Eric and Pam Bealer at their Pelican homestead in the early 2000s
Courtesy Jim Horton(Photo)
Eric and Pam Bealer at their Pelican homestead in the early 2000s
Eric and Pam Bealer at their Pelican homestead in the early 2000s (Photo: Courtesy Jim Horton)

The Frontier Couple Who Chose Death Over Life Apart

Artist Eric Bealer was living the remote, rugged good life in coastal Alaska with his wife, Pam, an MS sufferer, when they made a dramatic decision: to exit this world together, leaving behind precise instructions for whoever entered their cabin first. Eva Holland investigates the mysteries and meaning of an adventurous couple who charted their own way out.

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Eric Bealer arrived in Sitka for the last time in a boat weighed down with his art.

It was late March 2018. Bealer, an Alaskan artist who specialized in intricately detailed wood engravings, had just traveled for two days from his homestead on Lisianski Inlet, through the rough winter waters off the west­ern edges of Chichagof and Baranof Islands, to the relative shelter of Sitka Sound. His skiff, built by hand using materials harvested and salvaged from Alaska’s coast, was jam-packed with his work: old prints, new prints, even the ink-stained, delicately carved wooden blocks used to make the prints themselves. There was so much art filling the little boat that, during his overnight layover en route to Sitka, Bealer had no room to lie down. He slept onshore, on the ground.

Eugene Solovyov met him on the dock in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. Solovyov, owner of the Sitka Rose Gallery, had known Bealer for more than two decades, ever since the artist walked in one day in the mid-1990s, looking to place his work. Solovyov was immediately impressed with Bealer’s depictions of Alaska’s landscapes, the state’s flora and fauna. It wasn’t just the technical proficiency, the fine detail. Bealer’s images, wild and moody, made you feel something. And they were the kind of art almost anyone could afford: prints sold for $25, or $40, or $45. Bealer went on to become the gallery’s most popular artist with both visitors and locals.

In their twenty-plus years of acquaintance, the pair had became much more than gallery owner and artist, vendor and producer. They were close friends. Every couple of years, Bealer would travel to Sitka by plane or boat for a gallery show. He stayed in Solovyov’s apartment, and they’d catch up over a few beers. Sometimes, Bealer’s wife, Pam, came along, too, although her visits were less frequent after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, with effects ranging from manageable problems like pain and numbness to serious physical disabilities. As the years passed and Pam’s symptoms worsened, she and Solovyov kept in touch by e-mail, trading photos and stories.

Solovyov later told me that, when he saw the little boat crammed with art that March day, he should have known. For years, the couple had talked with close friends about their intention to die together when Pam’s time came. She did not wish to see her disease through; Eric did not plan to live without his wife. But it was one thing to talk about this in the abstract. It was another for Solovyov to stand in the harbor and realize that his friend had prepared his last exhibition. “He brought everything with him,” he said.

The show went well. Bealer’s work sold briskly, as it always does, and when he motored out of the harbor and headed home, his boat was a great deal lighter.

Throughout that summer, the Bealers traveled back and forth between their main homestead, a few miles outside the small village of Pelican, and their more remote cabin nearby, on the west coast of Yakobi Island. They planted their vegetable garden and cared for their chickens. They worked on their art. In early September, they headed to the cabin again.

Isolated as the cabin was, they had a neighbor there, and his place had Wi-Fi, which they were able to use even when he was away. So they were generally in touch with people by e-mail. When that communication stopped, in mid-September, their friends took notice. They put the word out to folks in Pelican: If anyone was heading for Yakobi Island, could they look in on the Bealers?

On October 5, a pair of Pelican-area residents, a married couple, made the trip to the island. Leaving his wife in their boat, the husband hiked up a trail to the Bealers’ cabin. The screen door to the covered porch was open. He went in and found a plastic bin filled with packages and letters, and a note taped to the glass window of the main door, which was locked. On one side the note read: “Hello, if you are looking for the Bealers… Please read this. If you found this, please mail the attached packages. It will go to the people who will know what to do next and take care of things. Please accept the cash as a gift to pay you for your trouble, and postage for these packages and envelopes.”

