My mom bought an antique rocking chair from a cousin of hers who had been living in Ketchikan, about thirty-seven miles to the south of us. The problem after that was getting it out here to us in the bush. My dad arranged for the rocker to be taken down to the barge line, which sends a tug and barge on a weekly basis to various ports on Prince of Wales Island, including Thorne Bay, the closest large community (population around 500) to us.
Once the rocking chair arrived in Thorne Bay, the next problem would be for us to cross the treacherous and unpredictable strait. Not only did we want good weather to cross when the water was calm, and predicted to stay calm, but we also wanted a day with no rain, since we weren't sure how well the rocker had been packed. We also needed a day when the tide would be in all day.
It took two weeks before it all lined up and we were able to cross.
Before leaving we checked the strait and saw a black line, indicating rough water, but it seemed to be only on this side of the strait, where tide rips are common. We could see clear water on the other side of it. My dad decided that it would be safe to go, since the tide rips would moderate when tide change occurred, before we returned.
Once past the tide rips we had a smooth trip under a huge blue sky with the sun shining down. Toward the south we could see rain obscuring the horizon. It was blowing from the north, though, so as long as the wind didn't change direction we should be able to get back across wtihout worrying about getting wet.
After getting safely across the strait, we entered the long, winding passage into Thorne Bay that is dotted with floathouses (regular, wood-frame houses on large rafts), nestled into almost every hollow and curve. When I was very young our floathouse (one of the first here) had been tucked back in a small cove along this channel.
The channel gives way to a broad bay. The community hugs the shoreline below a section of logged hills. At the head of the bay is Thorne River and a huge flat area that had once been a "sortin' yard," for the logging company my dad had once worked for. When I was a kid and into my twenties, log rafts filled this bay, and the sound of heavy machinery and backup alarms from the yard was a constant background sound. With the logging company gone and only occasional, limited logging now, the bay seemed eerily empty and silent.
We passed the community dock and went around the corner to the landing site of the barge company (Samson Barge and Tug). The colorful containers were stacked above the beach, looking like toys, or crayon boxes. Towering steel pilings propped up by stifflegs and padded with tires stood in the water to the left, where the tug and barge moor as they are offloaded. My dad gently drove the skiff onto the gravel beach and I got out.
At the top of the incline the yard, cloaked in a haze of dust, was spread out. A big forklift was transferring containers, stacked two-high, from one place to another. I stayed out of its way and passed stacks of lumber and then the storage shed, which was an old barge that had been turned upside down. Beyond it and a stack of wooden pallets was the trailer with the office in it.
There was a customer before me, chatting with the woman behind the desk, but she smilingly stepped aside, saying she was finished with her business and was just socializing. It's such a small community that everyone knows everyone else.
I stepped up to the desk and explained why I was there. The woman behind the desk lit up. "The rocking chair! Good." I was a little surprised by her enthusiasm, but smiled and asked if I could get someone to give the chair a forklift ride down to the skiff. She said I could ask any of the guys outside.
Back outside, with the receipt in my hand, I flagged down a man driving by on the small forklift. "I'm here to pick up a rocking chair, and I wondered if--" I didn't get a chance to finish. The guy lit up just like the woman in the office had.
"The rocking chair! Great! We can't wait to get it out of there. We've been terrified of damaging it--it looks like a family heirloom, and if we nicked it or scratched it, we figured the family could get after us. It's just sitting there on a wood pallet."
I was surprised. "It's not wrapped in plastic or anything?"
"No, it's just sitting on a wood pallet, not even tied down."
That didn't sound good, since it had been sitting over here for a couple weeks. My mom had been worried that it might get moldy in our damp climate. I stood back and watched as he drove the forklift into the overturned barge and shifted things until he could gingerly pick up the rocking chair on the pallet.
I walked behind the forklift driver as he slowly headed down to where the skiff was. We passed one man who gave a celebratory wave of his hard-hat when he saw the rocking chair being escorted off the premises. The man operating the big forklift leaned out and yelled something about being glad to see the last of it as we went by.
I felt a shade notorious as I trailed behind in a walk of shame. The rocking chair rocked imperturbably on its pallet as the rusty forklift trundled over potholes. We reached the top of the incline that led down to the skiff. The driver jumped out and lifted the rocker over his head and carried it down for me. I climbed into the skiff and took it from him, glad to see that other than some dust, it seemed unharmed.
"You'll have a nice ride home sitting in that," the forklift operator, Jeff, joked. Unbeknownst to him, when we'd first moved to Alaska, my mom and wound up sitting in a rocking chair in a skiff when her furniture was delivered to her new floathouse home in the Alaskan version of The Beverly Hillbillies. But I thought I'd give the opportunity to repeat history a pass.
My dad was suprised at the chair's bare state and asked if there was any plastic lying around we could wrap it in, in case there was spray or rain. Jeff said he'd go find something, but before he could good-naturedly make the trek back to the storage area, my dad pointed toward a pile of broken crates and other junky looking objects. "Is that a discard pile? Can we use that tarp?"
"Sure." Jeff hiked up to grab it and we shook dust and rainwater out of a green tarp that was still in fairly good shape, and put the dry side down over the rocking chair.
"Thank you so much for all your help," I said to Jeff.
He grinned. "We're just glad to see the last of it."
Now we just had to get the antique rocking chair across the strait and into my parents' floathouse. Already we could see that our sunny day was clouding over and a wind was picking up.
