winter. They shed their beaks and head to the open ocean, where they spend the winter feeding. Young puffins will remain at sea until they are two years old, and then they return to the nesting colony for the summer. They are sexually mature at age three.

I can’t help but laugh when I watch a puffin fly, because with their chubby, round bodies, they are poorly built for flight, and they are actually much better at swimming than flying. When a puffin takes off to fly, it appears to run on the water, furiously flapping its wings until it gains a few feet of altitude. Then it flies for a short distance and splashes back into the water. Landing on a cliff is a tricky maneuver for a puffin, and crash landings are not uncommon.

Seeing a brightly-colored puffin in May is a sign to me that spring has arrived, and catching a glimpse of that same drab-colored bird in September is a reminder that winter is on its way.