The prickly question of self-determination

I originally published this excerpt back in 2009, but in light of yesterday’s heated POWCAC (Prince of Wales Community Advisory Council) meeting on the topic of borough formation, I thought it was time to revisit this old post, “Tribute to the Unorganized Borough (with a capital “U”)”:

It is an excerpt of testimony Hyder resident Peter Caffall-Davis gave during a Local Boundary Commission meeting in an attempt to prevent Hyder from being annexed into the Ketchikan Borough.

What is The Last Frontier?  That’s something that’s on every single one of our license plates, we hear it every single day, and I’d like us to stop for a second and think, what does that word frontier mean?

It’s a place beyond.

We know what it is; we could use a lot of words to describe it. You could say wilderness, you can say a lot of things. But what does the word frontier really mean?  A place beyond.

And I have to then follow with, naturally, a place beyond what?

And I would declare to you that it is a place beyond the niceties of a highly structured and organized society; that, I think, is what The Last Frontier means.

And I would also say that the greatest embodiment of that is the unorganized borough. I really think the unorganized borough is The Last Frontier.

What would the people who choose to live in The Last Frontier — or unorganized borough — be like? And it’s not uncommon; we all know them, or we’ve been them, or we may want to do it again.

They’re self-sufficient; they’re self-reliant individuals.

They’re people who pride themselves in doing without; they have almost no goods and services coming from the state. Anyway, I would say these independent, self-reliant, hard-working folks of pioneer natures are under-appreciated.

And there’s another thought that comes to mind: They’re thought of and referred to frequently as shirkers of their responsibility to the state because they don’t pay their fair share. And I say balderdash to that, but that’s not exactly the point I’m headed at right now.

Why should the rest of us in the state care if the unorganized borough is protected and that a piece of it still remains?

And it’s going back to my first point: We’re not going to keep dividing up the unorganized borough — what I call The Last Frontier — until there is none of that spirit of freedom left.

That simple life that Walden talks about, we all know exactly what it is in our hearts. And if we go about dividing up the unorganized borough until none of it exists anymore, we will have killed its spirit, and I would say we need to not do that.

And you, as Commissioners, have got an incredible opportunity, in this petition and in others going forward, not to just organize — which is great — but to also protect and preserve that spirit. It’s really important.

And I do not believe we should divide up the unorganized borough and force it to have highly structured systems that they don’t need and don’t want in remote and rural places; we need to keep that spirit of freedom alive.

One of the ways that I continue to hear the unorganized borough referred to is with a little u, a lowercase “u”; it’s almost used like a pejorative. And I’m tired of it, because the people who live out there really are defending our spirit, and our pioneer status, it needs to be protected.

My last comment on this first half of my opening statement is, what you are hearing, I declare, when you hear people say to you in all their petitions, “Don’t make us do this, don’t make us join this borough, don’t force us to do this.”

When these people are speaking to you, what you are actually hearing is the spirit of The Last Frontier, and it is crying out to you for protection and preservation.

And every single petition that includes forcing a little town or village into — through annexation or any other formation — against their will, that’s what you’re hearing, and I would ask you to try and remember that in your heart, and take it into account in every single petition that comes before you, because you know what that Last Frontier spirit is as good as I do. And I would like to see you also try and help protect it for the future and not completely wipe it out.

These are still, small voices that you hear.  Sometimes they’re loud. Sometimes they’re coordinated well, and that’s great. But many times they’re not, and many of them will never speak up at all; they just go quietly away and are never heard.

But this is the spirit of The Last Frontier that we’re talking about, at least in Meyers Chuck, and in Hyder, which I believe is being constructed and annexed today. And in my closing comments, I will talk a little more pointedly about two other issues, and that’s all I have.

Thank you.


The debate about borough formation is beginning to remind me a little about the conversations about statehood during the 1950s. Desire for local sovereignty and preservation for a unique Alaskan way of life is still at the top of everyone’s list – but it seems like there has been some shift in how that gets expressed.

