My two brothers and I, along with a buddy of ours named Dan Bogan, own a shack at a place called Saltery Cove on Southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. The shack is about 36 feet long and 12 feet wide, with the warped shape and discoloration of a cardboard shoe box that’s been soaked in the rain. A partially uprooted old-growth hemlock leans menacingly over the back corner, and the front deck sits about seven feet above the shoreline on wooden pilings that are in various stages of decay. The tidal fluctuations in this area are so wild that the shack might be 200 yards away from the water’s edge in the morning and then be at risk of becoming oceanic debris by lunchtime. When friends come to visit, they often scrutinize the engineering as though reluctant to commit their full weight to the structure, let alone sleep inside it. While doing so, they’re prone to asking questions like “What made you guys buy this place?” with a weird inflection that seems to betray a hint of pity.
My usual, flippant reply is that real estate cliché about location, location, location. The appeal of our shack isn’t so much the structure itself, but rather the bare-bones nature of its locality. Surrounded largely by the Tongass National Forest, it’s a place where black bears gnaw mussels from the rocks in what might be described as our yard and killer whales pass by so close that you can hear them even with the door closed. But in truth that’s only half the answer. The other half is more difficult to explain and also a bit masochistic: Saltery Cove is a place where everything—the weather, the ocean, the mountains, the people, the trees, the animals, even the buildings—seems capable of kicking your ass in a very physical way. And in today’s increasingly tame and virtual world, where our primary sensations tend to be delivered by our Wi-Fi connections, a good old-fashioned ass kicking is something worth paying for.
ANOTHER WAY IN WHICH the cabin kicks my ass is through my wife, Katie. She often regards my purchase of the shack with that eye-rolling sense of dismissal that people will use when confronted with the subject of their spouse’s past girlfriends or boyfriends. Not that Katie, a publicity director for a high-profile publishing house in Manhattan, entirely disapproves. Rather, she just feels that the expense of maintaining our “second home” is grossly incommensurate with how much time we spend there. When I try to justify the costs to her, I point out that it’s not so much a second home as a first shack, and also that it could someday prove to be a good investment. When those justifications fail, I hit below the belt and tell her that I’d intended for it to be my primary place of residence but had willfully sacrificed that dream in order to stay close to her—my true love. That usually does the trick.
The purchase occurred during my late twenties, well before I’d met Katie. It was a time when I was more or less aimlessly bouncing around the country with little or no responsibility. In 2003, this landed me on Prince of Wales Island. I went there with my brother Danny to fish salmon and halibut with one of Saltery Cove’s eight full-time residents, Ron Leighton, a man of mixed Native Alaskan and Irish descent who’ll tear your head off for tangling an anchor line and then send your kid a birthday present even though the nearest mailbox is an hour’s boat ride from his house. Ron’s résumé includes a tour of duty as a door gunner in Vietnam, a career as a detective with the police force in Ketchikan, Alaska, and a parallel career as a halibut long-liner. He and Danny originally met when Danny traveled to Saltery Cove to do some environmental survey work through his job as an ecologist at the University of Alaska. Ron offered to put him up and show him around during his stay, and they struck up an unlikely friendship. Then, about a year after my own initial visit (a trip that included meal upon meal of self-caught shrimp, crab, and halibut), Ron called Danny to tell him that the shack across the creek from his house had been put up for sale by its owner.
The price was $80,000, non-negotiable. Danny recognized that this was a lot of money for one guy to pay, especially for a place that might get knocked into the water by a hemlock and float away. Twenty grand, on the other hand, seemed reasonable. All he had to do was find three other guys who felt the same way. He called me in Rhode Island, where I was living in a short-term rental that sat so close to the water, I could watch movies in my living room at night while holding a fishing rod baited for eels and cast into the bay. I’d just sold my first book for what seemed like a staggering sum of money, and since I was still a few years away from adult responsibility, I knew I’d end up blowing my windfall on outdoor gear and alcoholic beverages. That I could take permanent possession of a setup similar to the one I was now enjoying—albeit 3,000 miles away—was an irresistible notion. Our brother Matt and our buddy Dan were equally intrigued. The four of us mailed in our checks.
Danny and I were the first ones to plan a visit. To get there from his house in Anchorage, where I’d been staying for a couple of months, we ended up flying into Seattle and then transferring planes to Ketchikan, a town with an airport that happens to be on a different island than the town itself. We collected our bags and then dragged them down a long ramp toward a ferry dock. After crossing to Ketchikan, we dragged the bags up another ramp and waited in the rain for a cab. Since this was our only chance to stock up on provisions, we made the rounds to the grocery, hardware, and sporting-goods stores. By then it was too late to get a float plane, so we booked a hotel and caught a shuttle to the docks at dawn. There we loaded our supplies into the plane and flew over Clarence Strait toward the jagged and serpentine coastline of Prince of Wales Island, a landmass half the size of Hawaii’s Big Island but with three times as much coastline.
Danny and I will forever remember the month that followed as the summer of trash. When we climbed off the float plane to behold our new treasure, we were greeted by a two-acre parcel of garbage to which we now held the deed. There were steel barrels of chemicals such as kerosene, water sealer, and gear oil made useless by the intrusion of rainwater that had dripped through rust-perforated lids. Dozens of empty barrels, concealed beneath layers of moss, gave the landscape a bumpy look that reminded me of a rash. Elsewhere we found styrofoam blocks as big as bathtubs, a mound of fiberglass insulation the size of a car, enough rotted lumber to build a rotted house, and what would eventually turn out to be 150 gallons of crushed beer cans. Two sheds made of plastic sheeting had simply collapsed over time, burying piles of junked fishing gear, inoperable chainsaws, rusted hardware, busted-up shrimp and crab traps, and coils of cracked plastic hose. When we opened an outhouse toward the back of the property, near the national-forest border, we found that both the hole and the structure had been filled with household garbage.
The only thing more staggering than the volume and variety of the trash was the fact that it had all come in on boats and planes, presumably over the course of many decades. There was no economically feasible way for us to get it out of there and into a landfill, so we did the only thing that made sense. In a weird moment of clairvoyance, I had packed along my flame-retardant military flight suit, and this became my uniform for the next month as Danny and I built infernos of burning trash with smoke plumes rivaling those seen on news broadcasts dispatched from Kabul.