At this time of the year, when the tides are high, we like to run the beaches for firewood logs. Today was a little different, though. Today we were looking for float logs.
I love almost everything about living in a floathouse. It's such a unique, adventurous lifestyle. I love looking out the window and seeing the forest move by my window as the wind tugs my house against my mooring lines. Or watching the lofty cedar, spruce and hemlock trees shrink as my house rises on the tide. As a kid I loved swimming right off the front porch. Kids who now visit love to fish off the front deck for perch, or row right up to the house in rowing skiffs. Of course they have to wear life jackets every time they step out the door, just as we did when we were kids.
But there's one thing I really don't like about living in a floathouse in this neck of the woods.
The logs that provide the "float" in floathouse are under constant attack by seagoing, woodeating bugs so voracious they make those mutant 1950s B-movie, sci-fi/horror bugs look like slackers.
Last year it was parents' float we worked on. That was an epic production...maybe not quite on the scale of building the Hoover Dam, carving out the Panama Canal or landing a man on the moon, but close.
In order to slide a new, eighty foot log into their float it was necessary to turn their house lengthwise in our narrow inlet. This meant we had to detach it from not only it's many shorelines but also from all the floating structures attached to it: my dad's shop, generator shed, dock, my nephews' cabin (the man cave) a greenhouse and garden. Its power lines and water line also had to be detached. My house is further back in the inlet, but I do have one surge line to their float, and my power and water line comes off of theirs, plus a series of walk planks bridge the distance between us, so all of those things had to be detached, too.
We had to work with the tides so it was a mad dash of constant labor to get it all ready before the tide came in. When it came time to turn the house we were fortunate enough to have four men from the nearby fishing village show up to help us, with the additional power of their skiffs. As it happened, three of them were related to us.
This was in November when the days were much shorter and they'd barely managed to haul us into place--or as close as they could get, since something hung up on the bottom and left the house at a slight angle that worried us--when it got dark and they had to head back home.
My dad and I waited for the tide to go out enough for us to slide the log into position. He'd arranged for a rope and pulley system for us to pull on. Working with miner's headlamps we started pulling and the log started to slide into its slot. But then tide started to run out too fast and we couldn't get enough leverage to pull it in quickly enough. I knew, from our last experience of putting a new log in the float that there was only one option, one my dad didn't want to employ. But we really didn't have a choice, since we didn't dare let the house go dry with half the log sticking out. On the next tide it might break the brow log and pull the entire float apart.
So I ran down the length of the log and jumped into the waist deep water. Alaskan waters in November, even in this more temperate part of the state, are not particularly warm. I didn't have time for histrionics though, so with heroic fortitude I put my shoulder to the log and pushed while he pulled on the rope. Okay, to be honest it really wasn't as cold as I was expecting, and it really wasn't a major hardship to stay in the water for a while, pushing the log a couple feet, then waiting for more purchase according to the tide's movements. I learned a long time ago, as a child, how to let the body adjust to these waters. Unfortunately we only managed to ge three quarters of the log under the house before we were finally high and dry with no more tide.
When I got out of the water and worked in the cold night air for a little while--then I got chilled. My mom had cooked us a great meal and she made me hot chocolate and wrapped me in warm blankets which went a long way toward warming me up again. We stayed up until 2 am until the next tide. My dad put a cumalong on the log, replacing the rope and pulley, so I wouldn't have to get in the water again. However, we couldn't budge the log. Not even an inch.
As soon as the tide went back out--again the log wouldn't budge--my dad decided to cut his losses, literally. He'd saw twelve feet off the log (the butt end, the biggest part of it--you see why it's called that) which might make the log slide the rest of the way into place.
The problem was that it was forecasted to blow up a gale that afternoon, which meant it was imperative that we get the house back into position and re-tied to shore. This meant that we'd have to turn the house with more than a dozen feet of log sticking out, even after my dad cut it. Unfortunately, when the tide went out, once the house was back in position, the log would sit down on a big rock pile. This would unquestionably cause the brow log (the horizontal log that ties all the other logs in place and keeps them together in a float) to break. And that would be the ultimate catastrophe of floathouse living, on a par with the disastrous space mission Apollo 13, at least.
Okay, so maybe that's a sliiight exaggeration.
My dad and I grabbed picks, shovels and a logging peavy to use as a lever. We were racing against the tide so we couldn't take many breaks, even though we were using our hands and backs to move thousands of pounds or rocks and dirt. One rock fought back. It weighed around three hundred pounds and liked where it had dug itself in. We both used levers to get it up out of the mud and then while my dad held it, I got down in a crouch to push it over.
