Read an Excerpt
If the town of Haines Junction had existed two hundred years ago, it would have been under water. In 1775 the Lowell Glacier surged across the Alsek River, creating Glacial Lake Alsek. It was eighty miles long and four hundred feet deep. When the ice dam broke in 1852, a Tlingit family camping at the junction of the Alsek and Tatshenshini rivers was swept away.
Months before that tragedy, ten men had poled and pulled a raft along the Alsek River shore. The rafters camped with the Tlingit for a few days, exchanging gifts of tools and jewellery before they travelled on northward. Pausing between the Tweedsmuir and Fisher glaciers, they watched as a wall of water, ice and debris roared down on them like a mountain avalanche. The crewmen on the shore threw up their armsthe unbelievers to hold back the flood, the believers to embrace their deathsbut all were swept away. Their brothers clinging to the raft were lifted rapidly up the mountainside and deposited on a rocky outcrop. Then the men watched as the water dropped before their eyes.
After salvaging food and equipment, they blessed the land and prayed for the advancement of their brethren in the next world.
“Leave the bell with the raft,” the chief monk said. “They should be together.”
The monks hiked single-file along the mountain in their sandals and saffron robes, carrying their begging bowls and chanting as they went. They were never seen again.
Years later the only signs of the glacial lake and the flood were the legends and the high shorelines of driftwood bleaching in the sun.
From my kitchen window I could see the sparkling blue glaciers suspended in the Auriol peaks. I liked living in Haines Junction, one of the prettiest towns in the Yukon. The air was fresh, the people were friendly and I liked my construction work. I also loved hiking in the mountains and forest, and if I had a reason to hike, it was all the more interesting.
Now and then I heard rumours of a large raft with strange carvings that was beached high on a mountain. I read the Bible and other religious books with interest. I believed the story of Noah and his family was allegorical, but I believed the Alsek River raft was true.
When I asked Copper, the Tutchone elder, he said, “I’ve heard the raft story. I’ve heard lots of stories, Joshua, and told most of them to you already. Go see Thomas Joe if you want information about this one. I’ve heard he knows something, maybe more than me. All I can say is, be careful when you look for strange things.”
Copperwise, ancient and a lover of country musicalways steered me right.
Thomas was the foreman for the Town of Haines Junction, and no better person could have been hired for the job. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix or wouldn’t help you with. He rarely spoke two words, and when he did, they came out in the calmest voice. It seemed he knew exactly what he was going to say and used only the right number of words to say it. I admired him for that.
Thomas was a big man with a round face that reminded me of the smiling statues in the Far East. He was smart and competent, and his extended family of sons, daughters and numerous grandchildren all lived under the sprawling roof of a log home overlooking the Shakwak Valley. He provided generously for all of them.
I visited the town’s garage once a week for coffee and to catch up on the news. Sometimes Azvolas, the electrician, would bring baking hot from the oven, and we would sit around the oil-stained plywood tablesomeone was always using it for a workbenchenjoying each other’s company. The mechanics wore their coveralls, and the welders wore their skullcaps with advertisement printed on them. Occasionally a cribbage board would appear, or a good-hearted but competitive game of bridge would go on longer than the coffee break.
We also met in my workshop. Beside my tools, table saw and materials storage I put in a fridge, a couple of old couches and a good black and white TV. This became a clubhouse where we watched the Grey and Stanley cups on CBC. We accompanied these games with a potluck dinner, and if we were really lucky, Thomas would haul his barbecue over and cook moose steaks and homemade sausage.
These were relaxing times. Our only rule was “work only” from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. to noon on weekends. We watched TV after that.
I visited Thomas and his wife, Rose. There was always room for one more at their dinner table.
Rose had her own agenda for feeding me; she never stopped trying to hook me up with one of her unmarried sisters. Marsha would give me a big smile and blush a little when Rose started matchmaking.
When Rose realized I planned to stay a bachelor, she wasn’t so pushy. “Too bad,” she said. “I could see you and Marsha being really happy together.”
After a dinner of roast and garden vegetables, I settled back with Thomas and his eldest son, Elias, to watch Hockey Night in Canada. Thomas loved the Montreal Canadiens and wouldn’t miss their games for anything. For some reason he liked to watch the Habs in French.
“Seems more authentic,” he said.