On the back side it said, “To the world and all concerned: This is to officially notify you that Eric and Pam Bealer, by their own choice and free will, have committed suicide. We are dead, gone, and free from this physical world. Free. We have gone to some effort to hide our bodies, as we do not want them found. Please do not waste time and money looking. It would serve no purpose. We are gone, leave us to our peace.”

Below their declaration was a passage attributed to Richard Bach, which said: “Why, instead of suffering and fighting it, don’t people reach a time when they decide, ‘Done! We’ve finished everything we came to do. There are no mountains we haven’t pretty well climbed, nothing unlearned we wanted to learn, we’ve lived a nice life.’ And then they just sit themselves down under a tree or a star, lift themselves out of their bodies, and never come back?”

Underneath the poem was one more note from the Bealers: “Why indeed?”

Surge Bay Puffins, a 2008 woodblock engraving by Eric Bealer
Surge Bay Puffins, a 2008 woodblock engraving by Eric Bealer (Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society)

Eric was born on June 6, 1960. Pam Anderson came into the world the very next day, and their eventual meeting felt like fate. After growing up in Pennsylvania, in his early twenties Eric traveled throughout the north­eastern United States, an itinerant artist showing his work. During the same period in the early eighties, Pam nursed her mother through a long, slow death from cancer. The day after her mother passed away, friends persuaded her to get out of the house, try to have some fun. While she was out, she met Eric.

Together they explored and enjoyed the wilderness, seeking self-reliance and a sense of isolation. They moved to rural Vermont and then, in 1989, to just outside Haines, Alaska, a gorgeous small town on the northern end of the Inside Passage. They were married in 1990. Soon, though, even Haines—reachable only by ferry, small plane, or a two-lane road that climbs over the mountains from Canada’s Yukon—seemed too accessible to the rest of the world. In 1999, they bought four acres on the shore of Lisianski Inlet, in the maze of islands west of Juneau, a few miles outside the tiny fishing village of Pelican.

“Got a fix-er-up-er cabin on the beach,” Eric wrote a friend. “Three miles from town in the middle of the Tongass National Forest at its best. Rainforest too. We get over 130 inches of rain a year! And I’m having so much fun building, fishing… Well, let’s just say I feel like a kid again.” He was looking forward to settling in and then getting back to cutting blocks. “There is no shortage of subject matter out here,” he wrote.

The property became a monument to the Bealers’ skills and values. They created a water-collection system. They acquired workhorses, sheep, and chickens; wool sheared from the sheep became yarn for homemade clothing and Pam’s fiber arts. They planted a large vegetable garden—the usual suspects for northern latitudes: potatoes, carrots, beets, kale—and fertilized it with manure and seaweed. Fall meant harvesting, canning, and filling the root cellar. They gathered what they could from the forest—Pam became an expert on Alaska’s wild plants, their uses in food and medicine. In the early years, Eric hunted deer and fished the inlet. As time passed, they were more likely to trade favors for fish and game from friends.

Once they got settled, Eric turned to an important issue. He needed a new press to create his prints, but getting that kind of item delivered to a rural homestead would be a major challenge. Enlisting a friend to put a 60-year-old, 1,149-pound Vandercook #3 on a barge from Seattle was the easy part. The barge, carrying everything from food supplies to construction materials to hay bales, along with one 1939 printing press, arrived as winter loomed. With help from a crane and a forklift at Pelican’s loading dock, Eric was able to wrestle the press into his skiff. He putted home carefully, then, over several strenuous hours, managed to get the press from boat to dock to dry land, and finally into the house. He later described the operation as “a master of orchestration involving me, my wife, a strong neighbor, some slab lumber, four metal rods, and two come-alongs.” The episode was vintage Eric: achieving something others might consider extraordinary through resourcefulness and ingenuity while keeping a sense of humor about it all.

