This is our busiest time of year as we gear up for the winter storms and snowfall to come, tightening up or putting in new shorelines, putting new surge anchors on them, cutting out worn pieces of rope, and checking to make sure all the knots are secure. We also work on adding flotation to our houses, new logs added to the outside or slid into bug-eaten openings.
But preparation for winter isn't all about hard labor. We also have to prepare our minds for the coming short days and diminishing sunshine. Even my Maine Coon Katya feels this urge. I catch glimpses of her quietly meditating on the last days of overhead sunshine and I wonder what she's thinking about the changing season.
At this time of the year I make a point of going for long rambles over the rocks, soaking in the piercing, poignant fall sunlight often framed by approaching storm clouds. I let the world fall away, forget the coming winter, and absorb the trenchant reality of the vast wilderness with my aloneness as a human being standing on the edge of the world.
We're surrounded by evergreen conifers so there are few trees that change colors, just the alders and crab apple trees, mainly, and those that do leap out from the endless variatians of perennial green. There's one evergreen, though, that works as a bridge between them--the western red cedar as it displays patches of brilliant orange, known as flagging.
Flagging is the red cedar's way of prioritizing its resources. It lets the inner foliage, that receives the least sun and doesn't get washed as often so it's the least productive, die off. It's alien but beautiful, and doesn't last for long. In the first big storm all those orange needles are blown off and mark the tideline for weeks to come, a reminder that the warm days of summer are gone.
On one of my long rambles I came across a red cedar log that the tide had perched, just for me, like a park bench between rocks overlooking the strait. I seated myself and soaked in the spash of the waves with the sun sparkling down on them as the bull kelp, rooted to rocks below, bobbed carelessly as if unaware of the storms that would eventually tear them loose and toss them on the shore. Geese flew over, black silhouettes against a perfect blue sky, waving goodbye to me as they headed south like the summer people and tourists that were absent from the strait after roaring up and down it all summer long. It was just me and the whales now.
It's at times like these that I know I'm the richest human on earth and can only thank God for these treasures that I'm storing up for the coming winter.
It's that time of the year again when we do our usual Fall things, but there was nothing usual about the bullets coming at me as I hid behind an inadequately-sized tree.
The day started out windy, chill, and overcast, blowing from the north. I needed to pump water to our holding tank, and also walk the waterline to level it. Soon enough I'd need to be draining the line every time I pumped so it wouldn't freeze; it's important that the line is level for it to drain properly. I found that many of the support boards that keep it level had rotted and fallen. We'd have to replace them.
The week before, my dad had replaced the recoil cord on the pump, but even with that helpful accessory, the pump was resistant to starting. After a dozen yanks and two squirts of ether it finally caught and ran smoothly. I noted the time and strolled through the woods toward the beach where I'd wait for thirteen minutes to let the pump fill the tank before I turned it off.
I was almost to the beach when I heard nearby shots and bullets strike close to me and I dropped instinctively. Out on the bay a fishing boat had crewmen on deck with guns in their hands aimed toward shore. Apparently they were getting ready for hunting season by sighting their rifles in at the trees around me.
I ducked behind the nearest tree. I didn't dare go on the beach to reveal my presence because with their fingers on the triggers they might think it was a deer and only notice it was a person after they shot me.
My handheld VHF was in my pocket and my dad demanded an answer to his first call. I fumbled for it, realizing that of course they thought the shots were from me. There were still bears around and I never went anywhere without the .44. Not to mention there shouldn't have been anyone else in the area.
In addition, the guys on the boat had just measured off three deliberate shots, apparently unaware that that's a universal signal of distress. My parents had brought all of us kids up to know that, so they would naturally assume I was signaling them. (I later found out that when they heard the first shot my mom grabbed her cane--she has severe knee problems--and started hobbling for the door. I don't know what she thought she could do, but obviously she wasn't going to let the bears have her daughter without some kind of a fight.)
"It's not me," I said into the VHF. "It's some idiots on a boat shooting into the woods."
They continued to shoot, firing off multiple rounds fairly quickly as I remained as still as possible behind the not very big tree. My dad suggested I fire off my gun to let them know I was there, but I didn't think it was a good idea to move that much. I was too close to the beach and they could see the movement and fire at it.
My dad, instead, took one of his rifles and stepped outside to shoot. It had the desired effect. The fishermen were obviously not locals and had no idea people lived in the area and they quickly put their guns away. I remained in the woods just to be safe and turned off the pump when it was time. (Because it was blowing a strong northerly with the pump situated to the south of them, they wouldn't have heard it over the sound of the waves striking their anchored boat.)
I returned home, happily un-perforated but with a serious adrenaline rush.
At this time of the year we're also busy stocking up on fuel and propane and especially winter groceries, which means taking advantage of the case sales offered by the store in Thorne Bay. The last time I was in Thorne Bay, one of the cashiers asked me how much it took for us to stock up for winter. I told her, "Not nearly as much as it used to."
When there were seven of us and we had around twenty dogs our fall stock-up amounted to probably a ton of supplies which we'd buy all at once and then have to unload and put away all at once, as well. These days we don't have as much to deal with and we make sure we do it in installments.
Of course the tides never cooperate and this time, as per usual, we wound up hauling the perishables, the produce and the frozen foods up a low tide beach. Happily, the hand truck with the oversized wheels made tackling the mud flats and rocks fairly easy. We left the cases of dry goods in the skiff until the tide came in (covering the boxes with a tarp to protect everything from the predatory ravens and crows) and then hauled the boxes of cans, jars, etc., into the house. They wound up stacked on every available surface, waiting until they could be put away...or eaten.