I was disappointed at the meeting last night that the POWCAC chairman refused to hear public comment. He said it wasn’t part of the formal process (which is sortof ironic considering that many people who wanted to speak were going to rail against extra layers of government, but I digress). I was looking forward to the opportunity to hear from local residents about how they see their life on the island — and how they envision it’s future. I know there were also supporters of borough formation in the audience and it would have been great to hear the dialogue between the two perspectives — and not leave it up to the comment boxes on Facebook for conversation about a topic that could have a major impact on the lives of all the residents here.

There were over a 100 people in the audience! Many of them wanted to speak. Representative Kreiss-Tomkins was there… lots of public officials were there… and all those Prince of Wales residents were there! What a disappointment not to allow for public comment. It was clear there was a diversity of opinions there — from people who may have been pro-borough formation to ardent protestors. Unlike most people in the room, I actually don’t have an opinion about the topic.

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Nourishing old roots, launching a new Project

We launched a new project last month — one that’s been in the works since 1999. Wow. I’m serious. It’s been incubating for years… and then just this year, it’s made it’s soft launch on the Internet and is already growing a few branches.

I call it The Lala Salama Project. It’s a project with a simple mission: bring gear and supplies to the wildlife rangers who patrol Mount Kenya National Park.

A little background: In 1999, I took a semester off college and signed up for a NOLS course in Kenya. NOLS is a really wonderful organization, they teach people of all ages how to function and survive in wildernesses all over the world. The course I signed up for lasted 80+ days and we spent a month backpacking around Mount Kenya, a couple weeks backpacking through Masaailand, a week or two on safari, and a few weeks learning to sail dhows in the Indian Ocean. I met great people. I saw beautiful country. I was 20 years old and I had the time of my life.

When I returned to college, I found that Kenya had had a strong impact on me. I majored in African history. I wrote a thesis about the first white man to climb up Mount Kenya’s highest peak. I returned to Africa a few more times. I learned more about a place that has a complex and often emotional history. And then I moved to Alaska.

A few years ago, Simon (a Kenyan friend from the NOLS course) found me on Facebook (yea social media!). We talked on the phone, we laughed about old times. And then Simon invited me to come back to Kenya. I’d always thought about returning, but life — and other plans — had just gotten in the way. “There are so many places to see out there, so many things to do,” I’d often think to myself. But when I decided last year to leave an awesome job in pursuit of creative projects, one of my goals was to also maintain the threads with my past. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent several years pursuing some fantastic adventures – firefighting in California, monkey handling in South Africa, you name it. Why not build on the foundation that I’d already created? Why go out and pursue yet another experience? Just for the sake of another story? I knew what I would find in Kenya as a 35-year-old would be different than what I would find in Kenya at age 20. What’s more, I’m not really searching anymore. The things that matter to me are the people in my life, the places I’ve been, the issues I already know and feel passionate about. For a lot of people, this change is probably called something like “putting down roots” or “settling down.” It’s a sense desire for a deeper connection, a deeper meaning of some kind. But as an inherent nomad, how does one put down roots?

I took Simon up on his invitation and in April 2014, I flew to Nairobi. Simon picked me up at the airport and I spent the next month in Kenya. I didn’t have an agenda. I wanted to see Mount Kenya again. I wanted to go to the coast. I wanted to meet Simon’s wife and two small daughters. I wanted to see other old friends. Simon is now the Senior Warden of Mount Kenya National Park and I spent a lot of time following him around while he did his job. I think everyone should do this — as an adult, shadow another adult doing their job. Unless we work with our friends, we rarely get to see our friends actually do their work. I learned a lot about Simon. He’s an innovative, kind leader. He is a big thinker with big ambitions and big expectations. He also makes everyone around him feel capable of pretty much doing anything you want. It’s a rare gift.