I couldn’t understand a word they said; it also irritated the hell out of Elias. “I wish I knew French. I speak Southern Tutchone, but I doubt if any of the Habs know that,” he said.
Elias was named after the Saint Elias Mountains. He was slight like his mother and had a sparse moustache above his lip. He wore glasses and chain-smoked, lighting one cigarette from the other. He was serious and talked more than Thomas.
“Smoking is going to kill you,” Thomas warned.
I made sure I was always upwind of the cancer sticks.
Elias and his wife, Annie, lived off the land, hunting and trapping. In the summer the town of Haines Junction hired him and in the winter they moved back to their cabin in the bush.
We kept the sound down so we could talk, but when Jacques Plante made one of his brilliant saves, the cheers would go up.
The Habs were winning a game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so I steered the conversation toward the raft.
Elias was leaning on the armrest at the end of the couch. Without looking at me, he said, “We know where that is.”
Thomas shot him a glance, but the cat was out of the bag.
“What?” said Elias, lifting his head off his hand. “As if nobody had ever known about it.”
I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. I thought it was such a big mystery.
“You know where it is?” I asked.
No one answered for a while. Then Thomas said, “I’ve seen it. My father took me there when I was ten. I took Elias there when he was ten.” He cast a glance at Elias. “And I told him to keep quiet about it! If it was common knowledge, people would go up there and cut it up for firewood.”
“It’s Japanese, Joshua,” Elias said, reaching his cigarette to the ashtray.
I’d just gotten over the fact that they knew the location. The raft was Japanese? This really intrigued me.
“How do you know it’s Japanese?”
“I took a close look at the characters carved on the logs and I looked it up in National Geographic magazine. Those are Japanese carvings,” Thomas said.
For months I tried to persuade them that we should visit the raft. They had reservations. “The elders don’t like people going up there. And they’ve warned us about strange things in the night.”
I didn’t believe any of it.
One afternoon, figuring that I had some bargaining power, I met Thomas at the shop, where he was pulling wrenches on a truck’s motor. “If you take me to the raft, I’ll share some other information with you.”
Thomas’s eyes lit up like hundred-watt light bulbs. He knew right away what I was talking about. He’d heard the rumours about a missing plane.
“Yeah, what do you know about a DC-3?” he asked, keeping his head under the truck’s hood and trying not to appear interested.
Thomas said no more. He believed me, and I had caught his interest.
In the fall he agreed to take me to the raft. “It’s farther down the Alsek River than where you were before. It’s on the Yukon side of the BC-Yukon border. We’ll take you there on three conditions. One, we take our cousin Arnold. Two, we hunt moose on the way back. And three, when you see the raft, you tell us about the DC-3.”
“Arnold brings us good luck on a hunt,” Elias said.
“Okay,” I said.
We shook hands to seal the deal.
Arnold was happy to come along. “I need to get away and it’s better than hunting werewolves. The wife is after me every day to finish the kitchen. I tell her, who wants to build cabinets on weekends when he’s been pounding nails all week? It’s only been six months since I tore it apart.”
“That’s about average for a kitchen renovation. A month for each week you promisedthat’s fair,” I said.
Early in the fall we packed my truck with supplies and equipment, hitched up Arnold’s twenty-foot Zodiac on a trailer and drove to the Dezadeash River. After loading the boat and mounting the motor, we said goodbye to Rose and Marsha, and pushed off from shore.
We had two sets of oars and took turns guiding the boat. The motor was for coming back upstream. I observed the other three and felt full confidence in their ability to travel on the river.
On the third day we reached Lowell Glacial Lake, carved out over centuries by the massive Lowell Glacier. We camped on the opposite shore and watched turquoise ice calve into the lake with a thunderous boom. I sat with Arnold, drinking tea and finishing the last of delicious lasagna that Rose had sent along with the warning, “Make sure you eat that lasagna in the next few days before it spoils.”
She needn’t have worried: we wolfed it down.
The next morning Arnold and Elias wanted to climb the nearby 5,500-foot Goatherd Mountain. Thomas stayed in camp. He said, “I came here to hunt and visit the raft, not waste time and energy by climbing mountains.”
The three of us made the climb, and I was glad we did. The scenery was magnificent, especially the view of the glaciers. Arnold and Elias asked about the cave where I’d found the remains of the Russians’ slave. I said nothing; I didn’t want to disturb that place again. Rest in peace as they say.
