A seiner getting ready to set its net close to shore. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

A seiner getting ready to set its net close to shore. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

The barefoot boys and the Memento

When we moved to the remote, abandoned cannery where I grew up, I was nine years old and had some vestigial memories of civilization. My little brothers, Robin and Chris, were five and four respectively and between the two of them they had precious few recollections of a world filled with people and social rules. And although, like a good parent, our mom had warned all of us about “stranger danger,” there was no real fear where we lived (we rarely saw any human other than the members of our immediate family) that a stranger would come and try to lure us away with candy.

Freed of all social restrictions, it wasn’t long before my little brothers decided, in the summertime, that clothes and boots were too much trouble to bother with. They ran around the rocky beaches barefoot, in only their underwear half of the time, and thought we were crazy not to do the same. Their little feet hardened to puncture-proof leather.

Every so often our parents took the skiff to Meyers Chuck to pick up the mail, visit our mom’s family, and bask in the luxury of adult conversation. I sometimes wondered what would happen if the weather kicked up and they weren’t able to get back.

The five of us kids would be completely alone in the wilderness with no nearby neighbors that we could ask for help if there was an emergency. The thought didn’t scare me — I was too accustomed to living in the wilderness — but I did think it would be a great adventure for a few days or so, before the novelty of cooking every meal for ourselves wore off.

On one of these days when our parents were gone, my little brothers disappeared.

The former cannery covered more than twenty acres with three distinct beaches and two sides separated by a peninsula of heavily forested rock bluffs. There were lots of places to look for them…but it didn’t matter. They were nowhere to be found.

It was bear season and we lived right next to a major salmon spawning creek. We saw black bears all the time and the occasional brown bear. But they were usually so intent on gorging themselves on salmon that they’d ignore us, not to mention our 20-plus dogs that loved to harass the bears as they fished.

We counted up the dogs and realized that a few of them were missing, too. Had the bears gotten tired of a straight seafood diet and decided to go for a surf and turf meal?

It wasn’t until our parents got home, many hours later, that we found out where the boys and the dogs had been.

According to my brother Robin, who now lives in Ketchikan:

“There were two guys in a seine skiff pulling on a net and holding it to the beach when Chris and I came out of the woods with a few dogs. The crew was totally bewildered, wondering where the heck we came from. Of course we were barely dressed and had no footwear on so they were a little perplexed about what to do. We told them we lived there, but they weren’t buying it and called the skipper of their purse seiner, the Memento, to ask what they should do.

“The skipper, Mr. Harvey Hanson, said to bring us out with the net. They grabbed my brother and me and the dogs and we went out to watch them haul the net in. While on board the Memento we were fed every kind of junk food on the planet: Coke, Doritos, Snickers bars, pig skins, etc., etc. We were in heaven. And so were the dogs, who got treats, too.

“The crew was so amazed that we were walking around Southeast Alaska barefooted.They would test how tough our feet were by poking, pinching, and even rubbing jellyfish on them. The bottoms of our feet were like leather.”

Meanwhile, as the boys were living high off the hog, we three older kids were in dread of our parents’ return, wondering what on earth we’d tell them, what sort of excuse we could give for the boys’ disappearance.

Robin says, “Once they hauled the net in, the crew skiffed us around the corner [of the rock bluff peninsula mentioned earlier] where they finally saw the floathouse and knew we actually had a home to live in. As they pulled out of the bight and headed back to the boat my parents arrived in their skiff from visiting Meyers Chuck.”

Our mom says that when she realized that her two youngest kids had blithely gone aboard a boat and would happily have stayed there chowing down on junk food until they disappeared from our lives forever, she was appalled. She said that for years she thought about how they could have just disappeared and no one would have had a clue what had happened to them.

Robin adds, “When my mom got out of the skiff she was a little perturbed. ‘What did I tell you about strangers?’ We looked at each other and just mumbled. These were good strangers that fed us!”

To make up for our mom’s understandable distress, Captain Hanson threw a nice sized king salmon into our parents’ skiff and explained his and his crew’s concerns about finding the boys apparently abandoned in the wilderness.