The couple didn’t need much from town—flour for bread, bags of beans—and there wasn’t a lot on offer anyway. Pelican is a young settlement. It was founded in 1938 by a Scandinavian immigrant named Kalle “Charlie” Raatikainen. He and a group of fellow fishermen built cold storage and a cannery here, situated between the ocean and the mountains, and the village grew around it. Named after Raatikainen’s boat, the Pelican, the community was incorporated in 1943. Its motto is “Closest to the fish.”

Today, a sign on the wall of the harbor office, at the top of the ramp leading up from the docks, puts Pelican’s population at “about 60.” The village is built on stilts above the edge of Lisianski Inlet, leaning against the green and gray of densely forested cliffs, the tide flowing in and out below the main boardwalk that connects each building to its neighbors. The harbor hosts a collection of charter fishing boats and commercial rigs, small skiffs, and visiting sailboats. In a normal summer, the Alaska state ferry sails in once every two weeks, and small floatplanes connect Pelican to Juneau three times a day, weather permitting.

It’s the kind of place where the harbormaster is also the librarian and teaches school, where everybody knows not only your name but your business. It’s a place that seems willing to be lighthearted, even in sad times: in the little gazebo that houses Pelican’s memorial to its dead, people are remembered with monikers like “Grooviest Chick Around,” “Doctor of the Freezers,” and “Mechanical Genius.” There’s a town pigeon—a stray that flew in one day, maybe storm blown, and stayed. Pam named it Dragon, and it still struts along the boardwalk railings, cooing, staring down the eagles and the resident heron, Ziggy, which picks its way through the harbor muck at low tide.

The note said, in part: “We have gone to some effort to hide our bodies, as we do not want them found. Please do not waste time or money looking. It would serve no purpose.”

The Bealers could go weeks without motoring up the inlet and into the village’s small harbor. Still, they were well-known there, and well-liked. They were regulars at Pelican’s now defunct Boardwalk Boogie, a raucous festival of music and art; Eric created posters and art each year, and he and Pam competed hard in the dirty-song contest, performing original, bawdy lyrics. (A friend couldn’t remember for sure if they ever won the event, but, he said, “They should have.”) Eric shared his self-taught boatbuilding skills with people in need, and one man remembered Pam giving him an embroidered portrait of his dog after it died.

Their isolated lifestyle might suggest standoffishness, but Eric was warm and charismatic, with a presence that swept you up in his energy. (“I love your aura!” he would declare to a new friend at Pelican’s pub, Rose’s, before settling down to draw them.) Pam balanced Eric’s hyperactivity with a calm reticence. In his art, Eric often depicted his wife as a bear, cool and dignified, and himself as a squirrel, manic in comparison.

“I’d never known a couple more in love,” Kate Landers, a close friend and a year-round Pelican resident, told me. “In love, and a part of each other.” They were “just… fused,” another local said. Sharing goals and dreams, but bringing their own skills and temperament to the life they were building together, they balanced each other perfectly.

Pam received her MS diagnosis sometime in the mid- to late aughts. Her disease didn’t change things too much, at least not right away. But gradually the Bealers began to scale back. Pam, who had once been able to hike the mountains surrounding her house, told friends that she was barely able to make it to the top of nearby hills.

When the horses and sheep died off, they weren’t replaced. As Pam’s symptoms and pain advanced, the Bealers began to make plans for the future. A few years after the diagnosis, they purchased their second, more remote property on Yakobi Island, withdrawing further from the world. The new place, serene and wild, at the very edge of the Pacific, seemed to help Pam, at least for a while.

The way we die is changing. So, too, is the way we think about dying—and about the opportunity, even the right, to die at a time and place of our choosing.

Today, the default assumption, or hope, is that we will live as long as possible, and that a life taken before an advanced age is a tragedy. But there was a time when almost nobody lived long enough to die from the accretion of ailments and slowdowns that we call old age. In the 1500s, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote that “to die of age is a rare, singular, and extraordinary death, and so much less natural than others.” Then came the Enlightenment, the scientific method, the beginnings of modern medicine: sterilization procedures, anti­biotics, and surgeries, chemotherapy and pacemakers and blood transfusions and everything else that intervenes to keep us alive when disease and injury come calling. Suddenly, old age was the only kind of death that seemed natural.

