Chirikof Island

When the first ground squirrels arrived on Chirikof, did they swim some thirty miles to reach it? Did they float up on logs like a furry little Kon-Tiki? Or were they stowed-away in the kayaks of the Alutiiq people who knew this island as Ukamak. Who collected pieces of amber, sea chestnuts worn as hunting talismans, iron from Japanese shipwrecks. Who sewed the soft, blue-tinted furs of ground squirrels into warm, coveted parkas, until the Russian American Company forbade them, except to be sold for company profits. Animals like horses and goats brought here soon ran as wild as the island. Hunting dogs roamed in packs. The Semidi Propagating Company sent foxes in 1894, but ghosts terrified caretaker John Jacobson so that he fled within days and sold all his shares. A haunted house is marked on an early map. The first cattle were joined by Herefords, Angus, Scottish Highlanders, Guernseys and Shorthorns that over time grew so aggressive, one rancher resorted to using bush planes to herd them. In the thirties, New York socialite Kay Barker had traveled here to take photos when an enormous white bull circled the herd and they charged, plunging into the water and swimming after her rowboat. It happened again in the forties, when cattle stampeded a Navy crew salvaging radio range equipment. And again in the fifties, when they chased off the fishermen trying to pick up Archi Hubley, who’d spent five months trapping foxes on the island. It happened to sailing friends of ours just a few summers ago. A Chirikof rancher once pitched a plan to the Alaska Legislature—why not use the remote island as a place for juvenile delinquents instead? On Chirikof, windswept sand dunes shift and rearrange themselves, burying buildings and unburying bodies, blowing old bones away. In wind-scoured cemeteries, people looted exposed graves—taking beads and crosses and buttons—sometimes taking the whole skeleton. The island’s violent elements, its frequent earthquakes, its storms, its shipwrecks and plane crashes, have made the island a storied place. When the Schooner Elsie wrecked in the 1890s, survivors suffered 41 days in a makeshift shelter, never knowing there was a family living on the south end of the island. In December 1932, Jack McCord brought his wife to scout the island’s potential, but their boat dragged onto the reef as they unloaded and he left the party on the island. He went to Kodiak for repairs and didn’t get back until February. They all survived, though the marriage did not. One flight that left Chirikof disappeared for forty years. Recovering the wreckage, they found an engraved bracelet with a name unconnected to the dead pilot or passenger. Half a lifetime before, a navy man stationed on the island had asked them to send it to his wife. Eventually, people gave up on ranching Chirikof. When winter comes, and colonies of ground squirrels hunker deep in their dark burrows, who’s to say that on stormy nights they aren’t telling their own wild stories in some rodent tongue, murmured tales of ghost dogs and dunes, of thundering hoofbeats above and earth rumbling below.