One of my first memories of arriving in Alaska is the floatplane ride to our new fishing village home in a Grumman Goose. It was on the "milk run," a concept my six-year-old mind knew nothing about, but one I was to become abundantly familiar with over the years.
On this trip--as in later trips--we stopped at various isolated communities dotting the vast shoreling of Prince of Wales Island, dropping off hardy looking people in jeans and rubber boots, and stacks of packages of all sizes.
The stop I remember the most vividly was at a floating lumber camp.
It was an entire village of woodframe houses neatly grouped, with wooden alleyways, and woodplank front and back yards, all built on interconnecting floats and water-slapped walkways. There were gardens, greenhouses, patios complete with deck furniture and lawn chairs, a kids playground including swings, slide and monkey bars. And it all floated.
A tiny piece of the larger world my family had just left behind had been put on a floating platform. It looked incongruous, almost fairytale-ish as it rested in the shadow of the raw, undending wilderness and snow-capped mountains.
I never forgot my sense of wonder at this brave new world afloat.
In the fishing village that we finally touched down in there were, aside from the buildings adorning the forested hillsides and built on stilts over the water, were more floating structures that hugged the shore.
One of them was our new home, and immediately a new word entered my vocabulary: floathouse.
A floathouse is a normal woodframe house like you'd find anywhere, except that it's been built on a raft of enormous logs, or it was slid onto the raft after having spent an ordinary existence on shore.
At that time, following the example of the logging camps, there were floathouses everywhere, since there was little land for sale and even less that was capable of being built on. This land is often sheer rock straight down to the water, covered in a forest of evergreens with interlocking root systems.
But there was no end to the water that was available, and no end to the forest that produced the rafts for houses to sit on. It was a flooded world with waterways connecting every chunk of land. These waterways served as highways on which to travel and tow your home--or entire communities--from one location to the next.
One location we towed our floathouse to was the large logging camp in Thorne Bay where my dad was to work for several years. That was an unforgettable experience, crossing Clarence Strait in our house. Porpoises swam and cavorted right alongside our decks that were continually washed by the waves as we were towed toward the mountainous island ahead of us. We ate dinner with the length of the strait outside the windows changing color as evening fell. In bed we stared out the window from our bunks as our house traveled in this continuing fairytale called Alaska.
We found a shelted cove in the long, winding entrance to the riverfed bay where the houses and buildings of the logging camp were huddled on raw dirt roads. While my dad commuted to work every day in the skiff, we mostly stayed out in the uninhabited woods, in our peaceful, creekfed lagoon where our floating home rose and fell with the tides.
From the floathouse's deck we fished in the green water below the towering spruce, cedar, and hemlock. We swam in the chilled water, or lazed about on inner tubes. We were not allowed to step outside without wearing our lifejackets.
This winding entrance to Thorne Bay, over the years, became dotted with floating homes, lodges and a floatel, or floating hotel.
The people who lived there year around commuted to work in skiffs, which they also used for hauling supplies home, everything from firewood to food to propane. Some of the hardy old-timers still live out, others rent their floating homes to summer visitors, or only visit themselves in the summer, avoiding the storms and the frozen water caused by the river's heavy flow of freshwater into the salty bay.
Those who still live out and have children are served, in the school months, by a fast, large, welded aluminum boat that breaks the ice and stops at each floating home to pick up the kids before busing them to the dock in town, and then back home when school is out.
But those hardy few are becoming fewer all the time.
After the logging died off in SE Alaska, fewer and fewer people had the experience of living in floating logging camps. One modern and expensive logging camp floating school was turning into an office building.
Other floating structures became fishing lodges.
One older gentleman turned one of the old float buildings into a "donation-based" restaurant. You pay whatever you feel like paying after enjoying his cooking and the dining on the water experience.
At some point, as the people who came to Alaska changed in character and had no connection with the past, floathouses came to be labeled "eyesores" (and they were also enviously vilified because the owners didn't have to pay property tax) and a move was made in several towns and bureaus to have them banned and/or limited to those already in existence.
My family and a few other families and individuals scattered about in their floating homes will be the last ones to live this unique lifestyle.
While I was writing up this post I came across a memoir by a woman who taught in one of the floating logging camps (Life Jacket by Biz Robbins). I've only just begun reading it, but she's a good writer and she brings back the days of my childhood. It's fascinating to read those times through an adult's eyes, an adult who was as brand new to SE Alaska as I was when I first made the acquaintance of this world afloat.
Now the floating logging camps she wrote about are a fading memory. Some of them are gone forever, some are harnessed to shore, abandoned, never to travel the wilderness again behind a tugboat, as they slowly rot and sink out of sight. They are floating ghost towns, remnants of a bygone era.
I will be forever glad I saw them in their heyday.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)