"I like your sister's whimsical and intricate artwork," one person commented after ordering a copy of my sister's coloring book, In the Garden, off Amazon. "It is very happy."
I thought that was perceptive of her. My family has always been impressed with the way my sister, Megan, has a positive attitude and can laugh even when she's going through something difficult and painful.
And she can even turn a past unhappy experience into a bit of whimsy to delight other people. Take, for instance, the dragonfly she drew for her coloring book.
My oldest brother, Jamie, not to put too fine a point on it, was a beast when we were kids. For some reason his victim of choice was usually Megan. One day he decided to terrorize her by telling her that dragonflies had a poisonous bite. He described with scientific precision what the poison did to a person--I've blanked out the horrific details, but I remember it was graphic and nightmarish.
There was a method to his madness. He'd found a large, dead dragonfly, perfectly preserved, and his evil plan was, after filling her full of his bloodcurdling tales of death by dragonfly, to produce the preserved dragonfly, its wings frozen in flight, and chase her with it.
She ran screaming, with him and the dragonfly in hot pursuit, along the salmon spawning creek we grew up beside. I managed to catch up and tell her he was lying--though, to tell the truth, he was so convincing I wasnt entirely sure about that. Despite my reassurances, though, she was scared of dragonflies for a long time to come.
Yet, all these years later, she draws them with her characteristically joyful and quirky style.
While my sister visited us this year, from her home in Florida, she shared that she was going to do another coloring book, this one based on the Alaskan sights of our childhood.
As I watched her draw an orca (killer whale), I was suddenly reminded of the way she and I, as teens, used to draw dust jackets for imaginary books. We would draw and color a cover picture and then on the back, we'd summarize what the imaginary book was about.
These summaries were chock full of high adventure and romance. It cracks me up now, thinking about those outlandish tales. Growing up on the fringe of civilization, in the remote bush, gave us fairly extreme ideas of what "normal" life was all about.
My mom loved coloring long before the current craze for coloring books, and has perfected the art of it. We grew up watching her and wanting to be as good as she was. Her shading skills, in particular, made us despair of ever producing anything even remotely as fascinating. She'd always tell us, modestly and generously, that all it took was practice.
I've long since realized that no amount of practice will give someone the innate genius she has for capturing light, texture, and nuance with crayons, pencils, and pens. All the same, as children, we believed it and, as Megan wrote in her dedication to my mom on the first page of her coloring book, we spent many hours in our floathouse home in the wilderness lost for hours in stacks of coloring books.
My mom would play her books on tape (audible books) as we colored, exposing us to the classics. I still get images of the pages I colored when I think of those readings of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (read by Basil Rathbone) and the more typical children's fare of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London. And so many more.
It does not surprise me at all, with our many fond memories of coloring that my sister would one day create a coloring book of her own and have my mom color the pages that she'd put on the front and back of the book.
Color, in all its forms, has always been a big part of our life.
We had three days of fuel left for our diesel generator, and it was forecasted to storm for the next week. This was obviously the day we needed to cross the strait in order to stock up on fuel for the month, since the water was glassy still.
There was only one problem. Fog.
I climbed over the rocks to see how bad the fog was and couldn't see across the strait to Prince of Wales Island where we'd have to go for fuel. I could hear way out somewhere in the mist a ferry or cruise ship blowing its lonely horn every minute. Closer to shore, where I stood on the seaweed-covered rocks, the diesel engines of seine boats rumbled.
As I stood there, a seiner appeared in the distance, ghosting through the opaque air, hardly seeming to touch the water at all.
My dad called the fuel station in Thorne Bay to find out how bad the fog was on their side and heard that it was about three hundred feet up. This was reassuring, but not a guarantee of safe passage. Even though we had a GPS, it wouldn't work inside the narrow, twisting channel that led into the town. If the channel was fogged in we'd be in trouble.
He tried calling again a little bit later and received good news. The floatplanes were flying into Thorne Bay again! This meant that the fog was down low and probably only on our side of the strait. We hurriedly put our gear on and steered for the whited out strait.
My dad steered the tiller handle outboard with one hand and held his GPS in the other, driving entirely by its direction. We were being guided by a satellite orbiting earth in the lifeless darkness of space as we drove blindly into the thick mist.
Without warning we broke through the fog.
The middle of the strait, we found, was swept clear of fog as what wind there was tunneled between the mainland on our side and the lengthy bulk of Prince of Wales Island on the other. The fog was heavy above us and on all sides. Horizontal bands of mountains appeared sandwiched between the overcast and the fog on the water. Heavy tendrils of mist streamed down mountains like huge, diaphanous rivers, lit by a yellow glow as the sun fought to shine through.
It was a strange, pewter-colored world and I couldn't help thinking about a description written of this strait (or so some scholars say) in the Sixteenth Century:
For the sun striving to perform his natural office, in elevating the vapors out of these inferior bodies, draweth necessarily abundance of moisture out of the sea:...and instead of higher elevation, to leave in the lowest region wandering upon the face of the earth and waters as it were, a second sea through which its own beams cannot possibly pierce, unless sometimes when the sudden violence of the winds doth help to scatter and break through it.*
Seiners crept in and out of the fog behind us, ahead of us, and up and down the strait, guided by radar, and like us, by GPS. They had it much better than the sailors of long ago.
Once we made it safely inside the town, my dad dropped me off on a grass and gravel beach to hike up to the store, while he went to deal with some other business. The town seemed oddly silent, locked in under heavy skies. I didn't hear any cars on the street above the creek as I climbed the rocks beside it. There were no planes, either, though I knew they must have been backed up by the fog and probably had dozens of passengers waiting to be flown in or out.