As the how of death changed, so did the where. By the middle of the 20th century, most American deaths still took place at home, but by the 1980s only 17 percent did. Most people spent the end of their lives in hospitals, under fluorescent lights, with tubes and wires and monitors beeping. That change led to a backlash, a growing belief that we should be permitted to decline those interventions and, sometimes, to decline them on behalf of our loved ones who can’t do so for themselves. Instead of merely asking if doctors could extend our lives for a few more months or weeks or days, we began to ask if they should.

You can read the horror stories in shelves’ worth of books on euthanasia and the right to die: The octogenarian widow or widower, institutionalized, repeatedly expressing a readiness to let go, refusing to eat and then being force-fed against their stated wishes just to keep them alive a little longer. The medical teams keeping comatose patients on life support for years while loved ones beg for their release. The pain and suffering inflicted in the name of longevity.

The social and legal reaction to such cases led to an array of new rights and options. Now people can sign a do-not-resuscitate order, declining life-saving intervention when their bodies begin to shut down. We can create advance directives and living wills. We can say no to that last round of chemo and opt for pain management instead.

More radically, in a handful of countries and several U.S. states—Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, and New Jersey, along with the District of Columbia—the terminally ill can request what is sometimes called death with dignity, assisted suicide, or medical assistance in dying. Generally, this means that a doctor provides a fatal dose of medication to a qualified patient, to take at a time of their choosing.

This change has roots that go pretty far back: five of those states and D.C. passed their laws only in the past five years, but a euthanasia bill was drafted and failed to pass in Ohio as long ago as 1906. What became known as the right-to-die movement gathered steam through the 1970s and 1980s, and by the late 1990s, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian was openly assisting with dozens of illegal suicides, public opinion had largely turned.

There have been dissenters along the way. “It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity,” paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1985, after he was diagnosed with cancer. “Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die—and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ulti­mate enemy.”

More recently, as legal assisted suicide has spread, some have worried that its existence might discourage the growth of palliative and hospice care, narrowing our options late in life instead of opening them up. Others object to the practice on religious grounds or because it seems to violate the prime directive of being a physician: do no harm.

(Mike Reagan)

My thoughts about the right to die be­gan to form in the mid-1990s, shaped by two high-profile Canadian cases. The first was the death of Sue Rodriguez, a woman with ALS who had fought all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court for the right to receive medical assistance in dying on her own timetable. The court turned her down five to four, but Rodriguez found a still-anonymous doctor who was willing to break the law to help her. She died February 12, 1994, from an overdose of morphine.

Around the same time as the Rodriguez case, a farmer in Saskatchewan named Robert Latimer put his 12-year-old daughter, Tracy, in his truck and filled the cab with exhaust, killing her. Tracy had a severe case of cerebral palsy—she couldn’t speak or walk, among other limitations—and over a chorus of outrage from disability-rights advocates, Latimer defended his choice by saying that he was sparing her further agony. He was found guilty of second-degree murder.

I was in junior high when these stories played out. I didn’t have any strong feelings about Rodriguez’s case, just a vague, unexamined sense that she was right. Tracy Latimer, unable to speak for herself, was much more complicated. But I latched on to something I’d heard on the radio: that she suffered as many as a half-dozen seizures a day.

At the time, I was newly diagnosed with epilepsy, and the three full-body seizures I’d experienced before medication brought them under control were the worst experiences of my young life. I remember sitting at a table at school with a few friends, talking about the Latimer case, and while I didn’t pretend to know what Tracy thought or felt, I knew one thing for sure. “If you told me I’d have six seizures a day, every day, for the rest of my life,” I said, “I would beg you to kill me.”

So I grew up broadly sympathetic to the idea of choosing one’s own time and place. But on three occasions I also felt the particular, sickening sadness of learning that a classmate has died by suicide. I’ve read about suicide clusters and suicide contagion. I know that it can be a corrosive act, leaving grief and anger in its wake. Our choices can have ripple effects far beyond our own lives.

