ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in a Rural Alaska Town

Old Timers, Real Alaska Heroes

Chilkat Valley News owner Tom Morphet was back-reading a story in the weekly paper’s tiny second-floor office on Main Street.

He was perched at an old too-small desk with a rickety wooden chair.

Then he got the news.

Erwin Hertz was dead at age 80.

“Oh, that just breaks my heart,” he said to no one but himself.

Tom doesn’t show emotion very often. He likes local news, just the facts, who’s-at-fault-here? kind of stuff. He thinks obituaries are news stories too, and once won an Alaska Press Club Award for an obit he wrote on some old timer, quoting his son saying his old man “was just an asshole,” or words to that effect.

The newspaper’s obituary writer is a published author named Heather Lende, who has written several non-fiction books about life in Haines. Tom wants her to get tougher in her obituaries, but she has resisted, always looking for the human touch, the final goodbye.

People around here say that you haven’t really died until Heather’s written your obit.

This time, though, it was Tom’s turn to be soft.

Erwin was old-school Alaska, a logger-turned electrician with the kind of idiosyncrasies that endear you to people. Years ago, he injured himself in a logging accident and when the spinal fusion and drug regiment didn’t work, he began hanging upside-down at his home and swimming in the frigid waters of the glacier-fed Lynn Canal to stay loose.

To build up his abdominal muscles, he ran, lifted weights, guzzled juices and herbal teas. Even into his 70s, he hiked up rugged Rapinski Mountain to keep fit.

He raised four athletes who remember him walking around the living room on his hands. He told them to walk to school because “getting a car is bad for your knees.”

If you were one of Erwin Hertz’s kids, you regularly rode your bike with the rest of the family to the steakhouse ten miles outside of town. You practiced for local contests, brushing up your skills in ax-throwing and log-strapping.

Erwin could eat. A fellow volunteer fireman once saw him devour 24 deviled eggs and then ask for a prime rib steak.

He was also the heartbeat of local events. In 1961, he started the Mad Raft Race and competed for 50 straight years, even after it was abandoned by sponsors for perceived safety and liability issues. Erwin told a reporter: “Sure, it’s dangerous, but if it wasn’t a little dangerous, it wouldn’t be fun.”

But Erwin did more. He organized July 4th nail-pounding contests, bed races, and ran the logging events at the Southeast Alaska State Fair Logging show.

It’s no small wonder Erwin didn’t avoid logs. They almost killed him.

Erwin said his Catholicism became entrenched when he was crushed by a falling tree while logging near a place called Mosquito Lake. That’s when he had an outside-of-his-body experience, remembering his consciousness hovering in the air, over the other loggers who gathered around his body.

“He’s dead,” one said. “I’m going back to work.”

But Erwin wasn’t dead.

“Where I was I was very peaceful,” he told a reporter. “I had complete peace with everything. It was amazing. I didn’t want to come back.”

When he did come back, Erwin said, he “wore the Bible out.”

Erwin had other talents. His daughter said rural life brought about her father’s talent for “fixing cats and dogs.” For years, Haines didn’t have a vet. Erwin was it. He also worked on sore backs, and earned the nickname “the castrating chiropractor.”

When logging got too tough on his body, Erwin became an electrician and donated his work to the local church. He self-published a book about his spiritual progress, called “Journey to Eternal Life — Alaska Style!” His body finally gave out from heart failure.

That week, Erwin wasn’t the only old-time logger who passed away.

Leo Smith was 89 when he died from head trauma when a piece of logging equipment rolled over him. He was an outdoorsman who built his homestead with a chainsaw and kept a moose lodge in the woods, which around here they call the Interior.

He drove a cab in Reno and worked in a copper mine in Arizona before adopting the north woods as home in 1963. He cut trees, harvested timber, cleared house sites, moved large boats and sold firewood from his front porch.

He was moving a boat for a friend when he died.

To lose both men in the same week; well, that just seemed too cruel, even here where nature calls the shots, where people hover fairly low on the food chain.

It was a turn of events that could even give Tom Morphet pause: That cliché about Alaska about the goods being odd.

Well, that’s not quite right.

Up here, some of the goods are just good, period.

I never met either man, but from the writing in a small-town weekly paper, I feel like I have.

Rest in peace, gents.