By Louise Brinck Harrington
August 17, 2006
Prospected and Became an Alaskan Pioneer
White mist covers the mountains and settles along high granite ridges as the DUCHESS chugs her way into Rudyerd Bay. It is September and patches of devils club are turning yellow and orange, bright against an evergreen backdrop; cottonwoods shimmer like gold in the fall sunshine, and red alder leaves float into a rain-washed stream.
From the deck, Bruce Johnstone surveys the bay. The high granite cliffs look much the same as when he arrived as an 11-year old-boy in 1920 with his father, mother, two brothers and two sisters. Bruce was born in British Columbia, in a place called Deserted Bay. His father Charles Johnstone moved the family further and further into the wilderness, while his mother Dora, a former schoolteacher, taught her nine children to read and write in some of the most remote locations of British Columbia and Southeastern Alaska.
As the DUCHESS approaches the head of the bay, Bruce points to the grass-covered stump-filled river flats. "There used to be so many bear in there we didn't even bring our hunters in. It would be too easy, no challenge."
In former years Bruce was a bear hunter and big-game guide who learned to hunt here in Rudyerd Bay. As I stand beside him on the deck, spellbound by the beauty surrounding us, I encourage him to talk about this wild country that he knows better than anyone else.
He tells about his trap lines: the one that ran up Rudyerd River and the other up One-Eyed creek, which was named for Bruce's father who lost an eye to the thorny devils club branches that still grow along the bank.
He talks about his first encounter with a bear that got caught in his wolf trap: "And what I thought was a wolf turned out to be a grizzly cub. As I stood there trying to figure out how to shoot it, I realized the crows that had been all over had disappeared and the only sound was the rattle of the trap chain, the cub trying to get out. Then I heard another noise behind me. I turned around and looked up at a sow grizzly."
Bruce shot from the hip, then turned and ran until his lungs hurt so badly he had to stop. When he mustered up the courage to return to the trap, he found the sow slumped with a hole the size of his fist through her neck. That was the year Bruce turned 12.
He explains how his family lived in three different locations in Rudyerd Bay, the first near the mouth of the bay. Here the steep tree-studded cliffs provided good terrain for hand-logging but were prone to landslides, which made Charles Johnstone nervous. When a slide came down too close to the cabin, he moved the family to the river flats where the bay divides into its north and south arms. But another too-close-for-comfort slide forced them to move again, this time to the beach near Nooya Creek, where they lived for four years.
His face turns solemn as he gazes up the creek toward Nooya Lake, which he says is the most beautiful place in the world and where his late wife's ashes are buried. He pauses and then tells about Helen and how they married on March 1, 1955 and moved immediately into a small cabin at Clover Pass.
The night they moved in, the temperature dropped to below zero and the oil line to the cabin froze. Even inside the cabin all the food froze, as did a can of water right next to the stove.
The next day Bruce took the bus to town, bought a blow torch and thawed out the line. What a honeymoon!
As we leave Rudyerd the following
day it is raining, hard and straight down, and the DUCHESS rolls
from side to side as she enters Behm Canal. From the pilot house,
Bruce points out to the lava-formed Eddystone Rock, which rises
from the middle of the canal to a height of 237 feet and seems
to dominate the entire area.
We tie up to a buoy at Ella Bay, where the Johnstone family built a sturdy log cabin in the fall of 1920. Ella Creek flows into the bay from the west about a quarter mile south of the old cabin site. One December night Bruce and his brothers Jud and Jack decided to hike up the three-mile creek to its headwaters.
"About three days before Christmas, it was," Bruce recounts with a twinkle in his eye," ten o'clock at night. At the top of the trail there's an overhanging cliff and we had a fire just inside the drip. We saw this thing walking along a game trail. He stopped, turned around and looked at us, and then walked off. He was dressed in an old buffalo jacket and shoe packs with rubber bottoms and leather tops. You could see the cliff right through him."
