September storm leaves behind treasured beach finds

a woman holding a bottle
Norma Tunutmoak of Chevak shows off a message in a bottle she discovered after flood waters from an historic storm in September. (Emily Schwing for KYUK)

The remnants of Typhoon Merbok battered Alaska’s west coast in September, bringing hurricane-force winds, high seas, and severe damage to some Western Alaska communities. Homes were flooded and personal belongings were destroyed. But in its wake, the storm also left behind a few treasures.

After the storm tossed boats in Chevak like bath toys and scattered debris across the community, Norma Tunutmoak went out to survey the damage. Flooding carried loads of driftwood 17 miles inland from the Bering Sea coast. Tuntumoak, an avid beachcomber, said that she spotted something tangled among a pile of logs.

“I was like, ‘Holy cow, look at this!’” Tunutmoak said. “It was a message in a bottle.”

Her eyes lit up as she showed off a brown glass bottle with a roll of paper at her home.

When she opened the cork stopper and pulled the message out, it said that the bottle had been floating around in the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea for more than 20 years. According to the message, the bottle was dropped from a boat off the coast of Vancouver in 2000 as part of a long-term study on ocean currents. Tunutmoak contacted the scientist listed on the message. He’s since retired, she said.

Tunutmoak said that she had hoped the find might be more personal.

“But it’s OK,” she said proudly. “It’s still an amazing find.”

She said that she plans to display the bottle, and its message, on a shelf in her kitchen.

Up and down Alaska’s west coast, people have reported finding treasures from glass fishing floats to shoes and other flotsam. A giant prehistoric tusk discovered outside Newtok didn’t float in on a tide; it washed out of the tundra near Newtok.

“Half of it was showing from the tip and all the way to the end of it,” said Bruno Chakuchin, who discovered the tusk while scouring the coastline for debris.

Chakuchin said that the tusk was huge.

“Probably like 8 feet and 10 inches and probably a diameter of 1 foot, 6 inches,” he said.

It also weighed 128 pounds — too heavy for him to lift alone.

Tusks like this are popular among collectors and artists. Days after he discovered it, Chakuchin said that he wrapped it up and shipped it to a buyer in Anchorage.

“Depending on condition, they’ll go for about $150 a pound if it’s in really good condition,” he said.

two men holding a mammoth tusk
The largest tusk Bruno Chakuchin (left) has ever found eroded out of the tundra near Newtok after remnants of Typhoon Merbok battered Western Alaska’s coastline. (Courtesy Bruno Chakuchin)

That kind of cash can go a long way in a small community like Newtok. Chakuchin said that he’s likely to use it for bills, to pay for food and maybe invest in a four-wheeler.

“No I’m not gonna use it for fun,” he said.

All the beachcombing also offers a nice break for residents who are still cleaning up after their communities were ravaged by flooding, high winds and an historic storm surge.

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