It's also time to work on corralling as many firewood logs for winter as possible. While my parents and I were scoping out the beaches slightly to the north of the village, my cousin Darrell approached us in his skiff with a log right inside it. He and my brother Jamie are both strapping six footers and when they find themselves without lines and logging dogs, they don't hesitate to pull a log out of the water and into their skiff and take it home.
In this case Darrell generously offered his catch to us. While myd ad pounded a logging dog in it, after Darrell rolled it back into the water, my mom chatted with Darrell, asking after his mother, her sister Shirley who used to live in the village with her husband Herb. After catching up on all the news, we went our separate ways and we had one more log to tow home behind us.
There are still many more projects to do to prepare for winter....
The story I heard was that when the Sea Bear dropped anchor in Little Vixen, a bay five miles to the north of us, they let out too much line and when a gale came up they got blown onto a steeply inclined beach. The bow planks opened and the sea poured in. The pumps couldn't keep up and the Sea Bear sank bow first. When the tide went out, the boat broke its back on the rocks and became a total loss.
Although it must have been a frightening experience, fortunately everyone got off safely. The insurers hired a local to retrieve personal items and do clean-up on the surrounding beaches, and then, as the locals waited to hear, they declared the Sea Bear open salvage.
In the bush, nothing is allowed to go to waste and everyone in the area took turns descending on the wreck. My brother went straight to the engine compartment and made a haul in tools. Another local removed the propeller. Terry Johnson, known for her green thumb and landscaping skills, came away with the zippered stern deck enclosure made of clear plastic panels, as well as the skylight--she promptly turned these into a shipwreck salvage green house.
I got there fairly late. A ladder was placed against the high, jutting stern, and even though we got there at low tide, the bow was under water. The Sea Bear was about 54 feet long, a former racing tug that had been converted into a live-aboard yacht. I clambered up the ladder and inched along the steep slope of the stern. On a previous visit my dad had told my mom to be careful, everything was slippery--coated in diesel and oil. She took one step and fell hard, hitting her head. Not that a possible concussion slowed her down. She came away with various charming fixtures, doors (including a small Dutch door they wound up using in their bedroom), and other items.
The stench of diesel was overwhelming. Little had been done by anyone to clean that up, or the sludge circling the wreck. And although the local man hired by the insurance company had cleaned up the first debris off the beaches, more floated out all the time. (I picked up a chipped, gold painted porcelain vase with STW Bavaria, Germany stamped on the bottom, with a Fragonard painting on the front of it. An extremely incongruous sight on a wild and remote Alaskan beach.)
I made my way to the wheelhouse and had a disorienting moment staring straight down into the bay, with the bow submerged, as if I was plunging down the hundred foot wave in "The Perfect Storm." I looked away and was immediately drawn to the bookcase. Someone had been there before me and had tried to get the books out, possibly the local hired by the insurance company. But the books had swollen from seawater and were locked in place. Whoever it was had tried to break the bookcase but it was a built-in and they had little success freeing the books. The saddest part was seeing family photo albums trapped in there, destined to be submerged for years on that lonely shore as the boat slowly disintegrated.
I found, lying nearby, an old book of German fairytales with gorgeous color plates. It looked like a family heirloom so I took it home and tried to salvage it, thinking to return it to the owners if I could. But it was so heavily impregnated with a soupy, slimy mixture of seawater and diesel that it was beyond saving. Besides the vase, and a few other small items I found on the beach, I ended up with a small jade green bathroom sink ("Accent" by SeaLand Technology) which I incorporated into the floathouse I was building. To tell the truth, I felt too sad looking at the remains of someone's dream to want to pick it over, even though I knew that if it wasn't salvaged by the locals it would all be lost.
When I returned home it was to a point of land bracketed by two more shipwrecks. I wrote in a previous blog about salvaged wood from one of the wrecks, the Daybreak, to build an outdoor cooler. The other wreck is much, much older than either the Sea Bear or the Daybreak. It's nameless and only the huge deck remains.
Before the locals began to saw into it to recover the still good steel pins (from one to five feet in length) the portion of the deck that had washed ashore was about sixty feet long, and showed openings for two enormous holds, indicating that the ship was over one hundred feet, possibly as much as two hundred feet long, and around forty feet wide. It was held together with giant turnbuckles and had been built with massive 12x12" and 12x16" fir beams stacked on each other and pinned.
The ship's deck is a treasure trove of still useful, hundreds upon hundreds of railroad-style spikes and the long pins. Even the mutlitude of steel hatch cover cleat/saddles are valued as anchors.
In my research I couldn't find mention of a wreck that fit the description in this area, so who knows how long it wandered or where the deck floated in from, or where the remainder of the ship now lies. (The shipwreck that sounds the most likely by the description, the Pacific Steamer Redwood, commissioned in 1917, sank in Greville Channel far to the south of us in Canadian waters.) The ship was so well constructed that it takes a lot of effort and energy to free the steel pins, but they've been essential in the construction of our floathouses in holding our float logs together.
There's an old North Sea islander prayer that goes: "Not that there should be wrecks, Lord, but if there are, please let them come to our shores." When you live in the Southeast Alaskan bush, where you don't have easy access to stroes or materials, shipwreck salvage is a way of life.
Note: A version of this story first appeared at www.capitalcityweekly.com during the week of Aug. 30-Sept. 5, 2017.