"A lot of people would say a landscape is indifferent, or nature’s indifferent. A lot of people get the feeling that Southeast Alaska, the Inside Passage, if you get in it, if you get off that cruise ship—which is how most visitors see it—it’s menacing. It’s not just that it doesn’t care about you, it wants to eat you." -- Bjorn Dihle on the Inside Passage.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Bjorn Dihle about his book Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends, and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska. This program was made possible with the generous support of KTOO in Juneau, AK. Click to listen now or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: This is a book of scary stories related to hauntings and supernatural events of the inside passage. For those of us unfamiliar, where is the Inside Passage, and what is the landscape like?
Bjorn Dihle: The Inside Passage runs from just north of Bellingham up to Skagway.
Bellingham, Washington to Skagway, Alaska. So it’s the southeast panhandle of Alaska, right?
There’s over 1,000 islands to the west but on the mainland it’s basically a network of glaciers, a coastal mountain range, big icefields. It varies. It’s very distinctly different from the northern part to the southern part of the Inside Passage. The northern part is just this archipelago full of coastal grizzly bears (brown bears), and the southern part’s these lower, not nearly as mountainous islands, full of deer and black bears, and dark, deep woods and lots of rain.
What about this climate and area makes it ripe for these types of stories?
It’s dark and dreary, and it’s stormy. There’s other wild places but this area is all just claustrophobic. You can walk from the edge of the ocean to the woods 100 yards and you’re in another world. You literally are in another world. You go to places where there’s just brown bears everywhere. People get lost here all the time. We all know people who’ve died in a lot of different ways, but one of the big one’s the ocean—because we live so close to the ocean. Boats go down all the time. Small planes go down. People go missing.
A lot of people would say a landscape is indifferent, or nature’s indifferent. A lot of people get the feeling that Southeast Alaska, the Inside Passage, if you get in it, if you get off that cruise ship—which is how most visitors see it—it’s menacing. It’s not just that it doesn’t care about you, it wants to eat you.
Bjorn, early in the book you write: “Often the fictions we tell ourselves, no matter how ridiculous they seem, are equally as vital as the truths we ignore.” It made me wonder, then, what’s the fiction you tell yourself most often?
I think, for me, it’s a process of trying to understand what’s fiction in myself, and what’s really going on. . . One of the things is what we fear. The fiction that we fear, what we perceive as fear, is not what we should really be scared of, or is even real at all. So we tell ourselves fairytales, while we ignore the things that are actually going to kills us, and going to hurt us. That’s one of the things I find interesting about ghost stories in general.
This isn’t really a traditional book of ghost stories at all, it’s more about the idea of the things that haunt us, that scare us. So often those things, like ghost stories in general, are just so romantic. It’s more of a psychological exercise in trying to understand a human being than something that’s actually a real phenomenon. I find that fascinating for me, but also maybe vital to just how we deal with what the world presents us. There are not ghost stories about cancer. That’s what’s killing us, or heart disease, or automobiles. We have these crazy stories about brown bears, when maybe one in every three or four years kills someone in Alaska, and how many deaths do we have every from ATVs or automobiles? We don’t have those sorts of scary stories. We have brown bear stories. So for me it’s just utterly fascinating to try to understand why. Why do these things scare us? Why do we celebrate these things?
There’s another line that struck me in the book, Bjorn. “Our monsters, after all, tell us as much about ourselves as do our heroes. What’s the monster than tells you the most about yourself?
Oh man, probably myself. Laughing.
I feel like so often the hero actually is the monster. If you look at Beowulf and Grendel –I think that’s really where I got that line from, where I was really thinking about it—or you look at the story of the hunter and the brown bear. I’ll go there because it’s very similar in scope . . .
Where I spend the summer on Admiralty Island, there’s been one human fatality in the last 100 years related to a bear attack and that person shot the bear first. Every year, 50-60 brown bears are shot by sports hunters on Admiralty Island. I’m a hunter. I’m going to say this, my second book is about hunting; subsistence is so important to me. That said I’m not into the macho-hero-hunter culture, the idea that you’re doing something great and manly by killing an animal. It’s much more; I mean it’s not a manly thing at all. It’s just this lucky privileged thing that some of us are able to do. It’s almost a religious thing. . . But, this idea that the hunter is the hero, the brown bear is the monster. Oftentimes, who we think is the good guy is really maybe the bad guy and who we think the bad guy is, is just someone who wants to be left alone.
About the Book:
A collection of twenty stories showcasing the supernatural legends and unsolved mysteries of Southeast Alaska, with a focus on the region between Yakutat and Petersburg, where the author has lived his entire life, writing, teaching, guiding, commercial fishing, and investigating ghost stories. Each chapter is rooted in Bjorn’s own adventures and will intertwine fascinating history, interviews, and his reflections. Bjorn’s writing, sometimes poignant and often wickedly funny, brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson and Patrick McManus.
Chock-full of spooky stories from Alaska’s Inside Passage, Bjorn Dihle covers gold rush ghosts, haunted hotels, shipwrecks, attacks from giant squids, disappeared Russian explorers, a vanished bear hunter, hunting Sasquatch, and other and other hair raising incidents in Haunted Inside Passage.
About the Author:
Bjorn is a writer dedicated to the raw northern landscape. He’s spent much of the last fourteen years exploring the mountains, tundra, and forests of Alaska and the Yukon. A lifelong Alaskan, Bjorn works as a commercial fisherman, teacher, and wilderness guide when not wandering wild places. You can find his work in Alaska Magazine, Sierra, Earth Island Journal, Adventure Kayak, Juneau Empire, Hunt Alaska Magazine, FIsh Alaska Magazine, Alaska Sporting Journal, and North of Ordinary. He is also author of Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Hunting and Fishing Tales. He lives in Juneau, Alaska. Follow him on Facebook @BjornDihleauthor.