Years later I became part of the outdoor community, a world where death can feel like a looming presence in ways it doesn’t in day-to-day city life. Death in the outdoors isn’t necessarily more likely—car accidents and cancer can take us anywhere—but it’s an ongoing part of our conversation. We weigh risks and consequences, and there’s an acknowledgment at least of the possibility of death. A friend who helped the Bealers prepare their wills later told the troopers that he believed he was doing so because the couple wanted to be prepared for the risks inherent in their lifestyle. After all, he figured, they could have died any time they steered their skiff through the wild offshore waters to reach their cabin.

In his essay “27 Funerals and a Wedding,” climber Geoff Powter reflects on the losses experienced in three decades of roping up. The climbing community is not alone in seeing death up close, he writes, but “adventurers may be unique in the way we consecrate the activities that kill us as great and noble pursuits.” He contrasts his mother’s eventual death with those of his friends in the mountains: “Unlike any other death I’d experienced before, she was able to say, ‘It’s time.’ ”

Assisted suicide is not yet legal in Alaska, and Pam Bealer wouldn’t have qualified for it anyway—most legal frameworks require the patient’s death to be imminent. Eric’s choice goes beyond what most right-to-die advocates envision. I wasn’t sure how to feel about what they’d done.

Wood engraving applies the tools and techniques of metal engraving to hard pieces of end-grain wood. End grain is what you get when you cut a tree crosswise, sawing through its rings at 90 degrees, rather than lengthwise like lumber. Doing so creates a much more durable surface, one harder than, say, a pine plank. This allows for incredibly detailed work—strokes of a blade so careful that, when you touch the carved surface, it feels no more deeply scored than the whorls in your fingertips.

In the 19th century, wood engravings became a common form of illustration in newspapers and books, created by growing numbers of apprentice and master engravers, artisans whose trade would be eclipsed by the rise of photography in the early 20th century. Today it survives as a niche art form, and Eric, self-taught as always, was a master of its techniques. “He’s right up there with the best American engravers ever,” says Tony Drehfal, the editor of Block & Burin, the newsletter of the Wood Engravers’ Network.

Eric created a text-heavy engraving that explained the technique for the benefit of gallery viewers. “Small hand-engraving tools are used to cut away the surface of the block,” it says in tiny carved letters. “Like a negative image all the white is cut away. Ink is then rolled on the surface of the block and it is put through a hand-operated press to produce each individual print.” Engravings are printed in limited, numbered editions—40, 80, 100 copies—and are not intended to be reproduced further. Each print is numbered and signed by the artist.

Eric studied traditional illustrations, looking at the hundreds and thousands of microscopically fine lines used to create the textures of restless ocean wavelets, or a gloomy, darkening sky, and applied them in his own work. His prints were distinguished by their detail—he could spend eight weeks on a single small block of wood. (Other modern wood engravings tend to be simpler, with bolder lines and more white space.) Alaska was his muse, both its vistas and small details: the massive, corrugated face of a glacier and a dewy spiderweb strung from gnarled wood. Swans in flight, a heron at rest, an orca breaching. But his work went beyond earnestly beautiful landscapes or depictions of wildlife—he liked to add a little twist of whimsy to the world he saw around him. One print of a sea lion on a rocky shore was titled Bachelor Pad.

In the outdoor community, death can feel like a looming presence in ways it doesn’t in day-to-day city life. Death isn’t necessarily more likely, but it’s an ongoing part of our conversation.

In some of Eric’s last pieces, created in the final months before his death, he carved hints of his and Pam’s plans. In The Crossing, Pam is pictured on a bridge over a forest stream, taking what seems to be a last look back. In Step Over, a bear peers down into a glassy stream. Trees and a soaring bird are reflected in the water; so are several shadowy, ursine footprints tracking across the surface. Another engraving, showing a bird soaring through sunbeams above a rugged coast, is titled Letting Go. A final print, of a sailboat receding in the distance, is labeled The Door Is Opening.

