My mom always read us books when we were kids: The Hobbit, Anne of Green Gables, The Five Peppers, Louis L'Amour's Down the Long Hills, and so on. Many children, of course, have this experience and it's a wonderful one. But my mom went one step further. She wrote a story that we all, including our cousin Shawn who visited every summer, had a starring part in. She titled it, "The Wanigan Kids" and it was, by far, our favorite story to have read and re-read to us.
A wanigan, in SE Alaska, is a small (usually one room with a loft) cabin built on a float. The wanigan in the story was a real one that my grandfather had built for him and my grandmother to live in while they built their house on land in the village. My sister Megan, who turned five years old after we moved to Alaska, had her kindergarten lessons in the wanigan, taught by our grandmother.
All of us kids loved to play around the small, floating cabin. In the story my mom wrote, all of us kids were in the wanigan, with our "rescue dog" Laddie (our Uncle Lance's dog that we loved), napping, when an unusually high tide and strong wind tore the wanigan free of its mooring lines. And just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when we woke up we were far away from home and about to have some exciting adventures.
Little did we know that one day this story would more or less come true.
When my brothers were old enough to start school, my dad and my Uncle Lance built a one room home school for the five of us kids. Lance, barely out of school himself, tutored us for a while, as did a close family friend, and a couple who came to try out bush living, but then moved on. We older kids had no problem with school on our own, even with little supervision, but my little brothers, who'd had zero experience with what was involved, flat out refused to learn. My mom tried everything and became more and more concerned when they made no progress.
That's when she and my dad decided to tow the wanigan, which had become ours after my grandparents moved into their new house, to the nearby village where there was a school with eight kids, all grades. My mom and the four of us youngest kids would live with her in the wanigan and finish out the school year in the village, while my oldest brother stayed behind with my dad to keep things going at home.
The wanigan, up to that point, had been our first home school, guest house, and wash house. It used to be filled with steam from clothes hanging on the line while we had our baths below in a tin washtub filled with water heated on the barrel woodstove. The cabin itself was only ten feet by fourteen feet--not much bigger than some bathrooms. It had a fairly good sized porch that was stocked with firewood. One end of the room had a brief, built in kitchen counter and sink without a faucet. (We used rainwater, or hauled water from a nearby creek.) There was a small table against one wall, a couch that my mom slept on, the woodstove, and the loft where all four of us kids slept, wedged in tight. On the back deck, reaching by a sliding wood door, was the outhouse and outdoor shower. In addition to the five of us living in such tight quarters, we had my high strung Cocker Spaniel, Lady, with us.
We were all set to have our first experience with a "real" school.
On her own again, my mom dealt with the inevitable village feuding and getting accustomed to parent/teacher meetings while being a single parent to four kids who were adapting to a larger social scene.
Her biggest problem was the lack of discipline or even learning at school. I remember very well my first day of school after we moved in the wanigan. We walked into the high-beamed school in time to see kids jumping off the upstairs loft railing onto piles of bean bags below. Sometimes the bean bags exploded. No one seemed to care. The kids had also tied a rope around one of the beams and used it to swing from one end of the school to the other, their feet landing on the chalkboard and leaving chalky prints behind. They ran around shrieking and laughing and throwing things at each other.
My little brothers were enthralled. So this was what school was about! No problem, they could excel at this kind of untrammeled chaos. The teacher in question didn't seem to have a clue how to teach one grade, let alone all grades. Since my sister and I were far ahead of the other kids through our love of reading, we were often assigned to do the actual teaching to the younger kids and even our peers. My grandmother, who was the teacher's aide, became the de facto adult in charge and also did most of the teaching.
My mom spent much of the school year trying to get the teacher to actually teach so that the move would be justified.
But I'll write about our school adventures another time. For now, what I remember most about those wanigan days was reading Zane Grey novels at the tiny table by kerosene light, listening to music on a tiny, battery-powered tape deck. One night, my youngest brother Chris, who has the highest pain tolerance on earth (he fell asleep once while being drilled on in the dentist chair), had a terrible earache. For him to cry because of pain was extremely alarming. My mom got the flashlight out and made the long trek through the dark, spooky woods to the telphone on a tree at the other end of the village to call a doctor and find out what could be done. I held Chris on the couch and told him stories and sang until I was hoarse. Every time I'd quit he'd get restless and whimper and I'd come up with another story. It was frightening for all of us kids, since we never got sick, but happily, Chris recovered quickly.
My dog, Lady, was extreme in her affections toward me and couldn't stand for me to be out of her sight. My mom had to give her a lot of attention to make up for the hours when I was in school. One day my mom went to visit someone and locked Lady in the wanigan. Shortly afterwards Lady tracked me to school. She stood outside the door and howled and barked hysterically until the teacher let me go to her and calm her down. It wasn't until my mom came to get her and take her back to the wanigan that it was discovered that she'd torn the couch to shreds in her fury at being left behind and had jumped through the window over the sink to make her escape. We learned to never leave her alone.
