Story and Photos by RE Johnson. All rights Reserved.
But the story stuck in my mind, not so much because I believed it that night, but because even if it wasn't true, it was a nice thought, possibly an old dream from my youth along the shores of Puget Sound. Months later, while poring over the nautical chart of Yakutat Bay, I noticed the inscription "Shipwreck, center of three masts" and the three small points marked near Point Mamby. "Looks like those guys were straight with me after all; this was something I'd have to see..." As things worked out, it was years before the call finally came, and when it did it was from Kurt. "Hey, the schooner uncovered this winter, want to go see it?"
Located in the north Pacific, along the east-west arc of the gulf coast of Alaska, Yakutat Bay gained notoriety in 1987 when the Hubbard Glacier flowed forward and dammed Russell Fiord. During the summer and fall fishing seasons, Kurt makes countless flights across this 20 mile-wide bay, hauling loads of salmon for scattered nomadic set-netters. Departing Yakutat Airport twenty minutes earlier, we had headed west over the lonely expanse of iceberg-studded blue-green water, and the plane flew as if magnetically attracted to the three masts punctuating the distant sandy coastline. We may as well have been flying back through time. "It's uncovered even more than yesterday!" Kurt suddenly shouted over the drone of the engine.
What a sight it was; an ancient, three-masted, wooden schooner rested upon the shore, remarkably intact. After making a low pass to check for beach hazards, Kurt circled the 185 back over the parallel lines of surf, cut the power, and we plopped onto the dark pebble and sand beach.
There before us, attended by several gulls, was a ghost ship in the cool morning stillness. The only audible sound was that of the ebb surf and the grinding of beach-gravel under foot. The only scent in this pure air was a brief whiff of the warm airplane engine, then that too was gone. I expected that the mirage before us would vanish. Cables hung from the masts; block-eyes still hung in the deck gear. Coyote tracks preceded us as we walked the final steps to the wreck that had been thrust back into the morning light, after 84 years beneath the wet sand. The feeling was a strange one for sure; hurtling toward the year 2000 at the speed of light, then screeching to a halt, coming face to face with a mystery ship from another era on an incredibly remote Alaskan beach. I've experienced the same arcane sensation while walking amongst the aging stones of big cemeteries, and once or twice upon stumbling onto the hidden ruins of a decaying wilderness cabin. Here was a tangible link with the past; an artifact of the early traders along this coast when it was truly remote.
Long before weather broadcasts, survival suits, and modern technology began allowing minimal security in the lives of those destined to live, by fate or by choice, along this coast. Interesting enough, except for the approximately 1,000 folks over in Yakutat, you could still count all of the people living within a one hundred mile radius of this location on your fingers and a few toes.
We sat astride the bowsprit that day and speculated as to the origins of the ship, but came up with little. Kurt had heard from various sources that the name was Satsu something, and that it had been here since the turn of the century, but that was about it. I found myself thinking, "what a great place to visit, but I sure wouldn't want to be marooned here at the turn of the century (or now, for that matter) - forty-five miles of glacier immediately north, then 20,000 foot Mount Saint Elias, then more glaciers; to the south, the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific Ocean stretch to Hawaii; to the west, hundreds of miles of sand, boulders and glaciers, then more sand and rivers, and to the east, twentyfive-mile-wide Yakutat Bay. Guess I would go east, definitely east (hope the plane starts)." That day, I had no idea of the hardships and drama that would resurface with this mystery ship, but more on that later. We spent several hours exploring and photographing that day, finally taking off as the tide swept the ship and reclaimed our landing strip.
My search for answers about the Satsu something lead me to the office of the National Park Service in Yakutat, which shares the same mobile home as the bank. The then newly arrived Ranger, Rick (really), was aware of the masts but was not aware that the ship was reemerging from the sand. The wreck lies on the edge of the Wrangell - Saint Elias National Park, so it was up to Rick to carry out the official investigation. The files on the wreck-site held information about a survey performed in 1984, and referenced several brief historic accounts of the wreck which was said to have occurred in 1907, claiming 8 lives. Included was an old photograph of the ship that had been published in a 1967 issue of the ALASKA SPORTSMAN while the ship was at anchor in Kilisnoo Harbor during the summer of 1907. That article was about historic Japanese involvement in Alaska's fisheries, and the name of the ship was said to be SATSU MARU, but there was no mention of the fate that was to become of the ship and crew, just several months after that photograph was taken. Several attempts to locate the Japanese records of that ship by various researchers had failed. A piece of the puzzle was still missing.
Two weeks following my first trip with Kurt, we returned to Schooner Beach, camping out on the edge of the beach grass and cottonwoods fringing the shore. The purpose of this trip was a preliminary survey of the exposed wreckage by Rick; I was lucky enough to volunteer as an assistant. What we discovered on that second trip was even more rewarding than the first. The receeding shoreline had exposed most of the deck of the ship during the short period of time that had passed. The woodwork was remarkably intact, with no signs of rot, and there was even orange primer paint along the base of the anchor windlass. Unfortunately, it was clear that this was a brief, rare glimpse of a ghost. The ship was now positioned so that the fury of each tidal cycle pounded away at what had been safely preserved for decades.
On that clear, still, freezing night, the undulating aurora borealis hung on the bare masts and conjured apparitions of crewmen that had perished during the ordeal of the Ships' stranding. We wondered if they had been buried nearby. Occaisionally, the faint, intermittent flash of the Yakutat airport beacon thirty miles away, caused our eyes to stare eastward, the same direction that the stranded crew of the Satsuma Maru would have gazed for so many nights, so long ago, an ocean away from home. Just several days earlier, Rick had received a letter from man who had been trying to unravel the mystery of the wreck since the mid-1950's, and had finally met with success. The grinding of the dark surf started to fade as sleep approached, and from what I had recently learned, their voyage began to take form in my mind....................
Copyright 1997 by RE Johnson. Photos Copyright RE Johnson. All Rights reserved.