Later, after the Bealers were gone, several of their friends would receive a note that echoed those themes. Unsigned, but in Pam’s handwriting, it was included among the packages and parcels that had been left to be mailed. “I have found a dimensional doorway,” it read in part. “I have left this physical body behind, and I have stepped through.”

The Bealers’ preparations had been as meticulous, as finely detailed, as one of ­Eric’s engravings. Beyond the note, the cash, and the initial box of packages and letters at their Yakobi property, they had left their affairs in order at the homestead outside Pelican. When two state troopers arrived there, they found a note on the stairs that said, “Look up here.” On the second floor, in the bedroom, they found another copy of the same suicide note that had been taped to the Yakobi cabin door, several pre-addressed boxes to be mailed, and another envelope full of cash. (“To pay for the shipping. Keep the change!”) In notarized wills, the Bealers left their artwork to Eugene Solovyov and their land, boats, and estate to the Sitka Conservation Society’s Living Wilderness Fund, “so that they may continue to help protect this land that I so love.”

There were no loose ends. The troopers wrapped up their investigation, and after a court proceeding, the Bealers were legally presumed dead. Still, the people who loved them were left to grapple with their choices. Even those who’d known about their intentions hadn’t expected the Bealers to leave so soon. At least one friend was angry; others were simply sad. Most people were broadly understanding of Pam’s situation but less sure about Eric’s decision. “He should have stayed around,” says one friend, who’d tried to talk Eric out of the idea years earlier. “But then again, I don’t really know what a soul mate is. I don’t have a soul mate.”

Kate Landers inherited the fruits of the Bealer garden. She went out to the property to harvest soon after she heard that her friends were gone. Gathering the vegetables offered a kind of goodbye, and she distributed much of what she picked to other friends of the Bealers.

Landers understands the desire to go out on your own terms. “I don’t want to die in a hospital where I have no control, and just watch all the things that I love fall away from me,” she says. “This is life as we know it. We don’t know what’s next.” The Bealers, she was aware, believed there was something more—something next. She took comfort in the idea that they were able to seek it together.

After Eugene Solovyov heard the news, he went for a drive to think things over. On the outskirts of Sitka, he spotted a bear at the side of the road and pulled over. As he sat there, thinking of Pam, a squirrel popped into view.

“It was an emotional time, but I’ve accepted their choice,” he says. “That was what they wanted to do. You can’t really tell somebody else how to live their life, or how to end it.”

“I think it’s very important that, for them, suicide was not a negative,” he says. “They were very cheerful. They were very convinced that they would step over to the other side. And she kind of talks about that in the suicide note. But also, she doesn’t want to explain further, because people who don’t understand this sort of thing, it doesn’t matter how long she tries to explain. And for people who do, no explanation is necessary.”

Pam and Eric at a gallery opening in 1993
Pam and Eric at a gallery opening in 1993 (Courtesy Sitka Conservation Society)

I wasn’t sure which category I fell into. As Solovyov and I talked over the buzz of a Sitka hotel bar, the stereo played Heart’s “Magic Man,” Ann Wilson wailing her way through the lyrics: “Try to understand, try to understand, try, try, try to understand…”

Later, still trying, I kept circling back to the ethos of wood engraving as Eric had explained it—that felt like it offered a clue. “To be an original print,” he’d written, “the block must be designed, executed, and printed by the artist.” You had to see each piece through from beginning to end. It reminded me of something the surgeon and author Atul Gawande emphasizes in Being Mortal, his bestselling book about end-of-life decisions. “All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story,” he writes. “Whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.”

Looking through the remaining Bealer prints in Solovyov’s gallery, I’d felt a nagging sadness about what would happen when they were all gone, each numbered edition sold, vanished into living rooms or drawers or storage lockers. I wanted a way to fix the problem. Couldn’t Solovyov copy them? I thought, even as I heard the plaintiveness of my own internal dialogue. Couldn’t he make just a few more? Surely we had the ability to extend their lives in this way.

But wood engravings are intended to be finite. Part of learning to work within the art form, or even appreciating it from the outside, means finding a way to accept that.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to Crisis Text Line at 741741.