Late last summer, walking below a fresh rockfall on Harbor Mountain, a hiker found a mucky old wallet. It contained all the things you expect to find in a wallet — bank cards, an ID. The leather was wet from Southeast’s damp climate, but still in good shape. The owner was glad to get it back, but he wasn’t easy to find. He dropped it on a trail near Sitka 40 years ago.
People lose things all the time. After a while, you just figure it’s gone, it’s not coming back.
It’s a windy day on Harbor Mountain. I’m hiking right by the scree field on the Harbor Mountain Trail when I notice a wallet. It’s right next to a fresh rock slide.
There’s something different about this wallet.
For one, it’s really dirty…. kind of wet… and gross. There’s an ID inside and it says it’s a University of Washington student ID card. It’s from 1975.
After some scrubbing, I can read the name on the ID: Bruce Adair Warden, Junior.
So I bring the wallet back to town to try and find him. I call the University of Washington. Then I Google the name. There’s a number, but it’s disconnected. That’s when I turn to Facebook. I message the administrators for 12 Facebook groups in the town associated with the disconnected phone number, and ask them if they can help me solve a mystery. After 165 Facebook likes and 62 comments, I have a working phone number for Bruce Warden.
It rings, and then, “Hi! Is this Bruce?” I ask.
“Yeah. Hi, this is Bruce Warden.”
Warden has already gotten a call from his sister and several friends about the Facebook post, telling him that some lady in Alaska has his wallet.
“I was floored when I heard about that…Like a needle in the haystack.”
The first thing Warden wants to know was what he looks like in the picture.
“Beard, and a moustache and long hair,” I tell him.
“Yeah, well, I got rid of that. It was the 70s, and having been in the military where you can’t keep your hair long…it was something that I wanted to do.”
Originally from Washington, Warden went to college in Chicago and then was drafted into the Army’s language school. When he came back from Vietnam, he finished his teaching degree at University of Washington, where he received the ID I found on Harbor Mountain. Then he went looking for adventure in Alaska.
“I remember getting off the plane in Sitka on April 13th, 1975… and it was snowing.”
Warden fell in love with Sitka, and ended up staying 17 years.
“If you’re an outdoors person, you’d think you just stepped off the plane and landed in paradise.”
Warden met his wife, Cathy, and raised his family in Sitka. He spent his days working various jobs, including substitute teaching at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and transporting mail for Alaska Airlines. He went fishing in his boat, The Faithful, played on the baseball team for Ernie’s Bar, and went hunting in the mountains.
“I must have lost my wallet the very first time I went hunting… Because you’d get up on top and then start walking and looking back along the ridges … and …it’s kind of steep so you kind of sit down, and you’re leaning back against the hillside … and it probably slipped out of my wool pants at the time.”
Warden has since learned his lesson, and makes sure I know it too.
“If you bring a wallet, don’t leave it in your pants — put in your pack or something, you know? I mean, c’mon!”
Warden eventually left Sitka with his family in 1992, and got back to teaching — both overseas and in the States.
He visits Sitka now and again to see friends. His picture is still on the wall at Ernie’s Bar.
“There’s a small photograph of guys sitting at the table in their Ernie’s baseball outfits, and I’m the guy with the beard on.”
Nowadays, Warden lives near Mt. Rainier, and spends much of his time helping out in his wife’s classroom and spending time with his 5-year-old granddaughter, who wants to see the wallet too.
He’s still amazed it was found.
“There are places around Sitka that you feel confident that you’re out hunting that maybe no one has been for hundreds of years — if they were there at all — so to me that was a real coincidence.
And it was lucky for me. I am around the same age that Warden was when he lost the wallet. It reminds me of this Regina Spektor song about finding a wallet, where she calls the wallet a holy relic, a mystery novel.
Bruce Warden is no longer a mystery to me. Now I’m thinking about his journey, and mine.
“You sound like a kindred spirit.”
He tells me I should look into teaching overseas like he did, and reminds me to never go hiking alone. We’ve started writing postcards. I recently moved away from Sitka, but like Warden, I don’t think I’ve really left.
“Well, what they say about Sitka is once you drink the water, you’ll always come back.”
“Yeah, I think that’ll be happening to me,” I laugh.