I was the only shopper in the small store and was able to get one of the cashiers, named Daniel, to give me a courtesy ride down to the loading dock where my dad had said he'd meet me. Daniel and I carried box after box down to the end of the dock until we had quite a nice pile.
He left and I sat down on the warped boards and waited in the locked in, damp heat of the day.
The heavy, unnatural stillness was shattered as one floatplane after another descended. I counted five in a row. The seaplane base in Ketchikan knew as well as we did that it was forecasted to blow and, after being backed up by the fog, they were trying to crowd in as many passengers as they could while the flying was good.
My dad arrived and told me he'd knocked at the boat of my fellow Alaskan blogger, The Beachcomber (www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com), but that no one was home. We'd missed meeting yet again! Hopefully, one of these days we'd manage to cross paths.
On the way to the fuel station we watched as the floatplanes acted as a conveyor belt, one landing and disgorging passengers as another took off with a full load. The one taking off was so heavily loaded that its tail was almost in the water and it took a long time for it to get in the air. And even when it was off the water, it hovered just above it for quite a ways before gaining altitude.
After getting 75 gallons of fuel (diesel and gas), we headed back home and had an uneventful, safe trip. The fog had cleared completely.
That evening the strait was glassy, the seiners traveling without impediment on a beautiful, champagne-colored sea.
*The World Encompassed and Analogous Contemporary Documents (Quoted in The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 by Samuel Bawlf).
"We've got a problem," my dad said over the radio to me first thing in the morning. He sounded a lot like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 saying pretty much the same thing. I got a distinct sinking feeling. "Have you seen the boys' cabin?"
"Hold on." I went to my back porch and looked past the floating garden and floating greenhouse--which were on solid ground at the moment because the tide was out--and saw my nephews' "Man Cave." This is a small floathouse that has been passed down from one family member to the next until it came to belong to my nephews when they were in their teens. They're now in their twenties and far away, one in the Army, the other raising a family, so maintenance for the hard-used cabin falls to my dad and me.
It only took a glance to see what the problem was. An old snag that barefly floated had gotten under the back left side of the cabin's float and when the tide went out the floathouse sat down on it. One of the cross poles that we'd put in last winter to add more flotation with an outside log was bent at a very bad angle. I was sure it was broken.
Instead, when I went and looked at it close up I saw that one of the original brow logs under the cabin, that helps tie the entire raft of logs together, had broken. In fact, it was rotten and would need to be replaced--which would be an enormous job.
But first things first. We had to somehow get the "deadhead" (as sinking logs/snags are called here) out from under the float log. Deadheads are the bane of SE Alaskans' lives. They're dangerous to boats when they hide beneath and between waves, only a tiny part sticking up ready to impale a hull and sink a vessel. Whenever my two young cousins, who grew up on their parents' fishing boat, drew pictures of their boat they always drew sinister deadheads bobbing in the water nearby. The dread of deadheads starts young and goes deep! And we were seeing first hand some of the trouble they can cause in a world where everything floats.
My dad first of all sawed all the limbs off the deadhead to make sure it wouldn't get hung up on rocks or lines later when the tide came in and we pushed the snag out of the way. He had to wade into mud that clutched at his boots, up to his ankles, wielding the saw as he did it...a tiring job.
Next he went and inspected where the log was pinced between the rocks and the outside float log. The entire float was being lifted off the ground on that side. Which meant there was a tremendous amount of pressure involved. What would happen when he sawed into it, the deadhead gave, and the pressure was released?
I'd seen my dad in this situation a hundred times before and knew he had it figured out, but I get anxious every time since there's no help readily available out here if something goes disastrously wrong.
I was on the back of the cabin's float, checking to see if the cross log was broken or not (incredibly, it wasn't) and felt the drop when the deadhead broke as my dad sawed through it. The house came down and shook. Fortunately, the deadhead didn't kick up or roll on my dad, one of the catastrophes I hadn't been able to help picturing in graphic detail.
On the other hand, it did pinch the saw. My dad tried pulling it out, but it was locked in place.
"What do you need?" I asked. "The peavey?"
After inspecting the situation, he agreed. I crossed over the various floats in our system to where we did our firewood chopping and found the logging tool, a heavy steel pipe pointed at one end with a hinged hook. When I was a kid I had my first encounter with that heavy steel hook. My dad had asked me to fetch it for him when he was working on his mobile sawmill. I picked it up casually near the point and instantly the hinged hook swung down and smashed my fingers.
That was a rookie mistake that you never make again. I remember it every single time I pick up the peavey and always check to make sure where my hand is in relation to that swinging hook.
When my dad hooked into the deadhead and pulled nothing happened. The waterlogged snag was too heavy to budge, especially since it was still stuck down in the rocks. He had me hold onto the saw so it wouldn't fall when it came out--if it came out--and put the point into the broken section where the saw was pinched and tried jerking the log apart there, but again nothing happened.
"Wait," I said when he tried to think of something else. "I think that will work. If I pull on the saw while you jerk the peavey--"
We tried that. While he gave powerful jerks on the peavey, I steadily pulled on the saw. The bar barely moved, only a tiny bit at a time, but eventually we got the entire bar out.
My dad sawed the deadhead into segments and I used the peavey to break them apart and roll them out of the rocks.
Everything is back where it's supposed to be...but the Man Cave still needs major work.
For more Man Cave maintenance projects look under "Chores" in the categories, and then hit the previous button at the bottom of the page three times. And please overlook the messed up photos. The app my blog is on arbitrarily shuffles and repeats photos and because of my poor signal I can't go in and fix them. Sorry!
Tara Neilson (ADOW)