I have heard this story before and give him a skeptical look. "Go ahead, I dare you," he says. "Go up and get a picture of the French Ghost!"
Because the phantom wrote his name in charcoal, Jacques, on the back of the cliff, the Johnstone brothers dubbed him the "French Ghost." And Bruce swears the ghost was seen a few years later by a Crown-Zellerbach crew, in broad daylight.
"One loggers axe is still sticking in the tree," Bruce laughs.
Leaving Ella Bay, the DUCHESS heads north, up East Behm to Burroughs Bay. Though the rain has stopped, evening approaches by the time we arrive and tie up to a buoy near the mouth of the Unuk River. The mist drifts lower and lower, settling on the river in wispy strands.
In the early thirties, Bruce and his brother Jack prospected up the river, as far as the Canadian boundary and beyond. Bruce says it wasn't the gold so much as the chase, the thrill of the hunt. It was on a prospecting trip in 1935 that Bruce came face to face with "Old Groaner," a wounded grizzly who earned his name for haunting prospecting camps and making strange moaning sounds.
The old bruin had been groaning around for years, according to old prospectors, but never before shown himself to a human being. For some reason he decided to not only appear, but charge while Bruce was staking a notice on a claim!
Before Bruce could reach for his .405 Winchester, his dog, Slasher, attacked the bear, chewing and holding onto its hind foot. This gave Bruce time to grab the gun and fire. It took three shots to kill Old Groaner who crumpled at Bruce's feet! He turned out to be a giant bear with a skull measurement of 17 by 11 inches.
But in 1958, Bruce was not so lucky. One September morning while on a moose hunt, he took a shotgun and went out on the Unuk River flats to bag a few ducks for camp meat.
At first he did not even see the three hungry grizzlies lurking in the willow trees and brush. "It was one of those things that aren't supposed to happen," he explains. "But that year there were few berries and hardly any fish and the bear were starving to death.
"It was a big old boar, a sow and a two-year old cub. I thought I'd better kill the biggest one first, but just as I pulled the trigger, the female hit me. So instead of shooting the boar where I wanted to, I just shot his eyes out."
After Bruce wounded the boar, he finally managed to kill the female, but not before she "chewed me up pretty bad." A group of hunters from the lodge further up the river heard Bruce and the sow down on the flats fighting, and came to his rescue. They killed the third bear, laid Bruce out on the pilot house floor and doused his wounds with whiskey to prevent infection. They brought him to town, where the recovery process took years and two hip replacements.
Now as we climb into the skiff, my husband at the tiller, Bruce points to the flats where the attack took place.
"Over by that willow bar," he says.
He also points out a cliff at the entrance to the river. On the steep gray rock is a red-stained pictograph, an Indian drawing that is so old even the old-timers say it's been there forever.
At the rustic lodge called Unuk River Post we meet Bruce's friends, but don't stay long for it is getting dark. As we head back, it is difficult to find the river channel, which can change from day to day and hour to hour, and Bruce stands in the bow, directing my husband, first to the left, then the right. Fog drifts in and out as we maneuver around sub-merged snags and sand bars.
Finally we round a bend and the lights of the DUCHESS appear. "Next time," Bruce yells as the engine slows, "we'll borrow a jet boat and go all the way to Lake Creek!"
This is just one of several trips Bruce has planned. Though now 86, he plans to visit Smeaton Bay to look for an old jawbone he found 40 years ago and left on a rock ledge and to stop by Yes Bay to search for a cache of gold buried in the 1920s by an old character named "Yes Bay Johnnie."
I'm looking forward to the trips too, and making him the subject of future magazine articles.
At dinner on the last night Bruce comments that if he could turn back the tide and live his life over, he wouldn't change a thing. He has trapped, logged, hunted, guided, prospected and panned for gold. He has been a fisherman, mill worker, husband and father. The only thing he has not done, he says, is fish for halibut on a big halibut schooner.
Louise Brinck Harrington is an author and
freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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