Taan- An Alaska story

Through his big, bulbous brown eyes, Taan glimpses the approaching kayaker. If he were alone, he might feel more cautious. However, many of his family members, along with a multitude of friends were close by. He rises high out of the water and bellows a loud roar of admonition to the human, and simultaneously alerts the herd to the presence of the intruder.

Taan has an innate dislike of these human trespassers. Many of his ancestors were hunted by Native Americans, both Tlingits and Aleuts alike, who used hunting vessels similar to the kayak he just saw. This intruder is alone however, and Taan feels a boldness due to the size of the gang that he leads and patrols these waters with. This is HIS territory! Later in the year, during mid-summer, many of his relatives would not be here. They might be up past the north end of Lynn Canal, at the rookery near Yelgadalga Creek. But it was only May now, and the whole horde was here with him patrolling the waters in the southern portion of Alaska’s grandest fjord.

Taan was a veteran of many seasons around the Channel Islands of the Lynn Canal Fjord. When he was much younger, he had to be wary of fishermen in power-boats chasing and harassing him, as they both were in competition with each other for the same salmon. Now it was his turn to be the aggressor and intimidator. Taan was much older and wiser. His enormous size afforded him much prestige with the rest of the group. As the leader of the group, he would instigate the aggression against this nuisance; this lone recreational paddler who carried no hunting weapons on board.

Following Taan’s lead, the rest of the group peeked up out of the water and into the breathing zone to get a better look at their target. The moist air and calm southerly winds carried the raucous bellows of Taan and his gang toward the now nervous kayaker. The paddler’s angst heightened as a horde of angry brown heads rapidly approached. Being downwind, the human could even smell the stench emanating from Taan’s bright pink throat. The calm seas were boiling with the rapid advance of frothing brown bodies. A cacophony of roars of disapproval were augmented by the sight of long, white canine teeth. The kayaker looked for an escape route. The coastline on the east side of the fjord was almost a mile away. Too far to outrun Taan and the group, as they could move twice his speed. The only other possible escape route was Benjamin Island to the southeast, but Taan lay in the direct route to there. There was nowhere to hide!

Taan was over 1,500 pounds of angry animal backed up by over 60 of his vociferous friends. In a frantic feeling of fight or flight, the outgunned kayaker nervously fumbled through the dry bag that was attached to the nylon cord on the foredeck of his craft. “Hurry”, he muttered to himself, as the five dozen heads with canine teeth bared, came ever closer.

Just a few seconds before the imminent attack, and just at the instant that the desperate kayaker finally located the hand-held flare and pulled the cord to activate it, a remarkable thing happened. Taan and his companions immediately broke off the attack and turned 180 degrees and high-tailed it back towards Benjamin Island, where they usually hauled out on the rocks on the island’s west side. Why did this happen?

The human did not understand, for he did not hear what Taan and his kind heard. They heard the one noise that provoked sheer terror to run through their bodies. All thoughts of the kayaker and his intrusion into their lives vanished instantly. In a nanosecond, the members of Taan’s gang transformed from angry aggressors to the helplessly hunted. Due to their preoccupation with the human intruder, many were caught off guard. Now, they were crashing into each other in a frantic effort to reach the safety of the rocks at the haul-out at Benjamin Island.

The high pitched whine that instinctively struck fear into the hearts of the herd, brought back terrible and brutal images to Taan’s memory. He had heard the same sickening noise a mere two weeks ago as he was swimming southwest of Sentinel Island with a couple of female companions. Taan was lucky enough to escape that time, as he was able to leap out of the water and haul out on the small buoy at Poundstone Rock. The buoy was situated over a submerged reef and the small platform that could only fit a couple of bodies on it. It was also high enough out of the water that it required a substantial leap to make it onto the buoy. As Taan’s body hit the safety of the landing zone, his weight caused the buoy to rock violently back and forth, causing the buoy’s bell to clang loudly. The clanging got louder as each member jumped aboard. However, one of the younger females was not so lucky. The leap was too high for her and the platform was too crowded. With the bell clamoring and the buoy rocking wildly, Taan was forced to helplessly watch as the water boiled around him and turned the color of crimson. Pieces of his friend’s flesh were tossed around in the air like bark being chipped off of a tree branch by a logger. He remembered her last muffled cry. Thankfully, it was over soon. The water became still again as he watched a piece of her brown flipper disappear beneath the surface of the fjord for the last time.

