I decided to put up a new category called Re-Purposing after I went to do a blog post on the subject and realized I had way too much material for one post. Re-purposing is a way of life in the bush where it's hard to get access to materials, especially on the spur of the moment. Besides, no one in the bush likes to throw anything away if they can possibly give it new life as something else.
Take, for instance, the picture (above) that I'm going to use for all of my "re-purposing" posts. My mom loved her charmingly old-fashioned alarm clock, so when it unexpectedly flat-lined and couldn't be resuscitated, she decided to re-purpose it as a picture frame and put in it a not so American Gothic moment between her and my dad when we first moved to Alaska. I think it looks terrific.
For myself, I recently realized that I needed a mobile, smallish bookcase that I could put my library books in. Usually they're stacked on the table, or next to my bed, or wherever I can find a clear space for them. But I wanted them all in one place that was easily accessible and could follow me wherever I needed them.
Looking around, I spotted a battered suitcase that I was getting ready to throw out.
Suitcases have a rough time of it in the bush. This poor thing has been hauled in and out of skiffs, wheeled up and down steel-grate ramps and the warped planks of docks, and been soaked in salt spray. On one memorable return trip, after landing in the village via floatplane, a local offered to give me a skiff ride home. When we got to where the tide rips get bad and started bucking into eight and ten foot waves, the local decided he'd had enough.
Instead of returning to the village with him, I asked him to let me off on the nearest rocks with my luggage. I had so much that I had to do a relay hike over the rocks: Walk ahead so far and drop them on the rocks, then go back for the rest, and repeat--for over an hour. This suitcase got dragged and bumped over every rock, barnacle, and weathered chunk of drift wood in the area. But it survived to travel another day. ( In addition, my Maine Coon Katya made her displeasure at my leaving known by attacking the case with her claws whenever she got the opportunity.)
Because of its faithful, uncomplaining service I was loathe to destroy it, but since its zippers no longer worked, there was a hole in the back, and the front was Katya-clawed, I didn't know what else to do with it. Until it struck me that here was my mobile bookcase!
All it took was an hour of sawing a 1x6 piece of spruce into sizes that would fit inside the suitcase as shelves, nailing them together, fitting them inside the case, and then spray painting them black to match the luggage. And voila! I had my mobile bookcase to shelve my library books in.
The painting in the background is my sister Megan's art. For more of her paintings go to www.madartdesigns.com.
One of the things that struck me when we first moved here were all the graveyards.
And by that I mean the skiff, boat, and outboard engine graveyards. They were everywhere.
There was something strange and mysterious about skiffs, small water vessels, resting in tall grass, on solid ground. Like spawned out salmon. No longer a thing of speed and grace, swooping and jumping from wave to wave in breathless freedom...instead, they were pulled out far above their natural element and left to decay under the skirts of the indifferent, superior spruce.
The abandoned skiffs were sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. We played around them and clambered in them, pretending to take them out onto the strait to have wild adventures. They were our playgrounds, but no matter how familiar they became, I always viewed them with a sense of wonder and mystery.
SE Alaskans are hard on their skiffs, especially the teenagers. It was considered a point of honor, for example, when I was a kid for the local teens to "jump the dock." This was when the airplane dock that jutted out from the main dock, had a ramp on one side for floatplanes to haul-out on.
The trick was to come at this ramp full throttle (after manually disabling the locks on your outboard). Your skiff shot up the ramp, the outboard kicking up, and you soared over the floatplane dock, perhaps waving to the locals as you went, and landed hard in the water on the other side.
Flourishes were optional, and sometimes if you flourished too hard--say, doing a sharp turn on the landing--the outboard came off your stern and sank to the bottom. You wound up looking more dumb than debonair, so flourishes were added with caution.
In at least one case a couple of teens wound up adorned with sheepish grins when their skiff refused to go the distance and landed in the middle of the floatplane dock with a bone jarring thud. Naturally, they pushed it off in the water and tried again. As with all worthwhile pursuits, if at first you don't succeed: try, try, and try again.
Two local teen boys (Matt and Dan Peavey by name) had their own outboard graveyard mouldering in the tall grass up behind their house. I used to wander around it in the golden summer silence when I was a wide-eyed six-year-old, as if I was taking a tour of Egypt's ancient monuments. I could only imagine the adventurous, painful stories those outboards could tell. One of these brothers had an engine right inside his bedroom, an oil-soaked floor beneath it, as he operated on it without a license. Even if the engine could be resurrected it would eventually end as all Peavey outboards ended: in the outboard graveyard unmourned and untended.
The young people, pre-TV (which didn't arrive in the bush until the Eighties) saw "hopping swells" as high entertainment. My mom, new to this pastime, said that one of the local guys invited her out on a sunny day when the waves were white-capping, and she, always up for an adventure, hopped in his skiff.