Another time the school had a punk rock/school spirit day where we were all supposed to dress as outlandishly as possible for the day. My mom had a field day with me, dying my long blond hair bright red with food coloring, using tin foil for adornment, a garbage bag for a skirt, a dog collar for a necklace and, of course, my knee high rubber boots to complete the picture. There was a prize for the one voted most "punked out" given by a school officila who'd flown in by floatplane from Ketchikan to do the honors. I won handily. It was a puzzling moment in my life, to be awarded by school officials for a sort of anarchy against school discipline, but I went with it.
We had skunk cabbage fights in the woods, kelp fights down on the dock, spitball wars and paper airplane wars in school. We raided the apple orchard that was on the way to school and got belly aches. In other words, we found out exactly what we'd been missing by not going to a "real" school before this. As to progress in school learning, that was virtually non-existent--though we did learn some nifty computer games--despite all of my mom's efforts with the teacher.
Even after we'd had our real life wanigan adventure, and towed the wanigan back home at the end of the school year, we never tired of my mom reading us "The Wanigan Kids" story that she'd written for us years before.
Photos: 1., The wanigan when my grandparents lived in it. My oldest brother is sitting on its side deck, my sister and I are on the log beside it. We loved playing around it. 2., My sister Megan having her kindergarten lessons with my grandmother in the wanigan. 3., My sister won a statewide school art contest with this colored pencil drawing of the wanigan. 4., Me in punk rock attire standing on the back deck of the wanigan. 5., The wanigan.
I've mentioned before that sometimes I can't post on my blog due to signal failures. I thought I'd go into more detail, plus a couple pictures can say more than words. Especially since, for the last week, I've been having signal outages and haven't been able to post on here. And may not be able to for the next week, either.
My internet signal comes from a tower on a mountain on Prince of Wales Island, which is across a major waterway from where I live, called Clarence Strait. When it snows on the mountain the tower and support structures are covered in snow and ice and our signal disappears. The phone company has to helicopter a crew up to the mountain to carve the snow and ice away in order for those of out in the bush to receive a signal again.
When it storms, as it frequently does at this time of the year--as I write this we're having hurricane force winds--the helicopter can't get to the tower. They have to wait until the winds moderate before they can get to chipping that ice off and freeing up our signal.
I hope the pictures give some idea of the frankly astounding fact that we get an Internet signal at all during the winter!
My youngest brother, Chris, is the baby of a family of seven. He was always last in line and ended up with all the hand me downs and second hand stuff. This was inevitable since we lived a mostly subsistance life and were so far out in the wilderness that access to stores was rare. There was one time he came in first, though--his bedroom, in the huge, six bedroom house we built by hand, was the first one with finished walls. Because it was the smallest, of course. Chris didn't seem too comfortable with this anomaly, and rarely spent time in his own bedroom.
Because of his good nature and matchless adaptability, over the years he turned what could have been a sore point in childhood into a huge plus in adulthood.
Never was this more obvious than when he and his wife Konni, with help from family and friends, built their dream home from second hand and re-purposed materials.
When Chris was four years old we moved to the burned down, abandoned salmon cannery. Almost as soon as we older kids set foot on this apocalpytic site, we began scavenging delightedly. There were literally tons of abandoned (partially singed) items that we could and did use in building and furnishing innumerable forts throughout the woods. In addition, we beach-combed all sorts of treasures, and we were allowed to dig through the scrap pile from my dad's mobile sawmill. Chris was too young to build anything on his own, but he was obviously paying attention and soaked up for future reference the kind of joy that could be had from building a fort--or in his case, a home--from scavenged, recycled and re-purposed materials.
The first thing he did was buy a wooded piece of property out north of the city of Ketchikan at a really good price. It had an old trailer house on it that was unsalvageable, so he burned it down and hauled away the debris. It already had a pad so all he had to do was put up a foundation.
Chris is a journeyman carpenter and construction foreman so he has access to all kinds of scrap material. His first find was old bags of cement that were going to be tossed, but were in still perfectly viable condition, and his boss let him have them for the price of hauling them off the site. He borrowed a cement mixer and put in the foundation himself. Then he traded some labor to his brother-in-law for some lumber for the floor joists.
On one of the jobs he was working on he was able to re-purpose some good condition plywood that had been used to crate up roofing, and he used it to lay the deck. Then he called our dad and asked him to cut some 2 x 6s for studs in the walls. My dad was still operating his mobile sawmill at that time and cut the studs. Meanwhile, Chris went around scrounging up more plywood. He also found some pre-manufactured beams for the roof. Again he went to his brother-in-law to see what he could do to get some rafters cut. His brother-in-law was in the process of building his own home so Chris was able to help him in return for the rafter material.
This was exactly how it worked when we were kids. We were always trading our treasured building supplies and furnishings, or trading labor to build one kids' fort for supplies to build another's. Chris learned that lesson well.
After Chris got the walls up he called our dad and asked him if he'd help him put the roof on. We kids have seen and helped my dad put on many local roofs, not to mention build entire houses. In fact, my dad has helped each one of his kids build their own home. I wonder how many dads can say that?
