The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)
SMALL THINGS ARE hard to find in Alaska, so when a marine biologist named Scott Walker stumbled across a wrecked kayak on an uninhabited island fifty kilometres north of the Canadian border, he considered himself lucky. The coastal boundary where Alaska and British Columbia meet and overlap is a jagged four-way seam that joins, not just a pair of vast—and vastly different—countries, but two equally large and divergent wildernesses. To the west is the gaping expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, and to the east is the infinity of mountains that forms the heart of what some in the Northwest call Cascadia. The coastline where these worlds meet and bleed into one another is sparsely inhabited and often obscured by fog, the mountains sheared off by low-lying clouds. At sea level, it is a long and convoluted network of deep fjords, narrow channels, and rock-bound islands. It is a world unto itself, separated from the rest of North America by the Coast Mountains, whose ragged peaks carry snow for most of the year. In some places their westward faces plunge into the sea so abruptly that a boat can be fifteen metres from shore and still have a hundred and fifty metres of water beneath her keel. The region is sporadically patrolled, being governed, for the most part, by seven-metre tides and processions of sub-Arctic storms that spiral down from the Gulf of Alaska to batter the long, tree-stubbled lip of the continent. Even on calm days, the coastline may be shrouded in a veil of mist as three thousand kilometres of uninterrupted Pacific swell pummels itself to vapour against the stubborn shore.
The combination of high winds, frequent fog, and tidal surges that can run over fifteen knots makes this coast a particularly lethal one, and when boats or planes or people go missing here, they are usually gone for good. If they are found, it is often by accident a long time later, and usually in a remote location like Edge Point where Scott Walker anchored his seventeen-foot skiff on a fair June afternoon in 1997 while doing a survey of the local salmon fishery. Edge Point is not so much a beach as an alpine boulder field that, at this point in geologic time, happens to be at sea level. It lies at the southern tip of Mary Island, a low hump of forest and stone that forms one side of a rocky, tide-scoured channel called Danger Passage; the nearest land is Danger Island, and neither place was idly named.
Like much of the Northwest Coast, Edge Point is strewn with driftwood logs and whole trees that may be a metre and a half in diameter and stacked twenty deep. Burnished to silver, this mass of wood, much of which has broken loose from log booms and transport barges, lies heaped as high as polar winds and Pacific waves can possibly throw it. Even if a man-made object should make it ashore here in one piece, it won’t last long after it arrives; within the course of a few tide cycles, it will be hammered to pieces between the heaving logs and the immovable boulders beneath them. In the case of a fibreglass boat—such as a kayak—the destruction is usually so complete that it makes the craft hard to recognize, much less find. When a fibreglass yacht was found in a location similar to Edge Point three years after it had disappeared without issuing a distress signal, the largest surviving piece was half a metre long and that was only because it had been blown up into the bushes; the rest of the sixty-foot sloop had been reduced to fragments the size of playing cards. This is why Scott Walker considered himself fortunate: he wasn’t too late; parts of the kayak might still be salvageable.
The beaches here serve as a random archive of human endeavour where a mahogany door from a fishing boat, the remains of a World War II airplane, and a piece from a fallen satellite are all equally plausible finds. Each artifact carries with it a story, though the context rarely allows for a happy ending; in most cases, it is only the scavenger who benefits. Scott Walker has been scavenging things that others have lost here for more than twenty-five years, and he has acquired an informal expertise in the forensics of flotsam and jetsam. If the found object is potentially useful or sufficiently interesting, and if it is small enough to lift, the beachcomber’s code will apply. Walker was abiding by this code when he happened upon the broken kayak and began tearing it apart for the stainless steel hardware.
But when Walker lifted his head from his work he noticed some things that gave him pause. Strewn farther down the tide line were personal effects: a raincoat, a backpack, an axe—and it was then that it occurred to him that his prize might not have simply washed off some beach or boat dock down the coast. The more he noticed—a cookstove, a shaving kit, a life jacket—the narrower the gap between his own good luck and someone else’s misfortune became. This wasn’t shaping up to be a clean find. Walker deduced from the heavier objects’ position lower down in the intertidal zone that the kayak had washed ashore and broken up on a low tide. The lighter objects, including large pieces of the kayak itself, had been carried farther up the beach by subsequent high tides and wind, and it was these that set off alarm bells in Walker’s head. Despite being wrapped around a log, the sleeping bag was still in near-perfect condition; there were no tears or stains, no fading from the salt and sun; the life jacket, too, looked fresh off the rack. Even the cookstove appeared salvageable; wedged between rocks at the water’s edge, it showed only minor rusting. Winter storm season, the most effective destroyer on the coast, had only just ended, so this wreck had to be recent, thought Walker, perhaps only a couple of weeks old. He debated throwing the stove and sleeping bag into his skiff, but then, after considering some possible accident scenarios and recalculating the uncomfortable distance between a stranger’s horror and his own delight, he decided to leave these things where they lay. Besides, he thought, they might be needed for evidence. No one would miss the stainless steel bolts, though, so he pocketed them and headed down the beach, looking for a body.
Walker never found one, and it was only through the Alaska state troopers in Ketchikan, fifty kilometres to the north, that he learned the story behind his chance discovery. The kayak and its owner, a Canadian timber surveyor and expert woodsman named Grant Hadwin, had been missing—not for weeks, but for months. This man, it seemed, was on the run, wanted for a strange and unprecedented crime.