Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay
Wildest Alaska is the most personal of all my books, which is why I have highlighted it.
I visited Glacier Bay National Monument in the bicentennial year of 1976 with my ten-year-old son. As we had done elsewhere in Alaska, we put the two-person folding kayak in the water and paddled from the north end of Glacier Bay to park headquarters, where I purchased a book on the monument published by the Sierra Club. In it was a description and some photographs of Lituya Bay on the outer coast. I was immediately caught by that place.
I convinced the editor of Audubon magazine, for whom I worked as western editor at the time, that there was a story involving the seemingly corresponding history of the violence in the landscape and the snatches of violent human occupation. I returned four years later, again with my son. We camped on Cenotaph Island in the midst of the bay and explored the bay and the surrounding region on foot and in the kayak.
The Tlingit Indian shamans had many myths concerning the bay, where large waves that appeared suddenly at the narrow entrance caused numerous drownings and giant waves descending from the interior wiped out whole villages. The first European explorers to enter the bay lost seventeen men at the entrance. Except for a brief gold rush around the turn of the century and an occasional fisherman who used the bay as an overnight harbor of refuge, the whites also stayed away from that place.
After the last giant wave swept the bay in 1958 to a height of 1,740 feet, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist figured out that such giant waves, which are technically tsunamis and the largest waves ever recorded, had occurred at least four times in the past. They were caused by earthquakes. Portions of the tall peaks of the Fairweather Range sheared off and toppled into the deep water of the fjord, causing the huge waves that caused massive damage to the wildlife and the few human artifacts.
People died there. It was a powerful, violent place, not the type of place that Audubon readers or members of other conservation organizations that specialize in what humans have done to nature, and not the reverse, want to read about. It was a Gothic nature tale.
So the magazine never ran the story nor did any other nature or outdoors magazine want it. I attempted to turn the story into a book, first fiction and then nonfiction. It took me twenty years to get it right and find an editor who wanted to publish it.
Again, the reviews were gratifying; but more than the favorable words the book received, I had finally managed to write myself out of the black hole that place had plunged me into. I came to understand that wild place by reconciling myself to the fact that it was beyond understanding.
When I saw that I had the makings for an earthquake trilogy, I incorporated this book into the series.