SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Looking for Sign
By Dave Kiffer


January 10, 2008

Ketchikan, Alaska - It was a couple of days before New Year's and my son and I were standing on the rocks at Bugge Beach.

jpg Dave Kiffer

We were alone. On this day, no one is going to the beach.

The tide is low and the snow is flurrying. I am amused at how the snow on the rocks above the high tide line makes them look like something you'd see in Colorado from 30,000 feet. It is a diorama of the Front Range, only no miniature goats and ski bums.

Liam, of course, is engaged in play and since this is a beach, the play involves thrown rocks.

I'm standing a little ways away so I can't quite make out all the intricacies of his running narration. But it seems to involve someone who is 3,000 years old and is fighting off the incoming tide by lobbing rocks into it.

Fair enough.

I used to pretend that seagulls were "Nazi" Stuka dive bombers circling my head when I was his age. Since there are numerous birds circling our heads, I reminisce for a few minutes as Liam continues to "blast" away at the tide.

Once upon a time, I would be "blasting" away while my father would be standing like I am now, scanning the horizon.

He called it "looking for sign" and seemed intent that it was something I should also be doing.

Put simply, he was looking for "feed" or the signs of feeding activity. If you saw ducks or eagles or whales it was a good "sign" that you would also find salmon.

But it also went beyond that. It involved a complicated ritual of "reading" the surface of the water, in order to see the presence of the fish below.

Sure, the fishermen all had the latest technological gew-gaws (fish finders, depth sounders etc) to fall back on, but they'd rather stare at the water than a flashing screen.

"Pipe down," Dad would mutter if my battle "noises" were getting too loud. I would look up, wonder what the heck he was looking at, and then return to my play.

Seemed like he was always looking for sign. Usually on the water but sometimes on land when we were hunting. There is could be a broken twig or a footprint. Even a hollowed out corner of a thicket.

The ocean "sign" was a form of hunt as well.

To most folks, the face of the sea is a pretty blank one. Blue-gray flatness stretching to the horizon, occasionally broken by a white cap or a bit of floating debris. Nothing to see here citizens.

But to my father, and his father, and his father's father; the face of the sea - and what was going on around it - was anything but blank.

They could discuss at length - and often did - the meaning of tide rips and slight shifts in the direction of waves.

They could converse for hours - and often did - what the presence of certain types of fish ducks portended.

They could debate - endlessly - the meaning of eagle and raven calls and whether or not it was time to fish or time to pack it up.

Me? I'd just as soon have my nose in a book. My father would often call me out onto the deck to point out something in the water. Some "sign" that I should pay attention to and learn from. Some "sign" that would be important in the future when I had my own boat.

As if.

I was unlikely to ever own my own boat and spend my life on the water as my father did. The pay was too low and the work was too hard. And I really didn't like eating dinner out of a can all that much.

So, I was not the best pupil. I did have a mind like a steel trap. But when it came to "looking for sign" the trap was closed.

Still I eventually came to appreciate the stillness and the peace of those moments and that's why - nearly 40 years later - I find myself staring out at the blank sea on occasion.

My family was not a particularly religious one, but as close as it got was standing on the deck of a trolling boat waiting for "sign."

I remember being in church, one winter Sunday, and hearing the minister talk about waiting for a "sign" from God. I wondered if he meant looking for an increased bird activity or not.

On this day before New Year's, even I could see the sign

Seagulls bray from the rocks. Mergansers break the surface with their abrupt dives. A large flock of birds that I don't recognize wheels in flight like starlings before landing en mass at the edge of the beach, causing several gulls to grumble as they vacate the point.

Off shore, three sea lions cruise back and forth and over toward Annette Island, there is a the faint trace of a humpback spout. Lotsa sign.

Liam continues to lob rock bombs into the water, still fighting off the tide.

Plenty of sign to see here. Even for me.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2007

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