Oh Wrangell, My Wrangell
Meeting someone in life who has uncanny similarities to you is a gift, uncommon, and often comes as a surprise. This person can pop in to your life at any moment, and that is how it has been for me with my friend Rachael Ritchey. We connected this past year here in Spokane, Washington over Twitter of all places. I say that, because I still think Twitter is like speaking Chinese and I have no idea if I am tweeting right or if anybody ever sees anything I post. The deluge of information in the Twitter-sphere is astronomical and I view Twitter as a type of lottery of sorts. In spite of the odds that were most certainly against us, we did manage to connect, meaning I must have hash tagged something right. One day after our momentous connection, we finally managed a coffee date, and found out that not only is Rachael an author like me, but she also spent many of her growing up years in Alaska. The icing on the cake? She too, like me, is an adoptive parent. One, two, three things. Winner, winner chicken dinner. I can pretty much guarantee you that we are now friends for life.
For months I have wanted to sit down and interview her about what it was like for her to grow up in Wrangell, Alaska. We finally managed to align our schedules and pulled up a chair to chat. A local book store here in Spokane called “Auntie’s”, was hosting Seth Kantner, author of, “swallowed by the great land”, so we decided to meet a little early to talk Alaska, and then enjoy another fellow author who obviously has a similar love for our great state.
Moving to Alaska in 1987 for her dad’s job in the lumber mill, Rachael soon found out that her new home of Wrangell was only accessible by boat or plane, which meant she stayed put on the island for the majority of her time living there. About once a year, her parents would use their permanent fund dividend to fly to Spokane, Washington to visit family, shop, and see the doctor and dentist who were located in Sandpoint, Idaho an hour and a half away.
When I asked Rachael what was unique about Wrangell, she said that for those who have never been there, the island looks like a dove, and the atmosphere of Wrangell is a lot like the Olympic Peninsula. With its mossy, green feel and the fact that half of the town of Wrangell is built on landfill, Rachael found it a very quiet and solitary place to grow up. Quiet, solitary, and beautiful. She distinctly remembers several spots on the island that had muskeg. Muskeg is a swamp or bog that is a mixture of water, dead vegetation and moss. The spot she recalls best was behind an apartment complex where her friend lived. They did walk out on it a few times, but were breaking the rules because muskeg can be dangerous and they had heard stories of people falling through and drowning. She imagined it might be like falling through ice and getting stuck underneath.
Speaking of muskeg and outdoor living and playing in Wrangell, Rachael shared about what it was like to play outside as a kid. Living in a trailer court, Rachael and the neighborhood kids would play in the forested area behind their homes. Because Wrangell is in the middle of a rain forest (The Tongass National Forest, the largest in the U.S.), the fallen trees rot, turning a deep orange color which would then turn flaky and soft. The kids used to have wood fights in the same manner as snowball fights, but instead of snow, rotting chunks of wood were thrown through the air at each other. Dodging the flying wood as they ran through the stink weed and thorn bushes turned out to be quite the vivid memory for Rachael. Especially when she and her friends attempted to traverse through a huge patch of thorn bushes. When there is an open and inviting spot right smack in the middle of said thorn bushes, a doorway to adventure, it seemed only logical for a child to crawl through it for a chance of discovery. A natural fort just calling to be occupied and conquered. She admits that it was dumb. I laughed, because if I was there, I would have climbed through too. Rachael assured me that the thorns hurt like the dickens and I nodded in agreement, imagining the scratches and puncture wounds she must have worn as a child, but also imagining the joy of the journey in to the center of the fort in the forest…and out. The scratches would have been well worth the invigorating and stimulating excursion.
During the summer, she recollects small cruise ships coming through Wrangell to dock, and Shakes Island (a small island in the harbor where there is an original Klinkit house) was one of the places the tourists always visited. Residents and tourists could travel up the Stikine River or take a jet boat upriver to visit the natural hot springs which were a local haunt. The Anan Bear and Wildlife Observatory was also a popular tourist destination accessible only by boat or plane. Anan Creek is an ancient Tlingit Native fishing site and has the largest pink salmon run in Southeast Alaska. Rachael then thoughtfully shared about Garnet Ledge, a hot spot for the kids of Wrangell. Children could go mine garnets (they weren’t gem quality) and sell them to the tourists. Finally there was Petroglyph Beach, lined with rocks containing petroglyphs carved into them, smoothed by weather and time. At low tide there are hundreds of tide pools filled with all sorts of sea life, like starfish, anemones, hermit crabs, kelp and seaweed. Rachael loved catching hermit crabs with their tiny pincers and round black eyes. Children on school field trips loved Petroglyph Beach.
