Thursday, November 10, 2016

That time we built an official 'historic site'

It's somewhere on this map and, no, I am not going to say where.
There are two places where some of the world's greatest adventures are formed: around a barroom
table late in the night and around a campfire way off the pavement somewhere.

This one comes from the latter. It occurred on a remote beach in Alaska's Prince William Sound and led to quite a different result than any of us could have expected.

Sitting around a campfire in front of a teepee my friends used as a headquarters for kayak trips they guided in the sound we hatched the plan to build a sauna for our use over the course of a summer. It came up as a whim but as the line goes in Stan Rogers' song "Mary Ellen Carter" "with every jar that hit the bar" the idea became more of a mission.

A ready supply of lumber in the form of weathered cedar planks lay just across the bay at an abandoned cannery. We all had tools and a quick call on a radio to another friend coming out the next day produced a supply of nails and some hinges and we were on our way. A stove and pipe would have to come out later.

The next day while a couple of friends and I made several trips across the bay in my 19-foot boat hauling lumber, others drew up a design, found a level spot and cleared it in preparation for the construction

Along with the weathered cedar the old cannery produced other treasures: some metal roofing in good enough shape to cover our building and a box of the old-time square nails which we thought would give our steambath some character. Little did we know it might give it too much character.

With half a dozen people working over the course of the next day we had the structure on a solid foundation and built all the way to the roof. The next day we built a fancy door and fashioned a handle from gnarled driftwood. At that point I had to leave to go back to work and it fell to others to complete the structure.

That summer proved so busy I never did get back to see the finished project, but when I came back the following spring a bunch of us went out there and had a fine party on that beach to kick off the summer. After that, the boat work became hectic and it wasn't until August the chance arose to go back.

At the time I was carrying four Bureau of Land Management surveyors who were documenting historic sites chosen by Natives in the area under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. We visited several bays and coves over ten days until one day we pulled into that very bay where we'd built the sauna. As was my custom I asked the surveyor what was in this bay.

He was kind of excited. He said the Natives had claimed a spot in the bay were there was a foundation for an old cabin and a steambath that was still in use. He expected to have a sauna while we were there. I became immediately suspicious. He showed me a photograph and sure enough it was our sauna. I started laughing while the others looked at me curiously until one asked what was so funny.

I looked at them very seriously and said, I built that goddamed historic steambath. Yup, the Natives  had come along and claimed our sauna as their own and indeed one of historic significance. The only thing historic about that building was the imprint of my skinny white ass on a bench inside. But what can you do? If we went too far into the legalities we probably had built an illegal structure to begin with; we had no legitimate claim to it. I don't know what happened to that sauna though a fellow in another port on the opposite side of the sound told me one day he had found a sauna and described the island. A welder, he worked up a fancy stove for it, but then he disappeared too.

Whether it is still there or not I have no idea and most of the people who knew about it either have died or dispersed across the globe. But sometimes I like to think of future tourists tracing the history of Prince William Sound staring into a roped-off area that protects that building which was my contribution to the Native history of the sound.

2 comments:

Interesting quotations

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