The Search - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 11. The Search

For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease…. But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

—BOOK OF JOB 14:7-10

HADWIN WOULD BE much harder to find the second time, but during the months following his disappearance there were some tantalizing glimpses. Someone thought they saw him in Bella Bella, an extremely remote Native community on one of the coastal islands where a character like Hadwin would have stood out like a sore thumb. Someone else thought they saw him up in Hyder at the north end of Portland Canal, an equally remote community of Anglos where Hadwin would have fit right in—and did. Hyder is a wormhole in the U.S.-Canadian border, a little piece of Alaska that can only be accessed via water, or B.C. Highway 37-A. It is a place where, as one Alaska state trooper put it, “everyone is suspect.” Hadwin stayed there several times in 1996 during his extended travels through the north country. The rough dirt road that runs through the middle of town ultimately dead-ends at a glacier field, and this may have been one reason Hadwin liked the place. He also may have been drawn to its atmosphere of vigorous defiance; over the past thirty years Hyder’s U.S. and Canadian customs houses have been shot at, burned down, and generally harassed by Natives and Anglos alike. At one point, the Canadian border post was subject to a psyops campaign consisting of a PA system blasting a continuous loop of “North to Alaska.” Wedged tightly between coastal mountains, Hyder began life as a hiding place where the Nisga’a are said to have sought refuge from marauding Haida; after several mining booms during the twentieth century, it has once again become a sanctuary. Today, the town has no police force and is home to about one hundred people who count privacy and discretion among their highest priorities—kind of like the residents of Gold Bridge. Both communities share a common prayer:

Dear Lord, give us one more boom.

We promise not to piss this one away.

It was in March that a second warrant for Hadwin’s arrest was issued—this time by the RCMP in Stewart, just across the border from Hyder. Hadwin had been ordered to appear in court there following his accident on the Nass River bridge—the charge: “driving without due care and attention”—but now that court date, too, had come and gone. The search for Hadwin was a daunting task that was pursued with no great enthusiasm; he hadn’t killed anybody, and there was no reward for his capture or recovery. Besides, it was hard to know where to look; in between Hyder and Bella Bella lie literally hundreds of islands and thousands of kilometres of coastline backed by dense forest. An army could hide in there—a dozen armies. And yet of all the islands that dot the coast here, there was one that kept attracting attention.

Mary Island is about 6 kilometres long and lies about 110 kilometres northwest of Prince Rupert, at the entrance to Revillagigedo Channel and the northern portion of the Alaska Marine Highway System, which runs from Bellingham, Washington, up the B.C. coast to Skagway and Haines. Also known as the Inside Passage, this is the main thoroughfare for northern coastal traffic. Ferries, barges, and fishing boats thread their way through this network of tight channels by the hundreds all year round; in summer they are joined by fleets of cruise ships and sailboats. As busy as it sounds, it is still an anonymous place—less a destination than a way to somewhere else; the area is virtually uninhabited and there are no places for large vessels to stop between Prince Rupert and Ketchikan. There are, however, lots of places to hide a kayak; if Hadwin had been making a run for the border, this is almost certainly the route he would have taken.

A month after Hadwin’s Masset court date, a man was found stranded on Mary Island, and his reasons for being there were unclear. No one had reported him missing and nobody seemed to know anything about his trip. He claimed his inflatable skiff had overturned in rough weather while en route from Ketchikan to Hyder, and that he had been stranded for three days during which he had survived on mussels and stream water; he was extremely hungry. The man, who had suffered frostbite on his feet, bore some resemblance to Hadwin, even sharing the same birth year; his name, allegedly, was Dennis Harrington, though Dennis Roe was also a possibility. The details were at once close enough and sketchy enough that the RCMP was contacted, but in the end they concluded that Harrington/Roe was a different person, possibly the survivor of a shipwreck involving large bags of marijuana that were discovered floating in the surrounding waters. At around the same time, on a mainland beach adjacent to Mary Island, the top of a skull turned up; it had a hole in it of the kind a bullet might have made. The fragment was taken to a medical examiner who determined that it was too old to be Hadwin’s. It was so old, in fact, that it could conceivably have been a remnant from the same encounter described by Richard of Middle-giti’ns, the only participant in a Haida canoe battle who was ever formally interviewed.

Richard was born about 1850 on Chaatl Island, which lies at the entrance to Skidegate Channel, just off the southwest coast of Graham Island. A member of the Pebble-Town people, he lived for a time in Alaska and worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company before returning to the islands, where he spent his last years in Skidegate Mission. This is where the American ethnologist John R. Swanton met and interviewed him during the winter of 1900-1901. While in the employ of the American Museum of Natural History and the U.S. government’s Bureau of American Ethnology, Swanton did extensive ethnographic research on Native tribes throughout North America, and he is credited with gathering most of the surviving pre-contact Haida history and mythology. He also collected the following account, and the distance from this to Homer’s Iliad is not a long one.