On the fifth day we packed up and moved on, but not before discovering a moose had bedded down in the willows just yards from our camp.
“How strange that the moose wasn’t spooked by our presence. We must be carrying good spirits with us,” I said.
“It’s a good sign,” Thomas said.
“We should go after it,” Elias said.
“On the way back,” Thomas said.
Elias’s face showed he didn’t like being told.
Signs of bear were everywhere. Once a large grizzly crashed out of the bush and ran down the bank to chase the boat, shaking his massive head as he challenged us.
“Must have spooked him at a kill,” Thomas said. We moved farther out into midstream.
Two days later, a few miles above Fisher Glacier, Thomas called a halt and instructed Elias and me, “Row onto that beach over there. We’re here.”
We dragged the boat up onto the shore and packed our backpacks. Thomas and Elias slung rifles over their shoulders, and I had my sidearm holstered on my hip.
Elias looked at my gun with interest and sang a line from the Marty Robbins song “Big Iron”: “He’s here to do some business with the big iron on his hip.”
He didn’t sing half badly either.
“If I had my guitar, I could make it sound better and sing the whole song.”
From the start the going was tough. The bush was thick, and a light rain soaked us through until we stopped and pulled on our rain gear. It was a relief when we finally broke out above the treeline.
“Things should be easier from now on,” Thomas said.
We hiked all day. Then Albert raised his fist, signalling us to stop, and slung his pack to the ground.
“We’re here,” he said.
I looked around. “I see nothing.”
“Can’t you see?” Elias asked, pointing to a split in the hill above us.
Then I saw the raft perfectly clearly, but it really wasn’t what I’d expected. It was made of large logs, but when it had beached, it had straddled a crevice. As time went on and the bindings rotted, the logs fell in one by one, on top of each other. It was actually a pile of logs and hard to see.
“It’s hidden pretty well,” I said.
“That’s why no one has found it. Planes fly over all the time, but the pilots never see it,” Thomas said. “It’s protected.”
“Let’s make camp. Then we’ll go and see,” Elias said.
Camp couldn’t be made fast enough for me. As soon as we were done, I climbed up to get a better look. The logs were about three feet in diameter and over forty feet long. I could tell by the grain pattern that they were Douglas fir. The logs were in good condition with little rotthe dry Yukon climate tend to be forgiving this wayexcept where they rested on the ground. There moisture had rotted the wood, and colonies of ants had invaded it.
The workmanship was impressive. The logs were expertly finished and carved. The butt ends were perfectly round, and the holes for the ropes to lash them together ran through the logs straight and square.
We could clearly make out characters carved along the length of the logs, but none of us could read them.
I was amazed at the line of ancient driftwood that stretched from the raft in both directions along the mountainside as far as the eye could see.
“It must have been one hell of a flood when it let go,” Thomas said.
As I climbed around the logs, my foot hit something in the gravel that made a metallic sound. I dropped to my knees and scraped until I dug out a heavy hollow metal cylinder that was green with corrosion. The object was about two feet long and about eight inches in diameter. It had a loop as thick as my thumb on the top as if made for hanging. Inscriptions had been cast into it, and on one side a raised flat area bore marks as though it had been struck.
I called out, holding it up, “Hey, look what I found.”
Arnold walked up to take a look. After turning it over in his hands and knocking on it with his knuckles, he said, “Ring-a-ding. It’s a bell.”
After supper we sat by our fire and passed the bell around, examining it and admiring its workmanship.
“Pretty neat, eh? Might be worth a pile of money,” Elias said.
“There is no way that’s leaving the raft,” Thomas said.
Arnold said, “I wonder what it sounds like?”
“Here, let’s try it.” I held it up by a piece of rope, and Elias struck it once on the flat area with the butt of his hunting knife. The most beautiful musical note resounded, and I felt the vibration up to my elbow. The bell continued to sound for the longest time.
When it stopped, Arnold said, “Wow, that is one hell of a bell. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
The night grew darker. Stars came out, and the moon lit up the mountains. We talked and drank coffee for a while. Then, in a quiet moment, we heard something that brought us to our feet, spilling our coffee, and sent chills down our spines. From across the valley came a sound identical to that of the bell we had just rung. It was as clear as day and lasted about the same time as our bell peal. We stared at each other in disbelief.
