When the wind blows fiercely down the narrow Skagway valley, one can follow the winding coastal road into the memory of Dyea, where the wind is but a whisper.
There is magic in that whisper, between each fluttering blade of grass and under every inch of marbled rock. It sings out of forgotten memories and times of long ago, calling you back to a place of beauty and unkempt reverie.
Along that winding road lies a beach filled with as many memories as there are pebbles along the shore. Stepping through the wood and onto the sands of Nahku Bay is like stepping back in time – its bubbling creek and sticky sea kelp unchanged and indifferent to the progressions of today.
It is the ideal spot for a picnic, a canoe ride or a party and serves as a place to sit and breathe in the salty sea air without the grinding tires of buses or the congestion of bustling Broadway.
And it has remained so for more than 100 years, covered in an air of mystery.
Lance A. Twitchell, who carries the Tlingit name X̱’unei, is an assistant professor of Alaska Native Languages, Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Originally inhabited by the Tlingits, X̱’unei said the bay was known as Náx̱kʼw, or Little Harbor. The name was eventually anglicized to Nahku and was later referred to as Long Bay, which has no Tlingit connection.
According to X̱’unei’s grandfather, Si Dennis, the bay was sparsely populated, just like the neighboring valleys of Shg̱agwéi (Roughed up Water) and Deiyáa (Pack Trail).
“All three of these valleys had great importance to the Tlingit people because they provided access to food and medicine gathering areas,” he said.
Náx̱kʼw was specifically rich in sʼáxt’ (Devil’s Club), and was home to many núkt (blue grouse) and sometimes jánwu (mountain goat).
X̱’unei said his family enjoyed trips to Náx̱kʼw, and his grandfather’s grandfather once lived on the land.
According to an excerpt from Tom Thornton’s Ethnographic Overview and Assessment of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, Si Dennis’ grandfather Nahku filed for a homestead at Nahku Bay in 1895 but was unsuccessful in securing the property. The land would eventually become property of the U.S. government.
After the gold rush, the inlet was known as Fortune Bay, with origins that may reference the bark Canada, which found its final resting place along the bay’s shore.
Built in Bath, Maine, the ship sailed for 39 years, with a tonnage of 1,144, a length of 176.6 feet and a beam of 38.6 feet. In an Alaska Geographic History Talk, KGRNHP Historian Karl Gurcke said the ship was a “windjammer,” with an aft mast that had been re-rigged to increase maneuverability in coastal waters and decrease the number of required crew.
Throughout its travels, the ship carried a variety of cargo, including cigars, horses, cotton and even the materials for an iron church, complete with flue organ.
With the Klondike Gold Rush in full swing, the Canada made its way to the north. After two weeks of sailing up the coast, she anchored in Skagway on Feb. 14, 1898, ready to unload her cargo. But on Feb. 19, a storm arose, resulting in a great crash upon the rocks, with force so powerful, trees were torn up by their roots. On Feb. 24, the Canada was “driven down Lynn Canal by the fury of the storm.”
Horses were shot and crew were ordered to leave the ship as it listed at a 45 degree angle, with water flooding its floors and cabins. The ship was towed ashore at Pyramid Harbor and caused dispute between two captains over ownership. It was eventually sold at a U.S. Marshall’s auction for $2,250. The ship is seen in photos at Yakutania Point in April and May 1898. It is next seen at the head of Nahku Bay in 1900. How she arrived remains a mystery.
The ships’s hull has been central to the age-old beach’s mystique, drawing attention from locals and visitors alike.
Over the years, its skeleton has deteriorated, the waves eroding its wooden shell. But Bea Lingle remembers when the ribs were still erect, and her mother, Jeaneatte Hillery, remembered further still. As a little girl, she would hike to the beach and play in the ship’s staterooms. Betsy Albecker’s mother, Barbara Kalen, told tales of swimmers diving from the mast to show off for the girls.
Today the ship’s shell is little more than driftwood peaking out from beneath the sand and can only be seen when the tide is out. But it calls back memories of the gold rush and forgotten flirtations in the sand.
By 1940, the road to Dyea had been completed as far as Yakutania Point. Gurcke said after the start of WWII, Skagway was flooded with soldiers who would eventually assist in bringing the road from the Point to Nahku Bay, as the military needed more room for traffic overflow. Pilings were built along the beach in order to tie down barges that awaited offloading.
James Matthews was born in Skagway’s local hospital in 1948, and spent the first few years of his life in the wooden cabin across from the beach. His father Bud had acquired the house a few years earlier and purchased the 16 acres of land from the U.S. government in 1958.
The rustic cabin’s history is unknown. Some say it dates back to the gold rush, but according to Gurcke, it may be confused with the Matthews Cabin in Dyea, which has no relation to Bud’s family. Early photographs of Nahku Bay show a cabin some distance from the beach on the east side, though Gurcke says the current cabin on the west could have easily been concealed by vegetation.
[quote_right]“He just wanted it to be untouched, natural beauty,” she said.[/quote_right]
Bud lived in Skagway for the winters and moved back to his cabin in the summers, walking from the bay all the way into town. He could often be seen with his large, wooden walking stick, making his way through the woods or down the train tracks, always with a smile on his face. He was known for one-finger waves from the front seat of his little blue truck, his love of music, love of the ladies, but most of all, his love for people and his boundless ability to give.
Juliene Miles lived in the cabin with her husband Andy for four years. Despite the lack of running water and very limited space, Miles remembers it as a magical place filled with grey foxes and humpback whales.
“We could lay in bed at night with the windows open and hear the whales blow all night long,” she said.
Miles would often ask Bud about the land’s past and its future. Above all else, he wanted it to remain wild, without pavilions or bathrooms.
“He just wanted it to be untouched, natural beauty,” she said. “He wanted zero commercial activity out there.”
Bud passed away last year at the age of 92, perhaps owing his long life to Matthew’s Creek, which he called “The Fountain of Youth.”
“For years and years people have drunk that water. You don’t have to treat it,” Miles said.
Hikers often dip their bottles into the gurgling stream and Dyea residents fill their drinking wells. It trickles and flows past the cabin and out into the bay, over rocks and empty mussel shells.
With Bud’s passing, the future of Nahku Bay is unknown. Son James would like to see it kept in the family, but is unable to buy out his siblings. And so the land is up for sale, with the municipality planning to make an offer.
“[Bud] indicated that he would like to see the property protected and conserved,” Mayor Mark Schaefer said. “My opinion is very much the same.”
James said the remoteness of the beach and mountainside is what the locals love – and he’s right.
Bea brought her children to the beach, where they collected mussels by the bucketful and cooked them along the shore, dipping them into warm bowls of butter.
Betsy swam in the cold, sandy waters when the summers were long and warm and picked raspberries along the road.
James set traps in the woods, catching marten and mink alongside Matthews Creek.
Jules listened to the whales and enjoyed windless nights with her windows open a just crack.
And Bud walked, exploring the woods and marking trails throughout the thick mountainside.
A quick list of locals touched by Long Bay was recently compiled, filled with people still in town and people now long gone. The first draft contained 346 names.
Three hundred and forty-six people who have danced at a wedding, cried at a funeral, spread loved ones’ ashes or simply partied the night away under a starry Alaskan sky. People who collect seaweed for their gardens and driftwood for their walls. People who drink water from Matthews Creek and eat mussels for a snack. People who watch eagles circle prey and the aurora dance over snowy mountain peaks. People who swim in the waves and kayak in the sea. But most of all, people who love a land that is uniquely Alaskan, a land that holds more than one hundred years of memories and magic, a land loved by 346 people and beyond.