My dad's lever slipped, hitting him in the head and striking my finger. The rock tumbled and I shot over it and landed on my hands in the rocks and mud. We didn't have time to do more than check to see if we were semi-functional before we tackled the smug behemoth again. We triumphed in the second effort and then set about digging out a channel for the log to sit in when the tide went out.
Finally, we got it done, both of us blowing like racehorses after the last leg of the Triple Crown. Not that we had a chance to rest. My dad sawed off the big end of the log while I got everything ready for turning the house, this time by muscle power since it was already blowing and no one from the village was going to show up in their skiffs. Then, to our surprised delight, my twenty-two-year-old nephew Sterling showed up. He'd hiked the wilderness miles between the village and our place to be able to help us. He's six feet and athletic--and young--so we were more than happy to exploit him. My mom kept the toasted cheese sandwhiches coming, which really helped his enthusiasm level.
As the tide came in, Sterling worked the cumalong and the log slid all the way into position as slick as you please. Apparently it was only the big end of the log, that my dad had just bucked off, that had been holding it back. This meant that our heroics with the rock pile had all been for nothing.
I got to take a break until the tide came all the way in and then we pulled the house back into position by pulling on the mooring lines to shore. (I'd had to chop one with the ax when we first turned the house, and then replace it--one of the things we'd had to fit in that morning.)
By then it was blowing a gale so we couldn't re-attach the dock. And we had a hard time of it holding the house in position by pure muscle power against the strong northerly blowing. We weren't able to get the house exactly back in its slot, which worried my dad since it could sit down in the wrong place and again possibly break the brow logs.
We managed to get the generator float back into position, but that was it. As soon as there was a break in the weather Sterling had to go back to the village to help his dad work on his float. Happily, although the floathouse did end up sitting down outside its usual track, nothing bad happened. And, even more happily, my parents' house floated much higher on that side. Now we have to work on the other side....
It took my dad and me more than two weeks after that to get everything back to the way it was supposed to be. It's amazing how much easier it is to dismantle and detach something than to put it back together. Less fun, too.
We were without water for a week, trying to jockey the waterline back into position. I was without power for a few days, but fortunately my battery system held up.
One of the best things about this experience is how disorienting, in an intriguing, sci-fi way, it is to look out your windows and see an entirely different view, and to have light streaming in through different windows at a different slant. Our entire little neighborhood was rearranged for several days, which made it seem new and different--or as if we'd stepped into an alternate reality for a few days. My cat kept wanting to go outside to look at it, and then she'd turn and look at me and meow. She did this five times in a row, obviously asking me to do something about the complete disruption of her normal world.
But that was last year. This year we were working on my house, starting first with finding logs that had enough flotation and were long enough to be suitable. We didn't have to turn my house since we were just going to add logs to the outside of my float and use a cross-timber, or piling, to keep them in place.
My dad knew where there was one appropriate log, that had come out of an old dock system, but it spent most of its time high and dry far above the usual tideline. Today, though, the tide was an eighteen footer and we had a chance of pulling it off the rocks it sat on.
It was such a high tide that when we set out in the skiff we found ourselves surrounded by seagulls. They had staked out our firewood logs and were socializing on all the rocks that enclose our inlet. The large rock they usually roosted on had been submerged by the tide.
A large swell was starting to build from the south and we saw a black line on the horizon, warning of bad weather on the way. A lone fishing boat from the nearby village was out trolling for late coho. Once we turned the corner the water flattened out and we were able to race right to the targeted log. To our pleasant surprise it was completely afloat and we wouldn't have to work it out of its rock cradle.
I hooked it with the pike pole and my dad put the skiff in reverse and we gently towed it out into deeper water.
We set it adrift and then checked out a couple of logs that had shared the same old dock system with the first log, but they were both too eaten off at one end to be of any use. We ran the beaches looking for any other possibles, but came up empty. We did see some rare fall foliage, though, standing out against the evergreens. Mostly crabapple trees, possibly an alder or two turning color early. The cedar trees gave a half-hearted nod to autumn with orange patches all over them, as if they were turning rusty from all the fall rain.
By the time we picked up our log, taking it in tow, the strait was white with big combers. The fishing boat was bucking into them. Even with its stabies out (stabilizer/trolling poles with anchors attached) it looked like a rocking horse, the bow pointing up and then plowing back down.
It was raining now, but we checked out a few logs in our own inlet and found one that would work in a pinch. Which was exactly what we had going on--my float logs, lovely and big when I first built my house, were in an advanced state of anorexia nervosa--mere skeletons to all appearances.
But that's enough for one day. Adding the logs to the float will have to wait for the right tides.