Simon and I spent hours and hours driving around Kenya and around Mount Kenya. We talked a lot. He introduced me to several rangers and I learned things about their work that I’d never known. The conservation crisis in Kenya is rising. Illegal hunting and timber harvesting is escalating. Poachers are constantly developing new tools to hunt elephants, rhinos… anything that they can sell. And yet, the country of Kenya is also in crisis. The political situation there remains unstable. Somalia is a growing threat. Poverty is a mounting obstacle. In a lot of ways, it sounds like the same old tune I’ve been hearing since childhood: Africa is a continent in crisis. But then there are people like Simon. Sure, he understands the big issues, but he somehow has a knack for breaking down a problem and taking small steps forward to rectify it.

Meanwhile, as Simon hatched plans, I also was brainstorming. I’d brought my camera equipment and recording equipment with me and I started filming. I talked to rangers about colleagues who had been killed in action. I asked them questions about the kind of food they ate, the gear they used, the ways they coped with being away from family for weeks and months at a time.

Together, Simon and I decided that we could do what we could to make things a little easier for the rangers on the mountain. We decided to launch a project that would simply gather supplies in America (where goods are better quality and more accessible), and bring them to Kenya. I call it The Lala Salama project because in Swahili, “lala salama” means “sleep well.” We want the rangers to be able to do their jobs — and to come home safe and sound every night. It’s also a sweet Kenyan lullaby that I remembered learning as a student on the NOLS course in 1999.

I mentioned the project to my friend David Rogers in Mississippi. He jumped on board. He mentioned the project to his friend Michelle Waterhouse in Tennessee. She jumped on board. Now we have a little momentum. We’ve gotten our first donation already. You can be a part of it too, if you want. Or you can just “Like” us on Facebook. Every bit counts. We want to grow our branches even more, and to do that, we will need help.

It’s just the beginning, but we are nourishing the roots of our small tree. And at the same time, I am nourishing my roots too.

A poem from J.R.R. Tolkien:

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

Fishing for a Living

I recently left behind my Alaska life for a couple months and found myself in the most magical of places: Garopaba, Brazil. If my sister hadn’t bought a place here a few years ago, I’d probably have lived my whole life never knowing this gem even existed.

The town is on the southern coast of Brazil, just an hour from Florianopolis — a city situated both on an island and on the shores of a stunning lake.

Garopaba, however, is located on the Brazilian mainland and somehow also surrounded by beaches. So it almost felt like we were on an island while I was there. I asked Brooke a couple times how many beaches there were in Garopaba (we set a goal to visit all of them while I was there), but I never really got a straight answer. I do know we went to Central, Ferrugem, Siriu, Silveira, Garopabina … and maybe another one or two that I’m forgetting now. There’s a close connection to water here that reminds me of Coloradoans close connection to the mountains. It is simply part of us, part of our every day lives.

One day when I was in Garopaba, Brooke and I stopped at a fish shop and bought a few fillets of fish and invited her next door neighbors over for dinner. Karen and Murillo are from Brazil, but their hometowns are further up the coast. They are both athletic and kind and their home is full of boats. There are miniature kayaks and canoes everywhere.

Karen told us when her mother came for a visit recently, she gathered all the boats in the house, set them on a table, and told Karen: “They should be together, they are a collection.” But to Karen and Murillo, I think the boats are just part of their lives, symbolic of their love of surfing, kayaking, and canoeing as much as they possibly can.

Over fish dinner, Karen told us that Murillo, who loved to meet new people, had recently befriended a local fisherman who had invited him to help out on his boat. Murillo would have to wake early, she said, but he was really looking forward to the opportunity to get out on the water — and experience a different kind of boat. Karen told us this story in English and her English was excellent (which was a good thing since my Portuguese was — and still is — very much a work-in-progress).

Murillo’s English was pretty good too, but he was also looking to improve and he said he liked when people corrected him. Sometimes he’d mix up small things. For example, he referred to Christmas “stockings” as “socks,” and he pronounced the word “looked” with two syllables (look-ed). Sometimes I would honor his request and correct him, but lots of times I just enjoyed hearing words that were so familiar to me, but pronounced or used in a slightly unfamiliar way.

So when we were talking over dinner about Murillo’s upcoming fishing expedition, I asked him the kind of question that anyone might ask someone before they head out on a trip like this:

“What does the fisherman fish for?”