Speaking of children, what would summer in Alaska be without some kind of crazy summer camp? Tok had Shen Bible Camp and Wrangell had their version on Vank Island, nine miles from town only accessible by boat or by plane. This phrase was becoming a common theme regarding living in Wrangell: accessible by boat or plane only. The camp was four to five days with no showers and only an outhouse. The campers took turns doing dishes, and in Rachael’s words, there was a disgusting, above ground pool that was green. But, like the true Alaska kids they were, they still swam in it. Because the camp was run by Seventh Day Adventists, the kids had to eat vegan hot dogs and hamburgers. Not something most Alaska kids are used to doing.
Holidays were remembered excitedly and fondly by Rachael. The Fourth of July was an all community event with fireworks over the harbor, pony rides, booths, food, dancing, a parade, logging games, and the ever popular boat races. Thanksgiving was celebrated with family in their trailer eating turkey and special green Jell-O. I’m sure a lot of us can relate to special green Jell-O. My grandma made one with marshmallows, whipped cream and some of kind of crushed nuts. It too was green, pistachio I think. Rachael mused over one particular Christmas day malady. I will fondly call it the year the motor died on the rotisserie on their deck. With the snow falling on her dad, he hand cranked the Christmas turkey for two hours to succulent perfection. Christmas in Alaska is almost never boring.
The minute I asked Rachael how living in Alaska shaped her, she instantly shared that it instilled in her a love of nature and that family isn’t always blood. Living in Wrangell also drew her very close to God. The solitude, and the fact that she was a latch key kid suited her personality fine. She spent a lot of time down at the beach by herself, walking. Along the beach stood “Rock Man” (three stacked rocks that looked like a snowman). Rachael recalls one big rock (that really wasn’t so big, except to a kid) that she would climb on and sit quietly waiting for the tide to come in. When the water surrounded her, she would wade back to shore. She also loved taking Slider, her dog, to the beach. These moments, were her moments for reflection.
As for the city of Wrangell itself, back in the late eighties there were nine miles of paved highway and seventeen miles of road altogether. That’s it. Most people who lived past the paved nine mile mark didn’t have electricity, so they ran their homes on generators. Rachael recollects families running generators two hours a day, relying mostly on lanterns and candles as they passed their time living off that one solitary road. One thing Wrangell surprisingly did have though, was an Olympic-sized swimming pool attached to the school. It was a requirement at school to learn how to swim, along with survival training, like how to get into a dry suit in the water. Rachael also did an elective at the radio station next to the school learning how to splice tape, run a sound board, pick music, and also announce the songs. My favorite part about her job? She had to announce the time every fifteen minutes for the people of Wrangell. That, my friends, is small town Alaska.
Being a fellow author, I needed to ask Rachael about her writing. Writing sparked to life for her in the sixth grade, and at the age of fourteen, she truly began her writing and journaling passion. I imagine the solitude of the island, coupled with her latch key life, only further fueled her love for the pen. In 1994, the mill in Wrangell closed, leading to her family moving out of Alaska to Laclede, Idaho (fourteen miles west of Sandpoint, Idaho). She went back to Wrangell when she was sixteen to visit, because she missed it so much. What did she do when she arrived back on the island? She walked the city and the beach for hours. Looking. Watching. Soaking it all in. Soaking in what had been left behind. Soaking in more of what she called home. That’s what Alaska does to you. It plants itself in your heart, hangs the sign “home” over your hearts door, and stays there pretty much for the rest of your life. For Rachael, and for me, and maybe for you, that sign has never, ever come down.
Here’s to knowing just where your sign hangs . . . . Here’s to Growing up Alaska.
Rachael Ritchey resides in Spokane, Washington with her husband and children. Her current book, “The Beauty Thief”, is available now. Book two, “Captive Hope”, is almost ready for press. You can find out more about Rachael Ritchey at www.rachaelritchey.com or click on any of these links to buy “The Beauty Thief”.