(To be continued....)
A skiff is a small boat, usually powered by an outboard motor, and it is to rural Southeast Alaska what cars are to the rest of the world. There are no roads here, only waterways.
I was taught to drive a skiff when I was 13, but didn't graduate to skiffing myself and my siblings to school until I was 16.
This was a major responsibility since we lived one side of a peninsula jutting out into one of the most dangerous and unpredictable waterways in Alaska, and the school was in a village on the other side of the peninsula. Many was the time when we left home in flat calm water only to smash into severe weather once we rounded the point--or vise versa, on the way home. Sometimes we'd be shipping water over the bow as we were caught in terrific tidal combers and the youngest would be crying, at least one of us would be bailing, and all of us were praying.
It was an open skiff, meaning it had no cover, so we were prey to whatever the weather wanted to throw at us: rain, fog, snow, hail, freezing spray, and even, on rare occasions as a special treat, sunshine.
We were often accompanied by playful porpoises who loved to drench us with their spray, or we'd surprise a deer swimming from the wolf-infested mainland to a safe haven island. Sea gulls loved to play a contemptuous game of chicken with us and would only take off in flight seconds before we reached them.
In the spring and fall the humpbacks lazed about and I'd make a wide, respectful berth around them. Killer whales (orcas) sailed past with high fins, spouting with majestic indifference. Sea lions roared and snorted in bad tempered aggression while naive seals relaxed on the rocks. When the herring spawned in the spring there were ducks of every description everywhere.
In the winter we'd be so cold from the skiff ride that we walked stiff-legged up the dock and then up the stairs to the school like arthritic old people and had to thaw our hands out under warm water before we could hold a pencil. In the shortest days of winter we left home as it was just getting light and on the return trip we reached home as the sun set on the horizon.
My brother Chris recently reminded me of those early, early morning wood logging days when, to catch the right tide, we'd have to get up at the crack of dawn to help my dad. To save time we slept in our clothes and lifejackets and got up stumbling and yawning in the eery, lemon gray light. My mom would stick hot pancakes in our hands, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, to warm us up.
The cool, forest-scented breeze quickly woke us up, though the younger ones liked to go turtle, burying their heads down in their lifejackets and eking out a few more minutes of sleep.
When we got to the desired prey, it was our job to run up the beach with a line and hook it around the log. Sometimes my dad had to buck one end off with the chainsaw first, and use a logging peavy to work it out of the rocks. Then we'd piled back into the skiff and my dad would run out the line. I always shuddered when all the slack snapped out of the line as it sprang out of the water, spray bursting from it. I was afraid the line would part and hurt one of us, but I don't think it ever did. Usually the log bounced obligingly down the beach and gave a huge splash as it hit the water.
Then we'd move on to the next one.
My dad built his own skiff, a 16 footer with layers of plywood for the hull, bent over a form he made from lumber he'd milled. His design was a winner and the skiff held up through many years of rough weather and hard usage, as a packhorse and for dragging logs off the beaches and towing them home. This was the skiff that I used to skiff us to school. What I loved most about it was its flat bottom--on a flat calm day, turning a tight corner at high speed you slid for yards. The exhilaration was addictive.
For wrangling logs once they were gotten home, my dad has always preferred a smaller, more agile skiff for close work, so he built a smaller one, that we called the WE Craft (for Walrus Enterprises; my dad's CB handle was "the Walrus"). Now he has a 16 foot Boston Whaler for the heavy work and a 13 footer for log wrangling.
My brother Chris (who is now a journeyman carpenter) went on to build his own skiff, adjusting my dad's design to his liking. His version was a ten footer with a platform bow. He painted it red with black trim and, thanks to a popular movie at the time, named it the Red October. A name like that was just asking for trouble.
So perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised when it and my brother Robin's skiff broke loose one night and disappeared into the endless waterways of this area. There wasn't much hope held out for ever recovering either of them, but my dad and the boys went on an epic, week-long Hunt for the Red October. They searched miles and miles of rocky beaches and circled entire islands. Much to everyone's surprise, the Red October was found not much the worse for its adventures. However, Robin's skiff remained MIA.
Skiffs are essential to this lifestyle and losing one is a big deal. I go more into that in my next post.
Skiffs are used to haul supplies and do the work of heavy machinery out here. Before Robin's skiff went AWOL, he kindly stopped by where I was housesitting and helped me put the owner's private dock back together after a storm. He used his skiff to push the float back under the anchoring stiff-legs. His skiff was a 16 foot Whaler with a 90 hp outboard for power and he finessed the tricky operation like a pro.
