After the flood, Juneau residents return lost treasures to affected families

a photograph of a family, stored in a bag
Juneau photographer Michael Penn holds a bag full of photos he found while kayaking with his family off Douglas Island the day after record flooding destroyed homes along the Mendenhall River. Also pictured are Penn’s son, Liam (left), and his wife, Iris Korhonen-Penn (right). (Photo courtesy of Michael Penn)

Local photographer Michael Penn was paddling back from a camping trip with his family Sunday when they entered a debris field just off Douglas Island, near where the Mendenhall River flows into the ocean. 

“I looked down in the water and there was this Ziploc bag just floating there full of pictures. Probably, I don’t know, between 60 and 80 pictures in there,” Penn said. “I know how precious pictures are.”

They’d been out of cell service range for the last few days. When they checked their phones, they learned about the glacial outburst flood and the homes destroyed along the river. 

a pillow and other debris washed on a rocky beach
Debris lies along the shore of Douglas Island on Aug. 7, 2023 following record-breaking flooding on the Mendenhall River. (Andrés Javier Camacho/KTOO)

The bag had “FAMILY” written on it in marker. The seal had broken, and the photos were soaked with saltwater. Luckily, Penn has a print dryer leftover from his darkroom photography days. 

He took the photos home, rinsed them and dried them off. He said they’re undamaged. He posted on Instagram, hoping to find the owners. 

The same day, Leticia McRae was walking along the tideline of a North Douglas beach, several miles from where the homes collapsed. She’s been picking up trash in Juneau for about a decade — she runs a community Facebook page where she posts about her pickups.

a woman stands on the beach holding a trash bag, oven mitts and a piece of styrofoam
Leticia McRae holds debris she picked up along the shore of Douglas Island on Aug. 7, 2023 following record-breaking flooding on the Mendenhall River. (Andrés Javier Camacho/KTOO)

“There was a tree in the tideline, and kind of up against the tree was this box,” she said on Monday. “And I picked it up and lo and behold, that little latch with no lock, no nothing on it, was still closed.”

When she opened the wooden box, she found an old metal photograph and jewelry, including what looked like a wedding band with a name inscribed on it. She took it home and rinsed everything off, then posted a picture on Facebook asking for help locating the owner. 

a wooden box
A jewelry box found washed up on the shore of Douglas Island Aug. 6, 2023 the day after glacial outburst flooding destroyed homes along the Mendenhall River. (Photo courtesy of Leticia McRae)

Within a few hours, a commenter had connected her with someone who lost their home in the flood. She delivered the box back to its owner that evening. 

“That box made it in that turbulent river, and then it floated all the way across the channel and ended up on a beach — still closed,” McRae said. “It was meant to make its way back to the family.”

On Monday, Penn went back to North Douglas with his wife and son to continue the cleanup. He said they filled several bags. 

“Imagine a house that’s been ground up and spat out. We were finding roof material and ceiling trusses and broken furniture, and just bits of plastic,” he said. “There’s insulation everywhere.”

A hydraulic oil drum sits on the shore of Douglas Island on Aug. 7, 2023 following record-breaking flooding on the Mendenhall River. (Photo by Andrés Javier Camacho/KTOO)

Reports of furniture and building material are popping up along the waters surrounding Juneau. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has asked Juneau residents to report any fuel or heating oil tanks that may have been swept away or found washed up on the shore. 

The cleanup will take some time. But on Monday morning, McRae was back out on the beach looking for more trash to pick up – or more treasures to reunite. 

“Sometimes we think it’s all lost, and it’s not all lost,” she said. “Sometimes the universe brings things back to you.”

Editor’s note: Michael Penn works for KTOO’s Gavel Alaska during the legislative session.

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