Sometime around 1870, Richard participated in a raid on a party of Tlingit, a mainland Alaska tribe who were bitter enemies of the Haida. It was a revenge mission, and in order to settle the score, Richard and his party of two canoes filled with warriors travelled more than 250 kilometres up the eastern shore of Graham Island and across Dixon Entrance, to reach Tlingit territory. They wore knives hung from lanyards about their necks, and when it came time to fight they would tie their knives to their hands. They also carried spears and rifles, with cartridge boxes tied to their waists; a shaman went with them and one of his duties was to “whip the people’s souls” before battle.

Somewhere in the vicinity of Revillagigedo Channel the Haida encountered a group of women and armed Tlingit warriors in a canoe “so large that the people in it could not be counted.” When the Tlingit saw them they paddled away, firing two shots as they retreated, one of which killed Richard’s brother. The Haida returned fire and killed the Tlingit steersman; then they shot two more Tlingit braves. The Tlingit fired back, grazing Richard’s skull; then they motioned for the Haida to stop. The Tlingit didn’t want to fight anymore, but one of the Haida canoes pursued them. As they closed in, a Tlingit warrior stood up and threatened to shoot at them, but a Haida killed him with a bone spear. “He dropped the gun,” recounts Richard. “The Tlingit then quickly sat down. He pulled out the spear. His intestines came out at the same time. He broke it. And when he started to shove the spear back into the wound, someone [from the Haida canoe] jumped in to him.” The canoe Richard was in then joined the battle, now a full-blown knife fight.

While killing a number of Tlingit—including one “whose insides fell upon me”—Richard was stabbed in the shoulder, “which made my insides come together [with pain].” After the battle had been going for some time,

a youth having no knife then made with his hands the motion of surrender to me from the bow. And I picked him up and threw him into [our] canoe. When another came at me I struck him. It grazed him. He went at once into our canoe. He let himself be enslaved. I made a cut down his back. He was a brave man. [This man was apparently a notorious Tlingit chief named Yan.] When it was reported that he had let himself be enslaved the Tlingit became boneless [with astonishment. Afterward] a Tlingit was lying upon one of our young men. And, pushing away his knife, I cut off his head…. I looked toward the stern and they were already taking slaves. And when I went thither I saw one woman left. She had been shot in one leg. And I did not take her. The property was captured at once. Into [the other] canoe they took ten severed heads. There were only nine slaves. And after SKA’ngwai’s father had brought five heads into ours, they found fault. He stopped then. And they took all the property.

In front of the place whence we had been wrangling a whale swam about with its young one. And we shot the young one. We killed the young one. We took its oil to Port Simpson to trade. There we bought all kinds of stuff….

The warriors now got in. And, as they went along, they began to sing war songs. It was hard for me. Two of my younger brothers were killed, and I sang differently from them.

The victorious warriors, some of whom were grievously injured, then recrossed Dixon Entrance, whereupon they encountered a band of Masset Haida who harassed them for attacking the Tlingit. The Massets tried to take away the Pebble-Towners’ recently acquired slaves, and this led to a fight between members of the two Haida bands, but it was broken up. Eventually they shared an awkward meal, during which neither side laid down their weapons. Tobacco was then brought out and enormous offers of blankets and firearms were made for the prize captive, Chief Yan, but the Pebble-Town people refused to sell. Despite the fact that many of Richard’s paternal family lived in Masset, the situation remained tense. “We remained awake that night. A part of us slept ashore. I was all covered with blood from fighting.” In the morning they paddled for home, passing the village of Skidegate, whose inhabitants were known for intercepting other Haida raiding parties and stealing their slaves. But on this occasion they stayed ashore. “After having fought we sang songs of victory for many nights,” concludes Richard. “Here is all of this story.”

Because these kinds of skirmishes were commonplace, there is no telling whose head the medical examiner was looking at, but it underscores a problem encountered by anyone attempting to do forensic police work in this part of the world: the Northwest Coast is very hard on evidence. Sergeant Randy McPherron is a homicide detective with the Alaska state troopers who handled the Hadwin case on the American side, and the challenges he faces on the job are radically different from those confronting his urban counterparts. “Alaska’s a good place to get rid of a body,” he explained, “especially in Southeast [the Alaska Panhandle]. People died all over the place up here; the area was heavily populated with Natives, and there are hordes of unsolved murders. A lot of times it’s a needle in a haystack.” Half the battle is getting to the evidence before nature does: “There are so many things that can happen up here,” said McPherron, “so many kinds of wildlife that will dispose of bodies.”