At the same time, Chris' father-in-law, Konnie's dad Jimmy, offered to do the plumbing. Chris didn't have the plumbing materials so he called his boss and asked if he had any extra plumbing materials. His boss said that he could go through his scrap pile and get what he needed. Remarkably, Chris wound up with everything the he needed for the job.
By the time he and my dad finished the roof, the plumbing was also done. In addition, Chris' brother-in-law, who was an electrical contractor, offered to do his wiring in exchange for Chris helping him pour his concrete driveway. So the wiring was done by the time they had rafters and the boards that the roofing would be fastened to in place. On the job where he got the plywood from the crating for the new roofing, he also got the old roofing from that job. His boss told him they were just going to haul it off to the dump anyway.
It was time to insulate the house and Chris again scored with his boss, who had over-ordered insulation. He gave Chris a good deal on the excess. For the rest of the insulation he needed he found what he wanted at garage sales.
Every year the city of Ketchikan has what is called Clean Up Day where everyone can take all of their unused and unwanted things and put it beside the road for the garbage collectors to pick up. Chris decided to see if there was anything that he might be able to use in his house. He found all kinds of treasures--it was just like beachcombing when he was a kid, only it was much easier to drag it all home!
He found: kitchen cabinets, lighting fixtures, sheetrock, more plywood, counter tiles, cook stove, kitchen sink, bathroom sink and vanity, a brand new toilet, fasteners. Most of these things were in new or good condition. The kitchen cabinets had to have a few panels replaced--Konnie was in charge of sanding the new doors...during one of our hottests summers, in 90 degree heat.
Once the roof was on and the insuation in place he started to put up the sheetrock. He had nothing but bits and pieaces from the clean up day and from different jobs that he had worked on. He was able to get the mud and the tools from a garage sale.
Chris went to work on the interior and did a masterful job with his scraps and pieces of sheetrock, you couldn't tell that there were lots of joints in the sheetrocked walls. When he came to the bathroom, there was a problem: no bathtub. No problem. Someone he knew had ordered the wrong one from a supplier Down South and was happy to part with it in exchange for a case of Heineken beer.
It's important to mention that here in Southeast Alaska when you order something through a local store and it isn't the right thing, the store doesn't send it back. Usually, it's given away or sold for next to nothing. The reason being that it is more expensive to send things back than to just write them off, so the stores just tells people to keep the item. (This partly explains why everything bought in a local store is so expensive.) The contractor, likewise, usually sells the wrong item for close to nothing just to get it out of his building.
While Chris was building his house he still had to work. One of the jobs he had was building Ketchikan's first Burger King. Again there was a miss-order, and this time it was flooring tile. They were sent way too much tile so the owner asked Chris if he would like to have what was left. By now you know Chris wouldn't turn down anything like that. He used the Burger King tile to make a hearth for his wood stove that he'd gotten cheap through a newspaper ad. In fact, he'd bought two very cheaply, fixed them up, and then sold one for the price of both.
Konni, meanwhile, turned out to be an ace at unearthing garage sale treasures. She began collecting antique kerosene lamps and filled a shelf in the living room, below the high, peaked ceiling and above the hallway. They were a beautiful addition to the bright and airy, combined kitching, living room and dining room (which was lit by french doors).
One day while waiting in line on some road construction, Chris saw that the road crew was putting in a new culvert. He asked one of the people standing around what they were going to do with the old culvert. They said they were going to haul it to the scrap yard. He asked them if he could have it and how much it would cost. They told him they would get back to him. The next day, while he was waiting for the flag person to give him the go ahead, the foreman of the job came over to him and asked him what he wanted the culver for.
Chris said that he wanted to use it for a water tank. The foreman asked him where he lived. Chris told him. The next day the culvert ended up in his yard free of charge.
To complete his water facilities, he was able to get a water pump, a coldwater storage tank and a hot water tank at a going out of business sale.
The entire building and furnishing of the house was a non-stop adventure, a scavenger hunt and completely "green" recycling endeavor. And in the end Chris and Konnie ended up with 1,440 square foot, three bedroom house built exactly to their own design, nestled in a wooded lot out of the city. They would have liked to have lived in it forever, but found that they couldn't turn down an offer made on it for $180,000...especially considering they'd only put $5,000 of actual money into building it!
It's clear Chris learned his early hand-me-down and recycling lessons well. And in that, he is a true bush Alaskan.
Photos: Chris, the baby of the family at Cannery Creek, Creosote Bill, our eccentric cat at his feet; family help: Chris with our brother Robin and our Dad--and to the far right you see the top of his father-in-law Jimmy's head, Chris' daughter Delaney helping out by having a ball with her ball, Chris' wife Konni giving design help; Chris and our dad working on the roof; some interior highlights, including the Burger King tile hearth and Konni's collection of antique lamps; Chris and Konni in their dining room, still a work in progress even after moving in; Chris the king of his re-purposing domain.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)