Murillo thought about it for about a half a second.

“For a living,” he said.

His tone was earnest, but Brooke and I both couldn’t help but smile at the unexpected answer. Murillo was clearly confused. “Did I say something wrong?” he asked us.

No, not really, I told him. And I explained how the typical answer for that question would be to describe the kind of fish — trout, salmon, halibut, rockfish, you name it — that you were fishing for. Technically, I said, his answer, “for a living,” made sense, but it was a little unexpected.

“It is much more poetic,” I told him. “And probably more accurate too. Most fishermen I know do it because they love it, so I guess you could say they are fishing for a living.”

p.s. If you’d like to read about what happened last time I visited Brooke in Brazil… check out this post here about our canoe adventure down the Guapore River in the Amazon. 

The Best (Worst) Time of Year

This must be the week where all the troopers got together and decided they were ready to be interviewed by yours truly. Maybe it’s the change in season. Yeah, on second thought, I definitely blame the change in season.

This is Alaska’s most boring time of year. The days are shorter, the weather is unpredictable, summer is not quite over, but winter snow has yet to fall. Autumn is even gone – leaves from the trees are on the ground, caked in mud and grey from decay. For Fairbanksans, this past summer was full of these weird bad days. It was the rainiest summer on record — and many people (myself included) got more than a little fed up with the miserable weather pattern. Fairbanks summers are supposed to be endless, bright, and energizing. And this year it was anything but those things. I guess it’s not too abnormal, though. If I’ve learned anything in the last couple of years living in the country’s most northern large town, it’s that the weather is anything but predictable.

But right now, everybody I know has a bee in their bonnet, including my wild and crazy Dog who has been picking fights at the local dog park. Now, I’m not looking to pick fights with any police officers, but I wonder if people in general aren’t getting a little restless and bored. Alaskans don’t like to be bored. They get in trouble when they get bored, they drink too much, they run around and get crazy. But for some people, boredom is also a time of self-reflection. It’s a perfect time of year to talk to people.

When I worked for ADF&G’s Subsistence Division, we often travelled to villages in the wintertime. Summer was frenetic and if we wanted to chat with people, we probably would be out of luck. No one in Alaska wants to sit at their kitchen table, drink coffee, and talk about fishing during fishing season. Nope, they want to be fishing. Springtime is also busy and I never met a whaling captain on the North Slope who would rather sit and chat with anyone over spending time fixing snowmachines, repairing gear, and generally prepping to go out and hunt whales once the migration began and the whales started to show up in Arctic waters.

So even though I am not a fan of this time of year, I’m thankful for it — and thankful that there are enough people out there who are beginning to realize the importance of talking about an old murder case. It’s a part of Alaska after all, just like the seasons.

Following A Trail Of Memories

People who know me well know that for the past couple of years, I’ve been digging into an old Alaska murder case. The murders themselves were terrible, particularly because they included the deaths of two small children (though honestly, is there ever a situation where murder isn’t just awful?).

The murders occurred in 1982 at the end of a busy salmon fishing season on board a gleaming new fishing boat, the F/V Investor in Craig on Prince of Wales Island. Eight people were murdered, including a family from Blaine, Wash. and their four teenage deckhands. Among those killed were the Coulthurst family, Mark, 28, his pregnant wife, Irene, and their two children Kimberly, 5, and John, 4, and crewmen Mike Stewart, 19, Chris Heyman, 18, Dean Moon, 19, and Jerome Keown, 19.

The timeline of events surrounding the murders is a little difficult to wade through because a lot of potential witnesses didn’t even really remember what they were up to during the days surrounding the murders — let alone what was going on around them. A lot of people were drunk, high, or other wise preoccupied with finishing up the end of the salmon seining season. Though weird stuff has been known to happen in some of our small Alaskan towns, mass murder wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would have ever imagined.