Peering into the darkness as hard as I could, I asked, “Did you hear that?”
They all nodded yes. I wished they’d said no.
“That was not an echo,” Arnold said. “It’s been too long.”
We sat back down in silence.
Eventually Elias said with a wave of his hand and a smile, “Naw, can’t be. There’s no such thing. Is there, Dad? There’s no such thing.”
“You heard it as well as I did,” Thomas said.
“Try it again,” I said.
“No, don’t,” Arnold said. He jumped up, waving both hands to say no. “Let’s just pack up in the morning and get back to town.”
Elias loaded the fire up, and flames shot into the air, illuminating the mountainside.
“You shouldn’t have done that. Now they can really see us,” Thomas said with a half-hearted chuckle.
We didn’t know who “they” were, but it sounded ominous.
Arnold looked concerned.
“Look,” I said, “the only way we’re going to know whether or not this was a fluke is to do it again.”
Arnold said, “No, not again.”
“Let’s have a vote.”
Thomas, Elias and I voted yes.
“You can do the honours,” I told them.
Elias hung the bell. Thomas struck it once and struck it again after the first note faded away. We waited in silence, building up the fire even higher to give us courage. Just when we were beginning to doubt that we’d heard anything before, the sound of the bell came rippling across the valley. We waited anxiously for the second ring. It came as the first one was disappearing into the night.
Arnold kicked the ground with his boot. “This can’t be happening.”
Thomas looked at me and said, “They’re calling you, Joshua.” Then he broke into a nervous laugh. It was funny but spooky.
Pointing up the hill, I said, “That raft was beached over two hundred years ago. We should have listened to the elders.”
“The elders always know what they’re talking about,” Arnold said.
“The elders had misgivings about this place. They cautioned people to be careful when they came here and not to be frivolous,” Thomas said.
“No one is being frivolous,” I said. “We shouldn’t tell anyone of this or take any pictures.”
“Okay, Joshua. Seeing as the hell has been scared out of us and no one is going to sleep, this is as good a time as any for you to tell us about the DC-3,” Thomas said. “It might get our minds off this bell.”
I kept my end of the bargain. I told them about how I’d found a crashed plane, how hard it was to find, the uniformed bodies inside, the Kennedy information, the gold, the guns and the stacks of money.
All three of them sat riveted by my every word. No one interrupted until I was done. The sun was rising as I finished.
“That’s the DC-3 everyone talks about,” Arnold said. “I thought it was a tall tale.”
“Did you really not take any of that gold, Joshua?” Thomas asked.
“I’m telling you the truth. I didn’t touch a penny. It wasn’t mine, so I had no right.”
“Most people would think that was crazy, but I respect your honesty,” Arnold said.
“Honesty is good, but those guns and Daley Plaza mapthat doesn’t sound so good,” Thomas said.
“We have to be careful about it. If people knew that we knew, we could be in danger. Some of those agencies in the States are just plain crazy,” I said.
We turned in and caught a couple of hours of sleep. In the morning, after coffee and toast, I climbed over the raft and inspected it thoroughly. On one central log there were numerous small carvings set within borders. They were in a line and about the size of a telephone book page. Some were accessible, some were not. I took out my notebook and, with pieces of charcoal from the fire, carefully transferred as many of these images as I could onto its pages. All in all I collected about thirty. I also took an impression of some embossed writing on the bell.
We left that afternoon after reburying the bell. We didn’t want to create any bad karma with the unknown bell-ringer.
We loaded the Zodiac at the river. Thomas said, “Each one of you, swear to me not to disclose the location of the raft to anyone or mention anything about the bell.”
We all swore.
“And Joshua, sometime soon we’re going to sit down and talk about that DC-3.”
We arrived back in Haines Junction, bone-tired, twelve days after setting out. I put away the charcoal rubbings and started looking for someone to interpret them. I think I stopped every Japanese tourist that I met in town, but between them not knowing English and their suspicion of me approaching them, I got nowhere.
I even asked my friend Ken Asano, the owner of a local motel and restaurant. He said, “It’s not my dialect and it’s old. How do you expect me to read this? Do you want coffee?”
I had almost given up when I had a chance encounter with a couple from Japan. As I was having lunch at the restaurant, they greeted Ken, and he responded in the same language.