The kayaker sat motionless and dumbfounded, his hand-held flare still lit and shaking in his trembling hand. Just a moment before he had imagined being capsized by having tons of brown bodies leaping out of the water onto his tiny boat. He shuddered at the thought of being trapped upside down in the frigid water with Taan and his kind biting him. The encounter with Taan caught him off guard, as he had paddled close to him the previous summer without having any problems. But that was when the rest of the group was up at the rookery at Yelgadalga Creek near Haines, when Taan was patrolling these waters alone.

As he watched Taan and his friends escape towards the haul-out at Benjamin Island, a great sense of relief swept over the kayaker. He didn’t fully understand what was happening because his hearing was limited to sounds above the water. Also, the gentle breeze blowing from the south would only carry sounds to his ears coming from that direction. He had no idea what terrible thing lay just to the north of him. He glanced around and looked in all directions, but there was nothing in sight that would cause such an abrupt retreat by Taan. There was only stillness, and the bucolic scene of nature.

The paddler took a long, deep sigh of relief. His heart rate, which was similar to a hummingbird’s hopped up on red bull just a few seconds ago, was beginning to settle down as he realized he was no longer in immediate danger. A brush with danger causes one to reflect. He gazed across the expanse of the Lynn Canal Fjord and took in the majestic view of the mighty snow-capped Chilkat Range. He thanked the gods, the cosmos, for his good fortune of still being in one piece and for the warmth of the sun on his face. He looked to the East to view the Coast range on the mainland, where the clouds parted just in the perfect spot to afford a glimpse of the beautiful bluish-white ribbons of ice from the Eagle and Herbert Glaciers. As he scanned the horizon, he spied the outlines of Lincoln and Ralston Islands to the west. He thought of the abandoned fox farms from the early 1900s on these uninhabited islands, which the wilderness had reclaimed. He paused to reflect on the forces of nature which sculpted this grand fjord; first the geologic fault that made it so straight and deep and later the power of the continental glaciers 10,000 years ago which re-worked the canvas of this landscape. He contemplated the waves of plant succession and the migration of various flora and fauna as he looked at the lush, verdant forests of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. He felt a connection; a closeness to the land and to nature. He acknowledged the fact that his slender kayak permitted him to quietly infiltrate the barrier that separated most humans from the natural world around them. A feeling of gratitude and awe swept over him. As he looked at the thin, stratified clouds clinging to the Chilkat mountains just above the outlet to St. James Bay, he was wondering if the creator had artfully decorated this lovely portrait just for his viewing pleasure, when……

“WHOOOOOOSSSSSSSHHHH!” The serenity of the moment was abruptly interrupted by this loud sound just 15 meters off of the starboard bow. Startled, the kayaker’s body rigidly stiffened. His right leg extended so rapidly that he broke the plastic foot pedal which controlled his rudder. Wheeling around, his eyes opened wide and fixated on the huge, erect, six-foot black dorsal fin jutting out of the water and heading towards him, just a few boat lengths away. The sunlight glistened on the wet, ebony body of the huge animal. It was Ke’et!

The bright white spot behind the brute’s eye made his jet black body appear to be even more sinister. The monster breached next to the kayak, which soaked the human with a thunderous splash of salt water. Due to a combination of fear and awe, his jaw was agape, so he had to cough hard to keep his lungs from being filled with the salt water from the splash. The resulting wake from the monster’s breach should have been enough to capsize the paddler, had it not been for an instinctive low brace of his paddle.

