"There are plenty of reasons to sympathize with our pal [in] Alaska. Just the thought of her running through a blizzard with an armload of firewood while being chased by a pack of howling otters just waiting for her to stumble makes me tremble for her safety."
A friend wrote this on a message board I subscribe to but can rarely post on. I thought about expanding upon this on my blog because of its astounding accuracy, but unfortunately I don't have any photos to accompany it.
So, instead, I thought I'd catch everyone up on a very common wilderness concern in Southeast Alaska: firewood.
Typically, everyone who lives in the bush and especially those who live here year around (a very small minority) owns a well-stocked woodshed. People spend a good part of their summer stocking up the woodshed in preparation for winter and then all winter long they try to, if possible, keep it topped up. Everyone fears an accident that will leave them dependent on the woodshed without the possibility of replacing what they've burned.
As a kid, a big thing our whole extended family did was have a day where we filled up the space below my grandparents' house and their side porch with firewood. It was a lot of hard work, but fun, too, with the guys trying to outdo each other with how much they sawed and split while us kids hauled and stacked, and our mother, aunts, and grandma made a huge, delicious meal inside.
Before the Forest Service claimed the land our floathouses are attached to, we had a woodshed on land that held several cords of firewood and we did our best to keep it stocked up. We had to dismantle it and since then we've been limited as to how much firewood we can have on hand, since the weight is a problem for floathouses. My dad, for the last few winters, has split wood every other day, enough for two houses. For a guy in his seventies who has only limited use of one leg, I've always thought this an impressive accomplishment.
Three weeks ago he accidentally leaned on an unlatched door and suffered a severe fall that effectively sidelined him in the firewood gathering department. Fortunately for us, our winter had been fairly mild up to then (with huckleberries still on the bushes in December), and we did have a small woodbox and the front of their floathouse stocked with firewood. In addition, last summer he and a young friend had split a pile of wood that they'd had to leave on the beach under a tarp to avoid having it on Forest Service land.
That had worked fine in the summer and fall months when the tides are fairly low, but we had big winter tides coming, including a nineteen footer that would wash the wood away. I paddled the skiff over to the beach with the split wood (my dad didn't think I'd be able to start the outboard since it had been acting up) and tossed in as much of it as I could. I had to go back every day to get more as the tide rose higher, until on the nineteen foot tide I was in a flat out race trying to get the last of the wood into the skiff before the surging tide carried it away.
I was also gathering driftwood poles that could be sawed into rounds, often as dark fell since there were only short hours of daylight and the tide came and went as it liked without reference to my needs. I knew I didn't have the upper body strength to split enough firewood for two houses the way my dad did, so my plan was to find small enough poles that I could pull them onto our dock so they could be sawed up with the small chainsaw.
This worked well for my smaller house, but when my parents ran out of wood and the temperature dropped to below freezing with a nasty northerly dropping the temperature even further with its icy windchill, I had to start towing in larger logs, up to 7-8 inches in diameter. These bigger logs I needed rope and tackle in order to pull them onto the dock. My dad, who was healing faster than any of us expected, sawed round after round as I pulled a log forward. My mom, who has limited mobility herself and asthma, came out into the chill wind and hauled as many of the rounds as she could.
In this manner we've managed to keep on top of the firewood situation, though we try to be careful about how much we burn. My house is often kept in the 50-60F degree range. My Maine Coon Katya isn't a fan of winter weather, so her answer to the problem is to crawl into her little house. I put a heated, flat stone under the pad inside and in addition I add a hot water bottle and a fleece blanket. She hates to come out, even to eat.
A cozy, purring cat almost makes up for the ongoing cold and constant scavenging for firewood poles.
I've been trying to get a blog to my sister to post from Florida as per usual, but technical problems and an extremely poor signal have made that difficult, so I thought I'd try to send off a short one just to let everyone know what's going on, and to apologize for my delays in responding to emails.
We're working on our floathouses, hoping to get them in the best shape possible before we get any snow fall that sticks. Yes, I wrote about doing the same thing last winter, but we have to do this every year because that's the nature of floathouses. They're always losing flotation for one reason or another. My oldest brother Jamie, who also lives in a floathouse, was visiting the other day and describing all of his plans to get his place into snowfall shape, too.
A few weeks before that, I was sitting at my laptop, writing on my memoir, when my whole house shook so hard that things fell off the walls. This was right around the time of the big earthquake up in Anchorage, which wouldn't normally affect us at this distance, but earthquakes were on my mind. But when I checked outside to see what kind of damage was done, I found that a vital piece of my flotation had broken, dropping the back of my float about six inches underwater.
I couldn't leave it like that, but with our early nights I didn't have much time to do anything too permanent. Still, I rounded up extra foam, a heavy board, a drill, a spike, and a sledgehammer while my dad quickly put together q partial cradle to keep the foam in place. I managed to get the new piece of flotation in place just before darkness fell, but I need to work on something more permanent.
So that's what we're busy with right now. Usually it's pouring down rain and blowing a gale so I can't take pictures, which is why I'm posting a couple of dawn photos of the little tidal bight we live in on a gloriously unrainy, unwindy day--something we haven't seen in weeks. Hopefully the technical and signal issues get fixed soon and I can post a regular blog. Thanks for everyone's patience!
I've never been in a shipwreck, but I've come close more than once. For instance, there was the time my dad and I headed for Wrangell on a stocking up trip in his 32 foot wooden boat the Sea Cucumber. It was a hot summer and the boat had been moored at the dock for a couple months without being used. Our passage was flat calm at first, but when we struck waves as we entered a radio dead spot very far from help we discovered that the seams in the bow had opened up from all the dry, hot weather. Soon we were taking on more water than the bilge pump could handle.
