I haven't met a child yet who isn't fascinated by the miniature world inside a tide pool. I remember when I was a little girl I could spend hours watching the hermit crabs and bullheads, and make up stories about them. I gave them names and relationships and wished I could shrink down and join in their adventures.
So it was no hardship when, the evening two guests came to stay, one of them immediately took me on a hike to visit the tide pools.
In the first pool we came to I spotted a sculpin sitting on the bottom, mottled to exactly same design as the rocks around him. Since blending in was his sole defense against inquisitive humans, unlike the darting bullheads who relied on their quicksilver speed to escape, J. had no problem reaching in and picking him up.
"Wow, he's huge!" J. said, comparing him to the smaller bullheads. "And he has evil eyes."
I hadn't thought of it before, but the sculpin was a much less friendly looking fish than the almost comical bullheads.
"I found you a beautiful shell!" J. exclaimed and pulled it free of the water. His face fell as he turned it over. "There's somebody home."
"I guess we'll have to put her back."
J. regretfully returned the pretty shell to its watery world.
He forgot about the disappointment of the inhabited shell when he found, in the next small tide pool, a large sea anemone with all of its feeding tentacles extended.
J. yearned to poke it, just to see its tentacles flash back inside, but he refrained. After all, he knew how much he loved to eat and wouldn't have liked having his dinnertime interrupted by some hulking giant in rubber boots and a red life vest.
"He's missing an arm!" J. dragged me over to a tide pool where a starfish did indeed only have four appendages. It gave him a sadly decapitated look.
"Poor guy," I said. "He's been through the wars."
"Don't worry," J. reassured me. "It'll grow back." He hunkered down, studying the four-legged starfish for a long time. It was obvious he envied the starfish's ability to lose a limb and grow it back, the superhero, with superhero abilities, of the sea world.
We batted the growing swarm of bugs away as a light sprinkle fell and the long summer evening clouded over. It was with extreme reluctance that we headed home.
"We can always come back!" J. told me.
In the summer we try to take advantage of the comparatively good weather to get our fuel and propane stocked back up. We ended up doing back-to-back trips across the strait to Thorne Bay, the nearest town, because we had to take the good weather when it came. On the first trip we got propane and we noticed that we consumed more fuel than we should have crossing the strait and that the skiff was wanting to veer in one direction. This meant the bottom of the skiff was fouled.
Which brought us to another summer chore: cleaning the bottom of the skiff.
On the next appropriate tide my dad took the skiff over to a gently sloping gravel beach that drains well, so that he could lay under the skiff as we tilted it to one side on its keel, and then tilted it on the other side. With the warmth of summer waters making sea growth proliferate, he'd have to do this chore two or more times over the summer.
With a scrubber and scraper and a liquid spray of his own concoction to loosen the algae and tiny barnacles, he got horizontal on the beach and set to work. At the stern of the skiff was a slight depression that the outgoing tide wasn't draining from. My dad asked me to drain it, since he'd have to lay back there to clean the stern. I dug the heel of my boot in the gravel and dragged it down the gentle incline toward the bay, creating a trench that the trapped seawater immediately eddied down.
Then I took pictures of the fouled bottom and my dad working. Obviously, I had the more taxing duties.
On our next trip across the strait, we felt the difference in the smoothness of the ride, and we used far less fuel--a quarter of a tank less--than we had when the bottom was fouled.
We'd had a big tide a couple days previously and the strait was full of drift, which meant we had to keep our eyes directly in front of us all the time. It's a strain because some waves, with the light hitting them right, can look like a log, and kelp often looks like driftwood.
When I was a kid my dad taught me and my siblings to scan for drift and point to it when we saw it. He told us to not look directly in front of the skiff, but far enough ahead that he could turn in time to avoid the drift. Those lessons always stuck with me.
As soon as we pulled up to The Port's fuel dock--which we noticed had been re-planked and extended--I headed up to the service station's store to get the key for the fuel. My dad told me to take my time since he had to set up all the jugs to be filled. I took him at his word and went over to the free books in one corner to see if there was anything I wanted. I found a couple books for my brother, but nothing caught my eye for myself. While I was looking I heard people in the store talking about a memorial service for an apparently well-admired local man. Someone came in to ask where the plane was, it was half an hour late. Someone else said that the floatplane company was probably waiting to see if they could fill their plane with another passenger en route somewhere.
At this time of the year floatplane companies make the money that gets them through the lean winter months so they are invested in filling their planes as full as possible every time they fly. Some floatplane companies only open in the summer.