The Alaska State Troopers who investigated the case focused their investigation on Bellingham, Wash. resident and fisherman, John Kenneth Peel, framing the incident to the media as a tragic case of workplace rage that resulted from “an explosion of emotion.” Troopers believed that twenty-two-year old Peel had been angry with the skipper of the boat — a man who had also been a former boss — and had gone on a rampage, killing everyone on board before motoring the vessel into the harbor, setting it on fire to destroy evidence, and escaping by skiff.

Peel was arrested two years after the killings, but was acquitted by a jury in 1988 following two grand juries and two lengthy trials that cost the state an estimated $3 million. The lack of resolution in the case has haunted the memories of the victims’ friends and families, as they have been left wondering what frightening events befell their loved ones.

These events have been on my mind a lot lately, in part because I have been hard at work work putting together a synopsis of the investigation and trials. The sheer complexity of the case is overwhelming and it is easy to feel sympathy for the detectives who were tasked with finding the killer more than 30 years ago.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve never thought of myself as a person drawn to the blood and gore of true crime thrillers. There was a time as a kid when I loved either Steven King horror movies (think Cujo and The Shining) or anything about the 16th century English King Henry VIII and knew exactly which one of his six wives he beheaded or divorced. But as I got older, none of that kind of stuff seemed so captivating anymore. I can’t stomach horror movies and I gloss over parts of books that describe the grisly detail of how some awful event went down. I’ve only ever seen the footage of the Twin Towers collapse by accident. I don’t even own a TV.

I became even more sensitive after I worked for a newspaper in northern California and covered a few murders, tragic accidental deaths, and even travelled overseas to witness human suffering of a different kind in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. I once wrote a story about a brilliant Oscar-winning artist with mental illness who had committed suicide. Though not nearly as well known, it was a story not unlike what happened recently with Robin Williams’s own suicide. I was struck and saddened by the people who e-mailed or called and wanted to know how the man had taken his own life.

I hadn’t even asked, I told them.

I haven’t wanted to write too much publicly about the Investor case in large part because I didn’t want to succumb to the unnecessarily sensational. It has all the makings of a wild thriller movie and yet, there is nothing glorious or fantastic about what happened to those five men, one woman, and two young children. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell this important story. I’ve never been so vain to think that I could solve the case — or to find the missing puzzle pieces that eluded so many cops and attorneys. Obviously, there’s always the hope that by keeping a story alive, there is a chance that some new leaf will be turned over. I still have that hope and will continue to dig and see what gets uncovered.

As a writer, I’ve always known it was important to document events in our lives, especially as they are happening and when our memories are freshest. But when my own dad died at age 61 in 2009, I pretty much stopped writing altogether for a couple of years. During the week after his death, I tried without success to write about all that was going on around me. I tried to catalogue for memory’s sake the visitors, the conversations, the weird details that families go through during the days after a death. I knew I needed to remember these things. I knew I should write them down. Still, I couldn’t do it. I stubbornly refused to document what these weeks revealed, worried that somehow these final memories would overshadow all the other much warmer ones I held. I regret this now, but I understand.

I wish too that I had written more the past few years. Instead, I’ve done a whole lot of listening. And boy, do people have a lot to say. I worked for four years for Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence, traveling to villages, sitting at dozens of kitchen tables, and listening and learning from the Y-K Delta to the Beaufort Sea coast.

I have been trying to interview as many people as I can who remember the victims of the Investor, who remember the trials, the case, or that time in Alaska’s history.

All through this, I haven’t stopped thinking that the story of the eight who perished on the Investor 32 years ago continues to be important. The case is not resolved. There has been no closure for the communities, the families and friends of the victims, the fishermen and women of the Pacific Northwest. There has been no closure even for the numerous detectives, lawyers, and others who worked the case for years. I have heard frustration, sadness, anger, and bitterness in the voices of dozens of individuals.

My investigation thus far has revealed way more questions than answers. My efforts have been frustrated by distance, an overwhelming number of documents, confusing and contradictory story lines, and people who don’t want to trust me. But I am also slowly peeling back layers. I am finding some answers.

And I am continuing to believe that by keeping the story from being forgotten, one by one, my questions will be answered.