Mutual good feelings resulted and our mom allowed Robin to write to Captain Hanson, who very nicely wrote back several times. The next year the Memento’s crew picked up the boys, with parental permission this time, and fed them up on junk food again. When they came home they were loaded down with candy bars, but what they treasured most was the lasting memories of the Memento and her crew.


• Tara Neilson writes from a floathouse between Wrangell and Ketchikan.


Robin (in back) and Chris (in front) emerging from the forest with dogs in tow. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

Robin (in back) and Chris (in front) emerging from the forest with dogs in tow. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

Robin, barefoot in the ruins. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

Robin, barefoot in the ruins. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

The barefoot boys, the author’s brothers Robin (left) and Chris (right) playing in the cannery ruins. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

The barefoot boys, the author’s brothers Robin (left) and Chris (right) playing in the cannery ruins. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

Seiners fishing out in the remote wilderness often drive in close to shore. Their skiffs, when they let out their nets, sometimes bump against beaches which they expect to find empty of human habitation. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

Seiners fishing out in the remote wilderness often drive in close to shore. Their skiffs, when they let out their nets, sometimes bump against beaches which they expect to find empty of human habitation. Courtesy of Tara Neilson.

The barefoot boys, Chris (left) and Robin (right) with a couple of our twenty-plus dogs. Photo courtesy of Tara Neilson.

The barefoot boys, Chris (left) and Robin (right) with a couple of our twenty-plus dogs. Photo courtesy of Tara Neilson.

More in Neighbors

Jackie Renninger Park, which is scheduled to receive structural and safety improvements. (City and Borough of Juneau photo)
Neighbors briefs

See design ideas for Jackie Renninger Park at June 24 public meeting… Continue reading

Students from Juneau Community Charter School listen to a story at the Skagway Public Library. (Photo provided by Clint Sullivan)
Neighbors: Letters of thanks

Thanks to the community of Skagway The K/1 class of Juneau Community… Continue reading

Donna Leigh is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Courtesy photo)
Living and Growing: Small things

Have you ever had a small pebble in your shoe? Very irritating,… Continue reading

Matushka Olga Michael, a Yup’ik woman from Kwethluk. (Photo provided by Maxim Gibson)
Living and Growing: A new Alaskan saint

“God is wonderful in His saints: the God of Israel is He… Continue reading

Dining out in Croatia. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: Almond cake from a trip to Croatia

I should have probably titled this week’s column: “Eating For Pleasure.” My… Continue reading

Nick Hanson of the NBC show “American Ninja Warrior” kicks off the blanket toss at the 2020 Traditional Games in Juneau. (Lyndsey Brollini / Sealaska Heritage Institute)
Neighbors: Celebration begins Wednesday with mix of traditional and new events

Nearly 1,600 dancers from 36 dance groups scheduled to participate in four-day gathering.

“Curiosities of Alaska” by Junnie Chup, which won first place in Kindred Post’s 2024 statewide postcard art contest. (Photo courtesy of Kindred Post)
Neighbors briefs

Kindred Post announces 2024 statewide postcard art contest winners Kindred Post on… Continue reading

Tanya Renee Ahtowena Rorem at age 17. (Photo provided by Laura Rorem)
Living and Growing: ‘My name is Ahtowena’

My precocious two-year old broke loose from my grip and took off… Continue reading

The Pinkas Synagogue, the second-oldest building in Prague. (World Monuments Fund photo)
Living and Growing: Connecting to family ancestors through names of strangers on a wall in Prague

“Prague never lets you go…this dear little mother has sharp claws.” —… Continue reading

Individual eggplant parmesan rounds ready to serve. (Photo by Patty Schied)
Cooking for Pleasure: Individual eggplant parmesan rounds

These flavorful eggplant parmesans are a great side dish, especially served with… Continue reading

An aspiring knight relies on duct tape for his medieval battle gear during the Master’s Faire on July 16, 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Gimme A Smile: Duct tape — an Alaskan’s best friend

Duct tape is an Alaskan tradition. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix… Continue reading

Fred LaPlante is the pastor at the Juneau Church of the Nazarene. (Photo courtesy of Fred LaPlante)
Living and Growing: Be a blessing

Years ago, I learned a great acronym, B.L.E.S.S. “B” stands for “Begin… Continue reading