It may have slept at the bottom of the sea in a deteriorating hulk until rolled in a storm tide and set free to roam until it's tumbled and ground on a gravel or rock beach, to float again and travel to yet another shore. Its journey could last years, decades, even centuries, until finally someone strolling along a surf-washed beach catches a bit of color out of the corner of their eye and bends down to pick up a piece of worn glass.
We've always called these bits beach glass, but apparently the experts differentiate between glass found on freshwater shores and saltwater shores. The former is called beach glass, while the latter is sea glass.
The best times to look for sea glass are during spring tides and the first low tide after a storm.
Inside and outside my house I have jars, glasses, and vases filled with sea glass that I've put in my pockets after an amble along the shore. Everyone around here has their own stash. Some plan to make jewelry with their glass treasures, others just like to collect them. I know one woman who collected so much sea glass that she put it in a five gallon bucket.
The most common colors are green, brown, and white (clear). Uncommon colors are purple (amethys), citron, and opaque white. Extremely rare colors include gray, pink, teal, very dark olive green, yellow, turquoise, orange, red, and black.
Over the years, wandering remote Alaskan beaches, I've found almost all of these colors, from the common to the rare. And what I like to do is make sea glass candles with them.
Some people who make sea glass candles glue the glass to a jar. But because many of my pieces are rare, I prefer not to fix them permanently. Besides, I like a "floating" look that harkens back to where they originated. To acquire this look I put a smaller jar inside of a Mason canning jar and then fit the pieces of sea glass in between the jars.
As I assemble the candle holder I try to vary the colors and fit them as closely together as possible--it can take several tries, dumping them out and starting over. Using a pair of tweezers to maneuver the pieces of glass to different places is helpful.
Handling the glass, some of it frosted from years of journeying, others with edges barely rubbed down, I like to imagine where each piece might have come from and what it had originally been and how it acquired its color.
For instance, the uncommon purple (amethyst) sea glass was originally from clear glass that had manganese in it. The glass turns purple over time as the manganese is exposed to sunlight and sea action. This sort of glass saw its peak production during the late 1800s to early 1900s.
Red glass, extremely rare and highly prized by collectors (some consider it more valuable than diamonds), comes mainly from the Victorian to Depression years. One reason why it's considered so valuable, besides its beauty, is that the chemical process to make it is complicated and expensive so that the production of red glass has been limited in the last fifty years. Most red glass you'll find on the beach, therefore, is rare and antique.
Black glass can be even older, and was common aboard the ships of the early explorers, including Columbus. The thicker the black sea glass you find, the more likelihood that it could be from the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. Black sea glass is actually a dark brown or dark green, which you can see when its held up to a strong light. Weathering and oxidation, along with UV light interacting with metallic oxides and chemicals in the glass, not to mention the effects of seawater on it, are all factors that turn the glass black. It can look like a beach rock and is easy to overlook.
So, the next time you're walking along the water's edge and see a fragment of glass, you may find yourself holding a piece of history, highly valued by collectors around the world. Or you may find a common piece that you can add to your sea glass candle holder. Whatever the case, enjoy your treasure from the sea.
The background in the above photo is a print of one of my sister's paintings. For more of her art see www.madartdesigns.com.
At this time of the year we hear floatplanes flying low over us every day, in ever wider circles. They're spotter planes, sent out to search for the schools of herring that spawn in the spring, for the sac roe fishery.
An entire school of herring can spawn in a few hours in the intertidal zone, laying their eggs in seaweed, and producing an egg density of up to 6,000,000 eggs per square meter. The above picture may look like scrambled eggs, but it's actually a stretch of seaweed covered in herring eggs.
This year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the herring fishery early for this area, 4,600 pounds short of the quota they had established, due to the unexpectedly low number of herring spawning.
Overfishing caused the herring fishery to collapse worldwide in 1993.
"Beneath him on the endless slope and boundless floor of the valley, moved a black mass, creeping with snail-like slowness toward the south. It seemed as long as the valley and as wide. It reached to the dim purple distances and disappeared there. The densest part covered the center of the valley, from which ran wide straggling arms, like rivers narrowing toward their sources in the hills....This black mass was alive....Acres of buffalo, miles of buffalo! The shaggy, ragged herd had no end. It dominated slopes, level bottom lands, and the hazy reaches beyond." --The Last of the Plainsmen by Zane Grey.
I remembered reading this as a kid when one morning in spring I woke up to the sound of a vast herd out on the strait. And when I went to look, there was a river of black, moving bodies stretching as far as the eye could see up and down the strait. They were ducks, interspersed with seagulls. The noise was tremendous as they squabbled, splashed, and beat the air with their wings by the million as they gorged themselves on the enormous school of herring that had come to our shore to spawn.
The water had turned to a beautiful, milky, electric green and herring eggs coated every inch of seaweed as far as we could observe, sparkling in the sunshine. Sea lions roared and snorted. Humpback whales glided with majestic slow grace through the endless stream of ducks and gulls, spouting out their blowholes.
Little did we know as we stood on the rocks, in the last decade before the turn of the millennium, and watched the scene for hours, that it would be the last time we saw such a sight.
Like the buffalo that had roamed the American plains in their millions but then were decimated for their hides in the mid-to-late 1800s, the herring that were once so plentiful--I remember going to school in the nearby village and seeing the harbor flash solid silver, it was so clogged with herring--are now a vanishing species.