By the time I headed back down to the dock with the keycard, the floatplane had arrived.
Another skiff had also pulled up. The driver got out with a single jerry jug to be filled and looked at our skiff with its line of jugs with dismay. "Wow, you guys are stocking up, huh?"
The strait had been nice to us and hadn't looked threatening, and we had a good tide, so we weren't in a rush. I offered him the keycard. "Why don't you go first?"
He was very grateful and quickly topped up his jug. He went to carry it back to his skiff when he suddenly did a doubletake at my dad. "I didn't recognize you!" he exclaimed, and said his name.
My dad was just as taken aback, not having recognized a man he'd worked with for a local telephone company several years ago. They chatted briefly, catching up, raising their voices over the roar of the floatplane as it took off. The population in SE Alaska is so small that we're constantly bumping into people we knew years ago, or who knows someone we know.
He ran up and paid for his fuel and when he came back down I used the keycard to clear the pumps. We waved to him as he left and got busy filling the jugs and the skiff's tanks. I counted off the numbers of gallons as my dad stuck the nozzle of the hose into one jug after the next, switching hoses when we changed from filling diesel jugs for the generator to filling gas jugs.
At one point as we were fueling up, the woman who had been behind the counter at the store appeared at the top of the dock's ramp and called down, "Is everything okay down there?"
"Everything's fine," I called back, surprised. We'd never had anyone ask that before.
She left, apparently satisfied, but a little bit later a customer came down and asked, "Is everything okay here?"
"Everything's fine," I said again. It's not a question you like having repeated when you're handling fuel. "What's going on?"
"She just asked me to come down and make sure everything was fine."
My dad said that other than the diesel surging when he pumped it, everything was fine. The man hung around a little, watching, and then left. When we finished, I returned to the store to pay for the fuel. The young woman behind the counter was obviously agitated.
As it turned out, the circuit breakers connected to the pumps, that were mounted on the wall right next to her, had been emitting sparks the whole time we were pumping. She was new on the job and couldn't get hold of her bosses to find out what to do. I suggested that she not let anyone else pump fuel until she could get the situation checked out and she agreed, relieved at the decision. Shorting out circuits and sparks at a fuel station really didn't sound like a great combination to me.
We picked up some groceries and then headed back across the strait, which was still in a good mood. Huge rafts of drift greeted us just beyond the entrance to Thorne Bay. My dad practically salivated at the high floating firewood logs spread out before us. If only the logs had been on our side of the strait! It would take us far too long, and use far too much fuel, for us to drag any home with us.
We sadly steered past them and made for home. At least we had one more stocking-up trip behind us!
My signal has been unstable to non-existent this week so I haven't been able to post a regular blog account. I'm going to try to see if I can post mainly photos. We don't have many wildflowers, the few we do get out here have to be willing to sprout in unfriendly soil--often rocky niches--and handle a lot of rain and wind. Yet, as you can see, some flowers thrive and are beautiful in less than inviting conditions. Perhaps we can, too.
The top photo is of Indian Paintbrush, which has an independent, can-do attitude and seems to thrive where others might be lonely. Absolutely nothing keeps it from growing exactly where it pleases and enjoying its solitude. I admit to feeling an affinity to this wildflower. The second is, of course, the lowly daisy. Scorned everywhere as a weed, here it is cherished for its comparative delicacy in a world of rock, sea, and forest. Anyone can be lovely and valued in the right setting.
The buttercup is probably the flower least able to be intimidated. It seems to go out of its way, with jaunty style, to find the rockiest, most uncomfortable home around. But it also tends to pick a spot with a great view. It's learned, perhaps, that in this life you have to take the good with the bad and not let it get you down.
The beautiful wild lupine is our classiest wildflower. It reminds me of my sister who grew up in the bush in rocky soil, but who always maintained an interest in style and elegance, which she has no matter where she goes. The lupine knows, as my sister did, that your environment can't limit or define you if you don't let it.
Orange hawkweed is a gregarious wildflower--too gregarious and friendly, some feel. It tends to take over every bit of good soil it can latch onto. It's a bit of an opportunist, but rewards us with its bright, outgoing personality. It's a wildflower that insists on being your friend and sharing its happy outlook on life no matter how much the world frowns at it. Perhaps that's why it always survives the slings and arrows of man and nature.
Our wildflowers may be few, but they're fierce. Every summer they come back to show us that beauty can thrive in the least likely places.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)