Obituary: Charles Alden McCracken

January 17, 1934 – June 15, 2020

Charles Alden McCracken

Charles Alden McCracken died peacefully at home in Cordova on June 15, 2020. He was 86-years old. Born in Cordova on January 17, 1934, Charlie was descended from the Lummi Island Tribe, also known as Lhaq’temish (LOCK‐tuh‐mish), or People of the Sea, on the border between Washington state and Canada.

As a boy, he dug for clams and what his family didn’t eat, he sold; as a man, it became his livelihood, as he fished from the coast of Oregon to Togiak Bay in the North Pacific Ocean. Crab, herring, salmon, halibut — he took all species of fish. If he wasn’t fishing the seas, he was hunting — Sitka deer, moose (locally) and elk with his brother-in-law in Colorado, and, memorably, a musk ox he took in Mekoryuk on Nunivak Island in 2005.

While his parents worked long hours in the cannery, Charlie, along with other children of modest means, was placed in a Christian home for charity, The Nettie Hansen House. Scarcity isn’t always kind to her pupils — as a child he wouldn’t leave the breakfast table without first spitting on his pancakes so none of the other children would steal from him.

Looking at Charlie, you think, “This man was built to haul lines” — as a deckhand working for him, Charlie pushed me aside after watching my feeble efforts to pull in a seine. His whole body seemed to haul on that line, almost as if he and it were on personal terms (not necessarily “good” terms) and the seine had just better get back in line — and it did!

Although he was just over 5-feet tall, Charlie struck most people as something like a force of nature: “Charlie was all business. He always had his shoulder to the wheel; he was always strategizing when he wasn’t fishing, where he was going to go. He’d get up at 4 a.m. and by the time anyone hauled out of bed, he had their day planned out for them. Warden, boss, chief — pick one word you like, he pretty much ran everybody.”

Or maybe it only seemed that way. Sometimes Charlie was on his knees, with the rest of us, with the struggle of life, work, its crude agony, which seems capable of making a mockery of us all. In 1989, on his seine boat, The Ingot, while kneeling beside him on the deck, trying to fix a piece of recalcitrant machinery, he startled me with something that felt like an eruption: “Why God,” he shouted, looking into the sky above Prince William Sound, “why me, why me?”

When I knew him, and for the time I knew him, he was one of the sweetest people on Earth — he was not always so. He felt this deficiency, perhaps even more acutely than anyone else. When his brother-in-law, Andy, got lost (and was ultimately rescued) in a Colorado blizzard that swept through the Rockies, everyone worried, but Charlie was devastated. He could read the Sound like the back of his own hand, find the salmon no one else knew about, but he could not tame the winds and the snow and the fire … either that which blows on earth or that which consumes us from within.

Beneath the cares of the man who fished the seas with nets and hooks and boats and other men, another man lived, more meditative. Around the late 1980s, Charlie took up carving using the traditional yellow cedar of Native peoples. One of his carvings, a mask, he entitled, “Crying Man” — the cedar had a defect in it, where mold had discolored the wood. It was 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill — the herring fishery would never be the same. Another mask he called, “Man holding his hands up to heaven” — Alberta, his wife, says, “You have to use your imagination to see it.” So also, perhaps, our lives as prayer, it takes some imagination to see it.

Charlie was preceded in death by his parents, his younger brother Connie McCracken, and his firstborn, Darwin. He is survived by his sister Janet Westover of Arizona; wife of 58-years, Alberta; two daughters, Amber McCracken, Sheryl Blake (married to Ron Blake); and three grandchildren, Charles (Andy) Nippell, Lance Samuelson and Auraylia Blake.

Written by Rob Hoch (nephew) | June 27, 2020.