Bears will do the heavy lifting while mice, seabirds, eagles, and ravens will pick over the bones. Crabs and insects will take care of the rest. Between the rain and the scavengers, the window of forensic opportunity might be only a matter of days—if that. “If he did roll over and sink,” said McPherron, “nothing will ever turn up. There’s a lot of deep water out there, and in cold water, when something sinks it stays down.”

Regardless of whether a body sinks and becomes a “submarine,” in marine rescue parlance, or rises again to become a “sailboat,” anthropophagy, the technical term for the consumption of a human, will begin almost immediately. Because sea life is so abundant along the coast, an aggressive combination of shrimp, sea lice, dogfish, and crabs can skeletonize a body within twenty-four hours. This is why victims of drowning are seldom recovered here. If they do turn up, it is generally because they have sunk in shallower or warmer water where the gases generated by internal decomposition carry them back to the surface. Should a body sink particularly deeply into an anaerobic zone devoid of plants and other sea life, it may become adipose, a condition in which subcutaneous fat reconstitutes into a kind of sealant, sometimes called “mortician’s wax.” Under these circumstances, a body can remain intact almost indefinitely; lost divers have been found in these waters a decade after disappearing, their neoprene-clad corpses still prowling the sea bottom like PADI-certified headless horsemen.

On April 4, the Prince Rupert RCMP received a request for Hadwin’s dental records, but the records didn’t match. Five days later, missing person posters were distributed up and down the coast and, on April 12, a patrol flight searched the coastal area north of Prince Rupert again. Hadwin had now been gone for two months, and at this point there was a lull; the posters elicited no new information and no new searches were ordered. Many assumed that Hadwin had either drowned or fled the country, and it seemed now that, one way or another, the golden spruce had been avenged. Meanwhile, some extraordinary things were happening in Haida Gwaii.

Skilay once described K’iid K’iyaas as “a perpetual tree,” and among the Tsiij git’anee elders there were some who claimed that the golden spruce was not the first such tree to grow in that spot, that it had been preceded by another golden spruce. This is another one of those stories that is hard to explain in a “rational” way, and it calls into question the relationship between the story and our relatively modern—and linear—concept of time. Perhaps this wasn’t a story in the sense of its having already happened and thus being confined to the past; perhaps it was a story in the Haida sense in which time operates more like a spiral, or like the rings of a tree. There is a saying among the peoples of the Northwest Coast: “The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife,” and Robert Davidson, the man responsible for carving Masset’s first post-missionary pole, imagines this edge as a circle. “If you live on the edge of the circle,” he explained in a documentary film, “that is the present moment. What’s inside is knowledge, experience: the past. What’s outside has yet to be experienced. The knife’s edge is so fine that you can live either in the past or in the future. The real trick,” he says, “is to live on the edge.” This is where Davidson, the most famous living Haida artist, spends most of his time, and this may be where one needs to be in order to fully apprehend the story of the golden spruce. The idea of there being more than one golden spruce on that site by the Yakoun may have been as much a version of history as it was a version of the future, for now it seemed that the golden spruce might rise again.

THE HAIDA WERE NOT AWARE of this, but more than thirty years earlier, myth and science had been set on a collision course, and on January 25, 1997, they met inside the head of an Englishman named Bruce Macdonald. That morning, Macdonald, the director of the University of British Columbia’s botanical garden, read an alarming headline on the front page of the Vancouver Sun: LEGENDARY TREE’S LOSS SICKENS RESIDENTS.

The University of British Columbia occupies a broad swath of prime real estate eight kilometres west of downtown Vancouver, at the end of a high peninsula. The university’s 110-acre botanical garden lies at the edge of campus, where it offers more than ten thousand plant species and commanding views of Georgia Strait, Vancouver Island, and Washington State’s Olympic Mountains. As Macdonald made his way through the Sun article on that unusually clear and icy morning, his mind flashed to a shady patch of sloping forest in the garden’s native plant section. Growing there was a pair of two-metre Sitka spruce trees whose needles had a peculiar tendency to turn golden yellow. Even so, they were easy to miss in such a grand setting, and because they grew in the shade, their golden qualities were patchy at best; this, combined with a predisposition to grow sideways, gave the trees a hunched, anemic appearance. To the untrained eye, they would have seemed like prime candidates for culling.

Macdonald knew nothing of the trees’ provenance as he had been living in England when they were first planted, but he went immediately to the garden’s accession records to see if they might be related to the tree he had read about in the paper. UBC accession number 18012-0358-1978 is described as a “golden Sitka spruce” (Picea sitchensis ‘Aurea’); the source was the Queen Charlotte Islands. They had to be from the same tree. The specimens, it turned out, were the all-but-forgotten legacies of three men: Gordon Bentham, an amateur conifer enthusiast, Oscar Sziklai, a Hungarian plant geneticist, and Roy Taylor, a former president of the Chicago Horticultural Society and director of the Chicago Botanic Garden, who had been Macdonald’s predecessor at UBC. In 1968, the same year he became the director of UBC’s botanical garden, Taylor copublished a two-volume, eight-hundred-page survey of the flora of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Amazingly, Taylor’s books made no mention of the golden spruce, but he was well aware of the tree and hoped to acquire a specimen for UBC. He would end up with two of them, but it would take more than ten years. As it turned out, the golden spruce was extremely difficult to reproduce.