It was Robin's first skiff and everyone felt for him when he lost it. But the truth is, most skiffs have short lifespans due to the constant work they're put to and the dangerous rocks, sandbars and driftwood lurking everywhere. Not to mention the pounding they take in rough weather. Robin went through two more skiffs before he eventually moved to Ketchikan where he now works in a position of oversight at the shipyard there.
My brother Jamie who still lives out here, has gone through even more skiffs. He lost his first one, too, a brand new riveted aluminum Lund, when he was a teenager. On a cold, wintry day, he and a friend decided to liberate some crab from someone's pot. As they pulled the heavy pot aboard, however, the lightweight craft heeled, and, with the weight of the pot pulling it down, promptly sank.
They had a hypothermia-inducing swim to shore and then had to walk a mile over frozen, rocky ground in bare feet, since they'd been forced to kick off their boots when they'd filled with water. My mom didn't believe their crazy story until they showed her their icy, mangled feet. Amazingly, they were none-the-worse for wear once their feet healed.
This same friend became a commercial fisherman and when his boat hit a submerged reef and began to sink, Jamie was the first one on-site, despite increasingly bad weather, and his friend was able to step off his completely awash boat into Jamie's skiff. He's never forgotten that, and told me how much it meant to him to see Jamie there when he was needed most.
The skiff Jamie has now is a welded aluminum work skiff that is often pressed into service on the behalf of others as he generously hauls fuel and groceries and gives people rides to the nearest town. It's only a matter of time, though, before it, too, is put out to pasture.....
My next blog post will go into more skiff facts, plus moments of terror, moments of fury, moments of chagrin, and moments of sheer glee that are a part of any skiff culture.
Once a week we dressed up in long skirts, gloves, handbags or suits to walk through the Alaskan night, flashlights in hand casting shadows along the narrow forest trail. The windows glowed yellow in the fishing boats down at the dock and voices, slammed doors and laughter reached us on the trail that wound through the village. The boaters were getting ready to join us at the far, southern end of the trail where a small shake-covered cabin with a disproportionately large enclosed porch sat, a stone-paved walkway leading to its steps.
It served as the temporary village schoolhouse and one night out of every week the entire village dressed up and met there to sit in the dark, watching numbers count down on the screen while a reel-to-reel projector whirred and clicked, powered by a generator rumbling in the background.
I was only six, so I didn't realize what we were watching on the screen was twenty to thirty years out of date. When we watched The Red Balloon, I believed the outside world, far beyond this wilderness village, was post-WWII France, complete with cobbled streets and war-battered buildings.
When we moved to the ruins of the cannery our family continued this tradition. We ran the generator once a week to charge the battery for the radio and stereo.
My dad worked as a logger on Prince of Wales Island at what was the largest logging camp in the world at that time. On weekends he skiffed home across the dangerous strait bringing with him supplies, plus a backpack full of Hostess treats and movies he'd recorded off TV stations only available at that time in Alaska's large communities. After a while we compiled quite a library.
Every Friday night it was someone's turn to pick. My younger brothers liked The Man From Snowy River, and The Sacketts. My oldest brother loved Conan, Dark Crystal and anything sci-fi. My sister chose Ice Castles, and War Games. I chose The Black Stallion. My dad chose McClintock! and my mom chose My Fair Lady.
The Lines from these movies and many others, heard again and again, became a part of our everday conversation. To this day if we quote a line from one of these old movies to my brother Robin, he will without fail remember which movie it's from. We try to trip him up all the time, but it's hard to do.
We had all the Wilderness Family movies and were caught between being appalled at the just plain wrong decisions this family made and identifying with their isolation and the problems they had with bears and wolves. Mostly we laughed at Skip (the father) and his sad lack of building skills (the roof came off shingle by shingle in every storm) and his ludicrous penchant for shooting all of his ammo into the air whenever anyone was threatened by dangerous predators.
Once, after watching Cannery Row with its memorable scenes of the "frog round-up" we stepped outside into a plague of frogs of Biblical proportions. They were everywhere! You couldn't take a step without being in danger of squashing one underfoot.
So, sometimes what we saw on the screen was reflected in our every day life....but mostly we were outsiders spying on an alien world.
In the summertime, when it stayed light long after the generator was shut off, we'd carry the movie mood with us outside onto the beach. After Snowy River we herded our dogs with bull kelp bullwhips, or took up homemade spears and swords to reenact Conan. Or Sang songs from My Fair Lady, our piping young voices echoing off the forest, water and rotting pilings of the old cannery.
The tradition of movie night lasted right up until TV came to the bush...but that's another story.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)