My dad had a second bilge pump but it wasn't hooked up and he wasn't sure that it was still in working order. He ordered me to put on a life jacket and get out on the back deck while he worked on the pump. If the boat went down he'd be trapped inside, but I had a chance of escaping the suction. (We had no lifeboat at the time-we did after that.)
It was a tense few minutes but he managed to get the second pump working and hooked up and the two pumps managed to keep us afloat until the bow seams closed up (from the planks swelling after immersion in the waves).
During the years that we had the Sea Cucumber the trusty little boat weathered massive, frightening seas; running aground on a rock; turning on its own wake in a thick fog; getting lost in a blizzard; and other dangerous adventures before my dad passed it on to a family member. Unfortunately, many other Alaskan boats didn't survive these exact same incidents. And the accounts of the boats that weren't so fortunate are reported in Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters by Captain Warren Good.
"Even at that I didn't hope and as much as possible tried to conserve my strength up to the end to try to save myself...because to be dead, I was thinking, would be lonesome." --First hand account of the sinking of the Umnak Native.
The sinking of the Umnak Native is a gripping story to read, especially for what is left out in the firsthand accounts. Reading between the lines I began to wonder if murder had taken place, if a Jonah situation had occurred. According to one account by an Aleut survivor there was a strong superstition that having a white man on an Aleut boat would bring diaster. So when the disaster struck...there are hints that the white man in question may have been killed to appease the raging elements, so that others would survive.
The author of Alaska Shipwrecks, Captain Warren Good, doesn't say anything like that about what happened aboard the Umnak Native. For the most part he lets his deep research speak for itself. The firsthand accounts, which he has in abundance, are dramatic enough without needing any editorializing. I found them so addictive that I would read far into the night because each wreck scenario seemed to top the next. (Trigger Warning: Many of these accounts are horrifying and heartbreaking.)
There was the chilling account of a crew finding a dismasted, half-sunk ship with a corpse in oilskins lashed to it. There was, literally, a dead man at the helm (p. 90). Then there's the story of the sinking of the Islander (one of the most famous shipwrecks in Alaskan history due to the reported $6 million--in 1901 dollars--in gold the passengers were carrying from the Klondike goldfields) in which it was reported that a baby in a blanket, tied to a life preserver, was found alive.
There are Robinson Crusoe stories of crews being forced to survive for months on remote, uninhabited islands with people dying all around them (one crew resorted to cannibalism). Incredibly, when more than one of these crews were rescued the ships that rescued them wrecked.
There are heart-wrenching stories of entire families being lost, or even worse, just one family member surviving. There's the account of one ship, the St. Patrick, being laid over in heavy seas and abandoned. All but two of the twelve crewmembers lost their lives...only for the ship to be found later, still afloat.
Many of these Alaskan shipwrecks and sinkings were familiar to me, but many more were not. In addition, I was suprised by history that I should have learned about in school. For instance, when we learned about the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians and the battles fought there during World War II, the history books never revealed that these battles caused deaths and sinkings for more than a decade afterwards due to ships striking floating mines. I also never realized how many ships were sunk by Japanese submarines and how many submarines were sunk in this remote "theater of war."
Likewise, I never read about, in any of my school history books, only two weeks after the Russians handed Alaska over to the U.S. in Sitka that a terrific hurricane struck causing widespread destruction. Was it feared that American school children would look on this so-called Act of God as condemnation of Manifest Destiny's overreach? Captain Good doesn't say as much, but we're left to wonder.
Good also doesn't editorialize about the racism in some of the older reports--he allows the facts to speak for themselves. He exposes, for instance, that in one of the worst disasters in Alaskan history, the sinking of the Star of Bengal that officially killed 110 of 138, the Caucasians are listed by name while others are grouped under race with only the crew chiefs named.
The stories in this book aren't all completely tragic. Quite a few detail inspiring accounts of survival, of heroism, and of self-sacrifice that touched me deeply. There were also accounts that took me unawares because they had a personal connection to me. For instance, the elderly fisherman I corresponded with in high school when I was writing a report about the burned cannery where I grew up, had in his youth been involved in one of the shipwrecks described in this book. And, speaking of the cannery where I grew up, it's mentioned, too, as well as wrecks involving family and friends. Last, but not least, there's the account of a shipwreck--one of the most unusual in the entire book--that occurred on March 14, 1939 in Meyers Chuck, the tiny fishing village where I went to school and where I still get mail.
Captain Good's reasons for writing books about Alaskan shipwrecks, as well as maintaining his amazing website www.alaskashipwreck.com, are ones I'm in complete sympathy with: he hopes that these accounts will help give the families closure, make boaters be more cautious, encourage boaters to be better prepared for disaster, and help them avoid situations that could lead to yet one more tragedy in Alaskan waters.
I interviewed Captain Good for my column and you can read about how he came to be so famous for being "That Shipwreck Guy" that he was even consulted to help with the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989. You can read it here: http://www.juneauempire.com/life/alaska-for-real-that-shipwreck-guy/
Alaska Shipwrecks: 12 Months of Disasters can be ordered from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/035914263X/ref=cm_sw_rShaCbTGNTHC0
He also has a 2019 calendar out that briefly describes 365 of the most disastrous Alaskan shipwrecks in the past 265 years with multiple accompanying photos. You can find it by Googling "2019 Alaska Shipwrecks Calendar lulu.com," or hopefully this link will work: http://www.lulu.com/shop/captain-warren-good/2019-alaska-shipwreck-calendar/calendar/product-23871087.html?utm_source=GeniusMonkey_VT
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Tara Neilson (ADOW)