We Alaskans

‘Haunted Inside Passage’ is surprisingly smart

Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends, and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska

By Bjorn Dihle; Alaska Northwest Books; 211 pages; $16.99

Watch out!

There's a ghost haunting Mount Edgecumbe Hospital. Mysterious voices spilling out around Thomas Bay. And Kooshdaa Kaa sightings at, well, just about everywhere.

But don't worry. Bjorn Dihle's "Haunted Inside Passage" isn't the standard Alaska trying-to-be-scary ghost story collection.

It's far richer than that and much more complex. Instead of merely rehashing old tales, Dihle, a lifelong Southeast Alaskan, offers up diverse situations of paranormal occurrences and then correlates them with little-known facts from history, mythology, Native legends and science.

The result is a hodgepodge of memory, history, folklore and personal narrative that makes this book impossible to categorize. Is it a memoir? An Alaska history chronicle? Personal accounts of maybe-he-saw-a-ghost-and-maybe-he-didn't?

No matter. Whatever it is, "Haunted Inside Passage" is a damned good read.

Written in a series of 20 standalone essays, each piece examines a legend related to Southeast Alaska. From a ghost on Castle Hill to an evil being who's luring gold miners to their death on Llewellyn Glacier to witches, haunted hotels and a serial killer, Dihle brings history to life in stories that encompass everything from the Klondike Gold Rush to the fake business behind Alaska's reality show productions.

"The Tragedy of the Princess Sophia," about the sinking of the passenger liner that took off from Skagway in October 1918, is especially poignant, chronicling small details of passengers' lives, including Walter Harper, the first person to summit Denali (as part of the 1913 Hudson Stuck expedition). Newly married, Harper was journeying with his wife to Philadelphia when the Princess Sophia crashed atop Vanderbilt Reef, where it sat for 40 hours amid rising tides before rapidly sinking and taking hundreds of  passengers down with it. The sole survivor, according to Dihle's fascinating account, was a dog.

Another notable piece is "Trouble With Bigfoot," a hilarious portrayal of Dihle's time at a Bigfoot conference on the Olympic Peninsula. He sprinkles in odd details: that Adolf Hitler sent an expedition to the Himalayas in 1938 in hopes of capturing a yeti (an abominable snowman) to prove a direct link between monkeys and the Aryan race. That Edmund Hillary supposedly came across yeti tracks during his 1953 Mount Everest summit.

Yet it isn't until Dihle describes the odd events at the Bigfoot conference that the essay becomes laugh-out-loud funny. He tells of a speaker who regularly communicates with Sasquatches via a psychic, and another that created a Sasquatch phonetic alphabet with 39 letters. And then Dihle does what he does best, sliding away from humor and back to the heart, or the haunting, of the matter:

Thousands, maybe millions, across North America stare at the woods during weekend picnics, hoping that (Bigfoot is) hiding somewhere nearby. The wilderness may be lost, but it doesn't appear Bigfoot is going to stop haunting us anytime soon.

Dihle includes himself in many of the pieces so that the collection reads like a long interspersed memoir. We learn about his embarrassing middle school nickname (Be-horny), his brooding walks on the beach with his golden retriever named Fenrir, his work at a mental hospital calming psychotic patients, and a camping trip with his younger brother out by Thomas Bay where they both hear mysterious voices, though no one is supposedly around for miles.

The book's major drawback is the cover, which does little to highlight the complexities waiting inside. Serious readers may pass over this title, assuming it to be another shoddily written Alaska collection geared toward earning more tourism dollars.

Nothing could be further from the case. "Haunted Inside Passage" is too well written and too well researched to be dismissed or taken lightly. When he's at his best, Dihle resembles an Alaska Susan Orlean, spicing up his prose with succulent details and offhand tidbits that add a deeper flavor, a deeper layer to the narrative (an Austrian guy at Atlin Inn who looks like "Bono's doppelganger"; a Tlingit interpretation of Kooshdaa Kaa that adds new meaning to the haunted). Dihle is playful one moment and serious the next, seamlessly swinging from topic to topic until each essay reads like another door opening, another chance to step inside the unknown.

Mostly, though, "Haunted Inside Passage" is about the things that haunt us all, the things that burrow down into our psyches and refuse to leave, the major life-changing and life-affirming things such as love and loss, grief and fear, regret and guilt.

Dihle ends the book in the most perfect of ways — with a haunting of his own during an encounter with homeless people in downtown Juneau.

We all avoided eye contact. Maybe it was just the gloom of the November afternoon or a bad batch of hallucinogenics I took when I was 14, but all of us on Front Street seemed more ghost than living.

Cinthia Ritchie is an Anchorage freelance writer and author of "Dolls Behaving Badly."

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