The deal was that once again the driver went at full throttle, in this case without regard to wave height. You stood in the bow, where the waves hit the hardest, holding onto the bowline as the skiff slammed into the waves. Hulls of fiberglass and of human flesh were known to separate under this brutal treatment. You had to have good flexibility and balance--the key was to bend your knees to absorb the impact. My mom caught on quickly and thought it was great stuff, yelling her encouragement to continue as the spray flew and the skiff WHOMPED down violently on wave after wave.
When they finally returned home, the local guy looked at her and said, "You're crazy."
I guess SE Alaska was the only place for her.
After hard work, and even harder play, skiffs and boats are literally put out to pasture here. If you visit SE Alaska in the bush, you will see them and wonder, as I do, what stories they have to tell.
When I told my friend Jo (who blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com) that I was building an outdoor cooler to refrigerate my perishables she said: "When I was a kid we lived for a while in a house that had one under-counter cabinet that was a cooler. It had a screen-covered opening to the outside. It was alternatively a freezer, cooler, and warmer, and it took us a while to learn to manage it."
We had one of those, too, when I was a kid, mounted to the wall in my parents' floathouse. I thought about making one like that, but in the end decided I didn't have the kitchen space to spare so the cooler would have to go outside. I've also used plastic and styrofoam coolers over the years but they have a tendency to mold and don't work well with produce.
The problem was in getting material out here to build it, but that wasn't a new issue. I did what we always do in these situations. I turned to what we had on hand: an old, weathered ladder; beachcombed dairy crates; weathered cedar shakes left over from an old project; the handrail from an old dock ramp; and the remains of a shipwreck on a nearby beach.
After checking the homemade wooden ladder for rot and finding it still in good shape, my dad hand-sawed it in half, at an angle in order to give the cooler its own little roof to keep the rain off. He cut it at high tide and said we'd have to wait for the tide to go out before he used his battery-powered screwdriver to attach the two pieces to the side of my house. (I didn't want to nail them on--everything on the other side of the wall would react to the hammering, so that what was on the shelves inside my kitchen would be tempted to fall off.) We've learned, after losing various tools and other items overboard, to not build anything on the houses when they're floating, if possible.
When the tide went out we arranged the two halves of the ladder at the side of my house that faces away from the sun. Even on the hottest days, it's still cool on that side, especially when the tide is in. We measured the beachcombed dairy crates to find out how far apart we needed to put the ladder halves and then screwed them in place.
We had to take a few days off from the project as other things intervened. In the meantime, I gathered a weathered and worn handrail from an old dock from the nearby village, and a T-shaped piece of wood that used to be part of the roof to a shipwreck--a commercial fishing boat named Daybreak that listed Petersburg on its battered stern as its home port.
I've heard conflicting reports on how it wrecked. Some say it tore its bottom out during a winter gale when the waves and tide were so high the owner couldn't see the rock right outside where I live and ripped the bottom out. Another story says he was setting his gear, unaware of the rocks in this area--though the one he hit is on all the maps and is quite large, always visible even during the highest tides--and ran aground, holing his boat.
Whatever the case, nearby locals came to his rescue and pulled his boat off the rock. It started sinking and they beached it about a 10 minute walk from my house. He escaped with his life, but the boat was a dead loss. It's been stripped by locals for salvage materials and battered by successive winter storms and tides ever since. It probably has only a few years left before it disappears entirely.
As I carried the piece I wanted for my cooler from the beach and through the woods, I thought how the owner of the Daybreak could never have imagined that a part of the roof above his head as he steered his boat would one day become a part of some floathouse dweller's refrigeration unit.
I measured and sawed the T-shaped end from the shipwreck and fitted it under the forward 2x3s of the two ladder sides to support it in front. Afterwards, I gathered up shakes that my dad had cut years ago--they were nicely weathered, and would go well with the weathered siding on my house.
As I gathered them I remembered when I was a kid watching my dad the first time I'd seen him cut shakes and how fascinated I'd been to see such perfectly flat rectangles fall at his feet from a round of wood. It was like watching a machine as he smoothly sliced, with a froe and mallet, through the rounds of cedar he called shake bolts. He could tell just by looking at a log whether it was good shake bolt material or not.
Now he picked through what I'd brought, considering how to place them as shelves and for the roof. It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, and occasionally he had to trim a piece with his pocketknife before he screwed them in place on the rungs of the old ladder. Since they were old they'd warped quite a bit and I found that I had to shave them down in some places with my pocketknife in order for the dairy crates to slide across them without getting hung up.
Next, I sawed the handrail to the lengths needed to support the shake roof, which my dad screwed in place, putting the largest shakes down first and then lapping over the seams with narrower shakes.
I loaded up the dairy crates with groceries and slid them in place. I now had a new outdoor cooler to put my produce, dairy, and beverages in to keep them cool. On the hotter days I'll put a jug of frozen water in with them to keep the temperature down. It may not be the ideal refrigeration system, but in the wilderness you make do.
Note: A version of this story first appeared in Capital City Weekly, July 5-11, 2017.
After reading this story in the paper, one long time resident of Juneau wrote and told me that coolers like this were common in the Fifties, but instead of jugs of frozen water to keep things cool, chunks of ice off the Mendenhall Glacier were used.