Since the early sixties, senior foresters at MacMillan Bloedel had been hoping to propagate the golden spruce for the company’s arboretum on Vancouver Island. Their interest in it coincided with a period of new and aggressive research into tree breeding and propagation as MacBlo sought to develop plantations of “elite” Douglas fir that were selectively bred from the finest wild specimens. In order to do this, the company had retained Oscar Sziklai, a pioneer in the field of tree breeding and one of 250 students and professors from the forestry school at Sopron, Hungary, who immigrated to Canada en masse following the unsuccessful Revolution of 1956. With support from H.R. Macmillan, they ended up being hosted by UBC’s nascent forestry program, where Sziklai became a full professor. Throughout his career, he participated in scientific collaborations and exchanges across Europe and Asia, and in 1986 he became the first foreign member of the Chinese Society of Forestry. Sziklai’s original interest in the golden spruce lay in the question of whether its golden quality could be passed down genetically. However, closer inspection revealed that the tree was sterile; it produced very few cones, and none of their seeds appeared to be viable. This detail is consistent with a version of the Haida story which claims there were two golden spruces and that the second tree was a “male,” unable to reproduce.

Shortly before he died in 1998, Dr. Sziklai told a journalist that, on one of his many visits to the golden spruce, “a Haida princess guided us to the tree and said, ‘If the tree dies, the Haida Nation will die.’” At the time, Sziklai was a prominent scientist under contract with the country’s biggest lumber company, and yet after thirty years, he still remembered this encounter; it may have been another reason he took such an interest in the tree. There was no guarantee that attempts to clone the tree would be successful, but if it could be done, Sziklai was the man to do it. He was given the job on one condition: that he would keep his findings secret. “I wasn’t allowed to come to the public loudly and say, ‘We can propogate it,’” he told a reporter, shortly after the tree was felled. “They guarded this tree closely to the heart, and felt the public would strip the tree and it would disappear.”

“If we’d publicized it,” said Grant Ainscough, a former chief forester for MacMillan Bloedel, “we’d have had nothing left but a stump.”

In the 1960s, the propagation of West Coast timber species by artificial means wasn’t all that well understood, and no research was being done into Sitka spruce because it wasn’t a commercial priority at the time. The preferred method of propagation was to take cuttings—scions—from a desirable tree and either graft them to other rootstock or plant them directly. Either way, it was a crude process that generally began with a blast from a hunting rifle because the easiest way to take cuttings from big trees is to shoot them off. Professor Sziklai, in particular, was known for his expert marksmanship; armed with a pump-action Remington, he was able to knock down individual cones from over a hundred metres away. What propagators didn’t know forty years ago was that each part of a spruce interprets its genetic and hormonal instructions literally. Like a dog, the older a Sitka spruce gets, the harder it is to teach it new tricks, and like a member of a rigidly structured caste system, a branch never forgets its place in the pecking order. Thus, if your scion comes from a lower branch growing out of a trunk as old as the golden spruce, it will continue trying to fulfill its mission of being that branch, even when it is grafted to different rootstock, or planted vertically. Eventually it was discovered that branches closest to the apex of the tree were more willing to adapt to a new role—that of an upward-growing leader or trunk (which is what propagators generally want). It is because of this that when the top of a hemlock, cedar, or spruce gets blown off, you will often see the topmost surviving branches bending upward to replace the lost leader, giving the tree the appearance of an enormous candelabrum.

Sziklai chose to treat his cuttings with a rooting hormone and “set” them directly into soil, rather than graft them, and the results were discouraging. Of the two dozen cuttings planted, only half of them took root, and from then on their prospects went from bad to worse. According to a MacMillan Bloedel newsletter from 1974, despite “meticulous care and attention,” only three of these original cuttings retained “their golden tones,” and none of them grew at a normal rate. “Nature,” it said, “appears reluctant to duplicate a rare, beautiful mistake.” (One of these golden clones was presented in secret to H.R. MacMillan himself, but it died not long after.) Although Sziklai made more than one attempt, only a very few of them survived; despite being close to forty years old, the most vigorous of these is less than six metres tall and the only reason it is growing vertically is because the tree was bound to a stake for its first ten years. Something was clearly missing; moisture and cloud cover were obvious guesses, as most of the cuttings were planted in southern British Columbia, but there may also have been some more elusive, perhaps ineffable ingredient.