Ken said something, and they looked over in my direction. He guided the couple to my table, and they sat down.
“My friend Joshua needs help with some Japanese writing. Maybe you can assist him.”
We shook hands and introduced ourselves. “Joshua is a very nice name,” the man said in perfect English. “We are Gessho and Akina from Okayama. I would be glad to help you in any way I can.”
We exchanged polite conversation during a lunch of tomato soup and roast beef sandwiches. Ken’s menu was simple and convenient for his wife, who couldn’t cook. She told Ken, “I do laundry, make beds, sweep, look after the kids and wash everything, but if you want fancy cooking, go to hell.”
The next best thing on the menu was a hamburger, chips and apple pie for desert. The factory pie was frozen, thawed and warmed in the oven. It always tasted like cardboard. I wondered why I ordered it.
I explained what I needed, and that evening Gessho and Akina walked to my house from the motel. I served tea, then laid the charcoal transfers on the Russian trunk that Copper had given me, and Gessho pored over them silently. His hands turned black from the charcoal. After reading a few, he sat back and said something quietly to his wife. She responded, “Ooh!”
“What?” I asked. “What is it?
“This is very curious. This information is very old and may have been written by Buddhist monks. See here.” He pointed to a page. “This says Five Mountain Temple, that is where they lived.” He pointed again. “And here is where a ship of sorts was launched from Kamakura.” Gessho studied the rubbings some more. Then, without looking up, he asked, “Where did you get this information?”
I couldn’t tell him the truth, so I mumbled, “Some old logs.”
Gessho looked up and said, “Maybe I should introduce myself more fully. I am Dr. Gessho Suzuki, professor of antiquities at the University of Tokyo. What I am looking at is incredibly important to you and me. Now I will ask you again where you found this information.”
I could see how serious he was. I sat back in my chair and told him a condensed account of finding the raft and bell.
He was immensely pleased to hear this and said, “That is good, because what you just told me fits perfectly with these pages of information. I will now tell you the full story of what you have found. It is not complete, because your information is not complete, but I think we can make sense of this anyway. As far as I can see a group of monks had in their possession a bell, which was very ancient and had been in their temple for centuries. Apparently the bell was cast by a faithful follower of the Buddha a short time after his passing. The story attached to the bell is that if monks faithful to the Buddha were to launch a boat upon the seas, it would find a new home for the bell in a place of great spiritual potential. The monks, thinking it was time, launched a raft with the bell on it into the Pacific Ocean. After a time they came to rest where you found it.”
Dr. Suzuki pointed to one particular page and said, “This is of great interest. What these letters refer to is a Buddhist legend. The story basically says that the land where the raft comes to rest will be blessed for eternity. The story then describes the way to determine eternity. If a monk of pure heart goes to the raft’s mountain every hundred years and drags a silk cloth once over one spot, the time it would take to erode the mountain by this method would be an eternity.”
Dr. Suzuki also took great interest in the images taken from the bell.
“See,” he said, pointing to the charcoal impressions on the paper. “This says ‘Nothing is sacred.’ It doesn’t mean that there is no sacred thing. It means that the element of nothingness is sacred: all things are sacred including nothing. It gives us a good idea of the studies of the monks at Five Mountain Temple. They meditated on nothingness and found it to be sacred. They thought God was so completely apart from corporeal existence that he himself is not invisible or visible, he is beyond nothingness and he is not created. So if nothingness is sacred, what must God be?”
With that the story was ended. I reminded the professor that I’d made an oath of secrecy to my friend Thomas. I asked him to respect that.
Gessho said, “I will.”
I still keep in touch with Dr. Suzuki, who is a prolific letter writer.
I told Thomas about the interpretation of the carvings, and he was impressed. He asked me, “Can Gessho keep a secret?”
I told him, “Yes.” He seemed satisfied with that.
A couple of months after we went to the raft, I was at the local grocery story picking up a few items when I bumped into Copper in the produce section.
“How you doing there, Joshua? How are the vegetables this week? Are they fresh?” he asked me. “How was the Alsek River? Did it treat you well?”
“Yes, it did,” I said, “but it was scary at times.”
“The elders knew what they were talking about, didn’t they?” he said.
I nodded yes.
Then, turning his head, he looked me straight in the eye with the steeliest stare you ever did see, and as clear as the sound in the mountains that night, he said, “Bong!”