SEATTLE March 24, 2008 </b>— -- Merle Brandell and his black lab Slapsey were beachcombing along the Bering Sea when he spied a plastic bottle among the Japanese glass floats he often finds along the shore of his tiny Alaskan fishing village.
He walked over and saw an envelope tucked inside. After slicing the bottle open, Brandell found a message from an elementary school student in a suburb of Seattle. The fact that the letter traveled 1,735 miles without any help from the U.S. postal service is unusual, but that's only the beginning of the mystery.
About 21 years passed between the time Emily Hwaung put the message in a soda bottle and Merle Brandell picked it up on the beach.
"This letter is part of our science project to study oceans and learn about people in distant lands," she wrote. "Please send the date and location of the bottle with your address. I will send you my picture and tell you when and where the bottle was placed in the ocean. Your friend, Emily Hwaung."
Brandell, 34, a bear hunting guide and manager of a water plant, said many of the 70-plus residents of Nelson Lagoon were intrigued by his find. Beachcombing is a popular activity in remote western Alaska. Among the recent discoveries was a sail boat that washed onto shore last October.
"It's kind of a sport. It keeps us occupied. It's one of the pleasures of living here," Brandell said of the village reachable only by plane or boat that is too small to have its own store.
Brandell tried to track down the sender: a fourth grader from the North City School in the Shoreline School District.
No one answered when Brandell called the school in December so he sent the school district a handwritten letter, which eventually ended up on the desk of district spokesman Craig Degginger.
After some searching, Degginger discovered Emily Hwaung is now a 30-year-old accountant named Emily Shih and lives in Seattle. She was in the fourth grade during the 1986-87 school year at a school building that closed more than a year ago.
Shih said she was flabbergasted by the news and immediately shared it with her Kirkland co-workers.
"I don't remember the project. It was so long ago. Elementary school is kind of foggy," Shih admitted during a recent interview. "I've been getting a kick out of it for a month now."