From her familiar environs on the rocks of Sentinel Reef, just to the north of the lighthouse on Sentinel Island, Tsaa also witnessed the drama unfold. She sensed that Taan and his brethren were in trouble. She and her kind were much smaller than Taan. Although she could not move as nimbly on land as Taan could, they were distant cousins. Tsaa turned her little, speckled, gray head and stared northeast toward Benjamin Island. Even from this long distance away, the sight of Ke’et made her very nervous. However, Tsaa knew something that the kayaker did not. Unlike the man, who was now in a renewed state of fear for his life, Tsaa knew that Ke’et had no interest in the kayak. She knew that it was the taste of the flesh of marine life or blubber that Ke’et was after. Tsaa felt more assured that the tide was not very high at the moment, as the present water level allowed for more rock on the reef to be exposed. She clumsily shuffled up a bit higher on the barnacle laden rocks. From the same perch where the Princess May cruise ship ran aground many years ago in 1910, Tsaa watched the rest of the drama unfold.

There were also other spectators. From the highest branch of a tall Sitka Spruce tree on the west side of Benjamin Island, Ch’aak stared at the scene below him. He saw Ke’et speed by the strange looking slender white beast who had no legs or flippers, which had a human head attached to its long fiberglass body. Ch’aak could see that Taan and his group would have to hurry if they were to make it to the safety of the shoreline in time to avoid catastrophe. Ke’et was closing the distance on them!

The commotion spooked the family of Ch’eet who were swimming nearby. One by one, their little bodies dove quickly under the water as if they were targets knocked down in a shooting arcade. Ch’eet could fly away, but they often escaped danger by swimming under water, as their little wings acted as well as flippers for swimming as the did as wings for flying. Besides, they were too small to even be an hors d’oeurve for the likes of Ke’et.

The xik family was also disturbed by the tumult. They began to take off from the water and flee. In unison, all of the xik family vehemently flapped their black and white wings as they ran across the surface of the water in order to gain enough speed to allow their corpulent bodies enough lift to become airborne. Upon takeoff, they are a noisy lot, with the sound of their wings and squawking beaks sounding like a bunch of squeaky fan belts from old pickup trucks. However, this time the noise was drowned out by the panicked splashes of Taan and his friends.

Taan, being the alpha male and the strongest, was the first to arrive at the haul-out. With amazing speed, he literally flew out of the water and onto the barnacled rocks. By now, almost all of the creatures in the area were alerted to the drama unfolding at the shoreline on the west side of Benjamin Island. Tsaa watched in amazement at the speed and dexterity of Taan as he maneuvered his huge frame up and down the steep rocks. Yo’ok, who was also on her perch close to the water’s edge of the rocky shoreline, stopped fishing long enough to take in the scene. She strained her long, black neck and spied Ke’et bearing down with laser like focus on one of the youngsters in Taan’s group.

Taan’s clan bumped into one another as each one fought for a safe space on the rocks of the haul-out. Taan barked out orders to the others to keep moving up the rocks in order to vacate the lower areas in order to leave an escape path for everyone. The animals, still in panic, roared at one another as they clamored and climbed over each other. They were still too panicked to listen to Taan’s good advice. The inability of the group to cooperate with each other ended up sealing the fate of Taan’s grandson.

With no open area of rocks on which to haul out and with his escape route cut off, the lagging little one was an easy mark for an efficient killer like Ke’et. As the kayaker and the families of Ch’eet and xik watched from the sea; while Tsaa and Yo’ok observed from their respective shorelines and under the watchful eye of Ch’aak in the top of his spruce tree, and in front of the very eyes of grandfather Taan and the rest of the clan, Ke’et sank his teeth into the flesh of the little one. The herd barked and roared with disapproval, but there was nothing that they could do. The outcome was inevitable. The sea in front of the rocks of the haul-out turned crimson for a moment. Thankfully for the youngster, it was over quickly, without much of a struggle.

Ke’et had killed again. The drama had been played out many times before. All of the animals in the area had witnessed this ongoing drama. That is, all except for one….

