Tragedy interrupts pleasure of Southeast sun

May 13, 2009 

HAINES -- I can't remember if the sun has been shining for 18 days or 28 days. Of course by sun shining I don't mean Arizona style, I mean southeast Alaska style, as in not raining. But even so, we have had so many bright days that I'm dizzy. It is hard to concentrate. As one high school honor student confessed, while explaining a suddenly slipping GPA, "I don't know how kids do any schoolwork in sunny places like California."

Naturally, the 70-degree temperatures retreated for the annual home track meet, 30 Haines High athletes gave Juneau a run for their money. The timing crew needed plenty of hot coffee and wore winter hats and, just as naturally, as soon as the last relay was run the wind died and the sun came back out.

The infield is still brown and soggy and smells like seepy sewage (which we hope is really methane-rich swamp water.) But the cottonwoods are pure perfume. A moose and her calf have taken up residence in the budding brush on the vacant lot near the Senior Center.

We also had the first Eagle Scout induction in 20 years, Will Hickman, a high school senior who is on the cross-country, basketball and track teams earned the award. Will is tall and very thin, and had never come out for a sport until this year when he decided to try all three.

The ceremony was on yet another sunny, warm spring night at the Presbyterian Church, and old Eagle scouts and friends and neighbors turned out. I knew my son-in-law, a local sport fish biologist for Fish and Game, was an Eagle Scout, but I was surprised to learn that so are the pony-tailed owner and operator of the Haines Brewery, a young borough assemblyman and a fun-loving English teacher. I'm sure there are more. I have a feeling there are Eagle Scouts all over our town.

I think we should post them on the Internet. We register sex offenders, doesn't it make as much, or more, sense to flag Eagle Scouts?

That way, if you were planning a canoe trip across Lutak Inlet you could call one of these fine, always prepared fellows and they'd surely advise you not to take a tippy light craft anywhere on a blustery day and no doubt suggest avoiding our notoriously hazardous seas in a canoe all together.

Then maybe we would not be mourning two boys that died here last week when their canoe capsized in Lutak Inlet. We would not be quizzing the shocked survivor or recalling every other tragic death we've ever experienced, compounding the grief in all sorts of ways and reminding every teenager we see how much we love them and to please, please, be careful.

But caution is harder to come by on a sunny day than a rainy one. A few days before the accident, my friend Joanne called and asked if I wanted to check shrimp pots with her. She has a nice little boat, a 20 foot glorified skiff, with cushioned seats, a steering wheel and a Bimini top. We went right across Lutak Inlet, which seemed as harmless as a tropical lagoon. Sea gulls dove for herring, a humpback whale blew its steamy breath and waved at us with a slow slap of its wide tail. We cruised up the east side of the fjord that is Lynn Canal, past the Katzehin River delta and on down to Sea Lion Rock where hundreds of the roaring, smelly sea mammals were hauled out napping in the sun and nursing their pups. Then we cut back across the still glassy canal over to Mud Bay, cut the engine and ate our sandwiches while about 30 eagles feasted on spawning herring bumping up against the nearby rocky shore.

That night we cooked burgers on a driftwood fire at the beach with the usual crowd of neighbors. When I told one, a lifelong Haines resident, about our boat ride he was not as thrilled as I was. He furrowed his brow.

He said we were lucky. He said Joanne's boat was small to be crossing the canal that way and that calm seas all day are not normal. I didn't tell him that I was so relaxed I hadn't had my life jacket on.

I don't think he's an Eagle Scout, but his message would meet Will Hickman's approval.

And now the whole town has received a similar message. We have lost two teens who had dropped out of high school and so were free on a Wednesday morning in early May to mess around in a boat, one that was a lot smaller than Joanne's. They chose to take a 16-foot canoe from Haines to Skagway on a terribly windy day. They thought it would be fun, like surfing. They had on their life jackets and, no, they hadn't been drinking. Like the rest of us though, they may have been punch-drunk on weeks of uninterrupted sunshine.

What is the proper response to such a tragedy? Embrace your children, and your neighbor's children -- and not the just the Eagle Scouts, track stars, or honor students, but the others as well. The good kids that often swim just below the surface of community life.


Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.

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