While this was unfolding, another creature was entering the arena. Everyone was so fixated on the chase that they did not see this creature arrive. Tsaa was the closest one, and she saw it first. Ch’aak was next to see it, swimming to the north out in the middle of the fjord, where few other animals ventured to. This huge sluggish beast always swam out in the deep water; it never came close to the shore near the channel islands. Although it was by far the largest beast of the fjord, none of the area residents had any fear of it. It was over 700 feet long, with a long blue and white body. It never disappeared below the surface of the water. Its twin blowholes belched out a noxious, foul, black respiration. Yo’ok looked on it with casual indifference, and went back to fishing on the shoreline. Ke’et, now having his hunger satiated, swam towards the behemoth, feeling mildly curious. Taan looked out over the water in sadness, but felt nothing as he spied the blue and white creature swimming by.

The kayaker looked upon the scene and he understood what the other creatures of Lynn Canal fjord did not know about this strange beast. As the paddler gazed upon the sight of the Holland America Cruise line steaming north from Juneau towards the port of Skagway, he realized that neither did the tourists on board understand anything of the natural world around them. As they cruised these waters none of them saw Ke’et that day. None of the passengers would know of the struggle that Taan faced with Ke’et. Although they were in close geographical proximity to the drama that unfolded, they were worlds apart from it. They were separated from the natural world by glass, steel, and plastic. They could not smell the exposed seaweed at low tide, or the stench emanating from Ke’et’s blowhole or Taan’s mouth. The smells from the buffet line and the cocktail bar would be the only inputs into their olfactory senses. Conversations near the slot machines and in the gift shop would over overwhelm the sounds of the bellows of Taan’s group. No one heard the noisy take off of the xik family either.

The irony of it all was that these folks had spent thousands of dollars and traveled from all over the world to experience Alaska. Yes, they would have nice pictures to share and see beautiful things peering through the window of their staterooms. They might even take a shore excursion in a power boat to get them a little closer to Alaska. But, they would never see or experience the things that the kayaker had, nor would they ever feel part of the same world that Taan, Ch’aak, Ke’et, Tsaa or Yo’ok belonged to. Dramas like the one that the kayaker just experienced happen every day in Alaska. It is a beautiful, but dangerous place. One must expose themselves to the danger to understand it fully. When you have a part in the play, the play becomes a part of you.

It took the kayaker another hour to paddle to shore, where his vehicle awaited him. He secured his kayak on top and started the 40 minute drive back into Juneau. Lots of fishermen were pulling their boats out of Auke Bay harbor as he drove past there. Further along, he drove by Fred Meyer and the Nugget Mall; past Alaska Federal Savings and Loan, past the fish hatchery at Lemon Creek, into the bowels of civilization. A few more miles and he was in the heart of the capital city of Alaska, only 30 miles away from Taan’s haul-out as Ch’aak would fly, but a galaxy away culturally. As the paddler drove over the Douglas Bridge and rode the last few miles to home, he ruminated on the events of the day. He realized that he could never fully be in Taan’s world. However, he also knew he was forever changed by being a part of it.

Taan and his gang
Ke’et and the kayaker
Ch’aak in flight
Tsaa resting on the rocks
xik before takeoff
two members of the Ch’eet family
Yo’ok, taking a break from fishing
A quieter day at the Benjamin Island haul-out. Chilkat mountains in the distance.
The Wreck of the Princess May on Sentinel Reef in 1910….no casualties
Sentinel Island lighthouse
Taan and friends on Poundstone Rock
Alaska State Ferry (not Holland America), with Herbert Glacier in the background

6 thoughts on “Taan- An Alaska story

  1. A short story with amazing characters. I’ll always treasure the kayak adventure off of Benjamin Island. I know you had many more there and will treasure those always.

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    1. Thanks! I’m glad you got to experience the area during the best weather summer we ever had. I would have included the Humpback Whale into the story, but I couldn’t find the Tlingit name for it, so I left him out.

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  2. A great story. I was there with you and felt the fear & wonder that I imagine you felt during your experience.

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